One man drops off his dog because it’s “misbehaving.” Another man brings his because he’s fed up with the animal digging holes in the backyard. “I’m so tired of her parasites,” whines a woman turning in her pet. One chihuahua is brought in because its owner redecorated her home and the dog no longer matches the color of her couch. Some people bring in their aging mutts and walk out with a brand new puppy.
The reasons are myriad: inconvenience; relocation; loss of interest; a change of mind. Whatever the motivation, the staff at Miami-Dade County’s Animal Services has heard them all. In 2011, an average of 100 dogs and cats were brought into the shelter every day. The Holders, director Carla Forte's compassionate and balanced documentary about the plight of unwanted pets, doesn’t tug at your heartstrings the way you might expect, although animal lovers will be moved by the countless shots of the creatures in their cages, some restless, others relaxed, their faces impossibly expressive, unaware most of them have only days to live.
A perfect companion to White God, an astonishing fable about dogs who rebel on their abusive masters and declare war on mankind that is also screening this weekend at the Miami International Film Festival, The Holders is heartbreaking but also motivational — an unapologetic and undisguised rallying call to stop treating pets as property, the way Florida law categorizes them, and begin seeing them as sentient beings with emotions.
Forte approaches her subject matter from a place of journalistic integrity, not outrage. Every one of the people who work at the animal shelters interviewed on camera express the same sentiment: They talk about the issues of overcrowding, euthanasia and the critical importance of spaying and neutering pets in a clinical manner from an emotional remove, the way doctors and police officers discuss their work. Their jobs would be impossible to bear if they became attached to the creatures they must handle on a constant basis. Only one person — a veterinarian! — chokes up and loses his composure for a moment while discussing the difficulty of putting healthy, friendly animals to sleep in order to make room for the never-ending wave of new arrivals.
Instead of just dwelling on the problem, The Holders also offers hope, such as a recently instituted “catch and release” program that involves the capture and neutering of stray cats, which aren’t nearly as likely to be adopted as dogs, and then returning them to the neighborhoods in which they roamed, secure in the knowledge they won’t be multiplying.
Most amazing of all is a visit to Costa Rica, where a couple instituted an outdoor shelter for dogs called Zaguates Territory. There, 700 injured and sick canines are nursed back to health while roaming free through acres of fenced fields, then put up for adoption to caring homes. The entire program is staffed by a total of seven people and advertised via a Facebook page — proof that a no-kill option can work when properly instutionalized. And a title card at the end of the film shows that the save rates at Miami-Dade County Animal Services have nearly doubled over the last four years, from 51% in 2011 to 81% in 2014.
The Holders, which avoids Marley & Me tear-jerking scenarios in favor of a clear-eyed, realistic take on the situation, argues that we can all do something to keep helping these abandoned animals, even if you’re not interested in having a pet of your own. As one of the people interviewed in the film puts it, “To feel sorry is not enough.”
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Director: Carla Forte.
Running time: 80 minutes. No offensive material. Plays at 9 p.m. Saturday Oct. 22 at Miami Beach Cinematheque. Visit www.mbcinema for details..