As we near the end of an unprecedented year for all of us, I’ve been thinking a lot about the good we found in 2020. Yes, there were good things even if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes. Thinking back to my animal welfare advocacy, I had to stop and reflect on how very fortunate I am that I have friends in the music industry who allow me to use their songs either directly or by helping me navigate the process of licensing music legally. It really is quite amazing that I know people with so very much talent who graciously help me so I can help animals.
I first tried to legally clear music a couple of decades ago and quickly learned it is a daunting process. My first effort was a complete failure. I had hoped to use a song called “Take it to Heart,” co-written by Michael McDonald and Diane Warren. I got permission from both of them, but got stuck at the label which really didn’t have time for someone who could not pay to use the song and who wanted to use it to help animals. All that changed once I figured out the best way to use music legally was to make personal connections with the people who own the music. I want to thank them in this blog and tell a little about how it all came together. I’ve listed them in the order in which I began using their music.
Fisher. We were channel surfing one night in the late 1990s when I heard part of a song on a talent show which I think was actually the version of “The Gong Show” hosted by Arsenio Hall. A young couple was doing a modern dance to a quiet and haunting song which immediately caught my attention. I wrote down some of the lyrics and later learned the song was “Ordinary Moment,” by Fisher – the pop duo of married couple Kathleen Fisher and Ron Wasserman. I was hooked. I found a Fisher message board, began interacting with other fans and ultimately connected with both Ron and Kathy directly by email.
When Fisher released their 2002 double CD called “Uppers and Downers” (true creative genius, by the way), I just had to ask. Could I please use a couple of the songs in video projects to help animals? I knew Kathy and Ron had left the label they were working with in order to have more freedom over their music and knew they owned all of the music themselves. The answer was not only yes. It was a yes to what is called "free use license" which means I can use any of the songs for any purpose to help animals. I can’t speak for them, but I think they both understood this was a mutually beneficial arrangement. I would help animals using their music and they would reach people who may not know about them, much like I didn’t know about them until I heard part of "Ordinary Moment." (This song is still a favorite of mine and is very much suited to our lives in 2020; I hope you'll take the time to listen to it).
As an aside, I like to tell a story about Fisher to help people understand how grounded they are. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the family of a co-worker of mine relocated to Alabama. I think it was 12 people in all. They loaded up all they could in a few cars, hit the road and it took days to arrive. They had very little to sustain them. Our office collected clothes, dishes, furniture. The items they would need to live until they figured out what would come next. After I posted about them on Fisher’s message board, Kathy called to talk about what they needed. She and Ron not only donated money, but sent boxes and boxes of supplies from baby clothes to dishes just because they wanted to help. It's just the kind of people they are.
I’ve since used countless Fisher songs over the years from a variety of CDs - Uppers and Downers, The Lovely Years, Water, Stripped and 3. I’ve done projects for animal rescue groups, animal shelters, on certain animal-oriented subjects and for PSAs for television. I’ve even used some which were never released which I’m fortunate enough to have in my box of musical treasures. My most recent was a project for Shadow Cats, Inc. in Texas using "Different Kind of Wonderful." I cannot thank them enough. Kathy now has this platform on Facebook and Ron has a website that is focused on his composition work. Their music is available on Amazon and iTunes.
Martin Page. Much like my introduction to Fisher, my connection with Martin Page began with a single song. In “In the House of Stone and Light” was released in 1996 on a CD by the same name. I was not yet an animal advocate and the time, but always loved the song. As time went on, I forgot the name of the song but had parts of it stuck in my head over the years. I was driving to work one day in 2014 when it came on the radio and I was thrilled. The whole song came back to me and I quickly wrote down the title so I wouldn’t forget it. I connected with Martin through Diane Poncher who handles his Music Management. I told him how thrilled I was to have “found” him again after all the years in between and asked if it would be possible to use some of his other music in my animal welfare projects, much like my arrangement with Fisher. I knew Martin handled his own music production also and I would not need to interact with a label. Diane and Martin said yes, no doubt after consulting with Martin's cat, "Bootsie." I now have a relationship with them in which I ask to use a particular song, describe the project I have in mind and get approval. I continue to be astounded by this connection, primarily due to the library of Martin’s work. He’s written songs with and for some of the most notable names in the music industry and I am in awe of his talents. My first project using one of Martin’s songs was for National Mill Dog Rescue in Colorado. We used a beautiful tune called “I Can’t Get There Without You.” The video quality is lacking a bit, but this is a personal favorite for me for a couple of reasons: we used footage of people slow dancing with dogs and it includes both Harley Taylor and Teddy Burchfield, both of whom have since left this Earth. I used "All For the Love of You" in a popular project for Esther the Wonder Pig who lives in Canada and has a huge following. Many thanks to both Martin and Diane, both of whom I consider friends. Martin’s music is available on iTunes.
David Hodges. Although David Hodges has been in the music industry for decades, I didn’t have an awareness of him until I heard a song called “Shattered” from a 2011 release called More Than This. I looked for information about David and discovered that he had been around for years and had become one of the most prolific songwriters on the planet. He had released a series of CDs under the name “The December Sessions,” and I was hoping to use some of the songs in my video projects. I had a hard time finding out how to connect until a long-time Fisher contact in Tennessee (thanks, Melissa!) did some sleuthing for me and learned he was managed by Milk & Honey Music Management, led by Lucas Keller. David’s music is with a label (it was Sony and is now Kobalt), but Lucas graciously helped me navigate the process of legally clearing songs and continues to do so to this day (along with help from his rescued dogs Kilo and Graham). I’ve used two of David’s songs this year – “A Song for Us” for House of Little Dogs in Arkansas and “The Only Story” for Harley’s House of Hope (I’m particularly proud of this one since we decided to incorporate American Sign Language into the video). David has so many wonderful songs that I find myself thinking of projects even before I have a target organization in mind. Thank you so very much to David, Lucas and the folks at Kobalt. David’s music is available on Amazon, iTunes and Spotify.
Jim Gaven. Most of my video projects are created using a Photodex software program called ProShow Producer. Before the company stopped supporting the program, it came with a music library and that’s how I found Jim Gaven. A few of his songs were in the library and although I was allowed to use them from having purchased the software, I connected with Jim to let him know I was using the music. I’m so glad I did. Jim has a wide variety of music released on his own through the Bandcamp platform. In addition to creating wonderful music, Jim leads a nonprofit organization called Key of Awesome Music, Inc. which improves the quality of life for people with disabilities, addiction, the elderly, and children - with music. What amazing work. I used “Make this Moment Last” in a project for the Lake County Florida Animal Shelter and very much look forward to using more of Jim’s music in the future to help animals. Jim’s music is available on Bandcamp and Soundcloud.
Cristina Lynn. Cristina and I met through a common contact who calls her "cous" (they both share the last name Lynn). I had heard she was a singer-songwriter from my area and thought it would be interesting to connect with someone local. After I lost my parents to cancer, I ended up with some songs in my head, one of which was from the perspective of a rescued animal called, "Just No Looking Back." I knew it was not a chart topper, but also thought it might be able to help some animals. I reached to to Cristina and she graciously agreed to record the song for us both after improving on the lyrics and melody. I've used in in a few different projects and each time I learn she will perform locally, I make a request for her to "sing our song." Cristina is a wonderful talent and I look forward to a very bright future for her in the music industry!
I hope you’ll take a break from a very difficult year to enjoy some of the video projects. You can them on my Paws4Change channel on Youtube. If you are an aspiring artist who is looking for some exposure to your music in a feel-good, let's help animals kind of way, let me know.
Icon. Hero. When we think of those words, we tend to think of people. When I think of those words, I think of a small dog whose life was so improbable as to be the stuff of legends. Harley. Harley Taylor, to be exact. I was trying to think back to when I first learned about Harley and I had to go look it up in my records. Just like human icons and heroes are timeless, so is Harley. It is like he has always been and always will be, thanks to his family and his devoted followers.
Harley lived in a cramped, filthy cage at a puppy mill for the first 10 years of his life, fathering countless puppies to be sold in pet stores across the country. His life was incredibly rough. He was sick, afraid and had never known the kindness of human touch. After he had been tossed in a bucket along with some dead puppies, a puppy mill worker noticed he was still breathing. She retrieved him from the bucket and passed the tiny, disfigured Chihuahua on to a nearby rescue. He received immediate medical care and he was put in the grass where his picture was taken. He was old and crooked, he had only one eye, and he appeared sad and afraid. Rudi Taylor wrote:
when I saw the photo I knew instinctively that this little Chihuahua was meant to be with me. I called the women who ran the rescue; we spoke for an hour and the next thing you know I was on my way to pick up “my boy” a couple states away. To be honest, my intention was to give this dog a loving home for his final days, which the vet said would likely be about three months. A soft bed, good food and clean water – but most importantly, love – that is what I would give “Harley” for the first time in his life.
Harley had come very close to death and he had issues: a diseased heart, a mouth filled with rot, a fused spine, a broken tail, gnarled toes, and legs that were deformed. And then there was the missing eye – the result of his cage being power-washed with him in it (an all too common practice in puppy mills). But Harley was a survivor. He thrived on the love and attention he received for the first time in his life.
Harley has been called “magical” by everyone who met him and loved him. Harley inspired Rudi and her husband, Dan, to create a campaign called “Harley to the Rescue” which raised funds to save (and provide medical care for) more than 500 dogs from puppy mills in less than two years. Harley went on these rescue missions and “clearly recognized his role in helping to bridge the gap between canine and human,” wrote Rudi.
Harley passed away on March 20, 2016. I had never met him, but still felt the loss. I had created a series of video projects over the years using images and video clips of him and faithful sidekick, Teddy Burchfield, so I felt like I knew him. But isn’t that the way it is with all heroes? I believe so. When souls touch our lives on such a personal level, we feel as if we know them and so the loss of them feels like a personal loss. I wrote a series of blogs after Harley’ passing. I wrote about the fact that he changed the world. I wrote about his extraordinary life. I wrote about his legacy. I wrote about the fact that he was small in size and larger than life.
As I processed the news of his passing, I felt deep down that Harley's legacy would be huge and may even be greater than his accomplishments while in the loving care of the Taylors. Even I was wrong. No one could have imagined the profound effect Harley had, and continues to have, on so very many people across the country. He inspires. He empowers. He has given some people a focus and passion for a subject they never had before as they labor tirelessly to speak out for other dogs like Harley who were not saved.
To honor Harley’s life and continue his legacy, Rudi and Dan Taylor developed a non-profit organization called Harley’s Dream. The work done by this incredible organization is almost beyond description. The Taylors channeled their love (and, I would presume, their grief) into developing programs to bring an end to puppy mills and to help other dogs like Harley. The scope of these programs is huge so I encourage you to visit the website to learn more about them.
The first program is a public awareness program which is intended to expose the puppy mill industry to as many people as possible toward bringing an end to that industry. This program includes large scale public awareness using billboards, social media awareness, peaceful protests and rallies, puppy mill awareness cards, media awareness, t-shirts and products (which start conversations), an annual Hops & Harley event and the Art by Teddy campaign.
The second program is an educational program which seeks to educate the public about the reality of the puppy mill industry and the link between puppy mills and pet stores/websites. It includes educational events, presentations, a Children’s Educational Campaign, print and display educational materials and Bookmarks for Change.
The third program is an advocacy program which promotes grassroots organization with mobilized supporters across the country in order to effect change at the local and regional levels. It includes Harley’s Heroes groups in each state, Lobby Days, petitions, sample letters, and promotion of Humane Pet Stores which provides the steps and information necessary to start the process of establishing a ban of the retail sale of puppies in pet stores in towns/cities. More and more places across the country are enacting ordinances to keep national pet supply stores from selling animals sources from puppy mills. They do not prevent people from purchasing a dog from a breeder. They do serve as consumer protection laws in light of CDC investigations of the transmission of diseases from pet store puppies to people.
The fourth program is new and is truly a labor of love. It is Harley’s House of Hope which helps individual senior dogs by saving them from animal shelters, caring for them in a home environment and providing them all necessary medical care before finding them new homes. Most of the dogs who enter Harley's House of Hope were scheduled to be euthanized until they were rescued.
I know it has been more than four years since Harley left us. Sometimes it feels like it has been ages and other times it feels as though it was just yesterday. Looking back, I marvel at how many people Harley has touched with his life and his legacy. I believe a time will come when the puppy mill industry will cease to exist as we know it. I have no doubt that Harley and the Taylors will have played a huge role in that transition to more compassionate way of functioning as we not only say that dogs are man’s best friend, but we prove it through our actions and our choices.
Dare to dream. We miss you Harley. You are a hero and an icon. And you will never be forgotten.
If you would like to support Harley's Dream, there are a variety of ways to do that. Click on the support drop down menu on the website to learn more.
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?
We’ve all seen it. The animals living outside in conditions we find abhorrent. The dog chained to a tree. The dog outside with no shelter in either pouring rain or freezing cold. What is your first thought when you encounter a situation like that? If you automatically assume that the people who own the animals don’t care about them, that is no doubt a natural reaction. Logic would dictate that if they cared enough, the dog would either be brought inside to live or would live outside in better conditions. The dog would at least have a doghouse and would be protected from the elements. I’ve driven past hundreds of properties over the years where I’ve seen these situations, uttered a few words of profanity, and wondered to myself why the people even have a dog if they force it to live in such conditions. I’ve gone so far as to buy dog houses for the dogs I see or even outdoor beds. I’ve had wheat straw delivered anonymously to try to help. But is judgment really the best way to react? I’m not so sure.
As I wrote in my recent book about no kill animal shelter advocacy in the south, there are two cultures here in Alabama when it comes to companion animals. The attitude of many is that dogs and cats are animals and animals live outside. Period. Many people in Alabama (and, I would argue, in many places across the country), would no sooner bring a dog inside to live than they would set a place at the dining room table for a pig. It’s just not how they were raised and it’s not how they see their relationship with their companion animals. Houses are for people. Yards, barns and pastures are for animals.
My personal preference is for all dogs to live inside with the people who care for them. Dogs are pack members who thrive from human interaction. Keeping them contained on chains is considered inhumane by every national animal welfare organization in America. Studies have also shown that the dogs most apt to be involved in fatality attacks include those dogs who are not sterilized, who live as “resident dogs” and dogs who have been mismanaged or subjected to abuse or neglect. One of the most gruesome legal cases in which I was involved was the result of a dog bite fatality attack of a WWII Veteran who was killed by two dogs when he went out to check is mail. Although he normally wore a whistle around his neck out of fear for dogs roaming at large (and to alert people if he had problems), he had forgotten to put it on the day of the attack. Police later found 33 other dogs living chained in a backyard inside city limits. None were sterilized and all were part of a breeding operation gone wrong.
For all of my cussing and judgment of the people who house dogs outside, the reality is that not everyone was raised the way I was raised and no matter what I (or you) think is appropriate, some animals, particularly dogs, will never live inside. It won’t happen in some cases due to cultural differences. It won’t happen in other cases due to rental or leasing contracts which do not allow dogs to live inside. It won’t happen in still other cases because the dogs perform a role protecting livestock. Regardless of the reasons, I have come to believe that we do better when we do not make assumptions about the reasons for what we see and we instead focus on the well-being of the animals themselves. We should not be so arrogant as to presume that someone whose dog lives outside does not care about or even love that dog. When I was promoting an ordinance in the city in which I live to prohibit the chaining of dogs and to provide for basis standards of care for dogs who live outside all the time, one city councilman said something related to public buy-in for the law I have never forgotten. He said that the position of many of his constituents was summed up pretty quickly. “The mindset,” he said, “is that you can say my wife is ugly and my kids are stupid, but don’t tell me how to treat my dog.” His point was the care of dogs is very personal to people and they don’t like being told what to do or what not to do.
So, what are we do to when we see a situation which we think is less than what the animals deserve? In the case of one organization in my area, the answer is simple. Offer to help.
I first learned about an organization called HAWS – Helping Animals Without Shelter a few months ago. The mission of the group is both simple and vital: to provide help to people who need it to improve the conditions in which their animals live outside. The website for HAWS explains their mission this way. HAWS operates:
exclusively for charitable and educational purposes. With donations from the public we provide shelter, cedar chips/wheat straw for bedding and preventative care for dogs outside restrained by chains. We also provide clean drinking water, treats, worm medicine and flea and tick treatment to make them feel healthy and comfortable in their environment. We assist low-income and senior owners with spaying and neutering which reduces the number of unwanted animals let loose in the community or dumped in overcrowded shelters and rescues. We educate the owners of unaltered animals about the benefits of spaying and neutering and we provide instruction to schools (at their request) on the proper care of animals. HAWS is an all-volunteer run organization with no paid employees to include the founder/director. HAWS receives no federal or state funding. We rely solely on donations from the public.
HAWS’ current focus is on Madison County, Alabama, particularly places outside of city limits where there are no laws which dictate how animals who live outside are treated. (Alabama has laws about abuse and neglect, but they are somewhat vague and many in law enforcement are not trained on how to enforce the laws. Two recent efforts to enact a state law to define the single word “shelter” in an existing criminal statute have failed).
I honestly wish that there were organizations like HAWS across the country. The organization tag line is “No Judgment. Just Help.” How refreshing. Yes, there are people who have dogs who live outside who likely could care little about the conditions in which they live. The dog may be on the property as some form of misguided security system. Upon being offered help, many of those people may respond with a resounding, “no,” or may feel strongly enough about it to demonstrate their displeasure by holding a weapon toward the person or people offering to help. What HAWS has learned, however, is that when an offer of help is made with no judgment, that creates an environment in which people feel more free to say, “yes. I would like some help,” as they learn something in the process. It truly becomes a situation of providing some education about how to house dogs outside which helps the people and helps the dogs.
I recently completed a couple of video projects to help promote the mission of HAWS: a PSA for television which is currently in the rotation on local network television stations and a longer video project set to music which shows people what HAWS does to help with no judgment (shown below). I also launched a t-shirt fundraiser on Bonfire to help raise some money for supplies while at the same time creating wearable conversation starters to help spread the HAWS message.
Lisa Shedd, the founder of HAWS, graciously offered to engage in a Q&A with me to help people learn more about the origin of the organization and what they do each and every day. I hope you will learn more about this wonderful group and I hope more groups like it are created across the country. No one likes to see dogs living outside in conditions which most of us consider inhumane. How we remedy that situation may be found more in a model of compassion than one of judgement. Enjoy.
Q: What caused you to create HAWS? Was it some specific event or circumstance?
A: We created HAWS because it breaks our hearts seeing so many dogs living outside chained, tangled and without shelter, clean drinking water or preventives to protect them from the elements or parasites that can cause them discomfort and harm.
Q: Your tag line on your Facebook page is, "No Judgment. Just Help." Why is that important?
A: Approaching owners with kindness shows them that you are there to educate and help them make their dog more comfortable, and not to point out what they may be doing wrong. Owners are very receptive when treated with kindness instead of being judged or told what to do
Q: Describe a typical week for you regarding the services you provide.
A: A typical week for HAWS starts by loading up vehicles with supplies(when available) needed to help provide a more comfortable and safe environment for dogs living chained outside. I spend 2 hours every morning setting up spay/neuter appointments for the pets of truly low-income families who cannot get help from other programs. I spend an hour or more answering emails, messages, voicemails and texts from people reporting dogs in need of our assistance and from people needing assistance with their dogs. We then head out to the field to help set up a better living environment for as many dogs as we can get to and also pick up supplies donated by the public who want to help us help these dogs. The HAWS team works long hours almost every day trying to help these dogs and educate their owners to the things that are available to make their dogs’ living area more safe and comfortable and explaining the benefits of preventives and the spaying and neutering of their pets.
Q: What is the most difficult part of your mission?
A: It’s definitely seeing the sad conditions that some of these poor dogs live in.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your mission?
A: The incredibly happy, tail wagging, doggie kissing and dancing these that these dogs do when we have finished giving them a more suitable environment. Doggie kisses of joy being the best part.
Q: What do you most need from the public to allow you to continue your work?
A: HAWS always needs funding for vetting, spay/neutering and other supplies that we need to continue to help chained dogs. Some of the things that can be donated besides monetary donations are:
flea and tick medication
large and extra large gently used or new igloo or heavy duty barn dog houses
gently used or new 20 x 20 x 6-foot outdoor kennels
stakes for water buckets
4 x 6 x 8 foot treated wood posts for putting up trolley systems
12 x 12-inch or 15-inch paving stones or brick to put dog houses on to keep up off of ground
long, heavy-duty zip ties
heavy-duty 55-gallon trash bags
kiddie swimming pools(summer)
large and extra large Kongs for the chained dogs to play (so they won’t get bored and chew up their houses and water bucket)
We knew Rusty was heartworm positive when we adopted him from the Pell City Animal Shelter on September 19, 2017. We were told it was a “light positive,” but since heartworms are heartworms, the number of worms did not matter. Rusty had a number of behavioral issues to overcome and the fact that he was heartworm positive just added one more aspect to his rehabilitation.
I'm sharing the story of his treatment in hopes that you will learn something from it. If your dog is not already on a monthly heartworm preventative – which costs about $50 to $70 a year to administer – I implore you to start that treatment now.
1 Diagnosis (Heartworm Basics)
The Disease. According to the Heartworm Society, “heartworm disease is a serious and potentially fatal disease in pets in the United States and many other parts of the world. It is caused by foot-long worms (heartworms) that live in the heart, lungs and associated blood vessels of affected pets, causing severe lung disease, heart failure and damage to other organs in the body. Heartworm disease affects dogs, cats and ferrets, but heartworms also live in other mammal species. The disease can only be spread between pets by mosquitoes.” Dogs are considered natural hosts for heartworms, which means that heartworms that live inside the dog mature into adults, mate and produce offspring. If untreated, their numbers can increase. Dogs have been known to harbor several hundred worms in their bodies which causes lasting damage to the heart, lungs and arteries and which can affect the dog’s health and quality of life long after the parasites are gone. Heartworm disease in cats is very different from heartworm disease in dogs. The cat is an atypical host for heartworms and most worms in cats do not survive to the adult stage. Cats with adult heartworms typically have just one to three worms, and many cats affected by heartworms have no adult worms.
Prevalance. Your community may have a greater incidence of heartworm disease than you realize—or you may unknowingly travel with your pet to an area where heartworms are more common. Heartworm disease is also spreading to new regions of the country each year. The fact is that heartworm disease has been diagnosed in all 50 states, and risk factors are impossible to predict. Multiple variables, from climate variations to the presence of wildlife carriers, cause rates of infections to vary dramatically from year to year—even within communities. And because infected mosquitoes can come inside, both outdoor and indoor pets are at risk. Our veterinarian told us that dogs in our area have about at 50% chance of being bitten by a mosquito carrying heartworms in his or her lifetime.
Treatment. Once a dog is diagnosed with heartworm disease, he or she normally begins treatment with a course of antibiotics, heartworm preventives and steroids before beginning the actual adult worm treatment. The actual treatment for heartworm disease consists of three shots of an organic arsenical compound that is injected into the dog's lumbar, or back, muscles. There is only one FDA approved drug for this. The dog is retested after treatment and six months later to ensure that all of the larvae, microfilariae and adult worms are dead. Dogs who remain heartworm positive six months after treatment may need to repeat treatment to kill the remaining worms.
For the first 8 months with us, Rusty took a heartworm preventive once a month and he continues that regimen to this day. In anticipation of his actual heartworm treatment, he took an antibiotic and a steroid for a month starting in early June and ending in early July. He was not allowed to chew the medication so pill pockets were out; Rich handled the daily task of putting the medication down Rusty's throat.
The first of Rusty's three heartworm shots was on August 8, 2018, and so began our long road of treatment. Our veterinarian shaved the fur off of his back to do the injection which was placed close to his spine. The first shot was to kill the female worms. The shot itself did not take long and we were told to walk him around the parking lot for five minutes to get the drugs circulating. We did and then we took him home to begin one of the worst days of his life. He had a terrible time getting comfortable and had difficulty walking. It took about 3 hours before he could be in one position for more than about 5 minutes.
The second shot was a month after the first and the third shot was a day after the second shot. These shots were to destroy the male worms. Like the first shot, these shots were administered near Rusty's spine and he had difficulty moving and getting comfortable for a period of hours. After the third shot, he had a visibly swollen area on his back which stayed there for weeks.
Other than the shots themselves, the most difficult part of the treatment is the weeks following the shots. In our case, Rusty had to remain calm for a total of approximately 10 weeks. His first shot was August 8, 2018 and his third shot was September 8, 2018. From the date of his first shot, Rusty's activity had to be drastically limited to keep his heart rate from elevating. This could have proven to be fatal. After each of the shots, there was a 2 week window of time which our veterinairan called the "danger window" of time during which the worms would be leaving Rusty's body. It was vital during this time that he remain as inactive as possible.
Unlike intestinal parasites which can be passed in the animal's stool once they are killed, heartworms do not have an easy way to be eliminated from the body. The dog's immune system must break down the dead worms, an elimination process which is very effective but which takes times. While that immune process is taking place, fragments of dead heartworms are circulating in the blood stream. These fragments can cause a multitude of problems, the most common of which is physical obstruction of blood flow to the lungs. Because of this and other risks, dogs undergoing heartworm treatment must be kept calm and quiet, without any rigorous exercise or boisterous play. Studies have shown that most of the dogs that die after heartworm treatment do so because the owners let them exercise. It’s not due to the drug itself.
Keeping a young dog quiet for 10 weeks was a challenge. We crate trained Rusty from the time we brought him home and that helped immensely during his heartworm treatment. We call his crate his room and he is in it regularly just to rest. He could have limited toys which he played with himself but we did not play with him inside or outside. If he got a little too wound up, he went to his “room” (as in “go to your room”) to calm down. He went outside only to relieve himself and for very short walks. He was always leashed, even inside his fully fenced outdoor play area, and we had to check the area around our property before taking him out to make sure there were no other dogs or cats he could see which would raise his heart rate.
Truth be told, my husband bore the brunt of this work. Ten weeks may not seem like a long time, but it is when the focus of each day is keeping a 2 year old dog who wants to run and play calm. Rusty's 10 week crate rest period ended on Sunday, October 21, 2018. We celebrated with the sudden discovery of a lot of toys (his old toys which had been hidden in a closet for more than two months) a long truck ride, a walk by Lake Guntersville and just a little bit of ice cream from Dairy Queen.
Although Rusty's treatment is over, the process is not yet completed. He will need to be heartworm tested again in May of next year to confirm that the heartworms are gone . Our veterinarian told us the antigens can remain in his blood stream for months so testing now would not do any good. He will continue to get heartworm preventative every month and we'll just pray he tests negative in May so he doesn't have to go through the process again. He will need to be tested annually the rest of his life.
I have heard people say in my area (Alabama) that they don't give their dogs heartworm preventative treatment. Some say it's not necessary. Others say it costs too much. I consider this a form of neglect. The cost to give a dog under 25 lbs. preventive treatment is about $48 a year. For a dog between 25 and 50 lb.s, it's about $66 a year. For a dog above 50 lb.s, it's about $74 a year. This depends on the brand you use ; the most common choices are Heartguard and Interceptor (which we use on recommendation of our veterinarian), but there are other brands available. Rusty's heartworm preventative is $70 which boils down to aout $6 a month.
If your dog is not worth this amount of money to you, please don't have a dog in your life. If you are homeless or having difficulty affording the preventative, please contact a rescue group near you to ask if they will help you provided this vital treatment to your dog and please get your dog tested annually.
(images and some content courtesy of the Heartworm Society; bottom image courtesy of Perrin-410 Animal Hospital)
There is a reason why some organizations are granted nonprofit status. They are tax-exempt because they exist for certain reasons which are recognized by law. In order to get and retain that status, nonprofits have to have bylaws which state that they will not engage in political activity. When they file their nonprofit application with the IRS they must reconfirm in that application that they will not engage in political activity.
Is it stated on the IRS website, “Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner. On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.”
In June of this year, I filed formal complaints with both the Internal Revenue Service and the Alabama Attorney General's office regarding impermissible political behavior on behalf of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society. The basis for my complaint was fairy simple. In 2017 a website was published by an organization calling itself the Alabama Puppy Mill Project ("APMP"). The stated of intent of the organization was to promote legislation to end mistreatment of dogs in "puppy mills" in Alabama. The website was replete with references to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society and openly talked about the relationship between the Greater Birmingham Humane and the APMP. The address for the APMP was the same as for the GHBS. The email address for the APMP was a GBHS email address. Although the names of the individuals behind the APMP are not on the website or Facebook page, my impression was then, and still is now, that the APMP is essentially Allison Black Cornelius (who is the CEO of GBHS), an attorney named Angie Hubbard Ingram and members of a rescue group which was up until recently called Cavalier Rescue of Alabama (and now operates as The Cavalier Rescue). The activities of some individuals associated with what is now doing business as The Cavalier Rescue were covered in an investigative article in the Washington Post which exposed the fact that some rescuers buy dogs at auctions and have spent large sums of money to do so. For me, the behavior of the APMP is imputed to the GBHS.
Because I lead an advocacy coalition which includes members who run non-profit organizations, I understand that there is often a fine line between a coalition and the people that make up the coalition. People who lead non-profit organizations are allowed to have personal opinions about political candidates; they just have to be very careful to keep their personal opinions from being interpreted as the opinions of the nonprofit. In order to eliminate any perception of impermissible political behavior, we never tell people who they should vote for. We do tell people the position of candidates on our issue, encourage them to research candidates and encourage them to vote.
When I first saw the APMP website and all the references to GBHS, I didn't think much about it or act on it because the primary purpose of APMP was to advance legislation. I also knew that the GBHS had filed an exception with the IRS to be able to be engaged in lobbying activity. I am not and have never been a fan of the GBHS. This is a huge nonprofit organization which operates with millions of dollars and which has historically had a dismal live release rate. When the APMP brought a “puppy mill” bill in 2017, I did not support the bill. I felt it was way too ambitious. It would have created a new state agency in Alabama which would have required funding in a state which has historically not done a great job of funding education. Beyond that initial hurdle, I just wasn't sure how much good the bill would actually do. It focused very much on licensing and I was left wondering who would enforce it. My thought was that a lot of small time, backyard breeders, who might not be treating dogs well, would simply ignore the law and not comply with it. I didn't state a public position on the bill and I simply stayed out of the way.
As I expected, the bill advanced by the APMP in 2017 failed. It appears that someone led the members of the APMP to believe the bill would make it out of committee; I'm not sure who. In the wake of the bill failure the members of the APMP behaved in ways which I found both extraordinarily unprofessional and embarrassing even though I had nothing to do with the behavior. Rather than simply lament the fact that the bill didn't pass and work to communicate with the senators who did not vote for the bill in committee - toward doing a better job in the future - the women behind the bill went on what I can best describe as a rampage. There was a press conference held in the lobby of the GBHS. People were encouraged to send emails to the senators which I'm told by the senators were juvenile and hostile. One senator told me this: "Unfortunately, those who try to intimidate and vilify end up losing respect and the option to even discuss important issues. My door has always been open to those who want to openly discuss issues in a professional manner." I also saw a number of posters which I thought were incredibly unhelpful towards gaining cooperation from legislators moving forward.
What led me to file complaints with both the IRS and the Alabama Attorney General's office was the fact that the APMP then began engaging in political behavior on its Facebook page. During the primary election in Alabama earlier this year, the page was very vocal that people should support one candidate to the exclusion of the other candidate (the image at this link is just one of many posts about candidates and who to vote for). At the time that this was going on the APMP website was still replete with references to GBHS. The About page talked all about GBHS. The address was the same as for the GHBS. The email address was the same as for GBHS. The candidate promoted by the APMP prevailed over a long-standing incumbent. We will never know if the voting was influenced by endorsement of one candidate over the other. What we do know is that this was political behavior which is considered impermssible behavior by nonprofit organizations.
I have not heard from the IRS about the status of my complaint. That is not surprising because I'm sure they get hundreds of thousands of complaints every year. When you file a complaint with the IRS you are told that you will not be notified of the outcome of the complaint.
The process with the Alabama Attorney General's office is different. I received an initial letter saying that my complaint was being processed. I was also informed that the organization against which I had filed my complaint would be given an opportunity to respond to the complaint.
After I filed my complaints the APMP website was scrubbed of references to the GBHS. The About page is gone as is any other reference to the GBHS. The Facebook page for the APMP has not changed much. There is still a lot of content tied to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society and I presume that will not change.
I received a letter from the Attorney General's office yesterday which states the following:
This office has received no additional communication pertaining to your complaint against the above reference company or individual. Because the individual / company has obviously indicated an unwillingness to cooperate with this office and its role as a mediator, the Attorney General does not have authority to pursue this matter further. It is suggested that you may want to consult an attorney or considering filing a complaint in small claims court. I am sorry that due to the nature of this matter we cannot be of further assistance. (emphasis added).
If nonprofits want to promote or support legislation, I have no issue with that. If individuals want to support or promote legislation, I encourage that. What I take issue with is a nonprofit organization which tells people who to vote for and who to vote against. In this case, the least the Greater Birmingham Humane Society could and should have done was to respond to the request for input from the Alabama Attorney General's office to show transparency and to defend its behavior. The fact that the APMP website was scrubbed to remove references to the GBHS speaks for itself. Considering the terrible live release rate at GBHS, I would like to think that focusing on saving lives of animals entrusted to the organization's care would be a top priority and that focusing on legislation would be of secondary importance.
I am told the Alabama Puppy Mill Project plans to bring its 2017 bill again in 2019 with some minor revisions. I will again not have a position on the bill. I have one of my own I am advancing which may do some good. Time will tell.
NOTE: On the day I published this blog, I received an email from The Cavalier Rescue, Inc. asking me to change my wording related to the name of the organization and disputing my characterization that the group had been "outed" in the Washington Post article about rescues buying dogs at auction. I modified my paragraph above which references this group to which I had made only a passing reference. I have been in conflict with the people in the group for some time; we will never agree that buying dogs at auction for whatever it takes is rescue. It is a purchase and it is worse than buying a dog in a pet store - something we tell the public to never, ever do. The email exchange with the group is here. I chose to not respond to the last email to me. It would have served no purpose.
We are a nation of animal lovers. The vast majority of Americans believe we have a moral duty to protect animals and we should have strong laws to do so. A poll from a few years ago showed that three out of four Americans believe it should be illegal for shelters to kill animals if those animals are not suffering. So why does it continue to happen? Good question.
People tend to focus on what is important to them in their own lives. It is human nature. We all have certain people, problems issues and concerns on our “personal radar” on an ongoing basis. We may have general knowledge or opinions about other issues, but we normally don’t devote too much time thinking about those things because they don’t affect us or our every day lives. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s just that most of us lack the “bandwidth” to remain fully engaged on all of the topics we find important on an ongoing basis.
This means that most Americans give very little regular thought to what happens at animal shelters using tax dollars and donations. Although we all pay for animal control and sheltering in some way, we still would not pay much attention to the topic even if our monthly bill for garbage and recycling pick-up included a line item for animal care and disposal. We think about shelters when we lose a pet or when we learn about some event or we are told about some tragedy. On other days, the shelter just “is,” pretty much like our view of other municipal functions on which we spend money. Law enforcement. Fire services. Engineering. Public works. Parks and recreation.
I have long believed that if we are ever to reform our broken sheltering system in America, in which the vast majority of healthy and treatable animals are still killed by the millions, we have to put that subject on the public radar and get people involved. I once described the separation between animal lovers and animal shelters like two groups of people on opposite sides of a chasm. On one side are the people who own and care for animals or at least like animals. They are at best family members and at least serve some purpose. Most of us include our animals in family celebrations and may take them on our vacations. We buy them beds and toys and treats and provide them with regular veterinary care. We expect that the people in the sheltering system will operate in ways which are consistent with our values and many of us just presume that all animals who end up in shelters are given an opportunity to be adopted. On the opposite side of this chasm are people in the sheltering industry. Most of them (but certainly not all) care about animals and do their very best with the resources they have. Many of them, however, work in a defeatist culture with calcified attitudes in which healthy and treatable animals are destroyed. They see this as some terrible task they must perform because there is no other way to function while blaming the destruction on the “irresponsible public” which is on the opposite side of the chasm. Not every shelter functions this way, of course, and many have become very progressive. I’m speaking for the majority of shelters which still destroy animals regularly and with no apparent regard for the very real fact that the way to stop that archaic practice has been known for decades.
Some communities change the culture at the animal shelter through municipal leadership or nonprofit leadership (in cases where the shelter operation has been outsourced to a nonprofit organization). Change is hard and those communities are to be commended. Most communities which change do so as a result of public pressure. People don’t like it when their money is used in ways which are inconsistent with their values. Once you tell people that healthy and treatable animals are dying and they are paying for it, most get mad, some get vocal and others become community activists seeking change. In all places where change takes place, there is one common denominator. The public didn’t suddenly become more responsible. It was the shelter operation itself that changed. It absolutely helps for the public to be invited to be part of that change. Their buy-in is actually vital to the process. The No Kill equation I promote contains 11 elements, but vital to most of those elements is public awareness and participation.
The last documentary film about the No Kill movement was released in 2014 - “Redemption: The No Kill Revolution in America.” The film has since been made available by Nathan Winograd on Vimeo for free. It is based on Winograd’s 2007 book by a similar name - “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.” If you have not seen the film, you owe it to yourself to watch it for free while you can. It runs just over an hour.
At about the same time Redemption was released, documentary film maker Anne Taiz began working on the first of two fills about the No Kill movement. The first is called “No Kill: The Movement Begins.” This film focuses on both No Kill efforts and failures in the City of San Francisco. The people who appear in the film include Richard Avanzino; Nathan Winograd, Director of the No Kill Advocacy Center; Julene Johnson, former San Francisco SPCA volunteer; Dr. Kate Hurley of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at UC Davis; Maria Conlon of Give Me Shelter Cat Rescue; and Dr. Jennifer Scarlet, the current director of the San Francisco SPCA.
The second film is not formally named yet, but will likely be something along the lines of “No Kill Across America.” I had an opportunity to meet with Anne on July 30th to talk about both films. My hope is that the story of Huntsville, Alabama, will be included in the second film, provided it is produced. We had a great connection and I think the story of the changes in Huntsville can inspire other communities to get ahead of this issue.
I know that Anne is passionate about reaching the public about this very important and urgent subject. Like all documentary films, however, this film is only as good as the ability to finish the final production. All of the footage for “No Kill: The Movement Begins” has been shot and it has been partially edited. What is needed are finishing funds.
You can make a donation toward completion of the first film using this From The Heart Productions platform as I have done. No donation is too small. A donation of $25 will give you access to see the “rough cut” of the film and provide feedback. A donation of $250 will give you film credit as an associate producer. Award winning actor and narrator Peter Coyote has agreed to narrate the film.
A time will come when the outdated practice of destroying healthy and treatable pets in our nation's animal shelters will become part of our shameful past. We can reach that point faster if we reach more of the public and put this issue on the personal radar of as many people as possible.
I've been struggling for days with how to begin my blog about the latest book I read to add to my animal advocate education – Bronwen Dickey's “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon” - and ultimately decided I needed to start with what the book did to me and for me. It blew my mind and I mean that in a good way. I have so many adjectives inside my head to describe the book that it's hard to know just where to start. Beautiful, amazing, encyclopedic, scientific, endearing, frustrating, enlightening, empowering. This book is hands down the most comprehensive coverage of the topic of pit bull type dogs in our society which I have read in the last decade. I cannot implore you strongly enough: if you read one book this year that relates to companion animals in our society, please make it this one. I have already purchased additional copies to share with my local shelter director, a city councilman and some others I think may benefit from the information.
I came to the book somewhat indirectly and still shake my head that I was unaware of it until it had been in print for over two years. I'm not new to many of the topics covered in the book, having done a lot of research in 2009 to write a research paper at the request of my local shelter director advocating adoption of pit bull type dogs (which I later revised in 2014). The best treatise on the subject of pit bull type dogs at that time was written by Karen Delise who, to this day, is still considered the foremost authority on Dog Bite Related Fatalities (DBRFs) and to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for helping me with my research. I learned about Bronwen's book after banging my head against a wall related to some people who promote a website called Dogs Bite dot org either to justify disparate treatment of the dogs or as part of an effort to render pit bull type dogs extinct.
It is the scope of Bronwen's book which blew my mind and which I am still processing even weeks after having finished reading it. It contains so much information that I know my simple blog about it can never do it justice. The book is not just about dogs and how we have breed dogs to look like hundreds of different species (often to their detriment) and how we judge dogs by what we see and what we fear. It is also about our society and how we judge dogs based on who owns them and what purposes they serve (or we think they serve) for those people. This book is as much an examination of how we view each other, be it right or wrong, as how we view the dogs with whom we share our lives.
I had hoped to do a Q&A with Bronwen for this blog, but that will have to wait a few months. For now, I want to hit on some of the highlights from the book in my efforts to convince you to read it. I consider the information below the tip of the iceberg; I had to pare down my original blog to what you see below, which was no easy task. It is my hope that you will find this information compelling enough that you will read the whole book. You will absolutely not be disappointed.
The information shared below consists of both quotes and paraphrased content from the book which is used with the permission of Bronwen Dickey. Thanks, Bronwen. You have my utmost respect and I know that what I have learned will help me not only be a better advocate for dogs, but be a better advocate for people who love dogs.
Our History with Dogs
In America there was never a formal movement to “weaponize” dogs of private citizens until the 1960s when graphic coverage of several high profile murders combined with political assassinations and the backdrop of race riots led many Americans to believe that they were no longer safe in their homes. As citizens fears of one another increased, so did the size of their dogs. While only a fraction of these dogs were professionally trained to guard or attack, the sudden swell in the popularity of dog breeds with formidable reputations marked a significant change in how many Americans viewed the dog's role in modern society.
In depressed American neighborhoods, owning a dog for protection was thought to be necessary for survival, and for many people, it probably was. Once the pit bull was portrayed as an “inner-city dog,” however, it became a magnet for racial fears about crime and the American underclass. Over the course of history, the dogs most often portrayed as “dangerous” and subjected to the highest penalties have belonged to people with the least political power.
Pit Bulls in General
The origins of the American pit bull terrier date back to the late 1889 when dog fighter John Colby began selling his brindle and white fighting bulldogs as pets. Chauncey Bennett established his own dog registry in 1898, the United Kennel Club, after the newly formed American Kennel Club wanted nothing to do with people associated with pit bulls. Bennett knighted Colby's dogs as “American pit bull terriers” because the only thing more fashionable than a terrier was a patriotic terrier.
“Pit Bull,” as it is most commonly used, has become a slap-dash shorthand for a general shape of dog – a medium-sized, smooth-coated mutt – or a “dog not otherwise specified.” The four primary breeds of dogs we call pit bulls are the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and the American bully. The related breeds are English bulldog, American bulldog, French bulldog, Boxer, English bull terrier, Boston terrier, Bullmastiff and Dogo Argentino.
The Role of the Media Regarding Pit Bulls
Once reporters and mis-informed advocates cast the dogs as willing participants in their own abuse, pit bulls were exiled to the most turbulent margins of society, where a cycle of poverty, violence, fear and desperation had already created a booming market for aggressive dogs. . . America's century-old love for its former mascot gave way to the presumption that pit bulls were biologically hardwired to kill.
The overwhelming majority of pit bulls, like most dogs in America, live uneventful lives as family pets. You would not know this from reading, watching or listening to the news. Nor would you know that only about thirty-five Americans are killed by any type of dog each year.
Most of us decide what we believe based on our emotions and intuitions, not on the facts. Once we have made an intuitive judgment, we search for the facts that will support our position, then surround ourselves with people who agree. One misinformation takes hold, actual facts can do very little to dislodge a false belief. This is the social and psychological vortex that pit bulls were sucked into. The more we hear about an idea, the more we believe it's true, whether or not the belief is supported by credible evidence.
Breed Specific Legislation
In nearly every municipality where breed-specific legislation (BSL) has been adopted, it has failed to prevent serious dog bite injuries and hospitalizations. Veterinarians, animal behaviorists and public health experts, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are virtually unanimous in their denunciation of BSL on the grounds that it is both cruel and ineffective.
More than half of America's seventy-seven million dogs are not purebred. The most common method of labeling mixed-breed dogs is to describe the pedigree breed or breeds we think the most resemble. The majority of mixed-breed dogs in America are not crosses of two purebred parents, but multi-generational mutts, or mutts mixed with other mutts mixed with other mutts. Because the number of genes that determine the dog's shape is extremely small, and so many variations within those genes are possible, looking at a dog's physical chassis and making a guess as to its probable heritage will inexorably lead to error. (emphasis added).
In 2009, researchers at Stanford University mapped roughly sixty-one thousand canine SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms) and discovered that only fifty-one regions of the vast genome determine the entirety of the dog's physical architecture (.000836 percent). (emphasis added).
The Mars Wisdom DNA panel is now able to match the DNA of more than 250 dog breeds but the American Pit Bull Terrier is not one of them. Some APBT blood lines have been tightly bred for many years and constitute legitimately closed gene pools, but others have been outcrossed with other breeds. The resulting group of dogs contains so many mutts that scientists can't isolate one signal. Only the AKC breeds, the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier can be genetically mapped.
Dogs in Animal Shelters
Shelter worker's visual guesses – that is, the breeds they would have written on the dogs' kennel cars and medical paperwork – did not match the animals' DNA results 87.5 percent of the time. . .once a breed label is affixed to a dog, it not only influences what kind of life the dog's family can have but also sets up expectations that the animal will behave a certain way, which it may or many not. Shelters that have abandoned using breed labels for dogs from unknown backgrounds have seen the number of dog adoptions rise significantly.
Dog Bites and Dog Bite Fatalities
Dog bites almost never cause serious injury. . .the overwhelming majority of bites don't even break the skin. The risk of dying from a dog bite injury in the United States in any given year is approximately one in ten million. Most dogs bite out of fear – not malice or vengefulness or dominance – when a human pushes the animal beyond its stress threshold or forces it into a situation it feels it can't escape. Bite victims often mistakenly believe that the bite “came out of nowhere,” when in fact that dog was sending subtle signals about it's level of discomfort for quite some time. (emphasis added).
According to Randall Lockwood, almost every dog bite related fatality is “a perfect storm of bad human-canine interactions – the wrong dog, the wrong background, the wrong history in the hands of the wrong person in the wrong environmental situation. . .it's not old Shep sleeping by the fire who suddenly goes bonkers. Usually there are all kinds of other warning signs.”
Karen Delise of the National Canine Research Council
When Karen Delise (regarded as something akin to the Erin Brockovich of dog bite deaths) began her research into dog bite related fatalities in the early 1990s, there had never been more than thirty-two DBRFs in the United States in any given year despite a human population that was then approaching 260 million and a dog population that exceeded 55 million.
To get more accurate data, Delise did what no other researcher before her had done: she personally interviewed the police officers, animal control officers and medical examiners who had directly handled each case. (I can attest to this myself, having connected Karen with law enforcement authorities in my state related to multiple DBRFs).
Delise found many DBRFs other researchers and organizations had all missed and nearly every one was a case that did not involve pit bulls. These were harder to locate because they did not receive the same level of media coverage as pit bull incidents. Many of the “pit bulls” responsible for DBRFs appeared to be generic mutts.
Dogs Bite dot org
Dogs Bite dot org was created by a web designer and self-professed fortune teller named Colleen Lynn who was bitten in the arm twice for a period of a few seconds by an unaltered male “pit bull mix” while jogging through a Seattle neighborhood in 2007. She then dedicated herself to the promotion of breed-ban laws (and continues to do so to this day; many of her followers openly and loudly seek the extermination of all pit bulls). The website contradicts everything put forth by group most qualified to speak about animal science, animal behavior and dog bite epidemiology.
Most of the information on the site comes from self-published paper on “dog attacks and maimings” by Merritt Clifton who possesses no relevant credentials and readily admits that his research methods are limited to scanning media reports and classified ads rather than personally speaking with investigators or reviewing primary source documents. Clifton's paper has never been peer-reviewed and it contains no citations. It does not draw upon government sources, public health records, or expert opinion. Numerous deaths on Clifton's list are contradicted by official medical examiners' reports. Clifton also includes breeds of dogs in his data set that do not exist.
"Despite everything that has happened to these dogs over the past two hundred years, I realized, 'people' do not hate or fear pit bulls. To believe that 'people hate pit bulls,' you have to believe only those who grab the microphone and scream the loudest into it matter. . .the dogs moved out of the darkness a hundred years ago. We are the ones who are stuck there.“
“Pit bulls are not dangerous or safe. Pit bulls aren't saints or sinners. They are no more or less deserving than other dogs of love and compassion, no more or less deserving of good homes. They didn't cause society's ills, nor can their redemption – real or imagined – solve them. There is nothing that needs to be redeemed anyway; they were never to blame in the first place. . . Pit bulls are not dogs with an asterisk. Pit bulls are just . . . dogs.”
When you hear the word “auction,” what image comes to mind? Real estate? Cars? Antiques? Art? Livestock? eBay? How about dogs? Yes. Dogs.
Dog auctions are big business in our country and as I blogged about in both 2016 and 2017, some of the biggest customers are people from the animal rescue community. Although many rescuers are quick to criticize people who buy animals in pet stores, they see no issue with cutting out the middleman and going straight to the source.
There was a time years ago when rescuers could get former “breeder stock” who were no longer profitable, and who otherwise would have been destroyed, for free. One of the most famous faces in the fight against “puppy mills” and irresponsible breeders is Harley Taylor, the little dog who was rescued after having literally been left in a bucket to die. At around this time, rescuers could get some of the breeder stock slated for auction, but in the very worst shape, for some nominal amount. I have been told about dollar dogs or a deal to sell 50 dogs for three dollars. Yes. Three dollars. The inspiration for National Mill Dog Rescue was a dog named Lily Strader who was purchased at an auction for $20 in 2007.
Fast forward to present day and all of that has changed. It changed not so much because the commercial dog breeding industry itself changed, but because of a new buyer at auctions: well meaning rescuers who are so bound and determined to “rescue” or “save” dogs from auctions that they are willing to pay whatever it takes to get dogs, sometimes spending hundreds or thousands on dogs who in prior years would have sold for a fraction of that cost.
I am unapologetic in my criticism from people in the rescue community who buy dogs at auction and pay anything more than some nominal amount that may cover the cost of lunch or a tank of gas. A sale is a sale is a sale. I will not revisit my earlier blogs here other than to state one basic fact: while it may seem noble to buy a dog at auction and call it rescue, doing so is incredibly short sighted because it only serves to perpetuate the very industry we all claim to abhor. Yes, that one dog may go on to lead a great life. But that one dog will be replaced by at least one (if not many more) dogs we do not see. And so the industry continues, driven by pricing and demand created by rescuers.
One of the first publications to cover this topic was Kim Kavin’s book, “The Dog Merchants” which was published in May of 2016. I am pleased to share that Kim continued her extensive research to go beyond her book and that the efforts of 18 months have come to light for all the public to see and read in the Washington Post Article entitled, “Dog Fight: Dog rescuers, flush with donations, buy animals from the breeders they scorn.” I encourage you to read the article for yourself and then give some serious thought to the whole subject of rescuers at auction.
Kim was gracious enough to spend some time to help me blog on this topic and about her article. I hope you find the Q&A informative.
(A poodle dog is seen jumping at the Sugarfork Kennels on Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Goodman, Mo.
Photo credit: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Your article sets forth facts and evidence which could be interpreted as evidence of criminal behavior by individuals and rescuers. Do you expect any criminal charges to be filed and, if so, how would that come about?
What we did with this article is shine a light on a practice that most everyday dog lovers don’t realize is happening, pulling back the curtain on the fact that dog auctions exist and that some rescuers are going there to buy dogs alongside the breeders.
Those basic facts, alone, have been a revelation to many dog lovers, based on the comments I’ve seen around the Internet and what I’ve heard from even my own friends and family. We achieved our goal of documenting the fact that this business model is happening in the world of rescue, and that it is widespread, with the rescue and advocacy groups and shelters that we tied to auctions now operating nationwide and into Canada.
Now that we have presented the information, how other people choose to use that information, well, that is up to them.
Your article makes it sound as though many rescuers have now taken the place of USDA licensed brokers because they buy dogs at auction and then sell them to the public using the phrase "adoption fee." Is this a fair assessment?
I think the line in the story that speaks best to that question is this one: “The breeders call ‘retail rescuers’ hypocritical dilettantes who hide behind nonprofit status while doing business as unregulated, online pet stores.”
That line was written based on what our reporting showed. Several of the breeders we quoted in the story are USDA licensed and, thus, know how brokers operate.
It’s interesting to me that you homed in on that point. So did the Best Friends Animal Society, on its blog, where the Best Friends writer stated: “Breeders refer to these rescuers as ‘hypocritical dilettantes who hide behind nonprofit status while doing business as unregulated, online pet stores.’ It’s hard to argue with that observation while more than 4,100 dogs and cats are still being killed in our nation’s shelters every day.”
In my experience, most people who donate to rescue groups knowing full well that they plan to buy dogs at auction think they are doing a good thing. They believe that they are helping rescues save dogs from lives of misery and servitude. What would you say to those people to persuade them that these purchases actually enrich the industry?
We do use the word "enrich" in the article. The editors and I discussed, debated and ultimately decided to use that word based on our reporting. We believe our reporting supports it.
For some of that reporting, I’d point readers to the quote from Southwest Auction owner Bob Hughes, in the sidebar Q&A, that I think speaks most directly to the way that you asked your question: “I think rescuers do help drive up the prices — but all bidders help. The $18,000 and $12,600 dogs that we broke records selling in February, they didn’t go to rescue. To say that rescuers don’t help the prices, though, would be wrong. . . . Every single person that attends an auction is driving the price up. And if . . . the breeder is determined to get the dog, and the rescue is equally determined to get the dog, that’s going to drive the price.”
I’d also point readers to that same Q&A, to the interview with the owner of the Heartland auction, who said: “Prices paid by rescues are higher now. The rescuers come in here with more money than the breeders. … The principle of what’s happening with the rescues is the same at our place as at Southwest, but the prices aren’t the same.”
I know of rescuers in my state who travel hundreds of miles to buy dogs at auction while turning a blind eye to the dogs in shelters near them who need to be rescued to stay alive. Is this behavior typical as far as you know?
It’s interesting to me that you are asking about that underlying debate within the rescue community, because again, the Best Friends Animal Society did the same thing in its blog.
This was the take that Best Friends had on it: “Would it surprise you to learn that the rescue group that purchased the two Cavaliers for $10,000 each is located in Alabama, the state with the third highest number of shelter animals killed annually? Or that the rescue group that purchased the pregnant Frenchie is located in Texas, the state that tops the shelter killing list? Texas kills an estimated 232,000 shelter pets per year and this Texas ‘rescue group’ is buying pregnant dogs from breeders at auctions in Missouri. This is not rescue, this is enabling abuse.”
My contacts have told me that the presence of rescuers at auction has completely changed the industry because of their willingness to pay whatever it takes to buy certain dogs. Would you agree?
Our reporting included some quotes from breeders who said, “We have breeders that breed for the auction,” and, “A breeder friend of mine said she’s thinking about saving her puppies until they get about a year old and take them to the auction. The rescue people will pay more than the pet-store brokers.”
And then in the sidebar Q&As with the auction owners, Hank Grosenbacher, the owner of Heartland, said: “I did have an out-of-state breeder tell me he has heard breeders say, ‘Well shoot, we’ll just start raising dogs and take them to Southwest and sell them to the rescues for high dollars. We’ll just breed for the rescues.’”
But it wasn’t only breeders and an auction owner giving us that information. It was also some rescuers. I would point people to the video at the very top of the story, to click “play” right below the headline, where they can see a rescuer—one who knows the commercial-breeding industry well—say very plainly that things have changed in recent years, and that today, “The industry understands that rescue is a piece of the business of the auction.”
That rescuer also did a phone interview with me, and she said a similar thing, about rescuers paying high dollar amounts for auction dogs: “They’re creating an industry inside the industry.”
I understand your investigation for the article took 18 months and was more work than your research for your book, “The Dog Merchants.” What shocked you most about the results of your investigation?
To be honest, I’m most shocked that it happened at all, that an industry insider read “The Dog Merchants” book, felt I was honest and fair in the reporting, and started sending me all these auction invoices and other documents. It’s quite a thing, to have all of that documentation show up in your inbox.
The result is that this story is the first time that anyone has ever documented—in dollars and cents—the multimillion-dollar river of cash that is flowing from rescue nonprofits, shelters and dog-advocacy groups through auctions into the pockets of dog breeders. That’s pretty shocking, too, that we were able to shine a light in such a substantive way.
I heard that one of the most profitable auctions by Southwest Auction Services in Wheaton, Missouri, was held in early February. I'm told a record was set regarding the amount of money spent by rescuers and the amount spent for a single dog. Do you have any information about that?
That sale in early February 2018, according to Southwest’s owner, was his most successful dog auction ever. He sold more than $600,000 worth of dogs, and a breeder paid the highest price ever for a dog at Southwest: $18,000 for a Miniature/Toy Poodle.
The top price that a rescue-affiliated buyer paid at that same auction was $8,750 for a pregnant French Bulldog. Readers can see that invoice for the $8,750 Frenchie right on The Washington Post’s website, along with a graphic drawn from other documents we have showing other prices that numerous rescuers have paid for various breeds at the auctions on other dates.
Some of the comments made by Bob Hughes make it seem like he has a certain degree of disdain for many rescuers (even though they help his business remain profitable) at worst and marvels at their behavior at best. Is that a fair assessment?
I think there are two quotes in the story from Bob Hughes where he answers your question for himself, and he where he is clear about his beliefs regarding rescuers.
We used one in the main story, where he states: “I honestly think there are very good, responsible rescues that just love the dogs and want to get them out of the breeding industry. And I think there are malicious, lying, cheating rescues that are in it for the money and the glory and the funding.”
Then in the Q&A sidebar, we used a quote from a phone interview that I did with Bob Hughes after I had contacted all of the rescuers, trying to do interviews with them for this story. The rescuers, after receiving my requests for their comment, had apparently picked up the phone and called Bob Hughes. In his own words, this is what happened when he received those calls, prior to the article being published: “I’ve probably had 30 phone calls from rescuers about this story. I told them I have empathy for them, but just no sympathy. Where were they when all the lies were being told about the breeders? You never once stood up. You never corrected a story. You keep painting us all with the same brush. You keep calling all of us ‘puppy mills.’ You want to use the word ‘puppy mill’ to describe the whole industry, and you’re part of it, but you don’t want to be accused of being part of it. Well, what goes around comes around.”
What do you hope the takeaway is from your article for the general public?
What our reporting shows is that most consumers don’t even know that dog auctions exist, let alone that breeders and rescuers are doing business side-by-side inside of them. Our story looks at the controversy surrounding this segment of the rescue world, so consumers can understand what’s going on, ask smart questions and make up their own minds.
I’ve seen in some of the comments posted around the Internet that average people are saying exactly that: They plan to ask more questions no matter where they get their next dog. That means we’ve made them aware, that we’ve done our job in shining a light on the facts for them to use as they wish.
What do you hope changes regarding rescuer behavior as a result of your article?
Based on the comments I’ve seen around the Internet, I think the same answer applies. We’ve shined a light on facts that, based on their own comments, even some rescuers didn’t fully understand.
Our reporting showed that while some rescuers have been going to the auctions for a decade or longer, in the past three to five years, the amounts of money that some rescuers are spending to buy dogs from breeders at auctions has really increased. So has the percentage of business that the rescuers make up, based on our reporting. The owner of America’s biggest government-regulated dog auction told us that rescuers now make up 30 to 40 percent of his business.
(individual dog images courtesy of National Mill Dog Rescue)
I got a call from a law enforcement contact of mine a few days ago. A 5 year-old child had been attacked by a dog and seriously injured. Details were sketchy at the time and some of the information didn’t add up. The child lived at one address, the dog was owned by a person at a different address, the incident occurred at 5:00 a.m. and it happened when the child entered the home where the dog lives. The child had injuries to his face and scalp which were severe but not life threatening.
Situations like this always make me wonder what really happened. Why was a child interacting with a dog belonging to someone else at 5 in the morning? Where were the adults? Had this child met the dog before? Did he know anything about how to interact with dogs? Was the dog sleeping, protecting puppies or protecting property? Was the child trying to kiss or hug the dog?
Don’t get me wrong. This was a tragic incident and it is terrible that a child was injured. I presume, but have not yet confirmed, that the dog was euthanized so that is the flip side of the tragedy for me. A life is perhaps forever changed - that of the child - and a life is ended - that of the dog - when this incident was totally preventable.
All dogs have teeth and all dogs bite. They bite other animals, they bite each other and they bite humans. Dogs use their mouths and teeth to communicate; sometimes they growl, sometimes they nip and sometimes they bite. Ninety-nine percent of emergency room treated dog bites are rated as minor punctures and lacerations. About half of the people who require medical attention as a result of a dog bite are children.
In December, 2013, The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) published the most comprehensive multi-factorial study of dog bite-related fatalities to be completed since the subject was first studied in the 1970’s. Experts have recommended for decades that a range of ownership and husbandry practices to reduce the number of dog bite injuries. The 2013 JAVMA paper confirmed the multifaceted approach to dog bite prevention recommended by previous studies, as well as by organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Veterinary Medical Association. The researchers identified a striking co-occurrence of multiple, controllable factors: no able-bodied person being present to intervene (87.1%); the victim having no familiar relationship with the dog(s) (85.2%); the dog(s) owner failing to neuter/spay the dog(s)(84.4%); a victim’s compromised ability, whether based on age or physical condition, to manage their interactions with the dog(s) (77.4%); the owner keeping dog(s) as resident dog(s), rather than as family pet(s) (76.2%); the owner’s prior mismanagement of the dog(s) (37.5%); and the owner’s abuse or neglect of dog(s) (21.1%). Four or more of these factors were present in 80.5% of cases; breed was not one of those factors.
April 8-14, 2018 is National Dog Bite Prevention Week. I encourage everyone who owns dogs, interacts with dogs or who has children to take some time to learn about dog bite prevention to keep your families safe and keep your neighborhoods safe. You can find a lot of great information published by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the ASPCA and HSUS. I’m also a fan of the information found on Dog Gone Safe, Good Dog in a Box and Stop the 77.
Even if you don’t have a dog, you can help keep your children safe by teaching them how to “speak dog.” It is common for children to try to kiss dogs, hug dogs, ride on dogs or behave in ways which may make some dogs nervous or anxious. Teaching children some basics about how to behave around family dogs and unfamiliar dogs can go a really long way toward avoiding tragedy. Once you teach your children the skills they need, they are apt to share that knowledge with other children to help keep their friends safe.
I suspect the little boy hurt on Monday had not been taught how to behave around dogs. I really wish he had.
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