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 dog 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 closer 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.
All of us have crossroads in our lives. Points in our lives were some significant event happens that puts us on a path different from what we had anticipated. One crossroads for me was in 2006 after the euthanasia of 16-year old dog, Snake. We knew that she would not be able to stay. She had become trapped inside a body which no longer served her well and had begun having cognitive problems. We didn't want her to suffer. We had our veterinarian come to our house on April 22, 2006 to euthanize her. Although we had been planning for the day for quite some time, we didn’t choose the date ahead of time. She had had a rough night and we decided that morning to let her go. We didn’t realize until much later that we had chosen Earth Day to let her go. It seems fitting in many ways. Snake was a coydog; she was part German shepherd and a coyote. She was always a little bit of a wild child. We buried her on our property and gave her back to the Earth; a fitting farewell for such a beautiful soul.
It was after the loss of Snake that events happened that I didn't anticipate in which put me on another path. As much as we prepare, we are never really ready to lose those we love. How can we be? I didn’t adjust well and found that I needed an outlet. I started donating to the animal shelter in the city where I work, hoping to help some other dog or dogs. It was only after donating to the shelter for a few months that I had an unwelcome epiphany about what was happening there. Healthy and treatable animals were being destroyed every day along with the sick and suffering. I guess I should have known this was happening, but I just didn't. I think that's common for a lot of people in America. We presume that shelters use our tax dollars to function consistent with public values when that is not always the case. I know what the word euthanasia means and what was happening at this shelter was far from it in most cases.
Learning what was happening at my local shelter outraged me, angered me, and just made me feel tired and sad. But it also fueled me. I began a path of self-education. Why were animals who were perfectly healthy dying in shelters? Was it just something in the South? Was this happening everywhere? I just had to know these answers. My education took years and continues to this day. This journey of awareness led me to another crossroads. I had two choices. I could continue my education while lamenting what was happening. I could say the issue was just too big for me to take on myself. Or I could try to do something about it. In the end I decided I had to act because I saw it as a moral imperative. If I did not speak up, my silence would have been my consent. Exactly what I would do with my intent and knowledge would end up taking years.
I originally wrote to City officials in 2006 to express my outrage at what was happening at the shelter and didn't get very far. I was pretty much told this is just the way things are and we can’t afford to do any better. I didn’t believe either statement. The city in which I work is Huntsville, Alabama. The community is both incredibly progressive and proud. People from other states and even other countries live here. We have a large military base and we support the space program through the Marshall Space Flight Center. We are considered a medical hub where people come to get specialized treatment. Considering all the great things happening in the city, surely we could break from the status quo and do a better job to save the lives of shelter animals. The city council did not agree. I was left to stew in what I had learned, continue my education and look for some other opportunity to be a change agent. I found this incredibly hard to do. With each passing day, the lives of animals were at risk. Animals just like Snake who no doubt would have been killed in the Huntsville shelter.
The deaths of both my parents to cancer in a six-month period of time ended up being another crossroads for me. We lost dad in October of 2010. We lost mom in April of 2011. We knew they would leave us and tried to be ready. There is just no such thing. Like the loss of Snake, the loss of my parents put me in a different place in my life than I anticipated. For most of my life I had allowed myself to think that I would have decades left to spend time with my parents. I had always known that life was short and precious, but the loss of my parents quite suddenly really reinforced for me that my own time here is finite. I thought that in spite of personal failure to affect change in my area that I may do better if I got some help. That is when I decided to form an advocacy group called No Kill Huntsville. I believed that rather than speaking out about the issue by myself, surely there had to be strength in numbers. The group was pretty large when we started, but as is the case with many things, lots of people talk but only some people do. We ultimately ended up with a small group of like-minded folks who agreed to speak with one voice to try to effect change in our area.
No Kill Huntsville is now and in our 10th year of advocacy. It hasn’t been easy, but we got what we hoped for: change. The changes which have been made at the tax-funded animal shelter are both shocking and incredibly rewarding. We always promoted, and still promote, the No Kill Equation first shared with the world by Nathan Winograd in his 2009 book called “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.” The book was a game changer for me as it has been so many other people who have read it.
There will always be differences of opinion or how we got to a point where the shelter was destroying three out of every four animals to a point where the shelter is saving approximately 97% of the animals. It’s hard for people to admit that change can be ugly and uncomfortable. I feel confident that but for the advocacy of our group, little would have changed. The shelter was making incredibly slow progress at the time we first took our issue to the public and got really vocal about it in the area. We were vilified in the community. At one point we were called terrorists. But I know we made a difference.
There was an episode of a program called MythBusters years ago that had to do with the benefit of slapping someone across the face. The show is no longer being produced but I'm sure the episode is still out there somewhere. What was being investigated was if someone's behavior really can be modified after having been slapped across the face. The results of the tests confirmed that be to be the case. A lot of people criticized our advocacy during the most difficult years because they focused on the messenger and not on the fact that the message was necessary in the first place. We were told to be nicer, to stop being so critical. We were told that we just had to go along. I know for myself that we were always incredibly diplomatic and respectful. The worst-case scenario for me is that our advocacy served as a slap across the face to city officials and the public to get them to wake up and see that things not only should be but different but could be different. I know our efforts were much more than that, of course.
In the summer of 2018 I had a meeting with documentary film maker Anne Taiz who was working on a film about No Kill animal shelter philosophies and programs. Anne traveled to Huntsville as part of her research to talk to me about what our group had done to that point. Toward the end of our meeting Anne said, “you know, you really should write a book about this.” I'm pretty sure that I laughed. Although I had been blogging and writing about our experiences over a period of years, I never really considered writing a book. What would it say? Who would even read it? Would it help anybody? After thinking about it for a few months, I decided again that life was short and that my time here was not guaranteed. Why not write a book if it could help other people?
I self-published my book about on Amazon on April 22nd, 2019, the anniversary of Snake’s passing. The whole point in publishing a book was to help other people in other places. People like me. People like people in our advocacy group who were just common folks in the weeds with full-time jobs who came together because we knew that somebody had to do something. It had been years since Nathan Winograd had published Redemption and I thought it might help some people to learn how we used the No Kill Equation to change things in our area. After consulting with attorneys at work, I got umbrella insurance before I published the book. I know from my work in the legal field for almost three decades that the ability to defend a lawsuit and the ability to prevent a lawsuit are not the same. Thankfully, the two-year statute of limitations to sue me has now run. The book is priced to print which means no money is being made. When people order the book, they’re paying for the cover and the paper.
As is the case with many small acts of advocacy for the sake of animals, I guess I'll never really know how much good the book has done. I've gotten a lot of feedback in the last couple years from people that told me that it really did make a difference for them. They had situations similar to ours and they just didn't even know where to start or what to do. Reading the book gave them the information and the courage that they needed to speak out for the sake of animals in their own area. The book will never be a bestseller and I fully acknowledge that it has kind of a narrow audience. But I feel pretty good about it. I feel like it served the purpose and hopefully will continue to serve its intended purpose for a period of years to come. I asked some folks for feedback to share with this blog and would like to thank them for helping me.
If you know shelter animals in your area are being destroyed needlessly, know that you really can make a difference to affect change. It takes information, time, passion and commitment, but you can be a force for good. Choose the path that is the most important to you. You never know how far you will travel or what you can accomplish if you don't try.
I recommend this book to everyone interested in animal rescue or sheltering. I like to highlight key points as I read, but if I had done that with this book, the entire thing would have been highlighted. After reading it, I purchased multiple copies for local shelter managers and fellow animal rescuers. It's a perfect ‘cliff notes' version of Nathan Winograd's Redemption and a practical ‘how to’ study rolled into one. It should be required reading for anyone who cares about animals.” - Jennifer Watkins, Shelter to Home, Inc., Wyandotte, Michigan
Not Rocket Science may have been written about Huntsville, Alabama, but it is the disturbing reality of our broken ‘shelter’ system everywhere. The book very accurately describes the perils currently faced by homeless animals in the majority of municipal animal control facilities across the US. As an advocate in Georgia, I have had far too many of the same experiences that Aubrie describes. This book is essential reading for any animal welfare advocate and I highly recommend it to all animal lovers. There will be both sad and happy tears as you follow the courageous and inspiring journey of the No Kill Huntsville team. But, at the end, you will have a concise, comprehensive resource and a determination to be part of the solution. Ignorance and apathy are the enemies. For about $5, this book can help you overcome both at your local ‘shelter.’" - Shari Cahill, Silver Comet Animal Welfare Alliance, Milton, Georgia
Not Rocket Science: The Story of No Kill Animal Shelter Advocacy in Huntsville, Alabama is the up-close, inside story of what it took to bring a highly regressive, open-admission animal control shelter to save rates in the mid and upper 90%. A must-read for advocates seeking to bring No Kill to their communities, Not Rocket Science presents the unvarnished truth behind this inspiring and remarkable transition. If you have heard about the inspiring tale of Huntsville's success, but have not read this book, you don't really know how the City of Huntsville became one of the most exciting shelter stories in the nation. Order it today." - Mike Fry, No Kill Learning. Minneapolis, Minnesota
Aubrie Kavanaugh has written a seminal book, It’s Not Rocket Science, about modern animal shelter reform. Although the No Kill Movement has been around for decades, the last 10 years has seen a surge in successful animal shelter reform driven by advocates like the author, Aubrie Kavanaugh and her associates. Nathan Winograd’s Redemption from 2008 was the formative publication that launched a revolution in modern animal shelter reform. It’s Not Rocket Science shows us how the philosophy Winograd presented is now proven to succeed with a clear history of the reform of Huntsville, Alabama.” - Davyd Smith, No Kill Colorado, Denver Colorado
Not Rocket Science is an unvarnished look at the hard work required to make progress toward no kill in a resistant environment. It is an excellent step by step guide for no kill advocates who want to take action in their own community but aren't sure how to start and, more importantly, how to keep going when hitting roadblocks." - Shirley Marsh, Yes Biscuit, South Carolina
As we near the end of an unprecedented year for all of us, I’ve been thinking a lot about the good we found in 2020. Yes, there were good things even if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes. Thinking back to my animal welfare advocacy, I had to stop and reflect on how very fortunate I am that I have friends in the music industry who allow me to use their songs either directly or by helping me navigate the process of licensing music legally. It really is quite amazing that I know people with so very much talent who graciously help me so I can help animals.
I first tried to legally clear music a couple of decades ago and quickly learned it is a daunting process. My first effort was a complete failure. I had hoped to use a song called “Take it to Heart,” co-written by Michael McDonald and Diane Warren. I got permission from both of them, but got stuck at the label which really didn’t have time for someone who could not pay to use the song and who wanted to use it to help animals. All that changed once I figured out the best way to use music legally was to make personal connections with the people who own the music. I want to thank them in this blog and tell a little about how it all came together. I’ve listed them in the order in which I began using their music.
Fisher. We were channel surfing one night in the late 1990s when I heard part of a song on a talent show which I think was actually the version of “The Gong Show” hosted by Arsenio Hall. A young couple was doing a modern dance to a quiet and haunting song which immediately caught my attention. I wrote down some of the lyrics and later learned the song was “Ordinary Moment,” by Fisher – the pop duo of married couple Kathleen Fisher and Ron Wasserman. I was hooked. I found a Fisher message board, began interacting with other fans and ultimately connected with both Ron and Kathy directly by email.
When Fisher released their 2002 double CD called “Uppers and Downers” (true creative genius, by the way), I just had to ask. Could I please use a couple of the songs in video projects to help animals? I knew Kathy and Ron had left the label they were working with in order to have more freedom over their music and knew they owned all of the music themselves. The answer was not only yes. It was a yes to what is called "free use license" which means I can use any of the songs for any purpose to help animals. I can’t speak for them, but I think they both understood this was a mutually beneficial arrangement. I would help animals using their music and they would reach people who may not know about them, much like I didn’t know about them until I heard part of "Ordinary Moment." (This song is still a favorite of mine and is very much suited to our lives in 2020; I hope you'll take the time to listen to it).
As an aside, I like to tell a story about Fisher to help people understand how grounded they are. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the family of a co-worker of mine relocated to Alabama. I think it was 12 people in all. They loaded up all they could in a few cars, hit the road and it took days to arrive. They had very little to sustain them. Our office collected clothes, dishes, furniture. The items they would need to live until they figured out what would come next. After I posted about them on Fisher’s message board, Kathy called to talk about what they needed. She and Ron not only donated money, but sent boxes and boxes of supplies from baby clothes to dishes just because they wanted to help. It's just the kind of people they are.
I’ve since used countless Fisher songs over the years from a variety of CDs - Uppers and Downers, The Lovely Years, Water, Stripped and 3. I’ve done projects for animal rescue groups, animal shelters, on certain animal-oriented subjects and for PSAs for television. I’ve even used some which were never released which I’m fortunate enough to have in my box of musical treasures. My most recent was a project for Shadow Cats, Inc. in Texas using "Different Kind of Wonderful." I cannot thank them enough. Kathy now has this platform on Facebook and Ron has a website that is focused on his composition work. Their music is available on Amazon and iTunes.
Martin Page. Much like my introduction to Fisher, my connection with Martin Page began with a single song. In “In the House of Stone and Light” was released in 1996 on a CD by the same name. I was not yet an animal advocate and the time, but always loved the song. As time went on, I forgot the name of the song but had parts of it stuck in my head over the years. I was driving to work one day in 2014 when it came on the radio and I was thrilled. The whole song came back to me and I quickly wrote down the title so I wouldn’t forget it. I connected with Martin through Diane Poncher who handles his Music Management. I told him how thrilled I was to have “found” him again after all the years in between and asked if it would be possible to use some of his other music in my animal welfare projects, much like my arrangement with Fisher. I knew Martin handled his own music production also and I would not need to interact with a label. Diane and Martin said yes, no doubt after consulting with Martin's cat, "Bootsie." I now have a relationship with them in which I ask to use a particular song, describe the project I have in mind and get approval. I continue to be astounded by this connection, primarily due to the library of Martin’s work. He’s written songs with and for some of the most notable names in the music industry and I am in awe of his talents. My first project using one of Martin’s songs was for National Mill Dog Rescue in Colorado. We used a beautiful tune called “I Can’t Get There Without You.” The video quality is lacking a bit, but this is a personal favorite for me for a couple of reasons: we used footage of people slow dancing with dogs and it includes both Harley Taylor and Teddy Burchfield, both of whom have since left this Earth. I used "All For the Love of You" in a popular project for Esther the Wonder Pig who lives in Canada and has a huge following. Many thanks to both Martin and Diane, both of whom I consider friends. Martin’s music is available on iTunes.
David Hodges. Although David Hodges has been in the music industry for decades, I didn’t have an awareness of him until I heard a song called “Shattered” from a 2011 release called More Than This. I looked for information about David and discovered that he had been around for years and had become one of the most prolific songwriters on the planet. He had released a series of CDs under the name “The December Sessions,” and I was hoping to use some of the songs in my video projects. I had a hard time finding out how to connect until a long-time Fisher contact in Tennessee (thanks, Melissa!) did some sleuthing for me and learned he was managed by Milk & Honey Music Management, led by Lucas Keller. David’s music is with a label (it was Sony and is now Kobalt), but Lucas graciously helped me navigate the process of legally clearing songs and continues to do so to this day (along with help from his rescued dogs Kilo and Graham). I’ve used two of David’s songs this year – “A Song for Us” for House of Little Dogs in Arkansas and “The Only Story” for Harley’s House of Hope (I’m particularly proud of this one since we decided to incorporate American Sign Language into the video). David has so many wonderful songs that I find myself thinking of projects even before I have a target organization in mind. Thank you so very much to David, Lucas and the folks at Kobalt. David’s music is available on Amazon, iTunes and Spotify.
Jim Gaven. Most of my video projects are created using a Photodex software program called ProShow Producer. Before the company stopped supporting the program, it came with a music library and that’s how I found Jim Gaven. A few of his songs were in the library and although I was allowed to use them from having purchased the software, I connected with Jim to let him know I was using the music. I’m so glad I did. Jim has a wide variety of music released on his own through the Bandcamp platform. In addition to creating wonderful music, Jim leads a nonprofit organization called Key of Awesome Music, Inc. which improves the quality of life for people with disabilities, addiction, the elderly, and children - with music. What amazing work. I used “Make this Moment Last” in a project for the Lake County Florida Animal Shelter and very much look forward to using more of Jim’s music in the future to help animals. Jim’s music is available on Bandcamp and Soundcloud.
Cristina Lynn. Cristina and I met through a common contact who calls her "cous" (they both share the last name Lynn). I had heard she was a singer-songwriter from my area and thought it would be interesting to connect with someone local. After I lost my parents to cancer, I ended up with some songs in my head, one of which was from the perspective of a rescued animal called, "Just No Looking Back." I knew it was not a chart topper, but also thought it might be able to help some animals. I reached to to Cristina and she graciously agreed to record the song for us both after improving on the lyrics and melody. I've used in in a few different projects and each time I learn she will perform locally, I make a request for her to "sing our song." Cristina is a wonderful talent and I look forward to a very bright future for her in the music industry!
I hope you’ll take a break from a very difficult year to enjoy some of the video projects. You can them on my Paws4Change channel on Youtube. If you are an aspiring artist who is looking for some exposure to your music in a feel-good, let's help animals kind of way, let me know.
There are some universal truths in life, one of which is that no one gets to stay. Our time here is limited even though we act as though we literally have all the time in the world for ourselves and with those we love. Another truth is that we all want to matter. We all want to make a difference in some way through the legacy of our families, having contributed to some change or having helped others. We seek confidence that our time here was well spent, regardless of our individual beliefs about what comes next when we die. The 10-year anniversary of my dad’s passing is at the end of this month and I’ve been reflecting on his influence on almost every aspect of my life, one of which is my animal welfare advocacy.
In the fall of 2009, both of my parents were diagnosed with different forms of cancer. Dad’s lung cancer diagnosis was early September; mom’s stomach cancer diagnosis was early December. As I struggled to process the realization that I would lose them both not decades in the future but at any time, I found myself thinking of my own mortality. Where I was in my life at the time. Choices I had made. What was important to me in the big scheme of things. It was sobering to say the least. I had been doing animal welfare video projects for a few years to help animal rescue groups, but was there more I could be doing to make a difference? The answer to that question was yes.
In late 2009, I decided to publish a website to help other people like me who may consider themselves “animal people” but who may not be aware of some of the issues related to companion animals in our society. I wasn’t sure what I would accomplish, but thought it was worth the effort to try to reach some people. I chose the name Paws4Change. This is an intentional play on words. My goal was to present content which may cause people to pause and then perhaps learn something new or change some previously held belief. I knew from my own awakening about issues related to companion animals in our country that there were a number of subjects which were all related to some way to the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in our nation’s shelters using our money and in our name. Puppy mills. Free roaming cats. Chaining of dogs. Spay and Neuter. Breed bans and restrictions. And, of course, no kill animal sheltering philosophies.
I shared my website with my parents in January of 2010 during one of many visits to see them over a short period of time. They were both undergoing a dueling chemo schedule and I honestly wasn’t sure how much they would care about my efforts. Their lives were in the balance and much more important issues challenged them every day. They did take time to look at it and they each gave me a long hug. I distinctly recall dad saying, “the website looks great. But why is your name not on it anywhere?” I confessed that I had not included my name at that time because some of the issues I covered were the subject of intense debate and I didn’t want anyone to threaten me or try to damage my reputation in some way for having had the audacity to speak. I also distinctly recall the next thing he said: “if it’s worth your time to set up a website to help people and take a stand, it’s worth putting your name on your work. Own it.” Yes, dad. You were right then, just like you were on so very many subjects over the years.
My parents are both gone. Dad left us on October 28, 2010, after his lung cancer moved to his brain. Mom left us on March 20, 2011, having outlived predictions for her lifespan by more than a year. We lost Rich's dad to cancer five days after my mom; it was a tough six months to say the least. I wrote about the loss of my parents before in my blog about placement of their cats. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of them and don’t miss them. I carry them with me each day.
My website has changed over the years. Some of the early content I thought would help people was of limited value so I got rid of it. I was looking back at it on The Wayback Machine for this blog and had forgotten how the site has changed over the years. I had to trademark the name a few years back after some folks decided to not play well with others and I've had to remind people about trademark protections a few times. I’m considering a new look in the next few months just to make the site appear a bit more modern.
The site content will remain essentially the same because the goal is still the same: to try to help people like me learn something new so they can make better personal choices which may have positive effects not only in their own lives, but in their communities. I still do my video work for nonprofit rescue groups and some for animal shelters. I now do periodic fundraisers to help those same organizations and published a book about my no kill animal shelter advocacy last year. I’d like to think both my parents would be proud and would approve. I could not help them stay here. But I give thanks each day for the time we shared and how they helped me become the person I am today. I honor them through my advocacy as I hear dad’s voice in my mind, telling me to “own it.” I'm not sure how much of an effect my efforts have. I know I have regular traffic to my website and my blogs are shared by some. As much as I would like to change the world, I know I cannot. But I can change some small parts of it and that's good enough for me.
We are all shaped by events in our lives, some of our own choosing and some over which we have no control. If there is something important to you, whether it is some wrong in society you want changed or some need to be fulfilled, I hope you will strive to get into what John Lewis called “good trouble.” We can all make a difference in a myriad of ways in our own families, with our jobs and with how we live our lives each and every day. As the tag line for my website says, your values are expressed by the choices you make. Go forth and do great things. You can make a difference. Time is both fleeting and precious.
you know life's too short to live it in fear
only thing you will regret is what you
do not do at all even more than the
stupid things you do
better take the chance
listen to your heart, no one can tell you
what your spirit wants
I was trying to recall the other day when I first met Mike Fry of No Kill Learning. As is the case with many of my animal welfare contacts who became my friends, it feels as though I have always known him. I began listening to his Animal Wise Radio broadcasts created with Beth Nelson about ten years ago after I learned what was happening in our nation’s animal shelters. I was riveted by the conversations they shared about no kill animal sheltering and about this thing called “the No Kill Equation” shared by Nathan Winograd is his ground-breaking book, Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.” I first met Mike in person in early 2013 when he came to Alabama and became part of the no kill story in Huntsville which was (and has remained) the focus on my no kill animal shelter advocacy for more than a decade.
This trip down memory lane was brought on by Mike’s latest documentary film in his Boots on the Ground series highlighting places where animal shelter reform happened. The first film was about Lake County, Florida, which became a no kill community essentially overnight once the county commission took over operation of the animal shelter from the Sheriff's Office. The shelter now has some of the highest live release rates in the country and has become an example of other shelters to emulate.
The second film told our story in Huntsville, Alabama, where a group of advocates banded together to tell the city, "we are better and this," and to push hard for reform of the tax-funded animal shelter where thousands of animals died over a period of years. Ours was a struggle with much of the opposition serving only to delay reforms we hoped were inevitable. The shelter statistics demonstrate the changes made in the past few years which are the result of cultural changes in how the shelter operates. Saving the lives of animals is now a point of community pride; we hope there is no going back to old ways.
The final film in the series is Mike’s story of his 20-year journey to bring no kill success to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, an area serving over three million people. I was interviewed for the film and was given an opportunity to view it in advance of the October 14, 2020, Youtube premier.
Having known Mike as long as I have, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the story. I knew Mike had become a no kill advocate through family ties – his family opened the first no kill animal shelter in the state decades ago. I also knew that Mike came to his advocacy through a specific event in his life, as is the case with my advocacy. Mike’s journey – which I consider a journey of the heart - began with him being profoundly affected by a video project he created for a contact of his which about pet overpopulation which changed the course of his life. It put him on a path to question the status quo, to question why it is that shelters were not functioning consistent with public values (while making the public think everything was fine), to question if there wasn’t some other way things could be done, and ultimately to seek out and embrace the solution to shelter killing which is the No Kill Equation. Knowing the solution was not enough, as is often the case. It took years and years of advocacy and struggle to bring change to the Twin Cities with the help of like-minded people and with the standards in the Companion Animal Protection Act enacted in St. Paul in 2014. I call this a journey of the heart because it is one born of love - love for the companion animals with whom we share our lives and homes as members of our families.
I hope you will take time to watch the journey in Mike’s film. He spoke with a wide range of people and the flow of the film tells a compelling story. Why should events in the Twin Cities (or Florida or Alabama) matter to you? Because they inspire change in other places. I think it's important for people to know that change really is possible and to learn about what other people have done in the face of really difficult circumstances. The film serves as a lesson to us all which proves a few key things. First, we learn that each of us can, in fact, make a difference in spite of what may seem like insurmountable odds. I think it is human nature to feel overwhelmed when issues are systemic; we feel there is no possible way our actions can cause the wheels of change to turn. They can. Second, it reminds us that no kill advocacy for shelter animals is a marathon and not a sprint. I know many advocates get frustrated if they cannot affect change as quickly as they would like. Some places change literally overnight upon realizing they were operating in ways which were not only inconsistent with public values, but which led to killing which proved to be unneccesary. Other places take longer. Mike’s journey lasted 20 years. Yes, 20 years. What made a difference was commitment to the goal, recognizing that the process may take time, and being so informed on the topic to be able to convince that elected official that enacting the CAPA was legacy legislation which sets standards moving forward, regardless of who runs the city or who runs the shelter operation. When I think of Mike's journey, I am reminded of a book he shared with me years ago called Twelve By Twelve in which the author spoke of the concept of See, Be, Do. Sometimes you have to just Be until a new opportunity arises to move the issue forward. Which is exactly what Mike and his fellow advocates ultimately did.
I found the film inspiring and know you will also. It runs about 45 minutes. As someone who is very visually oriented, I will tell you that there is some footage at the start of the film which may be difficult for some people to watch. I know Mike anguished over use of some footage from the video he created more than 20 years ago which put him on this journey. In the end, he decided that it was a key component to the story which could not be overlooked. I was able to get through it with no issues, knowing that sometimes it takes a shocking event to help us understand what is most important to us. In my case, it was five words. In Mike's case, it was the video he created.
Please join us for the October 14, 2020, premiere which begins at 7:30 p.m. central time. If you cannot see the film then, it will be available for viewing at any time after the premiere.
Congratulations to Mike on the film and thank you for your tireless advocacy which has been an inspiration not only to me, but to countless people across the country. You fought the good fight. You changed the course of history in your community. This is your legacy and the legacy of all who came together to seek a better future for animals and the people who value them.
As John Lewis would say, "“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble. Good trouble.” I hopethe film inspires you to do just that.
(The video below is a short trailer which is one of a series of trailers for the film. Thanks, Beth Nelson!)
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