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.
It’s that time of year again. The time when we scramble around trying to get twice as many things done in a day as we would normally and as we try to find gifts for those we love. No matter your beliefs, we are in the holiday season and most of us engage in traditions which involve expression of our love for friends and family through exchange of things.
The pandemic has made life immeasurably more difficult for many people either because the are working from home while trying to home school children or because they are in the medical field and cannot be with their families at all for fear or infecting them or because they have lost their jobs and worry about paying bills and putting food on the table. With the possible exception of people over the age of 100 who were alive during the last pandemic, no one has been through this before. We all try to do our best and try to cope as we go. The ordinary stress brought on by the holiday season seems doubled as we try so hard to get everything done to our satisfaction.
I’ve blogged before about holiday gifts for animal lovers, one of which is the gift of a donation to a non-profit organization in honor of the person you love. It’s a one-size-fits-all gesture that does not involve shopping and which helps someone do something good. You can choose a non-profit organization you know your loved one supports or find one whose mission is something that would matter to your loved one whether it relates to animals, people or the planet.
Regardless of your ability to make a donation, I hope you will consider giving the most important gift of all. The gift of time. It is free. It is priceless.
If you have ever lost someone you love to age or disease or tragedy, you know you would give almost anything for just a little more time with them. A week, a month a year. For all the things we give each other and buy for each other and obsess over during the holiday season, there really is no more precious gift than your presence with those you love. No distractions, no phones, just being present. I am not suggesting you do this in person outside of your immediate household. Use the phone. Use Zoom or FaceTime. Find a way to spend time with those you love in any way you can which does not put any of you at risk.
One of the best ways to share time with those you love is to learn more about them. You may say, “but I already know who they are” and that may be true. But how much do you really know about your parents? Do you know how they met? What did they do on their first date? Was there a job they always wanted or some place they always wanted to travel and life put them on another path? If your grandparents are still alive, how much do you know about all they've seen in their decades on the planet? How much do you know about your siblings? Do you know what challenges they’ve faced this year? Do they need anything? Do they just need to talk? Or perhaps you can spend time sharing childhood memories with them and see if they hold precious memories you forgot long ago. When it comes to your companion animals, when’s the last time you took your dog for a long walk or actually played with your cat? Ever thought of making some homemade dog biscuits or cat toys? It can be rewarding and cathartic for you and your pets.
I hope this year you’ll be more patient with yourself and those around you. This has been hard for everyone and it will most likely get harder. I hope you have taken stock of what really matters to you and even give some thought to your own morbidity as part of that process. No one gets to stay. And then I hope you’ll give the gift of time. It is the one thing we miss the most when it is gone.
But at my back I always hear, time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near - Andrew Marvell
When I first published my website over ten years ago, I had a page I called The Reading Room. It included the books I had read which helped me become a better animal welfare advocate. “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America,” and “Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart and Soul of America’s Animal Shelters,” by Nathan Winograd. “The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick’s Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption,” by Jim Gorant. “The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression,” by Karen Delise. Those were just a few. As you may expect, my collection has grown over the years and I've blogged about a number of my favorites. We are such an interconnected society today, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, that I am constantly learning about new books to add to my education and my collection (Yes, I am old enough to have survived living before the miracle of email, the Internet and video conferencing, amazing as that may seem).
One of my new favorite authors is the focus of this blog. Peter Zheutlin. If you have not read his books, you’re really missing out on a treat. Peter has written a host of books on a variety of subjects and has a remarkable resume of the many and very different jobs he’s held over the years. The books I’ve read are what I call his “animal books.” They are “Rescue Road: One Man, Thirty Thousand Dogs, and a Million Miles on the Last Hope Highway,” “Rescued: What Second-Chance Dogs Teach us About Living With Purpose, Loving With Abandon, and Finding Joy in the Little Things,” and his most recent book, “The Dog Went Over the Mountain: Travels with Albie, An American Journey.”
This blog is not a review of his books. I don’t want to tell you too much about them and spoil the value of reading them for yourself. The title of each book explains much about the book and gives you a glimpse into what is to come. I would like to share my impressions, which won’t give away too much.
Rescue Road is amazing, inspiring, heart-wrenching and thought provoking all at the same time. I have historically not been a fan of what I describe as mass-transports from one region of the country to another, but there is no denying that but for the tireless work of Greg Mahle and a host of other people, countless animals would die in our antiquated animal shelter system.
Rescued was life affirming, humorous and touching. As a staunch advocate of animal rescue, reading the stories of others felt like coming home to a tribe which spans the nation.
The Dog Went Over the Mountain was a wonderful journey from start to finish. I felt like I was along for the ride, sometimes quite literally, and it left me pondering what the places I’d like to experience in my days left on this Earth.
I asked Peter to help me with a Q&A instead, a format which has worked well with other authors I’ve blogged about in the past. I think it’s helpful to learn something about these incredibly talented people that you may not get just from reading the book or books. I like to think of it as the written version of sitting down together to have a conversation. You can learn more about Peter on his website and he may be in a city near you very soon. His events page has a listing of his appearances for his book tour for The Dog Went Over the Mountain.
I’d like to thank Peter for taking the time to engage with me about his books. I hope you’ll read them, become a fan like me and add the books to your own personal library. Enjoy.
You have a fascinating background which includes work as a lawyer, as a journalist and working for an organization which was awarded the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. How does your work as an author compare to your prior occupations in terms of satisfaction? Do you feel like you were always meant to be a writer?
Well, I didn’t exactly have an illustrious legal career! I never regret having gone to law school, but working in a law firm just wasn’t for me. I taught first year legal skills courses, first at Northwestern University School of Law and the University of Virginia Law School and enjoyed that, but in mid-1980s had a chance to join the staff of an organization called The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). It’s hard to appreciate decades later just how front and center the nuclear arms race was as a global issue at that time, so the work was very meaningful to me, and it gave me the opportunity to travel all over the world and work with some truly extraordinary people. It was during my time at IPPNW that I started writing op-ed columns and features on issues related to nuclear arms. To be honest, it was a kick to see my name I print and to know that a lot of people would see what I was writing. All of this work…as a lawyer, as a law school instructor, as the staff member of a large NGO (non-governmental organization) was very collaborative. Being an author is more of a solitary pursuit. Sure, you interview people, you write about experiences you’ve had in the world, but most of the work itself is solitary and I rather like that. There are no staff meetings, no office politics, and no office holiday parties.
You've written a number of books on a host of topics. What led you to write animal-oriented books?
In 2012, after more than twenty years of fending off the pleas of my wife and kids, I finally agreed to get a family dog. When my wife suggested a rescue dog I was perplexed; I imagined a St. Bernard with a whiskey barrel under its chin in the Alps. Seriously. But once I was educated I was on board. I have always been disposed to the underdogs in life and there are tens of thousands of real underdogs that come into shelters every year in the United States; the lost, the abandoned, the abused, and the neglected. And they need someone to step up and give them another chance in life. So, in 2012 we adopted Albie, a two-three year old Lab mix who was found wandering alone on a street in rural Louisiana. He was brought to a shelter where nearly 90% of the dogs who come in never leave. I knew nothing about the scope of the problem or the rescue process and decided to take a deep dive into that world to learn more. I was so in love with Albie and I wanted to know more about the people who made his rescue possible. That led to my first “dog” book, Rescue Road: One Man, Thirty Thousand Dogs, and a Million Miles of the Last Hope Highway. The “one man” is Greg Mahle of Rescue Road Trips. He was the man who drove Albie north from Louisiana. He was my entryway into the world of rescue.
Rescue Road tells the story of your travels with Greg Mahle. Most people would have a hard time envisioning a trip that difficult and emotional. Do you have a single most difficult memory and a single most positive memory from the trips?
In addition to driving thousands of miles with Greg, I spent time in some of the communities where so many rescue dogs come from. For example, I spent an evening with volunteers from a group called Forgotten Dogs of the Fifth Ward in Houston. The number of strays, many clearly suffering, on the streets of Houston was astonishing. Perhaps my favorite moment came at the very last drop off spot in Connecticut where families were waiting for Greg to arrive with their new dogs. As we pulled into the parking lot a group of about 40 people started jumping and waving signs welcoming their new pups. Greg pulled to a stop, turned the truck off and took in the scene for a minute. Then he said this to me: “A week ago these dogs were all going to die. Now the doors will open, the light will come flooding in and each one will be delivered into the arms of a loving family. This is heaven.”
After Rescue Road, you wrote a heartfelt book called Rescued. Are there any particularly impactful stories you left out of the book you can share with us?
If they were impactful stories I surely would have included them in the book! But you always hear heartwarming stories when you talk to people who have rescued a dog. Sure, there are times when an adoption doesn’t work out, but the vast majority do and the joy and the intensity of the bonds people form with their dogs is truly remarkable. I didn’t appreciate that until we adopted Albie, and then Salina, and then Jambalaya, all rescues from Louisiana. I think everyone who rescues wishes they had room for just one more.
The Dog Went Over the Mountain is an incredible story of a cross-country journey you took with your dog, Albie. Now that it is behind you, is there anything you wish you had done but did not get the opportunity to do? Was there something that didn't make it to final editing for the book that you'd like people to know about your journey?
As I write at the very beginning of the book, this is the story of a road trip and you cannot really get to know a place, any place, unless you spend extended time there. And I’ve already gotten some criticism for sharing my impressions of places based on limited exposure. But when we travel, that’s what we do; we form impressions, fair or not, based on limited experience. It’s why some people love New York or Omaha, for example, and some don’t. It’s the nature of a road trip to pass through many places. There are countless places and people with a story to tell and you just can’t gather it all. So, do I wish I could have immersed myself in the life of some of the places we visited? For sure. But, as I said, we were on a road trip, not an anthropological mission.
You have become a huge proponent of adoption and rescue of animals needing homes. We now have a presidential candidate making the plight of shelter animals a campaign issue. Do you think a time will come when we no longer have so many companion animals at risk and our animal shelters keep the healthy and treatable animals alive?
There was a story recently in The New York Times that documented the progress we are seeing in this area, even since we adopted Albie. Nationwide, more shelter animals are being saved, “euthanasia” rates are down (I use quotes because the word sanitizes what’s really going on which is the killing of often healthy, perfectly adoptable animals), and public awareness of the issues is on the rise. More and more shelters and communities are moving towards the “no kill” philosophy and “live release” rates (the inverse of “euthanasia” rates) are rising. This is a trend and not an end point, though. We seem to be moving in the right direction and that’s encouraging.
(image of Peter and Albie at Half Moon Bay, courtesy of Peter Zheutlin)
We are a nation of animal lovers. The vast majority of Americans believe we have a moral duty to protect animals and we should have strong laws to do so. A poll from a few years ago showed that three out of four Americans believe it should be illegal for shelters to kill animals if those animals are not suffering. So why does it continue to happen? Good question.
People tend to focus on what is important to them in their own lives. It is human nature. We all have certain people, problems issues and concerns on our “personal radar” on an ongoing basis. We may have general knowledge or opinions about other issues, but we normally don’t devote too much time thinking about those things because they don’t affect us or our every day lives. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s just that most of us lack the “bandwidth” to remain fully engaged on all of the topics we find important on an ongoing basis.
This means that most Americans give very little regular thought to what happens at animal shelters using tax dollars and donations. Although we all pay for animal control and sheltering in some way, we still would not pay much attention to the topic even if our monthly bill for garbage and recycling pick-up included a line item for animal care and disposal. We think about shelters when we lose a pet or when we learn about some event or we are told about some tragedy. On other days, the shelter just “is,” pretty much like our view of other municipal functions on which we spend money. Law enforcement. Fire services. Engineering. Public works. Parks and recreation.
I have long believed that if we are ever to reform our broken sheltering system in America, in which the vast majority of healthy and treatable animals are still killed by the millions, we have to put that subject on the public radar and get people involved. I once described the separation between animal lovers and animal shelters like two groups of people on opposite sides of a chasm. On one side are the people who own and care for animals or at least like animals. They are at best family members and at least serve some purpose. Most of us include our animals in family celebrations and may take them on our vacations. We buy them beds and toys and treats and provide them with regular veterinary care. We expect that the people in the sheltering system will operate in ways which are consistent with our values and many of us just presume that all animals who end up in shelters are given an opportunity to be adopted. On the opposite side of this chasm are people in the sheltering industry. Most of them (but certainly not all) care about animals and do their very best with the resources they have. Many of them, however, work in a defeatist culture with calcified attitudes in which healthy and treatable animals are destroyed. They see this as some terrible task they must perform because there is no other way to function while blaming the destruction on the “irresponsible public” which is on the opposite side of the chasm. Not every shelter functions this way, of course, and many have become very progressive. I’m speaking for the majority of shelters which still destroy animals regularly and with no apparent regard for the very real fact that the way to stop that archaic practice has been known for decades.
Some communities change the culture at the animal shelter through municipal leadership or nonprofit leadership (in cases where the shelter operation has been outsourced to a nonprofit organization). Change is hard and those communities are to be commended. Most communities which change do so as a result of public pressure. People don’t like it when their money is used in ways which are inconsistent with their values. Once you tell people that healthy and treatable animals are dying and they are paying for it, most get mad, some get vocal and others become community activists seeking change. In all places where change takes place, there is one common denominator. The public didn’t suddenly become more responsible. It was the shelter operation itself that changed. It absolutely helps for the public to be invited to be part of that change. Their buy-in is actually vital to the process. The No Kill equation I promote contains 11 elements, but vital to most of those elements is public awareness and participation.
The last documentary film about the No Kill movement was released in 2014 - “Redemption: The No Kill Revolution in America.” The film has since been made available by Nathan Winograd on Vimeo for free. It is based on Winograd’s 2007 book by a similar name - “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.” If you have not seen the film, you owe it to yourself to watch it for free while you can. It runs just over an hour.
At about the same time Redemption was released, documentary film maker Anne Taiz began working on the first of two fills about the No Kill movement. The first is called “No Kill: The Movement Begins.” This film focuses on both No Kill efforts and failures in the City of San Francisco. The people who appear in the film include Richard Avanzino; Nathan Winograd, Director of the No Kill Advocacy Center; Julene Johnson, former San Francisco SPCA volunteer; Dr. Kate Hurley of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at UC Davis; Maria Conlon of Give Me Shelter Cat Rescue; and Dr. Jennifer Scarlet, the current director of the San Francisco SPCA.
The second film is not formally named yet, but will likely be something along the lines of “No Kill Across America.” I had an opportunity to meet with Anne on July 30th to talk about both films. My hope is that the story of Huntsville, Alabama, will be included in the second film, provided it is produced. We had a great connection and I think the story of the changes in Huntsville can inspire other communities to get ahead of this issue.
I know that Anne is passionate about reaching the public about this very important and urgent subject. Like all documentary films, however, this film is only as good as the ability to finish the final production. All of the footage for “No Kill: The Movement Begins” has been shot and it has been partially edited. What is needed are finishing funds.
You can make a donation toward completion of the first film using this From The Heart Productions platform as I have done. No donation is too small. A donation of $25 will give you access to see the “rough cut” of the film and provide feedback. A donation of $250 will give you film credit as an associate producer. Award winning actor and narrator Peter Coyote has agreed to narrate the film.
A time will come when the outdated practice of destroying healthy and treatable pets in our nation's animal shelters will become part of our shameful past. We can reach that point faster if we reach more of the public and put this issue on the personal radar of as many people as possible.
Welcome to 2018. I hope your new year has started off well and that you have been able to shed your holiday stress or any 2017 worries that were dragging you down. If you made any new year's resolutions, I wish you well in your efforts to keep them. If you didn't make any resolutions, I have a few for you to consider regarding companion animals. None of them cost very much and most simply have to do with decisions you make or a small investment of your time.
Microchip your pets. Not a day goes by when I am not contacted about someone's beloved companion animal who is missing due to some unexpected event or circumstances. Having a pet go missing or - worse yet - having a pet stolen, can be incredibly stressful for most families, not to mention the pet who is lost. We all presume that because we love our pets and take good care of them that they will never be displaced from us. Life happens. Accidents happen. Doors get left open, gates do not latch, fences get jumped and animals get scared. The sad truth is that the vast majority of animals who are displaced from home never make it back home and their families have no idea what happened to them. In progressive areas, this is not always a death sentence because healthy and treatable animals entering shelters are kept alive. In less progressive areas, the fact that your pet cannot be identified can lead to the death of your pet even if he or she is perfectly healthy, treatable and social to people. Although I recommend that dogs and cats both wear collars with identification (provided the cat collar is a breakaway design to prevent strangulation), there really is no substitute for having your pet microchipped. A microchip is not a GPS tracking device. It is a small ampule about the size of a grain of rice which is injected under your pet's skin at the base of the neck. It contains a unique number, much like a bar code, which can be scanned. Provided your chip is properly registered, the chip can be traced back to you and authorities can get your pet back to you. This helps not only animal control and animal shelter personnel, but also helps veterinary offices and law enforcement authorities. Most microchips are very cheap. You can buy one yourself and have it implanted by your veterinarian. You can also be on the lookout for a local microchipping event like the one going on in the city where I work now. Pets are being chipped for $20 which includes the registration fee. Most people spend that much on a dog or cat toy. It truly may be the best money you ever spent to help your displaced pet get back home to you where he or she belongs.
Make a care plan for your pets. Another subject I hear about almost every day is pets who need to be rehomed due to some unexpected event or crisis. Someone dies. Someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness. A house burns down. A job is lost or there is some financial crisis. I have written before about the concept of having a Pet Parent for your pets; I cannot encourage you strongly enough to do this. Much like you make plans for the care of your children in the event something happens to you, please make the same plans for your pets. This cannot be some vague assumption that a family member or friend will step up and take your pets for you and care for them for the rest of their lives. It needs to be a serious conversation to get a solid commitment from someone you know that yes, they will take your pets in the event of your death or your inability to care for your pets. You don't need to go so far as to have someone sign a contract which is legally binding. I do recommend, however that you prepare a list of instructions regarding the transition of ownership of your pets and about their care, providing a copy to your designated Pet Parent. If you died suddenly, how would your Pet Parent get into your home? Where are the veterinary records? Things as simple as what your pet eats and about his or her habits and behavior are important to set out in writing so that the transition from your home to another home is as smooth as can be expected and the stress on your pets is reduced. My cousin has agreed to be the Pet Parent for our dog and she will love him and care for him for all of his days. I would like to think the odds of putting this plan in place are incredibly low. Because we love our dog, we have made plans for his care and to ensure he doesn't end up either being passed around from person to person or end up in an animal shelter where he may be destroyed.
Spay and neuter your pets. Many people are surprised to learn the health benefits of having companion animals fixed, not the least of which is an extended life span. If you've ever lost a beloved companion animal to age or disease, you know the heartbreak of that loss. Given the choice, would you add years to your pet's life if you could and keep them healthier? You can through spay and neuter. It's good for your pet. Spaying/neutering helps dogs and cats live longer, healthier lives by eliminating or reducing the incidence of a number of health problems that can be very difficult and/or expensive to treat. Some reports indicate that having your pet fixed can add as much as three years to his or her life. It's good for you. •Spayed/neutered pets are usually better behaved and more calm and affectionate than those that are not spayed/neutered. It also decreases an animal's desire to escape and wander the neighborhood in search of a mate. This decreases the risk of fights, death caused by getting hit by cars, and lost or stolen pets. It's good for the community. Spay/neuter decreases the homeless animal population, reducing the number of animals needlessly destroyed. Some communities have financial assistance programs to help offset costs and some regions offer clinics which do nothing but spay/neuter surgeries at very low rates.
Speak out about issues which relate to companion animals in your community and your state. If you oppose Breed Specific Legislation, let those in positions of authority know how you feel. If you believe the best way to reduce the population of feral cats is through Trap-Neuter-Return programs, support those programs in your own neighborhoods. If you believe that the animal shelters in your community which operate using your tax dollars and donations are not doing all they can to save lives, speak up. Only when you make it clear that you value the lives of homeless animals will those lives become a priority. Saving lives doesn't mean spending more money in a community and it often saves taxpayer dollars.
Support local rescue groups and national animal advocacy groups the focus of which are saving lives. There are many multi-million dollar organizations in our society which engage in very visible marketing. If you look at their funding or how they operate, you may find that your donations are used primarily to fund salaries, lobbying and marketing while very little (or none) of your money is actually used to rescue or save animals. If you want to help the cause by making a tax deductible donation, you can do so right where you live or to any nonprofit across the country which is actively involved in being the change. If you cannot donate money, you can always donate your time by volunteering at a local no kill shelter or with a local rescue group. You can also donate common items you may have in your home which you no longer use such as old towels, old blankets, newspaper, used dog or cat beds, etc.
Adopt or rescue your next companion animal. Although many people have come to believe that shelter and rescue animals are somehow "damaged," that is rarely the case. The truth is that most of them are simply homeless and are victims of our poor choices. If you have your heart set on a particular breed for some reason, there's nothing wrong with that. Seek out a breed specific rescue group or just a specific breed of animal using Petfinder or a comparable web site. There are countless reputable breeders across our country, many of which breed animals for the sheer love of the breed and to perpetuate breed standards. If you're considering buying an animal, however, ask yourself this: do I really need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a companion animal when I can save a life instead?
Consider fostering an animal. There are people who may not want the long-term commitment of a pet but who are great with pets. Do you not have a pet because you think you are too old? Foster. Do you not have a pet because you want the freedom to travel a lot? You can foster. Do you want to help a deployed troop so he does not have to surrender his beloved dog to the shelter? Fostering that dog means he can stay local and be returned to his owner when the deployment ends. Do you want to help neonatal puppies or kittens who need regular bottle feeding for a few weeks until they can eat solid food? Yep. You can foster.
(image of Baby Watson courtesy of Lori Anne Truman)
I had three separate conversations with contacts of mine last week regarding the phrase “no kill” and the word “euthanasia” as it relates to shelter animals. In one conversation, I was told that some organizations refuse to give grant money to any organization which refers to itself as “No Kill.” I use that phrase regularly and do so without hesitation. It is on the public radar and I think people are smart enough to understand that the phrase describes a culture. In another conversation, I was told about an animal welfare coalition in Colorado which does not allow members which use the word “kill” to describe what happens to shelter animals. The exact quote I was told was this: “We refuse to use the term ‘kill’ to describe agencies and their process of thoughtful euthanasia.” In the third conversation, I was told about a shelter director in the state where I live who uses the phrase “necessary euthanasia.” She boasts a “euthanasia” rate of about 8% when, in fact, it is routinely around 30-40% and was higher than 50% in May alone. More than half the animals entering her facility that month did not make it out alive even though hers is a non-profit organization with a huge donor and support base. I have often wondered if donors know what they are paying for.
The dictionary definition of euthanasia is easily understood: the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (such as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.
I’m not sure exactly when it was in the history of animal sheltering in America that we first began to use the word “euthanasia” to describe the destruction of healthy and treatable animals for space or convenience in our tax-funded animal shelters. Regardless of when this practice began, it has continued to present day in earnest and it does not serve us well as a society. Words and phrases have common meanings which help us all communicate and do so fairly effectively. When we take those words and we distort them to excuse or condone our behavior, we are doing a disservice to our values and to how we function collectively.
The fact that healthy and treatable animals are destroyed in our nation’s shelters, along with animals who are injured or irremediably ill, and we dare call it all euthanasia should be a source of public shame for us all. We consider ours a progressive society. We talk about dogs being “man’s best friend.” We hold our values about companion animals above those of other cultures, as if we are somehow more evolved. We are not. And we should be ashamed of ourselves. When we destroy perfectly savable animals in our shelters, we are doing just that. We are killing them. We are destroying them. We are not euthanizing them. The act has nothing at all to do with mercy and everything to do with complacency. Our history has shown that the destruction of these animals is not necessary. It continues to take place using our money whether we are aware of it or not. And it just doesn't have to be that way. Killing animals is a choice. Saving lives is a choice. The growing number of communities walking away from the status quo and functioning in new ways more consistent with our values in our society prove daily what can happen with some bravery and getting educated on proven programs which work anywhere and everywhere they are implemented.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the date when my husband and I had our beloved dog euthanized. July 4th of 2016 was one of the worst days of our lives and the very worst day of our 16 year relationship with our dog. No one gets to stay, human or animal. It was the circumstances of his passing due to some issues with receiving adequate and timely veterinary care which haunt us now, the memories of which we hope will become less vivid in time. Our dog had cancer which had moved to his brain and which was causing grand mal seizures which we believed could not be treated or stopped. We euthanized him for reasons of mercy and to keep him from suffering.
When healthy and treatable animals die in animal shelters, whether they are funded by tax dollars or donations or both, it is not euthanasia. To compare that process with the heart wrenching decision made by loving animal caregivers and families every day to prevent suffering is to devalue the lives of all of the animals in our society. If your beloved dog or cat ended up in an animal shelter due to no fault of your own and was destroyed, would you call it “euthanasia”? No. You would not.
If we are ever to reform our broken animal sheltering system in America, we have to speak plainly and not sugar coat what is taking place using our tax dollars and our donations. Only then can we reach the rest of the public which does not realize what is taking place in their communities using their money and their donations and only then will we be able to reform our broken animal sheltering system to make the killing stop. If you don’t know what takes place at the animal shelter in your community using your tax dollars, ask for statistics and learn for yourself what is really happening. No matter what they are calling it.
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.
It happens every day in spite of our best intentions. Cats get out through an open door either because they are scared or curious. Dogs jump fences or escape through a gate left open by a child or contractor. So now what? If your dog or cat is gets lost and is wearing a color with some form of identification and the collar stays on, you have a fairly good chance of getting them back if they are helped by a Good Samaritan or they end up in an animal shelter. But what if the collar comes off? What if your pet has been stolen? The reality is that getting your lost or stolen pet back to you is hard work and you may never get them back even if you do everything right. Animals who are loose can cover great distances and animals who have been stolen can be driven great distances. I have written before about the importance of having all pets microchipped, even those who live inside and are ordinarily never outside unsupervised. Life happens, accidents happen and natural disasters happen and there is just no replacement for having your pet chipped so they can be easily identified if they are displaced from you for some reason.
If your pet does go missing or is stolen, there are a host of things you can do to try to get your pet back to you and that’s the purpose of today’s blog. This list is not comprehensive by any means. If you read the blog and you have a suggestion which has worked for you in the past or which has worked for someone you know, by all means post a comment to share that information.
Contact the microchip company. If your pet is microchipped, contact the company you used to register your chip to let them know your pet is lost or stolen. If your registration information is outdated, update the information with the company. There may be an extra fee to do this depending on the microchip implanted in your pet, but it will be some nominal amount and is worth every penny.
Go to local shelters to look for your pet. Many animal shelters have listings of found pets which are in their custody, but many animal shelters do not. There is no substitute for physically going to the shelter or shelters in your area to look for your lost pet. You should take an image of your pet with you to leave with the shelter staff so they will "be on the lookout" for your pet to arrive in the future. You should go more than one time just so you can be sure that your pet did not roam for a period of time before being taken to the shelter by an animal control officer or Good Samaritan.
Look for your pet in your area. It may sound obvious, but look around for your pet to see if you can find him or her. You should do this quietly and not by enlisting the help of others. Your friends may want to help you find your lost dog or cat, but if you try to canvas a particular area with people unfamiliar to your pet or calling out your pet's name, you may spook your pet and cause him or her to flee or run into traffic.
List Your lost or stolen pet on a reputable website. If you do an Internet search for “lost pet websites” you’ll come up with enough hits to make your head hurt. The two websites I use most often for posting lost or stolen pets are Helping Lost Pets and Track My Paws. Helping Lost Pets is map-based which means that your post about your pet will show up on a map in a geographic area. You have to register to post your pet, but the process is entirely free. You enter data about your pet (more is better), you include a photo and your pet is listed on the website. It’s just that simple. People who are in your area who are registered on the site receive an email alert about your pet. You can also create a free flyer about your pet using a variety of formats so that you can then print that poster to put up around your area and you can share on social media or email as either a pdf file or an image file. Track My Paws is very similar. You register to post your lost or stolen pet, enter as much information as you can and then your pets is shown on a map.
Create a flyer about your lost or stolen pet. When it comes to getting your pet back home, the key is letting as many people as possible know that your pet is missing. We have Amber alerts for children. When it comes to pets, we are left with old school methods of letting people know that we need their help. Create a flyer about your lost or stolen pet which includes a good color image using Helping Lost Pets or using your computer. Print as many posters as you think you can reasonable distribute and then post them in your neighborhood, personally deliver them to the neighbors and businesses closest to where you live and share them on social media and by email with people in your area. Do not offer a reward for your pet. Although this has historically been seen as a way to motivate people to help you, it can actually encourage "dog napping" and can cause people to chase your dog or cat, making them run further away. If you do put up flyers, make sure you go back and take them down once your pet is safely back home.
Use social media. There are a lot of social media pages that relate to geographic areas like cities and counties. Do a search on Facebook for groups or pages in your general area and post about your lost or stolen pet there. Because animals can travel distances, don’t limit this just to the city or town where you live. Try to post about your pet on any page that covers an area within about 60 miles of your location. There is no such thing as posting in too many places to help people know that your pet was lost or stolen and to share images of your pet so that people can be your eyes and ears all around you. If you do post about your pet on social media and your pet is found, please update your posts so that people know your pet is safely back home. People love a happy ending and this gives other people who have lost their pet hope for a positive outcome.
Contact the media. Most local newspapers will allow you to run a short ad about your lost or stolen pet. Contact your local paper or papers which service your general geographic area and ask if they will run an ad for you for free. Some small papers may actually include an image of your pet in a small add for which you would pay some nominal fee. If your pet was stolen from your home or from an area where you were staying (campground, neighbor’s house, etc.) contact local TV stations to see if they will run a story for you. Many television stations are very animal friendly and may be willing to do a short story to help you.
Entice your pet to return home using bedding and food. Although many pets go quite far once they are outside, some don’t go far at all and are just hunkered down some place because they are afraid. Leave bowls of water and food outside near your home or the place where your pet went missing with some of your pets bedding. You may also want to put an item of clothing you have worn and which smells like you with the bedding.
Contact locals. Contact local veterinary offices, animal control agencies and law enforcement agencies to report that your dog or cat is lost or has been stolen and provide them with a copy of your flyer. Sometimes people who find lost pets take them to veterinary offices or turn them in to animal control agencies. If your pet was stolen, you should file a report about that so that it can be investigated, particularly if you think you know who took your pet. Some law enforcement agencies may not take your report seriously, but be persistent and demand help. We don’t like to think of our pets as property, but your pet is your property and theft of a pet is the same legally as theft of other things you own (although much more upsetting, of course). It's always a good idea to talk to local bus drivers and mail carriers to let them know your pet is missing so they can be "on the lookout" for your dog or cat. You can also contact Lost and Stolen Pet Recovery Assistance to see if they can help you.
I have known of people who had a pet go missing who never found the pet again. But I also know of people who have found pets after they had been missing for months. When your pet is reunited with you, I encourage you to have your pet microchipped and to take any and all steps within your power to keep them from being displaced from you again.
(images courtesy of Shelley Lomanto and Peace and Paws Dog Rescue)
The subject of whether or not companion animals go to Heaven is a controversial one. After we let Snake go in 2006, I did a lot of reading on the topic including a wonderful book by M. Jean Holmes called, "Do Dogs Go to Heaven? Eternal Answers for Animal Lovers." It helped.
There was a big hullabaloo in the media a couple of years ago after Pope Francis made some comments about dogs going to Heaven which were initially mistranslated and later clarified. Regardless of what Pope Francis really said or how you interpret it personally, most of us have our own opinions about whether or not animals have souls. (And pretty much every animal lover on the planet got a kick out of a meet and greet Pope Francis had with some service dogs last year which led to some memorable images in which a dog "photo bombed" the Pope.)
There is a new movie coming out called "A Dog's Purpose" which is based on the W. Bruce Cameron book by the same name which tells the story of a dog which is reincarnated many times and "who finds the meaning of his own existence through the lives of the humans he teaches to laugh and love."
I have my own beliefs regarding companion animals which have been forged through time, experience and loss. Whether you agree with me or not is of little consequence. I believe our companion animals do have souls. I believe that when they leave this Earthly place, they move on to another existence, as do people. I believe that some animals come into our lives to teach us lessons and to help us learn how to be better versions of ourselves. They are part of our becoming. I also believe that some of us are animal guardians or paladins and that there are times when animals are put in our path (or we develop some awareness of them) so we can either personally help them get where they are meant to be or to facilitate that process in some way.
So, that is an animal guardian? In my view, these are people who are focused enough on animals to know when they need help, are willing to help those animals in need and who believe that they are used as instruments as part of a bigger plan to help certain animals. If you view yourself as an animal guardian, you may be nodding by now, thinking back to all of the times that an animal crossed your path or entered your life inexplicably, not to become a member of your family, but so that you could be used as an instrument to help that animal. Most people in animal rescue are eternal guardians and may feel like animal magnets. Something that happened to a friend recently served to reinforce my belief about her status as an animal guardian and I thought it worth sharing her story.
Shelley was staying at a the Harrah’s in Reno for the holidays over the Christmas Eve/Christmas Day weekend. She and her family had taken the train to Reno with her mom for a holiday trip in 2015 and they decided to go for a memorial trip in 2016 after her mom passed away. It was a way to honor her mom and get through that first holiday season without her. It was cold. Seventeen degrees to be exact. Shelley and her family were coming back from dinner on Christmas Eve when they saw a young cat run around the long entry to the hotel, crying. The cat was obviously trying to get someone’s attention. Shelley and some others did their best to get the cat, feeding it chicken at one point to distract it. They had no luck at all. Shelley stayed up most of the night revisiting the entrance trying to get the cat but with all of the foot traffic, it was impossible. When she got up at 4:00 on Christmas morning, the cat was nowhere to be found. They were scheduled to leave Reno at 8:00 a.m. Shelley called a local rescue group and left a voice mail to explain the situation and to ask them for help, only to get a text later that day saying there was nothing they could do and to contact animal control. Shelly was despondent, later telling me, "you know what it’s like, one of those situations that you cannot help, and that will haunt you forever."
But all was not lost. Shelley told me about her "Harrah’s kitty." Reno? I have contacts there. I checked in with Diane Blankenburg of Humane Network whom I know from my no kill advocacy. Diane was the Community Programs and Development Director of Nevada Humane Society in Reno for years up until 2013. I was sure there was something which could be done. I asked Diane if there wasn’t some way that the NHS could help refer Shelley to a local organization which does TNR (trap, neuter, return) in the city. (Much like other "entertainment" cities like Las Vegas, Reno has a large population of free roaming cats who live in certain areas due to the resources they find there.) Diane said she was sure NHS still had a TNR program. She connected with Denise Stevens, the Chief Operating Officer at NHS to explain about the cat. Denise was gracious enough to contact Harrah’s security staff about the cat and was told that the talkative little cat had been taken to Washoe County Animal Services (which shares a building with NHS). The Harrah’s cat was safe. He was transferred to NHS from animal control and was temporarily named "Feral Tune" due to his propensity to talk. We’re waiting on an update now about his condition.
Looking at what happened over a period of days, the outcome was surely improbable. What are the odds that a single cat seen at a very busy hotel in a very busy city would be helped over a holiday weekend? Surely lots of other people saw and heard the cat. Shelley was worried for days, not knowing the outcome and fearing the worst. She felt responsible in some way. But she also underestimated her role as an animal guardian. This is not the first time an animal in need found Shelley and it won’t be the last.
I have no doubt that Shelley saw Feral Tune so she would seek help and set a series of events in motion which would ultimately confirm the lost cat was safe. California + Nevada + Alabama = a saved cat. As it was surely meant to be.
NOTE: If you think you are an animal guardian, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to educate yourself about some basic issues regarding companion animals and to connect with local animal shelters and rescue groups so that you have a plan in place in the event that an animal in need finds you. Be prepared for your next guardian encounter and be prepared to see the situation through to the point where the animal is placed in a new home or with a reputable organization. In short, be prepared to "own" your guardian status. It is not enough to by sympathetic to animals in need; you have to be prepared to actually help them in a direct and meaningful way to the extent you can.
Please also do not assume that any animal you help is unwanted or was abandoned. Pets go missing very day for a host of reasons and not all of them relate to someone's irresponsibility. If you find a lost animal, report that fact to your local animal control personnel and list the pet on Helping Lost Pets. Every municipality has a "property hold period" so people can reclaim a lost pet. The best outcome for most lost pets is simply to get back home where they belong with people who care about them.
(image of Tashi courtesy of Becky Lynn Tegze; image of Feral Tune courtesy of the Nevada Humane Society)
I have been known to tell people that I work in the legal field by day but that I am an animal welfare advocate always. I have a paying job like most folks, but my passion is related to helping animals and helping the people who help animals. I am also an Army veteran so I tend to be a bit direct in how I write and talk and I tend to be pretty outspoken. Your tax dollars at work. The good thing about this combo of former GI Jane + paralegal + animal advocate is that the knowledge I have from all of these aspects of my life tends to come in handy together. It also means that I have strong opinions about how we spend our tax dollars and about we support our armed forces. Regardless of your political leanings, I want you to “hate war. Love the American warrior,” as was once so eloquently stated by Lieutenant General Hal Moore.
I never served in combat and never got even close. I did a very unpleasant tour in South Korea once upon a time. I was stationed in Germany when Gulf 1 happened (while people around me were deployed) and I got out of the Army as issues in Bosnia were heating up and shortly after a Yugoslavian neighbor asked me how to get body armor and helmets on the black market. I served in a lot of places and did a lot of crazy things for God and Country, but my life was never at risk and I suffered no long-term effects from my service other than a compulsive need to keep things organized and a disdain for camping.
Many of our veterans are not so fortunate and the sad reality is that many of them are really just invisible to us when you get right down to it. I know that it is human nature to focus on those issues which are on our personal radar. Unless something has affected us personally in some way, we may say we think about it or care about it, but the reality is that we only have a passing awareness at best. Such is the case with our veterans who suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) due to their service, combat or otherwise.
It is not news to anyone paying attention in any limited way that a large number of our veterans now suffer from wounds which we may not see but which are very, very real. It is also not news that we had, and still have, issues with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs regarding how veterans are treated and how quickly they are treated. It is a public shame that we ask so much of the members of our armed forces while paying them so little and then failing to live up to our obligations as a society when their service leaves them unable to function on a day-to-day basis. If you heard about the recent 22 Push-Up Challenge to raise awareness, you now know that 22 of our veterans commit suicide every day. Every. Day.
I believe there is hope on the horizon and this is a topic where my background and my interests intersect: the topic of using dogs to help veterans with PTSD and TBI and use of shelter dogs in particular. I don’t know very much about how the VA spends your money and my money, but I do know this. If someone took a vote, I would immediately say yes to putting my tax dollars toward government funded grant programs to help pair our veterans in need with the canine companions who can help them in ways that counseling, pharmaceutical assistance and even their loved ones cannot.
We’ve all heard of programs that use service dogs to help people who are visually or physically impaired. I first heard of a program which pairs veterans with PTSD and TBI about a year ago when we watched an A&E Series called Dogs of War which highlighted the work of a nonprofit group called Paws and Stripes which is based in New Mexico. The series covered the work of the nonprofit in finding shelter dogs who are suited to be service dogs for veterans and how the nonprofit trains those dogs (and the veterans) to be paired teams. The series was fascinating to me and I am not ashamed to admit that I cried during every episode. I cried because of the problems faced by the men and women helped by Paws and Stripes. I cried for the dogs pulled from kill shelters to become service dogs. And I cried knowing how very many more veterans and dogs could be helped through similar programs. For me, this is a win, win, win. We help the veteran, we save the life of a dog and we prevent taxpayer dollars from being used to kill perfectly healthy dogs in our animal shelters.
I have since learned there are a number of nonprofit groups much like Paws and Stripes across the county who are doing wonderful work. One such group launched recently in my own area and is called, quite appropriately, “Got Your Six.” The organization is led by a contact of mine named Laurel Rose whom I met in my no kill adventures and to whom I have referred many a contact for “dog issues” which are more often than not really issues with people who do not speak dog. Laurel’s organization is set up to help veterans who already have a dog (in the event that dog can be trained as a service dog), but she also works with local animal shelters and rescue groups to get dogs who are well-suited to the type of service and companionship which helps veterans. I could not be more thrilled about having this new group in our military town of Huntsville, Alabama.
I hope a day comes when more of our veterans are helped with service dogs and that the primary source of those dogs is our animal shelters. If you’d like to learn more about efforts to enact legislation to federally fund a VA program to place service dogs with our veterans, I encourage you to learn about the P.A.W.S. Act (Puppies Assisting Wouded Servicemembers) being advanced by Corporal Cole Lyle, a Marine Corps veteran. If you’d like to learn more about programs in your area or state to pair veterans with PTSD and TBI with service dogs, contact your local veteran’s advocacy organization or check this list found on the Paws and Stripes website.
Let's all get behind these programs which help our veterans and which save our dogs in the process. We're Americans. And this should be important to all of us.
(images courtesy of the United States Army and Paws and Stripes, Inc.)
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