In this interview, she shares more about the eccentric characters, her illustrations, the challenges and changes in animal welfare, her personal experience working for an animal shelter, and what’s next.
“a wonderfully crafted story of rescue and hope, both animal and human…the story was so captivating that it was hard to put it down.”— Cindy Carver, NetGalley Reviewer
About Shelter: Lost and Found:
Homeless and shy teen Peggy Dillan is on the run from a secret past. After daring to save a stray dog from a tormenting gang, she finds herself running right into the Farroway Animal Shelter and into something unexpected. There she meets an eccentric group of misfits in charge of the abused and neglected animals: no-nonsense, allergy-ridden Betty; cantankerous cat lady Clara; caring animal cop Joe; and Terry—the optimistic, patient, and diplomatic warden.
Enlisted into their ranks, Peggy learns to navigate the run-down, problem-ridden shelter while searching for a way to save the stray dog, Lucky, from his abusive owner. As Peggy struggles to help save the sinking shelter, she learns it’s possible to change the world “one corner at a time” with courage and conviction.
- What inspired you to write Shelter?
Shelter: Lost and Found was, and is, at its core, inspired by the dedicated souls I had the great fortune to work alongside on behalf of the voiceless, when I stumbled into a struggling New Jersey animal shelter back in the 1970s.
Their quest became my quest—to replace the notion of animal control with the concept of animal welfare. To not only give unwanted, neglected, and abused animals a second chance for a happily ever after, but to replace the outdated dogma and attitudes about animals from centuries past with a new paradigm, one where compassion and respect for animal sentience and animal rights reigns supreme.
- You’re also a talented artist and drew the beautiful illustrations in the book. Which is your favorite illustration and why? Do you feel art is different than writing?
You’re very kind, but my favorite illustration is always the one that’s just been finished, because it’s finally done! It’s due to the fact that each sketch goes through such a torturous process of trying to capture an image in the mind’s eye, resulting in weeks of fevered redrawing between bouts of crushing doubt and insecurity, all tangled up in the conviction that I cannot draw to save my life!
But if I have to pick one, I’d choose the sketch I call Adoption Trifecta because it captures the joyous adoption of three dogs we’ve followed in the story—Monty the abandoned Pug, Digger the heartbroken Lab, and Gorgo the house-eating, monster dog—by a kooky family.
Even though I’m sure there are more technically accomplished illustrations in the book world, for me this one captures the spirit of every hopeful, happily ever after adoption we experienced at the shelter. And it’s one that these three characters in the novel so deserved!
As for whether I think there’s a difference between art and writing, no. There was never a line in the sand between art and writing to me. Before I could read or write, I scribbled pictures to tell stories about my animals, troubles, wishes, and dreams. From then to now, I approach both in the same way, with the intent to tell a story. Any differences rest in the mediums chosen to express an idea or feeling—and the effect each has on an observer or reader.
For example, a painting on its own is like a static snapshot of a moment or thought in time. Writing, by contrast, takes one on an extended journey of the imagination through time.
I can speak of this non-separation of writing from art due to a career detour with the Walt Disney Company and other Hollywood studios as a story artist (drawing out film scripts/ideas as sketches on panels, including dialogue, jokes, etc.) for over twenty years.
So for me personally, it’s all art—sketching, writing, sculpting, music composing, singing, dancing, graffiti…it’s all just a variation of how our inner selves seek and find expression.
- Were the characters and events in your novel based on real people or personal experiences?
Yes, although with heaps of artistic liberties taken to craft a dramatic story and to protect both the innocent and the guilty prowling between the pages!
Each character in the novel is fleshed out by using at least three other people I’ve known in my life, altering and/or creating specific physical looks, personality traits, and background details that best suited the story’s theme and message.
Shelter’s teenage heroine Peggy, for example. Although she draws a great deal of her internal makeup and experiences from me, certain details and surprises from her secret past were borrowed from snippets of three other people in my life—two of whom had been homeless teens, and one who is a man! All three wound up to be very successful and happy by the way, proving that no matter one’s circumstances, there are always options, help, and hope!
- Have you worked in an animal shelter before? If so, was it anything like the shelter in your novel?
Yes. After working as a guide, public lecturer, and keeper for two zoos, I wanted very much to become a wildlife veterinarian. Then one day I wandered into the “town pound” and with zero experience was hired by the warden to help him manage the facility as his assistant manager, warden, and Officer of the Court!
And yes, the shelter depicted in the novel is absolutely inspired by the real shelter! It was a ramshackle, century-old, quirky compound in an abandoned area of town where we faced the wackiest of situations, people, and animals. And where we routinely bent, broke, or reinvented the rules, witnessing the worst—and the best—that humanity has to offer, in between trying to keep the place from falling apart!
Unfortunately, the original shelter no longer exists as it was back then, along with many others, except in photographs (and my illustrations) after the sweeping changes the New Jersey State Commission made to the SPCA system between the years 2000 and 2008. Happily, it will on in spirit through Shelter: Lost and Found.
“I have enjoyed this book so much. I got so invested in each of the characters…such a good story…I didn’t want it to end.”— Jean Brewer, NetGalley Reviewer
- All of the characters in Shelter are very eccentric and diverse. Who was your favorite character to write and why?
They’re all so much fun to write, I’m not sure I can pick a favorite! It’s truly a toss-up, but there are three that readers have said make them laugh out loud:
- Joe: the young, swaggering, politically incorrect, but marshmallow-hearted animal control officer on the beat for animal justice.
- Mr. Riley: the inept, 80-year-old Irish handyman charged with keeping Beula the boiler from blasting the shelter into Hackensack, while dueling salty limericks with his nemesis, the Protestant, English cat lady Clara.
- Clara: the thorny “wild English rose” cat lady who despises the entire human race of “dumb arses,” but especially her nemesis, the Irish Catholic Mr. Riley!
Eccentricities are great fun to write because they make people laugh. They’re especially rewarding to write when you peel away their façades to see our own missing parts and foibles reflected in their eyes—or as Terry, the charming warden describes it for Peggy, “The way I see it, we’re all missing at least one tool from the old toolbox!”
- I love that you wrote the way the characters’ spoke, and each one spoke differently. Was this difficult to do?
It’s important to me to be true to the way people really speak, to capture the musical and unique color of their voices, syntax, and grammar (or lack thereof!). It helps to illustrate who a person is—their background, education, affectations, insecurities, depth and breadth (or lack thereof!), and how their life experiences differentiate them from anyone else.
As for the difficulty—being a shy person, I’ve lived my life as an observer, which has its advantages in that we tend to be good listeners, too. Most of the characters’ accents, slang, and phrasing were second nature to me, having grown up in the Tri-State area and so many diverse ethnicities. I also spent years commuting on buses through Jersey, the subway systems, and streets of Manhattan, exposing me to so many dialects, slang, and accents.
Specific dialects and foreign slang like Clara’s Yorkshire and Mr. Riley’s Gaelic were trickier since both hailed from places I’d never been and an era before I was born. So I needed to seek out their equivalent in other people as well as research it all to make certain I got it right.
I never thought of it as difficult, since I enjoy giving voice to quirky personalities. It’s akin to losing yourself in a character on stage, experiencing the world through another person’s eyes, mind, and heart. It’s great fun!
- I was surprised to learn that animal shelters see a lot more than just cats and dogs. Can you tell us more about the reasons behind this?
I don’t think there was an animal or bird we didn’t come across at the shelter and the reasons vary as much as the species; however, there were predictable patterns for some that had to do with the seasons.
Autumn: when temperatures drop, that’s when weakened, starving parrots, cockatiels, canaries, and parakeets need rescuing, being summer escapees when people opened their windows.
Spring: baby animal tsunami season! Baby birds of every description came in by good-hearted people thinking they were injured, lost, or abandoned. But in reality, fledglings (fully feathered baby birds) most often learn to fly from the ground up after tumbling from a nest. In most cases, you’ll see parent birds nearby luring the babies with food to hop, flutter, then fly up into bushes and trees.
We were also inundated with baby raccoons, squirrels, bunnies, and opossum for the same reason, as well as many who were caught and injured by unsupervised pet cats and dogs.
Summer: season of the “Easter Fallout Babies.” During the 1970s, there were still pet shops selling baby chicks, ducks, and bunnies at Easter, despite ordinances forbidding the ownership of adult fowl in town. So we were inundated with half-grown ducks, chickens, geese, and rabbits.
Roosters were confiscated from cockfighting ring busts by the police. And occasionally we were called on by Newark airport officials to deal with exotic animal smuggling busts, until Fish and Game could take over.
We were also the repository for childhood pets like hermit crabs, turtles, snakes, lizards, hamsters, rats, and tarantulas by exhausted parents after the children left for college!
Suffice it to say, most of us had a veritable zoo at home at any given time!
- Why did you choose the setting of New Jersey in the 1970s?
I chose the setting of New Jersey in the 1970s for Shelter, first because that’s where and when it all took place in reality. It was also a time that mirrors today’s issues, headlines, and cries for social justice in the most extraordinary way, resonating with readers across three generations.
This reality begs a nagging question. What is it that we haven’t learned from history and our past failures that finds us reliving the same turmoil all over again?
The answer, and very doable solutions, are discoveries Peggy makes during her roller-coaster tenure at the shelter.
- Do animal shelters today still face similar challenges as they did in the 70s?
Sadly, yes. But there’s an optimistic flip side to this coin, too.
First let’s acknowledge the big, blue, weeping elephant in the room: Why does our society still have a need for animal “control,” rescues, animal shelters, and human shelters in this, the 21st century? More specifically, in this land of wealth, education, and privilege? Why are animals still neglected, abandoned, and abused today?
We need to look back three hundred years into the past, during the height of a cultural/intellectual revolution sparked by a mathematician named René Descartes and a group of burgeoning scientists emerging from dark age ignorance. They advocated the adoption of a mechanistic view of life, one that grouped animals into the classification of unthinking, unfeeling automations (robotic “things”).
Animals were deemed incapable of awareness beyond primal survival reactions, thus were sanctioned as mere property or product to use and abuse as humans see fit. This attitude toward animals over the course of hundreds of years can be seen in the way we legislate or fail to legislate issues concerning their welfare to this day.
“Ms. Conroy tells a story of humans and animals who have been abused and damaged by humans who should be incarcerated for their crimes. It was a very difficult book to read, but an important one that should be read by anyone who has the power to legislate against abusers. I’m glad I read it.”— Judy Hartman, Librarian
Challenges from the 1970s that we still deal with today, affecting animal welfare:
- The back-burner status of budgetary funding allocated for municipal shelters
- Lack of a national policy and standards defining animal abuse
- Lack of a national policy and standards for animal rights
- Lack of a national database to track accurate euthanasia stats and the reasons behind those numbers
- Lack of federal and state initiatives to overhaul our “factory farming” practices to a national standard of humane, compassionate, and cruelty-free care
- Inner city & rural poverty
- Mental illness
- Substance abuse
- Child abuse
- Domestic abuse
- Systematic and continuous defunding of our public education system
Now for the good news!
Thanks to the perseverance and grassroots efforts of humane organizations and private individuals over the same three hundred plus years, we’ve seen a persistent, rising awareness in the way we view our relationship with animals, resulting in the following positive changes:
- Tremendous leaps in numbers of spayed & neutered pets
- The closing (and/or restructuring) of zoos that do not uphold standards of care and habitat
- The expanding adoption rates for pet ownership vs pet shop purchase
- Better and more choices in responsible pet food companies & nutrition
- The success of TNR programs (Trap Neuter Release) for feral cat colony overpopulation
- The rise and success of Praise & Rewards Dog training vs. punishment
- The rise of low cost spay & neuter clinics for low income pet owners
- No Kill initiatives
- Animal Expos (innovative information and products for proper pet care)
- The continued growth of humane certification programs for ethically raised free-range meat animals & poultry
- Growing public and legal support for closing “puppy mills”
- Growing public and legal support for closing animal acts in circuses and amusement parks
- Growing awareness and legal protections for wildlife and their habitats
- Media coverage and support for animal welfare
- Social Media platform support for animal welfare
Most hopeful is an expanding, more open-minded scientific community sharing their findings in support of animal sentience and cognizance:
- Jane Goodall (The Jane Goodall Institute)
- Dr. Nicholas Dodman, DVM (Pets on the Couch)
- Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (When Elephants Weep)
- Marc Beckoff (The Emotional Lives of Animals)
- Virginia Morell (Animal Wise)
- Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird (The Secret Life of Plants)
- Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods (The Genius of Dogs)
- Desmond Morris (Catwatching)
- Vint Virga, DVM (The Soul of All Living Creatures)
- Temple Gradin, PhD (Animals Make Us Human)
Thanks to the tireless, brave, compassionate scientists and citizens willing to speak up and stand up on behalf of animals, we are beginning to reverse the damage done against our fellow creatures and redefine what it means to be truly human and humane.
- What is one thing that you think the law still needs to improve, in terms of shelters and animal cruelty?
I feel that Terry, the warden of Shelter, says it best in this exchange with Peggy regarding the law and what really needs to be improved:
Terry stirred his cocoa. “…does it do any good to put a person in jail? Does it really help? I’m not so sure…best case scenario, we win, but eventually, the person gets out of jail, then goes out and gets another animal somewhere else. Back to square one. Nothing is solved. Never mind the fact that for every Lucky dog we save, there ae at least a hundred more out there we never even hear about.”
Peggy frowned. “Then what’s the answer?”
“Ah!” Terry snatched up a manila folder stuffed full of papers and held it up like a torch. “The answer is education! With an eye toward prevention as opposed to punishment after the fact. If we can get into the community, grassroots and such, talk with people, change hearts and attitudes, that’s how we can effect real change!”
It is my contention that although we often need laws to kickstart change, and certain mentally ill criminals cannot be helped, we have hundreds of prisons overflowing with criminals who could be, and more importantly, could have been helped before they committed their first crime. Where are our civil and societal priorities? What has our method of incarceration and punishment accomplished in the curbing of crime or the protection of innocents? Has it improved and elevated the human condition or society? When are we going to connect the dots between lack of funding for education and mental health programs, abject poverty, and domestic and child abuse with animal abuse and other criminal behaviors? When are we going to demand of our leaders to formulate plans to address these issues?
We have the best and brightest minds, technical savvy, and wealth beyond measure in this country. We can move mountains if we set aside our differences and choose to work together in a common goal for meaningful societal change, wielding compassion, respect, and education as our weapons of choice.
- What are you currently working on?
Readers have been begging me for a sequel to Shelter: Lost and Found, and happily, I can tell them it’s in the works! I’m looking forward to sharing more antics, suspense, and love with these characters as they move forward into the bicentennial year 1976 in the sequel Shelter: Safe and Sound!
Also, on the plate: illustrated wildlife & pet brochures for two animal sanctuaries, a collection of coloring books and a series of illustrated books about wildlife (fun facts, tips, and advice), and a seminar series with illustrated companion books introducing proper pet care for everyone wanting to know more about how animals think, feel, and communicate!
About the Author:
An award-winning filmmaker, author, artist and speaker, R. A. Conroy’s life reflects one spent in both animal welfare and the arts. From veterinary hospitals, zoos, wildlife centers and animal shelters, to easel, stage and Hollywood film studios, Conroy creates compelling, entertaining, inspiring works that give voice to the voiceless.
Available in hardcover, trade softcover, and ebook.
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