There are some universal truths in life, one of which is that no one gets to stay. Our time here is limited even though we act as though we literally have all the time in the world for ourselves and with those we love. Another truth is that we all want to matter. We all want to make a difference in some way through the legacy of our families, having contributed to some change or having helped others. We seek confidence that our time here was well spent, regardless of our individual beliefs about what comes next when we die. The 10-year anniversary of my dad’s passing is at the end of this month and I’ve been reflecting on his influence on almost every aspect of my life, one of which is my animal welfare advocacy.
In the fall of 2009, both of my parents were diagnosed with different forms of cancer. Dad’s lung cancer diagnosis was early September; mom’s stomach cancer diagnosis was early December. As I struggled to process the realization that I would lose them both not decades in the future but at any time, I found myself thinking of my own mortality. Where I was in my life at the time. Choices I had made. What was important to me in the big scheme of things. It was sobering to say the least. I had been doing animal welfare video projects for a few years to help animal rescue groups, but was there more I could be doing to make a difference? The answer to that question was yes.
In late 2009, I decided to publish a website to help other people like me who may consider themselves “animal people” but who may not be aware of some of the issues related to companion animals in our society. I wasn’t sure what I would accomplish, but thought it was worth the effort to try to reach some people. I chose the name Paws4Change. This is an intentional play on words. My goal was to present content which may cause people to pause and then perhaps learn something new or change some previously held belief. I knew from my own awakening about issues related to companion animals in our country that there were a number of subjects which were all related to some way to the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in our nation’s shelters using our money and in our name. Puppy mills. Free roaming cats. Chaining of dogs. Spay and Neuter. Breed bans and restrictions. And, of course, no kill animal sheltering philosophies.
I shared my website with my parents in January of 2010 during one of many visits to see them over a short period of time. They were both undergoing a dueling chemo schedule and I honestly wasn’t sure how much they would care about my efforts. Their lives were in the balance and much more important issues challenged them every day. They did take time to look at it and they each gave me a long hug. I distinctly recall dad saying, “the website looks great. But why is your name not on it anywhere?” I confessed that I had not included my name at that time because some of the issues I covered were the subject of intense debate and I didn’t want anyone to threaten me or try to damage my reputation in some way for having had the audacity to speak. I also distinctly recall the next thing he said: “if it’s worth your time to set up a website to help people and take a stand, it’s worth putting your name on your work. Own it.” Yes, dad. You were right then, just like you were on so very many subjects over the years.
My parents are both gone. Dad left us on October 28, 2010, after his lung cancer moved to his brain. Mom left us on March 20, 2011, having outlived predictions for her lifespan by more than a year. We lost Rich's dad to cancer five days after my mom; it was a tough six months to say the least. I wrote about the loss of my parents before in my blog about placement of their cats. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of them and don’t miss them. I carry them with me each day.
My website has changed over the years. Some of the early content I thought would help people was of limited value so I got rid of it. I was looking back at it on The Wayback Machine for this blog and had forgotten how the site has changed over the years. I had to trademark the name a few years back after some folks decided to not play well with others and I've had to remind people about trademark protections a few times. I’m considering a new look in the next few months just to make the site appear a bit more modern.
The site content will remain essentially the same because the goal is still the same: to try to help people like me learn something new so they can make better personal choices which may have positive effects not only in their own lives, but in their communities. I still do my video work for nonprofit rescue groups and some for animal shelters. I now do periodic fundraisers to help those same organizations and published a book about my no kill animal shelter advocacy last year. I’d like to think both my parents would be proud and would approve. I could not help them stay here. But I give thanks each day for the time we shared and how they helped me become the person I am today. I honor them through my advocacy as I hear dad’s voice in my mind, telling me to “own it.” I'm not sure how much of an effect my efforts have. I know I have regular traffic to my website and my blogs are shared by some. As much as I would like to change the world, I know I cannot. But I can change some small parts of it and that's good enough for me.
We are all shaped by events in our lives, some of our own choosing and some over which we have no control. If there is something important to you, whether it is some wrong in society you want changed or some need to be fulfilled, I hope you will strive to get into what John Lewis called “good trouble.” We can all make a difference in a myriad of ways in our own families, with our jobs and with how we live our lives each and every day. As the tag line for my website says, your values are expressed by the choices you make. Go forth and do great things. You can make a difference. Time is both fleeting and precious.
you know life's too short to live it in fear
only thing you will regret is what you
do not do at all even more than the
stupid things you do
better take the chance
listen to your heart, no one can tell you
what your spirit wants
I published a blog on Wednesday of this week about our COVID 19 public crisis and what animal shelters can do to reduce intake of animals into shelters and increase output of animals from shelters. The impetus for the blog was a call I had with a contact of mine who asked what I knew about rumors that some shelters were resorting to population control killing. I used the blog to again promote the programs and services of the No Kill Equation while highlighting some great things being done by shelters to help animals.
Today let's talk about the rest of us. About those of us who share our lives with companion animals. The choices we make regarding our pets which are reflected in our personal behavior are more important now than ever before when it comes to keeping animals alive - not just our own animals, but the animals in our communities. I realize that many people don't give a whole lot of thought to how their personal choices affect how animal shelters operate. What we do as individuals absolutely affects shelters either for good or for bad.
Keep Your Dogs Contained
Most places have laws that require animals, particularly dogs, be contained so they do not run at large. Now is the time to take extraordinary measures to keep your pets under your control. Do not let your dogs run loose like it is 1845. It is not only dangerous for your dog, but it can be dangerous for the people who encounter your dog whether they are driving or just happen to cross paths. Make sure you keep gates closed, keep doors closed and you teach your children to do the same. If your dog gets loose, he or she is not only apt to be injured, but is apt to end up in a local animal control system. Do your part to keep that from happening not only to reduce the number of dogs in local shelters, but to avoid putting the life of your dog at risk. Your dog who is well behaved at home may do very poorly in a shelter environment and that may lead to his or her death.
Make Sure Your Pets Can be Identified
Now is the time to have your pet microchipped so he or she can be identified. Chipping is a cheap, easy way to help shelters, veterinary offices and law enforcement authorities know your pet's identity to get them back to you quickly if they do get loose or even if they are stolen. If you are on a Stay at Home Order and cannot get to a veterinary office, you can order an identification tag or collar for your pet so that someone who finds them can contact you easily. For cats, breakaway collars are recommended to avoid strangulation.
Identify a Pet Parent
I have written about the concept of a Pet Parent before. Much like some people name a Godparent for a child, a Pet Parent is someone who has agreed to take your pet or pets for you in the event of your death, hospitalization or if you can no longer care for them for some reason. Please do not assume that your family members or friends will automatically take your pets and care for them as you do in the event the unthinkable happens. Have an actual conversation with a family member or friend to ensure not only that they commit to take your pets, but that they know how to get to them in your absence and how to care for them. Our Pet Parent is one of my cousins. She has information about pet history, veterinary contacts, local contacts to get into our home and we have made provisions for the costs of care in the event of our deaths. No one likes to think of the worst case scenario, but it is the responsible thing to do. Related to COVID 19, you also need a Pet Parent for short-term housing and care. Think of this as a foster for your pet who will care for your pet temporarily until you have recovered and can care for your pet yourself. Don't allow your pet to end up in your local animal shelter because you didn't have a plan in place.
Pet Supplies - Be Ready
In the middle of shopping for the human members of your family by having a supply of food to last for a while, don't forget your pets. Make sure you have enough pet food to last a while. Make sure you have your pet's medications refilled and documented with dosages and administering directions.
Have a crate and extra supplies on hand if you need to relocate your pets quickly. Keep all animal vaccines up to date and have copies of those records available in the event that boarding becomes necessary.
Help Local Animal Shelters
There are a host of ways you can help your local animal shelter during this crisis provided you are not under a Shelter at Home Order.
You can foster an animal to get him or her out of the shelter and help expedite the adoption process. Many shelters offer sleepover fosters, weekend fosters, or other short-term fosters which not only frees up shelter space, but also helps the shelter to learn about the true personality of the animal. Very few dogs and cats behave in shelters the same way they behave in a home environment. When you foster, you learn about the ability of the animal to ride in a vehicle, get along with other animals, get along with children and about their personalities in general. That information, along with photos and video clips can be used by the shelter to help place the animal in a new home. It's much easier to "market" animals to new homes when more is known about who they really are, beyond what we see.
Now is also a wonderful time to adopt a shelter animal. Adopting a new-to-you pet now gives you a wonderful opportunity to help your adopted shelter animal decompress, learn about structure and become a member of your family. It can be hard to do that when working your normal hours at an office. Extra time at home makes the process easier for you and for your new pet.
You can also donate to your local animal shelter to help during the crisis. Some shelters may need food, blankets, beds, or enrichment items like Kongs and treats to keep shelter animals occupied during their shelter stay. Contact your local animal shelter to find out what they may need; many shelter have Facebook pages where they regularly list items they need donated.
Donate to a Local Pet Food Bank
Even if you have plenty of pet food on hand, others may not. If there is an organization in your community which operates a pet food bank, please consider donating so you can help another person keep their pet during difficult financial times. Many people are losing their jobs and may think they have to surrender their pet to a shelter because they can no longer afford to feed him or her. Many pet food banks taken open bags or boxes of food. No donation amount is too small. If you are not sure if your community has a pet food bank, your local animal shelter or local rescue groups should be able to tell you about places to donate food.
As a U.S. Army veteran, I have strong opinions about free speech. I not only see free speech as a right of all American citizens, but I would argue that it is our responsibility to speak out on matters of public concern. If issues are important enough for us to be outraged or angry, then they must be important enough for us to speak out and express ourselves to those who govern us.
I’ve been an outspoken animal welfare advocate for many years. Your tax dollars at work, I guess. Most of my advocacy relates to keeping shelter animals alive using the programs and services of the No Kill Equation. I also advocate for animals related to the issues I cover on my website: puppy mills, spay and neuter, adoption, aggression in dogs, breed bans, etc. I am the first to admit that I’ve made my fair share of mistakes along the way. In my early days of No Kill advocacy, I was too focused on the method I was promoting and not enough on the personalities of the people with whom I was dealing. Because I work in the legal field in municipal defense, I have always had a good handle on how local and state governments function. What I did not fully appreciate was that how my message is received is often as important as the message itself, regardless of my intent. I think the path I have taken would have changed little even if I had a better appreciation for position of the people with whom I was interacting. Some would have been defensive no matter how diplomatically I behaved. Some would not have been able to hear the message from me no matter now many years of experience I have or how much I know related to the issues about which I speak for animals.
One thing I have learned along the way is the importance of always striving to take the high road, no matter how others behave. There will always be people who oppose efforts to improve the welfare of animals for a host of reasons and there is little we can do about it. We cannot convince everyone to share our beliefs through magical thinking or sheer force of our will. Saying the same thing numerous times or saying it more loudly or forcefully is not the answer. I wrote about the behavior of some local opponents to my No Kill shelter advocacy in the book I published last year. People outside of animal welfare circles may think we all get along because we all want the same things. We do not all get along and there are great divisions and struggles between advocates. The people who voiced the loudest opposition to our efforts to reform the local animal shelter were from the animal rescue community. Doesn’t make much sense, I know. But that’s the reality. Even when we take the high road, that behavior is not always reciprocated and we have to learn to just tune out the hate and focus on the message and what we hope to accomplish.
In addition to my advocacy efforts related to No Kill animal sheltering, I’ve been involved with writing and advancing local laws in my state related to animals as well as writing, promoting and opposing laws on the state level. My bill about commercial dog breeding in my state has yet to be filed by my primary sponsor; it is standards-based and makes violations criminal, much like the criminal laws about abuse and neglect. My sponsor tells me he is holding my bill it as a common-sense alternative to a bill which he expects to be both overly ambitious and unenforceable. Time will tell if it is ever filed, but it has been reviewed for the state’s legal team and is ready to roll.
Just this week I was reminded again of the importance of staying on that high road when it comes to interacting with state elected officials. People who advocate for animals are passionate. We cannot lose sight, however, that how we communicate our opinion – and how we behave it we don’t get what we want – are of critical importance. I encourage everyone I know to speak out about proposed state laws that relate to animals. Sometimes bills about animals move so quickly the pubic knows nothing about them before they made laws. The reasons for this relate to money and influence by some large organizations like the AKC, Petland, insurance companies and Big Agriculture, but that’s the subject for another blog. When we communicate with state elected officials about bills, we have to be logical and respectful and we have to know what we’re talking about. To behave otherwise means that our message is lost completely. After having expressed our opinion about bills, we wait for the process to unfold and see what happens. If a bill we support does not pass, it is up to us to try to determine why. It may be that there is a way to promote something better in the future. It may be that the forces opposing the bill are just too strong to be overcome at the present time. If a bill we oppose does pass, it up to us to determine how we behave moving forward. Once a bill becomes a law, there is nothing we can do to turn back the hands of time. Laws are often amended, but that takes time so that circumstances change from the reasons the law was enacted in the first place.
When we yell, scream, threaten or otherwise run around like our hair is on fire related to laws, we lose all credibility and we stifle communication. I sometimes call this behavior Boomerang Aggression. We’re all familiar with the concept of a boomerang – a throwing tool or toy that is designed to spin about an axis perpendicular to the direction of its flight. A returning boomerang is designed to return to the thrower. Boomerang Aggression is when we behave so badly in our communication that we end up silencing our own efforts, having effectively hit ourselves in the head.
A number of animal bills have been filed in my state since the legislative session began in early February. Some are good like House Bill 134 which serves to define the single word, “shelter” in the existing criminal law about abuse and neglect of dogs and cats. This may seem like any easy bill. It is not. It has been opposed by some powerful organizations in past years and likely will be again this year. Nonetheless, animal advocates like me have voiced our support for the bill to the committee considering it and we’ll continue to express ourselves through the process.
One particular bill, Senate Bill 196, was not just terrible. It was downright dangerous. This bill would have put all control of all things animal under the exclusive control of the State Department of Agriculture (which has never dealt with any issues related to dogs and cats), would have nullified local laws already on the books about pet shops (for which I worked hard last year to promote) to open the door for companies like Petland to begin selling more animals in the state, would have put investigation of complaints of abuse and neglect in the hands of the Agriculture Department, would have criminal charged someone who reports animal abuse or neglect if the allegations later prove to be unfounded, and which would make it practically impossible for cities to enact new laws related to animals.
Through some incredibly hard work by a large number of people, to include the Alabama representative for the Humane Society of the United States -Mindy Gilbert- we were able to get SB 196 stalled. After the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture said his department was not consulted on the bill and they were completely unprepared to deal with issues related to dogs and cats, and as a result of many people speaking out against the bill, the primary sponsor agreed to not advance the bill further. This was a huge deal for most of us, but we’re not claiming victory yet. The legislative session doesn’t end until May and anything can happen in the intervening months.
In spite of this small victory, some people in the Birmingham area have failed to do one simple thing: stop talking about Senate Bill 196. The primary sponsor has agreed to not advance the bill. When people continue to call, email and write to the senate sponsors (there are 6) to threaten them, engage in name calling and engage in otherwise aggressive behavior, that does two things. It paints all animal advocates as unreasonable zealots who are incapable of respectful communication and it makes it harder (if not impossible) to have constructive communication with those elected officials in the future.
I have seen this same behavior from the same people before. It has not served them well in the past and it is not serving any of us well now. Those people fail to understand that the very senators they are attacking are the very people from whom they will need cooperation in the future on similar animal law or other animal laws. When you are so aggressive in your communication that the person with whom you are communicating is no longer listening or decides to apply your behavior to others, you are doing terrible harm to the animal welfare movement as a whole.
So. Folks in Birmingham. Please. Stop talking. Let Senate Bill 196 die a quiet death in this legislative session and stop vilifying the very elected officials from whom you will no doubt need cooperation in the future. We can all communicate our position on proposed laws in ways which are logical, effective and respectful. I can’t control your behavior, but you can for the sake of us all, human and animal. If you can’t stop talking, that tells me your focus is not on animal welfare itself but on you as a person. So don’t be surprised if the boomerang comes back and hits you in the head. You will have deserved it. And we may all suffer the consequences of your inability to speak your truth without screaming it.
A dog wanders onto your property or up to your front door. He looks dirty, is thin and has some blood on his fur. He’s not wearing a collar and is a bit scared, but appears friendly. Which of the following describes how you react and what you do? You -
If you answered with number 1 only, I hope you never cross paths with a lost dog.
If you answered with any combination of numbers 2 through 5, you likely don’t have a very high opinion of others and you may end up committing a crime.
If you answered with any combination of 6-10, you are to be commended.
Millions of us share our lives and homes with companion animals and most of us consider them family members. It can be difficult to think of them as property, but that is what they are considered under the law, just like our cars and our furniture. The big difference is that most of our property cannot get lost, get confused or feel pain. Case law on the subject of animals as property and the value of those animals when they are stolen or killed is evolving. We have not reached a time in our society that animals have a status separate from the other things we “own.” Other countries have taken that step. In some ways this is a good thing. As long as my dog is my property, I have certain rights regarding the ability of someone else to keep him from me or the ability of law enforcement authorities to seize him from me.
Animals get lost for a variety of reasons and not all of them relate to people being irresponsible. Most of us have heard the story of the dog who went missing on a family trip after having managed to get through a hotel door during a bad storm. The Washington family looked for him for 57 days before he was found in a field near a subdivision. We hear all the time about pets who have gone missing after automobile accidents. A few years ago, just that happened to a co-worker of mine. My co-worker and her family were on their way home from a trip and were traveling on a major highway when they were involved in an accident. Their dog was in the car. Although he was not seriously hurt by the accident, he was scared. The minute they opened the door he ran and kept running. They looked for him for hours and were not able to find him that same night. They kept looking for weeks and were ultimately able to find him with the help of a team of volunteers. A similar thing happened just this past weekend in Arizona.
(image of Obi and his family courtesy of Nicole Rodriguez)
Companion animals get lost or loose for so many reasons. A gate is left open, a contractor does not close a door, a child opens a door to go outside and an animal pushes past him or her. A dog or cat jumps a fence following a loud noise which scares them, including fireworks or gunshots. Our default assumption may be that an animal we encounter is loose because someone is to blame or people just don’t care enough. That is certainly the case some times, but most definitely not all of the time.
My husband and I have personally encountered numerous lost animals over the years, many of whom we found on or near our rural property. I admit there was a time when I presumed the worst of people. I wondered how they could “allow” their pets to get loose or how they could care so little to “dump” their pets in a rural area, presuming they would be able to survive. My position on this has evolved over the years as my education on animal welfare issues has also evolved.
We once had a shockingly thin hunting dog show up at our front door. “Buck” was wearing a tracking collar with a phone number which, thankfully, was still valid. It turns out he had gone missing from a pack of hunting dogs and had been missing for weeks. We didn’t feel great giving him back to the owner who showed little emotion when he came to retrieve Buck from our property, but we did it because it was the right thing to do. The last dog we “found” was crossing a busy highway a few miles from our house. I felt sure he would be hit by a car. Rich pulled into a nearby parking lot and was able to coax him toward our truck with some dog biscuits. “Buddy” was covered in mud so we took him home, cleaned him up a bit, contacted local animal control authorities to explain what happened (and in case there were any reports of a missing dog) and housed him in our workshop until we could get him to a rescue group which scanned him and held him for his “property hold period.” We drove around the area for weeks looking for lost dog signs and looking for properties my may have come from. He was a Great Pyrenees and we thought me might have come from a parcel on which livestock were kept. I posted about him on social media and on a website called Helping Lost Pets. I feel confident his family must have been looking for him just because he was such a stunning, laid back dog. The connection was never made and Buddy was later adopted by a wonderful family.
I have often joked about “liberating” animals I see living in what I consider substandard conditions and know people who have done just that, one of whom was convicted a few years ago of theft and receiving stolen property. Another contact of mine is facing criminal charges now for her involvement with placing a blind dog who left his property, ran into the road and almost caused an accident. I hope she has found a criminal defense attorney and will find a way to negotiate return of the dog, perhaps with some agreement that the family not let a blind dog outside unattended. For me, it’s just talk. As much as I would like many of the animals I see to live the way my dog lives, they do not belong to me and there would be real world consequences to stealing them. I try to find other ways to help them either by donating items to be used for their care or enlisting the aid of rescue groups to approach the owners toward improving the conditions for the animals or encouraging the owners to surrender the animals instead.
(image courtesy of Chriss Pagani)
I see information every week about animals who are lost and the people who find them. These are people I would ordinarily consider Good Samaritans who mean well, but may not always make the best choices. I also learn at least once every few months about someone who has purposefully stolen an animal or animals. They do this knowing who owns the animal but while having made a conscious decision to take one or more animals because they don’t think the owner is caring for the animal properly.
If you find a lost animal, even if that animal comes on your property, you are not entitled to keep that animal any more than you are entitled to keep a car parked near your house with the keys in the ignition, the wallet you find when walking through a parking lot or the bicycle you see leaning against a wall outside of a business. If you knowingly keep a person’s property from them and/or later transfer that property to another person, you have committed a crime regardless of your good intentions. Every state has its own criminal laws about theft of property and receiving stolen property. In my state, theft of property in the fourth degree and theft of lost property in the fourth degree relate to property that is valued at less than $500. These are Class A misdemeanors which may result in a jail sentence of up to one year and a fine up to $6,000.00. Theft of property of theft of lost property valued at more than $500 but less than $1,000 are each Class D felonies which can result in a sentence of not more than 5 years and not less than 1 year and one day. Receiving stolen property is also based on degrees related to the value of the property and is a separate offense.
I know this is an emotional topic. I know that people who find lost animals more often then not want the very best for them and are just trying to be helpful. This subject was recently explored on an episode of a popular television show called A Million Little Things; one of the characters in the show found a dog and kept him, only to learn about a year later that the dog's family had been looking for him and made flyers about their missing dog. As of this writing, "Gary" was struggling about what to do with the dog, whom he named Colin.
The next time an animal in need crosses your path, please give some serious thought to how you would feel if your pet went missing. Wouldn’t you want the person who found your pet to presume the best of you, and not the worst, and do everything possible to help you find your lost pet? I know I would. Please take the time to at least contact local animal control authorities so you can get the animal into the animal control system and give the owners an opportunity to find him or her. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to take the animal to an animal shelter and leave him or her there. If you decide to find a new home for that animal yourself, whether you know who owns the animal or not, you are knowingly breaking the law and may be criminally charged and convicted.
I hope a time comes when our companion animals have their own legal status as sentient beings. My couch cannot get up and wander away, crossing county lines. My car will not roll away on its own and end up miles from my office of my house. Some countries have changed their laws already. It’s time for us to get on board. It’s time to change the legal status of animals to protect them not as “things,” but as the creatures we love and value as they enrich our lives in countless ways.
But in the meantime, please. Don't steal my dog.
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.”
I can count some of the worst days of my life on one hand and they all relate to loss. The euthanasia of our dog Snake on April 22, 2006. Earth Day. The death of my father on October 28, 2010, from lung cancer which had moved to his brain. The death of my mother less than six months later on April 20, 2011, from stomach cancer. The death of my father-in-law who had lived with us for more than 15 years exactly five days after mom died. And the euthanasia of our dog, Aspy, on July 4th of 2016.
Aspy was sitting in front of my living room chair when the first seizure happened. I thought he was dreaming at first, but when I looked down at him, it was obvious I was wrong. Rich jumped into action and held him steady while I stroked his body and prayed out loud and repeatedly for God to bless his soul. The seizure lasted two to three minutes and it was terrifying. He howled. I was surprised at how hard his body shook. Rich called our vet as soon as the seizure ended in hopes that she would be able to see us that afternoon. We were only 15 minutes away and could leave right away. She could not help us. She told us to go to the emergency veterinary hospital about 40 minutes away. We waited in an exam room for more than three hours just to be seen. After a CT scan was done, we were told about an hour later, in the waiting area, that Apsy had a mass in his liver, one in his spleen and that the cancer had likely moved to his brain. We were also told the first 24-hours were critical and to monitor him. It was early the next morning when we got home tired, upset and confused.
Aspy was sleeping on the rug in our living room in the early afternoon hours of the 4th of July when the second seizure hit. It was much worse than the first. He shook and howled. He lost control of his bowels and his little heart was beating so fast I was sure he would die from the seizure. I stroked his body again as I tried unsuccessfully not to cry and as I prayed out loud again and over and over for God to bless his soul. I’m pretty sure the seizure lasted about 45 minutes; I kept looking at the clock and know it was at least 30 minutes. I just don’t know. We could not reach our veterinarian so we took him back to the same animal hospital where we had been earlier that same day. The seizure stopped while we were on the way to the emergency hospital and we almost turned around. We did not. We had Aspy euthanized that day.
I could tell you about our disappointment in our veterinarian of 20 years. She has her own life and could not drop her plans to help us. I could tell you about how our experience at the emergency hospital the first night was one of the worst experiences of my life; I’ve had more compassion shown while getting my car’s oil changed. I could explain in detail what happened during the euthanasia process which had me cussing like a sailor, banging on the walls and contemplating criminal behavior while Rich endured his own private hell and wondered what in the world was going on. We later wrote a three page complaint letter to the emergency hospital, not that they cared about our complaints. We told them that when dealing with people like us, they should be mindful that they saw us, and our beloved pet, on the very worst day of our time together and that it was seared in our memories for all time. No one ever bothered to call or apologize in any way for what we experienced and the trauma we endured. I call it trauma because it was. We both had a really hard time in the days, weeks and months to come. We tried to but really could not talk about what happened. The memories were very real and playing almost nonstop on a loop inside out heads; talking just made it worse. Even as the months went by, the memories managed to rise to the surface without invitation or warning. We were told we should get another dog. It would make us feel better. We just could not.
If you are reading this, you probably have a veterinarian you trust to care for your animals. That person is likely only available to help you during normal business hours Monday through Saturday and may be closed one weekday. But do you have a plan for after-hours care? For emergency care or treatment when your vet is on vacation? How about holidays?
I cannot encourage you strongly enough to develop a plan for veterinary care when your own veterinarian is not available. If your veterinarian provides after-hours care for established patients, that’s wonderful. You are fortunate. If that person or veterinary practice does not, take time now to figure out where you would go and what you would do if you needed help outside normal business hours. Determine how long it would take to travel to emergency providers near you. Read the reviews for those providers. Have a plan in place ahead of time for care whether it is injury care for a broken bone, torn ligament or some other non-life threatening situation. Have a plan in place for end of life care. Will you take your dog or cat to the veterinarian? Will your veterinarian come to your house when the time comes? Don’t assume that you can just make good decisions from the hip when accidents happen or tragedy strikes. Your brain may not process information well when you are under duress and you just may not think as clearly as you normally would.
We did adopt another dog last September, over 14 months after Aspy left us. We still miss Aspy and I try really (really) hard to not think about his last 2 days. It’s just too difficult to go there. We found Rusty at an animal shelter with the help of Petfinder, a wonderful tool with which I have a love-hate relationship. I love how it helps place animals; we never would have found Rusty if not for Petfinder. I hate how many animals there are in need of new homes.
We have a new veterinarian we work with who is closer to our house. His office has after-hours care for established clients. We call a number and the on-call vet is paged. Although we probably won’t need it, the veterinary hospital has a storm shelter in the basement in case of severe weather (we have our own storm shelter at home). Our Pet Parent Plan for our new dog, Rusty, provides for him to be boarded temporarily with our veterinarian if something happens to both of us at the same time. Our vet has said he won’t charge for this. Boarding Rusty short-term until my cousin can transport him to Texas will be on the house. We were told, “it’s the least we can do.”
Be ready. Please.
If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. - Hamlet
(candles image courtesy of Mike Labrum)
It has been more than a week since Hurricane Harvey first made landfall in southern Texas. I heard last night that even more people were being evacuated from west Houston as water from more reservoirs was released by the Army Corps of Engineers. These are people who surely thought they had made it through the worst and they would not have to leave their homes. As I was watching the news, it got me thinking about how quickly many people have moved on both mentally and emotionally from the events of the last week. I'm always amazed at how short our attention spans are when it comes to disasters. Perhaps we are too easily swayed by news cycles. Perhaps we are just so focused on what is on our personal radar that we become callous to the tragedies of others which are far removed from our own lives. We see the images, hear the stories, maybe make a donation or two and then are back to normal for the most part.
If you have never lived through a natural disaster, it can be hard to have true empathy for those who have. The images and news reports simply cannot do justice to the scope of the event in terms of structural or material losses and will never do justice to the human toll taken on those who have lived through it. Natural disasters change lives forever. They become a demarcation point between “before” and “after.” What life was like before the flood, tornado, earthquake, fire. What life is now after the flood, tornado, earthquake, fire. I don't expect everyone to think about what has transpired in Houston and other affected areas every day. I do think that those of us who have not been personally affected by the disaster owe it to those who have been to learn from what has taken place. There are lessons to be learned both in terms of our personal lives and in terms of how we want our country to handle disaster response in the future.
Lessons Learned in Terms of Disaster Response
A lot of lessons have been learned from prior hurricanes. When it comes to how we manage companion animals, many lessons were learned from Hurricane Katrina, leading to enactment of the PETS Act. I was not involved in the response to Katrina, but I know people who were. People like Mike Fry of No Kill Learning who wrote the following in his blog for No Kill Movement entitled, "Harvey is Not Katrina: Lessons from the Trenches":
Following Katrina, a sizable group of people (including myself) worked diligently to ensure that the PETS Act was passed into law, providing safety and shelter for people and their pets in disasters. During Katrina, pets were forcibly taken from their evacuating families at gun point. Following Harvey, pets are being welcomed into evacuation shelters. Though there were some false starts, and some families with pets were initially kept out, a federal judge quickly set that right and gave notice that pets were to be accommodated. That has led to proactive life-saving of unprecedented proportions. When people can bring their pets with them, they are more willing to take shelter. If they can't, they often don't and needless human and non-human loss of life results.
Much has changed since Hurricane Katrina regarding how people are sheltered with their pets as opposed to being forced to leave them behind. One thing which was apparently not learned from Katrina was 1) how to manage how pets are rescued and by whom; 2) how rescued pets are accounted for; and 3) where those pets can and cannot be taken. I know of a number of groups which went to the predicted path of of the storm before it made landfall or shortly thereafter which pulled animals from shelters in the predicted path of the storm. They did this to keep animals safe, but also to free up space in those shelters for owned animals who may later be displaced. I support that type of rescue.
Because there is no centralized system used to track animals helped by a myriad of organizations, however, there were will large numbers of owned pets who will never be accounted for. My sources who live in the Houston area or who are there helping with disaster response tell me that some organizations are taking potentially owned companion animals out of the state. At a glance this may look like a good idea; the focus should be on saving lives. I would like to think the organizations doing this mean well with the possible exception of PETA which I fully expect will kill each and every animal it “rescues.” But here's the thing. Those animals belong to someone and we owe it to those people to do everything we can to keep potentially owned pets in the immediate area so people can find them.
When I called the practice of removing potentially owned animals from the area “pet looting” on my Facebook page recently, I got a lot of mixed reactions. Some from outside the area are quick to assume that pets are displaced from people due to some form of irresponsibility and that those people don't “deserve” to get their pets back. Not so fast. Here is the scenario I posed on my Facebook page:
You're at your house near Houston. It is not yet flooded. You think you're going to be safe. The Army Corps of Engineers opens a dam and with very little warning your house begins filling up with water. You frantically start grabbing things to load up in a vehicle in hopes that you can get out in time. In the process of loading things into a vehicle your dog gets out. You had him leashed and with you all the time, but he's scared and feeding off of your fear so he pulls away from you. You call for him. You search high and low, but you have to go. Authorities come along, telling you to get in a rescue vehicle right now. You say, "but I don't know where my dog is," and they say, "don't worry. Someone will find your dog and take care of him." You panic and you leave as you call out for your dog.
I think it is easy for people to find fault with those who did not leave the Houston area with their pets or who were displaced from their pets. I get that. But it's not always the result of irresponsibility. How in the world are people supposed to find their pets if they've been taken away to another state? What website are they supposed to check? Where are they supposed to go? Who can they call? Because there are no answers to any of those questions, my hope is the lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey include how we account for companion animals handled in any way by any organization whether they are housed locally, housed in nearby areas or removed from the state. I honestly don't know how we would go about tracking animals like we track people. I trust there must be some way to do that and that just hope that there are some people "out there" who are already working on this issue.
Personal Lessons We Must Learn
The personal lessons we must all learn are a lot less complicated than trying to figure out a solid disaster response plan for all pets.
The first and most important thing all of us can, and should, do is to have our pets microchipped so they can be identified if they are displaced from us for any reason. You may never have to survive a natural disaster, but you may still have a pet go missing due to an open door or open gate. You may have a dog or cat flee in fear due to fireworks. Your pet may be stolen from you. The best way to ensure your pets can be identified is using a microchip which is implanted under the skin and which contains a unique number which can be traced back to you after you have registered it. Unlike collars or tags with may fall off or be removed, the microchip is subcutaneous and can be scanned by a host of authorities from animal control personnel to rescuers to veterinary offices to law enforcement authorities. The cost of having your pet chipped is nominal compared to the costs you may incur trying to find your pet, not to mention the emotional and psychological toll it may take on your and your family. A microchip is not a GPS device (although those are available, with a limited battery life) but it is the best possible way to ensure your pet can be identified quickly and easily.
The second important thing all of us can, and should, do is to simply have a plan in the event of a natural disaster. If you had to evacuate an area, where would your pets go? If you were away from home when a mandatory evacuation order was imposed, how would anyone know that you have pets in your home or yard? Do you have friends or family who could house your pets for you if you could not find space in a FEMA shelter and take your pets with you? None of us likes to think we will ever have to endure a natural disaster and go through what the people of Texas have endured in the last couple of weeks. We have fires all over. We now have earthquakes in places where they never occurred before. We have tornadoes in New York. For the sake of all of your family members, both human and animal, please have a plan and please prepare for the worst.
And while you're doing all of that, please stop to remember that there are people in Texas who are suffering. Their lives have been forever changed. Have some compassion and empathy for those people and don't be so quick to judge them. You cannot possibly say that you know how you would behave under extreme stress unless you have lived through it yourself. The image below? That's our tornado shelter. I have my plans. Do you have yours?
(flooding image courtesy of Illinois Public Media)
I grew up not just in an animal friendly household, but an animal integrated household. From the time we got our first cat when I was very young, we always had companion animals and sometimes we had many of them. They were as much members of our family as us children and most of them had human names. Dave. Annie. Mark. Barbara. Tom. Leroy Brown’s name was a product of our time, having come from an old Jim Croce tune. I know there are people who are not raised with companion animals and who don’t consider themselves “animal people.” I respect that lifestyle. But I simply cannot imagine a life without animals. Studies have shown that they help us live longer, lower our blood pressure, keep us more active than we might otherwise be and provide us truly unconditional love which we often do not have in many of our human relationships. Life is simply all the richer, more joyous, more hilarious and yes, more heartbreaking, as a result of sharing our homes and our waking hours with the companion animals we love.
I spent most of my childhood in a single home in a suburb in northern San Diego and I spent some time there very recently. Mom and dad have both been gone from us for six years and the house has reached an age when it is easier to sell now than a few years from now when upgrades will be required. I lived in the house a number of times as an adult, but I no longer see it in quite the same way. For me, the house was the place where we made our memories and not the place where they remain. Don’t get me wrong; I still view the house as my childhood home and letting it go is not easy. It’s just that the time had come to spruce up the house so that it can be a home for a new family who will make their own memories there.
My siblings and I converged on the house recently to do some last minute fix-ups and cleaning (with the vital help of our very able spouses). As I was cleaning shutters and vacuuming the new carpet, I reflected back on the many years spent under the same roof with animals and all the lessons learned along the way. They taught me about responsibility and compassion. They taught me about humor and joy and the value of living in the moment. They taught me about acceptance and tolerance. They taught me about sharing and selflessness. And yes, they taught me about loss and death.
At the same time the animals were teaching me lessons, our parents were doing the same. All of our companion animals were either adopted or rescued. I didn’t even know that commercial dog or cat breeding and sales existed for decades; I just assumed everyone who had pets had rescued them or adopted them. Mom was helping free roaming community cats long before those descriptions became common. She helped a free roaming cat she called “Elvis” for years, as well as a cat she simply called "E.C." (for Extra Cat). When a bonded pair of ducks came to spend time in our little suburban yard year after year (Bob and Marlene, of course) we were taught the value of letting wild animals just be and allowing them to live in peace without our interference. Our parents’ love of all animals extended far beyond the walls of our childhood home to the vast spaces of the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park (which is essentially a breeding facility for wild and endangered species). They were benefactors for the lion exhibit at the park and a plaque outside the exhibit bears their names. Each acacia tree at the facility has its roots in the seeds smuggled into the country thanks to what amounted to a “ covert op” schemed by mom to get acacia seeds from South Africa with the help of her boss on one of his mission trips with his church. Dad was a huge fan of the California Wolf Center in Julian which not only houses wolves but works to introduce them back into the wild while working with ranchers to develop cooperative relationships to protect both livestock and wolves.
I am grateful for the time I shared with our parents in my childhood home in the company of companion animals. I am grateful for the way I was raised with the help of animals and guidance of my parents who taught as much with actions as with words. I am also grateful that I helped prepare the house for the transition to a new owner so I could say my own farewell of sorts.
While I was busy in California, a co-worker of mine decided to adopt a young free roaming cat from our colony which lives near my office. I had found the small female cat as I was putting out food for the colony just before my trip back to San Diego. I brought her to my office to wait for a rescue group to arrive and word soon spread that I was harboring a visitor. The bond between “Latte” and Sha’Lena was obvious from the time they met. I have since learned that Vivian, Sha’Lena’s young daughter, has usurped her status and now Vivian and Latte are inseparable. I am sure that Vivian will grow up learning the same lessons I did so many years ago and her life will be all the richer from the bond she will share with a young cat who just happened to cross my path and who is now Vivian’s best friend.
Our first open house was this past weekend. As is the case in many places in southern California, the house was in demand because of the area and the schools. We have decided to sell the house to a single mom who is relocating to be closer to her parents who can help with her young son.
It is only fitting that our buyer is a veterinarian who has an older dog and two cats. I think mom and dad would be thrilled. Let the memory making and lessons to be learned begin.
Life is fleeting and precious.
On April 27, 2011, I was getting ready to go to work when our lives changed. Storms had been predicted for that day. We didn't know that they would turn severe and it would happen fast. I stopped getting ready for work, we packed up our valuables into small bags and we hid in an interior room of our house with our leashed dog until the worst passed. I distinctly recall Rich saying to me, very calmly, "stop screaming. You're scaring the dog" as our house lifted up off of the foundation. It was one of the scariest experiences of my life. That was to be the first of two waves off tornadoes to pass through our area that day. We were very lucky compared to some. Many lives were lost that day and countless homes were destroyed. The F1 tornado that crossed our property did some roof damage to all of our structures, blew out some windows, threw debris all over and downed countless tall pines and cedars, but we were not hurt. We spent a really busy week of clean-up with no power, getting our news from a local radio station on a windup radio Rich had picked up a few years earlier and using a Coleman stove to cook.
As we listened to radio broadcasts of damage reports, people trying to find family members and the status of places to find gasoline and ice, we also heard countless stories of animals lost and animals found following the storms. As the weeks and months went by, we learned that thousands of animals who would ordinarily not be separated from their families could not be found and were presumed dead or missing. Large numbers of pets ended up being transported out of state and I never quite understood that process well. Surely there was some way to house found animals so that people could reclaim them, right? Wrong. The sad truth is that even under the most ideal of circumstances not related to natural disasters, most pets who are displaced from their homes never get back home. Whether pets go missing as the result of an open door, unlatched gate or natural disaster, the vast majority simply cannot be identified. They cannot talk, most do not wear identification and most are not microchipped.
Which leads to the purpose of this blog.
The first Saturday of April of each year is "Every Day is Tag Day." The third week of every April is "National Pet ID Week." Both of these annual events are used to encourage people to take proactive steps to make sure pets can be identified if they get lost or are stolen. Although a lot of people use collars and tags for this, and there is nothing wrong with that (provided cat collars are the breakaway type for safety purposes), nothing compares to the use of a microchip to make sure your pet can be identified. Chips are manufactured by a number of different companies and are available at a variety of prices depending on where you live and what your veterinarian charges to implant the chip. Some chips are sold with the price of registration included and others require a registration fee in addition to the cost of the chip itself. The chip is about the size of a grain of rice and contains a unique number which is a lot like a barcode. It is implanted under your pet's skin (normally at the base of the neck); in some states this can only be done a veterinarian or pet owner. If your pet ends up at an animal control facility, is found by law enforcement authorities or is taken to a veterinarian by a Good Samaritan, he or she can be scanned and the chip will be tracked back to you, provide you registered the chip and kept your information current.
I do volunteer work for my local animal control officer and some of the tasks I do relate to trying to get pets back home. I register found pets on a wonderful website called Helping Lost Pets, I prepare "Found" posters using that same website and I post about found pets on his Facebook page so the posts can be shared and we can find owners. Most of the dogs picked up have collars but no tags. One cat picked up a few weeks ago had been recently spayed. Surely she had a home. But we just could not find it because she was not chipped. Very seldom is a chip found in one of the dog who ends up in our animal control system. The good news in our area is that we have a great track record of keeping animals alive with the help of volunteers, donors, rescuers and adopters. Such is not the case everywhere. In many areas of our state and across the country, the fact that pets cannot be identified means that they are destroyed.
To honor the animals lost during the April 2011 storms in our state, we our promoting a Chipathon in our area during the month of April. People can make appointments now to have pets microchipped at one of a variety of locations for very low prices. The cheapest chips cost about the same as the price of a large bag of dog food or a couple large containers of cat litter.
My personal hope is that chipping of pets will become the norm and not the exception not only in our area, but across the country. Wouldn't it be wonderful if every lost or stolen dog and cat could be reunited with his or her family? If you love your pets or just value them in some way, please have them microchipped. It could honestly mean the difference between life and death for your pet and is just so easy to do.
I became an animal welfare advocate about a decade ago after I learned what happens at the shelter in the city where I work and where I was first stationed in the Army in a former life. Although there are many facets to my advocacy, I have spent a great deal of time in the last 10 years working to make Huntsville, Alabama, a no kill community - a place where healthy and treatable animals are not destroyed using our tax dollars. Huntsville is now being treated as one of the national success stories in animal sheltering. It is not yet a no kill community and it is entirely likely that it will never be one. Now that a certain level of progress has been achieved here, the mayor is happy, the city council is happy, the shelter staff is happy and so are most of the public. Better has been declared good enough; me pushing for more is likely an exercise in futility. I have already begun to turn my focus away from Huntsville towards the city and county where I live to try to do some good there.
The good news about the last ten years of my advocacy is that I have met some truly inspired, passionate people who are leading our society to a new age as it relates to how we treat companion animals in America. These are some tremendously talented and smart people and I am proud to say I know them. They are not afraid to speak out for the greater good and have stood up against tremendous opposition from people who claim to advocate for animals but who are really more focused on themselves and or on defending the status quo. The vast majority of them receive no compensation for their advocacy; it is a moral imperative to them and they feel compelled to act and speak out for the benefit of animals who cannot speak for themselves.
The bad news is that this period of time has taken an incredible toll. The amount of struggle I have faced, and the level of toxicity I have found among people who claim to be animal advocates, has been both shocking and educational. I have some regrets about things I did and I know I made mistakes. Advocacy is at its core about passion for a cause and I honestly don't think it's possible to always make the right choices. I can say for sure that there are things I did wrong, but for all the right reasons. I’m okay with the road I traveled. I know I did the best I could considering all the other factors in play and in light of the resistance I encountered from the very people responsible for making changes on their own without the need for any advocacy.
Which leads to the reason for this blog. I've developed a lessons learned type of list to try to help others who think they want to advocate for animals, particularly related to how their local animal shelter functions. Calling this blog a survival guide is a bit dramatic, but I do hope that reading my observations will help someone else avoid my same mistakes. It is not all inclusive and I’m just hitting the highlights.
Decide what you want. Ideally, I think you should be able to state your goal in a single sentence. You cannot fix our entire society or even an entire community in one fell swoop or through magic thinking. You cannot address issues related to companion animals, farm animals and wildlife at the same time. In my case, I wanted to push Huntsville to stop killing healthy and treatable animals in the tax funded shelter.
Do your research. If you don't know what you're talking about, you'll never make any headway because you'll have no credibility. You need to become an expert on your vision so you can speak intelligently about it from the hip. Learn the history of the issue you are working on so you know how our society got to this point. Make a decision on what methods you think work best to accomplish the goal, while being prepared to acknowledge that there are other methods which may have value. Network with people who have walked your path before you and whom are considered subject matter experts. You don’t need to be the smartest kid in the class as long as you know the smartest kids in the class.
Find a few like minded people to stand with you - but not too many. I think it is incredibly rare for a single person to be effective in an effort to make things better for animals and with no support when it comes to addressing systemic issues, particularly with local governments. It's just too easy for you to be dismissed as naive or as a zealot. You will likely be able to do more good if you find like-minded people who share your vision and are willing to join you to speak with one voice. Don't make your group larger than it needs to be for the sake of numbers. You run the risk of ending up with people who say they share your values but who truly do not or who talk but don’t do. Those people can be incredibly disruptive and take you way off course, wasting valuable time and energy.
Try doing "the ask" at the very beginning. If you are trying to reform the way your local animal shelter functions, diplomacy and respect are key and you simply must take the high road even if that behavior is not reciprocated. I’ve heard many times that all advocates are abrasive and are too quick to engage in name calling and assigning blame from the start. Not in my circles. I am a firm believer in taking the easiest path from Point A to Point B. If you do not approach those who have the power to change the situation and simply ask them to consider doing so, you run the risk of offending them unnecessarily. Go straight to the source as your first step.
Don't waste time or energy on someone who doesn't care or won’t listen. There is no polite way to tell someone "animals are being destroyed needlessly. Please stop." But anyone who is really interested in saving the lives of animals, as opposed to defending that outdated process, will quickly let you know that they are interested in learning other ways to function and are "all in" toward embracing new ideas, particularly if you can help them understand what methods have worked in other places. You cannot force someone to acknowledge your vision and to work with you if they are bound and determined not to do so. If you hit a wall, don’t keep banging your head against it. Find a way around it by involving the general public in your efforts.
Make your message one about ethics, money and accountability - not about specific people. All animal shelters function with some oversight. In the case of municipal animal shelters which are operated by a city, county or by a contracted nonprofit, those shelters are funded by tax dollars. If your argument is that animals are being needlessly destroyed, you do better to argue that doing so is not consistent with American values, is not a good way to spend money and that those who oversee the shelter are accountable to the people who are paying for it: the public. Even if you believe that a shelter director should be removed, you won’t get far suggesting that unless some actionable form of abuse is taking place. You are better off focusing on the leadership as a whole. If the leadership makes personnel changes, so be it.
Don't listen to the haters, enablers or apologists. Although most people outside of animal welfare circles think that all animal welfare advocates are on the same page, we are not. I firmly believe that there are people who advocate for animals solely for the benefit of those animals. They do not seek or want recognition and the act of having helped is their reward. Then there are people who advocate for animals so that they can say that they advocate for animals. Many of these people can be your worst critics. For them, this is more about people and not offending anyone than it is about saving lives. Detach from those people and don’t let them suck the life force out of you with their negative energy. When you are labeled the source of the problem because you took it on yourself to speak out, don’t get trapped by the tactic of putting focus on the messenger instead of the fact that the message was necessary in the first place. You cannot win with people who point the finger of blame at you while giving the people destroying animals a free pass.
Be prepared to see it through. Once you begin an advocacy effort, the reality is that you can’t just stop if you get tired or discouraged. Be prepared to see it through, no matter how long it takes. Your efforts could take weeks, months or even years. Be prepared to stay on subject and stay committed to your beliefs, even if you are not treated with the same diplomacy you use to advocate for animals. Part of this process is, however, knowing when you have done all that you can. When you reach a point where you are no longer being effective in any way and you are simply repeating yourself to an audience which doesn’t share your ideals, be prepared to move on and know that you did your best simply to preserve your own sanity.
I have been called a lot of things in the last decade related to Huntsville and I know there are some who would not volunteer to be president of the Aubrie Fan Club. I’m okay with that. Because I know that my advocacy made a difference. If I had not begun to rock the boat myself and then found others to help me rock it, very little would have changed. And animals would have continued to die by the thousands for no good reason at all.
Go forth and do great deeds.
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