I first heard about a new film called "The Dog Lover" about a week ago. I had seen something about it on a website and heard about a review by Bailing out Benji, but did not have the time to really delve into the topic. On the surface, the film looks to be a feel good story of a woman who champions the cause of animal welfare for dogs and triumphs over evil. I checked in with a couple of contacts who told me that the film was pretty much "pro mill." When my husband picked up a copy and brought it home, I told myself I would do my best to remain neutral about it when we watched it. I tried, really I did. If you plan to see the film, you may want to stop reading here so I don't spoil the plot for you. I don't go into much detail, but I do touch on some of the story line.
The Dog Lover is a film which purports to be based on a true story. It is not. There are very few actual facts in the movie and the rest of the plot is tossed together for effect. The film was produced by a group called Protect the Harvest which is led by oil giant Forrest Lucas. The name of the organization alone tells you a lot. You can do some simple searches to see that their mission is. I will not link to the organization here.
But back to the movie. The premise of the film is pretty simple. A woman who works for a large animal welfare organization and who thinks all dog breeding is morally wrong agrees to go undercover working as an intern for a breeder of hunting dogs. She is sure she will find evidence to help shut down what she was told is a "puppy mill." The breeding operation is not what she expected, she ends up liking the breeders and decides that they have been falsely targeted by her employer. Rather than act on her knowledge, she hangs around to get friendly with a boy she likes, only to have law enforcement authorities sweep in to seize the dogs. Many of the dogs get sick only after having been taken from the breeder and a lot of them die. The breeder is later vindicated in legal proceedings and proclaims that he is glad his reputation has been restored.
For me, this movie just really served no purpose and it may only serve to confuse the dog-loving American public. I'm not so much hung up on the fact that the movie claims to be based on a true story when it really is not. I am hung up on what our take away from the film is supposed to be.
In The Dog Lover, everyone loses.
The HSUS loses. In the film, the lead character works for the United Animal Protection Agency. In real life, this case involved the Humane Society of the United States. I am no fan of the HSUS as an organization and I have never shied away from being critical of how they spend their millions. I see them as a self-perpetuating money collection agency which brings in money by playing with the hearts of the American public. The HSUS loses in this film because it is made out to the the bad guy and exposed for being hypocritical. I'm okay with that. It is deserved criticism. It was about 5 years ago that the HSUS did a "raid" on a property not far from where I live. The dogs became known of simply as "The Alabama 44." The short story is that HSUS seized 44 dogs from a rural property under the guise of taking them from deplorable conditions and without the knowledge of local law enforcement officials. The dogs were dispersed to a variety of locations. Some were destroyed in gas chambers in another state, some were destroyed locally, having been deemed "unadoptable," and many were never accounted for.
The dog breeder loses. The breeder in the film is just that: a breeder. Although I am not a fan of breeding dogs, the reality is that breeding dogs is perfectly legal in our society even if the conditions in which the dogs are allowed to be housed would make us all sick. The film shows dogs who are fed, have clean water, receive veterinary care, live in pens which allow room for movement and the dogs are socialized. If the reality of the dogs' care and living conditions was anything like what is portrayed in the film, I honestly am not that critical of it. That may not be popular to say. I am well aware that many of the people who breed dogs would otherwise be engaged in some other type of livestock or farming industry and that for them, breeding dogs is the source of their livelihood. It is all they know. I know there are responsible breeders and I know that not every breeding operation is a puppy mill. I long for the day when all, large commercial dog breeding operations end but I really see that as being the responsibility of us as consumers. If we want them to stop breeding dogs, we need to stop buying them whether we are individuals or call ourselves rescuers. In the film, the dogs are taken from the breeder even though they are shown as being well cared for. It is only after the dogs are taken from the breeder that they get sick and a number of them die.
The dog lover loses. I am sure that there are people who work for large national animal welfare organizations like the HSUS, ASPCA or even PETA who are simply ethics-driven. For them, this is an issue of morality and they likely count themselves fortunate to be paid to do a job they love. The tide is beginning to turn on these organizations as the donating public learns more about how their money is being spent in the name of animal welfare and often not in ways of which they approve. In the film. the conditions found by the dog lover are nothing like she expected. Instead of breaking off her undercover investigation and reporting back to the powers that be that they are focused on the wrong location, she stays on board and then tries to do damage control later. Shame on her. You can believe in a cause all day long, but with that comes responsibility to think for yourself and not just blindly follow those who possess incredible power.
And the worst part.
The dogs lose. I think the thing that struck me most about this film was the lack of focus where it should have been: on the dogs. Regardless of whether you think every breeder runs a mill or if you think all dog breeding is wrong or your loathe the HSUS, I would like to think all of us would be focused on the well-being of the dogs we produce by the millions and which we then, as a society, destroy by the millions. In this film, dogs are bred, dogs are seized, dogs get sick, dogs die and in the end, no one really seems too broken up about that result. Although the breeder portrayed in the film says at the end that he's glad his name has been cleared, nothing at all is said about the fact that the entire process resulted in unnecessary death.
If you really want to see an educational or empowering film about the dog breeding industry, find an opportunity to see Dog by Dog at a city near you or get your own copy once it is available for purchase. You can see excellent trailers for the film here. You can also pick up a copy of I Breathe which covers the topic of commercial dog breeding and which includes the story of Lily, the dog who inspired National Mill Dog Rescue.
My advocacy involves a lot of keyboarding. That isn't all I do, but it's what takes up most of my volunteer time. I have pages and blogs here which cover topics I think are important to most animal loving Americans. And even to people who don't consider themselves "animal people" but who are interested in how municipalities function related to animals.
The aspect of my advocacy I enjoy most is creating slideshows and videos for specific nonprofits or on general topics which can be used by any nonprofit. I work in the legal field doing a job that calls for a lot of investigative work and analysis and really no creativity at all. It helps me to have a creative outlet to help people who help animals while honoring my own animals and human family members who have moved on.
Probably my longest "client" relationship is with National Mill Dog Rescue based in Peyton, Colorado. I can still recall the very first conversation I ever had with Theresa Strader many years ago while we were working on "Believe in Something" using a Fisher song by the same name. I have never been to the National Mill Dog Rescue kennel and have often thought how wonderful it would be to quit my day job and just become a full time volunteer there. It's just an ongoing joke, of course. Aubrie Kavanaugh - Poop Removal Specialist. Some of my closest contacts in the rescue community are the people who help manage this nonprofit; they work incredibly hard to not only help dogs but to help educate the public. There are no days off. I dare say that their advocacy is not just part of what they do. It is part of who they are.
My latest project for National Mill Dog Rescue came at a perfect time for me. We had just had our dog euthanized under terrible circumstances and I was a disaster. When Michele Burchfield asked me to do a project using a Little River Band song in advance of their August 14th concert at Lily's Haven, I was thankful for the distraction from my grief. It gave me something positive to do. As I searched for and saved the images I needed to fit the vibe I was going for, I couldn't help but to smile at all those precious faces, both canine and human. Putting the project together helped heal some of the broken places in my heart.
I consider this type of advocacy people helping people helping animals. Thanks so very much to Little River Band for allowing us to use this song. I am sure it won't be the last time we use one of the band's songs. I look forward to more projects in the future using music which belongs to Little River Band, Fisher and Martin Page, my "go-to" music sources.
If you are anywhere near Peyton, Colorado, I hope you'll go to the concert. I'm sure it will be a wonderful combination of terrific music and just great people. If you can't go, I hope you enjoy "Love Is" and that you will learn more about the life-saving work of this incredible organization. I do believe theirs is a Higher Calling. And I am simply happy to be associated with such devoted and passionate advocates.
I can't sing. I wish I could, but it's just not something I'm good at so I keep my singing pretty much limited to time spent inside my car. I grew up in a musical household - both mom and dad played acoustic guitars and my mom really could sing - so music is essentially woven into the fabric of who I am. We grew up listening to Dylan and Baez and James Taylor and to Peter, Paul and Mary. I know I have more song lyrics in my brain than belong there. That memory capacity is surely better used for other information, but I'm powerless to do anything about that.
After our parents died, I found that I had new songs inside my head. I'm not sure where they came from and I'm sure they don't follow conventional rules about song design. I like them all for different reasons and find them either entertaining or helpful to me, even if no one else will ever hear them. One of the songs just begged to be used in some way and I am happy to say that it now has been.
"Just No Looking Back" is written from the perspective of a rescued animal. It came to life through the talents and generosity of a woman I have never met, but with whom I share a bond which was meant to be. Cristina Lynn is one of those people in my life with whom I was destined to cross paths for some greater good. I knew the first time we spoke that she would be able to take what I thought of as some random ingredients and bake a beautiful cake, musically speaking. I knew I couldn't do it myself and that she was the one to take the song inside my head and turn it into something inspirational.
After Cristina recorded the song (with the help of Russ Holder who included a special "lick"), she sang it at some local events and I'm told it was well received One was an event for cancer survivors and that one meant a lot to me; we lost both mom and dad to cancer. I had some ideas for how to use the song that came and went. I knew I would use it to help a rescue or nonprofit group,with Cristina's permission, but for years nothing really felt right in terms of a good fit.
A few weeks ago, I was listening back to a video recorded for the 2015 American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards ceremony about Harley Taylor, a puppy mill survivor and the "Emerging Hero" entry into the Hero Awards competition. Harley went on to be named the 2015 Hero Dog and I have written about him before. It was hearing Theresa Strader, founder of National Mill Dog Rescue, talk about how the former mill dogs just live now that it became totally obvious to me how to use the song: to highlight the resilience and forgiving nature of puppy mill survivors. I was just beginning to select photographs for the project when Harley died, most likely from a brain tumor. Harley was 15 years old and lived much longer than many (if not most) former mill dogs, but he had been in really good health and his sudden departure from this Earth was a shock to many of us who saw him as a larger than life figure in animal advocacy and rescue circles.
I am proud to say that I finally found the perfect fit for the song and that it's now being used to help National Mill Dog Rescue which is based in Colorado. When I read the lyrics now, I know they were somehow inspired by the plight of mill dogs and by their incredible capacity for resilience, forgiveness and joy. I just didn't realize it back in 2011 when the song took up residence inside my head. I guess I just needed a little time to understand and perhaps some inspiration from the other side.
You will find No Looking Back on my Youtube channel and the Facebook page for National Mill Dog Rescue. I hope you enjoy it. I also hope you'll take some time to reflect on how you live your own life, on the life of Harley Taylor and all the other dogs saved from the ravages of the commercial dog breeding industry.
Thanks, Cristina. I am honored to say I know you and that we were brought together to help animals.
(Note: the dog seen in the video singing is "Gremmy." He is not in pain and is not upset; he is simply vocalizing. You can read Gremmy's story here on the blog about his life.)
I've made a lot of new friends in the wake of the passing of Harley "Freight Train" Taylor on Sunday; Harley was the 2015 Hero Dog, one of my "clients" and one of my personal heroes.
Like many who have followed Harley's story, I am still struggling to process the fact that he no longer walks the Earth. Our sense of community loss simply cannot compare to the loss of Rudi Taylor and Dan Taylor or even those who spent a lot of time with him like Michele Burchfield, Teddy and National Mill Dog Rescue founders Theresa and Richard Strader. I mean no offense at all when I say that I'm still getting choked up knowing that he is no longer here. I don't really have a right to feel that way, but I do.
As I think about how we all came to know Harley, I think we can all agree that the whole sequence of events was extraordinary, if not magical. He was left in a bucket to die. What are the odds that he would be saved? Surely those odds were against him from the start. Mill dogs die each and every day in ways most of us would find criminal. It is a miracle that he was saved at all.
Then when we think about the family who took Harley in and made them their boy, that is also extraordinary. There are a lot of people who love dogs and a lot of people who could have given Harley a charmed life, far removed from his suffering in the mill. Surely the odds were against him crossing paths with the Taylors who we all must admit are extraordinary people. Their incredible work to help educate the public about mills and to help save other mill dogs is just something magical to behold and it is something many of us would not have the strength to endure.
When I think about the success of the Harley to the Rescue campaign, I just have to smile. Who could know that casting Harley and Teddy as little superheros would affect us all so profoundly? Saving mill dogs is dirty, difficult heart-wrenching work, but because of the incredibly positive energy behind the way it was and is handled, we all smiled and cheered every time they set out on a new mission to save more dogs.
Like all of you, I voted every day for Harley to be named the American Humane Association Hero Dog last year and when I heard he had won, my heart swelled with pride not because I had anything to do with it, but because I knew what it meant to his family and to Teddy's family and to the Straders and to every person who has supported or volunteered with National Mill Dog Rescue. I knew that him being named would change the national discussion about mills and reach so many more people so we can end the mills once and for all. When I watched the ceremony on television, I knew he had already won but I still got all choked up watching the process and hearing Theresa's voice when his name was announced. I found myself crying with a smile on my face so wide that it made my face hurt.
I will not compare losses with any of you. That would just be selfish. But I will say that life has taught me that no one gets to stay, human or canine. We all have a finite amount of time to live and love and learn and try to make a difference. When I find myself so incredibly sad for the loss of Harley, I am reminding myself how incredibly fortunate we all are that we even knew about him in the first place.
Harley's life was both extraordinary and magical. I plan to hold that in my heart when I think about him and as I move forward, working to honor his memory with my new projects related to mill dogs and related to National Mill Dog Rescue.
We are all so very blessed. It's time to get busy to continue Harley's legacy and to honor his truly extraordinary life.
I lost a very close friend of mine yesterday. He was covered with fur, was pretty short, walked kinda crooked and only had one eye, but I loved him dearly. And still do. His name is Harley Taylor. We never met in person, but that doesn’t really matter in the end. . .
I first started doing volunteer work for National Mill Dog Rescue back in 2009. I learned about the organization through something I read back on the former message boards for the Best Friends Animal Society about some puppy mill dogs who had been saved. I knew back then about what puppy mills in rather general terms, but my education had a long way to go. It was due to my association with NMDR that I really began to learn about the origin of mills, how they function and how we perpetuate their existence through our own choices. The reality is that all puppies are cute and we allow ourselves to be blinded by that cuteness we see when we tell ourselves it is okay to buy that dog from the pet store or the internet. It is not. And it must stop.
When I heard about a new player on the scene who was working as a “spokesdog” for NMDR, I marveled at the genius of the concept: Harley and his faithful sidekick, Teddy, began orchestrating “Harley to the Rescue!” missions to save other mill dogs. It was just perfect. Who better to not only speak for the mill dogs but to encourage all of us to help those dogs while educating the public to make better choices?
I did a number of projects involving Harley over a period of time, not because he or NMDR needed my help but just because I felt compelled to do something to be part of such wonderful, life-saving work. I wanted to be part of something I felt was magical. Our project called “A Dream to Call My Own” went semi-viral and is still one of my most popular projects I have ever done. When you combine the face of an irresistible dog with the music of Kathy Fisher and Ron Wasserman (my friends “Fisher”) with the voice of a child, who can stop smiling? No one. My other projects for Harley are less well known, but I think they still affect many people in many ways. Looking back, I am profoundly grateful that I came to know Harley and his family through our projects.
I think the most any of us can hope for, human or canine, is that we make some difference in our time here. Most of us will never cure a disease or invent something revolutionary, but we can all strive to change the world in some small way. Harley Taylor did just that. And while we all mourn the loss of this wonderful little soul, I hope our focus will be more on his remarkable life and how very many people he touched in such a very short period of time. He was a puppy mill survivor who led a truly purpose-driven life as he helped save other mill dogs and helped educate the public about the insidious nature of the commercial dog breeding industry. He was named the 2015 American Humane Association Hero Dog of 2015 and in the end, he Changed the World.
I cry for a dog I never met. I smile with pride for a boy who likely did more to change the national discussion about the commercial dog breeding industry than most people could ever hope for.
I will miss you, Harley. I am so very, very sorry you could not stay. I am so very, very grateful to have known you at all. Godspeed, little man. Your work here is done. And now we must continue it in your honor.
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