When I think about puppy mills, I tend to think about them as an American problem. I guess it's typical for us to focus on issues we face in our own backyard and not consider those same issues in different countries or on different continents. When I heard about a book about a dog named Little Belle who was saved from a puppy mill in Portugal by a rescue group, I was intrigued. I had no idea if the dog breeding industry in Europe is as insidious as it is in the United States and I wanted to learn more about Belle and her family.
I expected a book about a dog saved from a puppy mill and how she went on to lead a charmed life through love, patience, veterinary care and being given a second chance. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the book. Little Belle: Where Love Is, Magic Happens obviously focuses on the subject of puppy mills and how dogs are treated by people who breed dogs and do not care at all about their physical, mental and emotional well-being. What I didn't expect was for the book to touch on other issues about differently-abled dogs, decisions made regarding euthanasia of dogs or how people view what they perceive to be aggression in dogs. Much to my surprise and appreciation, the book focuses on many of the same issues I focus on in my No Kill advocacy related to animal shelter operations.
As is the case with my other blogs about books, I don't want to give away the whole story. My hope is that you'll be intrigued enough from my blog to read the book and want to learn more for yourself.
The short version of the story is that Little Belle was in a puppy mill in Portugal for almost 12 years of her life before she was saved by a rescue group who then got her to her new family in the Netherlands. Irene van Raadshooven decided to make it her life's mission to save differently-abled dogs and dogs with medical issues following a tipping point in her personal life. As Irene wrote, "I knew what I wanted to do - adopt old dogs and dogs who were differently-abled to give them the best years of their lives, full of love and joy. I would follow the passion deep within me.... I saw a teeny, tiny dog on the Internet, Belle. I was drawn to her in a way I had never experienced before. My heart beat harder while my eyes scanned her skinny little body, the dull brown color of her coat, the thin legs that look like fragile twigs, her cute ears with the big bald spots, and her adorable little mouth and nose. . .While normally I first thought about a possible adoption for a few days, this time I couldn't wait to email Ana at the shelter in Portugal and the next day I was on the phone with the Dutch foundation that took care of the adoptions. In one phone call and after a home visit Belle's adoption was arranged."
Irene went on to write, "I believe that many events in life have a reason, or reason we cannot always understand or unravel. Often the insight comes later, as certain moments and experiences can lead us on a special and promising path. That's what I felt from the start seeing Belle's pictures, and was feeling even more strongly now that I was looking at her. Here was a kinship that would mean a key turning point in both our lives."
The book is unique in that it is written not just from Irene's perspective, but from that of Belle. At first, I wasn't sure how that would come off or if it would be believable. The more I read, the more I realized that that decision was a stroke of genius. How often do we look at our own companion animals and know exactly what they're thinking because of the depth of our relationships, their energy, their body language and how they look at us? I'm sure it was no different regarding the bond between Irene and Belle. Their bond was so strong that they knew each other's thoughts even though Belle did not speak using words and Irene did not always communicate using words. In one passage in the book in which Belle is speaking she says this: "From the first moment I saw Irene I knew I could trust her; there was this instant connection between us. I didn't know that this could get stronger every day. It now seemed like this growth was infinite. I had come to realize that Irene was always there for me, no matter what happened. Right here, right now, I made her a promise that I would also be there for her. Whatever happened."
As I mentioned earlier, the book is about much more than a dog saved from a puppy mill and the relationship between Belle and Irene. It touches on other issues which resonated with me as an unapologetic advocate of No Kill animal sheltering. One particular passage from Belle's perspective resonated with me. Irene said to her, "do you remember that day when we had this encounter with the woman who asked about you and how she reacted when she heard our story?" Belle thought, "oh, yes, I did. She had said that dogs that were as old as me, had health problems, and missing an eye should be put to sleep. That it wasn't worth it anymore. I wondered if old people also hadn't any value." Irene signed and said to Belle, "you know, recently I searched on the Internet for 'quality of life,' focused on animals because I had been thinking about it for some time already and what did I find? Nothing at all. . .This explains why, when I looked for quality of life for animals, I only got results for how humans could improve their lives with the animal's aid. Animals are seen as instruments rather than sentient beings with their own lives in the world. The same life belongs to us all."
Irene also wrote about dogs who are perceived to be aggressive, after saving a dog named Sun who was scheduled to be destroyed. Irene wrote, "it was unbelievable that anyone had ever considered euthanizing her. Even a veterinarian had agreed to this. Quite often a physical handicap is not the only reason for relief or injection; alleged aggression - often based on deep fear - was an insurmountable problem for many people. The real problem, however, was often the person who couldn't see from the animal's perspective. . .I thought that from Sun's point of view, it was the humans who were completely unpredictable. To me being able to express yourself, both animals and humans, and certainly when you feel uncomfortable, anxious, or threatened, was a basic right."
I found Little Belle enchanting, captivating, magical, uplifting, heartwarming and thought provoking. I learned not only about Irene and Belle, but about Irene's family and the other animals in her life. I was reminded repeatedly from reading the story that we must all do our very best to be present and to enjoy the time we have with each other while we can. It is precious and finite.
Belle passed away on April 25, 2017, but her legacy is strong. Irene founded the Little Belle's Magical Sanctuary in her honor, "a place where we give senior dogs and dogs who are differently-abled a forever home. Every dog, whether young, old, sick and/or differently-abled, has the right to live a happy and fulfilled life and to receive all the care they need with unconditional love." I look forward to keeping up with Irene's labors of love to help dogs and help educate us humans who love them in the process.
Irene was gracious enough to spend some time answering some questions for me which go beyond what we read in the book so people can learn more. Thank you very much to Irene for taking time our of her busy schedule. I hope you will read the book, follow Little Belle on Facebook and learn more about the sanctuary established in her honor.
People in the United States have impressions of what puppy mills are from animal welfare organizations and from the media. How pervasive is the issue of commercial breeding of dogs or substandard breeders of dogs in the region where you live?
In the Netherlands, puppy mills are more hidden than in the U.S.A., and there is also less media coverage. There are no real organizations that purely fight the puppy mill industry but there are people who try to bring the issue of puppy mills into the light. The main issue we have here is that puppies at a very young age travel from one of the Eastern Bloc countries to the Netherlands to be sold here as healthy dogs. Often they are not healthy at all because their vaccinations are not right and they were taken away from their mother's too soon. The companies that sell them act like they think about the welfare of the puppies but never show the mother dogs because they simply can't. The mother dogs are living in deplorable conditions in puppy mills in an Eastern Bloc country. People who buy those puppies don't know about this or they just don't care so this just keeps happening. The mother dogs continue to suffer and the puppies are often sick and even die at young age.
It seems like finding Belle was a turning point in your life and put you on a new path. How important was she to shaping you as a person and shaping your future?
Finding her was very important. She changed my life in a way I could never imagine. One of the main things she taught me was to embrace life every day, no matter how I feel. Often I looked at her, at her amazing zest for life, each and every day again, and thought "if she can live life with such joy and curiosity after all that she's been through, how could I not?" And then I felt again that spark of life in me, just like she tells about in the book, that little flame of hope, how she kept that alive. It's always there, we just somehow can't always reach it. That's how life is. Belle also brought me back in the moment, in the present, the only moment we have and truly live. Life is so precious and being able to live and experience it together is the greatest gift.
You have your own health issues, as did Belle. Do you think the fact that you both deal with some limitations played a role in the bond you share?
Yes, I think a big role. We understood each other. Having health issues doesn't mean life can't be lived fully. It's just different. Belle showed me that this is possible and therefore my perspective of life changed. Also, because of her way of approaching life each day, I never saw Belle as a dog with limitations. She never felt that way, too. Often it felt like we both conquered the world, in all the adventures we shared, and that we made each other more aware of our own strengths and possibilities. When Belle lost her last eye, I didn't become her eyes, because she could still see with all her other senses. The way she embraced life again was just simply amazing and taught me again a lot about myself, too. The bond we shared grew even deeper.
I found it fascinating that you wrote from your own perspective but also from Belle's perspective which I think is a stroke of genius. What led you to choose this format to tell your story?
When I started writing, I wanted to tell the whole story from only Belle's perspective. I just thought she could tell it so much better than I would. While writing, I realized this wasn't working because I was the only one who could really write about certain parts of my life. Also, I think it provides more insight into the perspective of Belle and our lives together when reading it from both our views. I'm very happy and touched that you found it fascinating and a stroke of genius.
Belle had something called Leishmania. Many people in other regions may not know about this disease. In the US, we deal with heartworms which are caused by mosquitos and can be fatal to dogs. What causes Leishmania and is there a vaccine which can be used to prevent it?
Leishmania is transmitted by a sand fly (a small type of mosquito). The sand fly lives in warm areas with humus-rich soil. Leishmania doesn't occur in the Netherlands but comes from the Mediterranean region. After infection, it can take years before a dog becomes ill. Leishmania is treatable, but not curable. When not treated in time and/or in the right way, a dog can die from the consequences of this disease. There has been a vaccine against Leishmania for several years now, although the effect of this vaccine has not yet been proven by independent research.
You write not just about your personal experiences with Belle, your other dogs and your horses, but also about attitudes about the ability of animals and how decisions are made about their quality of life and end of life. What do you most want people to know about differently-abled animals and animals with perceived behavior issues so they can make better choices about those animals?
In general, to not have any expectations. That's how it often goes wrong. People tend to expect a lot from dogs; they need to listen, need to be kind, can't have any fears or uncertainty. There have been so many times I've seen dogs who were just adopted who were were returned because they barked too much, were afraid too much (or just a little), did bite or did urinate or poop in the house.
When a dog becomes really part of the family, without any expectations, and with knowledge, then there is a whole different energy. An energy the dog can feel so well. Then dogs feel the space to be themselves. This can take days, weeks, months or even longer. This applies exactly the same to dogs who are differently-abled. They have the same quality of life. One thing that I think is also important to share is that not a lot of vets and specialists have experience with differently-abled dogs. Look at Jessie's story in Little Belle's book as an example. I've encountered it many more times. If someone adopts a differently-abled dog, never follow the opinion of one vet, or more, when you feel that your dog is happy and does love life. Always follow your heart.
I know you have plans for an actual sanctuary perhaps in Spain and that those plans are on hold for now due to your health. What is the best way for people to help you continue your mission of helping more dogs like Belle?
For now, it would be beautiful if people just continue to support us with the Sanctuary we have here in the Netherlands. We already receive so much love and support from many friends and followers from around the world. Until now, we have always been able to pay for all our medical bills for the dogs and their daily care with the wonderful (monthly) donations. When one of the dogs need surgery or other medical procedures, the response and support we get is absolutely heartwarming. Also, it's very important for people to continue to support Little Belle's Dream (the fundraiser for our own place one day) so we can continue to give the senior and differently-abled dogs a forever home and family. This is the dream that started with Belle and it is her legacy.
There was a time in my past, before Snake left us, when I had this kinda sorta general idea about what happens in our nation’s animal shelters. I, like most people, knew in somewhat hazy terms that animals die in shelters, but I thought it was just those animals who were suffering or were broken in some way. I was wrong. I learned many years ago that the vast majority of animals destroyed in our shelters are either perfectly healthy or have some treatable condition and they really just need a second chance. This is a situation where we, as a society, tend to not delve too deeply into how our money is spent. If animals are being destroyed, surely there must be something wrong with them. No. Although there are some animals who are suffering and for whom the act of euthanasia is warranted, most are someone’s lost pet or just the victims of our poor choices. The vast majority of these animals are perfectly healthy and may be much healthier than that dog you may think you want from a breeder or you may think you are saving from a pet store or the back of a pick-up truck in a Walmart parking lot.
Then there are the special needs animals. Some are blind, some are deaf, some are missing limbs, some are old and some have conditions like epilepsy or diabetes. According to a survey performed by Petfinder.com, these “less adoptable” pets wait for homes nearly four times longer than most other adoptable pets. Some can be housed in shelters for years before being adopted, but in less progressive areas these animals are simply destroyed because they are harder to adopt. And that is nothing less than an absolute tragedy.
It is entirely true that special needs animals need some extra care and may require more of your time or patience. But the plus side is that you may very well find that having a special needs animal in your life and in your home will change your life in ways you never expected. We all know that shelter and rescue animals teach us the value of unconditional love. They don’t care what we look like or what we do for a living or whether or not we got impatient in the check-out line at the store or if we bounced a check. They just accept us as we are and love us without reservation. When it comes to special needs animals, the bonds we can form with these animals can simply go beyond description. Yes, they rely on us in ways “more adoptable” animals do not, but they also teach us invaluable lessons. They do not spend one minute on self-pity. They simply adapt. And they don’t ever even realize they are anything but perfect just the way they are.
I had been planning to do a project about special needs animals for years and the concept just never really came together until recently. Looking back, I think it was probably just meant to be. I was doing something on Facebook for my website when I ran across a post for a special needs dog named Walter “aka Walnut.” Walter had passed away recently and his mom, Gabi, was taking a memorial trip in his honor to go to places Walter had never been. I began reading about his life and his genetic condition and I just felt compelled to do a project about Walter on behalf of all the special needs kids. Gabi originally was interested in a different song for the video, but once I started downloading images and videos I knew just what song to use: Fisher’s “Anything For You.” It just fits Walter and his very charmed life with a family who loves him dearly. And there’s a connection which made it clear to me that this was meant to be. Walter’s favorite TV program was The Golden Girls. For those of you old enough to remember, Betty White was in the cast of the program. Betty was also recently in a TV Land series called Hot in Cleveland, scored by none other than Ron Wasserman of Fisher. I remember Ron telling me once in an email how he had been tasked to teach Betty how to play the drums.
Not everyone is cut out to have a special needs animal. The reality is that they require a very deep commitment and you will need to have plans in place for the care of a special needs animal if you cannot take them on a trip with you or in the event something happens to you. From where I sit, though, any companion animal is a long-term commitment and you have to be prepared for unexpected veterinary costs, short-term daycare and long-term rehoming in the event of a disaster.
The next time you’re looking to bring a new-to-you animal into your life, think about adopting a special needs animal. Yes, you can get the young dog or young cat with absolutely no health issues and that animal will probably live a really long time and make you very happy. Or you can decide to help that older dog and give him the very best years of his life. Or that diabetic cat who was having trouble finding someone to love her just the way she is. Or that little Miniature Pinscher a little like Walter who may not look like the other dogs you see, but who will make you smile and laugh and cry.
And who will remind you that life truly is precious. And that each day is a gift.
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 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