Every now and then a documentary film comes along which is a complete game changer. I'm talking about the kind of film which serves as the functional equivalent of a slap across the face, but does so with an awakening of the mind to a topic which was previously unknown to most people or just not really on what I call "the public radar." I like to think that most people are more good than bad and that in a lot of cases, we would care more about important topics if they were put right in front of us in a big way. Some documentaries do just that and they become the tipping point for social change. We saw this with "The Cove," which exposed us to the realities of dolphin hunting and slaughter. We saw this with "Blackfish," which forced us to consider the issues created by keeping orca whales captive for our entertainment. We are also beginning to see it with "Redemption: The No Kill Revolution in America" which helps us understand the history of the animal welfare movement which was born of compassion and then lost its way, leading to a culture in which healthy and treatable animals are destroyed in our sheltering system for no good reason and using our tax dollars.
I am thrilled and excited to share that there is a new documentary film that's really going to shake things up culturally related to the commercial dog breeding industry. "Dog By Dog" is a documentary that aims to expose the American public to the horrible realities of "puppy mills" by essentially following the money and the power players in what is a huge, global, multi-million dollar industry fueled by our love affair with the canine species. The film has been shown at a number of venues across the country (and in other countries) in the last 15 months and will become available to everyone early next year. As soon as I heard about the public release date, I wanted to help promote the film in advance of the release in hopes that people will treat this film like the game changer it surely is. I have long said that if the dog-loving American public was made aware of the realities of the commercial dog breeding industry and educated on the topic of puppy mills even a little, most people would be both sickened and outraged and would no longer support the industry. All puppies are cute; we are so blinded by the cuteness that we see that most of us either don't know about where those dogs come from or we just don't want to think about it.
Dog By Dog has been reviewed by a number of journalists and I wish to take nothing away from that coverage. A simple Google search for "Dog By Dog" will lead you to a host of articles already written about the film by people who write for a living. I felt it would be more helpful for me to do two things as an individual animal welfare advocate: 1) share the trailers for the film (each runs just over 2 minutes); and 2) get some insights regarding the documentary through a Q&A session with Chris Ksoll, the Executive Producer.
I would like to thank Chris for taking the time to help us all understand this topic better and to understand how it is that this documentary film became a reality. Please take the time to watch the trailers, read what Chris had to say about the story behind the film and the film itself and then mark your calendars for the release of the film in January of 2017. The website for the film is here and the Facebook page for the film is here.
Dog by Dog Trailers
Q&A With Chris Ksoll, Executive Producer
A lot of people have heard the phrase "puppy mill," but they aren’t really sure of what that means? Can you help us understand what that phrase means to you?
Here is the funny thing about that word; the USDA does not acknowledge it. They claim to deal with "large scale commercial breeding operations". The word puppy mill evolved because conditions in those large scale commercial breeding operations are so bad. Generally, a mill is an establishment that breeds puppies for sale, in conditions regarded as inhumane. That is a more accurate description of conditions and the USDA will not acknowledge the reality of the term. The USDA actually says they are insulted when people use the word puppy mill. I am pretty sure the dogs living in chicken wire cages 24/7 feel more than insulted every day.
Do you have any idea how big the scope of this issue is in terms of dogs sold each year and dollars made each year? Is there really any way to tell?
It is estimated that over 2 million dogs are sold in pet stores. Most of the stores are closely-held so that is a guess. More than 2 million are shipped, however, and not all puppies survive the long ride or pet stores. So it is not just the selling. It is the entire commerce chain that should be considered for total numbers. Let's just use $400 as an average price per dog; then we have an $800 million industry. Almost a billion dollar industry. Given the advent of "oodles" and other mixes, I am guessing the average cost is greater than $400/per.
As someone in the banking industry, some people may not understand how you got involved with this topic. How did you first get exposed to the realities of puppy mills?
I call it "pure life changing luck". Someone told me my first rescue was a Shiba or at least part Shiba. He is so awesome, I went to the Shiba rescue to get him a wife--at first. A man was sent to do the home visit and when we talked to set up the time, he was telling me about his foster puppy who was living under his couch. He told me no one could touch him and he was terrified of everything. I told him to bring the puppy during the home visit because Louie, my first dog, was like a therapy dog. He did, and Louie never got a wife; he got a son. Brady was the first mill dog. Poor Brady took a whole year to house-train and I could not really touch him for months. Louie did everything. The rescue folks had my name, so one evening I got an emergency call that a woman fostering two breeder girls had something bad happen to her and they needed to place the dogs ASAP. So then I had a puppy mill puppy and a breeder girl in my home. I did not know what fostering was, and while I went on to foster a lot of dogs, Kumiko never left. Meeting her changed my life. I remember the car door opening and a 17 pound ghost almost crawled out. All her female organs were hanging and out; she was missing most of her teeth; her has a tract infection; she had worms; she had bad fur and no fur on her tail; her eyes were almost closed because she was in pain. I knew I had to get her spayed and healthy as quickly as possible. Louie stood guard 24/7, just confirming how sick she was. He is like that. Brady immediately adopted her and also took care of her. So there I was with these 3 dogs, thinking how could this be legal? Was it legal? I couldn't stop crying. and my head hurt--this problem became like a migraine in my head. That is also how we got to the name, Dog By Dog, as that is how the mill dogs are currently being helped. Now it is time to do more.
A lot of people have been personally affected by a situation with a puppy mill dog, but very few actually act on that experience in a big way. What led you to become involved with a documentary film?
Every day, I was inspired and amazed by Kumiko and Brady. With a lot of care, they got healthy and better. Every day. Plus, their personalities started to come out. My head was constantly spinning about the topic though. It was like a shadow and a migraine at all times. I also started fostering mill dogs that I was going to adopt out. Early in the fostering, I remember two male puppies. The rescue said they needed a foster home asap or the mill would kill the dogs that did not get out. Another fetal position moment. The economy was bad, the pet stores were buying less, and if the puppies grew bigger than the pet store cages, they had no use for the dogs anymore. It was a death sentence. So the puppies came. Then there were 5 but I got the puppies adopted out separately to amazing homes. Then more fosters came and more and more. Every foster had a mill story to tell and inspired me to do more. It occurred to me though, that I could foster until I am dead, and I would not have solved the problem. Fostering just was not enough for me, although it is absolutely important.
I started researching-like a banker. I started reading everything I could. I asked questions of anyone who would speak to me. I watched documentaries, TV shows, anything I could to learn. But I kept feeling like the "head of the snake" was missing in all of the the things I was researching. The Oprah special was as close as I could get to feeling like I could see a broad overview. That was outstanding. What it did not do was list the bad guys. Clearly, we hold the actual mills accountable for substandard conditions, but as a banker, everything has a money trail and my job is to understand it and define it and chart it. That is the part of my job I love because then you can really help people. Now that would become the foundation for solving the mill money trail problem. Since we did not know all the vested interest parties in the chain, I was worried about being blocked. So, whatever I came up with could not be blocked. I had 1,000 lists of formats, vehicles, approaches and thought about it and what I could do that would uncover the truth and not be blocked for a year. I would lay on the floor with Kumiko on my belly and talk to her.
One day, about a year into my research and analysis, it hit me. It had to be a documentary. It was the only format/vehicle that allows for the tracking and tracing or truth and no one could block it. Then, picking the right Director and company was going to be the most critical decision. I specifically wanted a Director/company that was not tied to animal welfare in any way; someone who was even in their tone, incredibly talented at uncovering information and weaving facts together but in away that is not horrific or graphic or outrageous. Chris Grimes won awards for his documentary "A Second Knock At The Door". It dealt with friendly fire in the military. I spend a lot of time helping veterans too, so it just seemed like we were meant to work together. Because he is not an animal welfare company, he had to his own research before accepting this mission. I absolutely think he is a genius at his craft. He wants to make real and meaningful change, is a Masters of Public Policy from Northwestern, has no inherent bias of any kind and is the very best partner I could ever have asked for to make this film with. It really has been one of the most perfect teamwork opportunities of my life and for which I am so grateful.
Your film has been shown across the country and even in other countries to limited audiences. What can you tell us about the release to the rest of the public?
Our local/national/international screenings have been part of a strategy we carefully crafted when the film was completed. We felt like bringing the full money trail truth out to the public in an organic way would have special meaning and impact. We have been able to raise funds for 501c3's and also give them a screening to raise their own awareness in their communities. It has been like weaving a fabric together of everyone who cares about the mill dogs or wants to learn the truth about mills. I call that our "Person By Person" part of The Journey for Change. It has been amazing to meet all of the people associated with all of the rescues/shelters etc and learn about the great work being done. That was the foundation layer of The Journey For Change. Now, we want the most amount of "eyeballs" possible and that is happening! While I can't say a lot right now, we do have our distribution that will bring the film out in every format, to everyone. It is the perfect partner for us. 2017 will be the year of truth for the mill dogs. Our amazing distribution partner will begin communications in the not too distant future but please know everyone will be able to see and/or have the film. I can't wait to have copies in my home.
Recent history has shown that documentary films can have an incredible impact on the public and often bring people to the table to help affect change. What do you hope the release of your film to the public accomplishes?
My original plan has several components/phases. Phase 1 was making the film and getting the truth out. Tactically, for phase 2, I would like to see 1) A rewrite of the Animal Welfare Act, 2) Removal of Companion Animals from the oversight of the USDA and moved to Commerce, to remove the conflict of interest and 3) Move all companion animal legislation from the Agriculture Subcommittee, where it all good animal-helping legislation gets killed. All the conflicts of interest need to be removed. Period. There is bipartisan support for companion animal legislation and it never gets the chance to happen because of the Agriculture conflicts of interest. That is the tactical next part.
Socially, I hope "Two Chris's from Chicago" can inspire everyone to find the part in the film they want to act on or take further. Every single person can help a mill dog. Don't buy one from a pet store; hold a fundraiser for a rescue; foster a mill dog; call your legislators and meet them; if you have money--participate in lobbying: connect with me, if you can help there; don't buy any of the products of the companies in our film; make sure your investment portfolios are socially responsible; support small, local family farms only; share information on social media; know your breeder and make sure it is a real, small family owned legitimate breeder; for all the lawyers--we need your help; pro-bono legal to change legislation is critical; there are a zillion ways to have short term impact, while a long term solution is worked on. We all can have impact. Transparency and truth create momentum.
A lot of people will be surprised at some of the key players who have opposed attempts to reform the commercial dog breeding industry. Who do you consider the most virulent opponents of reform?
Every single component of the money trail has its own accountability. No one is more or less culpable if they are participating in the exploitation of dogs for profit. I would argue though, that people who block legislative help for sentient beings, because of money they receive, have a special place in the bad-guy list. The USDA talks about "self reporting" in our film. The USDA should have self reported their conflict of interest and moved companion animal oversight to another group/dept. Commerce, for instance. They know that their actions and lack of actions are at the top of all of this and yet, don't seem to mind. My brain could not wrap around that. It just couldn't.
What do you think the most important things are that the dog-loving public can do to help our society bring an end to puppy mills?
The first is to not buy any dogs in pet stores. There are amazing dogs in shelters and rescues. And make sure your dog is spayed/neutered. If you want a breeder dog, make sure your breeder is a real, legitimate breeder. They want you to come over to their homes, where you will meet the parents and see where the dogs are being birthed and live until you get yours. Never ever buy a dog over the internet. Our film has a great case study about that. Educate others as you learn. We are in the process of making Puppy By Puppy, which is the kids version of Dog By Dog and will be made available to educational venues for free. Kids want dogs but they don't support cruelty. This film will help those generations learn and once they know the truth, the kids will automatically do the right things.
I first heard about a new film called "The Dog Lover" about a week ago. I had seen something about it on a website and heard about a review by Bailing out Benji, but did not have the time to really delve into the topic. On the surface, the film looks to be a feel good story of a woman who champions the cause of animal welfare for dogs and triumphs over evil. I checked in with a couple of contacts who told me that the film was pretty much "pro mill." When my husband picked up a copy and brought it home, I told myself I would do my best to remain neutral about it when we watched it. I tried, really I did. If you plan to see the film, you may want to stop reading here so I don't spoil the plot for you. I don't go into much detail, but I do touch on some of the story line.
The Dog Lover is a film which purports to be based on a true story. It is not. There are very few actual facts in the movie and the rest of the plot is tossed together for effect. The film was produced by a group called Protect the Harvest which is led by oil giant Forrest Lucas. The name of the organization alone tells you a lot. You can do some simple searches to see that their mission is. I will not link to the organization here.
But back to the movie. The premise of the film is pretty simple. A woman who works for a large animal welfare organization and who thinks all dog breeding is morally wrong agrees to go undercover working as an intern for a breeder of hunting dogs. She is sure she will find evidence to help shut down what she was told is a "puppy mill." The breeding operation is not what she expected, she ends up liking the breeders and decides that they have been falsely targeted by her employer. Rather than act on her knowledge, she hangs around to get friendly with a boy she likes, only to have law enforcement authorities sweep in to seize the dogs. Many of the dogs get sick only after having been taken from the breeder and a lot of them die. The breeder is later vindicated in legal proceedings and proclaims that he is glad his reputation has been restored.
For me, this movie just really served no purpose and it may only serve to confuse the dog-loving American public. I'm not so much hung up on the fact that the movie claims to be based on a true story when it really is not. I am hung up on what our take away from the film is supposed to be.
In The Dog Lover, everyone loses.
The HSUS loses. In the film, the lead character works for the United Animal Protection Agency. In real life, this case involved the Humane Society of the United States. I am no fan of the HSUS as an organization and I have never shied away from being critical of how they spend their millions. I see them as a self-perpetuating money collection agency which brings in money by playing with the hearts of the American public. The HSUS loses in this film because it is made out to the the bad guy and exposed for being hypocritical. I'm okay with that. It is deserved criticism. It was about 5 years ago that the HSUS did a "raid" on a property not far from where I live. The dogs became known of simply as "The Alabama 44." The short story is that HSUS seized 44 dogs from a rural property under the guise of taking them from deplorable conditions and without the knowledge of local law enforcement officials. The dogs were dispersed to a variety of locations. Some were destroyed in gas chambers in another state, some were destroyed locally, having been deemed "unadoptable," and many were never accounted for.
The dog breeder loses. The breeder in the film is just that: a breeder. Although I am not a fan of breeding dogs, the reality is that breeding dogs is perfectly legal in our society even if the conditions in which the dogs are allowed to be housed would make us all sick. The film shows dogs who are fed, have clean water, receive veterinary care, live in pens which allow room for movement and the dogs are socialized. If the reality of the dogs' care and living conditions was anything like what is portrayed in the film, I honestly am not that critical of it. That may not be popular to say. I am well aware that many of the people who breed dogs would otherwise be engaged in some other type of livestock or farming industry and that for them, breeding dogs is the source of their livelihood. It is all they know. I know there are responsible breeders and I know that not every breeding operation is a puppy mill. I long for the day when all, large commercial dog breeding operations end but I really see that as being the responsibility of us as consumers. If we want them to stop breeding dogs, we need to stop buying them whether we are individuals or call ourselves rescuers. In the film, the dogs are taken from the breeder even though they are shown as being well cared for. It is only after the dogs are taken from the breeder that they get sick and a number of them die.
The dog lover loses. I am sure that there are people who work for large national animal welfare organizations like the HSUS, ASPCA or even PETA who are simply ethics-driven. For them, this is an issue of morality and they likely count themselves fortunate to be paid to do a job they love. The tide is beginning to turn on these organizations as the donating public learns more about how their money is being spent in the name of animal welfare and often not in ways of which they approve. In the film. the conditions found by the dog lover are nothing like she expected. Instead of breaking off her undercover investigation and reporting back to the powers that be that they are focused on the wrong location, she stays on board and then tries to do damage control later. Shame on her. You can believe in a cause all day long, but with that comes responsibility to think for yourself and not just blindly follow those who possess incredible power.
And the worst part.
The dogs lose. I think the thing that struck me most about this film was the lack of focus where it should have been: on the dogs. Regardless of whether you think every breeder runs a mill or if you think all dog breeding is wrong or your loathe the HSUS, I would like to think all of us would be focused on the well-being of the dogs we produce by the millions and which we then, as a society, destroy by the millions. In this film, dogs are bred, dogs are seized, dogs get sick, dogs die and in the end, no one really seems too broken up about that result. Although the breeder portrayed in the film says at the end that he's glad his name has been cleared, nothing at all is said about the fact that the entire process resulted in unnecessary death.
If you really want to see an educational or empowering film about the dog breeding industry, find an opportunity to see Dog by Dog at a city near you or get your own copy once it is available for purchase. You can see excellent trailers for the film here. You can also pick up a copy of I Breathe which covers the topic of commercial dog breeding and which includes the story of Lily, the dog who inspired National Mill Dog Rescue.
My advocacy involves a lot of keyboarding. That isn't all I do, but it's what takes up most of my volunteer time. I have pages and blogs here which cover topics I think are important to most animal loving Americans. And even to people who don't consider themselves "animal people" but who are interested in how municipalities function related to animals.
The aspect of my advocacy I enjoy most is creating slideshows and videos for specific nonprofits or on general topics which can be used by any nonprofit. I work in the legal field doing a job that calls for a lot of investigative work and analysis and really no creativity at all. It helps me to have a creative outlet to help people who help animals while honoring my own animals and human family members who have moved on.
Probably my longest "client" relationship is with National Mill Dog Rescue based in Peyton, Colorado. I can still recall the very first conversation I ever had with Theresa Strader many years ago while we were working on "Believe in Something" using a Fisher song by the same name. I have never been to the National Mill Dog Rescue kennel and have often thought how wonderful it would be to quit my day job and just become a full time volunteer there. It's just an ongoing joke, of course. Aubrie Kavanaugh - Poop Removal Specialist. Some of my closest contacts in the rescue community are the people who help manage this nonprofit; they work incredibly hard to not only help dogs but to help educate the public. There are no days off. I dare say that their advocacy is not just part of what they do. It is part of who they are.
My latest project for National Mill Dog Rescue came at a perfect time for me. We had just had our dog euthanized under terrible circumstances and I was a disaster. When Michele Burchfield asked me to do a project using a Little River Band song in advance of their August 14th concert at Lily's Haven, I was thankful for the distraction from my grief. It gave me something positive to do. As I searched for and saved the images I needed to fit the vibe I was going for, I couldn't help but to smile at all those precious faces, both canine and human. Putting the project together helped heal some of the broken places in my heart.
I consider this type of advocacy people helping people helping animals. Thanks so very much to Little River Band for allowing us to use this song. I am sure it won't be the last time we use one of the band's songs. I look forward to more projects in the future using music which belongs to Little River Band, Fisher and Martin Page, my "go-to" music sources.
If you are anywhere near Peyton, Colorado, I hope you'll go to the concert. I'm sure it will be a wonderful combination of terrific music and just great people. If you can't go, I hope you enjoy "Love Is" and that you will learn more about the life-saving work of this incredible organization. I do believe theirs is a Higher Calling. And I am simply happy to be associated with such devoted and passionate advocates.
My normal "MO" on my website is to talk about animal welfare advocacy issues. I'm taking a break from that today to talk about a lighter topic, but one which may benefit some people. It's my Top Six list of must-have products for dog lovers. Some of the products are of more help with older dogs and some products are also great for cat lovers (I mean no offense to my "cat people" out there.) I'm sharing these items in no particular order.
Champion K-9 Seat Belt System. We have all seen it. People driving with dogs in their laps, in the beds of pick-up trucks or laying on the rear deck of a car behind the passenger seats. When you travel with your dog, even for short distances, you owe it to your dog to have him or her restrained. You would not travel in your vehicle without having your human child restrained. For me, dogs are no different in terms of safety concerns. You can be the best driver on the planet and that does not protect your dog if some other driver hits you, making your dog a projectile. There are a variety of vehicle safety restraint systems for dogs available on the market. I prefer the Champion System because it is comfortable for the dog and because it is incredibly sturdy. It looks like something made for NASCAR but I take comfort in that. This system is intended for medium and large sized dogs. If your dog is smaller, you will still be able to find something appropriate for his or her size in a different design. Do not let your failure to properly restrain your dog result in tragedy which will not only change your life forever, but will have been preventable.
Foster and Smith Quilted Super Deluxe Dog Bed. We've had a lot of dog beds over the years and there are multiple beds in our house at any given time. Probably the best money we ever spent on a bed was on an orthopedic bed we got for Snake years ago after our vet told us Snake's days were numbered due to degenerative issues with her spine. After looking around at a variety of orthopedic beds, I chose one made by Foster and Smith. Rich joked that it was large enough for a small child and he was right. But it lasted not only through Snakey's lifetime but also through Aspy's lifetime. We have had this particular dog bed for about 13 years and it is still going strong. Because the covers are washed in the dryer, they do tend to fade over time. The bed itself is still in wonderful shape and in spite of faded covers, the zippers never failed and we would be able to use the bed with another dog today. While this bed has retained its quality, some other beds we bought along the way did not. It is really worth the money for a dog of any age and most definitely for a senior dog who may have issues with arthritis.
Woodrow Wear Dog Socks. When we moved to a new house a few years back, I was worried about the hardwood floors. Aspy was getting older and I knew he would have traction issues. He did. We ended up with a host of skid-resistant rugs in different rooms to help him navigate more easily. It was just this year that I did research on skid-resistant socks to help him with mobility. We tried a number of brands. Some did not fit. Some did not allow his feet to "breathe." It was only when we got some test pairs of Power Paws Socks from Woodrow Wear that we found a really good product. The socks come in a variety of sizes and designs and they have a non-skid pawprint pattern on the bottom of each sock. Socks come in sets of four. We ended up only putting socks on our dog's rear feet since those were his pushing feet. It took him a few minutes to get used to the idea but he adapted quickly. He did fairly well on his own during the day due to rug placement, but we put his socks on each night as part of our bedtime rituals. The socks fit much like a human tube sock - they are designed to be snug so they don't rotate or fall off - and you toss them in the wash with the rest of your laundry.
Joint Max Triple Strength Soft Chews. All dogs develop issues with mobility in their later years. When we saw that our dog was slowing down a bit, we talked to our vet about using supplements to help him feel better and without having to rely on a prescription. She recommended a supplement with both glucosaimine and chondrotin. After comparing labels on a number of brands and reading reviews, we tried a soft chew made by Joint Max and never regretted it. Our dog got two chews a day, one in the morning and one in the evening. He loved those things. They look and smell like a treat but with a wonderful list of ingredients to help his joints and connective tissue. You can get this brand through a variety of retailers. We tended to use Entirely Pets because of good service, low shipping costs and coupons.
Shelter Pups (and cats). I first learned about Shelter Pets thanks to my ties to the families of Harley Taylor (the 2015 American Humane Association Hero Dog) and his faithful sidekick, Teddy Burchfield. Shelter Pups sells handmade dog and cat stuffed animals, both ready-made (so you can choose the animal to "rescue") or made for you using images of your beloved pet. I admit that I first looked into this company to have stuffed animals made from images of our own dogs, thinking it was just a specialty company. When I learned that the mission of this company is to raise awareness and help real shelter animals, well, I was hooked. I invite you to visit the Shelter Pups website to learn how this all started with a little girl named Theodora who wanted a stuffed toy which looked like the shelter dogs she loved and while working to help dogs at her local animal shelter. The images here of our dogs simply do not do justice to these creations. They look so much like our dogs that seeing them for the first time took my breath away. And it's nice to have them at home to see every day.
Perpetua DNA Life Jewels. I am not a big jewelry person. I wear one of a host of necklaces I own which have sentimental value to me. One carries a locket which holds images on my parents and our dogs. Another carries charms engraved with the names of our dogs. A few months ago, I heard about a special product you can have made using DNA, either human or animal and I was intrigued. I thought it might just be a rip-off or a scam. I mean, really, how can a company take DNA and use it to make jewelry or other items? I did some homework and you can now call me a believer. Perpetua Life Jewels was the inspired idea of a veterinarian who wanted to memorialize her lost dog using DNA. There are a host of products available on the website and there is a video which shows how the process works. Rich gifted me a Duet Life Jewel necklace which includes the DNA of both of our dogs. Aspy was still alive when he had it made. Now that he is gone, the necklace is all the more precious to me. I cannot touch our dogs or see them, but I can feel closer to them every time I wear my DNA necklace, as I am today.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson