Losing Hugo – How I Went On Living When My Beloved Dog Died

Burying my face in his thick, furry neck, I felt my dog take his very last breath. Hugo, my beautiful 14-year-old German shepherd, was gone. Lying with him in his bed, spooning his now motionless body, I sobbed with an intensity that shook me to the very core of my being. I realized I was crying harder than I had in years, my grief so deep and intense, it felt as if a part of me had been clawed out and torn away.

Hugo was the first dog I’d raised from cradle to grave. I had had other dogs before him but what I felt for Hugo was different. He was born the night my father died, so I liked to imagine that he’d been sent from a spiritual realm to serve as my protector and guardian, to be my “angel puppy.” But if anything, this special being in canine form came into my life to become one of my greatest teachers. A demanding puppy to raise, he was fear aggressive from an early age and became overly protective of me to a fault. I know I made a ton of mistakes with him. Yet in facing the challenges he presented I had no choice but to become a more patient, compassionate and understanding person, to work with his issues while accepting him for who he was – a wonderful but sometimes difficult dog.

But despite his shortcomings that often tested my patience to its limit, Hugo was my baby boy and I was his mom, committed to him for life. Through our years together he saw me through some very difficult and tumultuous times. He was a constant, steady and unconditionally loving presence in my life, always there to lick away my tears and make me laugh with his silly personality. I adored him and kept him out of trouble and in return, he gave me his undying loyalty and devotion. I was his person, and as time passed our special connection only solidified. We understood and accepted each other, flaws and all.

But now here I was, holding Hugo’s old, crippled body as it began to grow cold in my arms. I showered his grizzled head with tears and kisses, remembering when only 14 years ago I had taken that fuzzy little sable puppy in my arms for the first time, held him out in front of me and declared “he’s perfect!” Because he was.

Baby Hugo at 9 weeks. Who would suspect that this adorable little bundle of joy was really a naughty little brat in disguise?

Baby Hugo at 9 weeks. Who would suspect that this adorable little bundle of joy was really a naughty little brat in disguise?

As the vet took his leave and we waited for the pet crematory funeral director to arrive, it dawned on me that the depth of my sadness far surpassed anything I had felt when a human friend had died. In fact, I had just lost a close girlfriend the month before to cancer, and even though I had loved her dearly I certainly hadn’t felt this level of grief. Was there something wrong with me, or was I experiencing something akin to what one might feel when losing a child?

Bewildered and curious about this phenomenon, I later consulted with my friend Betty Carmack, author of “Grieving the Death Of a Pet” and pet loss support group counselor at the San Francisco SPCA, a volunteer position she had recently retired from after 32 years.

No, I wasn’t weird, she reassured me. In fact, my feelings were far from uncommon.

“That was a theme I heard consistently in my group, that people were grieving more for their pet than they ever did for their parents, sibling or friend, that the grief they felt for their animal was like no other grief,” Betty said. “That’s because of the relationship we have with our animals – it’s unconditional love, it’s deep and it doesn’t carry all the baggage that human relationships carry. Then there’s that loving, that mothering, that caregiving that people do for their animals. I heard people say all the time: she was like my baby, she was like my child.”

A strapping young Hugo and his adoring Mommy.

A strapping young Hugo and his adoring Mommy.

During the holiday season, I missed Hugo so terribly. I longed to be in his magnificent presence, to laugh at his silly antics, to feel those intense lion eyes watching my every move. Yes, I had my three other dogs to care for and adore, but the house wasn’t the same without my Hue. My husband, friends and family were so kind and understanding and I was surrounded by love, compassion and gestures of caring. Yet I ached.

To make matters worse, a little nagging thought began clouding my mind: had I really done everything I could for my boy, who had suffered from terrible, debilitating arthritis in his last year? I thought I had followed every medical, natural and pharmaceutical protocol known to man, but was there something else I could have done that might have made him more comfortable or better yet, extended his life?

Betty assured me that these moments of self-doubt and guilt are also very common for people, especially when their pets have died from illness or old age.

Hugo showing his silly side.

Hugo showing his silly side.

“Some people would come to the group questioning themselves and thinking that maybe they didn’t do enough or didn’t do as well for their animal as they could have,” Betty said. “But when they would tell their story about what they did do for their animal, people would say to them, ‘you did so much for him,’ or ‘he was so lucky to have you, that you loved him that much.’ To get that kind of feedback and support was so comforting and healing for people going through those kinds of difficult feelings.”

While I had enough support at home to help me through my grief, I could see the incredible value in joining a group like Betty’s to work through the rollercoaster of emotions I was experiencing. I felt so grateful I had people in my life who understood and could relate to my pain, imagining how terrible it would be if instead of sympathetic eyes and warm hugs I had been met with blank stares or even worse, comments like, “well, can’t you just go get another dog?” What would I have done then?

Betty reminded me that while Western society has definitely come a long way when it comes to acknowledging the significance of losing a pet, there are still those who don’t understand how deep and intense that pain can be and as a result, may trivialize those feelings.

“That can be part of the sadness, when someone negates a relationship that was so vitally important to you,” she said. “I would always tell people to only put their grief out where they know it’s going to be respected and treated tenderly because it’s too private and too personal to let it get trampled on. I would then encourage them to find that one person, that one friend with whom they could share their feelings, someone who would respect and honor their grief.”

Huey on his 4th birthday, protecting his new toy from the rest of the pack.

Huey on his 4th birthday, protecting his new toy from the rest of the pack.

Here are some other helpful suggestions Betty shared with me for coping with the loss of a beloved companion:

  • Be compassionate, loving and gentle with yourself. You just experienced a major loss and have every right to be upset and to grieve, for as long as it takes to heal.
  • Allow yourself to feel your emotions, the good, bad and ugly. Acknowledging your feelings will help you process the loss, so if you’re angry over your dog’s death, let yourself vent your frustrations.
  • Cherish the warm and funny memories. Remember when your dog did something naughty or silly and let yourself laugh. Laughter can be extremely healing!
  • Memorials, rituals and tributes are great ways to honor your dog and work through your grief. Put together a photo album or scrapbook, journal about your dog, write poetry and songs, create a memory garden. Many pet crematories and cemeteries offer myriad services and products to help comfort pet owners, including online forums where people can make tributes, as well as beautiful urns, keepsakes and jewelry to hold pet remains.
  • If you’re finding it difficult to move through your grief, consider finding a pet loss support group, online chat room or a counselor. You don’t have to go through this alone. There are numerous groups, hotlines, online sites and books available to help validate your feelings and guide you through your pain.

Almost nine months later, I am still hurting over the loss of my Hugo but am finding ways to honor his memory and focus mostly on the good times we shared. Life without him hasn’t been easy, though. I still look for him in the house at times, thinking he’s right there next to me, eyeballing me for a treat, watching my every move, always at the ready to shower my face with kisses. His constant whining for my attention used to get on my nerves at times but now it’s like an old song I long to hear. And while I love my three fur kids beyond measure and know my life will always be filled with dogs, there will never be another like Baron Hugo Von Tollhaus, my angel puppy. To say he took a piece of my heart with him is an understatement. To me, he was a person in a dog suit, a special being who opened my heart as it has never been opened before. He was my teacher, my guardian, my child. Because of him, I am forever changed, and for the better.

Hugo at 13 with his still-adoring Mommy.

Hugo at 13 with his still-adoring Mommy.

“It came to me that every time I lose a dog, they take a piece of my heart with them. And every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.” – Unknown

The Homeless Pit Bull Conundrum

Hey you, pit bull breeder. Yeah, you, the jerk who thinks it’s cool to make money off the backs of poor, innocent dogs. You’re the kind of person who thinks nothing of letting your dogs produce litter after litter so you can sell their pups on Craig’s List or to anyone with cash-in-hand. You don’t care if your “breeding stock” has temperament issues, genetic defects or health problems. You don’t know anything about their bloodlines and you’ve probably never even taken them to the vet. Maybe they’re just existing out in your backyard, probably on chains, where they’re just lucky enough to get a bowl of cheap food, a little water and a pat on the head once in a while. Or maybe you’re just an irresponsible idiot who didn’t fix your dog and now she’s pregnant – again. And the puppies? You don’t care where they go, who they go to or what happens to them – their wellbeing is not your problem. If you can’t sell them then you’ll just dump them at your local shelter. Sure, let those nice people deal with your mess – that’s their job, right? So what if these unfortunate facilities are already packed to the gills with hoards of homeless pit bulls just like yours? But that thought never occurs to you and even if it does, you don’t give a damn. Meanwhile, legions of animals suffer and die because of you, another ignorant, selfish jerk who shouldn’t be allowed to even own a dog.

If I sound angry it’s because I just came away from a very upsetting visit to one of our local shelters here in Atlanta. Mind you, Fulton County Animal Services is an amazing facility, managed by the incredible LifeLine Animal Project and thus, run by a great group of kind, knowledgeable and dedicated, animal-loving individuals trying their very best to manage the burden our irresponsible pet-owning public has thrown at them. It was just a few days after the 4th of the July weekend, so understandably the shelter was extremely crowded. In fact, it was jam-packed, with triple the number of dogs the facility was designed to house. So while I knew I had arrived at a pretty a-typical, stressful time, it was an important scene for me to witness. Sometimes you have to experience something for yourself before you can truly grasp the reality of a situation.

I have long been aware of our nation’s homeless pit bull crisis. I know that pits and pit mixes are the most euthanized dogs in the U.S., with shelters destroying approximately 1 million of them every year (that’s almost 2,800 per day!). Still, I wasn’t prepared for what I witnessed firsthand at the shelter. We’re talking cages and dog runs practically overflowing with canines of all shapes and sizes, more than half of them pits or pit bull-types. It wasn’t unusual to have three, four or even five of them in one run. But here is where I have to give the Fulton County staff so much credit – for the amount of dogs and cats they were housing that day (465, to be exact), the place was incredibly clean and the animals were well cared for. Yet that didn’t take away from the upsetting scene before me.

A sweet young pit bull vying for my attention at Fulton County Animal Services.

A sweet young pit bull vying for my attention at Fulton County Animal Services.

I walked over to the first dog run and slowly crouched down. Four young pitties swarmed toward me, eagerly jumping up, whining, pawing and licking at my hand, which I had pressed against the chain link so they could smell me. Unlike some people, I’m not intimidated by bully breeds and am pretty adept at reading canine body language, so I didn’t hesitate to get down to their level while making sure to avoid initial eye contact. But this little group of friendly, tail wagging butt-wigglers was far from threatening – they were practically climbing all over each other to get as close to me as possible. As I took in all of their sweet, innocent, wide-jawed faces, feeling their warm breath and plaintive little licks wetting the back of my hand, I felt myself become overwhelmed with emotion.

I got up and walked away, trying to control myself. These unfortunate dogs didn’t need my sad energy – they were upset enough. One of my fellow volunteers from Angels Among Us Pet Rescue caught my gaze and my eyes welled up with tears. She understood. As someone who pulls dogs from Atlanta Metro area shelters on a regular basis, she’s been through this hundreds of times. I pulled myself together, taking deep breaths and steeling my heart before moving on to the next group of dogs, then the next, giving attention to anyone who wanted it along the way. I can’t recall passing a dog run without at least one or several pit bull-types in it.

I don’t think many people, especially those who breed them intentionally or unintentionally, fully grasp just how desperate the situation is for pit bulls in America. Feared and misunderstood by the general public (thanks in part to their vilification by the media), they have become the unfortunate victims of a particular subculture that not only views them as a status symbol but also enjoys using them for financial gain via breeding and dog fighting. As a result, this “breed” (the “pit bull” is actually a bully breed-type classification, not an actual breed) often ends up in the hands of abusive and irresponsible individuals. Add in targeted kill policies at shelters, breed specific legislation and breed bans, and you have a dog with more riding against it than any other type of canine. To put it simply, they are the most abused, misused and euthanized type of dog in our nation today.

Five little bullies looking for love.

Five little bullies looking for love.

Unlike Fulton County, many animal shelters have a no-adopt policy for pit bulls, so they’re either saved by rescue groups or killed, just for being pit bulls. Even sweet, tiny puppies don’t escape the euthanasia needle. So in the face of such a bleak reality, how can anyone justify breeding pit bulls right now? Not until the amount of good homes catch up with the amount of homeless dogs! Yes, there is definitely a place for ethical, responsible hobby breeders – I am not so militant about adoption and rescue that I’m against all breeders – but there is no place for backyard breeders, especially those churning out pits. Anyone who cares about dogs should be saving their lives, not adding more of them to our already saturated society.

Frustrated and needing expert advice, I consulted Lara Hudson, director of Fulton County Animal Services. As someone on the front lines of this challenging situation, I figured she would have a better understanding of what needs to be done to fix the homeless pit bull problem.

“Pit bull terriers are very popular, so this ‘breed’ is at the top of the list for many statistics because of their popularity,” she explained. “Combine this with the fact that any mixed breed, pit-looking dog is called a ‘pit bull terrier’ and then consider that if you breed mixed breed dogs and breed them again, they start to look like a generic pit mix, and thus, it looks like we have a pit bull problem. I disagree. Honda Accords are the most popular car in America. They are also the most stolen and they probably get the most tickets. Same with pit bull terriers. They are the majority ‘breed’ in our shelter and they are the majority ‘breed’ in households in this area. They are the breed most often filed on bite reports, etc. So I think the better question would be what are we going to do to alleviate the homeless pet problem in our city? For example, LifeLine just launched the ‘I’m In’ campaign on July 1 in an effort to make Atlanta Metro ‘No-Kill’ by the end of 2016.”

You could tell this girl had been through the ringer. Note the battle scars on her head.

You could tell this girl had been through the ringer. Note the battle scars on her head.

While all this made sense, it definitely wasn’t the answer I was expecting. But I could definitely appreciate Lara’s broader perspective on the issue. After all, she has a pretty clear understanding of the community she serves and the issues it faces.

“To put it simply, it’s a problem with education,” she explained. “When you drive through some of the areas in our community and you see where a lot of these stray dogs come from, you realize that these people’s kids aren’t even being taken care of. A lot of people really do love their dogs but their parents, grandparents, and their grandparents’ parents all tethered their dogs outside. It’s going to take generational change and improving the conditions where these animals are coming from so it trickles down.”

She continued, “We need more resources, ways to help people who don’t have enough money to take their animals to the vet, because what happens when people can’t do that? Their animals get sick, they turn them into the shelter or they let them go. So I think casting a bigger net by providing better resources for people who want the help is going to save more animals than aggressively going after the minority of people not doing the right thing, regardless of their resources.”

I understand that change takes time and that there’s no magic bullet to solve this problem. Still, it’s terribly frustrating and upsetting, thinking about all those homeless dogs – pit bulls or otherwise – dying in our nation’s shelters every day. But I guess when it comes to changing irresponsible human behavior there are no quick solutions. Mandatory spay and neuter legislation has been proven to be ineffective and enforcing breeder licensing fees is extremely difficult. Continuing to educate the public about responsible dog ownership, including the benefits of spaying and neutering their pets, and offering those services for free or at very low-cost is one tried-and-true solution, but it’s a process and a gradual one at that. Educating the public about bully breeds to help clear up fears or misconceptions about them is another way to increase their adoption numbers. But no matter how hard we try, we’re simply not going to rescue our way out of this problem. It’s a very frustrating conundrum with no simple or expedient solutions.

Two sorrowful kennel mates. I wished I could save them all.

Two sorrowful kennel mates. I wished I could save them all.

Meanwhile, people who want to their breed dogs, especially pit bulls, should have to spend time volunteering at their local animal shelters so they can witness the tragedy of pet homelessness firsthand. They should have to spend time in the kennels, see the faces and watch as one wonderful dog after one wonderful dog disappears into the euthanasia room (or better yet, watch them take their last breaths). Maybe that will help change their tune. Maybe then they’ll fully grasp that the most responsible, compassionate choice is to not contribute to the problem by spaying and neutering their pets.

Pit bulls and pit bull-type dogs are some of the most wonderful, loving and loyal companions anyone could wish for, but they’re definitely not the right fit for everyone. It takes a special kind of person to become a successful pittie parent, so please do your research before bringing one into your life.

For more information about pit bulls, their history and their plight, check out this article published in Pacific Standard magazine as well as this wonderful piece featured in Esquire, both published last year. And while you’re at it, visit Pit Bull Rescue Central for tons of great educational and adoption information resources!

“He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” – Immanuel Kant

That face...

That face…

The Plight of Cats In South Korea

It’s extremely hard for me to understand why any society would tolerate or condone systematic animal cruelty, but unfortunately, there are still many cultures throughout the globe that do. That’s because many of them still view animals, including dogs and cats, as objects rather than sentient creatures deserving of compassion, protection and respect. South Korea remains such a country. And while it’s not a good place to be born a dog, it’s an even worse place to be born a cat.

First off, South Korea has a huge homeless cat problem. Feral and abandoned felines are extremely common, especially in and around large cities such as Seoul, which is estimated to have approximately 200,000 feral cats living within its borders. With no system in place to humanely reduce their populations and few animal welfare organizations or shelters able to help and protect them, stray cats are basically on their own to either survive or die, whether from starvation, extreme temperatures, disease or abuse at that hands of humans. Maybe that’s why most street cats rarely live beyond five years of age. They are simply seen as vermin – vermin to be destroyed.

“Unlike Japan, Koreans are notorious for holding negative sentiments towards cats,” explained Soyoun Park, founder and executive director of Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth (CARE). “They think of them as wicked and evil creatures. Perhaps their negative image comes from old Korean folktales where felines often portray the treacherous antagonists, thus leading to the mass population fearing cats. People would believe that cats would bring bad luck to their owners and so would rarely acknowledge them.”

She continued, “However, as the number of citizens owning cats has increased, the number of people who have begun to care for stray cats has increased, as well. This boost in interest has inspired many to help the street cats by giving them food, giving these people the titles of ‘cat moms.’ Nevertheless, the spike in people willing to help the abandoned cats has triggered an opposite spike in people who oppose this behavior, so it is still a highly controversial topic.”

Photo credit: koreajoongangdaily.com

Photo credit: koreajoongangdaily.com

In Seoul, dirty, starving and sickly felines are common sights in alleys, on rooftops and in parks. They live on the streets, scratching through trash bins in search of food, catching rodents that roam around the many restaurants and seeking shelter under parked cars or behind buildings. They are shunned, have objects thrown at them and are always at risk of being abused, often in very cruel and sadistic ways. As a result, most stray cats are terrified of humans.

“It has been a common practice to use rat poison or other toxic chemicals in order to kill stray cats on the street,” Soyoun said. “However, in recent days there have been much more violent cases of animal abuse recorded. For example, some people would hang treats on a fishing rod and proceed to beat the cats to death once they grasped the hook. Furthermore, there have been several cases of people dropping kitties from the tops of buildings or cutting off parts of their bodies. In our experience at CARE we have also encountered several cases where cats have been set on fire or been poisoned by toxins mixed into food given by the aforementioned ‘cat moms.’ In recent news, there was an incident in which 600 street cats were captured alive and boiled in hot water, then sold to ‘health care centers’ illegally. The methods of animal abuse are extensive and vulgar.”

To make matters worse, South Korea is home to a thriving, albeit illegal, dog and cat meat trade, a gruesome industry that consumes approximately 2.5 million dogs and 100,000 cats each year. Unlike in China and Vietnam, where cat meat is considered a delicacy, South Koreans tend to prefer dog over cat meat and primarily consume cat in the form of soups, stews or “health tonics” called goyangi soju (liquid cat). Falsely believed to have medicinal properties that can cure arthritis, rheumatism and other ailments, this thick, disgusting broth is created by bludgeoning and then boiling cats alive in large pressure cookers, often while they’re still conscious. What a sad, grisly end to an already miserable life.

Kittens await their fate in a meat cage. Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

Kittens await their fate in a meat cage. Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

Unlike dogs used in the South Korean meat trade, cats are not farmed for their meat but are stolen, surrendered or most commonly, picked up as strays. And with such an abundance of homeless and starving cats within easy access, it’s fairly simple for butchers, meat traders or individuals to trap these vulnerable animals with food-baited traps. Clearly, the public’s negative perception of cats only enables the cruel practice of cat slaughter to continue.

However, protests by animal rights groups have led some districts in Seoul to realize that killing or relocating cats are not practical, humane or sustainable solutions to their stray population problems. So increasingly, trap-neuter-return programs (TNR) have become the new method of choice, with 25 districts carrying out stray cat neutering programs with city government support. But not surprisingly, due to poor regulation and oversight, the programs have been riddled with problems.

“We do not believe that TNR is the greatest policy, as Korean TNR especially is still very dangerous,” said Sojoun. “The cats lack recovery time after the surgery and are often released before being properly cared for. It is difficult to return the cats to where they were found and even though they are sent to the right place, cats that received TNR are forced out of their area and cannot return to their original lives. The best solution is to help the cats exist naturally and peacefully. This is accomplished by changing the negative image of cats in Korea and educating people that cats are also a part of the urban ecosystem.”

While cats definitely have a bad rap in South Korea, there are small signs that attitudes are warming toward them. While it is believed that only one in 5,000 Koreans own a pet cat, felines are starting to gain favor as domestic companions, especially among the country’s younger generations.

While tattooing is illegal and seen as taboo in South Korea, some young Koreans are choosing cat tattoos as a fun way to rebel (and honor their feline companions at the same time). Photo credit: boredpanda.com

While tattooing is illegal and seen as taboo in South Korea, some young Koreans are choosing cat tattoos as a fun way to rebel (and honor their feline companions at the same time). Photo credit: boredpanda.com

“There has definitely been an increase in people who like cats,” agreed Sojoun. “As more people begin to own foreign purebred cats, they also show more affection for the native Korean cats. Young people who have specialized jobs and artists seem to prefer having cats (and) there is an increase in people owning multiple cats. But as of now, the majority of Korean citizens prefer to own dogs.”

One recent trend seen popping up across South Korea, especially in Seoul, Daegu and Busan, may signify that things are indeed changing for the better for felines. Enter the Cat Café, a popular Korean pastime originally developed in Japan and Taiwan. Like Japan, Korea’s cities are densely populated, with the majority of people living in small, close-knit apartments that have strict “no pets” policies. Hence, cat cafés are able to fill a need by providing safe, clean and relaxing social environments where animal lovers can interact with friendly (often purebred) felines and enjoy caffeinated beverages. What a great way to change the hearts and minds of former cat-haters! What could possibly go wrong?

“It is rare to find a cat cafe that is being managed properly,” said Sojoun, dashing my optimism. “Cats are different from dogs in that they are very vulnerable to disease and have high chances of contagion when put in groups. In addition, their mental stress rates increase dramatically as they find it hard to have quiet moments to themselves. Cat cafés are intended for business purposes and despite the fact that people can adopt the cats from the cafés, the public consensus leans toward purebred rather than mixed felines.”

She added, “CARE would much rather prefer the minimal owning of house pets by responsible people than a mass trend leading to more breeding businesses. If one feels compelled to own a pet then we strongly encourage them to adopt rather than to buy purebreds. Of course, cafés intended solely for adoption purposes sound like great ideas if they are maintained well hygienically. Regular cat cafés confine the animals for their entire lives while adoption cafés are there to temporarily house cats without homes, so we wholly support the latter.”

A typical South Korean cat cafe. Photo credit: korcan50years.com

A typical South Korean cat cafe. Photo credit: korcan50years.com

Michele Brown, co-founder and director of SayNoToDogMeat.Net, a non-profit organization focused on ending the dog and cat meat trade in Asia and Africa, asserted that while businesses such as cat cafés may have favorable influence on changing the perception of cats in South Korea, the country has a very long way to go in becoming a more humane nation.

“I think anything that shows cats and dogs as ‘nice’ and as ‘companions’ that have ‘feelings’ is a good thing, even in cat cafés in South Korea,” said Michele. “However, I’m suspicious about cats in cafés who lose their cuteness or scratch someone – what happens to them? It worries me that they will be sold to cat butchers or just tossed. As for the younger generation, only a small percentage is warming to cats or even dogs. I have been to Moran Market and I have seen the dog and cat meat trade in action with my own eyes. I have seen the cages of cats and the way they are treated. Cats are in very serious trouble in South Korea and will be for a long time to come, in my opinion.”

Hopefully, as more worldly, conscious and caring generations of South Koreans begin to replace the ignorant, callous and cruel, we will see a much-needed sea change in how the country views, treats and protects its animals, especially those dependent on humans for their care and survival. As one of the most technologically advanced, mature democracies in the world with an impressive record of innovation, economic reform and sound leadership, South Korea has much to be proud of. But when it comes to animal welfare practices and policies (or lack thereof), it should be deeply ashamed. I look forward to seeing this mighty powerhouse of a country mature into a more compassionate, animal-friendly society where tougher laws will actually be enforced; where well-run shelters will be designed to help, not harm, abused and abandoned animals; where the greedy pet industry will be regulated and controlled; where prejudice and superstition against certain animals will be eradicated, and where “cuteness” will cease to be the superficial standard by which an animal’s life is valued.

Meanwhile, I will not be spending my tourist dollars in South Korea or in any country that condones and supports systemic animal cruelty, whether in the name of “cultural tradition” or otherwise. There is no excuse for barbarity and no country has the right to call itself “civilized” while carrying out such depraved behavior. South Korea has a lot to lose from its poor reputation in the global animal welfare community. And the eyes of the world are watching.

Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

Want to do something to help the cats (and dogs) of South Korea? Consider supporting CARE and SayNoToDogMeat.Net, as well as these amazing organizations:

“We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals. Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it. Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.” – Albert Schweitzer

Finding Justice for Ronzo

Frightened, sick and in excruciating pain, the young Cocker Spaniel knew he was in trouble. Like most stray or abandoned animals in peril, he had sought out a quiet place to hide, in this case, a densely wooded area behind a row of houses, where he could stay concealed and as motionless as possible. But besides avoiding discovery, the dog had other reasons for keeping still – his fur was so matted that even the slightest movement shot waves of agony through his body as thick, tight tangles pulled and tore at his raw and wounded flesh. But while instinct told him to fight to survive, the young spaniel could feel himself growing weaker from the infection raging through his body. All he wanted was rest and relief from his misery.

Humans had never been kind to him, so when the little dog heard the sounds of footfalls approaching he became terrified, as the presence of people usually meant more pain. Peering between the long tendrils of fur that hung down over his tired eyes, he could see a figure coming toward him, someone holding a pole with a noose at the end. Too weak to run or fight, the dog warned the human to stay away with a few feeble barks and attempts to bite, but all to no avail. Within seconds that noose was tight around his neck – he was captured.

This is how Ronzo looked when he arrived at the Clayton County Animal Shelter.

This is how Ronzo looked when he arrived at the Clayton County Animal Shelter.

Such was the predicament of this young spaniel when he was found at the intersection of Bethsaida Rd. and West Fayetteville Rd. in Riverdale, Georgia on May 28, 2015. Although it is unclear if the dog lived at the residence near the woods where he was found, had been dumped or wandered there on his own, it was evident to the Clayton County Animal Control officer that this dog needed help, and fast.

“His condition was so horrendous that Clayton County Animal Shelter immediately called our rescue to ask if we could take him,” Jennifer Naujokas, a full-time volunteer with Angels Among Us Pet Rescue, explained. “It was evident that the dog had been severely neglected for his entire life – he was just covered in mats and was biting. His mats were so thick and bound to his skin that it appeared he had never been brushed. Cocker Spaniels require quite a bit of grooming and maintenance because of their beautiful, fast-growing coats – obviously whoever owned him didn’t pay any attention to this.”

In less than an hour, an AAU rescue volunteer had the newly named Ronzo en route to Peachtree Corners Animal Clinic, where he would receive immediate treatment and a much-needed shave. But once vet staff began removing the spaniel’s densely matted fur it became clear that the dog’s condition was much worse than originally anticipated.

A very sick and matted Ronzo on his way to Peachtree Corners Animal Clinic.

A very sick and matted Ronzo on his way to Peachtree Corners Animal Clinic.

“We started that process and then immediately realized what was going on,” said Peachtree Corners Relief Veterinarian Dr. Michelle Gardin in a recent TV news report on Fox 5 Atlanta. “There were literally thousands of maggots on this dog. It was very upsetting and very sad to see how bad he was.”

In dire need of emergency surgery and 24-hour critical care, Ronzo was rushed to BluePearl-Georgia Veterinary Specialists, where he underwent two surgeries over two days in an attempt to clean and repair the multitude of raw, open wounds covering half of his body and remove the hoards of maggots eating him alive.

“Once GVS got him somewhat stabilized they started the surgeries,” Jennifer continued. “He had maggots on his skin, inside his skin, inside his organs, just hundreds and hundreds of maggots, and every time they went in they found more. Normally they wouldn’t have done two major surgeries like that back to back but if they hadn’t done the second surgery he would have died for sure, so we had to take that chance.”

The sad and disturbing reality of Ronzo's condition after his coat was removed.

The sad and disturbing reality of Ronzo’s condition after his coat was removed.

Ronzo’s life hung in the balance, his chances of survival at 50/50. Strong pain and sedation meds, antibiotics and IV fluids coursed through his emaciated, wound-riddled body, fighting to stop the sepsis infection while helping to keep the poor dog more comfortable than he’d probably been in months. Despite his tragic state, he was a beautiful blue merle-colored spaniel, estimated to be only 10 months old – he was just a puppy! While his road to recovery would undoubtedly be a long one if Ronzo survived he had such a long life ahead of him, as Cocker Spaniels can live 16 years and longer.

After surviving the first night it seemed that Ronzo wanted to live. Besides lifting his head, he allowed a couple of AAU volunteers and vet staff to pet him. He had so many people rooting for him, including the rescue’s thousands of Facebook fans. Yet the happy outcome Ronzo so greatly deserved – that of a healthy, happy, beloved companion – was not to be. On May 30, just two days after his rescue, Ronzo’s broken little body shut down. He had crossed the Rainbow Bridge, finally free from his suffering.

As the story of Ronzo’s passing took wing across the Internet, cries for justice began to grow. Without missing a beat, AAU immediately turned its attention to finding the sub-human responsible for Ronzo’s abuse, neglect and untimely death. Soon a private citizen came forward, donating $1,000 to a reward fund for information leading to the arrest of Ronzo’s former owner, and not long after that, the Humane Society of the United States offered an additional $5,000.

Ronzo's reward poster

“We see many cases of animal abuse and neglect (but) Ronzo touched many of us because he must have suffered for such a long time,” said Debra Berger, state director of the Georgia HSUS. “While HSUS recognizes that money cannot undo the suffering that Ronzo experienced, we offer this financial contribution to the reward fund in the hope that the perpetrator will be found. The seriousness with which the Clayton County Police Department is pursuing this case leads us to trust that justice will be served and that the community will understand that animal abuse against sentient victims is a serious crime.”

Since then, AAU has been busy posting signs and flyers from Sandy Springs to Riverdale, while the Georgia HSUS is in process of issuing a nationwide press release in the hopes that someone will be willing to come forward and lead authorities to Ronzo’s former owner. Thus far, no legitimate leads have surfaced.

Although she is devastated that poor Ronzo couldn’t be saved, Jennifer says she remains more committed than ever to rescuing dogs like him, especially those from Clayton County Animal Shelter, a troubled facility notorious for its overcrowding problems, questionable euthanasia practices and sick and injured animals. In fact, the shelter recently experienced its fair share of bad publicity when an alleged outbreak of canine flu prompted the facility to euthanize 64 dogs in one day, causing a public outcry among Atlanta’s passionate animal rescue community

How Ronzo should have looked. Photo credit: maryscockerhaven.com

How Ronzo should have looked. Photo credit: maryscockerhaven.com

“If anything, Ronzo has only fueled my desire to save the dogs of Clayton County,” Jennifer said. “I want to continue rescuing and placing these amazingly wonderful dogs who, despite their neglect and abuse, are so awesome! Not only does this shelter have a huge pit bull population but they also have highly adoptable dogs with dire medical needs that a lot of rescues can’t take on. I estimate we’ve pulled over 1,000 dogs from that shelter in the last three years alone, many with serious medical cases, from parvo and pneumonia to needing limbs amputated. I don’t know why Clayton ends up with these huge medical cases but they do, so they’re always on my radar.”

Although all 50 U.S. states have felony animal cruelty laws, legislation doesn’t appear to be doing enough to deter our nation’s irresponsible pet owners and sociopaths from neglecting and abusing animals. If anything, the justice system remains slanted in favor of those abusive individuals instead of the innocent, defenseless and voiceless victims that so greatly depend on humans for their protection and care. But until animals are considered sentient beings rather than property, living creatures that deserve rights and protections from bodily harm just like humans, the abuse and cruelty will continue.

“I think it’s going to take more eyewitnesses caring enough to step forward (and report animal abuse),” Jennifer asserted. “I think a lot of people who know about, see or hear such abuse are scared to come forward. So it’s going to take the police to protect those citizens, let them know that they can remain anonymous, and give them some level of comfort that it’s okay to talk about it.”

Ronzo shortly before his passing.

Ronzo shortly before his passing.

While Ronzo’s short, unfortunate life may have come to an end, his story will live on, reminding all of us to be a voice for the defenseless and the voiceless, especially those victimized by abuse. Animal cruelty is a felony, so if you witness the abuse, neglect or mistreatment of an animal, don’t hesitate to call the police – they are there to protect you and that animal! And please, do not own a dog if you are not willing or able to care for it properly for its entire life – they are a big responsibility and their care can be costly, especially those breeds that require frequent professional grooming. As intelligent, sentient beings who experience emotions, dogs are pack animals that need to be with their humans. They suffer greatly when isolated, neglected, abused or abandoned.

“In all of my years in rescue, Ronzo’s story is one of the most horrific cases – I’ve never seen something so gruesome,” Jennifer said. “While the ultimate goal is finding the person who did this to Ronzo and putting them in jail, I’m hoping his tale will inspire people to learn about caring for their dogs, watch out for the dogs in their neighborhoods, and report something if it doesn’t seem right. We have to speak up for those that can’t speak for themselves.”

If you or anyone you know has any information regarding Ronzo and his former owner, please contact Jennifer Naujokas at 404-421-2971, jnaujokas@angelsrescue.org or email Angels Among Us Pet Rescue at info@angelsrescue.org. All informants will remain anonymous, however, the $6,000 reward will only be granted if the perpetrator is arrested. If you would like to help AAU rescue more dogs in-need like Ronzo, please consider donating to this amazing organization.

“I hold that, the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Volunteering With an Animal Rescue – How To Be of Service (Without Giving Up Your Life)

I absolutely adore pugs. Next to German shepherds and Great Danes, they are my all-time favorite breed. At the time I decided I wanted to get involved in dog rescue, I was living in another city that had one small rescue tasked with rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming the area’s neglected, abused and abandoned pugs. I had long admired this amazing little organization, so when I heard that its founders were moving out-of-state and searching for volunteers to take over the rescue, I jumped at the chance to get involved. I imagined how rewarding it would be to use my writing skills to help homeless pugs find loving families where they would be adored and cherished as much as my pug, Gizmo, was (and still is).

I remember showing up at that first meeting, so excited to be a part of something so meaningful and knowing exactly how I could best be of service – I would write and edit their quarterly newsletter. About two-dozen people were in attendance, all pug lovers like me who were passionate about seeing the rescue continue. Sitting in a large circle with snacks in our laps and drinks in our hands, we made quick work of getting down to business and in less than two hours had elected nine new board members, signed up several foster homes and had a newsletter team in place, the latter consisting of two other women and myself. As I walked away from the meeting I felt positive and hopeful that my skills would be useful and appreciated.

While I thought I had made it abundantly clear to the rescue’s leadership that working on the newsletter was all I could offer, as I had a husband, four dogs and two jobs taking up the lion’s share of my time and energy, within weeks that boundary began to crumble. Things at the organization quickly became complicated as our initially robust group of enthusiastic volunteers dwindled to just 12 core members and a handful of fosters. As a result, the group was having a hard time managing the deluge of homeless and often sick or injured dogs in desperate need of transportation, veterinary care and placement.

Photo credit: 3milliondogs.com

Photo credit: 3milliondogs.com

Wanting very much to help my new rescue colleagues through this tough period, I agreed to fill in the gaps and do whatever I could with what limited time I had, hoping that once the dust settled and more volunteers came on board I could go back to concentrating solely on the newsletter. But weeks soon turned into months, and any free time I could spare continued to be spent picking up and dropping off pugs, reviewing adoption applications, conducting pre-adoption home checks, attending rescue meetings and assisting at adoption events, not to mention helping out with our annual Halloween pug costume party, the rescue’s biggest fundraising effort.

Mind you, I’m not complaining, as much of what I experienced that first year was very worthwhile and rewarding. While there were plenty of upsetting moments, like witnessing the callous indifference of people and their lame excuses for surrendering their dogs – moving, having a baby, behavioral problems – the experiences I had and the lessons I learned were incredibly enlightening and valuable. It felt amazing to be able to deliver a sweet little pug to his forever home, seeing him welcomed by his new family and knowing that formerly abused or abandoned dog was destined for a wonderful life – I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything in the world. Yet as time passed I found myself stuck in a sort of “rescue vortex” from which I didn’t feel justified dislodging myself. No, I wasn’t doing nearly as much as my other rescue colleagues were – some of them lived and breathed pug rescue – but my home life was already strained and here I was running off to help other dogs when my own pups weren’t getting enough of my attention. While I knew the rescue needed me, I also knew that something had to give, and soon. But instead of finding a way to cut back on my volunteer time and return to my original intention, I began to feel greater pressure to give more of myself while at the same time feeling like no matter what I did, it simply wasn’t enough.

I had only been volunteering with the rescue for over a year and was already feeling burned out. I was so discouraged, as I thought volunteering with a rescue was supposed to be about helping dogs in-need, not about fitting in with a clique, pleasing people or going along with pack-mentality politics. No, I wasn’t a martyr and I never would be – I wasn’t like some of my rescue colleagues who seemed to take pride in bragging about how stressed, exhausted and over-extended they were rescuing pugs. While helping dogs was indeed important, I believed my life should come first. And I certainly couldn’t remember the last time I had felt any sense of gratitude from anyone in the group for what I was contributing, be it insufficient in their eyes. So I began to say no. And that’s when things started to go south.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the story – suffice it to say that my relationship with the pug rescue came to a close just a few months later and that our parting of ways wasn’t a happy one. I get it that I had been the weakest spoke in their wheel, that the rescue was small, understaffed and overwhelmed with dogs, and that the group needed core members willing and able to give more of their time, energy and passion to keeping the organization afloat. I had set myself up to fail by not speaking up, reasserting my boundaries and sticking to them. Being “nice” had backfired on me. Instead of the rewarding experience I had hoped it would be, my first volunteer effort with a dog rescue left me feeling unappreciated, slighted, used and discarded.

Photo credit: volunteer forever.com

Photo credit: volunteer forever.com

While it took almost seven years for me to want to get involved with rescue again, I didn’t let that first negative experience derail my passion for helping animals. Since then I have volunteered with a couple of groups and through trial and error believe I now know the difference between a legitimate, professional, well-organized rescue that deserves my freely given time and energy, and one I should avoid at all costs.

Animal rescue organizations are run by humans, humans have egos and often those egos get in the way of what those individuals are supposed to be doing – helping animals. From narcissists and martyrs to hoarders and control freaks, the animal rescue world does indeed attract its fair share of very “colorful” folks, particularly women with strong and emotional personalities. But while there are certainly plenty of groups to steer clear of, there are also myriad rescue organizations made up of wonderful individuals who always put the animals first and understand the incredible value of good volunteers. So while my story can serve as a cautionary tale for what not to do when volunteering with a rescue, it’s not meant to dissuade anyone from getting involved in such a rewarding and worthwhile effort.

So to ensure you have the best experience possible and are able to help the animals in the best way possible, here are a few things to keep in mind before volunteering with a rescue group:

Do your homework: Unfortunately, the non-profit world is full of scammers who will take full advantage of your generosity if you let them, so make sure you do your due-diligence and research the organization before getting involved. Make sure the group is a 501(c)(3), which means it has been approved by the IRS as a tax-exempt, charitable organization. While this doesn’t guarantee the group’s leadership is well-intentioned, it at least demonstrates that they were serious enough to undergo the extensive amount of paperwork and waiting time necessary to attain official nonprofit status.

Next, check out the group’s website and do an Internet search to see what has been written about them. How long has the rescue been around and how many people are involved? Does the group have a Facebook page, and if so, what are they posting and how many “friends” do they have?

“There’s always someone who’s going to write a bad review, but a larger rescue, especially one that’s been around for a while, is more likely to be in compliance than some smaller, no-name, nobody-knows rescue,” explained Danielle Kramer, a frontline animal rescuer who has volunteered with a wide array of rescue groups for over 20 years, including Angels Among Us Pet Rescue and Atlanta Boxer Rescue. “Not that small rescues are bad, you’re just going to want to do your homework and make sure you’re not working with an animal hoarding situation disguised as a rescue.”

She continued, “If you see a rescue group bashing other rescues, run because that’s not a good sign. That means that rescue is on a power trip and they’re not looking at the whole picture. It’s so important for rescues to be supportive of one another and not backstab each other because it’s not a competition. Good rescues will want to work with others with the same goal in mind – to save lives.”

Lastly, talk to someone who has worked with the rescue and ask plenty of questions, including, what are the group’s adoption procedures and are they in-line with those of other successful rescues? All good rescues will usually follow the same best practices, so make sure the rescue you’re interested in is following them, as well. Does the rescue provide training and/or supplies and is there a network of fellow rescuers you can rely on for support? If you’re interested in fostering, ask about their pre-screening procedures and how they handle any emergency situations. Information like this will give you a clearer picture of whether the group is run like a business or a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of operation.

Photo credit: patch.com

Photo credit: patch.com

Consider your commitment level: How much time you can devote to your chosen rescue group will depend on your lifestyle, so think about how many hours per week or month you’ll be able to commit. Responsible, reliable volunteers are a boon for any rescue group, so set yourself up to succeed by being clear about what you can or can’t do and stick to your boundaries. It’s always a good idea to start off small and see how you do rather than jumping in full-tilt and risk becoming overwhelmed, so consider sticking a toe in the water rather than swan diving into rescue.

“Some people can live and breathe rescue, while others may only donate an hour or two per month, but that’s equally important,” says Danielle. “No effort in rescue and no act of kindness is too small. Even if that means donating one bag of dog food, anything helps. Even if you can only do one home check once a month, that’s still one more home check and one more dog you’re helping.”

Figure out your ideal volunteer role: Consider what kinds of activities would be the best fit for you and stay true to your intentions. Would you prefer hands-on or behind-the-scenes activities? Do you want to work with a group of people or carry out projects on your own? Do you like structure or are you a self-starter? Do you like learning new skills or would rather stick with the abilities you already have? Are you able to foster animals, join rescue teams, or maybe just walk some dogs at an adoption event? Be clear about what you want to accomplish and never, ever be afraid to say “no.”

“If people want to help, it doesn’t matter what they want to do, especially if they’re new to rescue and don’t want to be on the frontlines, that’s okay,” Danielle said. “They can start off small, or even bring their kid to an adoption event so he can learn, go walk a dog or play with the rescue puppies – that’s such a great life lesson. Every position is important, no matter what it is, even if it’s only once a year – everything you can do helps!”

Photo credit: arlboston.com

Photo credit: arlboston.com

Decide if it’s a good fit: Your time and energy are valuable, so it’s important to select a rescue group that reflects your values, is made up of people you feel comfortable with, and is appreciative of your efforts. Notice, what is the overall “energy” of the group? Is it warm and friendly or does the dynamic feel cliquey like high school? Does the group express gratitude for what you’re able to offer or do you feel pressured to do more? Does the group work to resolve conflicts productively and diplomatically or are its members prone to petty arguments, gossip and backstabbing behavior? All that does is take the focus away from what the rescue is supposed to be doing – helping animals. So even if the group just “feels” wrong, don’t hesitate to walk away and look for another opportunity, one where your blood, sweat and tears will be better spent.

“A rescue should never guilt you into doing more than you want or can do,” said Danielle. “Who are you to judge what anyone is doing out of the kindness of their heart? It’s not fair for anybody in a rescue to be demanding of their volunteers because then those people will be turned off and never want to volunteer again. If a rescue is that desperate or struggling that much, walk away and find a different one because it’s probably going to be a negative, frustrating experience to work with them.”

I’m glad I didn’t let my negative experience with the pug rescue derail me from helping animals indefinitely. If anything, it only helped me identify what to look for and what to avoid in a group, while strengthening my resolve to find that perfect fit. Thanks to that hard but important lesson several years ago, I finally found a rescue group I enjoy working with whenever I have a chance, one that appreciates what I’m able to offer and whose philosophy aligns with my values. Best of all, I’ve met the most amazing, like-minded people, some who have even become great new friends. Volunteering with an animal rescue is so worth it. Imagine how many animals we could help if everyone did their part to pitch in and make a difference. What a better, more humane world that would be!

Photo credit: youtube.com

Photo credit: youtube.com

“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” – Mitch Albom

Hey, PeTA, Leave Those Pets Alone!

Unless you’re an animal lover who’s been hiding under a rock lately, you’ve heard about PeTA’s disturbingly high-kill rate at its Norfolk, Virginia shelter. We’re talking almost 90 percent. And if you’re like me you’ve probably been scratching your head in wonderment since you learned about these unsettling activities. Isn’t this organization called the “People for the ETHICAL Treatment of Animals?” How is euthanizing so many dogs and cats ethical? It seems completely counterintuitive to what PeTA professes itself to be – a passionate defender of animal rights.

As a former supporter of this organization, I was very disappointed to learn about its antiquated and drastic approach to dealing with unwanted, abused and neglected companion animals, a deadly practice that has evidently been going on for quite some time. It was very disillusioning for me, as I’ve always admired the amazing work PeTA has done to educate the public about animal abuse and expose the callous individuals and cruel industries that harm non-human species. From factory farming and fur to cosmetic testing and circuses, PeTa’s powerful investigations and public demonstration campaigns have been instrumental in helping to spread awareness, change behaviors and shift our society’s attitudes toward animals. The organization has been admirably relentless in driving the point home that animals do not deserve to be used, abused or enslaved by humans, and that we have no right to take their innocent lives. And for that reason, I became a believer.

PeTA demonstrators protesting the B.C. Dairy Industry Conference in Vancouver, Canada. Photo credit: straight.com

PeTA demonstrators protesting the B.C. Dairy Industry Conference in Vancouver, Canada. Photo credit: straight.com

But why is it okay for PeTA to preach about not killing cows, chickens or pigs, only to turn around and destroy thousands of dogs and cats at its “shelter,” a place that by definition should be safe, temporary home for animals offered for adoption? For the past nine years, PeTA’s adoption rate has hovered around a dismal 1 percent, while its euthanasia rate has remained frighteningly high. While the organization adamantly defends its high-kill practices, claiming its “shelter of last-resort” only euthanizes sick, old, injured, abused and neglected animals no one else wants, there is a plethora of evidence to the contrary, and it is troubling.

According to tragic, first-person accounts from former PeTA employees and watchdog groups, the well-funded organization is quick to dispatch healthy, young and adoptable dogs and cats alongside the sick and too far-gone, often within hours of obtaining them, while making no concerted effort to find the animals new homes. In some cases PeTA employees have actually stolen pets from their homes, only to euthanize them immediately.

Former PeTA activist, “D” (who wishes to conceal her identity, due to the fact that she fears repercussions from the organization) began distancing herself from PeTA once she learned about the nefarious activities at its Norfolk headquarters.

“I helped PeTA with an investigation against a factory pig farm,” D told me. “They ended up getting felony counts against the people who were abusing the animals, which was great (because) a lot of times these people just pay a fine, get a smack on the wrist and move on. In those days PeTA didn’t used to have a shelter or get into that kind of involvement, they were more about investigations exposing people and companies for how they were abusing animals. That’s the path they used to be on when I was with them years ago and I believed deeply in that until they turned hard right and started killing companion animals.

She continued, “I didn’t understand what they were doing. I’ve tried to take a step back and understand their mentality but I can’t. A 90 percent euthanasia rate contradicts everything they’re supposed to represent. And I don’t understand the concept of not wanting (adoptable animals) to become companions in really good homes, where they can get lots of love. It’s just really sad that PeTA has gone the route that they went. It’s disappointing on so many levels and I think they’ve lost a lot of supporters because of it.”

Hoping to interview people with first-hand knowledge of PeTA’s Virginia operations, I reached out to an animal rescue friend who works with two former employees of the Norfolk shelter, but she said they were uncomfortable speaking to me, even anonymously. Like others who have worked for PeTA, they feared the organization’s intimidation tactics, designed to silence those who speak out against it. Although I was disappointed, as it’s going to take more than one or two brave souls to come forward and convince skeptics that this animal rights behemoth is indeed flawed and in dire need of culture reform, I understood their resistance to speak.

Another innocent life stuck in a municipal animal shelter. Photo credit: rosyandrocky.com

Another innocent life stuck in a municipal animal shelter. Photo credit: rosyandrocky.com

You have to wonder what lies at the heart of such a hypocritical ideology that would condemn killing animals used for food, clothing, entertainment and experiments, yet condone and willingly execute the mass slaughter of dogs and cats. Again, this is coming from a donor-funded entity claiming to be a leading defender of animal rights. Could it stem from the fact that PeTA doesn’t “believe” in pet-keeping, as its website clearly states, or its skewed philosophy that dogs and cats are “better off dead” than homeless or neglected?

I agree that the pet trade causes its fair share of suffering, especially at the hands of irresponsible, selfish and cruel humans who systematically contribute to the abuse, neglect and over-breeding of companion animals, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t multitudes of kind, responsible people who deeply love their animals and are willing to do whatever it takes to provide them with safe, healthy and happy lives. We pet parents love our fur babies and it’s fair to say that our “children” love us, too.

Companion animals have been with us for thousands of years and they’re not going away anytime soon. Yes, we have a global dog and cat overpopulation crisis – there is no denying that sad reality. But this is a man-made crisis that must be solved by those who created it, and murdering almost 3 million dogs and cats in our nation’s shelters every year is not the solution. There are way too many people on this planet, many of them suffering in poverty, yet would any civilized society find it morally or ethically acceptable to euthanize them? The innocents in this cruel equation should not be the ones paying the ultimate penalty.

While PeTA’s shelter isn’t the only high-kill facility in this country euthanizing healthy animals, most municipal shelters at least try to give the dog and cats in their care a chance at finding new homes, be they brief windows of opportunity. Then there are those good-intentioned shelters working very hard to reform their operations, reduce their kill rates, increase their adoptions, and even go “No-Kill.” Yes, our animal sheltering system is indeed flawed and in need of strong and expedient reform, but we must also remember that these facilities are our nation’s pet dumping grounds tasked with “cleaning up” the mess our irresponsible and negligent public has created.

There has got to be a better way. We can’t just keep killing hoards of dogs and cats year after year, and we can’t continue to allow people to get away with abusing, neglecting, abandoning and not sterilizing their animals. We’re not going to rescue our way out of this problem but neither are we going to euthanize our way out of it. Surely the solution lies in stronger legislation along with progressive educational efforts and community services, including pushing adoption as the most attractive way to obtain a pet; comprehensive and enforceable spay and neuter laws; stronger anti-cruelty ordinances and expanding free or low-cost spay and neuter services funded by higher breeder licensing fees. But until those solutions create a sea change in pet owner behavior, countless rescues, shelters and humane societies will be forced to deal with our pet surplus problem to the best of their abilities.

This is NOT the solution! Photo credit: mindwatch.com

This is NOT the solution! Photo credit: mindwatch.com

The word “ethical” is defined as, “pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct.” Clearly, there is nothing ethical about PeTA’s systematic destruction of healthy, adoptable companion animals. Aren’t animal protection organizations supposed to protect animals? An organization can’t expect to survive by maintaining a philosophy so diametrically opposed to what it’s supposed to be championing.

The good news is that the Commonwealth of Virginia appears to have said, “enough!” to PeTA’s bloodthirsty behavior. On Feb. 23, the Virginia House of Delegates passed SB 1381, which clarifies the purpose and definition of an animal shelter, requiring state facilities to be “operated for the purpose of finding permanent adoptive homes.” This means that when this law goes into effect in July, PeTA’s Virginia facility will have to become a true shelter that actually houses and adopts out animals or get out of the shelter – and euthanasia – “business” entirely. We who love dogs and cats can only hope that this new law will actually bring an end to the indiscriminate killing machine the Norfolk operation has become, perhaps incentivizing its leadership to shut it down completely. But while I imagine PeTA will choose to adjust its tactics rather than distance itself from companion animals entirely, the organization will certainly have a long way to go in improving its tainted reputation and regaining the trust of the dog and cat-loving public.

PeTA, do the dogs and cats of the world a favor and leave them to the rescue organizations and shelters that “believe in” companion animals, support responsible pet parenting and actually want to help the homeless find loving, forever families. Those homes are out there, people just need to be convinced that rescue and adoption is the best and most rewarding way to acquire their next companion. So leave the homeless dogs and cats to the kindhearted rescuers, those tireless saviors who aren’t daunted by the injured, abused or neglected, who believe that every animal is worth saving.

It’s one thing to euthanize animals who are suffering and beyond help, but it’s another to destroy healthy and adoptable animals who have every potential to live long, happy lives as beloved family members. The good PeTA does for other animals does not balance or cancel out the harm it has been inflicting upon dogs and cats, and for too long. It’s simply homicide. Or rather, “PeTAcide.”

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” – St. Francis of Assisi

My Evolution From Dog Owner to Dog Mom (and How I’m Trying to Forgive Myself for the Mistakes I’ve Made With Dogs In the Past) – Part 2

Our ranch wasn’t the same without Samson. For several days I walked all over our property and rode the length of the canyon, calling his name and looking everywhere, all to no avail. Certainly, our faithful Dane hadn’t run away. Sam had always been good about staying close to home and wasn’t prone to wandering off like Harley used to (had Harley been neutered we wouldn’t have had that problem, but my dad believed neutering “ruined” a dog). It just wasn’t like him to take off, and coupled with his strange behavior over the past few weeks I knew something was wrong. Still, I hoped that somehow Sammy would find his way back to us and all would be well with the world again.

About a week later Temptor and I were coming home from an afternoon trail ride, the light turning golden as the sun headed toward the eastern horizon. Although I always loved our quiet excursions in the mountains, our rides weren’t the same without Sammy, and I think even Temptor missed him, too. That day I had decided to take a different path home and enter from the front of our ranch, up alongside our property line to a small gap in the fence at the top of a hill, where I wouldn’t have to dismount and unlock any gates. But as we were trotting past a large clump of Sumac bushes a foul smell hit me. Suspecting what it was but hoping I was wrong, I pushed Temptor into a canter and rushed him back to the stable, where I quickly dismounted and tied him in a stall. He protested a bit, as he didn’t understand why I was straying from our usual post-ride routine, but I knew I needed to get back to those bushes and find the source of that odor, and as soon as possible.

As I ran through the front paddock, climbed through the fence and approached the giant Sumac I was once again hit with the strong stench of rotting flesh. The bushes were so thick I had to pull and push my way inside, which I hated doing, as ticks like to hang out in Sumac leaves. But I pushed forward, and as I did the smell grew stronger. And that’s when I saw Sam, lying in a small clearing at the base of the bushes.

I didn’t have a clear view, as I would have needed to crawl on my belly to get much closer, but as I crouched down and peered through the branches, I caught sight of that distinctive blue merle coat, those floppy ears, the black leather collar and silver tag. As I stared harder I noticed Sam’s skin appeared to be moving – maggots were making quick work of what was left of him. Tears welled up in my eyes. There was no point in trying to get closer or move him – the overgrown Sumac bushes were to be his final resting place.

So I went home and told my parents and my sister, who cried inconsolably, as she’d always loved her “Whammy.” Our Sam, our best ranch dog, was gone. He hadn’t run away, he had run off to die by himself. We thought he had simply passed away of old age, another Great Dane gone before his eighth birthday.

It wasn’t until many years later when I briefly worked as a veterinary technician in my late 20s and learned how canine periodontal disease can lead to heart disease, that I realized what had actually happened to Samson. Bacteria from the infection in his mouth had most likely traveled to his heart and caused endocarditis, or inflammation of the heart valves, which led to inevitable heart failure. And while large, big-chested breeds like Danes can be prone to heart disease, what had happened to Sam could most likely have been prevented through basic dental and veterinary care. Yes, he had already been old for a Dane and may have only had another year or two left, but at least we could have made sure he died painlessly and peacefully rather than sick, weak and alone under a Sumac bush.

Realizing all of this was a “live and learn” moment for me, but one that came at a big price. I became wracked with guilt, believing I was responsible for Sammy’s unnecessary suffering and untimely demise. I had seen the state of his mouth, and yet I had said and done nothing. For years I would punish myself whenever I thought about Sam, dwelling on how much he’d suffered and feeling like a terrible person who had neglected and abused her dog. It probably wasn’t productive to beat myself up about it over and over, but it served as a huge lesson I will never forget.

My thoughts began to turn to the other animals that had come and gone in my life, some before and after Sam, creatures I thought I’d cared for to the best of my abilities. Yet when I thought about how they’d lived and died, I wondered if I hadn’t let them down, too. I had never hurt any of them intentionally, but like Sam, there were some who had probably suffered due to my ignorance, selfishness and indifference. I began to doubt myself, picturing all of those sweet faces and thinking back on how I had treated them, some better than others. Thus began a shifting of my consciousness, one that took many years and a lot of self-examination. But ultimately, it took a very special teacher to help me evolve from a pet owner to a true pet parent.

Everything changed when a German shepherd named Max came into my life. He belonged to a man who later became my husband (and ex-husband nine years later) and was one of the most regal, intelligent and loyal dogs I had ever met. I had always admired GSDs – their intellectual capacities, their beauty, their fierce devotion to their families – but had never had much contact with them, and in a sense, Max was my baptism to the breed. Sort of a baptism by fire.

Max was wonderful but he had some serious faults. He was extremely fear aggressive toward other dogs, and very wary of strange people (he would actually try to bite them if they weren’t introduced “correctly.”) Mike had raised Max from a six-week-old pup and adored the dog but he had made a series of socialization and training mistakes that resulted in Max’s chronic behavioral problems. Consequently, being out in public was never a fun time with Max, so Mike simply avoided taking the dog anywhere where there would be people or other canines. But despite those great inconveniences, Mike was the most dedicated dog owner I’d ever seen, always going out of his way to meet Max’s needs, keep him happy and out of trouble.

I had never lived in an apartment (or inside any dwelling, for that matter) with a dog before, and when I would get annoyed that Max was always in my face or irritated with how he limited our social life, Mike would remind me that while Max had his faults, he was our responsibility and we were his pack. Max was “a person” who had feelings, and his feelings mattered.

Through Max, I learned how to truly understand, care for and love dogs as I never had before. I’d always thought of myself as an animal lover, yet I came to realize there was a big difference between someone who “owns” a pet and someone who “parents” one. While Max definitely tested my patience, especially when he’d freak out trying to get at another dog when we were out on a walk, when we’d come home from long hours waiting tables to find diarrhea all over the carpet, or when we couldn’t have people over because he couldn’t be trusted – indeed that was not endearing. But as time passed and I learned to have empathy for Max, I slowly became more patient, tolerant, and compassionate. Learning to appreciate and understand Max opened my heart in a way it had never been before, and when we brought Hugo, a gorgeous little GSD puppy, into our lives a few years later, my heart simply swelled with love. I became a Mommy, plain and simple.

But all these years later I admit I am sometimes haunted by the animals of my past. Perhaps it’s not uncommon for people who’ve had animals all their lives to feel sadness and shame for how they may or may not have treated their pets, especially if those people had to go through a long learning curve like I did. When my thoughts return to Sam I am still prone to pangs of regret, wishing I could have saved the loyal Dane who needlessly suffered as a result of my ignorance.

Figuring I could use some professional advice, I talked to Susan Lovell, Ph.D, a psychologist who runs a private practice counseling adults and couples in Santa Monica, California (full disclosure: my aunt). She told me there are two kinds of guilt – persecutory guilt, which is a neurotic state of mind in which people have an overwhelming sense of guilt for situations they’re not actually responsible for, and reparative guilt, in which a person feels remorseful and regretful about an action that hurt or injured someone else and wants to take action to make amends (perhaps something as simple as saying, “I’m sorry”). What I needed to do, she recommended, was move from the former to the latter.

“Getting over the guilt you feel will require you to move from the understandable guilt of having hurt something you loved, even if it was inadvertent or from ignorance, and turning it into a form of repair in which you take actions to ensure that it hopefully won’t happen again,” Dr. Lovell said. “While it’s important to understand the state of mind you had at the time and forgive yourself, understand that you will always have regret. The issue is not letting the regret stop you from moving forward.”

And so I have made the decision to do just that. While I will always feel badly about Sam, I cannot change the past, I can only learn from the mistakes I made and allow him and all the other animals who have walked through my life to leave their indelible paw prints on my heart. Animals don’t live in the past and neither should I. Instead, I will let their memories inspire me to not only be a better caretaker and dog mom, but also a better human being. I now embrace the belief that animals are not less-intelligent creatures that exist for our pleasure or to suit our purposes, but are sentient beings who feel emotions, form attachments, experience pain and deserve respect and protection.

Today, my three dogs definitely benefit from what I have learned and who I have become. While I’m far from perfect (sometimes I still get impatient and raise my voice when they do something really aggravating), I consider them my children who deserve all the love, care and consideration I can possibly give them. I go out of my way to meet their physical, emotional and mental needs, and when I can prevent or stop their pain or suffering, I do it without hesitation. I will never let what happened to Sam happen to them.

While I will always wish I could have been a better guardian of the animals of my past, all I can do now is keep growing, continue learning, do my best and give back. I have become a voice for the voiceless and know without a doubt that making the world a safer, more compassionate place for animals is indeed my true calling in life. I think Samson would appreciate that.

That sweet Sammy smile.

That sweet Sammy smile.

“Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains un-awakened.” – Anatole France

My Evolution From Dog Owner to Dog Mom (and How I’m Trying to Forgive Myself for Mistakes I’ve Made With Dogs In the Past) – Part One

Samson was a blue merle Great Dane and my best trail dog. There wasn’t anywhere my horse and I could go where he wouldn’t follow. The lady who owned the Appaloosa farm down the road gave Sam to my family after our first Great Dane, Harley, had to be put to sleep when his hind end “gave out.” Harley was the funniest, most wonderful dog and only eight years old when he died. I guess that’s why Great Danes have been dubbed “the heartbreak breed,” because they’re such amazing dogs that live terribly short lives. I’m sure there’s more we could have done medically to keep Harley comfortable and extend his life, but in those days it seemed like a lot of people simply “let nature take its course” with their animals. It was the early 80’s, when most pets weren’t viewed as children like they are today. Especially out in the canyon where we lived, a dog got old and it died or you dropped it at the vet and ended its suffering – end of story.

So we got Sammy. I think the breeder wanted to get rid of the young dog because he was too submissive and she preferred more protective Danes that could guard her giant herd of high-bred spotted horses. The ranch had recently gone through an attempted horse-napping, with the thieves rounding up and dumping their dogs miles away so the criminals could return to the scene and steal the choicest horses undisturbed. Sammy had been one of those dogs, and as a result, had been deeply traumatized by the experience. But we were happy to take him off the woman’s hands, as my dad’s heart was broken over losing Harley and wanted very badly to fill the hole our late harlequin had left in his wake. In fact, I don’t think Dad even waited a day between putting Harley down and bringing Sammy home.

Harley the harlequin. My dad never got over losing him.

Harley the harlequin. My dad never got over losing him.

Sam wasn’t the outgoing, silly clown Harley had been, but he was sweet and loving and adjusted to life on our ranch very quickly as if he’d lived with us his whole life. Having grown up with horses and an array of other animals on the Appy farm, Sam was a natural around our four cats, six chickens, one rooster and even our little African pygmy goat, Nadia (in fact, before long Nadia became convinced that Sammy was her new boyfriend – suffice it to say it got “weird” at times). But he was especially comfortable around Temptor, my Appaloosa gelding who had a sly, cranky side he sometimes liked to take out on dogs. As he had with Harley, Temptor took great pleasure in chasing Sam out of his paddock, ears flattened, teeth bared and nostrils flaring as he charged the rapidly retreating canine. But Sam, ever the sweet, gentle subordinate, never seemed to take it personally and would return to my horse’s side again and again, hoping to finally be accepted into his “herd.” Eventually, I think Temptor just gave up and let the dog be.

Dogs love routine, and every morning it was Sam’s job to accompany me to the stable for our daytime feeding ritual. I’d open our kitchen door and there would be Sam, patiently waiting with that big, droopy smile, his long, whip-like tail wagging slowly to and fro. He loved hanging out and sniffing around in the tack room while I measured out Temptor’s breakfast into a bucket, then trailing me to the paddock and standing close as I dumped the contents into my hungry equine’s feed bin. Sam didn’t mind that he always ate last. He was just happy to be a part of it all. He was a ranch dog, plain and simple.

A young Samson.

A young Samson.

Before long the gentle Dane had also memorized my riding routines. He knew the difference between a weekend and a school day, and that when it was summer every day was a riding day. On afternoons after school, when I’d only have an hour to ride before starting my homework, Sam would follow us out to the flat area in our big pasture, where I’d put Temptor through his paces in a large circle. Meanwhile, Sammy would entertain himself by hunting for rabbits or ground squirrels in the long field grass or dozing under a nearby tree. But on weekends or summer days, Sam knew that two hours after Temptor’s feeding we’d be ready to prepare his buddy for a trail ride. Ever the patient gentleman, Sam would lie close by as I curried and brushed Temptor’s brown and white coat to a gleam, head between his giant paws, amber eyes following my every move. But once the saddle was on and I had my boot in the stirrup, the enthusiastic canine was ready to go, leaping to his feet and excited to perform his favorite job – trail guide!

Throughout most of my adolescence, I can’t remember a time when Sam wasn’t there on the trail with Temptor and me. Nothing made him happier than leading the way or picking up the rear as the three of us ventured over miles of fire roads and meandering trails through the sagebrush-covered mountains or down to the beach south of Paradise Cove. Like Temptor, the dog had amazing endurance and could trot or lope alongside us for long stretches of time and distance, maybe stopping here and there to investigate a scent or chase something furry, but otherwise perfectly content to amble along on our rambling adventures.

An older Sammy.

An older Sammy.

On weekends and during the summer months we’d meet up with my girlfriend Catherine and her little brother Eric and their horses for all-day excursions, which usually turned into racing contests. As we’d gallop along like The Wild Bunch, young and crazy and fearless, Sammy would always manage to keep up with us with his long, loping strides, all the while managing to stay clear of all three sets of thundering hooves. Sometimes we’d pack a lunch or head back to Catherine’s ranch for a light meal under the oak trees, Sam lying in the cool grass and waiting for me to toss him a few morsels. He was a good dog and my buddy and I couldn’t imagine going on a ride without him. Then one day he just stopped coming along.

It happened almost overnight, the change in Sammy. I first noticed something was off when I was heading out for a quick afternoon ride after school and noticed Sam wasn’t trotting alongside in his usual place. I turned around in the saddle and saw him heading in the opposite direction, toward home. Confused, I called his name once, then twice, but he just glanced back at me and kept going. When I yelled at him to “come” he started running faster, probably thinking he was in trouble. But whatever the reason for his strange behavior, it wasn’t like him to cut a ride short. When I returned home an hour later, Sam was lying by the kitchen door as if nothing had happened, ears back and tail thumping on the cement as I walked up, perhaps hoping I’d forgiven him. He was seven years old now and his muzzle was almost completely gray. But wasn’t he too young to be slowing down just yet?

Sam, the greatest ranch dog in the world.

Sam, the greatest ranch dog in the world.

Lately, I’d noticed he hadn’t been eating as much and had lost some weight. Still, he’d always been a lanky Dane. The Blue Jays always seemed to be finishing Sam’s food instead of him, making a ruckus as they dive-bombed his food bucket and flew away with giant chunks of kibble in their beaks. At that time gourmet, premium or holistic dog food wasn’t exactly commonplace, or even available, I imagine. Like most dogs at the time, ours ate good ole’ Purina Dog Chow, the kind of cheap kibble I wouldn’t dream of letting my dogs eat now. I can only imagine what was in it – corn, wheat, soy, artificial coloring and preservatives and cheap meat by-products from unknown sources. Sam might as well have been living on junk food. Still, he’d always been a good eater, until recently.

It was only by accident that I noticed the dog’s mouth. Maybe I smelled a foul odor when I knelt down next to him, or maybe as I stroked his face I moved his jowls and caught sight of his teeth, I’m not sure. But I remember doing a double-take and pulling his lips back, exposing teeth coated in thick brown tartar and red, inflamed gums. At 18 years old, I knew nothing about canine dental care and had never heard of anyone having their dog’s teeth cleaned by a vet. I’d noticed Sam’s tartar-stained teeth before, but the situation had obviously grown worse. But like most minor problems our animals had from time to time, from fleas and hot spots to little cuts and abrasions, I figured Sammy’s mouth would just heal up on its own. And though his gums definitely didn’t look right, I simply ignored the issue, figuring it was just a typical condition some dogs developed from time to time. I don’t know why I didn’t say anything to my parents. I wish I had. I wish I’d known enough to put two and two together, that the reason Sam didn’t want to go on rides anymore was due to the raging infection in his gums, which by then was probably destroying his heart. But I had no clue that my dog was showing signs of heart disease, I just thought he was getting old and tired. Three months later, Samson disappeared.

It Takes a Village to Help Animals In Need

When Rachel Meier took a job in Rome, Georgia, it wasn’t long before she suspected that something wasn’t quite right in the neighborhood behind her workplace.

“I’d walk out to my car every day and would hear lots of dogs barking, at least ten different dogs,” Rachel told me. “I didn’t think it was normal, so I got in my car and started driving around and I was like, oh-my-God!”

As a four-year cat rescuer with Angels Among Us Pet Rescue, Rachel has seen her fair share of animal abuse and neglect, but she wasn’t prepared for what she witnessed just footsteps from her job – dozens of skinny, chained dogs with no food, water or shelter in filthy, trash-littered backyards, and tons of thin, scruffy cats wandering loose between the houses and along the streets. With winter just around the corner and temperatures about to drop, Rachel knew she had to do something to help these desperate animals, and fast.

For those of you who have never heard of Rome (not to be confused with the capitol city of Italy), it’s a small, rural city 65 miles northwest of Atlanta with a large working-class population. Twenty percent of its citizens live below the poverty line. And if people aren’t able to provide for themselves, then you can pretty much guarantee they’re not properly caring for their pets. Such was the case in the disadvantaged community Rachel had inadvertently stumbled upon.

Without missing a beat, the young rescuer immediately reached out to one of her volunteer friends, purchased some straw bales and bags of pet food, and began canvasing the neighborhood, knocking on doors and offering supplies to anyone who needed them. Thanks to the two kindhearted women, several dogs and cats had softer places to sleep and full bellies that night. But Rachel knew just one random act of kindness wasn’t going to suffice – there was too much need in this community to walk away now. With visions of all those neglected dogs and cats haunting her thoughts, she went home and started to rally her troops. And thus, the Rome outreach and rescue effort was born.

The fifth Rome outreach mission group. From left to right, back row: Meaghan Sopata, Lindsey Kirn, Rachel Meier, Monica Wesolowski, Emily Chason and Jordan Gilchrist; front row: Danielle Kramer, Nick John, Jennifer Naujokas, Lucero Hornedo and Allan Brown.

The fifth Rome outreach mission group. From left to right, back row: Meaghan Sopata, Lindsey Kirn, Rachel Meier, Monica Wesolowski, Emily Chason and Jordan Gilchrist; front row: Danielle Kramer, Nick John, Jennifer Naujokas, Lucero Hornedo and Allan Brown.

By the time Rachel was ready to make her second and third visits to the neighborhood, fellow AAU volunteers Danielle Kramer, Monica Wesolowski and Jennifer Naujokas were on board. And once they witnessed the desperate state of the animals for themselves they, too, became deeply committed to the relief mission.

But in order to pay for all the pet supplies the impoverished community desperately needed, including food, doghouses, straw bales, flea, tick and heartworm preventative, toys and other accessories, the group had to find funding. And that’s where the magic of social media came in.

“We started posting on Facebook among our circle of Angels volunteers, emailing and calling folks and contacting local (pet supply) stores,” Danielle explained. “We asked Petsmart and Petco for expired food and began working with two Tractor Supply Co stores in Canton, which were amazing. They gave us a huge box of toys, cedar shavings, flea and tick treatments and de-wormers, just tons of stuff. We got a lot of donations from the Angels volunteers and started stockpiling supplies.”

Once word spread of the Rome effort, other Angels volunteers jumped on board to pitch in, and before long the group grew from the four core members to a dozen volunteers.

“This is the fifth trip where all of us have been together,” Danielle said. “So far I think we’ve rescued about 40 dogs from the area and helped about 100 animals. We’re trying to get more and more organized and we’ve learned a lot through trial and error, but no matter what, if we’ve helped one (animal), we’ve done well.”

Another lonely, chained and attention-starved pit bull in the more “sketchy” part of the neighborhood. His owner never bothered to come out of his house to see what we were doing. The poor dog cried as we left.

Another lonely, chained and attention-starved pit bull in the more “sketchy” part of the neighborhood. His owner never bothered to come out of his house to see what we were doing. The poor dog cried as we left.

As a long-time admirer of AAU and all the amazing work they do to rescue, rehabilitate and rehome dogs and cats in the Atlanta area, I jumped at the chance to join the group and experience the outreach effort for myself. It was inspiring to be in the company of such generous, compassionate individuals who love animals as much as I do, people more than willing to get up early on a weekend and devote an entire day to helping pets in need.

So last Sunday morning I found myself gathered with the group at our meeting place in the Rome Home Depot parking lot, some of us sipping coffee, all of us prepared to get dirty. It’s obvious these people have developed a close affinity, as there were plenty of smiles, laughter and hugs to be had as everyone greeted each other. After briefly discussing our itinerary, which included visiting and dropping off supplies at approximately 15-20 homes in three neighborhoods, we loaded up on straw bales and caravanned toward our first destination, our five trucks and SUVs packed to the gills with food and supplies. From the moment we arrived at the first neighborhood, it became glaringly obvious to me why this outreach mission needs to exist.

In most disadvantaged communities here in the south, I imagine that most animals live pretty much the same way as they do in the low-income neighborhoods of Rome. While there were a few exceptions, the majority of the dogs we visited lived on chains, often in dirty or overgrown backyards where they received very little human interaction. Forget about going on car rides to the dog park, sleeping on comfy couches or being part of a family – most of these dogs had nothing except for a dilapidated, makeshift dog house, if they were lucky. Fencing is expensive, and since many of the people don’t allow their dogs indoors – especially the large dogs – these animals are simply left outside to brave the elements and “guard” their owners’ property.

While most of the dogs were initially defensive when we approached (being tethered makes dogs more aggressive and protective of their space), once they realized we were there to give them treats, food and attention, the majority of them melted into friendly puddles of wiggling, wagging, squealing love, simply starving for attention and drinking up every ounce of it.

Allan and a sweet blue pittie who was so excited to see us he almost knocked us over!

Allan and a sweet blue pittie who was so excited to see us he almost knocked us over!

“This effort is so important to me because I’ve seen a change in these animals,” Rachel told me. “I see in their eyes how appreciative they are and how much even the small things we do for them mean. I’ve seen ‘ferocious’ dogs turn into playful puppies and sad, frightened puppies turn into happy, bouncing, playful things. I believe every animal has a soul and every creature deserves love and happiness, so I want to bring it to these poor souls in any way that I can. They deserve better than what they were dealt and if I can’t physically remove them from the situation and place them in a better one, then I at least want to better their lives in some way.”

As we slowly drove down the streets, stopping at homes and meeting with pet owners the core group had established relationships with, people came out of their small, rundown homes to greet us, some of them with wide-eyed children in tow. Most of the pet owners asked for dog or cat food and appeared genuinely appreciative for the help, some smiling with gap-toothed grins, their weathered faces glowing like kids on Christmas morning.

Meanwhile, Rachel moved about with laser-like focus, calling out to us for different supplies, making sure every pet household got what they needed and making note of what she’d need to bring next time. Danielle and Jennifer appeared to be more of the diplomats of the group, engaging with the people and gently advising them about proper pet care when it seemed appropriate to do so, all without sounding judgmental or superior. I was so impressed with their patience and restraint.

“A lot of these people are very receptive (to the information we give them) but you do have to be very careful in how you educate them because we are guests in their neighborhood and it’s easy to offend anybody,” Danielle told me. “No matter what your personal emotions are about something, you have to speak to them with respect. If they don’t want us in this neighborhood I guarantee you there will be folks who won’t allow us here.”

Lucero and Lindsey checking out a puppy with an open spay suture - at least her owner had her spayed. Too bad she already had her outside on a chain, though.

Lucero and Lindsey checking out a puppy with an open spay suture – at least her owner had her spayed. Too bad she already had her outside on a chain, though.

As the morning turned to mid-day, it seemed to me like every family we visited either had a tethered, sick, injured, pregnant or nursing animal. Even though low-cost spay and neuter is indeed available in many communities here in Georgia, few of these people seemed to know about these services or simply hadn’t taken advantage of them. As a result, some homes we visited were simply overwhelmed with too many animals, including one house with two female dogs that had both given birth a couple of weeks apart, resulting in 13 canines under one roof. Another family had been living with 15 small dogs in a tiny, 800-square-foot house and were relieved at the concept of surrendering a few of them to us. When the woman became teary-eyed at the reality of parting with “her babies,” we assured her they would all go to great homes.

Due to the fact that AAU now has upwards of 800 animals in its system, the rescue asks that volunteers make every effort to secure a foster home before accepting an owner surrender so the animal has a safe and secure place to land. While the group tends to rely mostly on AAU for taking any surrendered pets from the community, it also works with a couple of other rescues, including Road Trip Home Animal Rescue, which transports dogs out of Georgia and into regions with higher demand for rescue pets, and Furkids, another amazing local organization that focuses on rescuing cats and small dogs.

Once the woman agreed to surrender five of her 15 dogs, Jennifer and Danielle began a flurry of text messages with their foster network, trying to find placement for the scruffy terrier mixes. Mission accomplished, we loaded the pups in crates and packed them in the back of Jennifer’s SUV, quietly jubilant that these lucky dogs were now headed for much better prospects.

The rest of the day became a blur of more desperate dogs on chains, more litters of puppies or dogs with puppies on the way, cats running around everywhere, none of them fixed, one of them badly injured. One skinny, chewed-up looking tomcat ran up to me as I took a break by Danielle’s truck, crying beseechingly as if he knew I was there to help him. I quickly opened a can of cat food and sat by the skinny feline as he enjoyed his meal, yellow eyes glazed over in contentment. He reminded me of a tiger-striped cat I had had as a child and a wave of melancholy washed over me.

The thin and battle-scarred tom cat enjoying his meal.

The thin and battle-scarred tom cat enjoying his meal.

I must admit it was challenging to not feel animosity toward the people for the neglect we continued to witness, house after house, street after street. But once you started talking to them and looking into their eyes, you realized that most of them were actually kind people who cared about their pets, they just didn’t know any better or simply couldn’t afford to take better care of them.

“A lot of the way these people treat their animals comes out of ignorance – nobody ever taught them how to properly care for an animal,” Danielle explained as we drove to the next street. “Some of them think they’re doing right by them, like, ‘yes, my dog is chained outside, but I feed him.’ They simply don’t understand.”

It makes sense that if you don’t have enough money to take care of yourself and your family, you’re probably not going to spend what little you do have on veterinary care or premium food for your dog. So if your dog gets sick, pregnant or goes without a meal, that’s just how it is, and the animal has to live (or die) with its lot in life. Yes, maybe I am different in that I have always put my animals first, and if I couldn’t afford to properly care for a pet I wouldn’t have one in the first place, but not everyone thinks that way. And therein lies the emotional and mental torture of rescue – enduring the ignorance of human beings and the intentional or unintentional cruelty they inflict upon their pets.

Looking around, watching all these wonderful volunteers bedding down new doghouses with straw, petting dirty, neglected dogs and spooning cans of cat food into bowls for hoards of hungry kitties, I had to wonder, when does this end? As long as these people are living in poverty, so will their animals. So is it realistic for Rachel and her group to just keep coming out here month after month, year after year, and if so, is that really going to solve anything in the long run? Wasn’t this mission like putting a Band-aid over a much deeper, larger wound?

This desperate little Chihuahua couldn’t stop barking with excitement when we arrived. A dog like this belongs on someone’s lap, not on a tether.

This desperate little Chihuahua couldn’t stop barking with excitement when we arrived. A dog like this belongs on someone’s lap, not on a tether.

“I would like to see tethering laws as well as laws for spaying and neutering to end the vicious cycle of overpopulation, euthanasia, and homelessness, but until that happens I will continue to help,” Rachel said. “I have an amazing group of people who help me, from monetary, food, toy and medication donations to physically going out here and ‘getting dirty.’ I can’t do it without this group and so as long as I have their support and can physically and mentally do this, I will.”

Since irresponsible pet ownership and indiscriminate breeding are the main culprits of our pet overpopulation problem, it is indeed spay and neuter (and in my opinion, mandatory spay and neuter) that will ultimately solve this crisis. And that’s why one of the main objectives of the Rome group is to help the community stop the vicious cycle of litter after litter of puppies and kittens being born into poverty and neglect.

“We have approximately 20 or so dogs that the owners would like to have spayed and neutered – that is huge!” Jennifer exclaimed. “This is the first time we’ve heard such glorious of words of wanting to stop the cycle in this community. We are going to work very hard to find a spay and neuter vehicle to come out here in a few weeks.”

As the day wound to a close, I have to admit I was feeling somewhat zombie-like. How many more sad, lonely pit bulls would I see chained in dirty backyards, leaping excitedly at the prospect of any shred of loving attention from a human being? I wanted to take every one of them home with me, especially a blonde and white little girl whose soulful eyes pleaded with me as if to say, “please get me out of here.” It was torture to walk away from her. I haven’t been able to get her out of my head since.

This is the sweet blonde and white pit bull who touched me deeply. She’d obviously been bred numerous times.

This is the sweet blonde and white pit bull who touched me deeply. She’d obviously been bred numerous times.

“Not everybody can do this,” Danielle told me frankly as we drove away. “You have to be emotionally able to handle what you’re going to see and you have to be mentally and emotionally prepared for it. I would welcome anybody who would want to come out and do this but when people ask me about it I’m very honest with them. I tell them, ‘this is what you’re going to see, this is what it’s going to be like and it’s not the safest environment.’ It’s a great feeling to be helping and bringing supplies, and even though you can’t take that dog you’re making its life as comfortable as you can. But the hardest part is when you’ve got to walk away and you see those eyes watching you and they’re looking at you like, ‘come back!’ That’s the part that can haunt you.”

As someone who has always had an affinity for animals and has dedicated her life to spreading awareness about the cruelties non-human species face, I am very grateful to have had such an experience with an incredible group of fellow animal lovers. I walked away with a better perspective and understanding for what frontline rescuers are up against in this region, especially in disadvantaged communities where animal husbandry appears to be two or three decades behind the times. Ignorance begets ignorance, and while many of these people may mean well, they are simply victims of poverty and poor education, plain and simple. Surely these humans deserve our compassion, too.

But ultimately, stamping out animal neglect in our country, whether in rural southern communities or elsewhere, will ultimately come down to enacting stronger anti-cruelty legislation. No community should allow the indefinite tethering of a dog, under any circumstances. But until practices like this are outlawed and people are punished, their behaviors won’t change and the changes won’t be lasting.

“The biggest thing for Rome right now would be anti-tethering laws because all of these dogs are on chains, so that would eliminate that,” said Danielle. “Either you bring your animal inside or you don’t have one or you’re going to keep getting cited and fined, which a lot of these folks can’t afford. That’s where it will start – they’ll have to be held accountable for how they treat their animals. So it’s baby steps toward a bigger picture, that’s what this mission is.”

But until local lawmakers become inspired to enact tougher laws to protect the interests of animals, people like Rachel and her passionate group of kindhearted volunteers will continue to pick up the pieces, either removing animals from the community or helping the remaining ones live more comfortable lives. It may seem like one drop of water in a huge ocean of need, but even small steps can make a difference, even if it’s one pet and one pet owner at a time.

According to the family of this Australian shepherd/cattle dog mix, once the puppy is big enough he’ll be living outside (on a chain, no less) because he’s “too active.”

According to the family of this Australian shepherd/cattle dog mix, once the puppy is big enough he’ll be living outside (on a chain, no less) because he’s “too active.”

Although I highly recommend participating in a community outreach mission with a local rescue group, it’s definitely not for everyone. Improving the lives of animals doesn’t necessarily mean you have to “get dirty” or even donate money. Here are some other ways you can make a difference:

  • Become a foster parent: Rescues are teaming with animals who need safe, loving and secure foster homes where they can be cared for, socialized and nurtured until they find their perfect forever homes. Fostering animals is so rewarding and while it can be sad to say goodbye, you can rest assured knowing you’ve played a crucial role in helping that animal along its path toward the amazing life it deserves.
  • Get up and do something: Anybody can sit back, judge and point fingers. If you don’t like the way animals are treated and you want to see a change, become the change. Write letters to your local legislators, start an online petition, volunteer at your local shelter, donate supplies to a rescue organization or spread the word about animal welfare on social media.
  • Be kind and help out: If you notice someone neglecting their dog, instead of judging or quietly despising them, ask the person if they need a bag of dog food, a $5 bail of straw or a doghouse. Remember, it’s about helping that animal, not whether you like that person or not. And who knows, maybe that individual could use your help, too? No random act of kindness is too small, so just do it.

“Animals don’t have a voice, we are there only voice,” Rachel said. “You can’t just think, ‘someone else will help,’ you have to help and in any way you can. Speak out if you see abuse. Start an outreach program if your community needs it – it’s easier than you think. There are people everywhere who are willing to help, and the difference you will make for the animals will be more than you could ever imagine.”

If you’d like to help this amazing group continue their mission helping the disadvantaged animals of Rome, please go to the group’s GoFundMe page – every little bit helps!

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

What Happens To All the Pretty Horses (When They’re No Longer Wanted) – Part Two

I will never know for sure what happened to Siri, but as the years went by and I learned more about what happens to unwanted horses in this country, I began to put two and two together as I mulled over my experience with the man in the white cowboy hat. And that’s when I came to a terrible realization – that man had likely been a “kill buyer,” someone who made his living gathering up horses from random sources and selling them to slaughterhouses. He had thought nothing of taking an unwanted pony from a gullible child. And I had willingly given Siri to him.

A kill buyer is a special kind of heartless individual whose main goal is to fill up his trailer with as many horses as he can cram inside, preferably healthy equines that will fetch the best price per pound for their meat. Scumbags like him typically frequent livestock auctions, buying mass quantities of horses at unbelievably cheap prices. Whether they’re sleek hunter jumpers, pregnant mares, draft horses, retired racehorses or innocent foals cast off by the Pregnant Mare Urine (PMU) industry (producers of the estrogen-replacement drug Premarin®), he doesn’t give a damn. His goal is to load them up, get them to the nearest slaughter plant and collect his money. So what if the horses starve, suffer or fall and break their legs during the long, stressful journey? He doesn’t care. He’s a calloused jerk.

The terrified eye of a horse headed to slaughter. Photo credit: rtfitchauthor.com

The terrified eye of a horse headed to slaughter. Photo credit: rtfitchauthor.com

I realize that people have to do all sorts of things to survive in this world, but I will never understand the mindset of a person who profits from suffering. Maybe the man in the white cowboy hat thought he was doing an important service, taking unwanted horses off of people’s hands, including mine. I’ve often wondered if he felt any twinge of guilt as he drove away with Siri, a bratty little pony who had done nothing wrong but simply end up with the wrong owner. I doubt it. He was probably just thrilled with his good fortune of stumbling upon a free, healthy pony he could turn around and sell for a bigger profit. Never mind that Siri was only 12 years old and had many years of life left in him. To him, my pony was just another way to line his pockets.

According to the USDA, approximately 92 percent of American horses that end up going to slaughter are healthy and would otherwise be able to continue leading productive lives. While horse slaughter has been illegal in the U.S. since 2007, killer buyers are still out in full force, transporting mass quantities of horses over our northern and southern borders to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, which supply the horsemeat trade in Asia and the European Union. Last year alone, more than 140,000 American horses were slaughtered for human consumption in foreign countries including Japan, France, Belgium and Switzerland, where horsemeat is considered a delicacy.

Where no horse deserves to end up. Photo credit: rtfitchauthor.com

Where no horse deserves to end up. Photo credit: rtfitchauthor.com

The problem is that, as with dogs and cats, horses have become disposable. While most people consider equines companion animals rather than livestock, they are also used for entertainment, sport and financial gain, making them commodities that are only useful if they’re winning prizes or making money. And in order to create that perfect reining horse or racing champion, horses are being overbred, often indiscriminately. But if they don’t perform or race well, or aren’t born with the right color or conformation, those “surplus” animals are simply discarded, thrown out like yesterday’s trash.

As two of the biggest groups responsible for our surplus horse problem, Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred breed associations register over one million foals a year, making it no surprise that the majority of U.S. horses ending up in slaughter plants are Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds. To add insult to injury, these breed groups are often comprised of folks who would rather support horse slaughter – a convenient and profitable avenue to legally dispose of their equine rejects – rather than take personal responsibility for their animals. So these magnificent creatures, who have done nothing wrong except to grow older or not meet their performance expectations, are rewarded with terrible, inhumane deaths at the hands of foreign slaughter plants.

How many of the racing industry's

How many of the racing industry’s “losers” will end up going to slaughter? Too many! Photo credit: clockworkhare.com

Hopefully, all of that will change with the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, which, if passed, would prevent the transport of American horses across U.S. borders, thus keeping them out of the slaughter pipeline. One of the arguments supporting this bill is that since American horses are not raised for food and are often given a wide variety of drugs and veterinary treatments over the course of their lives, their meat poses a risk to human health. While SAFE, which was introduced on March 12, 2013, in a previous session of Congress, was sadly not enacted, it was just reintroduced last week under bi-partisan support.

So once this bill becomes law (fingers crossed), and once slaughter is no longer a convenient “dumping ground” for unscrupulous breeders and owners, what does our country do with all the unwanted horses? While there are a plethora of amazing horse rescue organizations tirelessly working to save as many homeless equines as possible, can we really rescue our way out of this problem? I doubt it.

Then there’s the option of human euthanasia. If given no other choice, most loving, responsible horse owners would rather put their horses to sleep than have them end up at a slaughter facility, right? Certainly, I would rather have had Siri put down by a veterinarian rather than give him to that poor excuse of a human being with dollar signs in his eyes. But what do you do when euthanizing one horse can cost upwards of $300-$800 and you’re stuck with a stable-full of old, chronically injured or unwanted animals no one will buy and no rescue can take?

Horses crammed together in a livestock auction holding pen. Photo credit: markamerica.com

Horses crammed together in a livestock auction holding pen. Photo credit: markamerica.com

Since I’ve been out of the horse world for many years, I figured I should get an educated perspective from someone who understands the current state of affairs when it comes to this topic. So I consulted with Darrith Russell, a long-time horsewoman and rescuer who is also the co-founder of Bearfoot Ranch, a non-profit therapeutic equestrian center and rescue facility for abused or neglected horses here in Georgia. Needless to say, I got quite a reality check.

“It’s literally a war,” Darrith said. “The recession hit us really hard and a lot of horses were misplaced, with not enough homes for all of them. I was glad to hear there were no longer slaughterhouses in the U.S., but after going through the recession and seeing what happens when there are no places for horses that are broken, old and nobody wants, it really does sort of change your mind. You start looking at it and going, ‘what’s worse, death or starvation?’ So it really has presented a problem with the horse industry and a bad one, and the ones that are suffering the worst are the animals themselves.”

She continued, “I can’t tell you how many people have called me in tears because they have this horse they’ve raised from a baby who they absolutely love, but they’ve lost their job, their home, they can’t feed the horse and they have no recourse. So you know what happens to those horses? They go to auction and from auction they might go to some breeder who buys them for a bargain and thinks they’re going to breed them and make money. So now you have crossbred horses that aren’t worth anything, basically just dog food on a hoof. Horse slaughter is sad but I have to say I’m not totally against it, I’m against the cruelty of it…that just horrifies me.”

A typical livestock auction. Which of these fine people are

A typical livestock auction. Which of these fine people are “killer buyers?” Photo credit: regardinghorses.com

While Darrith said she absolutely agrees with stopping the pipeline of American horses going to slaughter in Mexico and Canada, she does think there needs to be a more humane alternative for unwanted horses, especially for economically strapped owners who don’t have the financial resources to euthanize their expensive pets.

“Another problem is the chemicals that are used to stop a horse’s heart are not exactly environmentally friendly and make (the meat) unusable for anything else,” she said. “So what are we going to do? We can’t just be burying a bunch of horses everywhere. It would be better for us to come up with a different system for humane slaughter so that we’re not scaring the animals, so we can put them down gently and then recycle – that would be a perfect scenario. A lot of people won’t be able to do it, it’s not for everyone, but it’s a better scenario than what we’re doing right now. None of it’s good, but the thing to do is to try to have a better solution so we can do the best we can with a bad situation.”

While I may not agree with this line of thinking – I personally don’t believe there is or can be such a thing as “humane slaughter” – I respect Darrith’s views as an experienced, passionate and dedicated horsewoman and rescuer and can understand how those on the front lines of the unwanted horse predicament might have more pragmatic views. But instead of coming up with a “gentler” way of killing these animals, why not prevent the problem entirely? She couldn’t have agreed more.

“We need to do the same thing the European Union has done and register breeders,” Darrith said. “You need to have a permit to breed, so it costs you to breed and you have to be a recognized breeder or you don’t breed, period. That money would go directly to support rescue organizations, and there would be a pool of money for people to pull upon if they (need help with unwanted horses). So I think stopping the river at the source by passing legislation for breeders and limiting the amount of breeding going on would be the best place to start.”

What should be the fate of all horses - a safe retirement.

What should be the fate of all horses – a safe retirement.

As with our dog and cat overpopulation problem, irresponsible, indiscriminate breeders are indeed at the heart of this equine crisis. Ultimately, stopping this cruel cycle of abandonment, abuse and inhumane death is about holding these individuals accountable for the animals they are mass-producing and discarding at alarming levels. Like puppy mills, there is nothing humane about churning out mass quantities of animals for profit without any regard for their health, welfare or future wellbeing.

But until things change, if ever, the unwanted horse problem will persist. Too many horses will continue being born, too many will become homeless, and too many will end up on foreign dinner plates. Those industries and individuals who use and discard horses for their own gain, all while calling themselves “horse lovers,” should be ashamed.

Like dogs and cats, horses are considered companion animals deserving of humane consideration. They may play important roles as working and sporting animals, but they are not commodities and they are not bred or raised for food. Horses are living, breathing, sentient beings with a high degree of physical and emotional sensitivity and we have an ethical and social responsibility to protect them from neglect, pain and suffering. And when it’s their time, we owe it to our horses to help them leave this earth with grace and dignity. Certainly, my long lost pony deserved the same.

Forgive me, Siri, for not knowing any better, for not doing enough to protect you from what I believe may have been your terrible fate. You were a bratty, pain-in-the-butt pony, but you certainly didn’t deserve to suffer or die because of it. Had I been more aware I would have done anything to make sure you were safe, even if that meant keeping you for the rest of your life. But I don’t have a time machine, so all I can do now is try to warn other people so they don’t make the same mistake with their horses. You were a good boy and I’m sorry for my childish ignorance. Many years have passed, yet the image of you being driven away in that man’s trailer still haunts me. I can only hope that your last hours were tolerable and that your death was swift. I hope you never knew what hit you.

Photo credit: stophorseslaughter.com

Photo credit: stophorseslaughter.com

Want to help stop horse slaughter? According to The Horse Fund, you can:

  • Support organizations working to end to horse slaughter.
  • Be a responsible horse owner.
  • Sponsor a horse in a rescue or sanctuary.
  • Think before you breed. Adopt from a rescue or sanctuary instead.
  • Set up a special bank account to pay for humane euthanasia by a veterinarian and disposal of the remains.
  • Say no to Premarin® and Prempro®. Take a safe alternative that is not made with pregnant mare’s urine.

And lastly, pick up the phone and urge your U.S. Senators and Representatives to protect America’s horses by supporting the SAFE Act!

To learn more about horse slaughter and what you can do to stop it, visit the HSUS and check out their Horse Slaughter Facts page.

“People don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.” – Friedrich Nietzsche