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!)
Icon. Hero. When we think of those words, we tend to think of people. When I think of those words, I think of a small dog whose life was so improbable as to be the stuff of legends. Harley. Harley Taylor, to be exact. I was trying to think back to when I first learned about Harley and I had to go look it up in my records. Just like human icons and heroes are timeless, so is Harley. It is like he has always been and always will be, thanks to his family and his devoted followers.
Harley lived in a cramped, filthy cage at a puppy mill for the first 10 years of his life, fathering countless puppies to be sold in pet stores across the country. His life was incredibly rough. He was sick, afraid and had never known the kindness of human touch. After he had been tossed in a bucket along with some dead puppies, a puppy mill worker noticed he was still breathing. She retrieved him from the bucket and passed the tiny, disfigured Chihuahua on to a nearby rescue. He received immediate medical care and he was put in the grass where his picture was taken. He was old and crooked, he had only one eye, and he appeared sad and afraid. Rudi Taylor wrote:
when I saw the photo I knew instinctively that this little Chihuahua was meant to be with me. I called the women who ran the rescue; we spoke for an hour and the next thing you know I was on my way to pick up “my boy” a couple states away. To be honest, my intention was to give this dog a loving home for his final days, which the vet said would likely be about three months. A soft bed, good food and clean water – but most importantly, love – that is what I would give “Harley” for the first time in his life.
Harley had come very close to death and he had issues: a diseased heart, a mouth filled with rot, a fused spine, a broken tail, gnarled toes, and legs that were deformed. And then there was the missing eye – the result of his cage being power-washed with him in it (an all too common practice in puppy mills). But Harley was a survivor. He thrived on the love and attention he received for the first time in his life.
Harley has been called “magical” by everyone who met him and loved him. Harley inspired Rudi and her husband, Dan, to create a campaign called “Harley to the Rescue” which raised funds to save (and provide medical care for) more than 500 dogs from puppy mills in less than two years. Harley went on these rescue missions and “clearly recognized his role in helping to bridge the gap between canine and human,” wrote Rudi.
Harley passed away on March 20, 2016. I had never met him, but still felt the loss. I had created a series of video projects over the years using images and video clips of him and faithful sidekick, Teddy Burchfield, so I felt like I knew him. But isn’t that the way it is with all heroes? I believe so. When souls touch our lives on such a personal level, we feel as if we know them and so the loss of them feels like a personal loss. I wrote a series of blogs after Harley’ passing. I wrote about the fact that he changed the world. I wrote about his extraordinary life. I wrote about his legacy. I wrote about the fact that he was small in size and larger than life.
As I processed the news of his passing, I felt deep down that Harley's legacy would be huge and may even be greater than his accomplishments while in the loving care of the Taylors. Even I was wrong. No one could have imagined the profound effect Harley had, and continues to have, on so very many people across the country. He inspires. He empowers. He has given some people a focus and passion for a subject they never had before as they labor tirelessly to speak out for other dogs like Harley who were not saved.
To honor Harley’s life and continue his legacy, Rudi and Dan Taylor developed a non-profit organization called Harley’s Dream. The work done by this incredible organization is almost beyond description. The Taylors channeled their love (and, I would presume, their grief) into developing programs to bring an end to puppy mills and to help other dogs like Harley. The scope of these programs is huge so I encourage you to visit the website to learn more about them.
The first program is a public awareness program which is intended to expose the puppy mill industry to as many people as possible toward bringing an end to that industry. This program includes large scale public awareness using billboards, social media awareness, peaceful protests and rallies, puppy mill awareness cards, media awareness, t-shirts and products (which start conversations), an annual Hops & Harley event and the Art by Teddy campaign.
The second program is an educational program which seeks to educate the public about the reality of the puppy mill industry and the link between puppy mills and pet stores/websites. It includes educational events, presentations, a Children’s Educational Campaign, print and display educational materials and Bookmarks for Change.
The third program is an advocacy program which promotes grassroots organization with mobilized supporters across the country in order to effect change at the local and regional levels. It includes Harley’s Heroes groups in each state, Lobby Days, petitions, sample letters, and promotion of Humane Pet Stores which provides the steps and information necessary to start the process of establishing a ban of the retail sale of puppies in pet stores in towns/cities. More and more places across the country are enacting ordinances to keep national pet supply stores from selling animals sources from puppy mills. They do not prevent people from purchasing a dog from a breeder. They do serve as consumer protection laws in light of CDC investigations of the transmission of diseases from pet store puppies to people.
The fourth program is new and is truly a labor of love. It is Harley’s House of Hope which helps individual senior dogs by saving them from animal shelters, caring for them in a home environment and providing them all necessary medical care before finding them new homes. Most of the dogs who enter Harley's House of Hope were scheduled to be euthanized until they were rescued.
I know it has been more than four years since Harley left us. Sometimes it feels like it has been ages and other times it feels as though it was just yesterday. Looking back, I marvel at how many people Harley has touched with his life and his legacy. I believe a time will come when the puppy mill industry will cease to exist as we know it. I have no doubt that Harley and the Taylors will have played a huge role in that transition to more compassionate way of functioning as we not only say that dogs are man’s best friend, but we prove it through our actions and our choices.
Dare to dream. We miss you Harley. You are a hero and an icon. And you will never be forgotten.
If you would like to support Harley's Dream, there are a variety of ways to do that. Click on the support drop down menu on the website to learn more.
There are defining periods for all of us which direct the paths we take through life. Deaths of people we love. A lost job which leads to an unexpected career change. Discovery of some new information which changes our world view. Once we reach these crossroads of sorts, there is no going back. Just choosing a way forward. Such was the case for me when I learned about the deaths of animals in our tax-funded animal shelters using our money, in our name and while we are blamed for the process.
An author friend of mine, Cara Sue Achterberg, had a defining period in her life recently which is the subject of her new book - One Hundred Dogs and Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles and a Journey into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues.
I first met Cara when I blogged about her previous book - Another Good Dog: One Family and Fifty Foster Dogs. I truly enjoyed her delightful book which introduces us to the world of fostering dogs and to her family, all of whom participate in the process. Cara wrote about what motivated her to foster for a rescue group called Operation Paws for Homes, about her “puppy addiction,” and about all the dogs who passed through her home on their way to new lives.
Having fostered so many dogs, Cara was compelled to ask an obvious question – “where are all these dogs coming from any way?” It is a question I wish more people in rescue circles asked of “the system” related to their efforts to save the lives of animals. We are hearing more and more that fostering is the future of animal sheltering and welfare and I believe that’s true. The more animals we have in foster homes, the faster we can place those animals into new homes and the fewer animals we have in shelters which are stressful places for even the most well -behaved companions. But as I wrote about in my book, if we ever hope to get a handle on the number of animals entering our tax-funded shelters, many of whom are summarily destroyed, we have to look at the bigger picture and address the first of many questions which was the one Cara asked - where are all these animals coming from?
Cara had finished Another Good Dog and hit the road to tour the book and to see some of the places the dogs came from. She wanted to see them for herself and take a closer look at why there was so much need for fostering. As Cara wrote:
Money was good. But money alone would not solve the problem of killing dogs because there wasn’t enough space/time to save them. Foster homes could make a difference. If we had more foster homes, we could save more dogs. The message of my book—that fostering is one way anyone can help save dogs—was needed now more than ever. If there were more foster homes, it would lessen the stress on shelters to stretch strained budgets and maybe they wouldn’t be forced to make decisions about which dogs they could afford to save and which would have to die. But how could there ever be enough foster homes? Foster homes wouldn’t stem the tide of dogs arriving at the shelter. Fostering could give them breathing room, but, clearly, it wasn’t the only answer. I needed to do more than write a book. I needed to go down there. I needed to see this for myself. Sitting there with Willow, I began to hatch a plan. I would use my book advance money, not just to tour with my book, but to rent a van, fill it with donated food and meds and supplies, and take them to the shelters. Along the way, I would write about it, using my words to shine a light on the situation.
Cara ultimately took four separate trips to shelters and rescue groups in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama, logging over ten thousand miles in the process. I was fortunate enough to meet her in person as she traveled through Alabama. It was after the third of these trips, and after having fostered a particularly difficult dog named “Gala,” that she decided to write a new book. Cara explained the process this way:
I wrote a proposal for a new book. One that would pick up where Another Good Dog left off with our foster family, but it wouldn’t stop there. I would take my readers to the shelters. So often when I talked about what I saw in the southern shelters people shook their heads, and I was never sure if it was because they didn’t believe me or they didn’t want to believe me. But in my book, I could take them there. I could show them. . . I felt an urgency. The faces of so many dogs click through my mind. Lying on concrete floors or hard plastic shelves, with so little human contact, their eyes haunted me. They were confused and frightened and so incredibly vulnerable. I didn’t have a minute to waste.
When Cara told me she planned another book, I jumped at the opportunity to read an advance copy and give others a sneak peek into the content. As was my method in my blog about Another Good Dog, I won’t share too many details about the new book here. My hope is that you will read it and take the same journey with Cara as I took while reading the book. I will share that what Cara learned during her travels over so very many miles was infuriating, heart breaking, exasperating, empowering, compelling and hopeful all at the same time.
Some shelters she visited were little more than disposal facilities, where government officials should have ensured proper care for animals, but were satisfied with housing them in substandard conditions only to kill them. Of one such place, Cara wrote:
There were no dogcatchers or kennel attendants, just four dogs in kennels that were piled with feces, flooded with urine, and swarming with flies. There were no beds or doghouses or even a blanket to lie on, so the dogs had no choice but to lay in their own filth. They barked at the sight of us, jumping against the fence excitedly. One small, brown pit bull was emaciated and crusted with poop, but wiggled and wagged, eager for our attention. A few kennels down were two dogs together in one kennel with twice as much filth. One had a belly likely bloated with worms; the other Trisha was pretty sure was a sibling of a dog back at her house she had rescued a few weeks before. Around the other side of the building, we found a sweet, yellow dog with doe eyes and a nylon collar, also frighteningly thin, who had a soft cough. The volunteer shrugged, “they’ll stay here until the guys get tired of taking care of them. Then they’ll take them to the vet to be killed.”
(Fanny, in the Huntington Pound; photo by Ian Achterberg)
In other places, local government officials were so complacent about sheltering animals that private individuals had stepped in to try to fill the gap, using their own time, money and resources in a desperate attempt to keep animals alive. Some of those people had taken on so many animals with no plan in place to re-home them that the situation bordered on hoarding. They felt they were the only people keeping animals alive and sometimes made poor choices as a result of huge hearts who just wanted to save lives. Cara wrote about two sisters she met who are in their sixties yet who care for seventy dogs and one hundred and forty-five cats at their property in a county that has no real shelter, just a small dog pound. “The sisters began doing what the county should have been doing, paying for it out of their own pocket and now with their social security.” I’m sure this happens more often than people realize; they have no clue that people will big hearts work frantically to save lives while elected officials do nothing to help using tax dollars.
But all was not doom and gloom. As Cara wrote, “saving dogs, like pretty much everything in this world, comes down to business. What we need is a better business plan. Too many dogs are dying for want of it.” Her travels took her to positive places where “attitudes are a powerful force.” These were welcoming places, some of which operated with very little money. They were staffed by positive people who made the shelter operation welcoming and with leadership who kept the public informed so issues could be solved by the public and the shelter working together. At one place Cara visited, the shelter director focused not on what she didn’t have —volunteers, money, community support, or a fancy building—and instead looked at what she did have—plenty of land in a beautiful part of the country. The director created walking trails through their woods and began a rock painting program. The staff and volunteers began painting rocks with positive messages and placing them on the trails. “Then they invited the public to come and hike, paint a rock and place it, or find a rock and take it home. She enlisted the local high-school students to create storyboards and post them along the trails, giving young families even more incentive to come to the shelter. The only price for using their beautiful, interactive trails? Walking an adorable, adoptable shelter dog! Talk about a win-win. I loved it and was fast becoming a member of the Kristin Reid fan club. Kristin’s common-sense solutions and systems were obvious everywhere we looked.”
(Cara visiting with Rhonda Lindsay of Brindlee Mountain Animal Rescue in Alabama; photo by Nancy Slattery)
As a No Kill advocate, I was enthralled by what Cara learned during her travels. Much of what she saw validates what advocates in No Kill circles have said for years: that saving the lives of animals is a choice and that it is not about money. It’s about compassion and leadership. It is easy to think that animals die because the public doesn’t care enough. In Cara’s words – “It can’t be that people don’t care, they simply don’t know.” So very true. And thanks to Cara’s new book, more people will know and then they can act to be part of the solution.
Cara won’t be able to tour her new book this year due to the pandemic, so we agreed to do a Q&A by video so you can meet her and hear her responses to some questions I posed. I hope you enjoy our chat and that you will read her book. It’s available for pre-order now from a variety of sources and will be available at local bookstores on July 7, 2020. Cara has written a host of other books and has a new fiction book due out in 2021. You can keep up with the latest news on her website and by following her blogs.
How many dogs Cara she fostered to date? 177. Simply amazing!
With all of us dealing with the COVID 19 pandemic, I’ve been giving a lot of though to how much we are separated, yet how very connected we are thanks to technology. I grew up in a time before the Internet when there was no such thing as email or cell phones. If you wanted to communicate with someone, you made a call on a wired telephone, sent a letter or interacted in person. For the most part, our worlds were limited to family members, friends, co-workers and people we encountered while moving around in our communities or while traveling.
I know we are long past the “olden days,” but I still marvel about how connected I am with people not just in the United States, but around the globe. As I watch the news each day and learn about the spread of the virus, I think about people I “know” from other countries and what they are going through. One in particular, Douglas Anthony Cooper, is the subject of this blog related to one of his books. Douglas is a Canadian citizen who lives in Rome, a place very far removed from the American reality for most of us as we see video footage of the empty streets in Rome and monuments with no visitors, much like images from some post-apocalyptic movie.
But back to the subject at hand. Douglas and how we crossed paths, so to speak.
I have a soft spot for misunderstood dogs. It started with our dog, Snake, who lived on a heavy logging chain for the first two years of her life before my husband rescued her; Snake likely would have been destroyed in most traditional animal shelters. She was not good around other dogs and was very protective of her pack (which means she was not good around most people). The more I learned about the plight of many dogs in our nation’s shelters, particularly dogs which look like pit-bull type dogs and are presumed to be dangerous, the more I felt compelled to educate myself on the topic and share what I learned.
I’ve read some amazing books over the years regarding these misunderstood and stereotyped dogs as part of my education. They include Jim Gorant’s, “Lost Dogs: Michael Vick’s Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption” and his follow-up book, “Found Dogs: The Fates and Fortunes of Michael Vick’s Pit Bulls, 10 Years After Their Heroic Rescue.” Key to my education was the book I consider the authority regarding pit bull type dogs: “Pit Bull: The Battle Over and American Icon” by Bronwen Dickey.
Along the way, I learned that award-winning author and photographer Douglas Anthony Cooper was planning a children’s book about these dogs and I was intrigued. He was using a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project. I made a small contribution, but then went on about my life, knowing it would take years for the book to be funded and published. (I went back to check on the success of his Kickstarter campaign to write this blog. His labor of love had a fundraising goal of $27,500 but raised $62,016. Pretty amazing.)
As I said above, I never cease to be amazed at the people I “meet” as a result of my animal welfare advocacy; Douglas is a prime example. We come from vastly different worlds and I consider him both a scholar and a celebrity, even if he does not view himself in those terms. He has his own Wikipedia page which says a lot right there. He’s published three novels, has a master’s degree in philosophy, studied Latin rhetoric, was a contributing editor to New York Magazine and his articles have appeared in a host of iconic publications. His journalism has won America’s most prestigious travel writing award, as well as a National Magazine Award in Canada. His first young adult novel was on the Financial Times Bestseller List, and was deemed a "Book of the Year" by Lovereading 4 Kids (Milrose Munce and the Den of Professional Help).
I had crossed paths with Douglas before thanks to his writing in the Huffington Post. His list of accomplishments is long and impressive, but it was his writing about the No Kill Movement, the hypocrisy of PETA and the person he described as “The Imposter Behind The Pit Bull Hysteria” – Merritt Clifton which caught my immediate attention.
Douglas published his new book called Galunker in 2016. It was illustrated by Dula Yavne, an artist based in Tel Aviv. I had not kept up with book reviews, so I knew very little about it before I read it. I’m glad I did. I came to it with no expectations about the content and that made it even more magical to me. Yes, magical. I could tell immediately that Douglas was channeling his inner Theodore Geisel in the book through his use of rhyme and word choice. Much like many Dr. Seuss tales before it which are entertaining, but which have a very clear message, Galunker is the perfect presentation of subjects related to dogs who are stereotyped and the operation of animal “shelters” as well as good and evil which exists in people and our society related to those topics. I found the illustrations perfectly suited to the story; they are not what I would consider ordinary illustrations for a children’s book which is what makes them perfect. This may not seem to make sense as you read this, but you’ll understand once you read the book. The illustrations are art.
I obviously read the book with the perspective of an adult, but since Douglas was channeling his inner Ted, I did my best to channel my inner child as I marveled at the prose and the art used to bring the words to life. I consider myself educated on the topics shared in the story but would like to think the child version of me (and my parents) would have learned something from the book and be better, more informed, people for it. No spoilers here folks. I really want you to read the book, think about it, share it with your children, share it with your friends and then think about it some more. I also encourage you to go on the website for the book and download your free printable copy of Blinky’s 10 Golden Rules for Kids so you can made the book the educational tool it is for your family. Here is a short segment to help you understand the beauty of the book.
She stood at a distance, politely explaining:
I admit that I was brought back to the subject of the book due to the current pandemic sweeping our globe. Douglas crossed my mind often in recent weeks as I wondered how he and his dog, Pixel, are faring with the lock down. We began communicating about the book and I knew the time had come to write about it. Douglas graciously agreed to do a Q&A about the book; this is a format that has worked well for me in the past to introduce people to books while sharing some information they may not learn from the book itself.
Q&A with Douglas Anthony Cooper
Q: You are an award-winning author of adult fiction and your books have been published in numerous languages and countries. What compelled you to write a children's book and why specifically on this topic?
A: Children’s literature is an important art form, and I’ve always wanted to try my hand at it. Books change children, and good books change them for the better. Many of the books that affected me most were the ones I read before I turned ten. As for the topic: children’s books about animals are a vast genre; and my life has increasingly been consumed by activism on behalf of shelter animals; so it wasn’t hard to decide on a subject.
Q: The name Galunker is very unique. Was there a particular inspiration for that?
A: It just sounded right—it’s a nice awkward name for a ridiculous dog—but I suppose when I think about it there are certain words squished in there: “galoot”, “lunkhead”—words that are appropriate for a dog that’s wrongly considered a thug (which is true of so many dogs that happen to look like pit bulls).
Q: It is immediately obvious from the rhyme and word choice in your book that you were channeling your inner Theodore Geisel, known of as Dr. Seuss. How did that come about?
A: That was certainly deliberate. I firmly believe that Dr. Seuss is a genius to rank with our greatest writers. Literary snobs often sneer at children’s literature, but the greatest snob of them all—Vladimir Nabokov—considered Geisel a master. And Dr. Seuss specialized in a poetic form that has always appealed to me (and to children): it’s a unique, silly rhythm, and it’s a lot of fun to write. I’ve in fact just written another book that scans in the same way—also about animals—called “A Warthog in My Closet.” Believe it or not, rhyming books are deemed out of fashion (despite the fact that Dr. Seuss has dominated the bestseller lists every single year for decades); so it may not be easy to get a publisher on board.
Q: Since the book was published in 2016, what has the reception been like and what type of feedback have you received?
A: The feedback has been overwhelming. Let’s face it: dog partisans are the most passionate people in the world; and the ones devoted to bully breeds are probably the most passionate of all. They were thrilled to see a children’s book about a pit bull. Of course, people who are bigoted against this type of dog—or just irrationally frightened of them—were appalled; and I was told by the head of perhaps the most prestigious publishing house in the world that “I might as well write a children’s book about meth.” I like to think that Galunker is a step towards changing those perceptions.
Q: We Americans like to think of ourselves as an animal-friendly culture but we clearly have problems with our animal sheltering system, breed discrimination with dogs, puppy mills, etc. As a Canadian citizen who lives in Italy, what can you tell us about the state of animal shelters and breed discrimination in other countries? Are Americans as unevolved as I suspect we are when compared with other cultures?
A: America is becoming, I believe, increasingly enlightened with regard to this, and a lot of it has to do with the growing success of the No Kill movement. I haven’t looked at the numbers recently, but Canada seems to be approximately on a par with America, in terms of shelter killing. Europe is another matter. At their best, Europeans put us to shame: the British, for instance, are a model nation when it comes to the treatment of companion animals. At their worst, Europeans are a disgrace: the crimes committed against dogs in Spain are as ugly as any on earth. (Note: if you live in Europe, you might want to think about adopting a galgo—a Spanish greyhound: they’re gorgeous, and they’re the victims of unthinkable brutality.) Italy is somewhere in the middle. The country has a great attitude towards dogs and cats; it’s technically a No Kill nation, and dogs are welcomed pretty much everywhere but churches, art galleries, and grocery stores. The Italians have a word for “crazy cat lady”—“gattara”—but it’s not an insult: most Italians are crazy cat ladies. That said, funding for the shelter system is a mess, so the fact that it’s illegal to kill shelter animals just means that they are often stuck in shelters for years. It’s much like the “hoarding” situation that the No Kill movement is falsely accused of in America—in Italy it seems to be a reality.
Q: Do you have any plans to continue the story with Blinky and Galunker? There would seem to be so many stories about animal shelters and how we treat animals which could help educate children (and their parents).
A: I’ve certainly thought about it. No immediate plans, but if a story comes to mind, I expect Dula (the illustrator) would be keen.
Q: I could absolutely see your book being turned into a film by Pixar, Illumination, Disney, Wes Anderson or an Indie filmmaker. Is there any talk about that for the future?
A: Well, coincidentally, Pixar recently did produce a short animated film about an abused pit bull. A lovely film called “Kitbull.” I do in fact have an Italian connection to the studio: a good friend of my publisher here designs the Pixar museum displays. So this is something I’ve been thinking about. It’s certainly a sign of changing attitudes, and it’s wonderful: who would have imagined that this theme would be embraced by a company as mainstream as Disney?
As a U.S. Army veteran, I have strong opinions about 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.
I’ve been an outspoken animal welfare advocate for many years. Your tax dollars at work, I guess. Most of my advocacy relates to keeping shelter animals alive using the programs and services of the No Kill Equation. I also advocate for animals related to the issues I cover on my website: puppy mills, spay and neuter, adoption, aggression in dogs, breed bans, etc. I am the first to admit that I’ve made my fair share of mistakes along the way. In my early days of No Kill advocacy, I was too focused on the method I was promoting and not enough on the personalities of the people with whom I was dealing. Because I work in the legal field in municipal defense, I have always had a good handle on how local and state governments function. What I did not fully appreciate was that how my message is received is often as important as the message itself, regardless of my intent. I think the path I have taken would have changed little even if I had a better appreciation for position of the people with whom I was interacting. Some would have been defensive no matter how diplomatically I behaved. Some would not have been able to hear the message from me no matter now many years of experience I have or how much I know related to the issues about which I speak for animals.
One thing I have learned along the way is the importance of always striving to take the high road, no matter how others behave. There will always be people who oppose efforts to improve the welfare of animals for a host of reasons and there is little we can do about it. We cannot convince everyone to share our beliefs through magical thinking or sheer force of our will. Saying the same thing numerous times or saying it more loudly or forcefully is not the answer. I wrote about the behavior of some local opponents to my No Kill shelter advocacy in the book I published last year. People outside of animal welfare circles may think we all get along because we all want the same things. We do not all get along and there are great divisions and struggles between advocates. The people who voiced the loudest opposition to our efforts to reform the local animal shelter were from the animal rescue community. Doesn’t make much sense, I know. But that’s the reality. Even when we take the high road, that behavior is not always reciprocated and we have to learn to just tune out the hate and focus on the message and what we hope to accomplish.
In addition to my advocacy efforts related to No Kill animal sheltering, I’ve been involved with writing and advancing local laws in my state related to animals as well as writing, promoting and opposing laws on the state level. My bill about commercial dog breeding in my state has yet to be filed by my primary sponsor; it is standards-based and makes violations criminal, much like the criminal laws about abuse and neglect. My sponsor tells me he is holding my bill it as a common-sense alternative to a bill which he expects to be both overly ambitious and unenforceable. Time will tell if it is ever filed, but it has been reviewed for the state’s legal team and is ready to roll.
Just this week I was reminded again of the importance of staying on that high road when it comes to interacting with state elected officials. People who advocate for animals are passionate. We cannot lose sight, however, that how we communicate our opinion – and how we behave it we don’t get what we want – are of critical importance. I encourage everyone I know to speak out about proposed state laws that relate to animals. Sometimes bills about animals move so quickly the pubic knows nothing about them before they made laws. The reasons for this relate to money and influence by some large organizations like the AKC, Petland, insurance companies and Big Agriculture, but that’s the subject for another blog. When we communicate with state elected officials about bills, we have to be logical and respectful and we have to know what we’re talking about. To behave otherwise means that our message is lost completely. After having expressed our opinion about bills, we wait for the process to unfold and see what happens. If a bill we support does not pass, it is up to us to try to determine why. It may be that there is a way to promote something better in the future. It may be that the forces opposing the bill are just too strong to be overcome at the present time. If a bill we oppose does pass, it up to us to determine how we behave moving forward. Once a bill becomes a law, there is nothing we can do to turn back the hands of time. Laws are often amended, but that takes time so that circumstances change from the reasons the law was enacted in the first place.
When we yell, scream, threaten or otherwise run around like our hair is on fire related to laws, we lose all credibility and we stifle communication. I sometimes call this behavior Boomerang Aggression. We’re all familiar with the concept of a boomerang – a throwing tool or toy that is designed to spin about an axis perpendicular to the direction of its flight. A returning boomerang is designed to return to the thrower. Boomerang Aggression is when we behave so badly in our communication that we end up silencing our own efforts, having effectively hit ourselves in the head.
A number of animal bills have been filed in my state since the legislative session began in early February. Some are good like House Bill 134 which serves to define the single word, “shelter” in the existing criminal law about abuse and neglect of dogs and cats. This may seem like any easy bill. It is not. It has been opposed by some powerful organizations in past years and likely will be again this year. Nonetheless, animal advocates like me have voiced our support for the bill to the committee considering it and we’ll continue to express ourselves through the process.
One particular bill, Senate Bill 196, was not just terrible. It was downright dangerous. This bill would have put all control of all things animal under the exclusive control of the State Department of Agriculture (which has never dealt with any issues related to dogs and cats), would have nullified local laws already on the books about pet shops (for which I worked hard last year to promote) to open the door for companies like Petland to begin selling more animals in the state, would have put investigation of complaints of abuse and neglect in the hands of the Agriculture Department, would have criminal charged someone who reports animal abuse or neglect if the allegations later prove to be unfounded, and which would make it practically impossible for cities to enact new laws related to animals.
Through some incredibly hard work by a large number of people, to include the Alabama representative for the Humane Society of the United States -Mindy Gilbert- we were able to get SB 196 stalled. After the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture said his department was not consulted on the bill and they were completely unprepared to deal with issues related to dogs and cats, and as a result of many people speaking out against the bill, the primary sponsor agreed to not advance the bill further. This was a huge deal for most of us, but we’re not claiming victory yet. The legislative session doesn’t end until May and anything can happen in the intervening months.
In spite of this small victory, some people in the Birmingham area have failed to do one simple thing: stop talking about Senate Bill 196. The primary sponsor has agreed to not advance the bill. When people continue to call, email and write to the senate sponsors (there are 6) to threaten them, engage in name calling and engage in otherwise aggressive behavior, that does two things. It paints all animal advocates as unreasonable zealots who are incapable of respectful communication and it makes it harder (if not impossible) to have constructive communication with those elected officials in the future.
I have seen this same behavior from the same people before. It has not served them well in the past and it is not serving any of us well now. Those people fail to understand that the very senators they are attacking are the very people from whom they will need cooperation in the future on similar animal law or other animal laws. When you are so aggressive in your communication that the person with whom you are communicating is no longer listening or decides to apply your behavior to others, you are doing terrible harm to the animal welfare movement as a whole.
So. Folks in Birmingham. Please. Stop talking. Let Senate Bill 196 die a quiet death in this legislative session and stop vilifying the very elected officials from whom you will no doubt need cooperation in the future. We can all communicate our position on proposed laws in ways which are logical, effective and respectful. I can’t control your behavior, but you can for the sake of us all, human and animal. If you can’t stop talking, that tells me your focus is not on animal welfare itself but on you as a person. So don’t be surprised if the boomerang comes back and hits you in the head. You will have deserved it. And we may all suffer the consequences of your inability to speak your truth without screaming it.
Thursday, September 26, 2019, marks an annual event called Remember Me Thursday. The website describes this as "a global awareness campaign uniting individuals and pet adoption organizations around the world as an unstoppable, integrated voice for orphan pets to live in forever homes, not die waiting for them." People are asked to light a candle for the animals. If you choose to do so, I applaud you.
But I would like you to go one step further. I want you to be outraged.
In 2012, an elderly man was attacked by two dogs. The owners of the dogs were found to have 33 other dogs chained in their backyard, inside city limits. The dogs were seized and a judge ordered that they be destroyed. People were outraged. These other dogs had done nothing wrong. A staunch animal advocate spoke out for the dogs and argued to the state court judge that the dogs should be spared. The judge changed his mind and almost all of the dogs were saved to be adopted out by rescue groups. The owners of the dogs were convicted of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
In 2014, law enforcement authorities found 85 dogs inside a suburban home. Some were dead but most were alive and were in very poor health. The dogs were living in filth. People were outraged. Those dogs which could be saved were helped by local rescue groups. Only 38 of the dogs survived and the couple who had the dogs pled guilty to animal cruelty charges.
In 2015, a search warrant was executed on rural property owned by a woman who had sought and obtained the county contract for animal control and sheltering. More than 300 animals were found living in filthy, overcrowded conditions. Dead animals were discovered on a daily basis. Some animals were emaciated and many were suffering from medical issues including parvovirus, distemper and untreated wounds. Some of the animals were suffering from such severe medical issues that humane euthanasia was necessary to prevent further suffering. People were outraged. The woman was later criminally charged and convicted of animal cruelty.
In 2016, 122 dogs were seized from a puppy mill by law enforcement authorities. The dogs had been living outside in cages and some had ice in their fur. People were outraged. People lined up to adopt the dogs to try to help and were turned away because the dogs were still being evaluated and ultimately would go to rescue groups for placement.
In 2017, a woman was arrested after more than 100 dogs and cats were found on her property, living in a waste-filled, trash-strewn dilapidated small house. The animals were housed in crates that were stacked on top of each other that were covered in urine and feces. There was no running water on the property and the majority of the animals did not have access to water. There was also no visible traces of food for the animals, most of which were sick and suffering from infections and parasites., and overgrown nails. People were outraged.
In 2018, authorities found 44 dead dogs in plastic bags in a woman’s freezer and more than 160 dogs living in deplorable conditions in and around her home. People were outraged. Officials said the smell of animal feces and ammonia permeated the entire residence, and several first responders actually got nauseous and dizzy because of the odor. Detectives found more than 160 living dogs in the residence. Four of them were in critical condition and had to be taken to an emergency clinic; the rest were evaluated and treated at the scene by animal shelter workers.
Just this month, a woman is facing 12 separate charges of animal abuse, including 10 felonies after investigators discovered several sick and dead dogs on her property. The woman had been operating a rescue group. She was allegedly housing 278 dogs in inhumane conditions in Texas and transporting them to Kansas. Authorities said over half the animals would have to be euthanized. People are outraged.
We hear about and read about stories like this every month. Every year.
In all of these cases, the animals involved were seen as victims. As worthy of our attention, consideration, support and outrage.
Why is it that we do not see shelter animals in the same light? Why are they not equally worthy of our attention, consideration, support and outrage? Most animals destroyed in shelters are healthy and treatable animals who either were, or could have been, someone's companion. The fact that these animals continue to die for no good reason at all is our public shame.
I know that most people don't think about their shelter much even though they are paying for it. You do not see a story on the news every night taking about animals at risk on __________ Place, Street or Boulevard. When you get a bill for your water and garbage service, it does not contain a line item for "dog and cat disposal," but make no mistake: you are paying for the process whether you approve of it or not and while you are (in many places) blamed for the death.
My position is this: those animals in your local shelter are not only worthy of your attention, but their lives are dependent upon it. Yes. Some end up in the shelter due to the irresponsibility of the few. Many, however, are simply lost, victims of circumstance or victims of our poor choices (and about which we can be educated so we make better choices in the future). The animals are never at fault. They do not deserve to be destroyed simply because they end up in a building which should serve as a safety net, a safe haven as they move on to a new future.
Thousands of healthy and treatable animals are destroyed in our shelters each year even though there are proven ways to save them. If this matters to you, say something to those who govern your area. Let them know you want your tax dollars used in other ways to save lives as opposed to ending them.
Shelter animals are, in fact, worth of your outrage. We should all light a candle for them and then get busy working to reform the broken animal sheltering system which no longer reflects our values as a society.
(image of Taylor property courtesy of the Moulton Advertiser)
It’s official. I’ve written a book. I never planned to, but life sometimes takes us down paths we did not expect. This is one of them for me.
In August of 2018, I had a meeting with documentary film maker Anne Taiz about the second of two films she’s working on related to the no kill movement. The first film focuses on San Francisco. It is in final editing now. The second film Anne hopes to make focuses on different places across the country where animal shelter reform has happened. Anne and I met to talk about the work of an advocacy group I lead called No Kill Huntsville which has worked for years to change the culture in the community regarding how the animal shelter functions using tax dollars. At one point in our conversation, Anne paused and said, “you should really write a book.” I scoffed at the time. I think I may even have laughed. A book? Really? Who would read it? Would it really help anyone? I discounted the idea and moved on.
I formed No Kill Huntsville in 2012, when my individual efforts to encourage the city where I work to change (which began in 2008) fell short. I believed I had been easily dismissed advocating on my own and felt that a small coalition of advocates speaking with one voice may be more effective. At the time we began our advocacy, the live release rate at the shelter was 34% which means that two out of every three animals were destroyed. The situation in Huntsville was depressing, infuriating and exasperating. We felt, and still feel, that the city is far too progressive to destroy healthy and treatable animals just because that was what had been done for years.
Fast forward a few years and things have change drastically as a result of our advocacy, members of the public who spoke out and asked for better use of tax dollars and municipal leadership. To say ours was a struggle would be an understatement. We spent years working our issue 7 days a week in the face of a great deal of opposition, much of which came from the rescue community.
After the city began making changes, we began to shift our focus to promoting a Companion Animal Protection Act which we called the Huntsville Animal Protection Act. This is local legislation that sets basic standards for the operation of the animal shelter, codifying the standards so they are maintained regardless of who runs the shelter and who leads the city. We had support for HAPA on the council, but the city decided to revise Chapter 5 of the city code, which governs the subject of animals for the entire city. This means that it covers not just the animal shelter operation, but also laws about licensing, animals running at large, violations, and penalties for those violations.
In October 2018, we learned that the HAPA as we had written it would not be included in the city’s revisions to Chapter 5 of the city code, but that about 80 percent of what we had proposed would be included. One of the provisions we felt most strongly about—the language about the live release rate not falling below 90 percent—did not make the cut. (We had the percentage in the language not as a goal, but as a stop gap measure to prevent the city from ever returning to a time when the vast majority of animals in the shelter died there). We were told that the city did not want to legislate outcomes. We were disappointed, but we knew there was little we could do to change the city’s position. We did not get the HAPA in quite the form we had hoped. What we did get was strong language regarding the city's intent regarding animal welfare and the shelter operation (and assurances that some of the language included in the HAPA would be included in policy revisions rather than being codified as part of the law for the city).
After our work to promote the Huntsville Animal Protection Act was suspended in late 2017, I thought back to how many times we have been contacted by advocates in other parts of the state, other states, and even other countries asking for help. It was then that I decided to write the book, hoping that it would of value to others. Each country, state, and community are different, but some concepts are universal related to the nature of advocacy and the opposition to change.
I do not consider the Huntsville story to be the success story I had hoped for or which we have seen in other places. It took years for change to occur and there is much work to be done by city officials moving forward, particularly to keep more dogs alive. There are a variety of things we have asked the city to do which do not cost anything, or for which there is support on the council for some limited spending, which have yet to be considered. I can only speculate as to why that is, based on our history with some city officials who cannot hear the message from us and can only hear it from other sources.
My book is available on Amazon, thanks to the company’s self-publishing platform. It is priced to print which means no money is being made on the book. Although I initially planned to write to book to help other animal advocates, I included enough information and wrote it in a way that I hope it also helps people who care about animal welfare, but don’t consider themselves advocates. I also hope it is of use to elected officials, animal shelter staff and members of the animal rescue community.
Every community has the potential to be a no kill community. Sometimes it just takes the courage to try something new. And sometimes it just takes a group of people willing to band together and speak out with one voice to say, “enough. We are better than this.”
During my Army days, there was a saying used often which has stuck with me over the years. You may have seen it on a t-shirt. The saying goes, “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” The natural reaction is to think, well, wouldn’t morale improve if the beatings stopped? Of course if would.
I was reminded of this phrase yesterday when an old article about animal rescue was making the rounds on social media for the umpteenth time. It should have been called “you are to blame but please help us rescue now.” The natural reaction, for me, is that if you stop blaming the public, they may help you more and may make better choices. The 2014 article said the following things about animal rescue.
• dog owners tend to have a lot of misconceptions about rescue groups. . .and what their job is in society. Spoiler alert: it’s not to fix your problems.
• It’s not our job to fix your basket case.
• If you decide your dog needs a home, do it yourself; it’s really not our job.
• If you didn’t spay your dog, and now you have [puppies], that’s your problem, not ours.
• You disgust me.
• You thought you were good enough for that dog in the first place, now prove it.
Wow. Tells us how you really feel (yes, that’s sarcasm).
Animal rescue is not for everyone. It is often a thankless, dirty, heart breaking, frustrating and expensive venture. Many rescuers I know work full-time jobs and spend a lot of time and a lot of their own money working incredibly hard to keep animals alive. Some have what I call “life balance.” Their focus is on helping animals, but they fully realize they cannot help all animals and so they do the best with the resources they have. They learn how to say “no” to people politely and then refer people who need help to other rescue groups or organizations which may be able to help them resolve issues they are having. They work hard to help each animal, one at a time, and then go on to help other animals when time and resources allow. Then there are others whom I can only refer to as angry rescuers. They are perpetually angry with the public, whom they view as the enemy. They do not hesitate to vent or rant about the people seeking their help and whom they view as outrageously irresponsible, making the lives of rescuers unreasonalby difficult.
News flash. Problems with companion animals are not animal problems, they are people problems. And whether rescuers like to view their role this way or not, theirs is a customer service based function in our society
I feel confident that most people in animal rescue mean well and entered the rescue field to help animals in need find new homes. But the reality is that you cannot separate the animals in need of help from the people who may seek help unless you do not deal directly with the public and you only remove animals from animal shelters. Yes, there are irresponsible people who should never have companion animals, some of whom behave in ways which are criminal at worst and negligent at best. I genuinely believe, however, that the majority of people who share their lives with dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, snakes, ferrets, hamsters and other companion animals mean well. They may not always make the best decisions, but most of them lack malice. I also believe that most people can be educated to make better decisions about animals if we check our judgment at the door and presume the best of people and not the worst.
Should people get their pets spayed and neutered? Absolutely. When they don’t, that does not mean they hatched some evil plan in the dark of night to keep a pet from being sterilized for the sole purpose of having a litter of puppies or kittens they then need help to place. I can’t count the number of times people have asked me for help to place a litter of animals and when I ask them about spay or neuter of the parent animals, they either say, “I meant to do that but thought I had more time” or “I wanted to do that but my veterinarian wanted hundreds of dollars and I just could not afford it right away.”
Should people make plans to re-home their pets themselves in the case of some life emergency? You bet. When people don’t, that does not mean that they don’t care enough. I believe strongly that we should all have what I call Pet Parents in the event of our death, serious illness or some life tragedy that puts us in a position where we have to re-home our pets because we can no longer care for them. When people do not make plans and they need help, they are not evil or uncaring. It more likely than not means they did not take seriously the possibility that life would change very suddenly and that their family and friends may not be lining up to take their pets and care for them the rest of their lives. They may not have given enough serious consideration to a worst case scenario which may affect us all with no notice.
Should people be prepared to fulfill their lifetime commitment to their pets? Certainly. The reality is that many people expect pets to know how to behave automatically and put little or no effort into decompression or training whether it is house training, walking on a leash, not jumping on people or furniture, etc. Many people also give little regard to the needs of dogs in terms of exercise and mental stimulation which help reduce bad behaviors brought on by boredom. This can lead to people becoming frustrated with pets who do not behave the way they expect and decide they are not worth the time and effort it takes. There are also situations when a person brings an animal into their home, only to encounter a conflict with an existing animal in the home which cannot be resolved even through the very best of efforts. I know some people treat pets as disposable and I know that lots of people need to be more responsible and live up to their commitments. For every person who gives up too easily, there are many more people who would go to the ends of the Earth to help or save their beloved companion animals. It helps to not lose sight of that.
I am not a rescuer. I know how I like to be treated by rescue groups when I need help with some animal I have found; I am asking you to be mindful of the image you present to the public. I do volunteer work for and support rescuers and it is in that vein that I offer the following.
The public is not your enemy. You cannot bash, rant about or otherwise blame the irresponsible public for your frustrations and then expect that same public to adopt animals from you, foster animals for you, volunteer to help you or donate to your rescue. You can’t have it both ways. Recognize privately that some people are awful, but don’t treat us all that way. We have plenty of options when it comes to which organizations we deal with and support. If you are too toxic, we will just put our support toward a more friendly rescue which doesn't view all people in the same negative light.
Learn to say no. You cannot help every animal in need. You cannot help every person who asks for help. If you cannot help someone who has asked you for help, tell them no and refer them to other organizations which may be able to help them. Let it go and move on. If they insist that it is your job to help them, just don’t respond to that type of bullying or pressure.
Consider ways to help people make better choices so the need for you is lessened. Set up a spay/neuter fund to help offset costs of spay/neuter for animals owned by families of limited means. Offer free microchipping periodically to help lost animals get back home. Refer people to pet food resources in your community if they fall on hard times. If an animal is hurt and the family cannot afford the veterinary care, consider paying for the care to help keep the animal in the existing home. You can do targeted fundraising for any of these efforts. Doing so will cause people to see your rescue group as a resource to help not just animals, but to help people in the community overcome obstacles while still keeping pets in existing homes.
Drop the attitude and try to keep your filter in place. As much as you may not like dealing with some people in the public, you have made yourself a public figure by making a decision to rescue animals. It is natural for people to seek your help whether you find them worthy of your time or not. Most have no clue of your existing obligations and have no idea what resources are available to you. Our ties to animals are emotional and when we are desperate, we often don't think clearly or communicate well. Please forgive us our shortcomings. If you hope to preserve your reputation toward getting more public support, be mindful of what you say to people in person, in email messages and on social media. Take the high road even if you are fuming or exasperated internally and then find a way to release your stress other than with your words.
Try to focus on the positive. Every animal you help is a success story. Every family you help is something in which you can take pride. Rescue is really hard work and not everyone can do what you do. It takes passion, commitment, patience and creativity. Focus on the lives you save. Focus on what you know you can do with the resources you have. There’s a lot of bad out there, but there is more good than bad.
Take time for yourself and try to seek balance. Knowing you cannot save every animal and help every person, remember that you cannot help anyone if you do not take care of yourself. Set boundaries, do things just for you periodically and learn how to disconnect when you get so stressed that every ask or every animal causes you anger. To do otherwise means you may ultimately flame out and not just walk away from rescue, but run from it. If you have not been out to dinner, seen a movie or read a book in the last six months, it's time for a break. No one wants you to be so incredibly unhappy that it affects your mental health or your own personal well-being. The suicide rate in the rescue community is higher than some may imagine. If you find yourself feeling so overwhelmed and hopeless that you are tempted to give up not just on rescue, but on yourself, please step away from rescue and seek help.
Nobody likes an angry rescuer. Please don’t be that person who helps animals, but who hates people
When I became a no kill animal shelter advocate over 10 years ago, you could count the number of no kill communities in the country on two hands. I’m talking about places where all healthy and treatable animals make it out of the municipal and non-profit animal shelters alive in a geographic area.
There were plenty of individual no kill shelters across the country, most of which were operated by non-profit organizations which were able to keep all healthy and treatable animals alive by limiting admission. It is easy to say you are no kill when you can also say, “we are not taking more animals because we are full.” Animal shelters operated by municipalities or funded by tax dollars do not have the luxury of limiting admission; they are required to take in animals running at large and exist primarily to serve a public safety function. This means that no kill communities were harder to come by.
Times have changed. The number of no kill communities has gone from a handful of locations to hundreds of places across the country. This change has been driven in large part by the no kill movement. We call a movement because it is just that – it is a social movement which is sweeping across the country and which is fueled (at least from my perspective) primarily by advocates in the weeds of animal advocacy who are stepping up and speaking out to bring change to their communities. Some of these people are shelter directors who are taking formerly regressive animal shelters to new places and some of these people are common citizens who are saying, “enough. We are better than this.” No Kill communities are now found across the country from coast to coast in places with very little in common other than a desire to save the lives of shelter animals.
In the decade I have been advocating for animal shelter reform in the city where I work, I have heard countless times that no kill sheltering is not possible. A shelter volunteer told me in a recent email exchange that I was “living in a fantasy world” if I thought my local animal shelter could save all healthy and treatable animals. She also said that I was doing a disservice to the animals by using the phrase no kill because I was causing people to falsely believe that all animals in the shelter would make it out alive. What she may not understand is that it is the position of the shelter leadership that no healthy and treatable animals have been destroyed in more than four years. Call me delusional. Fault me for using the phrase no kill all you want. It will not change the fact that my local shelter - and so many other shelters across the country - are saving almost every animal entering the system, proving every day that the no kill model works with commitment to a culture of life-saving.
One of the most progressive – if not the most progressive – animal shelters in the country is the Humane Society of Fremont County located in Canon City, Colorado. The HSFC is an open admission animal shelter which serves seven municipalities in Fremont and Custer counties in Colorado, providing both animal control and animal shelter functions.
Although the shelter is considered a shining example of no kill philosophies now, things were not always so positive. The organization came under fire in 2013 after complaints filed by former shelter volunteers and a previous employee resulted in two separate state investigations. The Colorado Department of Agriculture, the state agency in charge of regulating animal shelters, cited the Humane Society in Fremont County in June and July 2013 for poor record keeping, for animals being euthanized incorrectly and for lost pets being put down before their owners were given a chance to reclaim them.
All that changed on September 24, 2014, when Doug Rae was hired to be the new shelter director following a national search. Doug had previously managed shelters in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Maryland and Phoenix and had most recently served as the executive director of the Animal Rescue League of Southern Rhode Island. Doug changed the culture of the shelter on his first day on the job. During his first two weeks he met with dozens of residents, business owners and elected officials. He had one-on-one meetings with every employee and met with past and present volunteers. As Doug wrote in a guest column which appeared in the Daily Record:
“I heard sadness, disappointment, hatred and rage. Some folks were brought to tears. Tears for the animals. Though many offered me reasons why the shelter was where it was back then, by the end of our talks, those excuses were now in the rearview mirror never to be heard from again. Instead, we quickly came together and just did it. Well, that's not entirely accurate. Some people not able to embrace the new changes were escorted off the bus at the next stop.”
Doug described the change in the shelter as like walking in a flipping a light switch. A shelter which had previously destroyed approximately 50 percent of the animals stopped doing that on the day Doug took over as the director. In his three months, the shelter saved 96 percent of all the animals that came into the building. That number has risen over the last four years.
In October 2017, the shelter received the Henry Bergh Achievement Award from the No Kill Advocacy Center and received a proclamation certificate from the President of the Colorado State Senate. Both awards are proudly displayed in the lobby of the shelter.
In February of 2018, I approached Doug about doing a video project to highlight the wonderful work being done at his facility. I had hopes of legally clearing a song from a wonderful talent whom I had never worked with before. We got the news in June that we were legally cleared to use “The Other Road” from David Hodges’ CD “The December Sessions, Volume 4.” I was thrilled. It took months for the project to come together, but we were able to finish it recently.
Now that the video work is completed, Doug was gracious enough to participate in a Q&A about his facility and about his philosophies.
Q: How long have you managed the Humane Society of Fremont County and what can you tell us about your work background that prepared you for the job?
A: My first job in animal sheltering was as the Shelter Operations Manager for Maricopa County Animal Care & Control. Back then (2003), this agency took in 62,000 animals a year spread out over three shelters, two locations which I managed. I was in Phoenix for three years.
I then moved on to become the Director of Operations at the open admission Harford County Humane Society taking in 6,000 animals a year. This was the first job I was able to have a direct and significant effect on the save rate, since I had the full support of the Executive Director to make any changes that I wanted too. We saved upwards of 97% of the animals. During my time at Harford Humane I was being recruited for jobs across the Country, one in particular, a #2 job in Philadelphia. I refused this job twice but the third request came from Nathan Winograd who asked me to do it “for the movement.”
I accepted Nathan’s proposal and became the Chief Operating Officer for Philadelphia Animal Care & Control, taking in 30,000 animals a year. I was only in Philly for about 1 ½ years before we lost the contract to the Philadelphia SPCA after the PACCA Board voted to not put a bid in for the 2009 contract. The highest we got the Philly save rate was a disappointing 78%. As the # 2 in command reporting to the CEO, I take full responsibility for not achieving a higher save rate. But I do wish I had complete control of the Philly agency to do everything that I wanted to do. Our contact with the City expired December 31, 2008.
In January 2009 I was named the Executive Director for Indianapolis Animal Care & Control. An agency taking in 18,000 animals a year. Between battling the Union President and a City County Councilor that proposed a City-wide BSL banning Pits [pit bull type dogs] from Indianapolis, a proposal which I publicly would not support, I knew that my time in Indy was at best, limited. Especially after my boss, the Director of Public Safety for the City agreed with me to not publicly support the BSL proposal. But even through the many political battles, my boss supported everything that I was doing, supported my decisions, and battled the Union and the City Councilors along side of me. As soon as my boss resigned due to Parkinson’s disease, his acting replacement (a good friend of the Union President and the BSL councilor) told me to start looking for a job. I refused to resign and instead I was fired in a very public way.
I then took a Director job at a shelter in Rhode Island to be close to my ailing mom; who would pass in February 9, 2012. This was the first shelter that was not open admission and the first shelter that I hated working in. After many disagreements with two Board member, I left the agency. I would leave animal welfare due to politics that had nothing to do with saving lives or the animals. Instead, the politics had everything to do with massaging the human ego. Whether it was an elected official, a Union President, a Board member, or others, I had enough. So I turned my back on animal sheltering and went back to retail for almost one year. But I missed working for the animals. And although my wife was adamant that I not take another job in animal welfare, after much discussion, Lynn agreed that I could accept another sheltering job, but only if she was close to family in Colorado.
I would soon learn about the Fremont Humane Director opening in COI quickly applied. When a Board member said to me during a face-to-face interview, “Doug you have no idea what the new Director is walking into here.” I simply replied, “Respectfully, I know exactly what the Director is walking into and I know exactly what they need to do.”
One last thing, and this is a story in itself, my background prior to entering animal sheltering in 2003 was in retail. I was a National Sales Director for the largest Specialty retailer in the nation and I was a Regional Sales Director for the largest Nutrition Supplement company in the nation.
Q: What do you think the most important qualities are in shelter leadership to achieve the no kill model?
A: Transparency. An animal shelter Director must be 100% honest in everything that he or she does. And I mean everything.
Secondly. A Shelter Director must embrace a quality that puts animals first and treats them as individuals. In other words, the 3 week-old kitten is just as important as the 15 year old lab. The 6 year-old Pitty that people walk past day after day is just as important as the highly adoptable purebred Maltese. The moment someone justifies killing based on reckless opinions, (such as, nobody ever looks at that 6 yr-old Pitty, and because we need space we should put him down because he has had his chance) is the time for that Director to be relieved of his or her duties.
Many Board members have little idea how to manage a shelter, what is involved in making life and death decisions, and how to correctly administer shelter finances. I have seen this first hand and I hear it quite frequently from other non-profit Directors. Having worked with some bat-shit crazy Board members over the years, and not that I’m planning on leaving Fremont Humane, but I would never accept a Director position in an animal shelter unless the Board grants me 100% control over day-to-day operations as the Fremont Humane Board did for me during our job interview.
One reason why Fremont Humane achieved No-Kill over-night is because the Board allowed me do the job they hired me to do. Too many Board members hire a Shelter Director and then say, “here’s how we want you to do and here’s how we want you to do it.” That is just plain wrong. I read a blog that goes against everything that I just said, saying how the Board (and not the Director) should get the credit for a successful animal shelter. I can’t disagree any more with that articles premise.
I know for a fact that I made a Fremont Humane Board member nervous during my interviews; especially when I asked for day-to-day operational control. It’s not easy for a Board to give up control like my current Board did, but Board’s that want 100% control end up micro-managing their director (and the agency) straight into the ground. And not just in animal welfare. I see Boards destroy other non-profits as well.
Q: What are some of the most difficult challenges in managing a No Kill animal shelter?
A: Fremont Humane receives 2 ½ times the national average for animal intakes and in 2014 our combined per capita was all of $1.07, while the national per capita average is $5.85. One would think that with these two challenges facing you daily, achieving No-Kill would be difficult if not impossible. Well my team proved the naysayers wrong. In our first three months we saved 97% of the animals. In our first year 94%, year two 96%, year 3 99% and last year we saved 96% of 100% of the animals.
So any challenge outside of two above is negligible and certainly nothing that could ever get in the way of s shelter achieving No Kill status. Oh sure, there are several challenges a No-Kill shelter faces daily, but none that would ever justify killing an animal. When one of my managers comes to me and starts with, “Doug we have a problem.” I almost always say, “No we don’t…”
Q: You’ve had tremendous success keeping animals alive who would have been destroyed in other shelters, particularly dogs who are stressed, anxious or afraid. How do you go about gaining the trust of those dogs and ensuring they do not degrade while in a shelter environment?
A: Less than 1/4 of 1% of the dogs that arrived at Fremont Humane over the last 4 years are simply scared. Sure, they may act all sorts of aggressive, but they are scared, plain and simple. Even in an open admission shelter, these types of animals can and should be saved. So while receiving 2 ½ times the national average for intakes, in a shelter that is far too small for our area, and being $4.78 per person below the national average per capita funding level, if Fremont Humane can achieve No-Kill, anyone can.
Gaining a dogs trust takes time. Sometimes it just happens, other times it can take weeks, maybe months. Like Louie, a dog that lived in my office for a few months and that didn’t trust a soul. But one day when lying on the floor of my office close to Louie, Louie had a break-through. Louie would soon be adopted. As was Amber and Sugar and so many other dogs that would have been killed on intake in some shelters, but instead they made it to my office where I worked with them at the shelter or in my house
Identifying a shelter dog that requires space, and providing that the dog space that he or she needs, whether it be two days or two weeks or two months, is the most important thing we can offer a dog in an animal shelter. My kennel staff does this on a daily basis. I can’t ask for a better kennel staff than I currently have. The reason we are able to save so many “scared’ dogs? My kennel staff and what they do for these types of dogs.
When I started at Fremont Humane past kennel staff was always getting bit. Not anymore. I don’t recall the last time a staffer was bitten by a dog in the kennels.
Q: What would you say to other shelter directors or to animal shelter staff who are struggling to overcome challenges in order to keep more animals alive?
A: Reach out to the community. The same community that Directors blame for the animals coming in their front door, the same community that Directors scold because the shelter “has to kill animals,” that community. And then reach out to rescues. Reach out to sister shelters. Reach out to everyone and anyone you think can help.
And then reach down deep and ask yourself, why the hell are you are doing what you do? If you don’t have a good answer, then it’s time to find a new job. If you say you are in this line of work to save lives, but you are killing animals, then call someone that is saving lives and ask for their help. Way back in my first shelter I didn’t have all of the answers, but I did question everything happening around me. Why are we doing that? What’s the reason for this policy? Why would you want to kill that dog? I made a lot of enemies with my mouth in the early days, but it put people on notice.
If you sit at your shelter desk and magically think everything will be okay just because you want to save lives, think again. Working animal sheltering is not rocket science, but it’s also not stress-free. Saving lives means many things to many people. To me, it means treating all animals as individuals and doing right by each and every animal that comes into your shelter.
The naysayers can nay and say all they want. The truth is that no kill sheltering isn’t just possible. It is a higher calling and it is happening all around us in places like Fremont County, Colorado. The public did not change and suddenly become more responsible. The number of animals in the community did not change. What changed was the shelter leadership, making all the difference in the world to the community, the shelter employees and the animals in the facility.
A time will come when all animal shelters are no kill facilities. How long it takes us to get to that point in our society is up to all of us.
We hope you enjoy the video. Huge thanks to Grammy award winning artist, writer and producer David Hodges and the management team at Milk & Honey Music (Lucas Keller and Nic Warner) for allowing us to use this wonderful song from Volume 4 of the December Sessions (available on Amazon, iTunes and Spotify.)
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