Like a lot of other people who deal with animal welfare and animal shelter advocacy, I was thrilled to learn that the Biden family would bring a rescued dog to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Major Biden was adopted from the Delaware Humane Association following the Bidens having fostered him as a puppy who came from a litter of dogs who were sick. That was three years ago. Major is now a stunning dog and pal to Champ, the Biden’s older dog they have had since 2008.
Also like a lot of other people who run in my circles, I was not particularly surprised when I heard there had been a couple of “biting incidents” with Major and members of the White House staff. I feel confident both the Biden’s dogs have been around a lot of people during the course of their lives. The change in location and the sheer volume of new people in new situations would be a lot for any dog to handle and sets the stage for some degree of conflict and adjustment. I can’t imagine how my own dogs would behave if they were thrust into a new environment, surrounded by dozens of people they had never met before (some of whom may know little about dogs) and subjected to almost constant stimulation. We learned yesterday that Major will undergo some additional training to help him adjust to life in the White House.
A contact of mine posted a question on her social media account a couple of weeks back, asking what the Bidens should do. I suggested they should do what all families with dogs should do – learn about dog bite prevention and educate those around them about dog bite prevention. I went on to opine that this week – which is Dog Bite Prevention Week – would be a prefect opportunity to do that. Training Major is a wonderful idea that likely should have been considered sooner. Training the people who interact with him is equally important in my book if not more important. We have so many dogs in our country, that most of us presume people understand dog behavior and body language. That’s just not true.
As renowned researcher Karen Delise wrote many years ago in The Pit Pull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression, all dogs have teeth. All dogs bite. “They bite other animals, they bite each other and they bite humans.” More than half of American households includes at least one dog. This means millions of people are in daily contact with dogs, even if we include only the members of the dogs' own households. But how many people have really educated themselves on dog body language and how to remain safe around dogs? Not nearly enough. Dogs are surrendered to shelters every day for some type of bite incident, many of whom are destroyed. We hear that the incidents were “unprovoked” or “came out of nowhere.” While there are certainly times when that is true because the dog has some cognitive issue, most of these incidents were both foreseeable and preventable. The groups of people most commonly involved in dog bite incidents are children and the elderly. How many any times have you seen a picture of a child with their arms wrapped tightly around the neck of a dog or even laying on top of a dog? Some people find these images cute; I see them as disasters waiting to happen.
Dogs bite for a variety of reasons. As the American Veterinary Medical Association states on its website, a dog bite is most commonly a reaction to something. “If the dog finds itself in a stressful situation, it may bite to defend itself or its territory. Dogs can bite because they are scared or have been startled. They can bite because they feel threatened. They can bite to protect something that is valuable to them, like their puppies, their food or a toy.” Dogs also bite when they don’t feel well and they just want to be left alone. Dogs also bite during play, something most of us have experienced.
During Dog Bite Prevention Week, please take time to educate yourself and your family about how to prevent dog bites. If you having issues with your own dog, please don't hesitate to get help; the issue will not go away with time and will only get worse. Consult with your veterinarian to see if there is some medical reason for your dog's behavior. Also consult with a trainer or behaviorist to resolve your issues. People don't like to hear it, but there are many times when the issue is not with the dog but with the people who care for the dog. The training may need to be more for you than it is for your canine companion. If you have an issue with your dog in your home and take your dog to a shelter, the odds are against your dog being adopted. Do all you can to resolve your issues in your own home so lack of action does not lead to the death of your dog.
There is a lot of great information on the internet on this subject so I won't restate it here. The sites I think have the best information are the following:
American Veterinary Medical Association: Dog Bite Prevention
ASPCA: Dog Bite Prevention
The Spruce Pets: How to Stop Your Dog From Biting
Positively Victoria Stillwell: Dog Bite Prevention
If you’re up for something more in-depth, I encourage you to look into the materials on the website for the National Canine Research Council. I relied heavily on materials from the NCRC when I wrote my research paper about adoption of pit bull-type dogs years ago and was thankful Karen Delise reviewed it for me.
The Family Dog also has some great videos on their Youtube channel about children and dogs. One of my favorites is “I Speak Doggie.”
Back to the Biden family, I hope steps will be taken not just to “train” Major Biden, but to educate the people around him who will interact with him. I am sure Major was trying to communicate with the people around him when the incidents happened. We all need to know how dogs communicate to keep all of us safe.
After we lost Aspy to cancer in 2016, my sister got me a memorial bracelet made out of white magnesite beads. It has a pawprint bead and a silver heart bead. I wore it all the time as a way to deal with my grief and keep Aspy close to me in spirit. That may not make much sense if you have not lost a beloved pet; it just helped me to have something with me to represent our bond. Our loss of him was tragic and not at all on the terms we had hoped for. I wore the bracelet so much that the stretch cord finally got a little loose so I decided to fix it. It turned out to be pretty simple, just some stretch cord and some craft glue. Which led to my thought that went something like, "hey. I could make these." And so I do. I have my own selection of what I call Rescue Bracelets I wear often. I make them for friends and for people I know who have suffered a loss similar to ours.
I began doing small fundraisers to benefit shelters and nonprofit organizations a few years ago. None are big money makers or game changers; they are just a way to bring attention to small groups and keep them in the public eye while helping with marketing through the sale of items. A lot of people like to help an organization and having something to show for having done so. I originally focused on t-shirt fundraisers with Bonfire because they are easy to manage, Bonfire makes great shirts and the production is based in the United States (Virginia). My other go-to events now are the shirt campaigns and Rescue Bracelet Facebook auctions to benefit nonprofits. Beading is a creative outlet that is cathartic for me.
If you'd like to support the current bracelet fundraiser to benefit House of Little Dogs, Inc., the photo album for the Facebook auction is here. Bidding ends on Sunday, March 21, 2021, at 5:00 p.m. central time. Any amount you pay over the value of your purchase is tax-deductible (although you need to keep your receipt for your tax purposes). To learn more about the wonderful work done at House of Little Dogs, please visit the website. They do wonderful work helping small dogs with medical and behavioral issues, most of whom come from animal shelters where they would otherwise be destroyed.
Our video about House of Little Dogs (thanks to David Hodges, Jason Mraz, Lucas Keller at Milk & Honey and Terra Simon at Kobalt Music) is below. Enjoy.
If you lead or volunteer for a shelter or nonprofit organization, I highly recommend both Bonfire shirt drives and some form of auction on Facebook or another platform. Shirts and bracelets are both wearable conversation starters without having to say a word.
Something remarkable happened this week in the midst of the unprecedented times in which we live due to the pandemic, political unrest, social injustice and much uncertainty: a shelter dog moved into the White House. I realize this is not particularly important to many people who are struggling and perhaps it should not be. As I find my way through this time with my family, I admit that I am always looking for the positive. For something to remind me that normal life is still going on in some ways and that there is good in the world.
The fact that “Major” Biden now lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue may not seem like a big deal to many people. There have been animals in the White House before. The reason this is so important is because of the message it sends to the public. That animals rescued from animal shelters are beloved family members who enrich our lives in so very many ways. That they are worthy of our time and our attention. That they are individuals like all of us who have the capacity for love and joy and humor if only given the chance.
I know that not everyone gets their pets from shelters and rescue groups. I just wish that they would. As long as we have animals who are destroyed in our nation’s shelters using our money, shouldn’t that be the first place we look when we decide to bring a new companion animal into our lives? I would like to think so. I feel this way because I was raised with animals who were rescued or came from shelters. For me, it’s just the right and ethical thing to do. But that’s not all there is to my position. We consider ours an animal friendly country where we “root for the underdog.” I don’t think we can claim that moral high ground as long as we continue to allow breeding of millions of animals every year, often in operations that are criminal, while at the same time destroying millions of animals a year. Our actions should speak as loudly as our words if not more loudly.
I would also like to think that outdated and unnecessary act of destroying healthy and treatable animals in our nation’s shelters will end during my lifetime. I know that some people will never get a companion animal from any source other than a breeder. I can live with that, provided we find a way to apply standards to commercial breeding operations for the safety of the public and the welfare of the animals bred there. And provided we stop producing them by the millions only to destroy them by the millions. Sales of dogs and cats in stores must end. It may have been the norm decades ago, but attitudes have changed about companion animals in our culture. Time will tell whether that happens because people no longer buy dogs and cats in stores – realizing that they are perpetuating the animal abuse and neglect we all abhor - or whether that happens because it is no longer profitable to mass produce dogs and cats for transport and sale nationally because of standards which are not only written but which are enforced.
When I was in the Army, there was a phrase used regularly within the ranks and up and down the chain of command: lead by example. In this case, the Biden family is leading by example. They are demonstrating their values through their behavior. My hope is that people will see that behavior and perhaps reconsider their own behavior the next time they decide to bring a companion animal home. There are plenty of animals in need of homes across our country who are easily found at local animal shelters, with local rescue groups, or using websites like Petfinder or Adopt-A-Pet.
Welcome to the White House, Major. Take good care of your friend, Champ, and take care of the rest of your family. They need you.
(photos of Major at the shelter courtesy of the Delaware Humane Association; photos of Major and Champ at the White House courtesy of the White House).
I’ve never really understood the concept of buying a pet from a breeder through a website. I guess part of that is because I promote adoption of animals from shelters and rescue groups as a first option. To me, it just seems like the right thing to do on a personal level and from a point of being responsible. As a nation, we continue to destroy healthy and treatable animals in our shelters using tax-dollars even though we have more than enough homes for all of them. These are animals who either were, our could have been, someone’s beloved pet. I see it as our collective responsibility to stop the needless death from happening through adoption as a first option.
I fully recognize that some people will never adopt from a shelter or a rescue group and insist on getting a pet from a breeder. But from a website? Really?
Online shopping is a great resource in many ways. Even prior to the pandemic, more and more people turned to their electronic devices to shop that ever before because it's easy and convenient. The pandemic has supercharged a transition away from brick and mortar shopping to online sales which have soared as people do all they can to keep themselves and their families safe while limiting (or completely ending) in-store purchases. I've heard some experts say the retail industry as we have known it is forever changed and there is likely no going back. But a pet? It just seems sordid to me. Online shopping for things is great. Online shopping for a living, breathing, sentient creature who will be part of your life for at least a decade and maybe two is just not right in my book. I know people do it all the time for a host of reasons and it may relate back to that easy and convenient mindset. They’re looking for a companion animal, find a website (or a bunch of websites) that look polished on which images of cute puppies or kittens are just too hard to resist and read that the animal comes fully vetted and with a health guarantee. What could possibly go wrong? Everything.
Many animal advocates are quick to preach, “don’t breed or buy while shelter dogs die.” That’s a nice idea in theory, but it doesn’t work in reality, at least at this time in our society. There will always be people who want to get a pet from a breeder and since breeding animals is legal, there is nothing to be done to stop it. Some breeders breed dogs specifically to be placed in service industries. Others breed dogs to perform law enforcement functions. Some breeders make big money from breeding animals; I’ve seen some puppies who cost thousands of dollars. Some breeders make hardly any money at all and do it for the love of the species or love of the breed. I know there are breeders who function responsibly, who care deeply for their animals, who provide their animals with all they need – veterinary care, exercise, socialization and even training – and who work hard to place animals in great homes, insisting the animal be returned to them if something goes wrong.
Then there are the other breeders. The people who insist they meet you in a Walmart parking lot or never even meet you at all. The people who will not let you see the conditions in which the animals are bred, coming up with any variety of excuses as to why you can’t see the location for yourself to judge how the breeder dogs are cared for. It is this group of people who ordinarily broker their animals to stores to be sold to the public in a retail setting or who develop inviting looking websites with wonderful images and testimonials to lure you into the sale. I’ve seen numerous sites like this over the years and am always amazed at how much the animals cost and the process used to buy one. Some require a nonrefundable deposit before you meet the animal. Some want full payment before a dog is shipped to you. I’ve often wished there was some “truth in advertising” requirement for online sale of pets so photos of the conditions in which the dogs live are posted next to the photo of the cute animal, cuddled up next to a teddy bear. Maybe that would cause people to be repulsed enough to reconsider their decision.
Which leads to the point of this blog. Pet scams are now more prevalent than at any time in history as people spend more time at home or spend more time separated from people and are looking for companionship. I heard a few months ago that the pandemic has led to a sharp rise in complaints about pet scams. I was reminded of this again today when I heard about a heartbreaking story on CBS This Morning about a woman whose young daughter had died and who decided to buy a dog from a website in her daughter’s honor (her daughter always wanted a puppy), only to be scammed out of the money she paid for the dog. This led me to look at the Better Business Bureau News page about “puppy scams” which have soared during the pandemic. The numbers are astounding. The BBB reports that the biggest increase in online shopping fraud is pet scams which have more than tripled from last year. They make up 24% of online scams reported to the BBB and are now considered the riskiest scam according to the BBB Risk Index. Of the people targeted by the scam, 70% end up losing money with the typical amount lost of $700. And, of course, the BBB reports that not only are these the riskiest of scams, they are also one of the most heart-breaking. The BBB news story states:
Some families turned to the internet to look for a pet, thinking a pandemic puppy or kitten would help ease some of the uncertainty of current events. Many have come across scammers advertising animals that don't exist and are never shipped. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has given scammers the idea to ask for money up front, or to make excuses as to why buyers can’t see the pet in person-- before heartbroken, would-be pet owners figure out they have been conned. This practice has also lead to a jump in online shopping fraud in general. BBB suggests, be aware of these pet scams and avoid falling for phony websites."
When it comes to buying animals online, please. Just say no. It you’re determined to get an animal from a breeder, find a reputable breeder close to you or who has been recommended to you by someone you know. Meet the breeder in person, see where your new pet will come from and ask for both veterinary references and references from people who have bought a pet from the breeder in the last year.
Better yet, open your home to an animal from an animal shelter or rescue group. If you’d like to use the Internet to help with that, there are wonderful websites like Petfinder or Adopt A Pet where you can search for animals by species, breed, size and age by geographic area. You can also visit your local animal shelter in person to see the animals available for adoption or learn about animals in foster homes who are ready to be adopted. You can also visit the websites and Facebook pages for animal shelters and rescue groups in your region to see what animals are available to find the right fit for you and your lifestyle. When you adopt from a shelter or a rescue, you enhance your own life, save the life of the animal you adopt and make room for another animal in need.
I feel terribly for the woman who was scammed trying to honor the life of her daughter. I am sure she is devistated. I wish I knew her so I could help her find a puppy from a shelter or a rescue group instead.
September is Puppy Mill awareness month. I have not written about mills for a while so a new blog is overdue. I admit that it is prompted, in part, by events in my own area. I don’t live near a Petland at which people protest every weekend and there is only one insidious backyard breeder in my area of which I am aware (who has had dogs stolen because he keeps them in such poor conditions), but the subject of commercially bred dogs is never far from my mind.
There are those who chant, “don’t breed or buy while shelter dogs die.” I’m not quite that absolute in my thinking. As unpopular as this opinion makes me with some people, I have no issue at all with people I call hobby breeders who breed dogs once in a blue moon for the love of the breed and who make little (if any) money from the process. My dentist breeds Black Russian Terriers and has been to the Westminster Dog Show before, having won Best in Breed with one of her dogs. Her dogs are incredibly well cared for and they never end up in shelters. Ever. She has also had shelter and rescue dogs in her home and we’ve talked about her fostering shelter dogs in the past. It may sound like a wonderful idea to end all dog breeding, but we all know that won’t happen as a universal change around the globe. It’s perfectly legal and as much as we would like people to adopt a dog from a shelter or a rescue group, some people just won’t for whatever reason. That is their right. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with people who planned to get a dog from a breeder in which I talk about the benefits of adoption. At the end of the day, they use the information as they see fit. I cannot force them to adopt because I see it as the right and responsible thing to do.
Commercial breeding of dogs is another matter entirely. I’ve written on this topic many times. To find my past blogs, you can clip on the keyword “puppy mill” on the right hand side of this page. I call commercial breeding of dogs puppy mills because that is what they are – they breed puppies and they produce them in volume much like a textile mill of wood mill. In the case of Smith v. Humane Society of the United States, 519 S.W. 3D 789, 801 (2017), a puppy mill was defined as a commercial farming operation in which purebred dogs are raised in large numbers. That’s good enough for me. I know that not all mills are created equal. Some are places were dogs are socialized, get exercise and get wonderful veterinary care. Some, however, are anything but that. They are cruel places where dogs are bred repeatedly until they cease to be profitable, never leaving the small cages to which they are confined (which means no form of exercise of even walking on a solid surface) and they don’t get veterinary care. In these operations, the dogs truly are seen as a commodity and a source of profit. It’s all about the money.
Dogs from these commercial operations are sold in stores, creating a complete disconnect between the locations were the dogs come from and the products being sold. When people see a puppy in a store, they are blinded by the cuteness they see, giving little thought to where that dog came from, how he or she was raised, the conditions of the parents and even the health of the puppy him or herself. If each dog was displayed with images and video clips from the breeding operation which were honest, people would be appalled, infuriated and sickened. (Buying a pet store dog has shown that it can actually make people sick in a very real sense based on investigations by the CDC). A friend who bought a dog in a store years ago told me she did so because the dog looked so pitiful, was already there and she knew they wouldn’t sent him back if he wasn’t sold. She knew that someone was going to buy him and she felt that by taking him home, she was saving him from the store. Talk about emotional blackmail.
If we ever hope to bring an end to the commercial dog breeding industry which treats dogs as livestock, with less regard for their well-being in many cases than livestock bred to be part of our food supply, we simply must stop buying what stores are selling. If we know we are not capable of walking away from a puppy in a pet store for emotional reasons, the only solution is to not enter the store at all. There are plenty of stores which sell pet supplies which don’t sell dogs (or kittens), some of which have animals available for adoption from local shelters and rescue groups.
Like so many other things in our society, we have to draw a line in the sand and just say no. No to the multi-million dollar industry which started with a USDA promotion decades ago which was intended to help farmers and quickly got completely out of control. No to the industry which treats the dogs with whom we share our homes as commodities to be abused, neglected and treated as disposable when they no longer bring in enough money fast enough. No to the industry which takes us hostage by exploiting our emotional bonds with dogs and our desire to help them find better lives with us.
(image courtesy of National Mill Dog Rescue, Inc.)
Only when we stop buying dogs in stores will the industry cease to be profitable enough to continue the way it has for decades and those farming dogs may go back to farming another commodity instead. We cannot rely on the USDA to police the very kennels to which is issues licenses. It is an inherent conflict of interest which cannot be overcome. We change our society and our culture by changing our own personal behavior so the industry knows what we value and what we will and will not tolerate.
The dogs in this image are from a local brokering operation near where I live. The local breeder says she is part of a “team” of 13 families who breed and sell dogs. In order to buy a puppy from her, you have to make a non-refundable deposit of half the price of the dog. You cannot see the conditions from which the puppy comes and you have to make an appointment to meet your new puppy on a Tuesday or Thursday. The prices for these dogs make this about profit, not about love for a breed. This is a thriving business. I guess I should not be surprised that the dogs are listed on the website as “new products.” Some of the dogs are listed as XXS and weigh a pound.
Just. Say. No.
I’m sure I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. I meet some of the most amazing people thanks to my animal welfare advocacy. Most are just normal people like you and me who are on a mission related to animals, using their superpowers for the good of us all. I’ve only met a handful of these folks in person, but thanks to the inter-connectivity of our world provided by video conferencing and email, I still feel as though I know them. And I am proud to say I do.
I first learned about “Pete Paxton” last fall when I learned about his book (co-written with Gene Stone) called Rescue Dogs: Where They Come From, Why They Act the Way They Do, and How to Love Them Well. Pete’s name is in quotes because I honestly have no idea what his real name is, You see, he’s an undercover investigator who has done incredible work for the Companion Animal Protection Society. (I encourage you to visit the CAPS website to help further your education). Pete has been to over 700 puppy mills, hundreds of pet stores, and has worked undercover at some of the biggest mills in the United States. Rescue Dogs is aimed at exposing mills and explaining how the public can help fight them by adopting dogs. The book also explains finding a good shelter or foster group, dog training tips, how to rescue stray/abuse dogs, and busts myths about shelter dogs being “broken” in some way.
I have long railed against the commercial dog breeding industry and have long supported rescue and advocacy groups which help dogs saved from mills and which educate the public toward bringing an end to the industry. I’ve worked on local laws which keep national pet supply chains from setting up shop in communities and importing sick dogs from puppy mills which can, in turn, make people sick. I’ve fought state legislation which would allow pet supply chains to grow roots in my state and further erode the humane treatment of dogs in a culture lost in time compared to the values regarding dogs in the rest of the country. When I heard about Pete’s book and his undercover work in the mills themselves, I just had to read it
The first part of Rescue Dogs was a hard read for me, but not in a bad way. As you would imagine, there is something quite criminal (and, I would argue, nefarious) about the way many people in our society treat dogs for their financial gain. It is heartbreaking, infuriating and mind-boggling. And I say that as a person who has never walked a path remotely close to the one walked by Pete. I cannot possibly imagine the mental and emotional toll taken on people who take on fake identities and put themselves in the bowels of hell in order to take down the very people whose behavior we find abhorrent. I am confident that we cannot possibly understand what Pete and others like him have endured for the sake of dogs and for the sake of all of us. Could you pretend to be someone you are not and work in a place where dogs are abused, neglected or killed on a regular basis all for the sake of money to collect evidence? I know I could not. Which is why I consider Pete one of my animal superheroes.
The second part of the book was incredibly informative. I think that most people in the shelter and rescue world assume the public knows all about rescue dogs, where they come from, how wonderful they are and why adopting a rescue dog is such a compelling choice. Many people just do not know, even if we think they should. Thanks to Pete’s book, now they can. He goes into great depth about where many of these dogs come from, how they think and how to make them members of our families – as opposed to buying dogs from the million dollar industry which has no regard for their well-being, viewing them not as sentient creatures but as things.
Pete was kind enough to help me introduce you to information which goes beyond the book through the Q&A that follows. I think it’s helpful for me to say a few things about the book, but I want you to learn something information not found in the book to entice you to read it. You can find Rescue Dogs on all major book selling platforms and at your local bookstore. I hope you enjoy our exchange.
You repeatedly use the phrase “puppy mill” in the book. I also use this phrase as a reflection of volume of dogs produced as well as the conditions in which they live. What does that phrase mean to you?
To me, “puppy mill” refers to any facility or person who raises dogs for profit. I realize that puts individuals who sell a litter of puppies every two years to neighbors into that category. However, I use the term “puppy mill” to refer to anyone that is part of a system that results in dogs being killed in shelters and exploited for human gain. Whether a facility keeps dogs in the house or a kennel, has two dogs or a hundred, or is licensed or not, they are contributing to that system.
Most people who love animals would have an incredibly difficult time investigating undercover like you did while staying in character. Your work must have been difficult beyond description. How were you able to stay so focused to see the investigations through to collect enough evidence?
I appreciate the kind words. I’d like to say I’m just that tough, but I think part of it relies on my personality. I enjoy taking risks and improvising puts me in my comfort zone. Undercover work does involve suffering moral injury, but it also involves Adrenalin. Whether it’s a lot or a little, the Adrenalin is often there, and if you enjoy taking risks than it changes some situations that would normally repulse you into ones you want to dive into. Essentially, it’s the work itself that keeps me motivated, which I believe is true for any professional who enjoys their job.
In specific cases, though, it is knowing that if I quit, I’m letting victims down. In most undercover investigations, there’s no second chance to get the evidence. If you lose patience or will, it means everything you’ve seen animals suffer for will be for nothing. When I started doing investigations and would sometimes complain about stress to friends and family members, they would tell me I should walk away from cases and take care of myself. I would tell them instead to remind me that anything I’m going through is nothing compared to what the victims I’m documenting are going through. Friends who used to tell me, “Take care of yourself,” now tell me, “Cowboy up and stop whining.” It’s quite motivating.
Do you still do undercover work to this day? I would imagine that someone can only do that kind of work for a certain amount of time before they need to take a break.
I still work undercover, and much of it still for the Companion Animal Protection Society, which I mention in Rescue Dogs. I take breaks when needed, sometimes for weeks at a time depending on how many reports from past work and research for future work I have to keep me busy. Enough time behind a computer and I’m dying to go back in the field.
Stopping to write Rescue Dogs was a particularly long and unusual break for me. It was a difficult process going through so many old case notes and videos to verify details and write about things from years ago in a narrative manner. My field notes allow me to remove emotions from the context of evidence. Rescue Dogs had me write about that evidence in an emotional manner, in which my thoughts and feelings were as much the focus as the victims concerning them. At times it was cathartic, and at times it made it impossible to sleep. In the end, I’m very grateful I did it and that authors Gene Stone and Nick Bromley worked the entire process with me.
You write about dogs you met during your investigative work you wanted to help but could not because it would have blown your cover. Are there any specific dogs who haunt you or do you have any regrets?
This is where things will get dark. There are so many dogs that haunt me that the vast majority of them are not even mentioned in Rescue Dogs because there was no need to drag readers through the memories of so much cruelty, when one story alone could make the point. It was painfully difficult to select which dogs would be used in stories. In every investigation I’ve done, whether of a puppy mill, factory farm, slaughterhouse, or commercial fishing boat, there are victims whose stories are never told publicly. Often, it’s that there’s so many victims that it’s not possible to concisely explain what happened to them all in a video or interview. Other times, it’s that some victims are part of a crime that is irrelevant to other evidence the press or a client wants to focus on. If you ever see a video about an animal cruelty case, you should know that you’re not seeing half of what happened. You’re only seeing enough to try to keep your attention so you can then read about what you can do to help without shutting the video off.
There are so many dogs I want to mention whose individual stories are not told in Rescue Dogs that I feel like I’m suffocating under them. However, the reality is that I’ve tried to tell those stories to people. I’ve tried writing about them, explaining them in person, and discussing them in interviews. It’s simply too much for people to handle. It drags people through emotional turmoil and isn’t necessary to make them understand a subject.
The problem I have is that while undercover, I very rarely get an opportunity to help animals. I have seen many dogs suffer and die without saving them. For so many to be lost in a bigger picture, without their stories told, I feel like I’m betraying them and not giving them the final dignity they deserve. I have been in so many morally ambiguous situations that shame and pride have often been synonymous for me. Choosing which victims will have their stories told is another one of those situations, but I believe we chose well in Rescue Dogs.
I imagine you have testified numerous times regarding your investigations. Do you feel the legal process works to hold breeders accountable or is the system (and laws) not in keeping with public values?
You may be surprised to learn I’ve rarely had to testify in court. Most of the time, when a defendant has so much evidence piled against them that they are dead to rights, they plead out. That said, I’ve testified in front a jury, without a jury, in front a grand jury, and dealt with both good and bad law enforcement at the county, city, state, and federal level. Here’s the short version: The system doesn’t work for animals.
Here’s the longer version: As written, most cruelty statutes make causing unnecessary suffering a violation. You’d think that would make it pretty easy to bust breeders who don’t treat dogs’ wounds, leave them to the elements, or let their teeth rot in their heads. The problem is that culture supersedes enforcement. The vast majority of breeding dogs are in commercial kennels, and the vast majority of those kennels are in rural areas where commercially bred dogs are treated as livestock. In fact, dogs are often seen as an alternative livestock that can be more profitable than other animals. Compared to hogs, for example, puppies are more profitable by the head and you can keep a larger number of breeding stock in a smaller amount of space. Most states have exemptions to cruelty statutes if an act that would normally be considered illegal (such as mutilating an animal without anesthesia) is a routine operation on a farm. The difference between legal cruelty and illegal cruelty becomes so difficult to discern that cruelty laws are rarely ever enforced on farms. Since puppy mills are seen by farmers as the same as hog farms or dairies, local law enforcement typically ignores cruelty complaints about puppy mills just as they do hog farms and dairies.
Furthermore, many commercial kennels are licensed by the US Department of Agriculture. The same agency that inspects slaughterhouses inspect dog breeding kennels. That agency has a dual motive of enforcing regulations while promoting the industries they license. The more enforcement actions they take, the more they are cracking down on an industry they want to promote. Therefore, the USDA notoriously lets violations go. I’ve seen USDA inspectors ignore dogs dying in cages and even warn people ahead of time they will be inspected. Many inspectors prefer to be friendly with breeders instead of confrontational with them. To assist inspectors, the USDA has a policy called “teachable moments,” allowing inspectors to tell the breeders to fix violations on their own instead of them even been written in a report.
When desensitization to animal cruelty, law enforcement corruption, and government corruption come together, I call it a “culture of cruelty.” Commercial dog kennels often exist in this culture.
I have been unapologetic in my criticism of rescue groups that buy dogs at auction and call it rescue. What do you think about rescuers and rescue groups that buy dogs at auctions and make it sound like they have done something good (while showing no regard for the dogs who will take the place of the dogs they paid for)?
I applaud your criticism. Activists buying dogs at auctions provide funding for puppy millers to buy more dogs and keep their operations going. Many puppy millers have rescue groups take their spent breeding dogs, but breeders will have no incentive to do so if they can profit from selling the dogs instead.
What is the single most important thing you think people need to know about commercial dog breeding operations in order to deter them from buying dogs in pet stores?
I have two single most important things to mention. For commercial dog breeding kennels, you should know that most of them are worse than you’d imagine. For pet stores, you should know that most lie to you about their breeders in ways that are bold and ridiculous, but clever.
Even commercial dog kennels that are clean and have few dogs frequently have problems such as severe dental issues for dogs. Dogs also frequently suffer from anxiety being kept in cages and pens. There is no part of the Animal Welfare Act (USDA’s standards for licensed puppy mills) that has anything to do with dogs’ psychological well-being. It covers cage size, cleaning regulations, and even regulations for lighting, but even puppy mills that follow the standards have no rules make sure their dogs are actually happy.
Pet stores frequently show videos of breeders with dogs and puppies running in exercise yards, and point to a part of the Animal Welfare Act that says breeders have to regularly exercise their dogs. The closest I’ve ever seen a breeder come to actually following the exercise regulation is to occasionally put dogs into pens larger than the dogs’ cages or runs. Pet stores show videos of dogs running through lush green yards, which if dogs were to actually be in every day, would be worn down to dirt. Pet stores will lie and say their breeders keep dogs in their homes, have only a few dogs instead of hundreds, play with the dogs all the time, and treat the dogs like family. Most customers don’t know how to disprove photos and videos shown to them as though they are fact, or to contradict someone who says they personally visit breeders selling to a store. The simple reality that I’ve seen, as evidenced on the website for the Companion Animal Protection Society (caps-web.org), is that pet stores lie.
A writer once told me that there will always be a need for large scale commercial dog breeding to meet demand and that if we want breeding communities like the Amish to do a better job caring for dogs, we should be prepared to put money toward their operations to raise standards. I could not disagree more. My position is that if they cannot properly care for dogs, they should raise another “cash crop” instead. What do you think?
Saying there will always be a need for commercial dog breeders because of customer demand is like saying there would always be a need for cigarettes because customers demanded them. The cigarette industry is thankfully dying, because it exploited people for profit. The puppy mill industry is dying, because it exploits dogs and lies to people for profit. If we want dogs to be treated better, we shouldn’t subsidize an abusive industry. We should abolish it. I agree that breeders can transition from raising dogs to another business. Ingredients for plant-based foods are diversifying, and I would prefer tax subsidy shift from supporting animal agriculture to supporting farmers whose operations are better for the environment and free from animal cruelty.
Much of your book is devoted to helping people learn about rescue dogs so they will be informed and will adopt. What do you think people misunderstand the most about these dogs in need of homes?
People often think that if they get a rescue dog, they won’t know how the dog will behave. There’s more foster-based rescues and shelters that take time to train dogs now than ever before. Shelter workers and volunteers spend time with dogs to learn their personalities, likes, dislikes, and teach them how to navigate the normal routines of living in a home if they didn’t already know it. Raising a puppy, you can’t guarantee your training will mold the puppy’s personality into who you want. You simply don’t know who you’re getting when you buy a puppy from a breeder, but you are much more likely to know who you’re getting if you adopt a dog from a shelter.
People also often think that dogs are dumped at shelters because something is wrong with them and that they all have separation anxiety. That’s simply not true. Most of the time, dogs are given to shelters by people who can’t afford vet bills, won’t take the time to properly train them, are moving and can’t take animals with them, or who found stray animals they can’t keep. There’s nothing wrong with dogs at shelters. In fact, overcoming adversity have can make them better at dealing with change.
I believe a time will come when our tax-funded shelters no longer destroy healthy and treatable pets because the public will no longer tolerate the old catch and kill model of sheltering. Do you think this is possible for our future?
I think it is possible. The fact that the term “rescue” refers to an adopted pet, and not just an animal taken from an abusive situation or as a stray, is part of a cultural shift that the publicly increasingly recognizes the need to adopt animals instead of purchase from breeders. There is a stigma beginning to be attached to people who buy purebred and designer breed puppies, and a mark of respect for people who adopt. Momentum is building for pet stores to be shut down in the U.S. Welfare legislation, too strict for the worst puppy mills to stay in business, is gaining footholds. Municipal shelters are increasingly working with local rescues to decrease euthanasia rates.
The fight against puppy mills is multi-pronged, and we’re seeing every effort have impacts in the entire process. When pet stores ban selling animals from breeders in a major city on the coast, puppy mills in the Midwest start to go out of business when they lose their main market. When false rescues are shut down, the same thing occurs. All of this makes me optimistic.
Your book was published in October of 2019. What has the feedback been like?
The main responses are that readers have learned a lot about the puppy mill industry in ways they haven’t before, particularly in understanding how puppy mills operate in ways that are hidden from us. Other readers have noted being happy with the amount of information on how to rescue dogs, with different people noting different sections of the book as most useful, which is ideal for me. I wanted a book that reaches out to everyone involved in dog rescue, and I think we nailed it.
There’s been no major controversy I’ve detected in the rescue community about the book, but from some feedback and interviews I can tell that my advocacy against domination-style training and against purpose-driven thinking are the most controversial points. Rescue Dogs explains why dogs view us as equals, and why they respond best to positive reinforcement-based training, as opposed to punishment that includes shock collars or reprimanding dogs verbally. I stand by this way of thinking, and I should note that many dog trainers advocate it. Personally, it’s helped me rehabilitate some terrified dogs into being comfortable members of loving families.
I believe my stance against purpose-driven thinking, also known as teleology, is most controversial. In Rescue Dogs, I counter the idea that dogs are here for us to fight, race, or breed in a manner that goes against their psychological and physical well-being. However, the idea that a dog was born with the purpose of racing for our amusement is no different than the idea that a dog was born for the purpose of being loved. Both rest upon the notion that something gives a purpose to dogs outside of our control and beyond our judgement. Dogs have no inherent purposes. We give them purposes, with some of us doing so for our own benefit, and others to benefit individual dogs. If we don’t rely upon science, ethical considerations for dogs’ well-being, and the history of how dogs have come to be so exploited by people, we end up relying on justifications that dogs are used by us because, “That’s why they’re here.” I’m adamant against teleological thinking because I’ve found it is the most common justification for abusive acts I’ve seen.
(video courtesy of the Companion Animal Protection Society; mill images courtesy of Pet Shop Puppies)
(Aspy next to the 9th green at the Twin Lakes Golf Course, watching Rich putt)
The 4th of July is a day of celebration for many people. I know that it should be for me, but it honestly is not. The 4th of July is the day that we mark the passing of our senior dog, Aspy, under what I consider traumatic circumstances. Much like we involuntarily mark the dates of the people we love who have left this Earth, we do the same with our beloved companion animals. We do our very best to focus on lives well-lived and be thankful for the number of years we shared walking a path together. That is what I will try to do on July 4th. It will be bittersweet as I do my very best to force away the memories of our dog's last day with us.
As I've written about before both of my website and in my book, I became an animal welfare advocate when I learned what was happening at my local animal shelter and in the wake of another personal loss. It is abundantly clear to me that using the word euthanasia to describe the destruction of healthy and treatable shelter animals is entirely misplaced. Making a decision to euthanize a beloved animal has nothing whatsoever in common with decisions made in shelters every day to end the lives of animals who were, or could have been, someone's beloved companion.
But back to the subject of euthanasia of beloved companions. Anyone who has ever made what Marian Hale once called "That Terrible Decision" regarding a companion animal is torn with having made that decision. We are plagued by doubts about timing. Did I wait long enough? Did I wait too long? Did I allow my selfish love and need for that animal to cloud my thinking? Did I really put the welfare of my beloved companion first? Could I have done more?
I've come to believe that when the decision to euthanize an animal is made from a place of love, it is always the right time, because it will never be the perfect time. We do our very best with the information available to us and once the act is done and our companion no longer shares our lives with us here, we have to forgive ourselves. I know that's easier said than done and I struggle with the decisions we have made regarding our own beloved pets throughout the years.
It is easy to look back and say that we waited too long with Snake and we kept her around for us and not for her. It is easy to say that we waited too long for Aspy. That we likely should have let him go after he had his stroke in the summer of 2015. But he had so many good and happy days after his stroke that I choose to focus on those extra months he had. He was fiercely loved. He was a member of our family. We did and would have done anything for him. And in the end, that caused just to make the decisions that we did.
While others are celebrating on the 4th of July we will be experiencing our day of remembrance.
Love your companion animals for as long as they are with you no matter how poorly they behave or may frustrate you at times. They have the cognitive function of children and they do not act with malice. If you believe your pet is suffering or his or her quality of life has diminished so greatly that you are wondering if it is time to let them go, please consult with your veterinarian. Euthanizing pets is very difficult for them; they are attached to the faces they have cared for over a period of years. But they have a degree of objectivity based on their education that we lack because we are thinking with our hearts.
When your beloved companions are gone, you will find yourself wishing you had just one more day with them. That is natural. But likely not what they need from you.
One more day, one more time
One more sunset, maybe I'd be satisfied
But then again, I know what it would do
Leave me wishing still for one more day with you.
(our annual memorial trip to the places Aspy loved; next to the 9th green at the Twin Lakes Golf Course)
("One More Day" by Diamond Rio)
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?
I’ve written before about my parents. About how my siblings and I were raised in an animal-integrated household and how we lost both of our parents to cancer in a six-month window of time. When I first wrote, “The Cats Flew First Class,” only people with the link to the page could read it. It was a bit far removed from the purpose of my animal welfare website and I thought it would be upsetting to some people, so I hid it for years on a special page. I’ve since shared it a few times as I’ve marked the passing of my parents and thought back to how their lives were enriched by their cats who turned into therapy cats (and who later went to live in Austin with my aunt for many years before they passed away as well).
I’ve had my dad on my brain a lot lately. As fickle as my memory sometimes seems to be – some things stay and some don’t last – the last few days or his life are etched on my memory in both bad ways and incredible ways. I think of his passing as The Long Farewell. My dad was diagnosed with Stage 2 non-small cell lung cancer on September 12, 2009, which later moved to his brain and ultimately led to his death just over a year later. I got the “come now” call on October 23, 2010, and he was gone five days later, on October 28, 2010. The last thing he said to me from his hospital bed, in barely a whisper with my ear right next to his lips was, “help. I have to go.” I’ve always thought of his words as relating to a destination, but that’s just based on my beliefs. I told him we were helping him and he could go. We would take care of mom.
Time does not heal all wounds. Our losses begin as gaping wounds which time turns into scars that stay with us always and change who we are as people. They become part of us moving forward. I think about my parents every day and I miss them every day. Whether I am making important decisions or I am engaged in my animal advocacy work or even just enjoying the sun on a beautiful day, I am always mindful of the lessons they taught me as I strive to honor them with my own life. It was my dad who encouraged me years ago to put my name on my website at a time when I had not; many of my views could make me a target for haters and I originally published the website anonymously. “If it’s important enough to write about, it’s important enough to stand behind,” he said. Agreed, dad, agreed. Some days I feel the scars of my parents' deaths more deeply than others, particularly near or on the anniversary of the dates they left. If you have not lost someone very close to you, that may sound strange. Why would anyone want to mark the day that someone died? It’s just something that happens. We can’t possibly forget the dates on which people left this Earthly place and we tend to relive what happened in one form or another as “the day” approaches.” This year as I have reflected on dad’s final days, I have found myself thinking of another man of a different species. His name is Cinnabun.
My dad was in a hospital in Encinitas when I got back to San Diego on October 24th. There was no more treatment to help him and he needed to be moved to another facility. He made it clear in the weeks leading up to his death that he didn’t want to die at home. He knew it would be too hard for mom to continue to live in the house they had shared for 40 years if that happened. I found myself trying to scheme a way to bring the cats to the hospital to visit dad, but was too scattered to figure out a way to pull it off. My brother found a wonderful place for dad to go which was a concept I had never heard of before: residential senior and end-of-life care. Dad was moved to an Eagles Nest Eldercare Home in northern Escondido on October 25, 2010. It was a house on a residential street that looked like every other house from the outside. The inside also looked pretty much like any other house and it was just the people who lived inside who were different – they were all people living with debilitating conditions and people like dad who were going to die.
I will be forever grateful to the administrators, Kevin Calhoun and Maria Richley, for their compassion. I was thrilled that Doug had found such a great place for dad. It was clean and inviting and nothing at all like a hospital environment. There were recliners set up in a living room area for residents to watch television or listen to music, a large dining room where people could sit to eat if able, and each person there had his or her own bedroom. The best part of the experience, other than the people caring for dad was a little dog named Cinnabun. He wasn’t an official therapy dog, but he might as well have been. He was an adorable little bundle of fur with an outgoing personality who loved to play with toys. He brought smiles and an incredible amount of entertainment to what could be considered a depressing environment. Having a dog running around the house helped us all as we did our very best to get through our last days, knowing our time was so very limited. It’s hard. You know what is coming, but you also know you have to be strong and you have to be careful about your inner energy and the things you say, lest your loved one feel your despair. All of our conversations referenced dad and included him as if he was participating even though he could not speak.
A group of us were visiting dad on his second day he was at Eagle’s Nest. Maria took the time to shave dad’s beard and gently trim and clean his fingernails. She said, “everyone needs a little TLC to feel their best.” It was an act of care and tenderness. While she was tending to dad’s Earthly body and a group of us sat around and visited, Cinnabun decided it was time to tend to dad’s heart and his soul. The little dog jumped right up on dad’s lap with no invitation and made himself comfortable. We were surprised at first. Dad was no longer able to speak by this time and had not moved on his own for days that I observed. But he did that day. He reached out and touched Cinnabun as we all looked on and my tears began to flow. Dad’s body was shutting down and his life was ending, yet here was the comfort of a small dog, of hand on soft fur. That image will be with me always, along with my memory of dad’s last words to me.
Dad taught us so many lessons over the years. About the value of family and hard work and about humor and the love of reading and to always, always get the oil changed in my car following the maintenance schedule. Many of the lessons we learned were about compassion for all people and compassion for all living creatures, great or small. We grew to know the value of having companion animals in our lives who helped us become better people as we provided them with their new homes and their new lives.
No one gets to choose how they leave this world. Life happens, Death happens. When my time comes, I can only hope that I will have had that last touch of hand on soft fur and the warmth of an animal companion as I hopefully look forward to seeing those who have gone ahead of me, both human and animal.
I love you, dad. I miss you. I wish you could have stayed longer.
Thank you, Cinnabun. I am told you have continued to help care and comfort the elderly and dying all these years. Yours is a Higher Calling indeed.
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