The Burden of Change - Redux
There's a saying that goes, "the more things change, the more they remain the same." This is especially true when it comes to opposition to animal shelter reform which doesn't seem to change much over the years. I wrote a blog in 2016 called The Burden of Change in which I talked about the arguments by opponents of No Kill animal sheltering that advocates must meet certain requirements in order to speak out about what is happening at tax-funded animal shelters. I shared the blog recently related to some advocates in Columbus, Georgia, who are trying to bring awareness to the animal shelter operation managed by the City of Columbus and opposition to that advocacy. I wrote the blog years ago and thought it worthwhile to touch on this subject again.
People who advocate for reform of animal shelters are often told they cannot express their opinions unless they meet certain requirements. The typical push-back from shelter employees, shelter volunteers and some in the animal rescue community is that people have no right to criticize the shelter unless they:
Let's start with the obvious counter to the push-back. Everyone has a right to free speech under the First Amendment to our Constitution. Everyone. When it comes to operations funded by tax-dollars, those operations are inherently subject to public scrutiny and criticism, because the public is paying for those operations. The people employed in tax-funded animal shelters are public servants and are answerable to the public being served whether they like it or not. People complain about municipal functions funded by tax-dollars every day and think nothing of it. Road conditions, timing of traffic signals, response time of police and fire departments, conditions at public parks and venues, zoning regulations. We do not ask people to participate on a repaving crew before they are allowed to complain about a pothole in the road. We do not ask people to help mow at a city park before they are allowed to complain about broken equipment in the park. We do not ask people to help investigate crimes or help put out a fire using a garden hose before they are critical or a police or fire department. Animal shelters are the only tax-funded operations that rely so heavily on volunteers to perform tasks that would otherwise be performed by paid staff. Those volunteers are part of the No Kill Equation and are incredibly important to the well-being of the shelter animals. Volunteers also become the eyes and ears of the community as they interact with staff and the animals. But - news flash - being a volunteer is not a perquisite for free speech and having more volunteers is not a guarantee of a shelter's success. The No Kill Equation is 11 elements, and it is not just about people volunteering.
Consider these examples.
In one community, people are critical of the regressive animal shelter and are told they cannot have an opinion unless they volunteer. They do. They play with cats, walk dogs, clean kennels, do fundraisers and otherwise perform tasks that would be done by paid staff. They volunteer for months in an effort to help animals but are powerless to address systematic problems which cause the killing of healthy and treatable animals. They are told if they are openly critical of what they experience in the shelter, they will no longer be allowed to volunteer.
In another community, people are critical of the regressive animal shelter and are told they cannot have an opinion unless they volunteer. They decide it would be more productive to educate themselves about No Kill philosophies and programs so that they can promote progressive sheltering with elected officials who oversee the shelter operation and educate the public about how their money is being spent in their name. This is what we did in Huntsville, Alabama. We were told we could not have an opinion unless we volunteered. We felt our time was better spent trying to resolve the systemic issues that led to the death in the first place. We were able to help bring about change through advocacy, something we never would have achieved through volunteering alone.
There's another saying that says you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. I was criticized for years for not volunteering in the shelter. Once the shelter changed the culture and began saving more lives, I thought it was safe for me to volunteer so I did. I went to the shelter on my lunch break and walked dogs, I created short videos to help place dogs, I did fundraisers to help the shelter purchase supplies like slip leads and I encouraged other people to volunteer. It became immediately obvious to me that I was not welcome in the shelter by the staff and other volunteers due to my advocacy, but I continued volunteering anyway. It was about helping animals and not about me individually. I ultimately stopped volunteering when dogs I was trying to help were destroyed for "behavior" based on reasons that made no sense to me and after I received a nasty message from the volunteer coordinator. She criticized me for only walking what she called the highly adoptable dogs and told me I would "piss myself" if I interacted with the dogs she interacted with daily. I was tempted to respond that as an Army veteran, it takes a lot to cause me to lose control of my bladder but kept that to myself and walked away. I suspect that the city attorney would not have been happy with a volunteer claiming to be put in a dangerous position for the sake of a city department.
My point is that I did not volunteer as a matter of principle. Then I did volunteer and even that was not enough to satisfy my critics which is no surprise at all. Nothing I could have done would have been enough for them so I choose to spend my time in other ways which I believe are actually productive. These include screening of city council candidates related to support of No Kill philosophies, data analysis, keeping the public informed of how their money is being spent, meetings with city officials and meetings with members of the city council to promote more shelter standards being codified to preserve the progress that has been made at the shelter and to keep the city from going back to a time when half the animals entering the building were destroyed.
When people tell you that you have to do certain things before you have the right to free speech, that is a red flag. And while volunteers are incredibly important to animal shelters and are part of the No Kill Equation, volunteering alone does not reform a broken and antiquated model of animal sheltering.
The burden of change is still not mine to carry and it is not the responsibility of people who have the audacity to speak out and ask for better use of tax dollars. You can stop telling us that if we would just be nicer or would just volunteer everything would change. No. Everything changes when those who are responsible for making life and death decisions regarding shelter animals choose life, take responsibility for what happens in their buildings and then invite the public they serve to be part of a new and better future. They can start by educating themselves about the No Kill Equation using this 27-minute video from the No Kill Advocacy Center called No Kill 101. While I do not require people who work in or volunteer in shelters to watch this video as a prerequisite to defending the killing of healthy and treatable animals in shelters, it makes perfect sense for them to use some of the time they would otherwise spend on social media defending the killing to instead educate themselves.
Gobsmacked. I admit that is not a word I use often but sometimes it just fits and it is the only word that seems suitable to explain my reaction to the recent Substack series by Nathan and Jennifer Winograd called "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Animal Sheltering in the United States." A little background is in order.
I've been an animal welfare advocate since 2006 when I learned that healthy and treatable animals were being destroyed at the tax-funded animal shelter in the city where I work. So began my education about concepts related to animal sheltering as I struggled to understand why it was that places called "shelters" would have so little regard for the lives of the companion animals we value and with whom we share our homes. My education continues to this day as I learn about new issues, problems, philosophies and opposition to life-saving (of which there is plenty). Reading the Nathan Winograd book, "Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America," was a game changer for me. It opened my eyes to issues about which I likely should have known but just didn't have a clue. I consider Redemption part history-book and party how-to book. For me, the No Kill Equation presented in Redemption is a DIY solution that can be embraced by any community to reform its animal shelter without the need for consultants or expert advice. It helps to reach out to other places to learn from what they have tried, but plenty of information is readily available on the website for the No Kill Advocacy Center to start affecting change immediately. As Nathan as written before, with each day we delay, the body count rises.
But back to the history part. We've all heard that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We've also heard the insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. These concepts are absolutely true when it comes to the manner in which our nation's animal shelters function. There is a history of animal sheltering from which we must all learn so that we can avoid doing the same thing over and over again and expect new results.
This was really brought home to me recently when I listened to the series on Substack called Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Animal Sheltering in the United States. I really was gobsmacked. I knew some of the history from having read Redemption, but the information in the series was much more comprehensive and gave me a clearer view of how we got to where we are now, as well as some of the pitfalls we face moving forward. I also confess that I developed a new appreciation for Jennifer Winograd. Nathan is very much the face, and voice, of the No Kill Advocacy Center. Jennifer appears in the documentary film based on the book, but I really did not realize until recently how much of a team effort this has been for the whole Winograd family for so very long. I'm sorry, Jennifer, and thank you for your decades of advocacy.
(images courtesy of Nathan Winograd)
When I recommend to people they read Redemption, I usually say two things: 1) I consider it compulsory reading for any animal advocate; and 2) it's a little like doing homework. My own copy of Redemption looks much like a high school or college textbook with tabs, highlighting and notes in the margin. I refer to it often. I now say the same things about the Substack series. It was as important to me as Redemption if not more so because it is aptly named. It takes us through a deep dive of history, to the present and the possible future. I believe it is compulsory listening for any animal advocate and yes, it's a little like doing homework. I listened to the series over a period of weeks, so I was able to take notes. I've asked Nathan to consider putting the series in book form. It's been many years since Redemption was published and while animal sheltering is an ever-evolving industry, I think a new book may be in order to help people understand more of that has transpired in the last 15 years.
I get emails every week from people asking how to fix our sheltering system and what they can do to help. I strongly believe that an informed advocate is a more effective advocate. It is not enough to be upset by what you see, hear and learn. We all need to know how to fix it so you can be the voice for shelter animals. I know there are people in animal sheltering and rescue who are so stressed that the thought of reading a book like Redemption or listening to a series on Substack may seem like time they just do not have. My response is that if you want to be part of the solution so that in the future you function more efficiently and less frantically, this is time very well spent.
I'm sharing a few of my many notes from each recording to pique your interest while imploring you to carve out time to listen yourself and perhaps make your own notes. This is important.
(image capture of Henry Bergh from the documentary film Redemption: The No Kill Revolution in America)
Part 1 Regarding Henry - The birth and betrayal of the humane movement in America
Part 2: A House of Cards Divided - The fight for the heart and soul of America's animal shelters
(images courtesy of Nathan Winograd)
Part 4 - A glass half full and half empty: we've made tremendous progress but we still have a long way to go
Part 5 - What's Past is Prologue - to best serve animals, humane societies must recapture their roots
Winter is Coming (this podcast was not part of the 5-part series, but I found it directly related to what had already been discussed.
Thank You, Peter Coyote
In 2018, I was connected by a common contact with Ann Tiaz who was making a documentary film about the No Kill movement with a specific focus on events in San Francisco. Anne traveled to Alabama, and we met one afternoon to talk about her film and our advocacy in Huntsville, Alabama. It was Anne who first recommended I write a book about my experiences and those of my group to achieve animal shelter reform in Huntsville through political advocacy. Anne's film was not yet completed but I was amazed and thrilled she had arranged for Peter Coyote do the narration for the film. Wow. Just wow.
I knew who Anne was talking about immediately. Peter Coyote is one of a handful of people on the planet whose voice is instantly recognizable. He is iconic. You know his voice even if you think you don't. He has appeared in dozens of films, has narrated even more (many of which are Ken Burns documentary films) and is both an author and illustrator. The Wikipedia page about him is lengthy and his website describes him as "a politically engaged person who has championed a multitude of causes. . .and a songwriter, guitarist, singer and Buddhist priest." I most recently watched him narrate the Ken Burns series The Dust Bowl. He is the narrator for the upcoming Burns series "The U.S. and the Holocaust" and will also narrate a 10-part documentary series about JFK being released in 2023.
(images of Mr. Coyote courtesy of his website)
I reached out to Mr. Coyote after Anne's visit to introduce myself and to thank him for agreeing to narrate her film. We exchanged emails in which he shared that he had adopted two dogs from a high kill shelter in Fresno, California, whom he described as now being "fabulous and happy." He read my book and tried to submit a review to Amazon. It was never published despite Peter complaining to Amazon about that. I tell myself it's because they didn't believe it was submitted by the Peter Coyote. I was just thrilled he had taken the time to read it.
I was on Mr. Coyote's Facebook page recently and saw a spot he did in support of wolves in Montana for Footloose Montana, a subject about which he has been a staunch advocate (and about which my dad also felt strongly as a supporter of the California Wolf Center). Recent weeks have left me frustrated with my local No Kill efforts and I had been looking for a way to make a difference for others advocates. Seeing the spot for Footloose Montana got me wondering if he would consider doing a spot about the No Kill movement. I reached out to him to ask. I actually asked how much he would charge, knowing I could not afford to hire him but thinking it would be rude to assume he would help. He said yes and he said he would do it for free because it's a subject in which he believes.
This short spot about the No Kill Equation and the No Kill movement is available for use by anyone who wants to use it. My hope is that by sharing about these subjects with the help of someone so recognizable and well-respected, more people may actually listen and may decide to learn about what is happening nationally to change our broken animal sheltering system. I still believe the No Kill Equation is the one method that works because it is so comprehensive and has worked in places where it has been fully implemented. You are free to link to the Youtube video. If you would like the video as a movie file, send me an email and I'll share it with you.
As one person commented on a post on Mr. Coyote's Facebook page recently, hearing his voice is like a stamp of approval in what you are about to see and hear. I hope that is the case regarding my spot. Thank you, Mr. Coyote. It means so very much to me, to the people who may be educated on this subject and to the animals who may be saved because of one minute in time. The world is a much better place thanks to people like him who take the time to help people like me just because he feels it is the right thing to do.
Mr. Coyote does Dharma talks in which he introduces people to Buddhism and how it relates to our lives. At the end of each talk, he shares the following loving kindness meditation:
May all beings be filled with loving kindness.
May all beings be free from suffering.
May all beings be happy and at peace.
Yes, yes, yes. At the heart of the No Kill movement are the concepts of love and kindness. Perhaps a day will come when we stop ending the lives of healthy and treatable shelter animals needlessly and we can fulfill the meditation for us all.
Not a month goes by when I don't hear someone talking about or read something on social media supporting the concept of Mandatory Spay/Neuter as the solution to "pet overpopulation" related to the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in animal shelters. The argument is that if we just punish people for failing to have pets sterilized, it will serve as an incentive for them to comply. That approach always reminded of a phrase from my Army days that goes, "the beatings will continue until morale improves." I understand the allure of the "there ought to be a law approach." It would be wonderful if making a single law in a city, county or state would magically resolve numerous issues at one time. The problem is simple: Mandatory Spay/Neuter just does not work.
Most states have laws which say that animals adopted from animal shelters and from rescue groups must be sterilized. Laws like this are vital. Those animals adopted out are the end of the line and will produce no offspring to add to local pet populations. On the flip side, it makes no sense at all to adopt out unsterilized animals who will then create offspring which may then end up in the shelter or with a rescue group, thereby creating a never-ending cycle of adoption, birth and destruction (in most shelters). That would be the animal shelter/rescue version of Sisyphus.
To be clear, when people talk about Mandatory Spay/Neuter (often called MSN for short), they are not talking about laws related to shelter and rescue animals. They are talking about laws that require ALL animals in a given geographic area be spayed and neutered to include owned animals. (People often lament that animals are considered property under the law. When it comes to MSN, that is a good thing. People have a right to determine what happens to their own property, making room for an argument that MSN is actually unconstitutional).
I learned last week that a person in my area had written an ordinance for the city in which I work to enact MSN. I presume that person was well-intentioned and just did not realize that what seems good on paper doesn't translate to practical application. In the process of researching the issues with MSN, it occurred to me I had not seen any recent blogs on the topic. This is why I wrote this blog. Much of the discussion is dated to a degree because this is actually a fairly well-settled issue in animal sheltering. The world is not flat, Elvis has left the building, we went to the moon and MSN does not work. I'm sharing my research here to make my argument in opposition to MSN, to help educate some folks along the way and to provide an example of what one community has done related to spay and neuter which makes MSN irrelevant.
These Organizations Oppose Mandatory Spay Neuter
The following organizations all oppose MSN. There are more, but I consider this my go-to list when I engage with people about this subject. Click on the name for each organization to learn more about opposition to MSN.
American Veterinary Medical Association
American College of Theriongenologsists
Humane Society of the United States MSN Position
Humane Society of the United States (regarding veterinary positions on spay/neuter generally)
Best Friends Animal Society
No Kill Advocacy Center
National Animal Interest Alliance
No Kill Learning (explaining the difference between "pet overpopulation" and "shelter overpopulation) related to MSN
I would be remiss if I did not mention an article written by Brent Toellner about MSN which I have shared too many times to count and shared as recently as last week. He wrote it as KC Dog Blog prior to being named the National Programs Director for the Best Friends Animal Society.
The AKC also opposes Mandatory Spay/Neuter. I do not support the AKC and will not link to their information here. You can find their position using a Google search.
They Oppose it Because Mandatory Spay Neuter Does Not Work
The reasons why organizations oppose MSN are vast. These are what I consider the highlights. I have paraphrased some of the position statements of the organizations below and some of the information was provided by Nathan Winograd of the No Kill Advocacy Center.
Enforcement Issues With a Mandatory Spay Neuter Ordinance
All tax-funded animal shelters serve a finite geographic area. Some are led by a single jurisdiction within that area. Such is the case in the city where I work, Huntsville, Alabama. Huntsville Animal Services provides service to the City of Huntsville and Madison County (excluding the City of Madison); animals enter the shelter from the entire county (minus Madison which does its own animal control functions). Ordinances enacted in the city are only enforceable in the city and not the county. Madison County lacks home rule which means it cannot enact its own animal laws absent a bill being filed in Montgomery and passed through the state legislature. (There are some other ways to enact laws in counties which are complicated and not worth discussing here). The reality is that the county cannot just pass a resolution and change how it functions whether that has to do with spay/neuter, chained dogs or some other animal issue.
There are essentially four groups of animal owners related to any attempt to enforce MSN: 1) those owners whose animals would be exempt (i.e. because they are registered with some organization like the AKC and participate in shows); 2) those owners who would seek exemption for their animals due to opposition to spay/neuter of their pets based on advice from their veterinarian; 3) those owners who have already had animals sterilized or will do it voluntarily; and 4) those owners who cannot afford to have their pets sterilized (or believe they cannot because the fees ordinarily charged by many full-service veterinarians and lack of knowledge of low-cost alternatives).
It can be extremely difficult for even a veterinary professional to visually determine if an animal, particularly a female, has been sterilized; it would be virtually impossible for an animal control officer to make those determinations in the field.
The only way people would be "discovered" to be in violation would be if their animal was picked up running at large, encountered as a result of a complaint or if they were reported by a veterinarian or some other person.
Most, if not all, cities lack the ability to devote resources just to enforcement of MSN which, in most cases, would affect people who lack the ability to pay a fine. If a city did choose to divert resources to MSN enforcement, that would mean taking resources away from public safety functions or shelter functions to get lost animals back home, to rescues or into new homes.
The resources used for enforcement include time and money. If a municipality is prepared to use time and money to enforce a punitive law, it does better to use those same resources to help people instead - which is what Huntsville is already doing.
The Huntsville Story
I have written before about my animal shelter reform efforts in Huntsville because it has been the focus of my advocacy for more than 15 years. While there are more steps which can be taken by the city to be more progressive regarding the operation of the tax-funded animal shelter, I must give credit where it is due related to the community making spay and neuter both accessible and affordable. The only short-coming of which I am aware is a lack of effective marketing and community outreach so more people know about the resources available to help them.
The City of Huntsville created a spay/neuter program for low-income residents in 2009 called Fixin' Alabama. The city originally invested 20k a year into the program and now invests 100k a year in the program. This, combined with other factors, has reduced intake at Huntsville Animal Services from approximately 10k a year (in 2009) to around 5k a year (since 2015) even though the city has grown and is now the largest city in the state (having been recently named the Best Place to Live by U.S. News and World Report).
We know it can take years for programs related to spay/neuter to show results. These results for the City of Huntsville speak for themselves. Making it easier for low-income residents to have animals sterilized removes the judgment, helps them do the right thing and keeps animals out of the tax-funded shelter and other local shelters.
Huntsville is home to the North Alabama Spay & Neuter Clinic which is one of only four such clinics in the state. It is open to anyone regardless of income or where they live. This makes it easy for people who may not qualify for Fixin' Alabama to get a pet sterilized. It is also convenient for people who live and work in Huntsville, regardless of income. The clinic has a 2-3 week waiting list. Demand is high and prices are low. The clinic has performed more than 36,000 surgeries since it opened in 2010 - in spite of some time periods during which the state veterinary board was determined to close all non-profit spay/neuter clinics in the state.
There are several nonprofit organizations that help people with spay/neuter. SNAP (Spay Neuter Action Project) receives 39k a year from the Madison County Commission to have pets spayed/neutered. Another example is HAWS - Helping Animals Without Shelter. This is a judgement-free organization that helps people keep dogs contained, helps with dog houses and food and helps with spay/neuter. There are also several rescue groups in the area who will spay/neuter animals for free or help offset costs for sterilization on a case-by-case basis.
All of this means that Huntsville has numerous spay/neuter resources which negate the need for a mandatory ordinance even if one worked.
The City revised the city code related to animals in the fall of 2018. It enacted MSN internal to the shelter which states that any animal impounded can be sterilized. I am not entirely certain about the legality of this local law; my advocacy group in Huntsville questioned it prior to it being enacted. Time will tell if it is challenged through litigation. I am told by the shelter director that if a family cannot pay to redeem their pet or pay for the sterilization surgery, the fees are waived.
(As a related subject, there is already a state law requiring animals adopted from shelters and rescues be sterilized. It is not consistently followed in the state. That issue is separate from requiring sterilization of owned animals.)
What You Can Do
If you live in a community that is considering Mandatory Spay/Neuter in an attempt to reduce pet populations, I hope you will share this information and consider what it is you really hope to accomplish. I would argue that while it sounds like a good idea, it just is not. If you live in a community which already has MSN on the books, I hope you will take steps to try to repeal that law by working with your shelter director and local elected officials. It is likely the law was enacted with good intentions by people who just did not realize the unintended consequences that come with MSN. I would not be surprised to learn that the law is either not being enforced or is being enforced only as a secondary offense.
As an unapologetic supporter of the No Kill Equation, I also hope you will learn about the 11 programs and services of the Equation, one of which is access to high-volume/low-cost spay neuter services. Let's stop punishing people and instead make it easier for them to make good choices which affect their companion animals, their families and their communities.
When I first heard about a book called "Catching Dawn" written by Melissa Armstrong, I was intrigued. I thought the book was just about one woman's mission to catch and help a free roaming dog named Night who belonged to no one and who had delivered puppies in a poor neighborhood in Springfield, Tennessee, a mission that lasted months. I quickly learned the book was about much more than rescuing a dog and her multiple litters of puppies. It is about saving ourselves and the people with whom we share our lives - families, friends and even foes.
It may be hard for some people to believe that dogs like Dawn still roam our streets in this day and age. It happens across the country for a variety of reasons, one of which relates to culture with those cultural differences regarding dogs being more prevalent in some areas than in others. I live in Alabama, a place where the differences are obvious. Some dogs live inside and are members of the family. Some dogs live outside and would longer be allowed inside to live than the family would set a place at the dinner table for a pig. The mindset is that dogs are animals and just like other animals - cows, horses, goats, and pigs - they belong outside. Some people who have "outside dogs" keep them confined to their own property. Many do not and think nothing of it at all or how it affects other people. It is just how dogs live. Dogs roam the streets mostly in rural areas and I see them daily where I live. We always check the area around our house before taking our dog outside so we can avoid problems with free roaming dogs. And I cannot count the number of times I have called regional offices for the state Department of Transportation to remove the body of some poor dog who died after having been struck by a vehicle.
(image of Night, who became Dawn)
The story of Melissa's moral imperative to trap and help Dawn is captivating as that story is woven into the story of Melissa's own life and struggles and what motivated her to feel so strongly about helping this one dog. Now that I know what caused Dawn to be so fearful of people and need help, I understand Melissa better and understand how a more recent situation which happened after the book was published must have affected her so deeply (see below). I was pleased to see some common themes in the book which I have seen before and which help to reinforce some of my views on people and animals.
What motivates advocates. Like so many of us, Melissa came to advocacy through tragedy. In her case, it was the death of a childhood cat named Coco at the hands of her father. Melissa wrote, "in retrospect, my need to protect the defenseless started with finding Coco's collar. . .if I had acted, if I had hidden Coco in my closet or taken him to a neighbor's shed, If I hadn't egged him on or left the ribbons scatted cross the floor, maybe he would have lived. In a way, every time I save an animal, I'm giving back to that little girl inside of me who will always blame herself for her fathers' mistakes.
Why advocates feel compelled to help. Not every one who sees a problem in society, particularly related to animals, has the desire or the motivation to do anything about it. For some people, the issue is either just to big for them or is not their responsibility. As is the case with many animal advocates, there is no choice in the matter. They have to do something, anything about what they see, in order to live with themselves. Such was and is the case with Melissa and her husband, Mason, having told themselves, "if we don't do something, who will?"
Animals in need remind us of ourselves or those we love. When writing about the fact that Dawn was a stray, Melissa wrote this: "In the dictionary, the word stray means 'not in the right place or not having a home.' When I was a child and then a teenager, I felt like I lived in the wrong place, like I was a stray. From my first memories, I recognized that I was fundamentally different from my family, physically and mentally."
Maybe people should know about issues with animals, but they just don't. I see this time and time again. People in animal welfare circles presume the public knows about animals in need locally or nationally or presume people know that is happened in local shelters and do not care enough. The reality is that most people don't know about the problem with pets in need (and how shelters function) until we tell them. They do care. We just have to bridge that gap between caring and action with knowledge.
People are inherently good and want to help. On this Melissa wrote: "I'd meet more and more people who were just like Bernice and Troy. They rarely had enough money for medical bills or groceries, but they always found a way to share a plate of food with a neighborhood stray. Their kindness changed my first impression of Sycamore Street. It might have looked dirty and mean, but a profound generosity underscored this neighborhood."
As is the case with other books I've written about, I have not told you much about the story here and that is with intent. My hope is that you will read the book for yourself and learn not only about the story of Catching Dawn, but think about what is happening in your own community and region and what you can do about it. Melissa was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for me which will help you learn more about her and the book.
You had Dawn as part of your family for four years before she passed away. What was the inspiration that led you to publish a book about your life and experiences trying to catch and save her?
It's always been a dream of mine to write a book. I've been writing since I was a child. For me, reading and writing were ways to escape my dysfunctional family. I've also always been an activist. I often joke activism is programmed into my DNA. So, fusing my activism with my writing seemed like a natural progression.
Catching Dawn is actually the third book I wrote, but the only one I tried to publish. And believe me, I received plenty of rejection letters - from both agents and publishers - but I never stopped trying to get Catching Dawn published. I believed in Dawn's story. I wanted people to understand the consequences of the animal overpopulation crisis in the rural South. I wanted them to know what happens to our homeless animals. If I didn't say something, then who would? Certainly not Dawn. And her story was important. She deserved a voice.
I appreciated the fact that your book is your story woven into the story about Dawn. Have you ever felt like you are the human embodiment of Dawn - just needing someone to take a chance on you and help you find yourself?
Absolutely. A big theme in Catching Dawn is that animals are sentient beings. I know our laws still define animals as property but I can't think of anything further from the truth. Their behavior - both good and bad - is often a result of how they were treated. Just like us.
I feel as strongly about animals as I do about humans. For a long time, I apologized for feeling like that. I know many may judge me for it but I stopped apologizing after I wrote this book. After I uncovered the parallels between my story and Dawn's story. Dawn was terrified of humans because she had been abused. For way too many years, I was afraid of relationships because I had been abused and abandoned. That correlation can't be ignored.
I was struck by what you wrote about the people from the neighborhood where Dawn lived. What did your experiences with them teach you about how we judge people based on where they live and what we see?
When I first arrived on Sycamore Street, an impoverished community in rural Tennessee, I was full of judgment. And shame on me for that. I can't say that enough. Shame on me! Because time and time again I was surprised by the generosity and compassion of people who barely had enough money for their own food or medical bills. I discovered it's not that they didn't want to help the stray animals in their neighborhood, but they didn't have the resources or the knowledge to do it. In a way, I think because they had experienced such hardship, they recognized it in the animals. Their empathy for these homeless dogs was such a beautiful thing to see.
(Dawn and Mason)
Have you seen or spoken with Bernice since you chose to make Dawn part of your family?
Bernice and I texted a few times after we adopted Dawn. I brought Adriana (one of Dawn's pups) to visit her several times. But, we haven't kept in touch over the years. I know she was happy when she found out that we adopted Dawn.
In addition to your book, you are the creative mind behind the documentary film called "Amber's Halfway Home" which introduces people to rescuer Amber Reynolds and the work she is doing in Tennessee. How did you connect with her and become inspired to create a documentary?
I used to brag about rescuing and fostering 30 dogs in two years, until I met Amber Reynolds. Amber's stats blow mine away. In one year, Amber saved 2000 dogs. Think about that. That's more than five dogs a day. Even now, it's astounding to me.
I connected with Amber through another author and animal advocate Cara Sue Achterberg, who also wanted to produce a documentary about the overpopulation problem in the rural South. Cara told me about Amber, but, before I committed to producing a documentary, before I spent hours and hours on this project, I needed to make sure Amber was the real deal. On my very first visit to Amber's Halfway Home, I jumped in her van, and by the end of that day, we had rescued 19 dogs. I just couldn't believe what one person was accomplishing. What Amber does on a daily basis is downright heroic. Without her, literally thousands and thousands of dogs would die.
(the film is available to watch for free on Youtube)
When we last spoke, you were working on a series. What can you tell us about that?
Unfortunately, our funding fell through for the series, so for the moment it's on hold. But, one thing that struck me when we were following Amber was the network of people who helped her. There are a handful of women who move dogs from Southern kill shelters to Northern rescues on transports. These women have moved over 4000 dogs out of Tennessee since they started. It's quite an amazing story, and one day I hope I have the opportunity to tell it.
We had also spoken about a so-called animal shelter in Tennessee where dogs were being neglected and abused and were being shot. What can you share about what is happening there now?
A few months ago, I visited a government-funded shelter and the conditions were appalling. Dogs who had been living there for months were emaciated. Their eyes were sunken in their heads from dehydration. They had open wounds on their paws, tails, and ears. They had urine burns from sitting in their own waste. They were never ever taken out of their cold, wet concrete cages. Even when the staff cleaned, they simply sprayed out the kennels while the dogs were still inside.
I was so shaken about what I witnessed that I went to the police and accused the director of animal cruelty. That's when I found out that although the director is certified to humanely euthanize, he shoots the dogs instead. It's just unbelievable to me that this practice still happens. The cruelty of it makes my stomach turn. The problem is that I'm not a constituent or taxpayer in that county, so my voice is nothing but chatter to them.
Recently, I was reading Nathan Winograd's book Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America. At one point Winograd describes a shelter in New York City from 1871 that sounds a heck of a lot like the one I visited a few months ago. The startling truth is that many of these rural shelters are still 150 years back in time.
As far as I know, the director still has his job and things haven't changed much. But, I recently found out the local community is starting to get involved and voice their outrage. I'm hoping this will start the ball rolling for change. I pulled one emaciated, mangy dog out of that shelter and we are currently fostering her, but the ones we left behind still haunt me.
(images courtesy of Melissa and Mason Armstrong; you can learn more about The Farnival & Farnival Films here)
On October 1, 2021, the Executive Director of ACCT Philly, the nonprofit which contracts with the city to provide animal shelter and control services resigned along with the Operations Director. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer stated the Director resigned, "amid an ongoing dispute with some local shelter activists and volunteers." The so-called dispute stems from a number of issues which are included in a petition created by shelter volunteers and "Love Local Partners" (rescue groups and no kill shelters) which includes the following allegations:
I do not live in Philly and do not have any personal knowledge of the shelter operation there. I am blogging on this topic to share my own experiences regarding the subject of bullying and personal attacks related to animal shelter operations. The short version is pretty simple:
There is no place for threats or personal attacks either toward or by members of animal shelter staff.
I am zero tolerance about this. As outspoken as I am in my No Kill advocacy, my focus is and has always been on municipal accountability. Focusing on specific individuals may seem to make sense in the moment, but even if those individuals resign or are terminated, what has that really accomplished if the source of the problems are systemic? Nothing.
Shelters which are operated by municipalities, or which are non-profits who hold municipal contracts, are held to different standards than non-profit shelters which are funded through donations and grants. The people who manage and work at animal shelters operated or funded by cities and counties are public servants. Their compensation and benefits are all paid for through public funds in the form of taxpayer dollars. People who are paid with public funds, whether they are elected officials, public servants or are performing public functions, are - by the nature of their jobs - open to criticism and comment. The reason for this is that they work for us. Of the people, by the people, for the people.
As I wrote in my book, I feel strongly about the exercise of free speech. I not only see free speech as a right of all American citizens, but I would argue that it is our responsibility to speak out on matters of public concern. If issues are important enough for us to be outraged or angry, then they must be important enough for us to speak out and express ourselves to those who govern us. People complain to police departments all the time about increased patrolling related to reducing crime. They complain to public works departments about garbage pick-up. They complain to traffic engineering departments about the timing of traffic lights which they think are too slow or about roadway conditions. They complain about a host of issues most of which do not relate to the imminent threat of death. So why are things any different when it comes to animal shelters and the animal sheltering industry?
I have seen plenty of posts on social media over the years in which shelter directors or staff are called a host of names and people make vague threats about them. I do not tolerate this behavior on my Paws4Change page on Facebook or the No Kill Huntsville page on Facebook. The comments are deleted and the people who made them are banned from further comment. I am zero tolerance on this subject. In the fifteen years I have advocated for animal shelter reform, I have personally observed this type of behavior less than a dozen times. I see it as coming from a fringe element which exists on social media because. These are people with too much time on their hands who lack (or do not want to know) facts, so they use the verbal assaults instead. As far as direct threats, I have personally never heard someone threaten a shelter director or employee with death, bodily harm or engage in personal attacks at all. It may be easy to post snarky words on social media; most people know better than to do so in person.
I acknowledge that there are shelter directors and employees who have been subjected to incredibly harsh criticism, sometimes warranted and sometimes not. The subject of the lives of animals is an inherently emotional one and there can be very strong feelings on both sides of the issue. I have long believed that not everyone is suited to public service. Theirs is often thankless work and when it comes to animal shelters, particularly shelters where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed, there are likely no good days. (Although the good news is that there are ways for those shelters to change and stop the killing.)
There are two sides to this issue, however, and I've been on the other side. When I and the other members of No Kill Huntsville first sought copies of shelter records from the city attorney's office, we were accused of personally attacking the shelter director. When we created something called a No Kill Equation Report Card to inform our followers in the public of our views about the shelter implementation of the programs and services of the No Kill Equation, someone set up what we called a "hate page" on Facebook. It included a parody of our logo and slogan, false information about the members of our coalition and the people running the page used it to re-post our Facebook posts when their own commentary. The most offensive post on the page was a video which was created by downloading a video we had created from a public service announcement we sent to local television stations which was also on Youtube. Someone took the time to save the video as a sound file of my voice and create a video which made it appear as if I was speaking from a monkey's rectum (it could have been a cow now; it appeared to be a monkey when I first saw it). We were upset when we first learned of the page but were determined not to react publicly. We learned that many of the people commenting on the posts and liking the comments were leaders of local rescue groups, shelter volunteers and shelter supporters, but we stayed silent because we did not want to make matters worse. That changed when we learned not only that a shelter employee set up the page but saw that the shelter director had liked a number of posts and put comments on those posts like, "so funny! So very very funny!," "I don't think you can tell them ANYTHING," and "It's hilarious" BIG SMILE on this gal's face." I submitted a formal complaint to the City for conduct unbecoming a city employee and asked that the Facebook page be deleted. It took a few months, but the page was deleted five months after it was created.
I recall a meeting at city hall with city officials many years ago in which we were referred to as terrorists. The person who stated that claimed to not be making that statement for themselves. I believe the context was "people call you terrorists" without qualifying who the "people" were. During the course of our advocacy were not subjected to personal threats of violence. If that had occurred, we would not have hesitated to file criminal complaints. We did consult with an attorney about what we felt were libelous remarks about us on social media. Because the hate page was ultimately removed, we did not act on the legal advice. We spent years being the subject of hateful comments and what likely bordered on criminal harassment for having the audacity to speak out. Some people close to the shelter operation focused more on our message than the fact that the message was necessary in the first place. Those people have gone silent for the most part now that the shelter has changed and has become a place where lives are saved and not a place of death.
I do not know if the people working for ACCT Philly were actually the subject of death threats, threats of physical harm or personal attacks. If they were, my expectation is that they contact law enforcement authorities to pursue a criminal investigation toward having criminal charges filed. Some see this as a fine line. I do not. Criticism about a shelter operation is to be expected. Seeking accountability for shortcomings related to animal care and keeping animals alive is to be expected. Even direct criticism of individuals by name for their part in the operation should come as no surprise. When the criticism becomes threatening or harassing, that is a crime and it should not be tolerated.
Where I think the organization has failed its leadership and staff is in transparency and taking on the issues directly. I would have expected some type of press release about the shelter inspection and the death of Saint particularly, since those failings created the most outrage. That did not happen of which I am aware. What I did see was a post on social media which alleged that a former employee had hacked into the shelter's system and stolen records. Even if that was true, what did that have to do with an inspection which recommended an investigation for animal cruelty or the fact that a dog's jaw was broken while in the shelter, leading to euthanasia and a devastated family?
As I said above, there is no place for threats or personal attacks either toward or by members of animal shelter staff. Period. When we communicate about animal shelter reform, we must always use diplomacy and respect. And when shelters react to our communications, criticism, recommendations or even allegations, they would do well to join us on that same high road for the sake of us all, people and animals.
When I think about puppy mills, I tend to think about them as an American problem. I guess it's typical for us to focus on issues we face in our own backyard and not consider those same issues in different countries or on different continents. When I heard about a book about a dog named Little Belle who was saved from a puppy mill in Portugal by a rescue group, I was intrigued. I had no idea if the dog breeding industry in Europe is as insidious as it is in the United States and I wanted to learn more about Belle and her family.
I expected a book about a dog saved from a puppy mill and how she went on to lead a charmed life through love, patience, veterinary care and being given a second chance. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the book. Little Belle: Where Love Is, Magic Happens obviously focuses on the subject of puppy mills and how dogs are treated by people who breed dogs and do not care at all about their physical, mental and emotional well-being. What I didn't expect was for the book to touch on other issues about differently-abled dogs, decisions made regarding euthanasia of dogs or how people view what they perceive to be aggression in dogs. Much to my surprise and appreciation, the book focuses on many of the same issues I focus on in my No Kill advocacy related to animal shelter operations.
As is the case with my other blogs about books, I don't want to give away the whole story. My hope is that you'll be intrigued enough from my blog to read the book and want to learn more for yourself.
The short version of the story is that Little Belle was in a puppy mill in Portugal for almost 12 years of her life before she was saved by a rescue group who then got her to her new family in the Netherlands. Irene van Raadshooven decided to make it her life's mission to save differently-abled dogs and dogs with medical issues following a tipping point in her personal life. As Irene wrote, "I knew what I wanted to do - adopt old dogs and dogs who were differently-abled to give them the best years of their lives, full of love and joy. I would follow the passion deep within me.... I saw a teeny, tiny dog on the Internet, Belle. I was drawn to her in a way I had never experienced before. My heart beat harder while my eyes scanned her skinny little body, the dull brown color of her coat, the thin legs that look like fragile twigs, her cute ears with the big bald spots, and her adorable little mouth and nose. . .While normally I first thought about a possible adoption for a few days, this time I couldn't wait to email Ana at the shelter in Portugal and the next day I was on the phone with the Dutch foundation that took care of the adoptions. In one phone call and after a home visit Belle's adoption was arranged."
Irene went on to write, "I believe that many events in life have a reason, or reason we cannot always understand or unravel. Often the insight comes later, as certain moments and experiences can lead us on a special and promising path. That's what I felt from the start seeing Belle's pictures, and was feeling even more strongly now that I was looking at her. Here was a kinship that would mean a key turning point in both our lives."
The book is unique in that it is written not just from Irene's perspective, but from that of Belle. At first, I wasn't sure how that would come off or if it would be believable. The more I read, the more I realized that that decision was a stroke of genius. How often do we look at our own companion animals and know exactly what they're thinking because of the depth of our relationships, their energy, their body language and how they look at us? I'm sure it was no different regarding the bond between Irene and Belle. Their bond was so strong that they knew each other's thoughts even though Belle did not speak using words and Irene did not always communicate using words. In one passage in the book in which Belle is speaking she says this: "From the first moment I saw Irene I knew I could trust her; there was this instant connection between us. I didn't know that this could get stronger every day. It now seemed like this growth was infinite. I had come to realize that Irene was always there for me, no matter what happened. Right here, right now, I made her a promise that I would also be there for her. Whatever happened."
As I mentioned earlier, the book is about much more than a dog saved from a puppy mill and the relationship between Belle and Irene. It touches on other issues which resonated with me as an unapologetic advocate of No Kill animal sheltering. One particular passage from Belle's perspective resonated with me. Irene said to her, "do you remember that day when we had this encounter with the woman who asked about you and how she reacted when she heard our story?" Belle thought, "oh, yes, I did. She had said that dogs that were as old as me, had health problems, and missing an eye should be put to sleep. That it wasn't worth it anymore. I wondered if old people also hadn't any value." Irene signed and said to Belle, "you know, recently I searched on the Internet for 'quality of life,' focused on animals because I had been thinking about it for some time already and what did I find? Nothing at all. . .This explains why, when I looked for quality of life for animals, I only got results for how humans could improve their lives with the animal's aid. Animals are seen as instruments rather than sentient beings with their own lives in the world. The same life belongs to us all."
Irene also wrote about dogs who are perceived to be aggressive, after saving a dog named Sun who was scheduled to be destroyed. Irene wrote, "it was unbelievable that anyone had ever considered euthanizing her. Even a veterinarian had agreed to this. Quite often a physical handicap is not the only reason for relief or injection; alleged aggression - often based on deep fear - was an insurmountable problem for many people. The real problem, however, was often the person who couldn't see from the animal's perspective. . .I thought that from Sun's point of view, it was the humans who were completely unpredictable. To me being able to express yourself, both animals and humans, and certainly when you feel uncomfortable, anxious, or threatened, was a basic right."
I found Little Belle enchanting, captivating, magical, uplifting, heartwarming and thought provoking. I learned not only about Irene and Belle, but about Irene's family and the other animals in her life. I was reminded repeatedly from reading the story that we must all do our very best to be present and to enjoy the time we have with each other while we can. It is precious and finite.
Belle passed away on April 25, 2017, but her legacy is strong. Irene founded the Little Belle's Magical Sanctuary in her honor, "a place where we give senior dogs and dogs who are differently-abled a forever home. Every dog, whether young, old, sick and/or differently-abled, has the right to live a happy and fulfilled life and to receive all the care they need with unconditional love." I look forward to keeping up with Irene's labors of love to help dogs and help educate us humans who love them in the process.
Irene was gracious enough to spend some time answering some questions for me which go beyond what we read in the book so people can learn more. Thank you very much to Irene for taking time our of her busy schedule. I hope you will read the book, follow Little Belle on Facebook and learn more about the sanctuary established in her honor.
People in the United States have impressions of what puppy mills are from animal welfare organizations and from the media. How pervasive is the issue of commercial breeding of dogs or substandard breeders of dogs in the region where you live?
In the Netherlands, puppy mills are more hidden than in the U.S.A., and there is also less media coverage. There are no real organizations that purely fight the puppy mill industry but there are people who try to bring the issue of puppy mills into the light. The main issue we have here is that puppies at a very young age travel from one of the Eastern Bloc countries to the Netherlands to be sold here as healthy dogs. Often they are not healthy at all because their vaccinations are not right and they were taken away from their mother's too soon. The companies that sell them act like they think about the welfare of the puppies but never show the mother dogs because they simply can't. The mother dogs are living in deplorable conditions in puppy mills in an Eastern Bloc country. People who buy those puppies don't know about this or they just don't care so this just keeps happening. The mother dogs continue to suffer and the puppies are often sick and even die at young age.
It seems like finding Belle was a turning point in your life and put you on a new path. How important was she to shaping you as a person and shaping your future?
Finding her was very important. She changed my life in a way I could never imagine. One of the main things she taught me was to embrace life every day, no matter how I feel. Often I looked at her, at her amazing zest for life, each and every day again, and thought "if she can live life with such joy and curiosity after all that she's been through, how could I not?" And then I felt again that spark of life in me, just like she tells about in the book, that little flame of hope, how she kept that alive. It's always there, we just somehow can't always reach it. That's how life is. Belle also brought me back in the moment, in the present, the only moment we have and truly live. Life is so precious and being able to live and experience it together is the greatest gift.
You have your own health issues, as did Belle. Do you think the fact that you both deal with some limitations played a role in the bond you share?
Yes, I think a big role. We understood each other. Having health issues doesn't mean life can't be lived fully. It's just different. Belle showed me that this is possible and therefore my perspective of life changed. Also, because of her way of approaching life each day, I never saw Belle as a dog with limitations. She never felt that way, too. Often it felt like we both conquered the world, in all the adventures we shared, and that we made each other more aware of our own strengths and possibilities. When Belle lost her last eye, I didn't become her eyes, because she could still see with all her other senses. The way she embraced life again was just simply amazing and taught me again a lot about myself, too. The bond we shared grew even deeper.
I found it fascinating that you wrote from your own perspective but also from Belle's perspective which I think is a stroke of genius. What led you to choose this format to tell your story?
When I started writing, I wanted to tell the whole story from only Belle's perspective. I just thought she could tell it so much better than I would. While writing, I realized this wasn't working because I was the only one who could really write about certain parts of my life. Also, I think it provides more insight into the perspective of Belle and our lives together when reading it from both our views. I'm very happy and touched that you found it fascinating and a stroke of genius.
Belle had something called Leishmania. Many people in other regions may not know about this disease. In the US, we deal with heartworms which are caused by mosquitos and can be fatal to dogs. What causes Leishmania and is there a vaccine which can be used to prevent it?
Leishmania is transmitted by a sand fly (a small type of mosquito). The sand fly lives in warm areas with humus-rich soil. Leishmania doesn't occur in the Netherlands but comes from the Mediterranean region. After infection, it can take years before a dog becomes ill. Leishmania is treatable, but not curable. When not treated in time and/or in the right way, a dog can die from the consequences of this disease. There has been a vaccine against Leishmania for several years now, although the effect of this vaccine has not yet been proven by independent research.
You write not just about your personal experiences with Belle, your other dogs and your horses, but also about attitudes about the ability of animals and how decisions are made about their quality of life and end of life. What do you most want people to know about differently-abled animals and animals with perceived behavior issues so they can make better choices about those animals?
In general, to not have any expectations. That's how it often goes wrong. People tend to expect a lot from dogs; they need to listen, need to be kind, can't have any fears or uncertainty. There have been so many times I've seen dogs who were just adopted who were were returned because they barked too much, were afraid too much (or just a little), did bite or did urinate or poop in the house.
When a dog becomes really part of the family, without any expectations, and with knowledge, then there is a whole different energy. An energy the dog can feel so well. Then dogs feel the space to be themselves. This can take days, weeks, months or even longer. This applies exactly the same to dogs who are differently-abled. They have the same quality of life. One thing that I think is also important to share is that not a lot of vets and specialists have experience with differently-abled dogs. Look at Jessie's story in Little Belle's book as an example. I've encountered it many more times. If someone adopts a differently-abled dog, never follow the opinion of one vet, or more, when you feel that your dog is happy and does love life. Always follow your heart.
I know you have plans for an actual sanctuary perhaps in Spain and that those plans are on hold for now due to your health. What is the best way for people to help you continue your mission of helping more dogs like Belle?
For now, it would be beautiful if people just continue to support us with the Sanctuary we have here in the Netherlands. We already receive so much love and support from many friends and followers from around the world. Until now, we have always been able to pay for all our medical bills for the dogs and their daily care with the wonderful (monthly) donations. When one of the dogs need surgery or other medical procedures, the response and support we get is absolutely heartwarming. Also, it's very important for people to continue to support Little Belle's Dream (the fundraiser for our own place one day) so we can continue to give the senior and differently-abled dogs a forever home and family. This is the dream that started with Belle and it is her legacy.
If you have a companion animal in your life of have ever been inside a pet supply store, you are probably familiar with the KONG brand. KONG makes a variety of dog and cat products from toys to toy stuffing to treats to puzzles to scratchers. The volume of products is vast and goes way beyond what you may have seen in stores. I didn't realize until recently that KONG doesn't advertise. KONG sells what I consider self-marketing products. The name is so well known that the products essentially sell themselves as a result of quality and a result of word of mouth advertising between satisfied customers and KONG Believers. KONG also has a program to help shelters called KONG Cares in which it distributes factory seconds to non-profit organizations at reduced prices.
But there is a new program being rolled out by KONG which I'm blogging about today. I've known about it for months but was sworn to secrecy because the program was developed in my area as a result of some circumstances which caused a KONG employee to have a true "aha!" moment for the sake of animals. Some explanation is in order.
In the summer of last year, people were still fostering and adopting a lot of animals during the height of the pandemic. Many animal shelters were closed. Some shelters were seeing people on an appointment-only basis and some still function that way (unfortunately). Progressive shelters were using changes to their operations to try to find ways to keep animals from entering the shelters at all by implementing social services programs to help people. The HASS - Human Animal Support Services - model of shelter was developed during the pandemic and is in pilot programs today. The basic idea behind HASS is to "keep people and pets together. We are bringing animal welfare organizations and community members together to engage in partnerships that support the bond of people and animals."
As I thought about changes taking place nationally, I wondered how to help people more in my own area. I lead an advocacy group called No Kill Huntsville which was created to encourage the City of Huntsville to save more shelter animals. Part of our advocacy is interacting with the public to help modify their behavior. We decided to put together what we were calling a pet resources guide to help the public find organizations to help them find pet food, help pay for veterinary care, refer them to trainers or behaviorists, provide short-term foster placement, etc. A local television station did a story about our proposed resources guide. The plan never came together. We could not get enough organizations to provide us with input to create a guide and so the idea was disbanded, at least for now.
But one good thing happened. When the story was on the news, Sandy Howle, an employee who works for KONG as a Training Ambassador, saw it and reached out to our group. She asked what she could do to help and that started a conversation with her about what we hoped to accomplish. Sandy was the person who had the "aha!" moment when she realized that KONG could do more to help not just animal shelters but shelter animals and the people who adopt them. Sandy developed an idea for a shelter enrichment and education program which she pitched the corporate folks. It should come as no surprise that they loved the idea. The test location was at the Greater Huntsville Humane Society in Alabama and there are now plans to take the program national to help shelters, shelter animals and animal caregivers across the country. The program includes educational classes for the shelter, volunteers, fosters and pet parents. KONG is also providing a swag bag for people that adopt. There are plans to hold KONG stuffing events, building sensory gardens and dig pits, holding donation drives. The list goes on.
I've asked Sandy to tell us more about how the program began and about the plans for the future. I'd like to thank her for taking the time to share this wonderful news.
Sandy, prior to us connecting, I knew about the KONG Cares program. Were there other programs KONG was doing to help shelter animals?
We have always been involved in the shelters with our KONG Cares program and donations of product and raffle baskets. We also have our Pet Pros Shelter program that shelters or rescues can sign up for through our website at www.kongcompany.com. We help provide educational tools and marketing materials that shelters or rescue groups can use. Your group can also be entered into regular drawings for KONG Cares product, raffle baskets, and swag.
You and I emailed back and forth a bit about the pilot program in Huntsville but I'm not sure I explained it correctly. Can you tell us what you did with the Greater Huntsville Humane Society to get things started?
The first thing we did was training for the Animal Care Staff and anyone else who wanted to be involved. The first training was "KONG 101" where we discussed not only KONG, but the instincts of dogs, how that comes into the home and the "problem behaviors" it can create, and how KONG can help be a solution for these behaviors. We also did an enrichment training. We talked about why animals need enrichment and about different things the shelter or fosters could do in their everyday routines that would help provide enrichment to both the dogs and cats in the shelter or in foster homes. The shelter was able to take some of the ideas and run with them, for example, creating a "foster a plant" program to create a sensory garden for the animals. We also have a partnership with a distributor that is selling discounted enrichment kits to the shelters. These kits will go home with the newly adopted dog or cat. The hope is that the animal has enrichment in the shelter, and this can now be rolled into the home with this enrichment kit to help alleviate some of the stress on the new pet family and the new pet. We also have a partnership with Fig & Tyler Treats who, not only, have a bag of treats in the enrichment kit, but also have created a shelter give back program in which the shelter can earn free treats to use in their shelter.
Now that the program you proposed will have a national roll-out, what can you tell us about what KONG plans to do to help other animal shelters?
One of the things that we have learned is that both cats and dogs need enrichment in their lives. Enrichment leads to a happier healthier life. While we know there are many shelters and rescues that have great enrichment programs already, we also know there are many that do not. Our goal is to share this program and education so that someone can create an enrichment program in their shelter or we can help take their current program to the next level. We pair this enrichment program with the KONG Cares and Pet Pro Shelter Program and we are able to help reduce the stress in shelters and keep dogs and cats happy, which in turn helps them become more adoptable.
If there is someone with an animal shelter who reads this blog and wants to make sure their shelter can participate in the program, is there something specific they should do to sign up?
They can reach out to me via email or phone and I can give them more information about the program. I can be reached at 661-433-7687 or email@example.com
KONG's story began with a German Shepherd named Fritz, his owner, and a Volkswagen
van transmission part one afternoon in 1970.
KONG ran one commercial in the 1970s when the first KONG hit the market. The commercial ran one time
only in the middle of the night because that was the affordable spot at the time.
KONG rubber products are made in Golden, CO and KONG Consumables are made in the USA.
KONG is distributed in over 80 countries and millions of dogs worldwide.
(images courtesy of the Kong Company, Inc. and Snyder Building Construction)
There’s a phrase that goes something to the effect that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it. My interpretation of the phrase is that some people are talkers, while others are doers. Doers are busy, but they are organized and committed to getting more things done. In my circles, I come across some of the most incredibly busy people, one of whom is Andrew “Roo” Yori. I think of Roo as a Renaissance Man for good reason. He’s super smart (he works at the Mayo Clinic as the Supervisor of the Clinical Genome Sequencing lab), he’s an animal welfare advocate (he runs a nonprofit called the Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation and he transports dogs to new homes) and he’s super fit (he competes in Spartan competitions and most recently has become famous for competing on American Ninja Warrior). To say that Roo is busy and passionate about life is a complete understatement.
I first became aware of Roo and his wife, Clara, in 2013 when I read a Jim Gorant book called Wallace: The Underdog who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage and Championed Pit Bulls. If memory serves, I learned about the book from Mike Fry of No Kill Learning who is friends with Roo. I was drawn to the book because Snake, our dog who passed away in 2006, loved her Frisbee and I was intrigued by the story of a pit bull-type dog who became a champion in the sport. Most dogs who compete in Frisbee competitions are Border Collies, Labs, Goldens, Malinois and Australian Shepherds. Having a dog like Wallace excel in the sport was a game changer. I loved the book because it wasn’t just about Wallace; it was about how he changed the Yori family while changing people’s opinions about dogs who have been unmercifully stereotyped for decades. Wallace was the first pit bull-type dog to win a National and World Championship in the sport of Canine Flying Disc. As Roo’s website states, Wallace “has been referred to as the Jackie Robinson of Pit Bulls on more than one occasion, as his actions and accomplishments rose above all the negative noise surrounding dogs that looked like him at the time. “ Roo and Clara established a nonprofit in the wake of Wallace’s passing which is focused on improving the lives of dogs and the people who care for them.
It was only after I read about Wallace that I also learned that the Yoris adopted one of the former Vick dogs, a dog named Hector. Hector was one of the 51 pit bulls rescued from the Michael Vick dog fighting case. Hector originally went to BAD RAP on the west coast before being adopted by the Yoris. Hector passed the Canine Good Citizen test twice, became a Certified Therapy Dog visiting nursing homes and hospitals and also went to schools to teach children about how to behave safely around dogs. He, along with the other Vick dogs, showed us all that dogs subjected to the worst humans can do to them have the capacity to become beloved companions. If you have not read Jim Gorant’s book about the Vick Dogs, I consider it a must read. It is upsetting for obvious reasons, but it tells the real story about what happened related to Vick and the dogs and you’ll learn something from it.
In 2016, Roo’s life presented a new platform for his advocacy for dogs when he was selected to compete on American Ninja Warrior for the first time. Roo competes as the “K-9 Ninja” and I confess that I have numerous t-shirts in my collection related to his ANW efforts. As we approach the 2021 season for American Ninja Warrior in which Roo will again compete, I wanted to have a Q&A with Roo to introduce him to more people. Numerous articles have been written about Roo which are easy to find. My hope is to share some information you may not otherwise find in other articles. Thank you to both Roo and to Clara for all they do to help dogs and help the people who love them. You can support the Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation by visiting the website or by pledging support for Roo on the upcoming season of American Ninja Warrior.
I first learned about you, Clara and Wallace from Jim Gorant’s book – Wallace: An Underdog who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage and Championed Pit Bulls – One Flying Disc at a Time. When you were working with Jim on the book, did you have a vision even then about what you planned to do in Wallace’s honor?
I don’t know that anything with Wallace was really planned. One of the things that I learned from Wallace is to go for the opportunities that present themselves. I knew that I wanted to preserve Wallace’s story even after he was gone, so I was really happy to have Jim write the book. He’s an incredible writer, and I feel that he really did the story justice.
In addition to Wallace, you and Clara had another high-profile dog – Hector - who was a former Vick dog. I saw a video of your visit to the former Vick property in Virginia and you singing in the building in which the dogs were fought. What can you tell us about that song and your visit there?
I went to a Charlie Parr concert and he ended his concert with a really cool rendition of Ain’t No Grave. I’m not really a religious guy, but it was my favorite song of the night. While I don’t necessarily believe that our physical bodies will rise from the grave, I do believe that we can have a lasting impact on things beyond our years here. The Vick dogs have done that, so singing that song in that place was my way of honoring them and also honoring the dogs who we don’t know because they weren’t as lucky to make it out.
I consider you a Renaissance Rescuer. You work in a high-tech medical job, you compete in American Ninja Warrior and Spartan competitions, you sing, and you work hard to help animals. How do you balance all those aspects of your life?
I enjoy doing a lot of different things. It helps keep things interesting for me. I sometimes feel that if I were to focus on one thing I could make a bigger impact in certain areas. At the same time, making sure I stay interested helps me stay in the game long term. The main thing is that whatever I do, I want to connect it back to something with the dogs so it has a bigger purpose.
You and Clara are known for being super fit and very active. How did you get involved with the American Ninja Warrior television program and culture?
I just saw it on TV and thought it would be fun to try. I was fortunate to be chosen when I submitted my application, and have been fortunate to be chosen every year since. Wallace and Hector played a big role in a number of ways with me being selected, so I’m taking the lessons that they taught me and taking advantage of the opportunity to help other dogs like them best I can.
A lot of people who compete on ANW have compelling stories related to a cause or a challenge in their lives. Did you know when you were first chosen to participate in ANW that you would use that as a platform to help shelter animals?
Yeah, I knew that I wanted it to be more than just me doing obstacles. When Wallace and Hector passed away I was struggling with how to have a significant impact without them around anymore. ANW provided a unique platform in front of millions of people, so I knew that I wanted to leverage that to help dogs in need if possible. I still can’t believe that I’m considered kind of a regular on the show now, but I’m going to keep going as long as they keep having me back and my body can handle it.
What is the most important thing you want people to know about shelter animals so we can change how we view them as a society?
The vast majority of dogs end up in shelters through no fault of their own. And just because it didn’t work out for them in one scenario doesn’t mean that dog is a bad dog. Just like us, each dog is an individual. They have emotions, and deserve a chance to succeed if we can figure out a way to make that happen. All of my dogs have been rescues, and I’ve met so many good dogs in shelters along the way that we will always adopt rescue dogs until the shelter kennels are empty.
I would like to think that your exposure through ANW has enabled you to do a lot more through the Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation to help animals. How big of an impact do you think ANW has had on your ability to help animals?
There aren’t too many platforms where I could get in front of millions of viewers to spread a message. And through the support of fans and the show itself, we’ve raised over $60K for Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation to help dogs in need. The van that we just purchased to help transport dogs from areas where they will likely be euthanized to areas where there are more homes available is a direct result from competing on ANW, and has been a rewarding experience that is helping to save a lot of dogs right now.
I saw recently that you were able to get a vehicle with a Wallace wrap on it that you use to transport animals. What can you tell us about that transport work?
P.A.W.S. coordinates a transport out of Missouri every other week. One of the legs goes through my city, so the van helps make sure we always have enough room to cover our leg of the transport. We’ve helped transport over 200 since last fall. A huge shout out to the coordinators who put together the transports every other week, and all the other volunteer drivers who make it happen. We’re glad to be a small part of it and to help do our part.
Are there any specific goals you have for the next year related to your animal advocacy that you hope to achieve through the Foundation? Is there an animal shelter or sanctuary in your future?
I would like Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation to purchase some property, but not for a shelter or sanctuary. I’d like to do something a little different. Where I live we don’t have a huge overpopulation issue, and I think that in the animal rescue world there needs to be more effort put into prevention and community support. My goal is to actually run a boarding business where the profits go to funding low cost spay/neuter events for the community. I’d like to have a place to hold training classes to help keep dogs in their homes in the first place, and some kennels as a temporary spot to house dogs until foster homes open up when needed. Ultimately I want to help put ourselves out of business in regards to sheltering, and get us more in the business of community support.
I understand you’ve been chosen to compete on the next season of ANW. What is the single most important thing people can do to help you and help with your goals for the Foundation?
The big thing right now is my Ninja for Dogs fundraiser where people can pledge money per obstacle I complete on the show. You can also make a flat donation if you’d prefer as well. All money raised will be going to the purchase of property or the transport of dogs to safety. You can also follow me on social media either through Roo Yori - K9 Ninja or Wallace the Pit Bull so you can keep up with us and know how to support us in the future.
I wrote a blog a few years back about animal shelter apologists and the concept of cognitive dissonance. This was an effort to explain how people who claim to care about the lives of animals rationalize their support for animal shelters where healthy and treatable animals are killed. It’s been a while since I touched on this topic and Sheri Cahill of the Silver Comet Animal Welfare Alliance in Georgia asked me to revisit it.
So when it comes to animal shelters, what is an apologist? That is a person who defends (in essence apologizing for) what happens at a regressive animal shelter – typically the killing of healthy and treatable animals - while at the same time professing to be passionate about saving the lives of animals. We see this all the time from shelter employees, shelter volunteers, people in the rescue community and from the public. It seems inconceivable that people who claim to want to save animals would come to the defense of the killing that takes place but it happens every day across the country. Apologists tell themselves that their shelter is somehow different from other places, making it impossible to save more lives. They tell themselves that the public in their area is more irresponsible than in other places, so the shelter has no option but to end the lives of animals. They tell themselves that there is just no other way for the shelter to function because of a shortage of talent or resources. The rationalizations go on and on. Trying to understand why people behave this way is way above my pay grade and no doubt would make for a great research study by someone in the field of psychology.
There are times when the people who defend the killing of animals in shelters can be reached and can be educated. In my experience, these are the people who never felt quite comfortable with the killing, but just were not sure what to do about it. I’ve heard countless times from volunteers or rescuers that they did not condone what was happening at a particular shelter, but they did not speak out because they worried they would be cut off and would not be able to help animals any more. The most polite way I can address that reasoning is to say that it is incredibly short-sighted. It means that the focus of that person is on the dog or cat they are trying to help today or tomorrow, with no regard for the dozens, or hundreds or thousands of other animals they will not be able to help. In the most direct way I can address that reasoning is to say that there is a price to be paid for silence. In the city where I work and in which I lead an animal shelter reform advocacy group, more than 33,000 animals died from 2008 to the end of 2013 when the city began making changes to the culture at the shelter. 33,000. I feel confident that volunteers and rescuers thought they were doing all they could to help individual animals during those years. But the end result is that thousands of animals died and that process may have stopped earlier if the people closest to the issue had simply spoken up and encouraged the shelter to change.
There are many times, however, when there is just no conversation to be had with people who defend the killing of healthy and treatable animals. These people are so committed to the reality they have created for themselves that there is no way to break down their walls with any amount of logic or information. It is these people who are the most aggressive in their defense of shelter killing and who are the most likely not only to blame the messenger for the message, but to go on the offensive to attack anyone who has the audacity to believe the shelter can save more lives.
When my advocacy group in Huntsville, Alabama, began advocating for shelter reform in 2012, we ran into a host of apologists. The live release rate at the shelter at that time was about 34% which means that 2 out of every 3 animals entering the building were destroyed. It was at this time that the shelter director said she and her staff were doing a beautiful job. She said, “I am loved here” and the statement was true. As a veterinarian, she had a huge public following of people who either did not know what was happening at the shelter or who knew about it and were sure there was no other way to function. Animals had to be destroyed, they told themselves. There is no other way, they told themselves.
I wrote about the opposition to shelter reform we faced in Huntsville in my book. It was ugly, it was juvenile, and in the end, it was futile. We expected shelter employees to be upset with our efforts to hold the city accountable for how the shelter was operated using tax dollars. What we didn’t expect was the level of animosity toward us from the rescue community. We were vilified, ridiculed, the subject of a hate page on Facebook and at one point we were referred to as terrorists. We knew engaging with these people was a complete waste of time and energy; we did our best to ignore them and stay on subject with city officials and with the public.
Now that the city has changed the culture at the animal shelter, our critics have gone silent for the most part. Just like they had their own version of reality when so many animals were being killed, I presume they have their own version of reality about how that change happened. It is easier to revise history and to gloss over the difficult times than it is to admit that change came about as the result of struggle. As much as I think history is important so that we do not repeat it, my satisfaction comes from the fact that things did change as a result of advocacy. My focus is less on how we got to this point than the fact that the change has been drastic and empowering. The shelter now saves approximately 97% of all animals entering the building and my hope is that there is no going back. The public has come to expect the lives of animals to be saved instead of ended and it is that expectation that may do the most good to keep the city from reverting back to the way it was before.
If you live or work in a city where the animal shelter destroys healthy and treatable animals for whatever reason, please consider speaking out against that. Your focus should be on municipal accountability for how tax dollars are spent (or not spent) and not on individual people, at least at the start. You may not get a bill in the mail every month with a line item for "animal disposal," but you are paying for what happens at your local shelter and you have the right to demand better. If you learn that there are others who want to bring about shelter reform, support those people and find ways to help them if you can.
If you are one of those people who are defending the killing of animals, please ask yourself what you hope to accomplish with that behavior. It may very well be that you have become a human obstacle to change. If that is the case, you are standing in the way of progress which means you are standing in the way of saving lives. Yes, you can save a few each month while telling yourself that if it wasn’t for you or people like you, more animals would die. That would be true. But if you consider the bigger picture, you can help prevent the deaths of thousands of animals. It’s time to make a choice and to walk the walk instead of just talking about what you say you stand for.
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