“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” ― Jane Goodall
If you’ve been a regular reader of my blog, you probably noticed that right around the 2016 election I fell silent – for over three years. In the aftermath of election night, I knew without a doubt that the new administration was going to be devastating for animal welfare and the environment, providing journalists like me with plenty of fodder to write about. But in the days and weeks that followed, I became so deeply depressed that I lost all desire to continue my animal welfare writing. I told myself that I wouldn’t have anything original to say and would only be repeating what myriad other journalists – many of whom were far more prolific than I am – were already reporting.
Sure, I could undoubtedly rage on and on about every single affront to animals rights that began snowballing almost immediately after inauguration day, but nothing was going to change the fact that we had an animal-hating, science-denying sociopath at the helm of our country who would not be swayed by the condemnation of activists like me. It was going to be a very long, agonizing four years, so I braced myself for what was to come and decided to detach from the chaos in order to protect my emotional wellbeing. Selfish perhaps, but it felt like the healthiest thing to do at the time.
It has been said that the greatest antidote to depression is action, but withdrawing from all the negative news (only staying as informed as-needed), taking a break from my volunteer rescue work and putting my blog on hold was exactly what my heart needed. I was emotionally exhausted after covering the dog and cat meat trade and the many other forms of violence that humans were continuing to perpetrate against animals. I’d also become incredibly disillusioned by so-called “activists” who claimed to be fighting on behalf of animals but were really just seeking publicity while quietly lining their own pockets. Maybe a more courageous and dedicated investigative journalist wouldn’t have blinked an eye, running head-first into the storm with an unflagging determination to report the truth. So if I could be silenced so easily, was I even a real activist at all or just a weak fraud posing as one?
The fact is, I’m an empath. To the world I may appear confident, strong and comfortable in my own skin, but that’s simply a persona I learned to adopt as a young girl to protect my soft, vulnerable heart from petty, hateful people whose cruel motivations to harm me never ceased to mystify me. But beneath my carefully crafted suit of armor, I experience my emotions and those of the people I care about very deeply. I am incredibly intuitive and sensitive to the energy of my surroundings, can “read” others uncannily well, easily see through hypocrisies and lies, and I can’t witness anyone – especially animals – in pain without wanting to jump in and “save” them. While I wouldn’t change who I am for anything, my hyper-sensitivity combined with my introverted personality means I can only handle so much negative stimuli before I start to unravel and need to isolate myself. Only then can I replenish, recharge and reinforce my protective exterior once again.
There will always be cruel people in the world who will want to hurt the weak and the voiceless in order to make themselves bigger, stronger and richer. We who volunteer our time and energy in animal rescue and activism know this. I was bullied as a child, so nothing motivates my desire to fight back harder than mean people using their positions of power to hurt and exploit others. I imagine that this passion to protect and fight back is what motivates most animal rescuers and activists – we identify with the vulnerability and pure-heartedness of animals, so we channel our protective rage into defending their rights and creating change.
But how can we as animal-loving empaths protect our personal wellbeing while exposing ourselves to so much cruelty and suffering? Here are some techniques that have helped me tremendously over the past three years:
Self-protect and set boundaries: create an energy shield or mental barrier that allows you to let in what you wish while deflecting anything negative (for example, imagine yourself surrounded by a bubble of protective light). Get into the habit of saying “no” more often, and whenever possible, remove yourself from draining and/or toxic situations, places and people who sap your energy.
Observe your thoughts and process your emotions: If you find yourself thinking angry or negative thoughts, begin a dialogue in your mind to figure out what they’re are trying to tell you and find a solution. Allow yourself to feel your emotions when they’re at their strongest but don’t let them rule you or try to block them.
Practice self-care: Nourish your body with healthy food, get plenty of exercise and rest, and stay hydrated. You’ll be much better able to cope with the stresses and challenges around you if you maintain your personal health and wellbeing, so give yourself plenty of “me time” to do just that.
Find ways to recharge and experience joy: Whether it’s getting out in nature, walking or playing your dog, working out, spending time with friends or pursuing your favorite hobby, find something that you love to do and make it a regular part of your life. For me, ballroom dancing is my solace and I’m never happier and more “in the moment” than when I’m moving my body to music.
Develop a daily practice that brings you peace: Whether it’s doing yoga, meditating, repeating positive affirmations or just breathing deeply and mindfully, start each day with something to help quiet your mind and focus your energy so you can move forward feeling centered and calm.
At the end of the day, we empaths have a choice: to live in this imperfect world and commit to being part of humanity or to divorce ourselves from it. We have no power to change anyone, only our reactions to them. At the same time, we must come face-to-face with our own dysfunctional parts, taking responsibility for and embracing what we can or can’t change about ourselves. Lately I’ve been working really hard to be kind to those I have a hard time relating to, although I find it very challenging at times. The willful ignorance and hard-heartedness of some people on the opposite side of the political spectrum has been a harsh reality check for me, to say the least. Sure, maybe I’ll change one heart or two and maybe I won’t, but shutting down and numbing myself isn’t the answer – I’ve tried that. So I’m learning to embrace life for what it is, rather than constantly trying to change it to the way I want it to be. I must be an emotional warrior, as corny as that sounds. “Illegitimi non carborundum” has become my new mantra.
As an energetic healer once said to me, “Be the light and let it shine.” I will take that advice and try to be a force for good while accepting that the world may never change. Our societies appear to be on the precipice of collapse – the warning signs are there and they are screaming at us to pay attention. We are in the throes of the sixth mass extinction, destroying the natural world of which we are a part. Still, I have hope that more and more of us will choose to tune into our higher selves and work collectively to heal our broken world rather than continuing along our selfish path to destruction.
Many like to say we are destroying the planet, but that’s not true. We are destroying our environment and thus, ourselves, but in reality, the Earth will be just fine without us. She will eventually heal and flourish on her own, relishing the quiet of our silenced voices.
What about you? Have you been feeling challenged to stay the course with your animal advocacy recently? What are you doing to take care of yourself when feeling overwhelmed or burned out? Please share in the comments below!
Okay, I admit it, I’m a failed vegan. Over the past eight years, I’ve tried multiple times to give up all animal products, yet I continue to relapse, again and again. It’s not for lack of trying, or that I don’t love animals enough to shift my food choices, or that I even particularly like the taste of cooked flesh. I gave up eating all land animals seven years ago, and thanks to all the books I’ve read and the videos I’ve watched (I still can’t un-see what I witnessed in the documentary “Earthlings,” no matter how hard I try), I have no problem keeping their tortured bodies off of my plate.
But when my husband went on the Keto diet and I “slipped” and started eating pasture-raised eggs and wild-caught salmon again, I noticed almost immediately how much better I was feeling. I’d been taking tons of vitamins and supplements for years, so it wasn’t like I wasn’t trying my hardest to make sure I could get everything I needed from non-animal sources. Still, as I began loosening my dietary restrictions, my energy and muscle tone improved, and I felt healthier and stronger. Great on the one hand, but upsetting on the other.
Besides being an animal activist, I’m a competitive ballroom dancer, yoga practitioner and overall fitness addict who trains at least 15 hours per week. So while I have legitimate reasons (some might say “rationalizations”) for slipping back into the vegetarian zone, I feel bad about it. Like a failure who has let the animals down. A total hypocrite. I used to have no problem sharing information (as opposed to preaching) with anyone who asked why I eat this way (“but how do you get your protein?” Ugh!), about the suffering farm animals endure in intensive farming systems, and how we humans can live perfectly healthy lives without harming anyone. Since I believed that to be true for me, why shouldn’t it be true for everyone else? I assumed that people who claimed they had tried and failed to give up animal products were just rationalizing their unwillingness to give up the foods they enjoyed.
But here I am, right in that same camp, feeling like a judgmental, hypocritical jerk. What right did I have to judge anyone, and was I really going to “convert” someone to veganism by making them feel guilty about their food choices? Probably not. All I did was alienate people, particularly those who didn’t want to be “enlightened.” Although you have to admit, willfully ignorant people can be incredibly triggering for those of us who give a damn…
Anyway, as someone who believes that animals have a right to their own lives, admitting that veganism doesn’t “work” for me has been a horrible realization fraught with many difficult emotions. Our diets directly affect the lives of non-human animals, who, like us, are highly complex, sentient and social individuals capable of experiencing joy and suffering. The animal agriculture industry would like us to ignore this fact, but when I began looking at the terrible realities that farm animals face, it became clear to me that adopting a vegan diet was the only genuinely humane choice for me. I no longer wished to be complicit in the torture and murder of 72 billion land animals and more than 1.2 trillion aquatic animals per year. So while there are clear environmental and health benefits to veganism, for me, the most compelling argument for removing animal products from my diet was an ethical one.
It’s such a quandary: I choose to be enlightened about where my food comes from so I can make responsible and humane dietary choices, but at the same time, I have to think about my health and make sure I get the nourishment that my body needs to thrive. Some people – even athletes like me – can do extremely well on a strict vegan diet, but I guess I’m not one of them, as painful as that is to admit. Although I’m not one who likes labels, I guess “flexitarian” could best define my eating habits now.
So what’s a passionate animal lover to do? How do you still show that you care about animal welfare if being vegan isn’t realistic for you? How do you support the end of factory farming and the humane treatment of all living creatures, while supporting your own wellbeing at the same time? And must they be mutually exclusive? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are a few ideas for cutting back on meat if you’re not ready (or able) to go full-on vegan.
These three practices have worked well for me:
Becoming a “reducetarian.” Since I fell off the vegan wagon, I make sure to eat a very limited amount of animal products, and very infrequently. For example, I eat maybe about four pasture-raised eggs per week, a small piece of wild-caught salmon twice per month, and a teaspoon of ghee (clarified butter) in my coffee every morning.
Slowly eliminating one animal product at a time. Do this while simultaneously bumping up your consumption of plant-based foods. Start with the easiest and leave “barrier foods,” i.e., the ones you will likely have the hardest time giving up, to the end. Continue until you’ve eliminated all (or most) animal products from your diet. And don’t worry about going hungry or feeling deprived – there are tons of amazingly delicious and satisfying vegan products in the marketplace now that can help you adapt to eating fewer animals.
Making more “humane” product choices. I read labels to find out where the item came from, then do my research to make sure that those farms are certified by a legitimate certifying body and that they’re actually doing for the animals what they claim to be doing. Check out this great article to help you navigate all the confusing labels out there and what they mean (and no, there is no such thing as “humane slaughter” – there is nothing “humane” about killing someone who doesn’t want to die).
If all else fails, I am doing my best to be the most compassionate, ethical human being I can possibly be. No one (unless you’re a sociopath) wants to be a “bad person” inadvertently harming others. So maybe the best approach to this whole conundrum is to not try to be “perfect.” Maybe being an animal-loving human who isn’t able to take animals off their plate completely comes down to eating as consciously and responsibly as possible, keeping animal products at a minimum, and just doing your best. Because at the end of the day, aren’t we all just doing the best we can with what we know? I think most of us are, at least, I hope so. The animals need us to care, no matter how hard it hurts to give a damn.
Have you struggled with maintaining a vegan diet? How are you balancing your dietary needs with your animal activism and advocacy? If they’re constructive and positive, please feel free to share your thoughts – I’d love to hear from you!
The evolution of the no-kill movement and its success in hundreds of cities and towns throughout the U.S. is proof that there is indeed a better way in managing our homeless pet problem. After all, it’s about time our sheltering system moved past the outdated and barbaric “cage and kill” paradigm and into a new era of progressive reform. By implementing a comprehensive portfolio of lifesaving programs and services, shelters can begin to transform themselves from dark, depressing places where homeless pets go to die, to welcoming community centers invested in saving healthy and treatable pets. We’ve already looked at what it takes for a shelter to achieve no-kill status, and the methodology is far from rocket science. So why isn’t every shelter jumping onboard the lifesaving train?
Unfortunately, there can be a wide variety of barriers to no-kill reform, including lack of funding, staffing, resources, community support, and leadership vision. So if you’re an under-funded, understaffed, open-admission municipal shelter overwhelmed with the throngs of unwanted pets your community continually dumps at your doorstep (as opposed to limited or closed admission shelters that can pick and choose the animals they take in), and you have no additional resources at your disposal, then the odds of being able to implement lifesaving programs isn’t favorable. After all, municipal shelters were originally created to protect people from stray animals that could be carrying transmittable disease, not to save lives. So while our society’s expectations of what a shelter “should” do – help pets leave out the front door with a loving family instead of out the back door in a body bag – has changed over time, perhaps our expectations exceed our current reality.
“Often organizations and public agencies, animal control agencies in particular, don’t have the resources they need because their communities aren’t investing enough to allow them the opportunity to do those kinds of (lifesaving) programs well,” said Jodi Buckman, ASPCA senior director of community outreach. “There’s a lot that goes into these programs, so while the programs exist, sometimes the resources don’t. Then it isn’t really about whether the shelter is choosing to euthanize a healthy animal or not, it’s about the community’s commitment to ensuring the resources are available to manage that shelter population responsibly.”
She continued, “We believe shelters have access to the tools they need and have to take responsibility for finding creative opportunities for positive outcomes for animals, but that shelters aren’t alone in that responsibility when it comes to resources. We don’t want them doing (no-kill) poorly – we see the results of that, where organizations are so desperate to not have to consider euthanasia at any turn that they end up with a hoarding-like situation. We have multiple examples where we’ve been called in to support local law enforcement in resolving some of those cases and that is institutional suffering on a horrific scale. So whatever we have to do, we have to do it responsibly, and that’s a difficult line to walk.”
Understanding the barriers to lifesaving aside, why would anyone disagree with the no-kill philosophy in principle? Because really, how could anyone who claims to care about animals scoff at the idea of saving healthy and treatable dogs and cats from a needless death? Even harder to understand is why any animal “welfare” organization would cling to the status quo, claiming that no-kill is a direct line to animal neglect and abuse.
One of the loudest defenders of traditional shelter euthanasia is PeTA, a group that identifies itself as a leading animal “protection” organization, yet seems to have no problem condoning and participating in the senseless murder of healthy and treatable companion animals simply because they’re homeless. So many animal advocates, including me, have a very difficult time wrapping their heads around the twisted thinking that “humanely euthanizing” homeless dogs and cats is somehow “saving them” from the specter of possible abuse. Why not give these innocent beings a fighting chance rather than rob them of the possibility of a wonderful life with a loving family? But anyone who has bothered to learn the truth about PeTA understands that they aren’t, nor have they ever been, in the “business” of lifesaving (you can read more about PeTA’s disturbing euthanasia practices here).
PeTA founder Ingrid Newkirk paints a very bleak (and extreme) picture of no-kill:
“Making euthanasia the last resort does not contribute to animal abuse, it means you have to find other solutions,” said Rebecca Guinn, LifeLine Animal Project founder and CEO. “What would be unethical is for us to euthanize animals as a result of our failure to be resourceful, a lack of resources, or a failure of imagination. If you’re a shelter that takes euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals off the table and you don’t do anything else, then yeah, you’ve got a problem – that’s just math.”
So unless you’re content with the “adopt a few and kill the rest” status quo, you know that no-kill can and does work when handled responsibly and ethically. Long-term warehousing or hoarding of unadoptable animals because a shelter or rescue simply opposes euthanasia is irresponsible and cruel, but that’s the extreme end of no-kill done wrong. So is it not defeatist to believe there’s no middle ground between killing and hoarding?
“It’s unfair and inappropriate to allow examples of people or poorly handled situations to characterize the real objective of no-kill, which is that as communities and citizens in this country we shouldn’t be comfortable killing savable pets,” asserted Judah Battista, Best Friends Animal Society co-founder and chief regional programs officer. “Everyone recognizes that there are genuine acts of mercy for animals that are suffering, and that it is the right and kind thing to do, but to conflate that with this idea that you have to warehouse them or you’re justifying warehousing because you support no-kill is a false choice – it’s not one or the other. No-kill is only controversial within animal welfare circles where people get hung up on semantics, (and) the idea that it is at all controversial is letting people who don’t want to change the existing system control the narrative.”
A kitten vies for a little love and attention at Dekalb County Animal Services. (Photo courtesy LifeLine Animal Project)
While leading animal welfare organizations such as HSUS and ASPCA do not openly support no-kill, they do work to reduce the killing of healthy and treatable shelter pets through various national programs designed to drive adoption, promote the human-animal bond, encourage responsible pet ownership, and prevent animals from ending up in the shelter in the first place, for example, HSUS’s Pets For Life Program.
You can read about HSUS and ASPCA’s positions on no-kill shelters and euthanasia here and here.
Regardless of semantics or how these organizations support lifesaving, the main goal of any true-blue animal advocacy agency should always be the same – preventing cruelty and saving innocent lives.
As North America’s oldest humane society, ASPCA (aka, “The A”) primarily focuses on preventing animal cruelty and pet homelessness; cruelty investigation, response and rescue assistance; public policy and legal advocacy; spay and neuter; shelter support grant programs, and running its New York City-based shelter and adoption center. While the bulk of its work has historically revolved around companion animals, it also focuses on equine and farm animal welfare issues.
HSUS is the nation’s largest animal protection organization that works to reduce animal suffering and create meaningful social change through progressive legislation; making sure existing laws are enforced; public awareness campaigns and investigations; assisting large corporations in reforming their animal welfare policies, and providing direct care, rescue, and services for animals in crisis. Its work focuses on a broader range of animals, including wildlife, marine, farm and companion animals, as well as animals in crisis throughout the world.
Contrary to popular belief, neither group is an umbrella organization for the myriad SPCAs and humane societies across the country. ____________________________________________________________________________
By putting us face-to-face with the shameful reality of how our society has historically handled its homeless pet population and forcing us to re-examine the purpose of animal shelters, the no-kill movement has been integral in advancing our expanding humane movement. It has given us a more compassionate, humane alternative to murder, and a morally sound destination for our pet-loving society to aspire. It has shown us that achieving a no-kill society is possible, although it certainly won’t happen overnight – it will require time, effort, commitment and support from all stakeholders, including animal shelters, rescue groups, animal welfare organizations, communities, and citizens, all equally invested in lifesaving. Because, in the end, shouldn’t a “shelter” be just that – a place where animals are protected and cared for until they can be placed into loving forever homes?
“Euthanasia has always been considered a necessary evil, and we’ve shown that it’s not necessary, so if you take ‘necessary’ out of the equation, it’s wrong,” said Guinn. “You have to believe that animal lives have value, and if you believe that, then killing them simply because you can’t find them a home is not okay. I’ve always felt that we have an obligation to dogs and cats, or any animals we domesticated, to provide for them – it’s our duty as human beings.”
What about us pet parents, rescuers and animal advocates – could we be playing a role in condoning the status quo by being part of the problem rather than the solution? I see it all the time, especially online – individuals and rescue groups badmouthing well-meaning shelters, other rescues, and national animal welfare organizations, wasting time promoting vitriol and suspicion rather than doing anything helpful or proactive. Yes, many animal rescuers are incredibly passionate people, but that “passion” can sometimes come off as “crazy” if it isn’t channeled in a strategic and productive way. So when we criticize others or burn bridges rather than look for common ground so we can collaborate in saving more animals, we aren’t helping anyone, especially the dogs and cats we claim to adore.
Lefty, one of many sweet and adorable pups waiting for their forever homes at Dekalb County Animal Services. (Photo courtesy LifeLine Animal Project)
I believe that as more and more shelters move away from cage-and-kill and toward the beacon of lifesaving, no-kill will one day become a commonplace industry practice, making the need to use the term as a qualifier obsolete. It will simply be a given that shelters no longer kill healthy and treatable pets, reserving euthanasia only for the behaviorally or physically irredeemable.
“We’re in a position right now in animal welfare to be witnessing and contributing to a social transformation, from a society that accepted shelters as a place that collected, held and disposed of animals in the community, to one that expects shelters to provide a temporary social safety net for animals to get placed into new homes, and for those that are suffering, to be cared for and shown mercy when it’s appropriate,” said Battista. “The cusp of that is happening now, in community after community after community. The fact that it’s happening quietly is the thing we need to change, but it is happening, and all of us should be sharing the news that we’re winning!”
So what can you do to support the no-kill crusade?
Make adoption your first choice in acquiring a new pet
Always spay and neuter
Volunteer and/or donate to your local shelter and/or rescue groups
Help disprove the negative misconceptions about shelter or rescue pets by spreading the word that these animals make wonderful family companions!
If your local shelter is not yet no-kill, talk to them about their barriers to lifesaving and how you can help support them in making the transition
Become a foster pet parent
Spread awareness and educate others about adoption, spay and neuter, responsible pet parenting, and animal welfare
Reach out to your local animal-friendly legislators and encourage them to pass stronger animal welfare and anti-cruelty legislation
Only donate to national animal welfare agencies that support lifesaving
Volunteer Sarita Carden bottle-feeds a neonatal kitten in the Kitten Nursery at the Best Friends Los Angeles adoption center and shelter. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society)
“Mankind is not the only animal that laughs, cries, thinks, feels and loves. The sooner we acknowledge that animals are emotional beings, the sooner we will cease destroying animals and embrace them as our brothers and sisters.” – A.D. Williams
Rebecca Guinn remembers that ah-ha moment as if it were yesterday. Standing in the middle of the “stray ward” at the Dekalb County Animal Services shelter in Atlanta, she couldn’t believe her eyes – the kennel was practically empty. There to save a stray dog she’d reported to Animal Control after he’d gotten caught in a fence behind her home, Guinn decided to adopt him after finding out he would soon be euthanized if no one claimed him. Just days earlier, when she’d first visited the facility to put her name on his kennel card, the shelter had been jam-packed with hundreds of desperate, barking dogs. Where had they gone?
“The dog I wanted to save was still there, but where there had been 400 dogs, now there were practically none…(the staff) had gotten ‘caught up’ over the three-day weekend and euthanized most of them,” Guinn explained. “At that point I just stood there, looking around at the one or two dogs here and there, and I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, but there has got to be another way.’ That moment changed my life, and I haven’t been able to think of anything else since.”
(Photo by Chris Savas)
As a criminal defense attorney with no experience working in animal welfare, Guinn could have easily pushed the disturbing encounter from her mind and gone on with her life. But once she began digging deeper into her city’s troubling animal welfare situation, she knew she couldn’t turn back. At that time, in the early 2000s, over 100,000 animals were dying every year in Atlanta’s metro area shelters, with its two largest open admission facilities, Dekalb and Fulton County Animal Services, carrying an appalling 80% kill rate.
Undaunted, Guinn rallied a couple of dog-loving friends and together they began researching the needs of the local animal welfare community to come up with a targeted strategy to help stop the needless killing of healthy and treatable shelter pets. And that’s when she stumbled across a concept that would become the guiding light for her burgeoning career in animal advocacy.
“I first learned about no-kill when I started researching the issue in 2001, long before the term “No Kill Equation” had been coined and long before Reno or Austin had achieved no-kill status,” said Guinn. “I attended a Best Friends National Conference in Seattle in 2001, where I met Nathan Winograd, Peter Marsh, Richard Avanzino, and Bonney Brown, who was with Best Friends Animal Society at the time and later went on to take Reno no-kill. My first real mentors were Bonney Brown, Aimee St. Arnaud, who is now with the ASPCA and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the animal welfare movement, and Susan Feingold, one of the founders of SPOT (Stopping Pet Overpopulation Together) here in Atlanta, who later went on to manage Fulton County Animal Services from 2003-2008, and ran the DeKalb shelter from 2013-2015.”
Rebecca Guinn, founder and CEO of LifeLine Animal Project, and local legend in the Georgia animal welfare community. (Photo by Chris Savas)
Inspired and motivated to make an impact in a city with an unfortunate animal welfare legacy, Guinn and her partners founded LifeLine Animal Project, a non-profit organization designed to end the shelter euthanasia of homeless animals and transform Atlanta into a no-kill community. And make an impact they did – over the next decade, LifeLine successfully implemented a host of lifesaving resources and programs, including an online “shelter” for showcasing adoptable pets; a volunteer-driven feral cat TNR (trap-neuter-release) program; a boarding facility; a cat adoption center; a rehabilitation program for dogs with medical or behavioral issues, and two low-cost spay and neuter clinics.
But despite ten years of hard work that had helped make a dent in Dekalb and Fulton’s intake numbers, euthanasia rates were still alarmingly high, at 50% and 65%, respectively. The LifeLine team knew they needed to find a way to make a broader impact, so when both counties put their shelter management contracts up for bid in early 2013, Guinn and her team made a pivotal decision.
“The thinking was that if we really want to have an impact in this community, we’re going to have to run the shelters,” she explained. “At that time we were asking, what is the resource that’s missing that’s really keeping us from achieving (no-kill)? Austin and Reno had gone no-kill, and other cities were getting really close, but (Atlanta was) still hovering at this national average of 50%. So we were like, ‘well, somebody needs to step up and do this,’ and that was us.”
A young man waits outside the Dekalb shelter to drop off his dog. (Photo by Chris Savas)
By mid-2013 LifeLine was managing the shelters, putting them through a much-needed process of reform, and creating a culture of lifesaving. The results were almost immediate – within a short period of time, Dekalb and Fulton saw more than a 50% drop in their euthanasia rates, and by 2014 they were in the teens. Now, most months both facilities are staying within the benchmark 90% save rate, the minimum a shelter must maintain in order to call itself no-kill.
So what did it take to transform two antiquated kill shelters into progressive, welcoming community centers that have saved over 40,000 pets to date? Although LifeLine’s template for lifesaving pre-dates the “No Kill Equation” (a term coined by no-kill revolutionary Nathan Winograd, executive director of the No Kill Advocacy Center), it implemented the same programs and services, as follows:
Community cat sterilization (TNR) and re-release
High-volume, low-cost spay and neuter
Collaborative rescue group partnerships
Comprehensive adoption programming
Medical and behavioral rehabilitation and prevention
Public relations and community outreach
Proactive pet redemptions
“It isn’t rocket science,” Guinn said. “Basically, you have a foster program, you do TNR for free-roaming cats, and you open up adoptions and really focus on them,” she explained. “We’re trying to overcome (an old and outdated) facility in both counties, so we try to create with people what we can’t do with the facilities, providing the best customer service we can, making it fun through social media, and trying to drive people to the shelters. A lot of people do want to help, so we try to make it easy for them to do the right thing, and we’ve put a lot of effort and resources into that. We do a lot of adoption promotions where the fee is waived or at a very reduced rate, and we’re trying to be the leader, so if you’re looking for a rescue animal or shelter pet, we want to be the source.”
Young kittens are a common sight a LifeLine’s shelters, especially during “kitten season.” Luckily the organization boasts a robust foster network that helps get young animals out of the shelter and into nurturing home environments. (Photo by Chris Savas)
Although both Fulton and Dekalb remain open-admission shelters that take in approximately 15,000-16,000 dogs and cats each year, LifeLine manages intakes by making pet retention a big point of focus. Long gone are the days when an individual could just walk in and drop off an unwanted pet – now a person must make an appointment, pay a surrender fee, and meet with an “Animal Help Specialist” counselor to explore possible options to help keep that pet in its home, such as behavioral training assistance. That preventative approach also extends to Fulton County’s Animal Control, which LifeLine also oversees.
“We work with our animal control officers to not just instantly impound everything,” Guinn said. “For example, can they knock on doors, use their microchip scanner, and do everything they can to keep animals in their community rather than impound them? If there are people who won’t be responsible then we enforce the law, but we’ve tried to take a community-driven approach rather than just a pure complaint-driven approach to animal control, and have it truly be ‘animal services.’ We want people to come to us for help, and we work at it. Sometimes the people who need our help are the same people causing a problem, so it’s a hard balance.”
But when it comes to saving more lives, there’s nothing like teamwork to help move more pets out of shelters and into new homes. That’s why LifeLine collaborates with 70 different rescue groups, including shelters in the northeast that have high demand for the kinds of adoptable pets the southeast tends to have in great supply, such as puppies. By transporting pets out of high-volume regions, shelters in low-volume areas can meet the needs of their pet-loving communities while getting more homeless animals where they belong – with loving families.
LifeLine has taken pet adoption marketing to an all new level with its adorable videos! Check out this one featuring a sweet bully girl named Amelia (warning: major cuteness overload!):
For decades, many in the animal welfare and sheltering community have resigned themselves to the common belief that there are too many unwanted animals and not enough homes. Yet according to the No Kill Advocacy Center, approximately 30 million people acquire a new companion animal every year. Line that up with the estimated 3 million dogs and cats killed in shelters annually, and it seems logical that there would be more than enough homes for our nation’s homeless pets. But is it that simple?
“Mathematically there are enough homes, but not every dog is perfect for every home and vice versa, so we have to create a market for the animals in our care,” Guinn explained. “At each facility we take in about 7,000-8,000 animals a year. Our population area is 1.6 million people, and 60% of households are pet-owning, so yes, there are enough homes, but that doesn’t mean there’s an abundance of homes for the animals we have. It’s not just math, there’s some creativity to it. That’s why we have the spay and neuter clinics, our outreach programs, and we’re encouraging our animal control officers to be part of the community because there are areas where animals are at-risk, and we have to address that.”
LifeLine Rescue Coordinator Andie Peart “interviews” Peggy about what she’s looking for in a forever home:
For a shelter truly committed to no-kill, the work doesn’t stop at getting to a 90% or greater save rate. That rate has to be maintained, and if anything, achieving that number is just the beginning of a facility’s journey toward sustainable reform. And that isn’t easy in a city like Atlanta, with its shelter populations predominantly consisting of harder-to-adopt bully breeds, thanks to rampant over-breeding. But despite the challenges it faces, LifeLine is unwavering in its commitment to its no-kill mission and communities it serves.
“We hope we can keep doing this because our work here isn’t done,” Guinn said. “We’ve just barely achieved the (no-kill) threshold, we’ve still got work to do to keep it sustainable, and we still need the community to really support the mission. That’s the whole idea behind our ‘I’m In’ campaign – we need people to be invested in making Atlanta a no-kill community.”
Some of the awesome, animal-loving staff at Dekalb County Animal Services (from left to right): Andie Peart, rescue coordinator, with Orio; Kerry Moyers-Horton, shelter director, with Giselle; Fredrica Lewis, kennel supervisor, with Hogie, and Kayla Morneault, adoption supervisor, with Divine. (Photo by Chris Savas)
Alongside the steadily evolving animal welfare movement, reform is indeed taking place in our old and outdated U.S. sheltering system. To date, there are just under 300 no-kill communities in the U.S., with more shelters making fundamental shifts toward lifesaving and away from impounding, warehousing, and killing. The hope is that as more and more facilities make this humane paradigm shift, saving healthy and treatable pets will become the industry norm rather than the exception.
“There is a philosophical shift in animal welfare, and the days where we needed to demonize the way things used to be, I believe that time is over,” said Guinn. “I’m sure there are communities that need more help and that there are vestiges of the way things used to be, but I really think there’s a lot more investment in moving forward and making progress. When we first started our TNR program for cats, for example, HSUS was against it, ASPCA was against it, most vets were against it, and people said it was abandonment. Now everyone is for it and it’s a model for controlling cat populations. So things have changed as people have opened their eyes, and a lot of organizations are working toward taking killing off the table. That’s what we’re working toward, to really change the model for animal care and control, and to change the law. LifeLine has always been about trying to create the space where no-kill is possible and we’ve shown that it is.”
To learn more about LifeLine Animal Project, check out their website or visit their Facebook page.
If your Facebook news feed looks anything like mine, it’s probably flooded with tons of postings and photos of homeless animals, including the most heartbreaking – those of dogs whose time is running out at yet another high-kill animal shelter. Their sweet, confused, and frightened faces never fail to pierce holes in your heart. But if you’re like me in that you’re unable to foster, adopt, or donate more than a few dollars to rescue groups that save shelter pets, all these postings do is leave you feeling incredibly frustrated, depressed, and downright helpless. Because it seems that no matter how many lives are saved at a given facility one week, another wave of unwanted animals is sure to follow the next. Meanwhile, every moment you’re sitting there, trying not to cry, you know that those desperate dogs will likely be among the estimated 9,000 pets that die in U.S. shelters every day. It’s enough to make any animal lover want to go offline and stay there.
According to the No Kill Advocacy Center, shelter killing is the leading cause of death for healthy dogs and cats in the U.S., with “almost half of all animals who enter our nation’s shelters going out the back door in garbage bags rather than out the front door in the loving arms of adopters, despite the fact that there are plenty of homes available.” If you take into account that only 37% of all dogs and 46% of all cats living in homes today were adopted from shelters, that means that the lion’s share of homeless pets are not making it out of our sheltering system alive.
It’s a soul-crushing reality, one we in rescue and animal advocacy constantly wrestle with (and often argue over) in our desperate search for expedient and lasting solutions. What’s it going to take to stop the killing of millions of savable dogs and cats in shelters? How do we stop the flood of unwanted animals by convincing more people to spay and neuter their pets, as well as choose adoption first? How do we stop unethical breeders and irresponsible pet owners from creating this mess in the first place? Is taking our sheltering system no-kill the answer, and is it even possible, or is no-kill just some lofty, unrealistic dream with its own fair share of unintended consequences?
The moment I decided to cover the no-kill movement I knew I’d bitten off a whale of a topic. It’s a highly controversial and contentious issue, long known for its polarized camps of passionate proponents and opponents. In fact, just say the words “no-kill” within earshot of any animal lover and you’re likely to spark a heated debate. Although I’ve always loved the idea behind the no-kill philosophy, after everything I’ve observed in the rescue community here in the southeast (where pet homelessness and irresponsible breeding are endemic), I figured euthanizing pets for lack of good homes was a necessary evil we’d probably always have to live with. But after hours of research, several eye-opening interviews, and a fair amount of soul-searching later, I have come to the conclusion that no-kill is not only possible, but is also the most ethical direction for our animal-loving society to move.
A volunteer cuddles an adoptable pup at a Best Friends mobile adoption event in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society)
Best Friends Animal Society is one of my favorite animal welfare groups and a true leader in the no-kill movement. I’ve always loved their positive messaging, progressive philosophy, and intelligent approach to ending pet homelessness. In fact, they’re the only national animal welfare organization exclusively dedicated to stopping the endless killing of dogs and cats in our nation’s shelters. I couldn’t wait to talk with them, especially since I learned they’d be launching their fourth regional center in Atlanta next month (plus, I was wondering whether they fully understood how much work they would have cut out for them here!). But what started as a straightforward, fact-finding interview with Judah Battista, Best Friends co-founder and chief regional programs officer, turned into an incredibly enlightening and inspiring educational session about the true meaning of the no-kill mission.
“Best Friend’s overall organizational vision is a better world though kindness to animals, with our mission to bring about a time when there are no more homeless pets,” Battista explained. “En route to achieving that mission, one of our goals is to end the killing of dogs and cats in shelters. But first, it’s important that we distinguish between euthanasia and killing, and frankly, any pet owner who’s had to put an animal to sleep knows the difference. Euthanasia is an act of mercy for a physically or behaviorally irredeemable animal that can’t be humanely cared for, while distinctly separate from that is killing, or the ending of a life because we as a society don’t have better solutions yet. I would argue that we do have better solutions, we just don’t have enough community awareness (yet). (No-kill) doesn’t mean that no animal ever dies, but it does mean that we’re not killing dogs or cats who are healthy or treatable – in other words, savable.”
Unlike traditional animal shelters that follow the standard cage-and-kill operating model, no-kill shelters don’t use euthanasia as a primary means of population or disease control. They value each individual animal life and believe that every dog or cat deserves equal consideration. But before we dig further into the philosophy, how it works and what it takes to achieve it, it’s important to understand how our nation’s sheltering system evolved and got us to this point where most of us who love animals are no longer satisfied with the status quo.
A turn-of-the-century dog pound. (Photo credit: history-denverlibrary.org)
Once upon a time, homeless dogs and cats were viewed as a public nuisance in America. Sections of many cities were overrun with wandering strays that not only posed a direct threat to people and horses, but were also feared to carry rabies. The solution was to catch and warehouse these animals in “pounds,” substandard facilities used in colonial agricultural communities to collect and hold stray livestock until their owners could reclaim them. But unlike cattle, pigs, or sheep, dogs and cats had little monetary value, so ending up at a pound basically meant death, typically through beating, drowning, or shooting.Traditional animal shelters evolved from these primitive facilities in the late 1800s in response to their barbaric approach to stray population control, with early humane efforts focused on finding “kinder” forms of euthanasia for homeless dogs and cats.
The U.S. humane movement officially kicked off in 1866 with the founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the country’s first animal welfare organization that initially focused primarily on the treatment and condition of horses. Founded in 1969, the Women’s SPCA of Pennsylvania (now the Women’s Humane Society) built the country’s first animal shelter, and became the first humane group to direct its energies toward the humane treatment of shelter animals.
Soon, more and more humane organizations were popping up across the country in major cities, and the concept of animal control and shelters slowly took hold. For the next several decades, community animal control services would be assumed by humane groups, with the emphasis on improving shelter conditions and developing more “humane” methods of euthanasia, such as electric shock, gas and decompression chambers, and finally, lethal injection. This endless cage-and-kill model would remain the status quo through the mid-1900s, with little thought given to saving lives or solving the increasing pet overpopulation crisis.
Fast forward to the 1970s, which proved to be a defining decade for decreasing euthanasia trends in animal shelters. Spay and neuter became an important part of shelter operations and pet adoption, with the ASPCA instituting a mandatory sterilization-before-adoption policy in 1972, one that would set a standard at most shelters across the country. The important role of early sterilization of young dogs and cats began to grow, and the numbers of companion animals entering shelters in some communities began to decline. Soon, an important conversation about saving animals rather than killing them began.
The no-kill movement officially started in San Francisco in 1989 under the leadership of Richard Avanzino at the San Francisco SPCA, who made the critical decision to relinquish the shelter’s contract for animal control and instead work with the city’s municipal animal control agency in an effort to end the killing of adoptable animals. This action had a far-reaching impact on the entire animal welfare movement, one that would challenge shelters and their communities to evaluate the need to kill savable animals. Many other animal sheltering agencies followed suit, leading to an often heated and ongoing philosophical debate about the use of euthanasia as a primary means of shelter population control. But despite the controversy and push-back from those who would resist change, the viability and appeal of the no-kill movement has gained traction and continues to build momentum, with hundreds of shelters across the nation striving to achieve 90% or greater save rates.
Stripes the kitty awaits her forever home at the Best Friends Sugarhouse Adoption Center in Salt Lake City. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society)
While our sheltering system has undergone many dramatic changes over the last century, especially within the last three decades, it remains a primarily antiquated system in dire need of reform. But thanks to the influence of the no-kill movement and growing public awareness of the plight of shelter animals, we are seeing a veritable revolution taking hold in communities throughout the country. More and more shelters, both public and private, are working harder than ever to go from dark, smelly, and depressing places that warehouse animals until they’re killed, to friendly and inviting community centers with comprehensive programming and pet care services to help decrease pet populations, increase adoptions, prevent pet homelessness, and most importantly, save lives.
“The reality is that we as a generation have inherited an animal welfare system that was implemented basically for rabies control, not a system that was intended to save animals’ lives,” said Battista. “But what is happening at shelters is what the community has subsidized – they are a reflection of the will of the community. We as a society have decided that there should be a service that gives people the ability to dump a pet…that that’s an acceptable decision for citizens to make. But our expectation as pet guardians has changed, and our consciousness as people has changed from when most of our ordinances and services were established, so now we’re in a position where we need to catch up.”
So how do we transform our shelters from places where unwanted animals go to die, to places where savable dogs and cats are guaranteed a home? Stay tuned for Part Two!
Adorable pooches wait for someone to save them from an over-crowded animal shelter. (Photo credit: petbucket.com)
To learn more about Best Friend’s policies and positions on no-kill and other related animal welfare topics, click here.
Like us humans, dogs can’t choose the circumstances into which they’re born. Where and with whom a dog ends up is basically luck of the draw, whether with a loving, responsible guardian or an “owner” who simply views them as property. In essence, dogs are at the mercy of the species that domesticated them thousands of years ago, and with no control over their own destiny, the best they can hope for is to end up in good hands.
Like many less fortunate dogs throughout the globe, Django came into the world with the odds stacked against him. In fact, from the moment he took his first breath his future already looked bleak. Born into a dog farm outside of Seoul, South Korea, the Tosa mastiff puppy was just another “meat dog” doomed to a wretched existence inside a barren metal cage, where he would remain until he grew large enough to be sold and slaughtered for his meat. Although the pitiful conditions at the farm could rival any of the western world’s worst puppy mills, Django’s time there would actually be the best part of what was to be his short and miserable life.
Each year, approximately 2.5 million dogs are bred and slaughtered for human consumption in South Korea. Unlike in China and other parts of Asia, Korea’s dog meat trade primarily relies on the commercial farming of dogs to supply the country’s demand for dog meat. It is a massive, unregulated industry, with an estimated 10,000-17,000 farms scattered throughout the country varying in size from small backyard operations to large-scale factory farming systems. On these farms, dogs live in abject squalor, their daily lives full of fear, boredom, hunger and disease. Since there are no legal protections for meat dogs, farmers, traders, and butchers are free to inflict cruelty and abuse with impunity.
A dog farm in Busan, South Korea. In the country there is a widely-held belief that there are two ‘types’ of dogs: “meat dogs” for human consumption, and “pet dogs,” consisting of purebred dogs, for companionship. Dogs categorized as “meat dogs” are widely perceived to be dirty, stupid and soulless, which has resulted in these dogs being treated as animals that don’t deserve consideration, protection or value. This perception is held by many and reflected by the attitudes of the industry, public and government. (Photo courtesy Change For Animals Foundation)
But lucky for Django, he happened to be in the right place at the right time. A small group of rescuers had arrived at the dog farm, among them a dedicated young activist named Lola Webber. After years of researching the Korean dog meat trade with the long-term intention of bringing it to an end, she’d recently co-founded the Change For Animals Foundation, a small international animal welfare organization that works to create positive and lasting change for animals throughout the world through research, advocacy, campaigns, and strategic partnerships with other like-minded NGOs.
With the opportunity to save one dog that day, the group set their sights on Django’s cage, where he and his litter mates stared back at the strange humans with wide, frightened eyes.
At only four months old, the puppies were already terrified of humans, so when one of the rescuers climbed into the cage and crawled toward them, they quickly scampered away. The touch of a human only meant bad things, so when Django felt strange hands encircling his body, he froze. Enfolded by warm, caring arms, he was carried out of the farm, where a whole new world awaited him. Watch his touching rescue video here.
“We named him Django after Quentin Tarantino film, “Django Unchained,” (because) he’s Django uncaged,” Lola explained. “Though he didn’t know it at the time, he was to become CFAF’s ambassador for our anti-dog meat campaigns. He would show the world that all dogs, regardless of breed or place of birth, are equally worthy of compassion and respect. In Korea, there’s a belief that ‘meat dogs’ are stupid and soulless, that it’s their ‘destiny’ to be slaughtered for consumption. Through Django, we wanted to disprove the notion that ‘meat dogs’ are different than ‘pet dogs,’ a myth that has been deliberately promulgated by the Korean dog meat industry to appease a population where pet ownership is rising exponentially. It’s no dog’s destiny to suffer.”
After months of intensive veterinary care to heal his sickly little body, Django flew to Singapore to live with Lola and her daughter, Leila. Once his month in quarantine was up, he was brought to his new home, where he would soon learn the joys of being a dog.
“Django took to his life of freedom immediately,” said Lola. “He fit straight in with my other two rescue dogs, (and) everything was so exciting to him. He found absolute joy in what the world had to offer, such as smelling flowers, chasing birds, being hugged, snoozing in the sunshine, and finding the strength to run, with his beautiful chops flailing around and his gangly, uncoordinated legs charging forward! We loved him immediately, more than words could ever do justice.”
Django enjoying a swim with one of his rescue siblings. (Photo courtesy Lola Webber)
Sadly, Django’s Cinderella story isn’t a common one for dogs trapped in the meat trade. Approximately 10 million are consumed every year throughout Asia, which is why CFAF has made ending this barbaric industry one of its biggest objectives, a lofty goal they’re determined to attain.
“Change For Animals Foundation was founded in 2012 by myself and three friends – Harry Eckman, Suzanne Rogers and Carla Brown – with the shared vision of creating an organization that would never lose sight of what it believed in, that all animals matter,” Lola explained. “We’re a small organization with minimal funding, so we work hard to ensure that other organizations that have additional resources and expertise can take on pieces of work that we can’t. There are no egos at CFAF, just a burning desire for the suffering of the millions of dogs caught up in the meat trade to end, so we support all efforts by other groups and individuals who share our dream.”
While some anti-dog meat activists make a practice of criticizing cultures and governments in a losing effort to shame them into banning the trade, CFAF takes a more proactive, sustainable approach – working with the industry they’re trying to change. This tactic has included meeting and establishing relationships with a growing network of dog farmers that want to leave the industry but simply don’t have the resources to do so.
“When we sat down and talked with the farmers we realized we actually want the same thing – they want out of the dog meat trade and we want the dog meat trade to end,” Lola explained. “I feel so much anger about what the trade encourages, that it relies on the suffering of dogs, but the more time you spend with the dog farmers, the more you realize that they aren’t monsters, they’re just people who in their minds are making a living. So instead of trying to shut down farms with no consideration for the people whose livelihoods rely on them, we’ve worked on building relationships based on trust and respect so we can actually facilitate change. And that’s where we need the bigger organizations that have the resources and expertise to come in and make change happen.”
There are many dog meat markets throughout Korea, including Moran Market, the largest and most infamous, located southeast of Seoul, and Gupo Market in Busan, the country’s second-largest city. Alongside the significant animal welfare concerns associated with the dog meat industry, a mounting body of evidence suggests that the production and consumption of dog meat poses a substantial risk to human health, including the spread of the rabies virus. (Photo courtesy Change For Animals Foundation)
Humane Society International certainly has the funding, expertise, marketing reach, and manpower to get the job done. With the support of CFAF, HSI launched a dog farm conversion campaign in late 2014 that not only helps farmers transition into more humane forms of agriculture but also rescues and rehomes the dogs with loving families in the U.S. and Canada. So far, CFAF has assisted HSI with five dog farm closures, a campaign that has been incredibly well-received across Korea and around the globe.
Meanwhile, other anti-dog meat groups including Free Korean Dogs, Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation, and Korean activist Nami Kim have followed suit by closing several dog farms throughout the country. And while the Korean government has yet to step up to the plate and ban the trade, these inspiring campaigns are a positive sign that a death knell could soon be tolling for the country’s dog meat trade.
“As pet ownership continues to rise exponentially in Korea and throughout the region, people’s perceptions of dogs and other animals are changing,” Lola said. “We are also seeing a change of heart in those involved in the industry – dog meat traders, farmers, and restaurant owners. Of all the farmers and traders I have met, not one of them has shown pride in their job, whilst every single one of them has expressed remorse for the dogs who’ve suffered at their hands, resolutely declaring that they are ready to leave the industry but need help to do so. People throughout Asia care deeply and passionately about this issue, and as international organizations, our role is to support change from within these countries as well as those on the frontline.”
Lola cuddles one of the lucky pups rescued from a dog farm by Humane Society International, which CFAF has assisted in executing its incredibly successful dog farm conversion campaign. (Photo courtesy HSI)
Yet despite the many green shoots of change, an unfortunate summer tradition continues in Korea – boknal or “bok” days (or “dog days” of summer), in which Koreans consume dog meat soup, “boshintang,” on the three hottest days of the lunar calendar (this year’s bok days fell on July 17 and 27, and today, August 16). The (unfounded) belief is that dog meat cools the blood and helps the body fight off the debilitating effects of heat and humidity. But according to recent media reports, the demand for boshintang is on the wane, the direct result of growing anti-cruelty sentiments and activism within the country, a movement that picked up speed this year.
“The boknal days have come and gone over the years, and in the past, the protest numbers were always very small and the coverage was minimal,” Lola said. “Whereas this year, all of a sudden you have protests through central Seoul with over 100 people marching and passionately voicing their opinions, large demonstrations that are making the 9 o’clock news on the main national news channels. The traders are reporting very bad business over the boknal days, so they’re feeling the pressure. We just need the government to feel the pressure, too.”
Check out this beautiful video of Lola and a few CFAF volunteers rescuing six dogs from a dog meat farm in May 2016 (video courtesy Martyn Stewart):
With the next Winter Olympics slated for Pyeongchang in 2018, the global spotlight will be focused on South Korea. This will afford CFAF and other groups a golden opportunity to shine a light on the dog meat trade, raise international and national awareness, and support local and international groups and activists in leveraging the event to continue lobbying for legislative change.
“I think (activists in Korea) are really finding their voice and confidence,” Lola said. “I don’t know if part of that has come from the Yulin dog meat festival, where it’s become such a global thing with celebrities around the world speaking up about it. Yulin is one tiny place representing a relatively small number of dogs when you look at the whole scale of things, but it’s become a symbol and representation of what the dog meat industry is – cruel, dirty, and not in line with any of these cultures whatsoever. This is not an issue of ‘cultural’ or ‘personal’ preference, this is an issue of inherent and inexcusable cruelty.”
She continued, “By activists throughout the region seeing what’s gone on in Yulin, I believe it’s empowered others to speak out against something that is defended by many as ‘tradition’ or ‘culture,’ because to stand up against that takes a brave person. These people have always been there, but they’re finding their strength and courage, and they will be the ones who will ultimately end dog meat in South Korea and throughout the region.”
Lola at one of the dog farms HSI shut down. Although the majority of dogs sold and slaughtered for meat in Korea come from farms, the industry is heavily supplemented with ‘excess dogs’ produced for the pet dog trade. Many dogs that are no longer wanted as pets are sold or given to traders and farmers, and it is common to see many different breeds of dogs at farms and markets, some still wearing collars. (Photo courtesy Martyn Stewart)
Three years after his rescue from the dog farm, Django has grown into a big, happy dog enjoying life with his doting family in Bali, Indonesia. As evidenced by his constantly wagging tail, he seems to have forgiven the world for the terrible cruelty he endured in his early puppyhood.
“Watching him swim in the sea and play with my other dogs, his giant gangly legs charging along with that huge Tosa grin on his face, brings me more joy than words could ever do justice,” Lola said glowingly. “He finds joy and happiness in everything and is the goofiest, most playful soul I’ve ever met. There’s nothing better than coming home to him after being in Korea, but it also just makes it so much harder for me at the same time because (this campaign has become) so personal to me.”
Lola Webber and her beloved Django. A lifelong animal lover and advocate, Lola has dedicated her entire life to helping animals. Born in Brussels to British parents, she grew up with dogs and was already an animal activist by the time she was six years old. (Photo courtesy Change For Animals Foundation)
Although Lola remains haunted by the faces of the dogs she couldn’t save from the countless farms and markets she’s visited over the years in Korea, she’s learned to channel her remorse into a raw determination to keep fighting until the trade is no more. Whether she’s able to help save one dog or hundreds of dogs, change one mind or thousands of minds, it’s those little victories that keep her going. Meanwhile, Django is there to remind her of why she returns to the battlefield again and again, in the hope that someday, all people will recognize animal cruelty as having no place in our 21st century global society.
“Django is the love of my life, and I can’t remember life without him,” she said. “After witnessing too many horrors and being so helpless to stop the brutal treatment of dogs, I needed to love one dog enough for all those I’d left behind. His ability to love so generously and unconditionally, despite everything he went through, never ceases to bring me to tears – he breaks and heals my heart in equal measures. Knowing dogs just like him continue to suffer on dog meat farms and in slaughterhouses and markets hurts so deeply, but it also keeps that fire of determination burning fiercely inside of me. I always think, if everyone could meet a Django and see him the way I do, the industry would end tomorrow.”
For more information about Change For Animals Foundation, please visit their website or Facebook page.
Want to read about another beautiful dog farm dog who got a second chance at life? Check out Pocket’s story here.
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” – Kahlil Gibran
Once again, another Yulin dog meat “festival” has come and gone. For the sixth year in a row, pet meat enthusiasts converged upon the small southern Chinese city to “celebrate” the summer solstice by gorging on heaping plates of cooked dog flesh and lychee fruit. Right alongside them, and more than happy to put a damper on the festivities were the local and international animal activists who’ve made it their mission over the past several years to protest the festival, record the carnage, and save dogs from the butcher’s block. Meanwhile, animal lovers throughout the globe signed petitions, donated to anti-dog meat campaigns, and watched with outrage as the notorious event unfolded yet again.
Although Humane Society International claims that the festival has grown smaller and more subdued over the past few years, down from killing an estimated 10,000 dogs at its height in 2012 to approximately 1,500 dogs, some activists have expressed concerns that butchers have merely taken their brutal activities underground, making it difficult to know just how many dogs – most of them lost or stolen pets – are actually being slaughtered.
But just a month later, it’s back to business as usual for the dog meat trade in Yulin. The dust has settled as media have moved on, international activists have turned their attention to other heated issues, and global interest has waned. The festival has done nothing but put a black mark on China’s reputation, sparking intense domestic and international condemnation, yet while the local government has distanced itself from the festival, it has so far made no attempts to ban it.
Dogs languish in a meat truck as they wait to be unloaded into the festival. The majority of dogs used in the Chinese meat trade are lost and stolen pets that are often transported for long distances to rural areas where dog meat is in demand. These shepherds could have been trucked for several days across the country to Yulin, without food, water, or rest. (Photo courtesy HSI)
As someone who has been researching and spreading awareness about the dog meat trade for over three years now, I have to wonder if things are getting any better for animals in China. Are we any closer to seeing an end to this festival of death and abuse, and a criminal industry estimated to murder 10 million dogs a year, in a nation that sorely lags behind other developed nations in animal welfare?
For answers to that loaded question, I consulted three experts who have made it their mission to document, expose, and fight animal cruelty throughout Asia – a front-line rescuer, a photojournalist and videographer, and an official from a leading international animal welfare organization. All three attended Yulin this year and were kind enough to share their experiences, thoughts, and ideas with me, including where they believe the dog meat trade is headed in China.
Chinese activists speak to the media at the Yulin festival. According to Humane Society International, the movement against the dog meat trade in China began as a grassroots movement from within the country. (Photo courtesy HSI)
Marc Ching arrived in Yulin with a very lofty goal – to document the atrocities, raise global awareness, and decrease the supply of dogs to the festival. As the founder of the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation, a small Los Angeles-based rescue group that saves dogs from abuse and torture situations, Ching has made it his mission over the past year to rescue dogs from the meat trade throughout Asia and expose the industry for what it is – barbaric, cruel and criminal.
Six weeks prior to the festival, Ching journeyed to Yulin with the intention of doing something no other anti-dog meat activist has attempted thus far – to convince slaughterhouses to suspend their operations during the festival. After much financial bargaining, six of the 11 operators he met with agreed. However, when Ching returned to Yulin two days before the event to shut them down as planned, he realized his rescue mission was going to be a much bigger undertaking than originally anticipated, as those six operations had 1,000 dogs between them – dogs with nowhere to go.
What followed was a whirlwind rescue operation, culminating in just under 300 dogs being taken to three temporary shelters Ching had set up in Nanning and Guangzhou, 120 to an HSI shelter in northern China, and the rest to the Tree of Life in Guangzhou and Gaoyao.
Stressed and exhausted dogs await their fate in a meat cage. (Photo courtesy Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation)
But while Ching received overwhelming encouragement from his supporters, he found himself the target of strong criticism from domestic and international rescue groups strongly opposed to activists purchasing large numbers of dogs from meat traders. To drive this point home, Animals Asia, an international animal welfare organization that works to end the dog meat trade in Vietnam and China, released an open letter in conjunction with 35 China-based rescues, urging animal rescuers to abstain from buying dogs from the event, and citing the practice as counterproductive and damaging to the growing anti-dog meat movement within the country (Founder Jill Robinson also released a very insightful article several days later that explains her organization’s stance on how to most effectively end the festival and the trade).
Although Ching wholeheartedly agrees that paying off dog meat traders and butchers is not the solution to stopping the trade, he passionately defends his actions at Yulin.
“I don’t support the buying of dogs, and I didn’t go there to (do that), it was a consequence of temporarily shutting down those slaughterhouses,” he explained. “I couldn’t leave those dogs behind. If I had, the whole world would have slandered me and they would have had just cause to do so. When you’re a spectator it’s easy to (criticize what I did), but until you’re in that moment, with dogs screaming and dying, you really can’t say anything.”
A typical dog meat vendor on the streets of the Yulin festival. (Photo courtesy Martyn Stewart)
As someone who wasn’t well-versed with the inside politics of large animal welfare groups, Ching said he found his interactions with them before and during the festival incredibly eye-opening and disillusioning, in that many seemed more concerned about elevating their profiles and pandering to donors than the welfare of the dogs.
“Before I went to Yulin, I reached out to all the big groups and said, ‘help me, and if you disagree with me, teach me and help me to be better,’ but everybody said no, so I went in and did what I felt I had to do,” he remarked. “I’m sure they thought, ‘look at this guy trying to be famous from doing this, he’s trying to bloat his image,’ but they don’t understand what I’m all about, or what I’m trying to do, or that I’ve destroyed my life for this. When you document torture for a living it’s a heavy burden to bear.”
Despite his less-than-positive interactions with humans at Yulin, Ching says he’s satisfied with what he and his volunteers accomplished, whether anyone agrees with his tactics or not.
“The typical Chinese method is to stop trucks, then test dogs for disease, but they’ve been doing this for the last 5-10 years,” he asserted. “I respect those groups that have that opinion, but you can’t do the same thing every year and expect a different result. In the field, in war, you do what you have to do to save lives and you do your best. Because of our Foundation, lives were saved and incredible awareness was raised. The goal is to end the festival, and to show that change is possible.”
Check out the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation’s Compassion Project PSA, which was released prior to Yulin:
Although Martyn Stewart also disagrees with activists buying dogs from meat traders, he does believe that every dog deserves a second chance. After all, he happens to be the proud dad of a Tosa mastiff rescued from a South Korean dog meat farm last fall by HSI. As a veteran sound recordist, videographer and photojournalist, Stewart has documented myriad examples of animal cruelty throughout the globe, including the dog meat trade in South Korea and China, but had never had the chance to attend Yulin until this year.
“I did a story for the BBC on the night of 21st, and stayed for several days afterward to see what was happening,” he explained. “I went into the dog meat markets and shot video of them chopping dog carcasses up, and filmed inside a slaughterhouse. We walked through restaurant after restaurant after restaurant full to the gills with people eating dog. The stench was horrible, and in the heat and humidity, it just stays with you in your nose.”
Like most activists who’ve been following the horrific event for several years, he expected the scene to reflect what he’d read in the media. But in the end, what he experienced turned out to be a bit different from those exaggerated reports and embellished truths.
“A lot of newspapers across the world were trying to sensationalize things, trying to make one isolated story, and hype it up to the point where it wasn’t really true,” he said. “There wasn’t all this aggression, all this in-your-face, no people trying to smash my equipment, as I’d been warned. There was some of that, but certainly, there were no ‘Angels of Yulin’ flying into the festival with capes on their backs and flying out with dogs. To me, Yulin appeared to be a pop-up activist’s dream for those trying to make a name for themselves, but at the detriment of the animals.”
Check out Martyn’s video of the festival (note: there are some disturbing images but no footage of dog slaughter):
On a positive note, Stewart felt encouraged by the conversations he engaged in with several Yulin citizens, most of whom didn’t like the idea of eating dog, as well as butchers who said their businesses had taken a drop in sales due to all the activism, outside pressure, and the government no longer endorsing the event. He had good reason to be optimistic – a recent survey commissioned by HSI shows that 64 percent of Chinese citizens between the ages of 16-50 would support a permanent end to the Yulin festival, that nearly 52 percent want the dog meat trade to be banned, and almost 70 percent claim they’ve never eaten dog. Still, Stewart admits that any expectations he’d entertained about Yulin being canceled next year were dashed by the sheer magnitude of the event.
“I went to Yulin convinced this would be the last because of all the hype and the pressure, but after seeing the reality of the festival and the extent of the dog meat being eaten, you realize that if this is the end, something miraculous has got to happen. Ending it has to come from within China, and legislation has to be put in place, which takes time, so thinking you’re going to go in there and close it all down in space of a few days, that’s not realistic. We have a million miles to go before we can even start to consider ending this festival, and Yulin is just another extension of somewhere else.”
Dog meat traders count their spoils. (Photo courtesy Martyn Stewart)
Peter Li, China policy specialist for HSI, has a more hopeful outlook about the impending demise of the dog meat trade in China. As someone who has attended Yulin for three years in a row to research, document, and expose the festival, as well as rescue small numbers of dogs and cats, he believes the government is closer than ever to not only banning the barbaric festival, but also the industry (he breaks down the history, practices, and attitudes about the Chinese dog meat trade in this must-read article).
“In China, we don’t need more laws to shut down the dog meat trade,” he explained. “If the government enforced its existing laws and regulations, the trade would be dead. China is the only country among all the major developed nations that doesn’t have animal protection laws, so it’s about 194 years behind the rest of the industrialized world. We will continue to encourage them in enforcing existing laws, and press on for animal protection legislation there.”
But going the slow, legislative route toward permanent change can take years, if not decades to accomplish. Meanwhile, untold millions of dogs (and cats) will continue to die to satisfy the nation’s small minority of pet meat enthusiasts. When faced with that overwhelming thought, isn’t it understandable that front-line activists and rescuers would feel driven to go into blood spectacles like Yulin and save as many lives as possible?
Another common sight at Yulin – sick, stressed and dying dogs arriving at the festival crammed into cages on the backs of mopeds. This horrible industry has been directly linked to rabies outbreaks in humans, a common health problem in regions where the trade is most common, such as Yulin. (Photo courtesy HSI)
“No system of slavery or oppression should be allowed to continue, and we all wish this trade could be ended overnight,” he said. “But we agree with the statement that Animals Asia put out that animal welfare groups should not buy dogs in great numbers on the festival day, and in competition with other groups. That gave dog meat traders the opportunity to practice extortion by raising prices. They were doing it last year and the year before, brutalizing and humiliating activists who were buying dogs, and threatening to torture the animals if the activists didn’t pay top dollar for them.”
He continued, “We do not accept animal suffering, and I cannot agree more that we should stand up to be the warriors for animals, but there are different ways to solve these problems. Incremental change and progress will lead to the ultimate demise of the industry, and we have seen great changes in the last few years.”
According to Li, the Yulin government publicly disassociating itself from the festival in 2014 was a big step toward shuttering the festival, as is the tremendous domestic and international pressure that continues to come at the city from all sides. But for the first year ever, the Yulin controversy reached Chinese President Xi Jinping in the form of a formal resolution drafted by U.S. Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-Fla), and a letter from HSI – along with the signatures of 11 million people from around the world – calling on China to shut down the festival and ban the trade. What happens next is anyone’s guess.
A few of the 120 dogs HSI took on from Marc Ching’s 1,000-dog rescue, resting up at the organization’s shelter in north China. All will eventually be placed in loving homes in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Some very little pups indeed! (Photo courtesy HSI)
The hope is that the Yulin government will finally wake up and realize that the damage the festival has caused to its city and country’s reputation is no longer worth the trouble. But until that happens, it’s important to understand that China’s dog meat problem goes way beyond one annual festival, said Li.
“Yulin is just a tiny part of China’s criminal dog meat trade,” he asserted. “HSI has been in China for the last decade, and we’ve been fighting a war against Asia’s dog meat trade on many different fronts and levels because we believe this trade is a comprehensive challenge. There is no quick solution. (An animal welfare organization must have a presence) in China all year long and the strategy has to be multi-layered and leveled.”
Although we may still have quite a distance to go until the pet meat trade is extinguished and buried in the history books as yet another shameful practice we humans once condoned, I remain hopeful that China is indeed on its way to becoming the more compassionate society it has every potential to be, for both animals and humans. Banning the Yulin festival will be an important first step in repairing the country’s global reputation, and demonstrating its intention to catch up with the rest of the developed world in animal welfare.
But before we westerners go pointing fingers and condemning other countries and cultures for their inhumane practices, let’s look in the mirror and take responsibility for the cruelties we inflict upon animals day after day in our own respective countries, whether in factory farming, puppy mills, entertainment, or the fur trade. Why is it okay to judge others for eating dogs or cats, when we greedily consume billions of chickens, cows, pigs and sheep (the U.S. and Australia hold court as the largest consumers of meat per capita) every year? Don’t we inflict plenty of pain and suffering upon these poor, sentient beings behind the closed doors of our nation’s slaughterhouses?
The faces of the condemned at the Yulin festival. No innocent being deserves such a fate. (Photo courtesy Martyn Stewart)
It’s easy to get riled up about the Yulin dog meat festival, but keep in mind that this one event, horrible as it is, is only a small extension of a massive, 365-day industry that also thrives across other Asian countries including South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Stopping it won’t come from without, from westerners expressing outrage and telling these cultures what they can or can’t eat, but from within. Although we don’t hear about them due to the country’s highly censored internet, there are countless Chinese animal welfare groups made up of incredibly dedicated activists who have been diligently working for years against a system designed to support the exploitation and persecution of animals. They are the unsung heroes in this fight, and we must support their efforts whenever possible.
If you’d like to help end the dog meat trade in China and Asia, do your research and only support licensed charities that are open and transparent about their mission; have a verifiable track record of how they use their funds; don’t make a practice of bashing other rescue groups, and always make the animals their top priority.
We humans have created every single animal welfare problem that exists on this planet. We have been ignorant, selfish, entitled, and delusional in believing animals were put on this earth to serve our purposes, do our bidding, and “give up their lives” for our gastronomic pleasure. It’s time for our species to wake up, grow up, and start viewing animals for what they are – intelligent sentient beings who deserve to live out their lives in safety and peace. As our voiceless brothers and sisters with whom we share this beautiful planet, they deserve our guardianship and respect. It’s the least we can do for them.
“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” – Albert Einstein
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Somehow I never thought this day would come, yet come it did, and with a vengeance. I guess when we humans bring members of your species into our lives, we sort of have to live in denial that you won’t live forever. I was no exception in my tight adherence to that unspoken rule. Even as your muzzle grew gray, your eyes cloudy, your ears deaf, and your body stiff and sickly, I refused to believe you would leave me any time soon, because the thought of losing you was completely intolerable.
How could I have loved a little dog like you so much? How could I have not? You were love incarnate on four legs, the embodiment of everything good, sweet, giving, and kind. You were my baby boy, my little man, my puggy angel. I made up silly songs just for you, inane little rhymes you’d listen to over and over again with bright-eyed delight, smiling back at me with your wide, pushed-in grin, your sweet roll-shaped tail wiggling happily. You had no idea what I was saying, but how you ate up any special attention that Mommy gave you. That was your way – you ate life.
I will never forget the moment I first laid eyes on you. You were playing with your littermates and bouncing around like a little bunny, all of nine weeks old. When I’d finally decided to fulfill my lifelong desire to get a pug I knew I’d wanted a boy, and you were the last male left in the litter. I picked you up, and you looked at me with wide, seal pup eyes that could have melted the hardest of hearts. And without hesitation you licked my face, as if to say, “hi Mommy, what took you so long?” And that was that. We named you Gizmo because you looked like a little wind-up toy, a name that always fit you to a t.
Baby Gizmo the day I brought him home.
What followed was almost 13 amazing years of a cross-species bond based on love, trust, and companionship. I raised you, cared for you, trained you, took you places, pampered you, slept next to you, and anticipated your every need. We developed an unspoken understanding, an effortless synergy, and unshakable connection. You embedded yourself in my heart, wrapping me around your paw with ease.
As the years passed and my life circumstances changed, there were times I needed you more than ever, and you never failed me. You were always there, a constant I could depend on and look to for unconditional love, comfort, and endless humor, my doggie anti-depressant of sorts. When it came down to it, we just “got” each other. Even though I adored your German Shepherd siblings, Hugo, Heidi and Chloe Bear (and still do), they knew Gizzy had Mommy’s special love. They are my heart dogs, but you were my soul dog.
There are so many memories tumbling around in my brain, snapshots of moments so precious I’m afraid if I don’t nail them down they’ll disappear. How do I preserve them forever in the scrapbook of my memory? It’s as if our life together keeps flashing before my eyes, and I don’t want to lose a moment of it, even though I know there’s so much I’ve already forgotten. But the essence of you is still with me – your beautiful face (so pretty people often thought you were a girl), the impish, happy spirit of an innocent being who never seemed to have a bad day. I want to remember all of it – your hilarious antics and endearing naughtiness; your sweet, affectionate, yet sometimes stubborn nature; your quiet intelligence and cocky confidence, and of course, your incredible passion for gastronomy. “Mommy loves you too much,” the vets would say to you, indirectly admonishing me about your weight. And though they were right, was it really possible to love you too much? Not a chance.
Gizmo and I at a doggie birthday party for a little pug named Johnny. I’ll remember it as the day he learned how to mark in the house, a lovely habit I could never seem to train out of him.
I’d known you were in trouble that Sunday afternoon when I offered you a baby carrot – your favorite treat – and you let it drop from your mouth. You were only six weeks away from your 13th birthday, an event I was already planning to celebrate with your favorite cake from the local dog bakery. You’d been breathing harder for the past couple of weeks, but I’d simply blamed it on the warmer weather and the pollen in the air. The last two years had been hard on you, as the bronchial disease, arthritis, and all the drugs you now lived on so you could breathe and move without pain had gradually stolen your strength, energy, and ability to do all the things you used to love. No more brisk walks around the neighborhood, riding in the car, playing with your pack, or visiting the dog park. Time isn’t kind to any of us earthly creatures, but it seemed particularly unfair to you, the sweetest being ever to walk the earth. But while I could tell you were declining, you seemed to be holding on. You didn’t want to leave, and I didn’t want to let you go. Not yet, not ever.
Yet when I saw the ashen color of your tongue, the glazed expression in your eyes, and heard the raggedness of your breathing, I knew this was no false alarm. Off to the emergency vet we raced, with me weaving in and out of traffic as I urged you to hang on, to stay with me, reassuring you we were almost there. And even as you struggled to breathe, even as you seemed close to losing consciousness, your eyes never left my face, as had always been your way whenever we went anywhere in the car. But this was a different trip, and we both knew it.
Gizzy at 16 months. Such a pretty pug.
Two days later, the doctors had done what they could to keep you stable, but there was no fixing anything. Your heart was failing, filling your lungs with fluid. And though I’d wanted to keep you comfortable long enough for Daddy to get home from his work trip, when I saw you lying listlessly in ICU and gazed into your tired eyes I knew. You were leaving whether I liked it or not, and it would be cruel to keep you alive for selfish reasons. The vet gave you a nice shot of morphine, and I took you home, knowing as we drove that it wouldn’t be long. Because this time, you weren’t watching my face as I drove, you were simply lying in the passenger seat, staring into space as you struggled to breathe.
Your homecoming was a solemn one. Heidi and Chloe sniffed you over as I propped you up with blankets and got you comfortable in your bed, realizing our family vet wouldn’t be getting here in time to help you along. Knowing we would have to ride this out together, I climbed in bed behind you and wrapped myself around your poor, exhausted little body, so weary from trying so hard to breathe. Hadn’t I just been here, 17 months earlier, spooning Hugo as he left this world? I wept silently as I pet you gently, fighting to keep my voice even as I told you that Mommy was here, that it was okay to go, and that I would love you forever. Although you were already drifting to another place, you must have felt my tears wetting your fur.
It happened fast. Your breathing ceased. Your body stiffened, then fell slack. Your little heart fluttered beneath my hand, once, twice, then grew still. And all I could say the whole time was, “I love you so much, I love you so much, I love you so much,” because that was the last thing I wanted you to hear as you left. And as my words turned to sobs, Heidi and Chloe jumped up and huddled close, nosing you, then me, finally returning to their spots on the rug. I could see in their eyes that they understood what had just happened, and they watched intently as I smothered your head, your face, and sweet little paws with tearful kisses. And though pain shattered through every ounce of my flesh, for a moment I imagined I felt you nearby, bouncing around like a little bunny, so happy to be free, trying to tell me, “I’m okay, Mommy, don’t cry, I’m okay, see?” But just as suddenly as it came, the image flew away, and the world felt suddenly colder without you in it.
Gizzy assuming his position while I write. My legs would always fall asleep, but the pins and needles were worth it.
Two weeks later, my heart is raw, radiating pain with every beat. It’s as if someone ripped it out of my chest, threw it off a 12-story building, then scooped it up and shoved it back into my body. Most days, I alternate between states of depression, healthy suppression, and numb resignation, knowing I must move on because I have no choice otherwise. Your sisters need me, and I want so much to make up for all the love and attention that often went to you more than it did to them. But when I do the simplest things, such as walk into the kitchen and realize you’re not following close behind, or lie on the bedroom floor to stretch and don’t hear you running into the room to jump on top of me or rest your head on my chest so I’ll stop and cuddle you, I lose my composure. I know this grief must ebb and flow at its own pace, but it hurts to harbor so much pain. Still, I am slowly becoming resigned to the fact that the longer I live, the more lives – human and canine – I will have to grieve. That is an earthly reality we must all face.
Some might read this and think, “give me a break, he was just a dog,” but then, those people have obviously never known the love of an intelligent, sentient being like you. Yes, you were a dog, but that doesn’t mean your life wasn’t important. If anything, it was all the more sacred and divine. Yours was a life that never knew suffering, abuse or neglect. You wanted for nothing and you were cherished, utterly and completely. You made me a better person, just for being in my life. I am so grateful to have had the chance to be your human mommy.
Gizzy and his pack (from left to right), Heidi, Hugo and Chloe Bear. He was always sizing up Hugo for alpha status, as this photo clearly illustrates.
Be at peace and run free, my baby boy. Not a day will go by that I won’t think of you and wish you were with me, that I won’t long to kiss your round little head and breathe in your sweet doggie smell. If there’s another plane of existence beyond this life, I know you will be there waiting for me, with Hugo at your side, and someday, Heidi and Chloe – the Lionheart pack will be complete. But if such a thing is possible, I will hope you will come back and be my dog again. It may just be a fantasy, but it comforts me, the idea of finding you once more. I picture myself years from now, looking for a rescue dog who really needs a home. And while he may not be a pug or look anything like you, while his eyes may not resemble a seal pup’s, your impish, happy spirit will shine out behind them, and I will know it’s you. You’ll look up at me and pause, perhaps cocking your head, because even though you’ve never met me, I will somehow seem familiar. I’ll bend down to greet you, stroke your soft chest and let you sniff me over, your tail beginning to wag and your body starting to wiggle. And without hesitation, you will lick my face, as if to say, “Hi Mommy, what took you so long?” And that will be that.
Love you forever, little man,
– Your Mommy
The sweet roll. (Photo by Chris Savas)
“Grieve not, nor speak of me with tears, but laugh and talk of me as if I were beside you. I loved you so – ‘twas heaven here with you.” – Isla Paschal Richardson
Take a stroll through the ancient capital city of Kathmandu, Nepal and you won’t be able to miss them – stray dogs walking along roads, dozing in the sun, hanging out in ancient temples, scavenging on garbage scattered by the roadside. Some appear to be in decent condition, while others suffer from advanced skin ailments, infected wounds, broken bones, and starvation – a sad sight to behold, especially for dog-loving tourists drawn to the valley for its world-renowned mountain trekking. Far from being revered, Kathmandu’s strays are typically considered a nuisance and often fall prey to abuse at the hands of local residents. And the dogs are everywhere – according to Kathmandu Animal Treatment Center (KAT), there are over 22,000 “road dogs” living in Kathmandu valley alone. But while programs exist to help the city’s disadvantaged people and orphaned children, there are very few resources to help the dogs.
Enter Pravin Sharma, owner of Le Sharma Trading Inc., a fair-trade pet product company that sells natural dog chews and artisanal dog toys, beds and accessories made in Nepal. He decided to set up a street dog feeding program to not only care for these desperate creatures but to also spread awareness about their plight.
“Every day hundreds of dogs go hungry and are abused in Kathmandu valley,” said Sharma. “This fact always bothered me when I lived there, and I used to take some measures on a small scale – feeding them, taking care of the ones around my house and encouraging others to do so. Since I was born and brought up in Nepal, I wanted to give back to the country and society in any way I can. Thus, with the income we receive by selling dog products in developed countries, we try to invest a significant amount in doing something good back home.”
A street dog roams the city of Kathmandu in search of food (Photo courtesy Pravin Sharma).
So Sharma rallied together a small team of kindhearted locals to feed the dogs and provide basic emergency veterinary care. Meals consisting of water buffalo meat, rice, bread, and biscuits are served three times per week in different locations around the valley, including the Pashupatinath Temple, one of the most famous and sacred Hindu temples in Nepal, and the Boudhanath Stupa, considered the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.
In one year alone this feeding campaign has nourished more than a thousand hungry canines, with Sharma’s volunteers making a point of involving locals whenever possible in an attempt to change their negative perceptions about the dogs.
“Nepal is an extremely delightful nation, and generally, the Nepalese are delicate and kind, but like every nation, it has a savage side,” explained Sharma. “Although there are a few local and international organizations that work for the welfare of the stray dogs in Kathmandu valley, there are no legal protections, so animal abusers act with full freedom, throwing stones or boiling water at them, or casually kicking them as they pass by. This is all due to lack of awareness. Thus, we were inspired to carry out these programs not just to feed the dogs, but to also make people aware and inspire them to stop abusing these creatures.”
A mama street dog and her pups. Without humane population control, the cycle of unwanted litters continues (Photo courtesy Pravin Sharma).
Although Sharma agrees that his feeding program is not the ultimate solution – he intends to provide more extensive veterinary services for the dogs once greater funding can be secured – he is doing what he can in the face of a daunting situation. After all, Kathmandu is a city still recovering from a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that claimed almost 9,000 Nepalese citizens in April of last year, so with the community focused on surviving and rebuilding, its road dogs have become nothing more than an afterthought.
“Due to the recent devastating earthquake, a lot of dogs lost their lives, and many lost their homes and were forced to become strays,” Sharma said. “Our feeding program will improve this issue for the short term, but our hope is that the awareness we’ve been spreading by involving locals in the program will help us solve this issue for the long term.”
Nepal isn’t the only developing nation long known to have street dogs as part of its landscape. Humane Society International estimates that there are 250-300 million free-roaming dogs wandering the globe. And just like in other countries where street dog numbers have exploded, Nepal’s is a human-created problem derived from a lack of awareness, education, and most importantly, access to sustainable, affordable, and humane canine population control.
A lucky road dog lands a quick meal (Photo courtesy Pravin Sharma).
Although stray dogs in Nepal are typically not “owned,” pet dogs can be as much a part of the street dog population as truly homeless canines in some non-westernized countries. In fact, according to Kelly O’Meara, HSI director of companion animals and engagement, there are three basic categories of “free roaming” dogs throughout the world.
“We have discovered that the majority of street dogs are technically ‘owned’ in some fashion or another, in that the dog has a person and a home within their roaming distance, so they receive some element of care,” she explained. “Then there are community dogs that live in a neighborhood and are very tolerated, with a few people within that particular neighborhood identifying that the dog is one they care about or even love to some degree. Then there are true strays that have no real ties to people, that live among people to some degree, but don’t rely on direct interaction with them.”
She continued, “Most developing countries share the same problem when it comes to management of dogs in the streets, and there are certainly some countries that have it far worse than others. In places like Latin America, we’ve found that while there are more dogs living on or roaming the streets, that the majority of them are owned. Throughout various cultures in the region street dogs are very tolerated, so dogs roaming the streets is not an unusual sight there, and there are millions upon millions of them in Latin America. Generally, you’ll find that some of them may be in better condition than the free-roaming dogs you’ll find throughout Asia, for example, and that has everything to do with direct human behavior and attitudes toward those dogs.”
Stray dogs nap along a busy road in Thimphu, Bhutan, where Humane Society International recently completed a successful 5-year street dog welfare program (Photo courtesy Kuni Takahashi/AP Images for Humane Society International).
And attitudes are everything when it comes to how governments deal with stray canine populations. According to O’Meara, most typically follow three main methods – mass killing, sheltering, or sterilization and vaccination.
Faced with rabies outbreaks and other threats to human health, countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Kenya, Egypt, Russia, much of eastern Europe and the Baltic countries have frequently turned to mass killing campaigns as a quick and immediate “solution” to their stray problem. Meanwhile, countries including Italy, Thailand, and India have made a practice of warehousing street dogs in large shelters that are often unequipped to handle large dog populations. Since adoption rates in these countries are pathetically low, these poor creatures either spend their whole lives imprisoned or end up being euthanized for space.
Not only is the mass killing and sheltering of street dogs inhumane, it’s also incredibly ineffective, asserted O’Meara.
“We can prove across the board that whether you’re killing and/or removing them from the streets, it doesn’t solve the problem – it’s a Band-Aid,” she said. “You’re simply creating a void in that community, and nothing has changed other than the fact that you’ve removed that dog. There will always be other dogs, you’ll never catch them all, and the most elusive, least sociable dogs you didn’t catch will be the ones to take its place.”
She continued, “Before, you had dogs who were friendlier, more sociable, more tolerated and interactive with people, and now you’re replacing them with the unknown, so you’re actually creating a worse problem than you had before. This is where rabies has become a greater issue over and over again in these places because the friendliest dog you can catch is not the problem, they’re not the ones who are going to bite you and potentially spread the virus. Yes, you’re addressing the situation, but not only haven’t you done anything at all and potentially created a worse situation, you’ve also created a poor image for your country for your inhumane treatment of animals.”
HSI’s street dog program in action in Jamshedpur, India (Photo courtesy Humane Society International).
Although Nepal had once used poisoning as a method to manage its road dogs, the government abandoned the cruel practice after street children died from consuming poisoned dog food, explained Sharma.
“People have the mentality that stray dogs should be killed instead of taken care of and fed,” he said. “That is the first thing that needs to change if we want any progress for street dogs in Kathmandu or in any part of the world. Besides trying to spread awareness and involve more people in our programs to change this mentality, we are also conducting humane education campaigns by going to different schools and teaching children how to treat and care for animals. That way, they won’t have to face in the future what we are facing now.”
Luckily, help is coming to Nepal in the form of Humane Society International, which plans to launch a Street Dog Welfare campaign in Kathmandu on April 20. As it is doing in ten other countries, including Bhutan, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guyana, India, Panama, the Philippines, and several U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, HSI will help Nepal establish a mass sterilization and vaccination program to humanely manage street dog numbers, prevent disease, and most importantly, provide a permanent solution to a problem that has plagued Kathmandu valley for generations, said O’Meara.
“It’s going to start off as a pilot program, which means it will be carried out within a period of time with the intent to show its breadth, success rate, and possibility,” she explained. “We’ll be training local talent and personnel, including veterinarians and government officials, and setting it up from start to finish so we’ll be able to hand over a program that’s fully implemented, and has the resources in place to maintain it in the hope that the government will carry it on from there.”
Road dogs coexisting with Kathmandu’s citizens in the city’s busy downtown. Photo courtesy of Pravin Sharma.
Similar to TNR (trap-neuter-return) for feral cats, stray dogs are humanely captured, sterilized, immunized, and then released back into their communities. No longer at risk of spreading disease or capable of reproducing, the dogs will slowly die off over time, gradually reducing and potentially eradicating the stray overpopulation issue.
When I told him about HSI’s forthcoming plans in his home country, Sharma was thrilled.
“This is a team project that cannot be achieved by just one group of a few dedicated dog-lovers, so I’m very excited to hear about this,” he said. “The more people that can help the dogs, the better. Attitudes are changing and improving in Kathmandu, pet stores are opening up, and you can see how people love their dogs, but we have to work harder at teaching the new generation. We have to help them understand that dogs are living beings, too.”
To learn more about Humane Society International’s incredible Street Dog Welfare initiative and how to become a Street Dog Defender, go here. You can also help support the Le Sharma Trading street dog feeding campaign by purchasing some of their handmade, eco-friendly pet products on their website, or donating here.
“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” – Dalai Lama
For months I’d been begging my dad for a puppy. Ever since I’d seen “Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World,” I’d had my heart set on an Old English Sheepdog, just like the one in the movie. I was convinced that getting one would make me the happiest seven-year-old in the world. But no matter how hard I pleaded, Dad flat-out refused (in retrospect I’m grateful he did – a large, high-energy herding dog with endless grooming needs would have been a huge mistake). After all, once my dad made up his mind it was pretty hard to change it.
Knowing how much I wanted a pet of my own, my parents relented, just a little. After all, it was time for me to learn some responsibility. So while a dog or a cat was out, they compromised on a rabbit, figuring a bunny would be an easy “starter pet” that wouldn’t take up too much space, make any noise, or require a lot of time or effort.
So just a few weeks before Easter, my mom took me to our local pet store to pick out a bunny. I remember walking past the rows of wall display cages full of puppies and kittens and to the back of the store, where the baby rabbits were kept in a large wire playpen. And that’s when I saw him – a beautiful little Dutch rabbit with a brownish-gray and white coat, running around the pen doing “binkies” while all the other bunnies just sort of laid around listlessly. Mom suggested I name him Frisky. So we took him home.
The concept of companion animals living indoors was not yet commonplace or much of a consideration when I was growing up in the 1970’s – most pets lived in the backyard where they “belonged.” Thus, Frisky was relegated to living outdoors in a small wire cage behind the garage, with no bed to snuggle in, no toys to play with, no hay to munch on, just a ceramic bowl full of bunny pellets, a water bottle, and full exposure to the elements, which were luckily pretty mild in Santa Monica.
It must have been an extremely boring, monotonous and lonely life for such a smart, inquisitive and playful little being as a rabbit. But such was Frisky’s lot in life with his new family, to stare helplessly out at the world through walls of wire as he waited for me to show up and relieve him from his confinement for a little while, only to be returned to his small prison and left alone again. Eventually, my mom hired our handyman to build Frisky a hutch after he began growing out of his cage, and while he now had more space and a roof to protect him, he was still living outside on wire flooring with nothing to entertain him. But this was simply how people kept rabbits in those days. We didn’t know any better, nor did it ever occur to us to do anything differently – it was “normal.”
Me giving Frisky a bath – a huge no-no in rabbit care. According to the House Rabbit Society, rabbits groom themselves like cats do, and don’t need to be bathed. In fact, full-body baths can be extremely traumatic for a rabbit and can put them into shock. Luckily Frisky survived his many warm-weather bathings.
While other little girls played with dolls, I played with Frisky – he was a far more interesting toy! As a result, my poor bunny was often subjected to a host of indignities, including being dressed up in bonnets, bathed in a bucket, carted around in my sister’s baby carriage, and being forced to ride in my bicycle basket while I cruised around the neighborhood (without any restraint to protect him from jumping out, which he did on many occasions). Another favorite pastime of mine was to make him to lie in my arms like a baby while I fed him carrots. Sometimes he’d scratch and kick himself free, but mostly he’d just give in and let me do what I wanted. I’m not sure if he was just a very sweet, patient bunny or if I just wore him down.
But for me, an often lonely little girl without many friends, Frisky was everything. He was there when I’d had a bad day at school and just wanted to lie in the grass next to him, pet his silky fur and forget about the world. He was there when I’d gotten in trouble with my parents again and needed to vent about how unfair they were. He was there to listen to me tell stories or sing songs from some of my favorite Disney movies. He learned to come when I called him and he was funny, mischievous and very entertaining. One of his favorite pastimes was raiding my mom’s vegetable garden, and he made me laugh when he’d run up to me after feasting on strawberries, his bunny lips scarlet with berry juice. As the weeks, months and years went by, he made me forget all about that Old English Sheepdog I’d wanted so badly.
When my family moved to the canyons of Malibu in July 1977 I figured Frisky would love it there, with so much more room to run and an even larger vegetable garden to invade. We placed his hutch next to the stable, where he would have a good view of the house and be in the middle of all the action, so he would never be lonely. But our first summer in the canyon was a warm one. I didn’t know how easily rabbits can die of heatstroke, and I thought nothing of the fact that his hutch was exposed to full sun in the late afternoon hours. He was dead within weeks. I was devastated, blissfully unaware that his demise could have been easily prevented. After all, when cared for properly and allowed to live indoors, rabbits can live ten years or more. Poor Frisky only made it to his third birthday.
I’ve written about this before – the regret I feel for the mistakes I’ve made with the pets of my past. And while I’ve been working hard to stop beating myself up, learn from my mistakes and become the best pet parent I can possibly be, it still bothers me when I think about my poor, sweet, neglected little rabbit, baking to death in the hot summer sun.
Despite the fact I’m not currently in the position to bring another bunny into my life, I wanted to learn more – to basically retrace my steps and do the homework my parents and I didn’t do before bringing Frisky into our family. So I figured I’d go straight to the experts – the House Rabbit Society. With chapters in 22 states, this volunteer-based, nonprofit animal welfare organization is dedicated to rescuing and rehoming abandoned rabbits, as well as rabbit advocacy and public education. Luckily, the Georgia House Rabbit Society just happened to be 15 minutes from our house, so Chris and I wasted no time in heading over and immersing ourselves in bunny land!
Georgia House Rabbit Society Shelter Director Jennifer McGee with Jack Sparrow, a young bunny who was found with a broken leg. Now a healthy tripod rabbit, he was recently adopted and is about to start his new life as a beloved family pet. Photo by Chris Savas.
Housed in a small, charming converted residence that includes a shelter, a boarding facility and a retail store, the GA HRS is run by an amazing team of dedicated volunteers who help rescue, care for and adopt out over 300 homeless rabbits every year. After a fun tour of the sparkling clean little facility, complete with 50 adorable, long-eared, cotton-tailed, and wiggly-nosed residents, I had a chance to sit down with Shelter Director and rabbit aficionado Jennifer McGee, who gave me the low-down on some of the biggest misconceptions about this very misunderstood companion animal.
“Sadly, rabbits are the third most euthanized companion animal next to dogs and cats,” she explained. “We get hundreds of intake requests per year, and some of the most common reasons people give for surrendering their rabbits are, ‘we got it from the pet store, but the kids aren’t interested anymore,’ or ‘the rabbit became aggressive and it’s grunting, charging and biting the kids.’ Well, they didn’t get their rabbit neutered and they have it in a tiny cage with no exercise or social interaction – they set that rabbit up to be miserable. With some people, once you explain things to them, they’ll do something about it, but others don’t care, they just want the rabbit off their hands.”
Here are some important facts to consider before bringing a rabbit into your life:
Rabbits are not easy, low-maintenance “starter pets.” Bunnies are a lot of work. They require daily interaction and enrichment, a varied diet, a rabbit-proofed indoor living environment, and safe space to run, dig, jump, and chew.
They are not rodents, they are lagomorphs. Companion rabbits are domestic animals. Unlike their wild cousins, jackrabbits, hares and cottontails, pet bunnies are tame, vulnerable creatures completely dependent on humans for their care. And unlike hamsters or other “pocket pets,” rabbits aren’t content to live their entire lives confined in cages.
They are prey animals by nature. Bunnies are naturally jumpy and skittish, and thus require a different approach than predator pets. Canine and feline social activities such as playing chase and belly rubs can be interpreted as threatening rather than loving and playful to a rabbit.
GA HRS Volunteer Chris Keys with his beloved Rex rabbit, Bree. Although most rabbits don’t like to be picked up and cuddled, Bree enjoys being held by her devoted daddy. Photo by Chris Savas.
They belong indoors. Bunnies should never live outside in hutches or be left outdoors unsupervised. Parasites, diseases, the elements and constant stress from being constantly on alert outside can kill a pet rabbit. Besides the fact that life in a cage or hutch is boring, depressing and stressful, bunnies can literally be frightened to death when approached by predators, such as raccoons, hawks, coyotes, owls, cats and dogs. The average lifespan for an outside hutch rabbit is 2-3 years compared to 10 or more years for a spayed or neutered indoor house bunny.
They aren’t suitable for young children. Rabbits are delicate and fragile creatures that require safe, gentle handling and a quiet environment. They don’t like to be held or cuddled, they are easily frightened by loud noises, and their bones and spines are very breakable – not a good fit for a small child who may view them as a toy. A parent who gives their kid a pet rabbit must not only be willing to be the rabbit’s primary caretaker but must also be prepared to supervise any interactions between child and bunny.
They must be spayed or neutered. This is essential in preventing uterine cancer in females, unpleasant and aggressive behavior in males including spraying, and unwanted pregnancies (a female rabbit can have a new litter of kits every 30 days!).
They require training and plenty of patience. New rabbit parents must be willing to spend time teaching home environment boundaries until the rabbit learns its limits. Inquisitive, intelligent, and very social by nature, bunnies are actually very trainable. They can learn their names, understand commands, walk on a leash, use a litter box, and perform all kinds of tricks.
Their vet care can be expensive. Bunnies are considered “exotic” pets, which means they have special veterinary needs that can only be met by vets specifically trained in handling and treating them. Exotic vets aren’t easy to find and their services can be more expensive than those of a small animal veterinarian specializing in dogs and cats.
A caged rabbit at a suspected puppy mill in Corinth, Mississippi. He was later rescued along with dozens of dogs and other animals. Photo by Chuck Cook/AP Images for the Humane Society of the United States.
They are exploited by the pet industry. When you purchase a bunny from a pet store, such as Petland or Pet Supermarket, or a flea market you’re almost guaranteed to be supporting backyard breeders and large commercial breeding operations called rabbitries. Similar to puppy mills, rabbitries are often all about profit and rarely about the health, temperament or wellbeing of their rabbits. You can learn more about the rabbit breeding industry here.
They don’t make good Easter gifts. Every year, thousands of rabbits are purchased as Easter gifts for children, only to end up neglected or abandoned days, weeks and months later after kids lose interest and parents realize the bunny is a lot more work than they thought.
“Probably 80 percent of the rabbits that come to us were Easter bunnies at some time or another,” said Jennifer. “They’re typically purchased from the feed and seed stores to go in a child’s Easter basket, but people don’t know what to do with them and they die – only 10 percent of Easter bunnies actually live to see their first birthday. That’s why this year we started a billboard campaign with a corresponding website, notforeaster.com. We’re not trying to scare people out of getting a rabbit for Easter, but if they really want a rabbit and are willing to make that 10-12-year commitment, getting one shouldn’t revolve around the Easter holiday.”
They are not disposable. Rabbits can’t be turned loose outside – they will surely die from starvation, predators and parasites. Most shelters don’t accept surrendered pet rabbits, and rabbit rescues – which are almost always full with unwanted bunnies – aren’t likely to accept a rabbit from someone who purchased it on impulse and just doesn’t want the responsibility anymore.
They are intelligent and sensitive like cats and dogs. Rabbits are loving and social animals who bond with their human parents and bunny friends, and once they are spayed and neutered, they make delightful house pets. Like any sentient being, each rabbit has his or her own unique personality, from playful and silly, independent and reserved, to loyal and affectionate.
Adopt, don’t shop. Just like with dogs and cats, over-breeding and impulse purchases have resulted in thousands of homeless rabbits ending up in shelters and rescues throughout the U.S. There are multitudes of homeless rabbits looking for loving forever homes, so there’s no need to purchase a rabbit when you can adopt one. As you would with any pet, take time to educate yourself about their needs before bringing them into your home, then visit your local shelter, rescue group, or HRS chapter and adopt a homeless bunny.
Chico and Tilda, two sweet little bunnies up for adoption at the Georgia HRS. Photo by Chris Savas.
Although my Frisky wasn’t an impulse purchase or an Easter gift gone wrong, he was indeed the victim of an uninformed little girl who didn’t understand his needs. A rabbit is meant to be a pampered house pet and a treasured companion, not a fixture in a hutch or an occasional plaything. How I wish I’d known that then.
But in the end, meeting with Jennifer actually ended up being very therapeutic – she, too had also kept her childhood rabbit in a hutch in her backyard, and like me, she also felt regret for not knowing better or doing more for her bunny. It felt good to know I wasn’t alone. “You do what you know, and when you know better, you do better,” she said encouragingly. That is a saying I will carry with me always.
“Just like with anything in life, get a rabbit for the right reasons,” Jennifer said. “Don’t do it because your kids are begging and tugging on your leg, or because you want to teach them responsibility – think about what you’re going to teach them when you let that rabbit loose outside, give it to a neighbor or take it to animal control. It’s a society issue at the base of it, it’s how we’re raising the next generation, and it’s not just with dogs, cats and rabbits, it’s every animal. A companion animal is a living, breathing thing and we are breeding them, we’re designing them and we’re making them dependent on us, so we are obligated to take care of them – that’s all there is to it.”
To learn more about proper rabbit care and adopting a bunny, visit the House Rabbit Society to find a chapter near you. If you live in the Atlanta area and are interested in adopting, volunteering and/or supporting the Georgia House Rabbit Society, please visit their website to learn more about them and how you can help their amazing efforts to help Georgia’s abandoned and neglected rabbits.
Check out these sites for great information about rabbits and their care: