The Yulin Hangover – Will This Cruelty Ever End?

Once again, another Yulin dog meat “festival” has come and gone. For the sixth year in a row, pet meat enthusiasts converged upon the small southern Chinese city to “celebrate” the summer solstice by gorging on heaping plates of cooked dog flesh and lychee fruit. Right alongside them, and more than happy to put a damper on the festivities were the local and international animal activists who’ve made it their mission over the past several years to protest the festival, record the carnage, and save dogs from the butcher’s block. Meanwhile, animal lovers throughout the globe signed petitions, donated to anti-dog meat campaigns, and watched with outrage as the notorious event unfolded yet again.

Although Humane Society International claims that the festival has grown smaller and more subdued over the past few years, down from killing an estimated 10,000 dogs at its height in 2012 to approximately 1,500 dogs, some activists have expressed concerns that butchers have merely taken their brutal activities underground, making it difficult to know just how many dogs – most of them lost or stolen pets – are actually being slaughtered.

But just a month later, it’s back to business as usual for the dog meat trade in Yulin. The dust has settled as media have moved on, international activists have turned their attention to other heated issues, and global interest has waned. The festival has done nothing but put a black mark on China’s reputation, sparking intense domestic and international condemnation, yet while the local government has distanced itself from the festival, it has so far made no attempts to ban it.

Dogs on trucks-HSI

Dogs languish in a meat truck as they wait to be unloaded into the festival. The majority of dogs used in the Chinese meat trade are lost and stolen pets that are often transported for long distances to rural areas where dog meat is in demand. These shepherds could have been trucked for several days across the country to Yulin, without food, water, or rest. (Photo courtesy HSI)

As someone who has been researching and spreading awareness about the dog meat trade for over three years now, I have to wonder if things are getting any better for animals in China. Are we any closer to seeing an end to this festival of death and abuse, and a criminal industry estimated to murder 10 million dogs a year, in a nation that sorely lags behind other developed nations in animal welfare?

For answers to that loaded question, I consulted three experts who have made it their mission to document, expose, and fight animal cruelty throughout Asia – a front-line rescuer, a photojournalist and videographer, and an official from a leading international animal welfare organization. All three attended Yulin this year and were kind enough to share their experiences, thoughts, and ideas with me, including where they believe the dog meat trade is headed in China.

Chinese protestors-HSI

Chinese activists speak to the media at the Yulin festival. According to Humane Society International, the movement against the dog meat trade in China began as a grassroots movement from within the country. (Photo courtesy HSI)

Marc Ching arrived in Yulin with a very lofty goal – to document the atrocities, raise global awareness, and decrease the supply of dogs to the festival. As the founder of the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation, a small Los Angeles-based rescue group that saves dogs from abuse and torture situations, Ching has made it his mission over the past year to rescue dogs from the meat trade throughout Asia and expose the industry for what it is – barbaric, cruel and criminal.

Six weeks prior to the festival, Ching journeyed to Yulin with the intention of doing something no other anti-dog meat activist has attempted thus far – to convince slaughterhouses to suspend their operations during the festival. After much financial bargaining, six of the 11 operators he met with agreed. However, when Ching returned to Yulin two days before the event to shut them down as planned, he realized his rescue mission was going to be a much bigger undertaking than originally anticipated, as those six operations had 1,000 dogs between them – dogs with nowhere to go.

What followed was a whirlwind rescue operation, culminating in just under 300 dogs being taken to three temporary shelters Ching had set up in Nanning and Guangzhou, 120 to an HSI shelter in northern China, and the rest to the Tree of Life in Guangzhou and Gaoyao.

For more details about this massive rescue, please go here. You can also check out more images and video on the Animal Hope & Wellness Facebook page.

Dogs in cages-Yulin 2016-AH&WF

Stressed and exhausted dogs await their fate in a meat cage. (Photo courtesy Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation)

But while Ching received overwhelming encouragement from his supporters, he found himself the target of strong criticism from domestic and international rescue groups strongly opposed to activists purchasing large numbers of dogs from meat traders. To drive this point home, Animals Asia, an international animal welfare organization that works to end the dog meat trade in Vietnam and China, released an open letter in conjunction with 35 China-based rescues, urging animal rescuers to abstain from buying dogs from the event, and citing the practice as counterproductive and damaging to the growing anti-dog meat movement within the country (Founder Jill Robinson also released a very insightful article several days later that explains her organization’s stance on how to most effectively end the festival and the trade).

Although Ching wholeheartedly agrees that paying off dog meat traders and butchers is not the solution to stopping the trade, he passionately defends his actions at Yulin.

“I don’t support the buying of dogs, and I didn’t go there to (do that), it was a consequence of temporarily shutting down those slaughterhouses,” he explained. “I couldn’t leave those dogs behind. If I had, the whole world would have slandered me and they would have had just cause to do so. When you’re a spectator it’s easy to (criticize what I did), but until you’re in that moment, with dogs screaming and dying, you really can’t say anything.”

Meat stand-Yulin 2016-Martyn Stewart

A typical dog meat vendor on the streets of the Yulin festival. (Photo courtesy Martyn Stewart)

As someone who wasn’t well-versed with the inside politics of large animal welfare groups, Ching said he found his interactions with them before and during the festival incredibly eye-opening and disillusioning, in that many seemed more concerned about elevating their profiles and pandering to donors than the welfare of the dogs.

“Before I went to Yulin, I reached out to all the big groups and said, ‘help me, and if you disagree with me, teach me and help me to be better,’ but everybody said no, so I went in and did what I felt I had to do,” he remarked. “I’m sure they thought, ‘look at this guy trying to be famous from doing this, he’s trying to bloat his image,’ but they don’t understand what I’m all about, or what I’m trying to do, or that I’ve destroyed my life for this. When you document torture for a living it’s a heavy burden to bear.”

Despite his less-than-positive interactions with humans at Yulin, Ching says he’s satisfied with what he and his volunteers accomplished, whether anyone agrees with his tactics or not.

“The typical Chinese method is to stop trucks, then test dogs for disease, but they’ve been doing this for the last 5-10 years,” he asserted. “I respect those groups that have that opinion, but you can’t do the same thing every year and expect a different result. In the field, in war, you do what you have to do to save lives and you do your best. Because of our Foundation, lives were saved and incredible awareness was raised. The goal is to end the festival, and to show that change is possible.”

Check out the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation’s Compassion Project PSA, which was released prior to Yulin:

 

Although Martyn Stewart also disagrees with activists buying dogs from meat traders, he does believe that every dog deserves a second chance. After all, he happens to be the proud dad of a Tosa mastiff rescued from a South Korean dog meat farm last fall by HSI. As a veteran sound recordist, videographer and photojournalist, Stewart has documented myriad examples of animal cruelty throughout the globe, including the dog meat trade in South Korea and China, but had never had the chance to attend Yulin until this year.

“I did a story for the BBC on the night of 21st, and stayed for several days afterward to see what was happening,” he explained. “I went into the dog meat markets and shot video of them chopping dog carcasses up, and filmed inside a slaughterhouse. We walked through restaurant after restaurant after restaurant full to the gills with people eating dog. The stench was horrible, and in the heat and humidity, it just stays with you in your nose.”

Like most activists who’ve been following the horrific event for several years, he expected the scene to reflect what he’d read in the media. But in the end, what he experienced turned out to be a bit different from those exaggerated reports and embellished truths.

“A lot of newspapers across the world were trying to sensationalize things, trying to make one isolated story, and hype it up to the point where it wasn’t really true,” he said. “There wasn’t all this aggression, all this in-your-face, no people trying to smash my equipment, as I’d been warned. There was some of that, but certainly, there were no ‘Angels of Yulin’ flying into the festival with capes on their backs and flying out with dogs. To me, Yulin appeared to be a pop-up activist’s dream for those trying to make a name for themselves, but at the detriment of the animals.”

Check out Martyn’s video of the festival (note: there are some disturbing images but no footage of dog slaughter):

 

On a positive note, Stewart felt encouraged by the conversations he engaged in with several Yulin citizens, most of whom didn’t like the idea of eating dog, as well as butchers who said their businesses had taken a drop in sales due to all the activism, outside pressure, and the government no longer endorsing the event. He had good reason to be optimistic – a recent survey commissioned by HSI shows that 64 percent of Chinese citizens between the ages of 16-50 would support a permanent end to the Yulin festival, that nearly 52 percent want the dog meat trade to be banned, and almost 70 percent claim they’ve never eaten dog. Still, Stewart admits that any expectations he’d entertained about Yulin being canceled next year were dashed by the sheer magnitude of the event.

“I went to Yulin convinced this would be the last because of all the hype and the pressure, but after seeing the reality of the festival and the extent of the dog meat being eaten, you realize that if this is the end, something miraculous has got to happen. Ending it has to come from within China, and legislation has to be put in place, which takes time, so thinking you’re going to go in there and close it all down in space of a few days, that’s not realistic. We have a million miles to go before we can even start to consider ending this festival, and Yulin is just another extension of somewhere else.”

Dog meat traders-Yulin 2016-Martyn Stewart

Dog meat traders count their spoils. (Photo courtesy Martyn Stewart)

Peter Li, China policy specialist for HSI, has a more hopeful outlook about the impending demise of the dog meat trade in China. As someone who has attended Yulin for three years in a row to research, document, and expose the festival, as well as rescue small numbers of dogs and cats, he believes the government is closer than ever to not only banning the barbaric festival, but also the industry (he breaks down the history, practices, and attitudes about the Chinese dog meat trade in this must-read article).

“In China, we don’t need more laws to shut down the dog meat trade,” he explained. “If the government enforced its existing laws and regulations, the trade would be dead. China is the only country among all the major developed nations that doesn’t have animal protection laws, so it’s about 194 years behind the rest of the industrialized world. We will continue to encourage them in enforcing existing laws, and press on for animal protection legislation there.”

But going the slow, legislative route toward permanent change can take years, if not decades to accomplish. Meanwhile, untold millions of dogs (and cats) will continue to die to satisfy the nation’s small minority of pet meat enthusiasts. When faced with that overwhelming thought, isn’t it understandable that front-line activists and rescuers would feel driven to go into blood spectacles like Yulin and save as many lives as possible?

Dogs on moped-HSI

Another common sight at Yulin – sick, stressed and dying dogs arriving at the festival crammed into cages on the backs of mopeds. This horrible industry has been directly linked to rabies outbreaks in humans, a common health problem in regions where the trade is most common, such as Yulin. (Photo courtesy HSI)

“No system of slavery or oppression should be allowed to continue, and we all wish this trade could be ended overnight,” he said. “But we agree with the statement that Animals Asia put out that animal welfare groups should not buy dogs in great numbers on the festival day, and in competition with other groups. That gave dog meat traders the opportunity to practice extortion by raising prices. They were doing it last year and the year before, brutalizing and humiliating activists who were buying dogs, and threatening to torture the animals if the activists didn’t pay top dollar for them.”

He continued, “We do not accept animal suffering, and I cannot agree more that we should stand up to be the warriors for animals, but there are different ways to solve these problems. Incremental change and progress will lead to the ultimate demise of the industry, and we have seen great changes in the last few years.”

According to Li, the Yulin government publicly disassociating itself from the festival in 2014 was a big step toward shuttering the festival, as is the tremendous domestic and international pressure that continues to come at the city from all sides. But for the first year ever, the Yulin controversy reached Chinese President Xi Jinping in the form of a formal resolution drafted by U.S. Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-Fla), and a letter from HSI – along with the signatures of 11 million people from around the world – calling on China to shut down the festival and ban the trade. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

120 dogs at HSI shelter-HSI

A few of the 120 dogs HSI took on from Marc Ching’s 1,000-dog rescue, resting up at the organization’s shelter in north China. All will eventually be placed in loving homes in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Some very little pups indeed! (Photo courtesy HSI)

The hope is that the Yulin government will finally wake up and realize that the damage the festival has caused to its city and country’s reputation is no longer worth the trouble. But until that happens, it’s important to understand that China’s dog meat problem goes way beyond one annual festival, said Li.

“Yulin is just a tiny part of China’s criminal dog meat trade,” he asserted. “HSI has been in China for the last decade, and we’ve been fighting a war against Asia’s dog meat trade on many different fronts and levels because we believe this trade is a comprehensive challenge. There is no quick solution. (An animal welfare organization must have a presence) in China all year long and the strategy has to be multi-layered and leveled.”

Although we may still have quite a distance to go until the pet meat trade is extinguished and buried in the history books as yet another shameful practice we humans once condoned, I remain hopeful that China is indeed on its way to becoming the more compassionate society it has every potential to be, for both animals and humans. Banning the Yulin festival will be an important first step in repairing the country’s global reputation, and demonstrating its intention to catch up with the rest of the developed world in animal welfare.

But before we westerners go pointing fingers and condemning other countries and cultures for their inhumane practices, let’s look in the mirror and take responsibility for the cruelties we inflict upon animals day after day in our own respective countries, whether in factory farming, puppy mills, entertainment, or the fur trade. Why is it okay to judge others for eating dogs or cats, when we greedily consume billions of chickens, cows, pigs and sheep (the U.S. and Australia hold court as the largest consumers of meat per capita) every year? Don’t we inflict plenty of pain and suffering upon these poor, sentient beings behind the closed doors of our nation’s slaughterhouses?

Dogs in cagest-Yulin 2016-Martyn Stewart

The faces of the condemned at the Yulin festival. No innocent being deserves such a fate. (Photo courtesy Martyn Stewart)

It’s easy to get riled up about the Yulin dog meat festival, but keep in mind that this one event, horrible as it is, is only a small extension of a massive, 365-day industry that also thrives across other Asian countries including South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Stopping it won’t come from without, from westerners expressing outrage and telling these cultures what they can or can’t eat, but from within. Although we don’t hear about them due to the country’s highly censored internet, there are countless Chinese animal welfare groups made up of incredibly dedicated activists who have been diligently working for years against a system designed to support the exploitation and persecution of animals. They are the unsung heroes in this fight, and we must support their efforts whenever possible.

If you’d like to help end the dog meat trade in China and Asia, do your research and only support licensed charities that are open and transparent about their mission; have a verifiable track record of how they use their funds; don’t make a practice of bashing other rescue groups, and always make the animals their top priority.

We humans have created every single animal welfare problem that exists on this planet. We have been ignorant, selfish, entitled, and delusional in believing animals were put on this earth to serve our purposes, do our bidding, and “give up their lives” for our gastronomic pleasure. It’s time for our species to wake up, grow up, and start viewing animals for what they are – intelligent sentient beings who deserve to live out their lives in safety and peace. As our voiceless brothers and sisters with whom we share this beautiful planet, they deserve our guardianship and respect. It’s the least we can do for them.

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” – Albert Einstein

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Frisky – A Cautionary Cotton Tale

For months I’d been begging my dad for a puppy. Ever since I’d seen “Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World,” I’d had my heart set on an Old English Sheepdog, just like the one in the movie. I was convinced that getting one would make me the happiest seven-year-old in the world. But no matter how hard I pleaded, Dad flat-out refused (in retrospect I’m grateful he did – a large, high-energy herding dog with endless grooming needs would have been a huge mistake). After all, once my dad made up his mind it was pretty hard to change it.

Knowing how much I wanted a pet of my own, my parents relented, just a little. After all, it was time for me to learn some responsibility. So while a dog or a cat was out, they compromised on a rabbit, figuring a bunny would be an easy “starter pet” that wouldn’t take up too much space, make any noise, or require a lot of time or effort.

So just a few weeks before Easter, my mom took me to our local pet store to pick out a bunny. I remember walking past the rows of wall display cages full of puppies and kittens and to the back of the store, where the baby rabbits were kept in a large wire playpen. And that’s when I saw him – a beautiful little Dutch rabbit with a brownish-gray and white coat, running around the pen doing “binkies” while all the other bunnies just sort of laid around listlessly. Mom suggested I name him Frisky. So we took him home.

The concept of companion animals living indoors was not yet commonplace or much of a consideration when I was growing up in the 1970’s – most pets lived in the backyard where they “belonged.” Thus, Frisky was relegated to living outdoors in a small wire cage behind the garage, with no bed to snuggle in, no toys to play with, no hay to munch on, just a ceramic bowl full of bunny pellets, a water bottle, and full exposure to the elements, which were luckily pretty mild in Santa Monica.

It must have been an extremely boring, monotonous and lonely life for such a smart, inquisitive and playful little being as a rabbit. But such was Frisky’s lot in life with his new family, to stare helplessly out at the world through walls of wire as he waited for me to show up and relieve him from his confinement for a little while, only to be returned to his small prison and left alone again. Eventually my mom hired our handyman to build Frisky a hutch after he began growing out of his cage, and while he now had more space and a roof to protect him, he was still living outside on wire flooring with nothing to entertain him. But this was simply how people kept rabbits in those days. We didn’t know any better, nor did it ever occur to us to do anything differently – it was “normal.”

Frisky & me

Me giving Frisky a bath – a huge no-no in rabbit care. According to the House Rabbit Society, rabbits groom themselves like cats do, and don’t need to be bathed. In fact, full-body baths can be extremely traumatic for a rabbit and can put them into shock. Luckily Frisky survived his many warm-weather bathings.

While other little girls played with dolls, I played with Frisky – he was a far more interesting toy! As a result, my poor bunny was often subjected to a host of indignities, including being dressed up in bonnets, bathed in a bucket, carted around in my sister’s baby carriage, and being forced to ride in my bicycle basket while I cruised around the neighborhood (without any restraint to protect him from jumping out, which he did on many occasions). Another favorite pastime of mine was to make him to lie in my arms like a baby while I fed him carrots. Sometimes he’d scratch and kick himself free, but mostly he’d just give in and let me do what I wanted. I’m not sure if he was just a very sweet, patient bunny or if I just wore him down.

But for me, an often lonely little girl without many friends, Frisky was everything. He was there when I’d had a bad day at school and just wanted to lie in the grass next to him, pet his silky fur and forget about the world. He was there when I’d gotten in trouble with my parents again and needed to vent about how unfair they were. He was there to listen to me tell stories or sing songs from some of my favorite Disney movies. He learned to come when I called him and he was funny, mischievous and very entertaining. One of his favorite pastimes was raiding my mom’s vegetable garden, and he made me laugh when he’d run up to me after feasting on strawberries, his bunny lips scarlet with berry juice. As the weeks, months and years went by, he made me forget all about that Old English Sheepdog I’d wanted so badly.

When my family moved to the canyons of Malibu in July 1977 I figured Frisky would love it there, with so much more room to run and an even larger vegetable garden to invade. We placed his hutch next to the stable, where he would have a good view of the house and be in the middle of all the action, so he would never be lonely. But our first summer in the canyon was a warm one. I didn’t know how easily rabbits can die of heatstroke, and I thought nothing of the fact that his hutch was exposed to full sun in the late afternoon hours. He was dead within weeks. I was devastated, blissfully unaware that his demise could have been easily prevented. After all, when cared for properly and allowed to live indoors, rabbits can live ten years or more. Poor Frisky only made it to his third birthday.

I’ve written about this before – the regret I feel for the mistakes I’ve made with the pets of my past. And while I’ve been working hard to stop beating myself up, learn from my mistakes and become the best pet parent I can possibly be, it still bothers me when I think about my poor, sweet, neglected little rabbit, baking to death in the hot summer sun.

Despite the fact I’m not currently in the position to bring another bunny into my life, I wanted to learn more – to basically retrace my steps and do the homework my parents and I didn’t do before bringing Frisky into our family. So I figured I’d go straight to the experts – the House Rabbit Society. With chapters in 22 states, this volunteer-based, nonprofit animal welfare organization is dedicated to rescuing and rehoming abandoned rabbits, as well as rabbit advocacy and public education. Luckily, the Georgia House Rabbit Society just happened to be 15 minutes from our house, so Chris and I wasted no time in heading over and immersing ourselves in bunny land!

Jennifer & Jack Sparrow

Georgia House Rabbit Society Shelter Director Jennifer McGee with Jack Sparrow, a young bunny who was found with a broken leg. Now a healthy tripod rabbit , he was recently adopted and is about to start his new life as a beloved family pet. Photo by Chris Savas.

Housed in a small, charming converted residence that includes a shelter, a boarding facility and a retail store, the GA HRS is run by an amazing team of dedicated volunteers who help rescue, care for and adopt out over 300 homeless rabbits every year. After a fun tour of the sparkling clean little facility, complete with 50 adorable, long-eared, cotton-tailed, and wiggly-nosed residents, I had a chance to sit down with Shelter Director and rabbit aficionado Jennifer McGee, who gave me the low-down on some of the biggest misconceptions about this very misunderstood companion animal.

“Sadly, rabbits are the third most euthanized companion animal next to dogs and cats,” she explained. “We get hundreds of intake requests per year, and some of the most common reasons people give for surrendering their rabbits are, ‘we got it from the pet store, but the kids aren’t interested anymore,’ or ‘the rabbit became aggressive and it’s grunting, charging and biting the kids.’ Well, they didn’t get their rabbit neutered and they have it in a tiny cage with no exercise or social interaction – they set that rabbit up to be miserable. With some people, once you explain things to them, they’ll do something about it, but others don’t care, they just want the rabbit off their hands.”

Here are some important facts to consider before bringing a rabbit into your life:

Rabbits are not easy, low-maintenance “starter pets.” Bunnies are a lot of work. They require daily interaction and enrichment, a varied diet, a rabbit-proofed indoor living environment, and safe space to run, dig, jump, and chew.

They are not rodents, they are lagomorphs. Companion rabbits are domestic animals. Unlike their wild cousins, jackrabbits, hares and cottontails, pet bunnies are tame, vulnerable creatures completely dependent on humans for their care. And unlike hamsters or other “pocket pets,” rabbits aren’t content to live their entire lives confined in cages.

They are prey animals by nature. Bunnies are naturally jumpy and skittish, and thus require a different approach than predator pets. Canine and feline social activities such as playing chase and belly rubs can be interpreted as threatening rather than loving and playful to a rabbit.

Chris Keys & Bree

GA HRS Volunteer Chris Keys with his beloved Rex rabbit, Bree. Although most rabbits don’t like to be picked up and cuddled, Bree enjoys being held by her devoted daddy. Photo by Chris Savas.

They belong indoors. Bunnies should never live outside in hutches or be left outdoors unsupervised. Parasites, diseases, the elements and constant stress from being constantly on alert outside can kill a pet rabbit. Besides the fact that life in a cage or hutch is boring, depressing and stressful, bunnies can literally be frightened to death when approached by predators, such as raccoons, hawks, coyotes, owls, cats and dogs. The average lifespan for an outside hutch rabbit is 2-3 years compared to 10 or more years for a spayed or neutered indoor house bunny.

They aren’t suitable for young children. Rabbits are delicate and fragile creatures that require safe, gentle handling and a quiet environment. They don’t like to be held or cuddled, they are easily frightened by loud noises, and their bones and spines are very breakable – not a good fit for a small child who may view them as a toy. A parent who gives their kid a pet rabbit must not only be willing to be the rabbit’s primary caretaker but must also be prepared to supervise any interactions between child and bunny.

They must be spayed or neutered. This is essential in preventing uterine cancer in females, unpleasant and aggressive behavior in males including spraying, and unwanted pregnancies (a female rabbit can have a new litter of kits every 30 days!).

They require training and plenty of patience. New rabbit parents must be willing to spend time teaching home environment boundaries until the rabbit learns its limits. Inquisitive, intelligent, and very social by nature, bunnies are actually very trainable. They can learn their names, understand commands, walk on a leash, use a litter box, and perform all kinds of tricks.

Their vet care can be expensive. Bunnies are considered “exotic” pets, which means they have special veterinary needs that can only be met by vets specifically trained in handling and treating them. Exotic vets aren’t easy to find and their services can be more expensive than those of a small animal veterinarian specializing in dogs and cats.

MS Puppy Mill Rescue, Site 2

A caged rabbit at a suspected puppy mill in Corinth, Mississippi. He was later rescued along with dozens of dogs and other animals. Photo by Chuck Cook/AP Images for the Humane Society of the United States.

They are exploited by the pet industry. When you purchase a bunny from a pet store, such as Petland or Pet Supermarket, or a flea market you’re almost guaranteed to be supporting backyard breeders and large commercial breeding operations called rabbitries. Similar to puppy mills, rabbitries are often all about profit and rarely about the health, temperament or wellbeing of their rabbits. You can learn more about the rabbit breeding industry here.

They don’t make good Easter gifts. Every year, thousands of rabbits are purchased as Easter gifts for children, only to end up neglected or abandoned days, weeks and months later after kids lose interest and parents realize the bunny is a lot more work than they thought.

“Probably 80 percent of the rabbits that come to us were Easter bunnies at some time or another,” said Jennifer. “They’re typically purchased from the feed and seed stores to go in a child’s Easter basket, but people don’t know what to do with them and they die – only 10 percent of Easter bunnies actually live to see their first birthday. That’s why this year we started a billboard campaign with a corresponding website, notforeaster.com. We’re not trying to scare people out of getting a rabbit for Easter, but if they really want a rabbit and are willing to make that 10-12-year commitment, getting one shouldn’t revolve around the Easter holiday.”

bunny

They are not disposable. Rabbits can’t be turned loose outside – they will surely die from starvation, predators and parasites. Most shelters don’t accept surrendered pet rabbits, and rabbit rescues – which are almost always full with unwanted bunnies – aren’t likely to accept a rabbit from someone who purchased it on impulse and just doesn’t want the responsibility anymore.

They are intelligent and sensitive like cats and dogs. Rabbits are loving and social animals who bond with their human parents and bunny friends, and once they are spayed and neutered, they make delightful house pets. Like any sentient being, each rabbit has his or her own unique personality, from playful and silly, independent and reserved, to loyal and affectionate.

Adopt, don’t shop. Just like with dogs and cats, over-breeding and impulse purchases have resulted in thousands of homeless rabbits ending up in shelters and rescues throughout the U.S. There are multitudes of homeless rabbits looking for loving forever homes, so there’s no need to purchase a rabbit when you can adopt one. As you would with any pet, take time to educate yourself about their needs before bringing them into your home, then visit your local shelter, rescue group, or HRS chapter and adopt a homeless bunny.

Chico & Tilda

Chico and Tilda, two sweet little bunnies up for adoption at the Georgia HRS. Photo by Chris Savas.

Although my Frisky wasn’t an impulse purchase or an Easter gift gone wrong, he was indeed the victim of an uninformed little girl who didn’t understand his needs. A rabbit is meant to be a pampered house pet and a treasured companion, not a fixture in a hutch or an occasional plaything. How I wish I’d known that then.

But in the end, meeting with Jennifer actually ended up being very therapeutic – she, too had also kept her childhood rabbit in a hutch in her backyard, and like me, she also felt regret for not knowing better or doing more for her bunny. It felt good to know I wasn’t alone. “You do what you know, and when you know better, you do better,” she said encouragingly. That is a saying I will carry with me always.

“Just like with anything in life, get a rabbit for the right reasons,” Jennifer said. “Don’t do it because your kids are begging and tugging on your leg, or because you want to teach them responsibility – think about what you’re going to teach them when you let that rabbit loose outside, give it to a neighbor or take it to animal control. It’s a society issue at the base of it, it’s how we’re raising the next generation, and it’s not just with dogs, cats and rabbits, it’s every animal. A companion animal is a living, breathing thing and we are breeding them, we’re designing them and we’re making them dependent on us, so we are obligated to take care of them – that’s all there is to it.”

To learn more about proper rabbit care and adopting a bunny, visit the House Rabbit Society to find a chapter near you. If you live in the Atlanta area and are interested in adopting, volunteering and/or supporting the Georgia House Rabbit Society, please visit their website to learn more about them and how you can help their amazing efforts to help Georgia’s abandoned and neglected rabbits.

Check out these sites for great information about rabbits and their care:

MyHouseRabbit.com

HopperHome.com

Make Mind Chocolate Facebook page

The Language of Lagomorphs

ClickerBunny.com

https://www.petfinder.com/pet-adoption/other-pet-adoption/are-rabbits-good-pets/

Jennifer & Jack Sparrow-2

Photo by Chris Savas.

“Animals are not property or ‘things’ but rather living organisms, subjects of a life, who are worthy of our compassion, respect, friendship, and support.” – Marc Bekoff

Marc Ching – A Brave Rescuer On a Mission of Compassion

“You cannot tell a country who does not have the same value system as we do to love dogs. The only way is to plant a seed. And to let dogs themselves soften their hearts. In time I am certain you will no longer have a society that eats them. That no longer bashes in their skulls because their lives will now hold meaning.” – Marc Ching

Lucky for dogs everywhere, there are a growing number of animal advocates, rescuers and activists throughout the world fighting on behalf of man’s best friend. But not everyone is willing to risk life and limb – or come face-to-face with one of the planet’s most violent forms of animal cruelty – in the process. Enter Marc Ching, founder of the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation and owner of The PetStaurant. A holistic pet nutritionist and Japanese herbalist by profession, this incredibly brave rescuer has taken it upon himself to save as many dogs as he can from the Asian pet meat trade.

Ching’s harrowing odyssey into this dark underworld began last May, when he learned about the summer solstice lychee and dog meat “festival” in Yulin, China. Shocked and disbelieving that such an inhumane practice could actually exist in the modern world, Ching bought a plane ticket, grabbed a backpack and headed to China with a raw determination to witness the trade for himself and rescue as many dogs as possible.

Ching the rescuer

This is Marc Ching – rescuer, savior and modern day hero. These poodle pups were rescued from a trash bag. Photo courtesy of Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation.

“My first trip was after the Yulin festival, on Sept. 1,” he says. “When I went to China I saw things I didn’t know people could do. I knew they ate dogs there but I didn’t know about the torture and abuse aspect associated with the preparation of the meat. It’s one thing to read about it or go to a dog farm, which is like a very dirty breeding facility, but it’s another to go to a slaughterhouse and see the methods people have created just to harm another living creature. It doesn’t make sense to me – it’s unspeakable.”

Since that first fateful journey, which shook him to the core but also galvanized his resolve to keep coming back and save more dogs, Ching has made three additional trips, rescuing a grand total of 249 canines from some of the worst and largest slaughterhouses in notorious dog meat locales including China’s Guangzhou province; Busan, South Korea and Hanoi, Vietnam. Unfortunately, only 61 dogs survived their ordeal.

“My trips are a little different than those of most people who rescue from the dog meat trade,” Ching says in his soft Hawaiian accent. “Typically people go to dog farms and try to shut them down or push meat trucks off the road. I actually go into the slaughterhouses and rescue dogs that are being dismembered, tortured or abused.”

Hanoi slaughterhouse-2

A slaughterhouse in Hanoi, Vietnam, a city notorious for its incredibly violent meat trade. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

As the founder of a nonprofit focused on rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming severely abused dogs in the U.S., Ching is no stranger to cruelty. But he admits his rescue missions to Asia have come at a cost both mentally and physically – he’s been beaten, held hostage, had a machete put to his throat, a gun at his head, and lives with visions that will haunt him for the rest of his life. But neither mental anguish nor fear of death has deterred this gentle savior from his quest.

Since that first fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants trip to China, Ching has developed a more organized process that includes travel itineraries, securing translators and veterinarians in advance, working with teams of researchers to locate slaughterhouses, and finding ways to obtain undercover video footage – without getting caught (he was beaten severely when a South Korean butcher caught him wearing a GoPro). Posing as a wealthy American dog meat buyer, he makes a point of never going to the same slaughterhouse twice.

“It’s actually a great cover,” Ching boasts. “When I come into a country I prep my translator for about two hours before we go out, so when he goes to a slaughterhouse with me he knows what to say. He’ll tell the butchers, this is my client, he’s a rich American and he wants to buy (large quantities of) dogs that have been abused and tortured but still alive, because he’s going to kill them himself, prepare the meat and export it to America.”

Ching rescuing hope-crop

Marc with Hope, the first dog he rescued from a slaughterhouse in China. Hope has since recovered from his injuries and has been brought back to the U.S., where he serves as an ambassador for Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation’s China Effort. He is indeed a miracle! Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

He continues, “Before we go out we call local veterinarians and ask them how many dogs they can take, treat and keep for a few months, because the number of vets we find determine the number of dogs we save. So our process now is to take the dogs, load them up in vans and get them straight to the vets.”

For those unfortunate dogs who don’t make it to the vet, Ching makes a point of driving them into the countryside and giving them a dignified burial.

“At least they knew in their last moments that someone cared for them,” he says.

Despite the unspeakable horrors and mental anguish he has endured along the way, Ching insists his Asia efforts are worth the pain and sacrifice, especially when he’s able to fly dogs to the U.S. and bring them to his foundation in Sherman Oaks, Calif. So far, Ching has brought back 46 lucky dogs, most of which have since been rehabilitated and adopted into loving homes.

Rescued from China-2

These puppies were rescued from a slaughterhouse in China. It is unthinkable that anyone would want to harm such innocent beings. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“It’s very expensive to bring these dogs to the U.S., so I try to adopt out locally to Canadians or veterans who live there, as well as to great local Asian people who would never hurt their dogs,” says Ching. “But the ones that I bring back are the dogs that really mean something to me – they all have a story. I also realize these dogs have value here…people in America rally around them. Part of raising awareness is showing people the end product of (my rescue missions), so it becomes tangible to them. It spreads awareness that there are people in these countries doing these things and we should do something to stop it.”

Ching says one of his most special rescues is Sorrow, a black and white French bulldog he saved within minutes of being brutalized in a slaughterhouse in Tongzhou, China.

“That’s a dog who means a lot to me because he’s become the face of what I do now, as so many people have seen that picture of him with his mouth and feet bound,” says Ching. “If you love animals, especially dogs, and you see that picture, it’s just emblematic of what they’re doing over there. That dog and the dogs I rescued from that slaughterhouse, they are miracles, because once an animal enters a place like that, there’s no getting out – they were supposed to die. So I think people connect to that image, because he really is a miracle.”

Sorrow upon rescue

Sorrow just moments after his rescue. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

Rescuing and getting treatment for dogs in other countries, especially those with extensive medical needs, can be incredibly costly. As the saying goes, “if you want to help animals, get rich.” Luckily, Ching’s thriving wellness and nutrition-centered pet store, ThePetStaurant, has enabled him to fund his Asia missions without having to rely heavily on donations, although he always appreciates any help he can get from his passionate supporters.

“My business is very successful, but where most people would buy a Rolex watch, I save dogs,” says Ching. “I never want someone to look at what I do and pollute it by saying I do it for (donation) money because that’s not possible – I lose a few hundred thousand dollars a year on these rescues because they’re so expensive. But in the end it’s worth it because this means so much to me.”

Ching’s purity of intention is also reflected in the beautiful, tragic, yet inspiring writings he posts on Facebook and Instagram before, during and after his missions. Writing has essentially become a therapeutic outlet for Ching, who admits he has been deeply traumatized by what he has experienced. Yet besides helping him to heal his heart and mind, his heartfelt, sometimes gut-wrenching posts have also touched the hearts of thousands of animal lovers throughout the world, devoted social media fans who follow his travels and cheer him on, every step of the way.

Hanoi, Vietnam-2

Marc on the back of his translator’s moped in Hanoi, following a near-death experience at a slaughterhouse. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“I actually post in real time when I’m (in Asia), so I’m able to take my experiences and use my words to paint a picture so people can feel the moment,” says Ching. “I think they appreciate that and they can see what it’s like out there.”

But after staring into the jaws of death one too many times, this devoted husband and father of two has begun to rethink his strategy, from one of rescuing to shifting a mindset that will inspire lasting change.

“In starting this I didn’t have a goal, I just went out there and rescued dogs from slaughterhouses,” Ching explains. “Internally, I felt like it was a way to save myself, because it’s addicting, that moment when you feel like a hero. But in the long run, especially on trip three, it because so burdensome on my consciousness I even had a hard time living my life. Now my goal has changed from risking my life to creating an effort where I’m doing something to end (the dog meat trade).”

At the core of this new strategy is a media campaign in China and South Korea that will feature a short documentary tempered with graphic undercover video footage Ching and two undercover slaughterhouse workers have compiled over the last several months. Dubbed “The Compassion Project,” its intention is to shed light on the abusive practices tied to the trade, turn people away from eating dog meat and support change.

Ching and rescue

Marc with a very grateful Bull terrier he rescued from Li Yuan, China. The kisses make it all worthwhile! Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“In China and South Korea they care more about image, so my goal is to put this media campaign together, line up celebrities and schedule important meetings with people in the government. My message will be, ‘you can be hated by all these countries because of this inhumanity or you can rise up and decide that your country is better than that.’ In our culture we used to have slavery and lynching, but one day we realized that was no longer acceptable and we changed. I believe their countries are no different and that they’ll change in time, too.”

He continues, “Their celebrities (are very important to them). If Yao Ming did the same thing for us as he did (for WildAid’s anti-shark fin soup campaign) in China, I could almost guarantee dog meat would be wiped out in a matter of months because these places where they’re doing it would have so much local opposition, they’d have to end it.”

Meanwhile, Ching is about to embark upon a fifth mission, this time to Thailand, Cambodia, northern Vietnam, South Korea and Yulin, China, a trip he expects to be his “most intense yet.” It appears there is no stopping this determined rescuer.

Sorrow&foster brother-2

Sorrow snoozing with his foster brother. He is back in the U.S., doing great and already has several prospective families vying to adopt him! Photo courtesy of Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation.

When a human being bears witness to terrible atrocity, they are forever changed. I can attest to that, just from researching and writing about the dog and cat meat trade. So when I tell Ching he is my hero, that I could never do what he is doing, that I am so grateful that there are people like him in the world, willing to do whatever it takes to make a difference in the lives of animals, he just laughs.

“I recently wrote a post where I describe what that moment of rescue is like for me,” he tells me. “I go into this place and it’s like you’re breathing into the rain. That’s what it’s like because there’s blood everywhere, everywhere there’s screaming, and it’s usually raining for some reason, and I’m just drenched. And when you save this dog and this dog looks at you, it’s like that moment when you’re in love with someone…it’s amazing. I don’t think people realize that there’s beauty in what I do.”

To learn more about Marc Ching, read his incredibly heartfelt writing and find out how to support his efforts, check out the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation website and Facebook page.

Ching rescuing Sorrow

Ching cradling Sorrow before heading to the vet. Many dogs that end up in the Asian dog meat trade are lost or stolen pets. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“People look away from the pictures because they cannot stomach it. People do not want to hear about the abuse because they cannot endure to listen to it. But you cannot turn away. You cannot close your eyes because in doing so you just enable it. In doing so you pretend things like this do not exist, and then the suffering and sacrifice become meaningless.” – Marc Ching

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 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 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

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 thousand 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 any time 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

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 everyday 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 doghouse, 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 every 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 viscous 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 slaughter houses in the U.S., but after going through the recession and seeing what happens when there are no place 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