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?
It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I don’t get along with the veterinarian who runs the municipal animal shelter in the city where I work. We come from different worlds and our history is just too rocky for us to recover. She likely doesn’t know it, but I became an animal welfare advocate as a result of a conversation I had with her in the summer of 2006. Her words led me to an epiphany about what happens to healthy and treatable animals in the shelter using our tax dollars. I got mad, I got smart and then I decided to speak out for the animals who cannot speak for themselves. We first met in person on January 22, 2009, after I wrote a letter to the newly elected mayor about no kill philosophies and he asked to meet to talk about the letter. The shelter director was outside the mayor’s office when I arrived for the meeting. She told me that she had read the copy of Nathan Winograd’s book about the no kill movement which I had sent to the mayor (“Redemption: They Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America") and that it upset her so badly that she almost quit her job. I was tempted at the time to offer to help her pack her things, but I bit my tongue and tried to play well with others.
In August of 2009, when the shelter director and I were still on speaking terms (at least to a degree) she asked me to write a white paper about adoption of pit bull type dogs. She said she was having issues with the attitudes of some of her staff related to adopting out these dogs and she needed some help convincing city hall to help her overcome what I understood was a de facto pit bull ban. The city doesn’t have an actual breed ban, but any dog entering the shelter which looked even a little like a pit bull type dog was destroyed.
I knew in my heart that she really didn’t care much about using a white paper to change her operation. Looking back, I think it was a way to keep me from being too critical of her operational choices while challenging me to give some proof or evidence that pit bull type dogs were worthy of redemption and should be spared. Because I felt like the paper would be of more use outside of my area than here, I began my research with the plan to make the paper of value to anyone, anywhere. Dog lovers, pit bull type dog advocates, opponents of Breed Discriminatory Legislation (BDL) or Breed Specific Legislation (BSL). I was not qualified to write a white paper. But I work in the legal field and I am familiar with how to do research and compile evidence, so I felt I could do a decent job of putting together something which may be of some value to someone.
I finished my first version of “Forsaken No More: Reclaiming the Truth to Save Man’s Best Friend” in September of 2009 and I felt pretty good about it. I had learned a lot in the course of doing my research and I had connected with one of the foremost authorities on my topic, Karen Delise of the National Canine Research Council. I sent copies of my paper to the shelter director and shared it with contacts across the country. The original version was posted to the Animal Law Coalition website and is still there to this day.
In early January of 2014, I was watching a local morning news program and heard the shelter director’s voice. Between the time I had finished my paper and that morning, a lot had happened in my life and in the community. The most relevant thing for the sake of this story is that I had formed a no kill advocacy coalition to take the topic of how our shelter runs to the public in order to get their support to stop the killing of healthy and treatable animals in our shelter. No Kill Huntsville had been rocking the community boat for change for a couple of years by then and people were starting to listen. The news segment was an interview of the shelter director to ask her opinion on the possibility of ours becoming a no kill community (a place where healthy and treatable pets are not destroyed for space). When she began talking about how many problems she was having adopting out pit bull type dogs, I got mad. From what I could deduce, nothing had changed in the way these dogs were handled and there had been no obvious public education programs developed to overcome stereotypes. I decided to channel that anger into a revised version of my research paper.
The 2014 version of Forsaken No More is found at this link. Because some of my citation links are no longer valid, the research to which I cite is located here. The topic of how we treat pit bull type dogs in our country and in other countries continues to evolve with each passing month so it is unlikely that I will work to update the paper repeatedly. I stand by the content and I think it is as relevant today as it was when I did my rewrite two years ago. I had my draft reviewed by Karen Delise to seek her input and I am grateful that she took the time to help me again.
Whether you are a dog lover, a rescuer, an animal welfare advocate, a public official or just someone who doesn’t like the idea that perfectly good dogs are destroyed using your tax dollars, you are welcome to read my paper and use it in any way which helps you. I am certainly not an authority on this topic. But I think if we are ever to bring an end to the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in places we call shelters, we need to educate ourselves enough to understand why they are being killed with our money and we need to see past the hype which leads to the destruction of dogs which have served us long and well as a culture.
Healthy and treatable pit bull type dogs continue to be destroyed in the shelter in the city where I work for space, for convenience and because the public has been bamboozled into believing the hype about these dogs which is not based in fact. I am powerless to do anything to stop that in my shelter or in yours. But perhaps we can save these dogs by making ourselves smarter and then making better choices so that their destruction is not some foregone conclusion. And we can work to fight junk legislation around the globe which spreads like a cancer and which does nothing to keep the public safe.
(images courtesy of Melissa Rickman and Joshua Grenell)
Helping Man’s Best Friend
There was a time about a decade ago when I considered myself pretty well informed about animal issues simply because I grew up in an animal friendly household and I just like animals. Looking back now, I just didn’t have a clue. Yes, I meant well, but I really was completely out of touch with most of the issues which now take up a lot of space in my head and about which I find myself thinking. A lot.
One of those issues relates to pit bull-type dogs and something called either breed discriminatory legislation (BDL) or breed specific legislation (BSL). I really didn’t have much awareness on this subject until long after the Vick debacle related to his arrest and which led to the 2007 relocation of 47 of the 49 dogs seized from his property (one dog was destroyed early in the process and another was later destroyed for medical reasons). I knew the dogs had been treated in ways most of us simply cannot imagine and they all deserved a second chance. But I really didn’t get into the topic of pit bull-type dogs and legislation issues related to breed until the summer of 2009 when I was asked by my local shelter director to write a “white paper” advocating adoption of “pit bulls” from her shelter. She told me she wanted the paper so she could use it to persuade some of her old guard employees that these dogs were not inherently bad and to convince some folks at city hall that she should not have what then was essentially a de facto ban on these dogs in her building, leading to their destruction. I told her I was not qualified to write a white paper, but that I would be happy to prepare a research paper if it would help her and would save the lives of dogs.
I think I knew even the she would never use the paper and so I wrote it to be of use pretty much everywhere, in hopes that someone would get some use out of it. It took me weeks to research and write and when I first shared it in September of 2009, I felt good about it. I had learned things along the way I just did not realize before and developed a great contact in the process through my interaction with Karen Delise, the founder of the National Canine Research Council. The paper got passed around a bit, ended up on the Animal Law Coalition website, and the feedback was generally positive. When I saw my shelter director being interviewed by a local news anchor years later (in late 2012), lamenting the fact that she had so many “pit bulls” she simply had trouble placing, I’ll admit it made me angry. Yes, I just wrote a paper. Yes, it was just research. But had she been genuinely interested in advocating for these dogs and helping to educate those around her on how great they are, all she had to do was read my paper and develop a plan of her own on how to use it. I decided to channel my anger into action and I revised my research paper in February of 2014. Some of the end links no longer work, but I stand by my research all of which is found here.
When you put the media hype aside and you take a real look not only at the breeds of dogs we all call “pit bulls,” but at the research regarding factors which cause fatal dog attacks, the reality is that these dogs are no different than any other dogs. All dogs have teeth. All dogs bite. How we treat dogs, objectify dogs, use dogs, whether we spay and neuter dogs and whether we neglect or abuse dogs all play a role in their behavior. I am a huge proponent of breed blind legislation and I firmly believe that all dogs should be treated as individuals. I’m fine with legislation which is focused on public safety, but which is completely silent regarding dog breed. Some dogs really are dangerous. Some dogs are just broken, for lack of a better word, and should not be around people. But to take entire breeds of dogs – or worse yet – perceived breeds of dogs and try to legislate them is not only unconstitutional, but it is entirely ineffective.
I was on Facebook today and two items in my news feed stood in stark contrast to each other and served as a reminder that legislating dogs by breed simply does not work and is just wrong.
If you really care about dogs or just about how municipalities spend your money in the name of public safety and through use of police power, please educate yourself about the history of the types of dogs we call “pit bulls” and about the real reasons behind dog aggression. The best way for you to help man's best friend is to be an informed animal lover or animal advocate. If the whole subject is a bit too overwhelming for you and you need a place to start, well, my research paper may just help you.
The Puzzle Pieces of Animal Welfare
I cover a number of subjects on my web site: puppy mills, breed bans, aggression in dogs, chaining, spay and neuter. I chose each of the topics on the site because they are all related in some way to the subject of what takes place in our animal shelters using our money. If you are not currently aware of what is taking place in a "shelter" near you in your name and using your tax dollars, I am here to burst the bubble of your ignorance, I'm afraid. Unless you live in what is called a no kill community (a place where tax dollars are not used to destroy healthy and treatable animals), your shelter is likely destroying the vast majority of animals and is blaming you for being "forced" to do so. Animals enter the building, some are adopted out and the rest are destroyed, having been given no individual consideration at all.
I cover each of the subjects I have on my website because they all related to shelter killing in some way. Puppy mills lead to deaths of dogs in shelters because mills produce countless dogs each year (due to our demand), infusing more dogs into the system than we need. Failure to use a process called Trap-Neuter-Return to reduce populations of free roaming (or "community" cats) causes many of them to be trapped and taken to our shelters where most are summarily destroyed (when they do not belong in our shelters any more than does a squirrel.) When we don't spay and neuter our pets, we create population problems in our communities and animals which should not have been born in the first place end up in the shelter system. Because shelters kill animals, many people believe those animals are somehow damaged and so they choose to get pets from other sources like the internet, the newspaper or even worse, a Walmart parking lot. I could go on, but you probably get the point.
I am incredibly harsh in my criticism of the animal sheltering system in America. I'm pretty much zero tolerance on this subject because I know there are proven programs which are being used across the country to save animals which end up in our shelters. There is just no good reason for them to die. I think it is entirely hypocritical to call ourselves an animal-friendly country while we destroy savable dogs and cats behind closed doors. It is our public shame. And it is up to us to stop it. We do so by making better personal choices but also by speaking up to demand that our money be used not to end lives but to save them.
Do you know what's happening at your local animal shelter? Ask.
Do you know how your choices affect what takes place in your community? Think about it.
image courtesy of Peace and Paws Rescue
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