I've used a lot of beach metaphors related to my advocacy for shelter animals. I have written of drawing a line in the sand which is a reference to animal shelters proclaiming that they will no longer destroy healthy treatable animals under any circumstances. I have written about animals in need being like starfish on the beach and that it's not enough to save just that one; we have to figure out where all those starfish are coming from to keep them from washing up on the shore and we need to figure out how better to help them if they do end up on the beach. Now that summer has arrived and our world is in crisis, it is time for another beach metaphor. The sands of the animal sheltering world in the United States are shifting and they're shifting very quickly.
If you've kept up with me at all you know that I am an unapologetic proponent of something called the No Kill Equation which was developed by Nathan Winograd in 2007 and first published in book form for all to see. I support the Equation as an animal shelter philosophy because it works, because it can be molded and shaped to fit any community and because it is not about spending more money – it is about culture and leadership. It is dual purpose in nature because it serves to reduce shelter intake and it serves to increase shelter output. The Equation focuses on animal shelters because that is where animals die using our tax dollars. Having said that, it is not just about the shelter itself. The Equation works because it helps people make better personal choices which affect shelter intake and because it helps people see shelter animals as worthy of their time, attention and love. In spite of my long-term support for the Equation, I fully recognize that there are other philosophies and methodologies “out there” which also save the lives of shelter animals. I don’t care what you call it, who developed it or how far removed from the status quo progressive programs are; saving lives should be something we can all agree upon.
The pandemic has revealed many things about our society and changed many aspects of how we function personally and collectively. In terms of animal sheltering system in the United States, the pandemic has revealed the true colors of shelters funded by our tax dollars. Shelters that were at least nominally progressive before the pandemic have risen to the challenge. They have become creative as they have adopted new programs in ways to engage with the public to keep animals alive. They have worked incredibly hard to get animals back home, to keep animals in existing homes, to get animals adopted out or to get animals into foster homes (which does miraculous things toward helping those animals be adopted). Animal shelters that were regressive and which used excuses to kill animals in the past have added the pandemic as just one more excuse to kill those animals. Many have stopped adoptions, have ceased interacting with the public, and killed countless animals because they continue to do intake while doing nothing to get animals out of the building. These facilities (I refuse to call them shelters) have refined the catch and kill model as animals come in one door and go out in body bags.
As our society has changed over the last 3 months, there has been what I consider an awakening on the part of the public when it comes to animal shelters. For the first time in my lifetime I heard well known people in mainstream media talking about shelter animals and the need to foster and adopt shelter animals. With more people staying home, fewer animals have run loose which has led to reduced shelter intake. When lots of people were working from home (many of whom still are), more people were willing to foster animals to either prevent them from entering shelters or to get them out of shelters, making it much, much easier to pair them with potential adopters. Many of those people returned to work, but now see how easy it is to foster an animal for a short period of time to make a huge difference.
During the course of these changes, a new approach to animal sheltering has emerged. It is called the Human Animal Support Services model which is being led by Kristen Hassen (Director of Pima County Animal Services in Arizona), Dr. Ellen Jefferson (Executive Director of both Austin Pets Alive! And American Pets Alive! in Texas), Gina Knepp (national Shelter Engagement Director for the Michelson Found Animals Foundation), Lisa LaFontaine (President and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance) and Bobby Mann (the Maddie’s Fund Director of Human Animal Support Services). HASS describes itself as “an international coalition of animal services leaders and more than 30 pilot organizations transforming the traditional sheltering system to serve the entire community in supporting the human-animal bond.”
The HASS is what the name sounds like – it is a model that focuses on helping people related to animals who end up in shelters. There are currently 26 working groups working on shelter concepts in subjects like marketing and communications, behavior support, community engagement, fostering, volunteering, fundraising, shelter education and outreach, ecosystem mapping, and research (just to name a few). There are 12 elements to the HASS model which include getting pets home, keeping families together, self-rehoming, intake-to-placement, core functions of the physical shelter, animal protection and public safety, remote help, foster, telehealth, case management, volunteers and partnerships.
There are currently 12 tier 1 pilot communities working to implement the HASS model immediately. There are 15 tier 2 pilot shelters that will implement programs based on lessons learned from the tier one animal services organizations, one of which is in my state.
Call me skeptical as well as moderately annoyed. The primary reason is that I think that this model presumes a level of commitment to life-saving which does not exist in many places across the country. My opinion is that the shelters and communities most likely to consider and implement the model are those which were already progressive when the pandemic hit and which doubled down on their commitment to life-saving. Those places are a step ahead because their culture already provides the foundation for progress to continue through innovation. Shelters and communities which do not already save the lives of animals in need for whatever reason, regardless of resources, are not as apt to make the leap from a catch and kill model to a human animal support model. My annoyance is caused by the fact that the focus seems to be external to the shelter and may put too much pressure on the public to do too much. In many states shelters are statutorily required to take in animals found running loose. This is a public safety issue. We have heard that some shelters are no longer taking in healthy animals found running at large which is mind boggling to me. What exactly is the shelter staff doing with all that free space and all that time on their hands if only a handful of animals are in the building? I'm all for keeping animals out of shelters whenever possible or getting them out quickly. But the notion that a shelter would simply stop doing intake of healthy animals running loose is exasperating to me. Do the intake, vaccinate them, put them in the system, and then put them in a foster home. But don't expect the public to become behaviorists, veterinarians or animal control personnel for the community. And don't put people at risk. Dogs behave in unpredictable ways when they feel fear. We need trained personnel dealing with those dogs, not people who may end up injured just because they tried to do the right thing.
I have long promoted municipal accountability for the use of tax dollars related to animal sheltering and care. As much as I would like to think the animal shelter system can be reformed, now is not the time to take the burden off of shelters and put it on the public or on rescue groups with many people paying attention for the first time ever. Now is the time to keep the public engaged as we really focus on programs proven to work and to push public officials to do their jobs consistent with public values when it relates to keeping people safe and keeping healthy and treatable animals alive. Now is the time to supercharge those programs which have proven they may be the most important during times of crisis - pet retention programs, proactive redemptions, foster programs, comprehensive adoption programs, and community outreach/public relations. Now is not the time to take the focus off of a shelter system which exists in most places not for animal welfare but for public safety. I think you need a foundation of a commitment to life-saving first; killing healthy and treatable animals for no good reason is a betrayal of the public trust which continues unabated across the country. Once we end that outdated model, that is our foundation upon which we can build a new and better future.
Perhaps I am being short-sighted. My opinion matters little in the big scheme of things in any event. The view is just a whole lot different from the weeds of Alabama than from the streets of Texas. I would love to be proven wrong and would love to see all of my concerns put to rest.
I understand that the HASS model is a pilot program to see if the ideas work. Much like shifting sands, it is not engraved in stone. It is a series of idea which may or may not have have universal application. I would love a future in which the shelter in any community is a safe haven for the animals most in need of help, in which shelters are seen as places of hope and support, and in which there are interactions between the shelter and social services agencies or community stakeholders to help people who most need help so we keep pets where they belong - in existing homes.
Back to my beach metaphors, I am but a grain of sand on the beach of animal sheltering and welfare. I have worked hard for many years to affect change in my own area with some degree of success in a few places and with dismal failure in another areas. My plan is to watch what happens around me and write about it to keep people informed to the extent that I can keep up. I will keep promoting the No Kill Equation in the meantime because it works now, it works anywhere, it’s about leadership (not money) and it includes many of the same elements being contemplated by the HASS model.
It is possible that we have arrived at a tipping point in the history of our society which may result in a complete change in how animal shelters function and interact with the public being served. Dare to dream. My hope is that if we really want to change our society related to animal sheltering, some large national animal welfare organizations which have routinely operated with millions of dollars in the bank from a view of thirty-thousand feet while writing position statements and holding seminars will realize it’s time to land their planes, put boots on the ground and use that money in the communities that need their help. Ideas are great. Actions are better.
I also hope that those who are promoting the HASS model are not blinded by an information silo created by their own progress. Austin, Texas, is nothing like Anniston, Alabama. Tucson, Arizona is nothing like Toledo, Ohio. I wish the HASS founders well. They have much more time to devote to this subject than most individual advocates like me and they are much smarter than I am to be sure. A day will come when the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in our nation's shelters will end. How quickly we arrive at that new "normal" is up to all of us. Is HASS the path to that future? Time will tell.
Stay tuned. See you on the beach.
NOTE: Since the time I wrote this blog, I have learned that some shelters are using the HASS Model as a reason to stop providing services to the public. In El Paso, the shelter is refusing to pick up and house healthy animals running at large in spite of the legal public safety obligations of the city and the shelter there. El Paso is a Tier 1 location in the HASS program. This is completely unacceptable. If you live in a place where the municipal animal shelter, or one funded by tax dollars, is refusing to provide public services, contact your local elected officials and demand better.
Icon. Hero. When we think of those words, we tend to think of people. When I think of those words, I think of a small dog whose life was so improbable as to be the stuff of legends. Harley. Harley Taylor, to be exact. I was trying to think back to when I first learned about Harley and I had to go look it up in my records. Just like human icons and heroes are timeless, so is Harley. It is like he has always been and always will be, thanks to his family and his devoted followers.
Harley lived in a cramped, filthy cage at a puppy mill for the first 10 years of his life, fathering countless puppies to be sold in pet stores across the country. His life was incredibly rough. He was sick, afraid and had never known the kindness of human touch. After he had been tossed in a bucket along with some dead puppies, a puppy mill worker noticed he was still breathing. She retrieved him from the bucket and passed the tiny, disfigured Chihuahua on to a nearby rescue. He received immediate medical care and he was put in the grass where his picture was taken. He was old and crooked, he had only one eye, and he appeared sad and afraid. Rudi Taylor wrote:
when I saw the photo I knew instinctively that this little Chihuahua was meant to be with me. I called the women who ran the rescue; we spoke for an hour and the next thing you know I was on my way to pick up “my boy” a couple states away. To be honest, my intention was to give this dog a loving home for his final days, which the vet said would likely be about three months. A soft bed, good food and clean water – but most importantly, love – that is what I would give “Harley” for the first time in his life.
Harley had come very close to death and he had issues: a diseased heart, a mouth filled with rot, a fused spine, a broken tail, gnarled toes, and legs that were deformed. And then there was the missing eye – the result of his cage being power-washed with him in it (an all too common practice in puppy mills). But Harley was a survivor. He thrived on the love and attention he received for the first time in his life.
Harley has been called “magical” by everyone who met him and loved him. Harley inspired Rudi and her husband, Dan, to create a campaign called “Harley to the Rescue” which raised funds to save (and provide medical care for) more than 500 dogs from puppy mills in less than two years. Harley went on these rescue missions and “clearly recognized his role in helping to bridge the gap between canine and human,” wrote Rudi.
Harley passed away on March 20, 2016. I had never met him, but still felt the loss. I had created a series of video projects over the years using images and video clips of him and faithful sidekick, Teddy Burchfield, so I felt like I knew him. But isn’t that the way it is with all heroes? I believe so. When souls touch our lives on such a personal level, we feel as if we know them and so the loss of them feels like a personal loss. I wrote a series of blogs after Harley’ passing. I wrote about the fact that he changed the world. I wrote about his extraordinary life. I wrote about his legacy. I wrote about the fact that he was small in size and larger than life.
As I processed the news of his passing, I felt deep down that Harley's legacy would be huge and may even be greater than his accomplishments while in the loving care of the Taylors. Even I was wrong. No one could have imagined the profound effect Harley had, and continues to have, on so very many people across the country. He inspires. He empowers. He has given some people a focus and passion for a subject they never had before as they labor tirelessly to speak out for other dogs like Harley who were not saved.
To honor Harley’s life and continue his legacy, Rudi and Dan Taylor developed a non-profit organization called Harley’s Dream. The work done by this incredible organization is almost beyond description. The Taylors channeled their love (and, I would presume, their grief) into developing programs to bring an end to puppy mills and to help other dogs like Harley. The scope of these programs is huge so I encourage you to visit the website to learn more about them.
The first program is a public awareness program which is intended to expose the puppy mill industry to as many people as possible toward bringing an end to that industry. This program includes large scale public awareness using billboards, social media awareness, peaceful protests and rallies, puppy mill awareness cards, media awareness, t-shirts and products (which start conversations), an annual Hops & Harley event and the Art by Teddy campaign.
The second program is an educational program which seeks to educate the public about the reality of the puppy mill industry and the link between puppy mills and pet stores/websites. It includes educational events, presentations, a Children’s Educational Campaign, print and display educational materials and Bookmarks for Change.
The third program is an advocacy program which promotes grassroots organization with mobilized supporters across the country in order to effect change at the local and regional levels. It includes Harley’s Heroes groups in each state, Lobby Days, petitions, sample letters, and promotion of Humane Pet Stores which provides the steps and information necessary to start the process of establishing a ban of the retail sale of puppies in pet stores in towns/cities. More and more places across the country are enacting ordinances to keep national pet supply stores from selling animals sources from puppy mills. They do not prevent people from purchasing a dog from a breeder. They do serve as consumer protection laws in light of CDC investigations of the transmission of diseases from pet store puppies to people.
The fourth program is new and is truly a labor of love. It is Harley’s House of Hope which helps individual senior dogs by saving them from animal shelters, caring for them in a home environment and providing them all necessary medical care before finding them new homes. Most of the dogs who enter Harley's House of Hope were scheduled to be euthanized until they were rescued.
I know it has been more than four years since Harley left us. Sometimes it feels like it has been ages and other times it feels as though it was just yesterday. Looking back, I marvel at how many people Harley has touched with his life and his legacy. I believe a time will come when the puppy mill industry will cease to exist as we know it. I have no doubt that Harley and the Taylors will have played a huge role in that transition to more compassionate way of functioning as we not only say that dogs are man’s best friend, but we prove it through our actions and our choices.
Dare to dream. We miss you Harley. You are a hero and an icon. And you will never be forgotten.
If you would like to support Harley's Dream, there are a variety of ways to do that. Click on the support drop down menu on the website to learn more.
There are defining periods for all of us which direct the paths we take through life. Deaths of people we love. A lost job which leads to an unexpected career change. Discovery of some new information which changes our world view. Once we reach these crossroads of sorts, there is no going back. Just choosing a way forward. Such was the case for me when I learned about the deaths of animals in our tax-funded animal shelters using our money, in our name and while we are blamed for the process.
An author friend of mine, Cara Sue Achterberg, had a defining period in her life recently which is the subject of her new book - One Hundred Dogs and Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles and a Journey into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues.
I first met Cara when I blogged about her previous book - Another Good Dog: One Family and Fifty Foster Dogs. I truly enjoyed her delightful book which introduces us to the world of fostering dogs and to her family, all of whom participate in the process. Cara wrote about what motivated her to foster for a rescue group called Operation Paws for Homes, about her “puppy addiction,” and about all the dogs who passed through her home on their way to new lives.
Having fostered so many dogs, Cara was compelled to ask an obvious question – “where are all these dogs coming from any way?” It is a question I wish more people in rescue circles asked of “the system” related to their efforts to save the lives of animals. We are hearing more and more that fostering is the future of animal sheltering and welfare and I believe that’s true. The more animals we have in foster homes, the faster we can place those animals into new homes and the fewer animals we have in shelters which are stressful places for even the most well -behaved companions. But as I wrote about in my book, if we ever hope to get a handle on the number of animals entering our tax-funded shelters, many of whom are summarily destroyed, we have to look at the bigger picture and address the first of many questions which was the one Cara asked - where are all these animals coming from?
Cara had finished Another Good Dog and hit the road to tour the book and to see some of the places the dogs came from. She wanted to see them for herself and take a closer look at why there was so much need for fostering. As Cara wrote:
Money was good. But money alone would not solve the problem of killing dogs because there wasn’t enough space/time to save them. Foster homes could make a difference. If we had more foster homes, we could save more dogs. The message of my book—that fostering is one way anyone can help save dogs—was needed now more than ever. If there were more foster homes, it would lessen the stress on shelters to stretch strained budgets and maybe they wouldn’t be forced to make decisions about which dogs they could afford to save and which would have to die. But how could there ever be enough foster homes? Foster homes wouldn’t stem the tide of dogs arriving at the shelter. Fostering could give them breathing room, but, clearly, it wasn’t the only answer. I needed to do more than write a book. I needed to go down there. I needed to see this for myself. Sitting there with Willow, I began to hatch a plan. I would use my book advance money, not just to tour with my book, but to rent a van, fill it with donated food and meds and supplies, and take them to the shelters. Along the way, I would write about it, using my words to shine a light on the situation.
Cara ultimately took four separate trips to shelters and rescue groups in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama, logging over ten thousand miles in the process. I was fortunate enough to meet her in person as she traveled through Alabama. It was after the third of these trips, and after having fostered a particularly difficult dog named “Gala,” that she decided to write a new book. Cara explained the process this way:
I wrote a proposal for a new book. One that would pick up where Another Good Dog left off with our foster family, but it wouldn’t stop there. I would take my readers to the shelters. So often when I talked about what I saw in the southern shelters people shook their heads, and I was never sure if it was because they didn’t believe me or they didn’t want to believe me. But in my book, I could take them there. I could show them. . . I felt an urgency. The faces of so many dogs click through my mind. Lying on concrete floors or hard plastic shelves, with so little human contact, their eyes haunted me. They were confused and frightened and so incredibly vulnerable. I didn’t have a minute to waste.
When Cara told me she planned another book, I jumped at the opportunity to read an advance copy and give others a sneak peek into the content. As was my method in my blog about Another Good Dog, I won’t share too many details about the new book here. My hope is that you will read it and take the same journey with Cara as I took while reading the book. I will share that what Cara learned during her travels over so very many miles was infuriating, heart breaking, exasperating, empowering, compelling and hopeful all at the same time.
Some shelters she visited were little more than disposal facilities, where government officials should have ensured proper care for animals, but were satisfied with housing them in substandard conditions only to kill them. Of one such place, Cara wrote:
There were no dogcatchers or kennel attendants, just four dogs in kennels that were piled with feces, flooded with urine, and swarming with flies. There were no beds or doghouses or even a blanket to lie on, so the dogs had no choice but to lay in their own filth. They barked at the sight of us, jumping against the fence excitedly. One small, brown pit bull was emaciated and crusted with poop, but wiggled and wagged, eager for our attention. A few kennels down were two dogs together in one kennel with twice as much filth. One had a belly likely bloated with worms; the other Trisha was pretty sure was a sibling of a dog back at her house she had rescued a few weeks before. Around the other side of the building, we found a sweet, yellow dog with doe eyes and a nylon collar, also frighteningly thin, who had a soft cough. The volunteer shrugged, “they’ll stay here until the guys get tired of taking care of them. Then they’ll take them to the vet to be killed.”
(Fanny, in the Huntington Pound; photo by Ian Achterberg)
In other places, local government officials were so complacent about sheltering animals that private individuals had stepped in to try to fill the gap, using their own time, money and resources in a desperate attempt to keep animals alive. Some of those people had taken on so many animals with no plan in place to re-home them that the situation bordered on hoarding. They felt they were the only people keeping animals alive and sometimes made poor choices as a result of huge hearts who just wanted to save lives. Cara wrote about two sisters she met who are in their sixties yet who care for seventy dogs and one hundred and forty-five cats at their property in a county that has no real shelter, just a small dog pound. “The sisters began doing what the county should have been doing, paying for it out of their own pocket and now with their social security.” I’m sure this happens more often than people realize; they have no clue that people will big hearts work frantically to save lives while elected officials do nothing to help using tax dollars.
But all was not doom and gloom. As Cara wrote, “saving dogs, like pretty much everything in this world, comes down to business. What we need is a better business plan. Too many dogs are dying for want of it.” Her travels took her to positive places where “attitudes are a powerful force.” These were welcoming places, some of which operated with very little money. They were staffed by positive people who made the shelter operation welcoming and with leadership who kept the public informed so issues could be solved by the public and the shelter working together. At one place Cara visited, the shelter director focused not on what she didn’t have —volunteers, money, community support, or a fancy building—and instead looked at what she did have—plenty of land in a beautiful part of the country. The director created walking trails through their woods and began a rock painting program. The staff and volunteers began painting rocks with positive messages and placing them on the trails. “Then they invited the public to come and hike, paint a rock and place it, or find a rock and take it home. She enlisted the local high-school students to create storyboards and post them along the trails, giving young families even more incentive to come to the shelter. The only price for using their beautiful, interactive trails? Walking an adorable, adoptable shelter dog! Talk about a win-win. I loved it and was fast becoming a member of the Kristin Reid fan club. Kristin’s common-sense solutions and systems were obvious everywhere we looked.”
(Cara visiting with Rhonda Lindsay of Brindlee Mountain Animal Rescue in Alabama; photo by Nancy Slattery)
As a No Kill advocate, I was enthralled by what Cara learned during her travels. Much of what she saw validates what advocates in No Kill circles have said for years: that saving the lives of animals is a choice and that it is not about money. It’s about compassion and leadership. It is easy to think that animals die because the public doesn’t care enough. In Cara’s words – “It can’t be that people don’t care, they simply don’t know.” So very true. And thanks to Cara’s new book, more people will know and then they can act to be part of the solution.
Cara won’t be able to tour her new book this year due to the pandemic, so we agreed to do a Q&A by video so you can meet her and hear her responses to some questions I posed. I hope you enjoy our chat and that you will read her book. It’s available for pre-order now from a variety of sources and will be available at local bookstores on July 7, 2020. Cara has written a host of other books and has a new fiction book due out in 2021. You can keep up with the latest news on her website and by following her blogs.
How many dogs Cara she fostered to date? 177. Simply amazing!
April 22nd is Earth Day. A day celebrated around the world to demonstrate support for environmental protection which was first celebrated in 1970. In our household, it is a day of remembrance as we recall the passing of our beloved dog, Snake.
My husband, Rich, rescued Snake in 1992 with the help of the Lassen County Game Warden in Northern California. She was a German Shepherd/coyote mix dog who spent the first two years of her life chained to a tree with a heavy logging chain. The the only way to save her was an adopter who was experienced with dog behavior and trauma. It took time to take her from a dog who “pancaked” and did not trust people to a dog who was confident and loyal. Snake was a sight to behold. She looked like a German Shepherd in the body of a coyote, all muscle and heart. She was incredibly smart and a true athlete. She lived to chase a Frisbee, jumping and twisting in the air to catch her toy. She was very protective of us, and we were always careful with her around other dogs and other people; she was part domestic dog and part wild child.
Snake had been declining for years and we knew the day would come when we would have to make the decision that was worst for us, but best for her. She had become trapped in a body that no longer functioned well. She had trouble digesting food, was intermittently incontinent and had mobility issues. When she began to have cognitive issues in addition to her physical issues, we knew it was time. On a sunny Saturday morning in 2006, Rich called our veterinarian and asked her to come to the house. This was something we had arranged months in advance, but we did not make the decision until that morning.
I took her for one last walk as I tried to hide my anguish. I worried she would feed off my emotions and be scared. It was a beautiful day, and she seemed to be feeling pretty good, but we knew it was time if we were to save her from suffering and pain. We didn’t realize until later that it was Earth Day. We buried her on our rural property (we called it Snakehaven) in a breathtaking casket Rich had been quietly building for months. (We were later forced to move thanks to a shooting range which opened near our home; Rich undertook the heart wrenching task of recovering Snake's remains so that we could have them cremated to take the with us to our new home.)
Even when we know ahead of time that the ones we love are going to leave us, dealing with that loss is another matter entirely. The void left by the absence of someone you have lived with for so long is both striking and shocking. We told ourselves Snake had a long and wonderful life because those things were true. Having her euthanized was one of the hardest things we had ever done, and so we struggled with the decision. Did we let her go too soon? Had we waited for too long? We agonized over our decision for days, weeks and months.
I've had numerous conversations with people in the last 14 years about the decision to euthanize a beloved pet. Marion Hale once aptly described it as The Terrible Decision. It is difficult enough to lose someone you love to tragedy or under natural circumstances. Losing someone by choice for their benefit to either prevent or alleviate suffering is another matter entirely. We anguish over timing. Should we wait? Is it too soon? We tell ourselves that today was bad, but maybe tomorrow will be better. Sometimes that proves to be true. Other times it does not.
I have come to believe that there is just no good time to say farewell. It is an imperfect process which is clouded by love, compassion, memories and hope. It can be hard to think clearly as we try to force ourselves to choose what we hope is the "right" time. There is such thing in any absolute sense. Any time a decision is made to euthanize an animal for reasons of mercy, that decision is right because it is made from a place of love and sacrifice. It is putting aside our own selfishness and making the selfless decision to let the soul we love go as peacefully as possible.
When the time comes for you to say farewell to your beloved pet, I know that you too will do so from a place of love. Make your best decision based on the information you have about quality of life and once the deed is done, forgive yourself. The passage of time may not heal all wounds. Grief does become less painful in time as you shift from focusing on the void left and you focus more on positive memories, giving thanks for the time you walked a path together.
Our companion animals speak with us through body language and behavior. If they could talk, I feel confident they would tell us what they want and they would say, "please. It is time to let me go. If you love me, give me wings."
We love you, Snakey. Run wild and free. May we meet again some day.
With all of us dealing with the COVID 19 pandemic, I’ve been giving a lot of though to how much we are separated, yet how very connected we are thanks to technology. I grew up in a time before the Internet when there was no such thing as email or cell phones. If you wanted to communicate with someone, you made a call on a wired telephone, sent a letter or interacted in person. For the most part, our worlds were limited to family members, friends, co-workers and people we encountered while moving around in our communities or while traveling.
I know we are long past the “olden days,” but I still marvel about how connected I am with people not just in the United States, but around the globe. As I watch the news each day and learn about the spread of the virus, I think about people I “know” from other countries and what they are going through. One in particular, Douglas Anthony Cooper, is the subject of this blog related to one of his books. Douglas is a Canadian citizen who lives in Rome, a place very far removed from the American reality for most of us as we see video footage of the empty streets in Rome and monuments with no visitors, much like images from some post-apocalyptic movie.
But back to the subject at hand. Douglas and how we crossed paths, so to speak.
I have a soft spot for misunderstood dogs. It started with our dog, Snake, who lived on a heavy logging chain for the first two years of her life before my husband rescued her; Snake likely would have been destroyed in most traditional animal shelters. She was not good around other dogs and was very protective of her pack (which means she was not good around most people). The more I learned about the plight of many dogs in our nation’s shelters, particularly dogs which look like pit-bull type dogs and are presumed to be dangerous, the more I felt compelled to educate myself on the topic and share what I learned.
I’ve read some amazing books over the years regarding these misunderstood and stereotyped dogs as part of my education. They include Jim Gorant’s, “Lost Dogs: Michael Vick’s Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption” and his follow-up book, “Found Dogs: The Fates and Fortunes of Michael Vick’s Pit Bulls, 10 Years After Their Heroic Rescue.” Key to my education was the book I consider the authority regarding pit bull type dogs: “Pit Bull: The Battle Over and American Icon” by Bronwen Dickey.
Along the way, I learned that award-winning author and photographer Douglas Anthony Cooper was planning a children’s book about these dogs and I was intrigued. He was using a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project. I made a small contribution, but then went on about my life, knowing it would take years for the book to be funded and published. (I went back to check on the success of his Kickstarter campaign to write this blog. His labor of love had a fundraising goal of $27,500 but raised $62,016. Pretty amazing.)
As I said above, I never cease to be amazed at the people I “meet” as a result of my animal welfare advocacy; Douglas is a prime example. We come from vastly different worlds and I consider him both a scholar and a celebrity, even if he does not view himself in those terms. He has his own Wikipedia page which says a lot right there. He’s published three novels, has a master’s degree in philosophy, studied Latin rhetoric, was a contributing editor to New York Magazine and his articles have appeared in a host of iconic publications. His journalism has won America’s most prestigious travel writing award, as well as a National Magazine Award in Canada. His first young adult novel was on the Financial Times Bestseller List, and was deemed a "Book of the Year" by Lovereading 4 Kids (Milrose Munce and the Den of Professional Help).
I had crossed paths with Douglas before thanks to his writing in the Huffington Post. His list of accomplishments is long and impressive, but it was his writing about the No Kill Movement, the hypocrisy of PETA and the person he described as “The Imposter Behind The Pit Bull Hysteria” – Merritt Clifton which caught my immediate attention.
Douglas published his new book called Galunker in 2016. It was illustrated by Dula Yavne, an artist based in Tel Aviv. I had not kept up with book reviews, so I knew very little about it before I read it. I’m glad I did. I came to it with no expectations about the content and that made it even more magical to me. Yes, magical. I could tell immediately that Douglas was channeling his inner Theodore Geisel in the book through his use of rhyme and word choice. Much like many Dr. Seuss tales before it which are entertaining, but which have a very clear message, Galunker is the perfect presentation of subjects related to dogs who are stereotyped and the operation of animal “shelters” as well as good and evil which exists in people and our society related to those topics. I found the illustrations perfectly suited to the story; they are not what I would consider ordinary illustrations for a children’s book which is what makes them perfect. This may not seem to make sense as you read this, but you’ll understand once you read the book. The illustrations are art.
I obviously read the book with the perspective of an adult, but since Douglas was channeling his inner Ted, I did my best to channel my inner child as I marveled at the prose and the art used to bring the words to life. I consider myself educated on the topics shared in the story but would like to think the child version of me (and my parents) would have learned something from the book and be better, more informed, people for it. No spoilers here folks. I really want you to read the book, think about it, share it with your children, share it with your friends and then think about it some more. I also encourage you to go on the website for the book and download your free printable copy of Blinky’s 10 Golden Rules for Kids so you can made the book the educational tool it is for your family. Here is a short segment to help you understand the beauty of the book.
She stood at a distance, politely explaining:
I admit that I was brought back to the subject of the book due to the current pandemic sweeping our globe. Douglas crossed my mind often in recent weeks as I wondered how he and his dog, Pixel, are faring with the lock down. We began communicating about the book and I knew the time had come to write about it. Douglas graciously agreed to do a Q&A about the book; this is a format that has worked well for me in the past to introduce people to books while sharing some information they may not learn from the book itself.
Q&A with Douglas Anthony Cooper
Q: You are an award-winning author of adult fiction and your books have been published in numerous languages and countries. What compelled you to write a children's book and why specifically on this topic?
A: Children’s literature is an important art form, and I’ve always wanted to try my hand at it. Books change children, and good books change them for the better. Many of the books that affected me most were the ones I read before I turned ten. As for the topic: children’s books about animals are a vast genre; and my life has increasingly been consumed by activism on behalf of shelter animals; so it wasn’t hard to decide on a subject.
Q: The name Galunker is very unique. Was there a particular inspiration for that?
A: It just sounded right—it’s a nice awkward name for a ridiculous dog—but I suppose when I think about it there are certain words squished in there: “galoot”, “lunkhead”—words that are appropriate for a dog that’s wrongly considered a thug (which is true of so many dogs that happen to look like pit bulls).
Q: It is immediately obvious from the rhyme and word choice in your book that you were channeling your inner Theodore Geisel, known of as Dr. Seuss. How did that come about?
A: That was certainly deliberate. I firmly believe that Dr. Seuss is a genius to rank with our greatest writers. Literary snobs often sneer at children’s literature, but the greatest snob of them all—Vladimir Nabokov—considered Geisel a master. And Dr. Seuss specialized in a poetic form that has always appealed to me (and to children): it’s a unique, silly rhythm, and it’s a lot of fun to write. I’ve in fact just written another book that scans in the same way—also about animals—called “A Warthog in My Closet.” Believe it or not, rhyming books are deemed out of fashion (despite the fact that Dr. Seuss has dominated the bestseller lists every single year for decades); so it may not be easy to get a publisher on board.
Q: Since the book was published in 2016, what has the reception been like and what type of feedback have you received?
A: The feedback has been overwhelming. Let’s face it: dog partisans are the most passionate people in the world; and the ones devoted to bully breeds are probably the most passionate of all. They were thrilled to see a children’s book about a pit bull. Of course, people who are bigoted against this type of dog—or just irrationally frightened of them—were appalled; and I was told by the head of perhaps the most prestigious publishing house in the world that “I might as well write a children’s book about meth.” I like to think that Galunker is a step towards changing those perceptions.
Q: We Americans like to think of ourselves as an animal-friendly culture but we clearly have problems with our animal sheltering system, breed discrimination with dogs, puppy mills, etc. As a Canadian citizen who lives in Italy, what can you tell us about the state of animal shelters and breed discrimination in other countries? Are Americans as unevolved as I suspect we are when compared with other cultures?
A: America is becoming, I believe, increasingly enlightened with regard to this, and a lot of it has to do with the growing success of the No Kill movement. I haven’t looked at the numbers recently, but Canada seems to be approximately on a par with America, in terms of shelter killing. Europe is another matter. At their best, Europeans put us to shame: the British, for instance, are a model nation when it comes to the treatment of companion animals. At their worst, Europeans are a disgrace: the crimes committed against dogs in Spain are as ugly as any on earth. (Note: if you live in Europe, you might want to think about adopting a galgo—a Spanish greyhound: they’re gorgeous, and they’re the victims of unthinkable brutality.) Italy is somewhere in the middle. The country has a great attitude towards dogs and cats; it’s technically a No Kill nation, and dogs are welcomed pretty much everywhere but churches, art galleries, and grocery stores. The Italians have a word for “crazy cat lady”—“gattara”—but it’s not an insult: most Italians are crazy cat ladies. That said, funding for the shelter system is a mess, so the fact that it’s illegal to kill shelter animals just means that they are often stuck in shelters for years. It’s much like the “hoarding” situation that the No Kill movement is falsely accused of in America—in Italy it seems to be a reality.
Q: Do you have any plans to continue the story with Blinky and Galunker? There would seem to be so many stories about animal shelters and how we treat animals which could help educate children (and their parents).
A: I’ve certainly thought about it. No immediate plans, but if a story comes to mind, I expect Dula (the illustrator) would be keen.
Q: I could absolutely see your book being turned into a film by Pixar, Illumination, Disney, Wes Anderson or an Indie filmmaker. Is there any talk about that for the future?
A: Well, coincidentally, Pixar recently did produce a short animated film about an abused pit bull. A lovely film called “Kitbull.” I do in fact have an Italian connection to the studio: a good friend of my publisher here designs the Pixar museum displays. So this is something I’ve been thinking about. It’s certainly a sign of changing attitudes, and it’s wonderful: who would have imagined that this theme would be embraced by a company as mainstream as Disney?
I published a blog on Wednesday of this week about our COVID 19 public crisis and what animal shelters can do to reduce intake of animals into shelters and increase output of animals from shelters. The impetus for the blog was a call I had with a contact of mine who asked what I knew about rumors that some shelters were resorting to population control killing. I used the blog to again promote the programs and services of the No Kill Equation while highlighting some great things being done by shelters to help animals.
Today let's talk about the rest of us. About those of us who share our lives with companion animals. The choices we make regarding our pets which are reflected in our personal behavior are more important now than ever before when it comes to keeping animals alive - not just our own animals, but the animals in our communities. I realize that many people don't give a whole lot of thought to how their personal choices affect how animal shelters operate. What we do as individuals absolutely affects shelters either for good or for bad.
Keep Your Dogs Contained
Most places have laws that require animals, particularly dogs, be contained so they do not run at large. Now is the time to take extraordinary measures to keep your pets under your control. Do not let your dogs run loose like it is 1845. It is not only dangerous for your dog, but it can be dangerous for the people who encounter your dog whether they are driving or just happen to cross paths. Make sure you keep gates closed, keep doors closed and you teach your children to do the same. If your dog gets loose, he or she is not only apt to be injured, but is apt to end up in a local animal control system. Do your part to keep that from happening not only to reduce the number of dogs in local shelters, but to avoid putting the life of your dog at risk. Your dog who is well behaved at home may do very poorly in a shelter environment and that may lead to his or her death.
Make Sure Your Pets Can be Identified
Now is the time to have your pet microchipped so he or she can be identified. Chipping is a cheap, easy way to help shelters, veterinary offices and law enforcement authorities know your pet's identity to get them back to you quickly if they do get loose or even if they are stolen. If you are on a Stay at Home Order and cannot get to a veterinary office, you can order an identification tag or collar for your pet so that someone who finds them can contact you easily. For cats, breakaway collars are recommended to avoid strangulation.
Identify a Pet Parent
I have written about the concept of a Pet Parent before. Much like some people name a Godparent for a child, a Pet Parent is someone who has agreed to take your pet or pets for you in the event of your death, hospitalization or if you can no longer care for them for some reason. Please do not assume that your family members or friends will automatically take your pets and care for them as you do in the event the unthinkable happens. Have an actual conversation with a family member or friend to ensure not only that they commit to take your pets, but that they know how to get to them in your absence and how to care for them. Our Pet Parent is one of my cousins. She has information about pet history, veterinary contacts, local contacts to get into our home and we have made provisions for the costs of care in the event of our deaths. No one likes to think of the worst case scenario, but it is the responsible thing to do. Related to COVID 19, you also need a Pet Parent for short-term housing and care. Think of this as a foster for your pet who will care for your pet temporarily until you have recovered and can care for your pet yourself. Don't allow your pet to end up in your local animal shelter because you didn't have a plan in place.
Pet Supplies - Be Ready
In the middle of shopping for the human members of your family by having a supply of food to last for a while, don't forget your pets. Make sure you have enough pet food to last a while. Make sure you have your pet's medications refilled and documented with dosages and administering directions.
Have a crate and extra supplies on hand if you need to relocate your pets quickly. Keep all animal vaccines up to date and have copies of those records available in the event that boarding becomes necessary.
Help Local Animal Shelters
There are a host of ways you can help your local animal shelter during this crisis provided you are not under a Shelter at Home Order.
You can foster an animal to get him or her out of the shelter and help expedite the adoption process. Many shelters offer sleepover fosters, weekend fosters, or other short-term fosters which not only frees up shelter space, but also helps the shelter to learn about the true personality of the animal. Very few dogs and cats behave in shelters the same way they behave in a home environment. When you foster, you learn about the ability of the animal to ride in a vehicle, get along with other animals, get along with children and about their personalities in general. That information, along with photos and video clips can be used by the shelter to help place the animal in a new home. It's much easier to "market" animals to new homes when more is known about who they really are, beyond what we see.
Now is also a wonderful time to adopt a shelter animal. Adopting a new-to-you pet now gives you a wonderful opportunity to help your adopted shelter animal decompress, learn about structure and become a member of your family. It can be hard to do that when working your normal hours at an office. Extra time at home makes the process easier for you and for your new pet.
You can also donate to your local animal shelter to help during the crisis. Some shelters may need food, blankets, beds, or enrichment items like Kongs and treats to keep shelter animals occupied during their shelter stay. Contact your local animal shelter to find out what they may need; many shelter have Facebook pages where they regularly list items they need donated.
Donate to a Local Pet Food Bank
Even if you have plenty of pet food on hand, others may not. If there is an organization in your community which operates a pet food bank, please consider donating so you can help another person keep their pet during difficult financial times. Many people are losing their jobs and may think they have to surrender their pet to a shelter because they can no longer afford to feed him or her. Many pet food banks taken open bags or boxes of food. No donation amount is too small. If you are not sure if your community has a pet food bank, your local animal shelter or local rescue groups should be able to tell you about places to donate food.
It is obvious that our nation is in a state of crisis. The news of the COVID 19 pandemic is all around us. We’re all doing our best to get through this period together while changing our personal behavior to reduce the loss of life. The situation is evolving so rapidly that it’s enough to cause all of us to feel ill to some degree as we try to keep up. Stress levels are high. The pandemic affects every aspect of our daily lives and those effects extend to places we might not have expected.
I got an email from an author contact of mine this morning, Cara Sue Achterberg, wondering what we can to about reports we are hearing that some animal shelters plan to destroy their entire populations of animals in anticipation that they will not be able to manage the intake of animals. I’ve seen posts on social media to the same effect. I’m honestly not sure how pervasive this “mass killing” problem really is on a national level. I've also read about people surrendering pets to shelters because they fear they can get COVID 19 from an animal. The information from the CDC about that rumor is here.
Yes, this is a time of crisis. That’s the bad news.
But there’s good news. Now is the perfect time to makes changes in the culture in our animal shelters and our communities to keep animals alive. We know how to reduce shelter intake. We know how to increase shelter output. The methods have been know for years. We do those things using the programs and services of the No Kill Equation which was developed by Nathan Winograd and about which I have written many times.
Foster programs get animals out of shelters quickly. Many people are working from home. This is a great time for people to foster a shelter pet not only to free up shelter space, but to help the animal get adopted faster. Most animals behave completely differently in a home than they do inside a shelter, so fostering provides a great opportunity to learn more about them and to help them decompress. Photographs, video clips and information about the animals are then used for marketing purposes. I saw a Facebook post just this morning about the Kern County Animal Shelter which is doing drive-up foster pick up of animals to free up shelter space.
(image courtesy of the Kern County Animal Services)
Promoting adoption of animals is always important, but now it is critically important. Shelters can use the media and social media to let the public know how to adopt an animal and what animals are available using adoption specials and promotions. In a time of crisis like this, shelters do well to either waive adoption fees (while still doing screening) or drastically reduce those fees. Many shelters have used this opportunity to reach the public about adoptions using humor. These images are from Huntsville Animal Services in Alabama, which is my local tax-funded shelter; they were taken by Kelly Jo (an incredibly talented Lead Kennel Attendant) and posted on the shelter's Facebook page. Just like now is a great time to foster a pet, now is a great time to adopt a pet. With so many people working from home, it provides a wonderful opportunity to help animals decompress from their shelter stay and get settled into a new home.
(images courtesy of Kelly Jo)
Pet Retention Programs
Managed intake is more important now than ever. Most shelters are not obligated to take owned animals and they should not be taking them now. Shelters should be doing all they can to encourage pet retention to keep pets in existing homes or help people rehome pets themselves with family members, friends, co-workers of people they attend church with, know from social groups, etc. Now is a great time for shelters to share information about pet food banks or even partner with local rescue groups to provide free pet food to people who may have lost a job or otherwise be facing a financial crisis. Shelters can also share information about local veterinary resources (to resolve health conditions which may be causing undesirable pet behavior) and about local trainers and behaviorists (to resolve issues with pet behavior which may be the reason someone wants to surrender their pet to an animal shelter). In many cases, a desperate pet owner can be referred to a local rescue group for help. If an owner still insists they must surrender their pet, they should be put on a waiting list to do that once space becomes available.
Community Involvement/Public Relations
Shelters that work hard to keep their communities informed will always operate more efficiently, but now is the time to really ramp up public relations to get the animal-loving community involved. Use of the media - both television and radio - and social media is the bridge to connect shelters to the public which affects the number of animals entering shelters and the number of animals leaving shelters. Although many shelters assume the public is aware of the need to make better decisions and to adopt, foster, volunteer, etc. most people just don’t think about their local animal shelter unless it is put on their “personal radar” for some reason. If a shelter needs help from the community, it has to say so loudly, clearly and often. Tell people to take extraordinary steps to keep pets contained so they don’t end up in the shelter. Tell people what to do if their pet does go missing. Tell people about how the process works to foster and adopt animals. Tell people about the animals in the shelter who need to be fostered or adopted using images, video clips and information. An engaged public is a active public which can do amazing things in times of need, it only we tell people how they can help.
The programs I covered above are just some of the programs of the No Kill Equation. Now is the time to get progressive. Now is the time to make better choices to keep animals alive with the help of the community.
I hope that the rumors I’ve heard of shelters essentially “cleaning house” of both animals and bacteria are false.
As I told Cara this morning, I think shelters will go one of two ways. Shelters led by progressive people or people who genuinely care will rise to the challenge. They will get creative and do everything possible to help their communities and keep animals alive. Regressive shelters led by people who remain willfully ignorant of progressive programs will likely use the crisis as an excuse to kill animals while making it sound like they are performing some Orwellian public service.
What will your animal shelter do? Will it rise to the occasion or will it make excuses? No matter what happens at your local shelter in the weeks and months to come, remember that you are paying for it.
These links are not directly related to this blog, but may be helpful for
you regarding pets and COVID 19.
Animals and Coronavirus Disease 2019
COVID 19 and Animals FAQs from the CDC
COVID 19 FAQs from the American Veterinary Medical Association
How to Care for Dogs and Cats during Coronavirus
As a U.S. Army veteran, I have strong opinions about free speech. I not only see free speech as a right of all American citizens, but I would argue that it is our responsibility to speak out on matters of public concern. If issues are important enough for us to be outraged or angry, then they must be important enough for us to speak out and express ourselves to those who govern us.
I’ve been an outspoken animal welfare advocate for many years. Your tax dollars at work, I guess. Most of my advocacy relates to keeping shelter animals alive using the programs and services of the No Kill Equation. I also advocate for animals related to the issues I cover on my website: puppy mills, spay and neuter, adoption, aggression in dogs, breed bans, etc. I am the first to admit that I’ve made my fair share of mistakes along the way. In my early days of No Kill advocacy, I was too focused on the method I was promoting and not enough on the personalities of the people with whom I was dealing. Because I work in the legal field in municipal defense, I have always had a good handle on how local and state governments function. What I did not fully appreciate was that how my message is received is often as important as the message itself, regardless of my intent. I think the path I have taken would have changed little even if I had a better appreciation for position of the people with whom I was interacting. Some would have been defensive no matter how diplomatically I behaved. Some would not have been able to hear the message from me no matter now many years of experience I have or how much I know related to the issues about which I speak for animals.
One thing I have learned along the way is the importance of always striving to take the high road, no matter how others behave. There will always be people who oppose efforts to improve the welfare of animals for a host of reasons and there is little we can do about it. We cannot convince everyone to share our beliefs through magical thinking or sheer force of our will. Saying the same thing numerous times or saying it more loudly or forcefully is not the answer. I wrote about the behavior of some local opponents to my No Kill shelter advocacy in the book I published last year. People outside of animal welfare circles may think we all get along because we all want the same things. We do not all get along and there are great divisions and struggles between advocates. The people who voiced the loudest opposition to our efforts to reform the local animal shelter were from the animal rescue community. Doesn’t make much sense, I know. But that’s the reality. Even when we take the high road, that behavior is not always reciprocated and we have to learn to just tune out the hate and focus on the message and what we hope to accomplish.
In addition to my advocacy efforts related to No Kill animal sheltering, I’ve been involved with writing and advancing local laws in my state related to animals as well as writing, promoting and opposing laws on the state level. My bill about commercial dog breeding in my state has yet to be filed by my primary sponsor; it is standards-based and makes violations criminal, much like the criminal laws about abuse and neglect. My sponsor tells me he is holding my bill it as a common-sense alternative to a bill which he expects to be both overly ambitious and unenforceable. Time will tell if it is ever filed, but it has been reviewed for the state’s legal team and is ready to roll.
Just this week I was reminded again of the importance of staying on that high road when it comes to interacting with state elected officials. People who advocate for animals are passionate. We cannot lose sight, however, that how we communicate our opinion – and how we behave it we don’t get what we want – are of critical importance. I encourage everyone I know to speak out about proposed state laws that relate to animals. Sometimes bills about animals move so quickly the pubic knows nothing about them before they made laws. The reasons for this relate to money and influence by some large organizations like the AKC, Petland, insurance companies and Big Agriculture, but that’s the subject for another blog. When we communicate with state elected officials about bills, we have to be logical and respectful and we have to know what we’re talking about. To behave otherwise means that our message is lost completely. After having expressed our opinion about bills, we wait for the process to unfold and see what happens. If a bill we support does not pass, it is up to us to try to determine why. It may be that there is a way to promote something better in the future. It may be that the forces opposing the bill are just too strong to be overcome at the present time. If a bill we oppose does pass, it up to us to determine how we behave moving forward. Once a bill becomes a law, there is nothing we can do to turn back the hands of time. Laws are often amended, but that takes time so that circumstances change from the reasons the law was enacted in the first place.
When we yell, scream, threaten or otherwise run around like our hair is on fire related to laws, we lose all credibility and we stifle communication. I sometimes call this behavior Boomerang Aggression. We’re all familiar with the concept of a boomerang – a throwing tool or toy that is designed to spin about an axis perpendicular to the direction of its flight. A returning boomerang is designed to return to the thrower. Boomerang Aggression is when we behave so badly in our communication that we end up silencing our own efforts, having effectively hit ourselves in the head.
A number of animal bills have been filed in my state since the legislative session began in early February. Some are good like House Bill 134 which serves to define the single word, “shelter” in the existing criminal law about abuse and neglect of dogs and cats. This may seem like any easy bill. It is not. It has been opposed by some powerful organizations in past years and likely will be again this year. Nonetheless, animal advocates like me have voiced our support for the bill to the committee considering it and we’ll continue to express ourselves through the process.
One particular bill, Senate Bill 196, was not just terrible. It was downright dangerous. This bill would have put all control of all things animal under the exclusive control of the State Department of Agriculture (which has never dealt with any issues related to dogs and cats), would have nullified local laws already on the books about pet shops (for which I worked hard last year to promote) to open the door for companies like Petland to begin selling more animals in the state, would have put investigation of complaints of abuse and neglect in the hands of the Agriculture Department, would have criminal charged someone who reports animal abuse or neglect if the allegations later prove to be unfounded, and which would make it practically impossible for cities to enact new laws related to animals.
Through some incredibly hard work by a large number of people, to include the Alabama representative for the Humane Society of the United States -Mindy Gilbert- we were able to get SB 196 stalled. After the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture said his department was not consulted on the bill and they were completely unprepared to deal with issues related to dogs and cats, and as a result of many people speaking out against the bill, the primary sponsor agreed to not advance the bill further. This was a huge deal for most of us, but we’re not claiming victory yet. The legislative session doesn’t end until May and anything can happen in the intervening months.
In spite of this small victory, some people in the Birmingham area have failed to do one simple thing: stop talking about Senate Bill 196. The primary sponsor has agreed to not advance the bill. When people continue to call, email and write to the senate sponsors (there are 6) to threaten them, engage in name calling and engage in otherwise aggressive behavior, that does two things. It paints all animal advocates as unreasonable zealots who are incapable of respectful communication and it makes it harder (if not impossible) to have constructive communication with those elected officials in the future.
I have seen this same behavior from the same people before. It has not served them well in the past and it is not serving any of us well now. Those people fail to understand that the very senators they are attacking are the very people from whom they will need cooperation in the future on similar animal law or other animal laws. When you are so aggressive in your communication that the person with whom you are communicating is no longer listening or decides to apply your behavior to others, you are doing terrible harm to the animal welfare movement as a whole.
So. Folks in Birmingham. Please. Stop talking. Let Senate Bill 196 die a quiet death in this legislative session and stop vilifying the very elected officials from whom you will no doubt need cooperation in the future. We can all communicate our position on proposed laws in ways which are logical, effective and respectful. I can’t control your behavior, but you can for the sake of us all, human and animal. If you can’t stop talking, that tells me your focus is not on animal welfare itself but on you as a person. So don’t be surprised if the boomerang comes back and hits you in the head. You will have deserved it. And we may all suffer the consequences of your inability to speak your truth without screaming it.
In late November of 2018, I receive terrible news. A contact told me that a national pet supply chain (which I presumed to be Petland) planned to acquire an existing pet store location in the city where I work and would be selling dogs. Petland is a huge national pet supply chain which sells not only supplies, but which sells animals. According to the Petland website, “Petland, Inc. is a privately held Ohio corporation founded in 1967. Initially, Petland owned and operated retail pet stores in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. In the early 1970's, Petland began franchising pet stores and entered the business of wholesale distribution for pet-related merchandise.” The Petland Mission on the website states, “our pet counselors are dedicated to matching the right pet with the right customer and meeting the needs of both. To our customers who already have pets, we are dedicated to enhancing their knowledge and enjoyment of the human-animal bond."
Coulda fooled me. Petland may look good on the surface, but the national reputation of this company is anything but good. Petland has been the source of immense controversy in our society in which people have become increasingly aware of the plight of shelter animals and aware of the plight of dogs which come from commercial breeding facilities. If you have not kept up recently, Petland has been the subject of two separate alerts from the Centers for Disease Control regarding the spread of disease from dogs to people just in the last two years. The Final Outbreak Advisory for the first study was published in 2018. This particular outbreak of multi-drug resistant Campylobactor infections of people in 17 states is the subject of a class-action lawsuit filed in Federal Court in Atlanta. An undercover investigation conducted by the Humane Society of the United States in 2019 revealed sick and dead puppies at Petland stores (the video in the news story at this link may be upsetting to some people). An Investigation Notice was published by the CDC on December 27, 2019 regarding a new outbreak affecting 30 people in 13 states. These recent reports only scratch the surface of the problems with animals in Petland stores which have been known to animal welfare advocates for many years.
There is currently only one Petland store in the state where I live. It is located in Montgomery, Alabama. I suppose we should consider ourselves fortunate that Petland has yet to gain a strong foothold here., not that it is not trying to do just that. According to the Petland website. In the late 1980's, Petland expanded its presence in Canada and entered international markets. Petland currently has almost 100 stores in the United States and now has an international presence in Brazil, Japan, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, China, Canada, El Salvador and Mexico. Make no mistake - this is big business in the animal supply industry.
I have contacts who protest at Petland and similar stores every Saturday come rain, shine, snow or sleet. They do this to create a visible presence near these stores to warm consumers about the source of the dogs in Petland and similar stores, about the conditions in which the dogs’ parents live and about the potential that the dogs are sick.
The American love affair with dogs has existed for as long as our country has existed. We consider ourselves an animal-friendly society, but that belief is often to the detriment of the dogs we say we love. All puppies are cute. They practically sell themselves. It can be hard to resist a little ball of fur we see in a pet store who is in obvious need of care. But resist we must if we are ever to slow the production of these dogs by the millions in our society while perpetuating the abusive conditions from which they come. People may believe they come from local breeders or a nice house down the street. They do not. No reputable breeder would ever sell dogs in a pet store. People may be told they come from a USDA licensed breeder, but that is no indication of standards of any type. They come from “puppy mills.” Whether you interpret that phrase as a reflection of volume production, as I do, or you associate that phrase with terrible living conditions in which dogs live perpetually in cages without adequate veterinary care, the end result is the same: buying dogs in stores supports an industry most of us abhor and which we hope to see end someday.
But back to my local crisis. There was no time to delay. I reached out to the director of the local animal shelter – who is also a city department head – and asked if she would work with me to advance a preemption ordinance with record speed to prevent any local pet stores from sources animals from breeders. She was on board. I drafted an ordinance that day with a little help from my friends - namely Mindy Gilbert who is the Alabama representative for the Humane Society of the United States. I got the draft to the shelter director that morning and she got it to the city attorney’s office. I contacted members of the city council to let them know what was coming their way and to explain the urgency of the situation. The city had a very limited window of time within which to enact a law to prevent animals being shipped from other states and essentially imported to the city for sale in the pet store which was rumored to open.
The city council took action as quickly as was possible and an ordinance was enacted on December 20, 2018. It was the first such ordinance in the state. What is says is that pet shops inside the city limits can only source animals from the tax-funded animal shelter (Huntsville Animal Services), from an animal care facility, or from an animal rescue organization (as defined in the ordinance as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit which does not obtain animals from a breeder or broker for profit or compensation. The ordinance also requires local pet stores to display a label on each animal cage stating the name and address of the organization of each animal kept in the cage to keep records about the animals which reflect the source of those animals. I was proud at how quickly we worked together to prevent any pet store from sourcing animals from breeders, whether that store would be Petland or some other national chain. The city had worked hard for years to change the way the local animal shelter operates to keep more shelter animals alive and enacting this law was consistent with the values in, and laws of, the city.
Within a couple of days of Huntsville enacting the ordinance, I heard from the same contact that Petland now had its sights on the City of Athens. I contacted the Athens City Attorney and a member of the city council to warn them of the potential that they were next in line for a national pet supply store to set up shop. The City of Athens also moved with record speed to enact an ordinance which is similar to the Huntsville law. It was enacted in late January of 2019. This began a wave of ordinances enacted in other cities: Guntersville, Anniston, Albertville, Tuscaloosa, Boaz and Jasper, also with the Mindy's help.*
While all this was going on, I received more terrible news. The ordinances in Huntsville and Athens had apparently drawn the attention of Petland. On April 3, 2019, I learned that Alabama Senator David Sessions had filed Senate Bill 183 at 5:00 p.m. the previous day which would put regulation of pet stores under the control of the State of Alabama, would take away the authority of municipalities to enact laws regarding pet stores and pet shops, and which would nullify the laws enacted in Huntsville in Athens. Although many states have Departments of Agriculture which exercise oversight related to dogs and cats, that is not the case in Alabama. The Department of Agriculture here has never played any role in oversight of these animals and now was not the time to start to the benefit of large businesses which would import dogs into the state when so many dogs already die here in our tax-funded shelters.
I emailed the the Huntsville mayor and council members that morning to alert them of the bill and encourage them to reach out to their legislative delegation immediately to state opposition to this bill. I also reached out to my Athens contacts. The same day I sent my messages, the bill passed through the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee with a unanimous vote. I heard the bill referred to as “greased,” meaning it was moving quickly as a result of lobbying efforts which are presumed to have been undertaken by Petland. What happened after that is beyond my knowledge. All I know is that the we made it through the rest of the legislative session without the original bill (or a later amendment) becoming a law. We had dodged a bullet of sorts. We know the bill will be back in 2020. I expect a call or email any day to let me know the bill has been filed; I’ll share that information with my contacts in the cities which have laws on the books so they can have a voice to try to stop the bill before it becomes law without the knowledge of the public. We have seen this before. Once a bill like this is filed in a state one time, it is filed over and over again, looking for some opportunity to pass the law before people realize what has happened.
To me, this issue is simple. Cities have a vested interest in the types of businesses which operate inside city limits. Just because a business wants to open does not mean that it can operate in any way it chooses. In the case of animals, each city has a right to pass laws which protect consumers. That is what these local laws in Alabama are designed to do. And Alabama is not alone. One look at the information maintained by the Best Friends Animal Society on this subject shows that many states and many locations across the country are taking action to protect themselves from an influx of animals into their communities which may not only make the public sick, but which may lead to increased spending by those communities when the sick animals are abandoned or surrendered to local animal shelters. I received an email alert on February 7th which said that a federal court in Maryland had upheld the state’s retail pet store law, the "No More Puppy-Mill Pups Act.” The Act, which went into effect January 1, 2020 restricts the offer for sale of cats and dogs by retail pet stores in Maryland. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit were dog breeders, broker and pet stores.
Many places across the county, like Huntsville, have spent years to create animal-friendly cultures in their communities which promote adoption and rescue of animals from shelters and rescue groups while at the same time doing nothing to stand in the way of a purchase of an animal from a breeder. As much as I promote adoption of animals, breeders have a right to breed animals and people have a right to get animals from breeders, most of whom are responsible and would never, ever sell an animal in a pet store.
I have heard opponents to these pet store/pet shop laws say that they are an attempt to end puppy mills. I don't have an issue with that, but I don't necessarily agree with the position. These laws alone may have the end result of affecting the commercial dog breeding industry, but they will not end the industry directly. Dogs from large commercial breeding operations get to the public in a number of ways and not just through pet stores. A simple Google search for dogs or dogs by breed results in a seemingly endless list of breeders who sell dogs online using websites like Puppy Spot or Puppy Find. As consumers become more aware of the conditions in which many of these dogs are bred, they do not want to support breeders who keep dogs in cages with no opportunity for exercise or who provide the dogs no veterinary care. Not every large dog breeding operation manages dogs that way and many take excellent care of the dogs they breed. When it comes to dogs sold in pet stores and particularly at Petland stores, there are problems with those dogs. People need not only to be made aware of those problems, but need to be protected from dogs who can make them sick.
I have also heard that some claim we have a dog shortage and believe these laws will make that shortage worse. No, we do not have a dog shortage. Nathan Winograd wrote recently on this topic in his blog entitled, “There is No Existing or Coming Dog Shortage.” Nathan wrote, “dogs and puppies are in no danger of disappearing. Dogs and puppies in high intake jurisdictions who are being killed could and should be transferred to higher demand jurisdictions, not just within the continental United States, but also from U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Once we have saved all of those dogs, we can also turn to saving dogs from other countries on or near our borders who are still dying or suffering due to neglect and a lack of necessary public institutions (with improved inspections and vaccination requirements as needed to address any perceived health issues). These solutions would result in more life-saving for the animals in need of homes today, without expanding the number or scope of exploitative commercial breeders. . .We must continue to pass bans on the retail sale of commercially-bred animals in pet stores (not just for dogs, but also cats, rabbits, hamsters, fish, and other animals), as has been done in California, Maryland, and about 400 cities nationwide. . .Our society is on a positive trend against the exploitation of dogs both in law and in practice.”
Some people believe that by only allowing pet stores to source animals from shelters and rescue groups, we are somehow limiting the ability of those stores to make money. Not so. As Harley’s Dream shared recently, retail pet sales ordinances are not about putting pet stores out of business or preventing businesses from starting up. They are about promoting a humane and successful business model. The Facebook page for the Colorado Harley’s Dream group posted the following facts just last week:
I support laws which promote humane business models by pet stores and will continue to do that not only in my state, but across the country. If you want a dog from a breeder, fine. That is your choice. I would prefer that people adopt but you will never hear me chant, "don't breed or buy while shelter dogs die." I just don't think it is realistic at this point in our society to expect everyone to get their pets from shelters and rescue groups. But that does not mean that retail businesses should facilitate that transaction in any way.
I'm not sure what 2020 holds for Alabama regarding pet shops and pet stores. My personal hope is that we can stop any new bill presented this year which is similar to SB 83 and that more cities will take action to say through an ordinance, "not in our city."
* Note - it is no secret that I am not a fan of the HSUS. Having said that, I have a long and very good working relationship with Mindy Gilbert. We have more in common than we have issues on which we differ in philosophy. Mindy helped me advance an ordinance in the city where I live in 2017 to prohibit chaining of dogs and to ensure adequate care for dogs who live outside. We communicate regularly on host of legislative issues which includes state laws in Alabama related to animals and animal welfare.
(images courtesy of Susan K. Robinson, Nicole Mayes and Harley's Dream)
A dog wanders onto your property or up to your front door. He looks dirty, is thin and has some blood on his fur. He’s not wearing a collar and is a bit scared, but appears friendly. Which of the following describes how you react and what you do? You -
If you answered with number 1 only, I hope you never cross paths with a lost dog.
If you answered with any combination of numbers 2 through 5, you likely don’t have a very high opinion of others and you may end up committing a crime.
If you answered with any combination of 6-10, you are to be commended.
Millions of us share our lives and homes with companion animals and most of us consider them family members. It can be difficult to think of them as property, but that is what they are considered under the law, just like our cars and our furniture. The big difference is that most of our property cannot get lost, get confused or feel pain. Case law on the subject of animals as property and the value of those animals when they are stolen or killed is evolving. We have not reached a time in our society that animals have a status separate from the other things we “own.” Other countries have taken that step. In some ways this is a good thing. As long as my dog is my property, I have certain rights regarding the ability of someone else to keep him from me or the ability of law enforcement authorities to seize him from me.
Animals get lost for a variety of reasons and not all of them relate to people being irresponsible. Most of us have heard the story of the dog who went missing on a family trip after having managed to get through a hotel door during a bad storm. The Washington family looked for him for 57 days before he was found in a field near a subdivision. We hear all the time about pets who have gone missing after automobile accidents. A few years ago, just that happened to a co-worker of mine. My co-worker and her family were on their way home from a trip and were traveling on a major highway when they were involved in an accident. Their dog was in the car. Although he was not seriously hurt by the accident, he was scared. The minute they opened the door he ran and kept running. They looked for him for hours and were not able to find him that same night. They kept looking for weeks and were ultimately able to find him with the help of a team of volunteers. A similar thing happened just this past weekend in Arizona.
(image of Obi and his family courtesy of Nicole Rodriguez)
Companion animals get lost or loose for so many reasons. A gate is left open, a contractor does not close a door, a child opens a door to go outside and an animal pushes past him or her. A dog or cat jumps a fence following a loud noise which scares them, including fireworks or gunshots. Our default assumption may be that an animal we encounter is loose because someone is to blame or people just don’t care enough. That is certainly the case some times, but most definitely not all of the time.
My husband and I have personally encountered numerous lost animals over the years, many of whom we found on or near our rural property. I admit there was a time when I presumed the worst of people. I wondered how they could “allow” their pets to get loose or how they could care so little to “dump” their pets in a rural area, presuming they would be able to survive. My position on this has evolved over the years as my education on animal welfare issues has also evolved.
We once had a shockingly thin hunting dog show up at our front door. “Buck” was wearing a tracking collar with a phone number which, thankfully, was still valid. It turns out he had gone missing from a pack of hunting dogs and had been missing for weeks. We didn’t feel great giving him back to the owner who showed little emotion when he came to retrieve Buck from our property, but we did it because it was the right thing to do. The last dog we “found” was crossing a busy highway a few miles from our house. I felt sure he would be hit by a car. Rich pulled into a nearby parking lot and was able to coax him toward our truck with some dog biscuits. “Buddy” was covered in mud so we took him home, cleaned him up a bit, contacted local animal control authorities to explain what happened (and in case there were any reports of a missing dog) and housed him in our workshop until we could get him to a rescue group which scanned him and held him for his “property hold period.” We drove around the area for weeks looking for lost dog signs and looking for properties my may have come from. He was a Great Pyrenees and we thought me might have come from a parcel on which livestock were kept. I posted about him on social media and on a website called Helping Lost Pets. I feel confident his family must have been looking for him just because he was such a stunning, laid back dog. The connection was never made and Buddy was later adopted by a wonderful family.
I have often joked about “liberating” animals I see living in what I consider substandard conditions and know people who have done just that, one of whom was convicted a few years ago of theft and receiving stolen property. Another contact of mine is facing criminal charges now for her involvement with placing a blind dog who left his property, ran into the road and almost caused an accident. I hope she has found a criminal defense attorney and will find a way to negotiate return of the dog, perhaps with some agreement that the family not let a blind dog outside unattended. For me, it’s just talk. As much as I would like many of the animals I see to live the way my dog lives, they do not belong to me and there would be real world consequences to stealing them. I try to find other ways to help them either by donating items to be used for their care or enlisting the aid of rescue groups to approach the owners toward improving the conditions for the animals or encouraging the owners to surrender the animals instead.
(image courtesy of Chriss Pagani)
I see information every week about animals who are lost and the people who find them. These are people I would ordinarily consider Good Samaritans who mean well, but may not always make the best choices. I also learn at least once every few months about someone who has purposefully stolen an animal or animals. They do this knowing who owns the animal but while having made a conscious decision to take one or more animals because they don’t think the owner is caring for the animal properly.
If you find a lost animal, even if that animal comes on your property, you are not entitled to keep that animal any more than you are entitled to keep a car parked near your house with the keys in the ignition, the wallet you find when walking through a parking lot or the bicycle you see leaning against a wall outside of a business. If you knowingly keep a person’s property from them and/or later transfer that property to another person, you have committed a crime regardless of your good intentions. Every state has its own criminal laws about theft of property and receiving stolen property. In my state, theft of property in the fourth degree and theft of lost property in the fourth degree relate to property that is valued at less than $500. These are Class A misdemeanors which may result in a jail sentence of up to one year and a fine up to $6,000.00. Theft of property of theft of lost property valued at more than $500 but less than $1,000 are each Class D felonies which can result in a sentence of not more than 5 years and not less than 1 year and one day. Receiving stolen property is also based on degrees related to the value of the property and is a separate offense.
I know this is an emotional topic. I know that people who find lost animals more often then not want the very best for them and are just trying to be helpful. This subject was recently explored on an episode of a popular television show called A Million Little Things; one of the characters in the show found a dog and kept him, only to learn about a year later that the dog's family had been looking for him and made flyers about their missing dog. As of this writing, "Gary" was struggling about what to do with the dog, whom he named Colin.
The next time an animal in need crosses your path, please give some serious thought to how you would feel if your pet went missing. Wouldn’t you want the person who found your pet to presume the best of you, and not the worst, and do everything possible to help you find your lost pet? I know I would. Please take the time to at least contact local animal control authorities so you can get the animal into the animal control system and give the owners an opportunity to find him or her. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to take the animal to an animal shelter and leave him or her there. If you decide to find a new home for that animal yourself, whether you know who owns the animal or not, you are knowingly breaking the law and may be criminally charged and convicted.
I hope a time comes when our companion animals have their own legal status as sentient beings. My couch cannot get up and wander away, crossing county lines. My car will not roll away on its own and end up miles from my office of my house. Some countries have changed their laws already. It’s time for us to get on board. It’s time to change the legal status of animals to protect them not as “things,” but as the creatures we love and value as they enrich our lives in countless ways.
But in the meantime, please. Don't steal my dog.
I 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