Finding Justice for Ronzo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ronzo's reward poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ronzo shortly before his passing.

Ronzo shortly before his passing.

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

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

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

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

Hey, PeTA, Leave Those Pets Alone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Takes a Village to Help Animals In Need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many of the racing industry's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A typical livestock auction. Which of these fine people are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: stophorseslaughter.com

Photo credit: stophorseslaughter.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siri was my first pony. With a shaggy white mane, striped hooves and a blanket of roan spots covering a solid, well-muscled body, he was a handsome little devil, with fiery eyes and typical a pony demeanor that said, “I may be short, but I’m a force to be reckoned with.” He was the quintessential POA, or Pony of the Americas, a pony breed derived from Appaloosa, Arabian and Shetland pony stock. I probably fell for him not only because he was beautiful, but also because my dad said if I wanted him I could have him, right then and there. I was just a month shy of my 11th birthday and could hardly contain my joy – my lifelong dream of having my own horse was coming true!

Still, there were warning signs. Siri’s current owner, a little girl a couple of years younger than me, was afraid of him. Temperamental and stubborn, he had a charming habit of trying to run away when he realized it was time to be ridden, then running off with whoever was riding him. I was a beginning level rider, with only four months of lessons under my belt, while Siri was a wise, spirited gelding with a stallion-like attitude and a mind of his own. He was the kind of pony that behaved best under experienced hands.

But despite all that, experience told me to jump on my dad’s offer before he changed his mind. My father was a freelance studio musician, so money came and went very quickly in our household, and I had learned at a very young age to take advantage of those brief windows of opportunity whenever they presented themselves. Knowing this and blinded by the excitement of fulfilling my dream, I said yes to Siri before even taking him for a ride. Had I known better, I would have taken my time and shopped around, even if that meant waiting a little longer for my dad’s generosity to return. But I was young, impatient and couldn’t bear the thought of waiting another day to have my own horse. And that’s when I made my very first – and biggest – impulse buy.

Lot-A-Dot Siri Kid.

Lot-A-Dot Siri Kid.

Predictably, Siri and I were not a match made in heaven. Thrilled with his new, more spacious digs on our ranch, the independent pony had no interest in doing anything but grazing off by himself. The only time he seemed to show any favorable interest in me was when I was holding a feed bucket or offering him some treats. When it was time to take him back to the stable and groom him for a ride, the crafty pony would watch me appraisingly until I’d get a foot or so away, then dash away snorting, tail in the air.

For the first few weeks, I found myself chasing that damn pony around and around his half-acre paddock, tears of frustration falling from my eyes until I’d either manage to corner him or give up from exhaustion. I finally resorted to leaving his halter on at all times so he was easier to grab, but even then he’d still manage to get away from me. I even tried luring him with carrots, which would work sometimes, but soon enough he learned how to grab his treat while bolting away, crunching as he ran.

If and when I managed to get Siri to the stable and tied up for grooming and tacking up he was usually cooperative, but once I was in the saddle all bets were off. What followed usually entailed a series of well-rehearsed pony tricks designed to intimidate, frighten, and unseat me if possible, including spooking at random objects and lurching violently from side to side; stopping suddenly, spinning around and bolting off into the opposite direction, or grabbing the bit between his teeth and taking off at a full gallop, usually downhill or toward a clump of dense shrubbery. All the while I would cling on for dear life, praying that if I fell I would be able to walk away unscathed. Most of the time I did, with just a few scrapes and bruises, but it wasn’t just my body that was taking a beating.

I had hoped that with time Siri would calm down and get used to me, maybe even learn to love me, and while things did gradually improve between us, I was never able to completely trust my pony. I learned to anticipate and thwart his antics most of the time, even get tough when I had to, but I wasn’t a patient child by nature and no matter how wise and skilled I became at managing him, Siri still knew how to get the best of me. I rarely came back from our rides in a good mood, and there were times I’d get so mad at him, I’d just turn him out in the large pasture at the far end of our property and leave him there for days.

I took Siri’s bad behavior personally and because of that, I began to resent him. I knew there was no way we could return him (the little girl’s dad had made it clear they didn’t want him back under any circumstances), and even if I could find Siri a new home my father wasn’t about to shell out more money to buy me another horse. I would have to make the most of the situation and accept that I was stuck with a problem pony I was too inexperienced to handle. And so it seemed I was no closer to fulfilling my dream of having the perfect horse than I was before I’d bought him.

A year and a half later, I had outgrown Siri and was barely riding him anymore. My aunt had given me her friend’s aging Thoroughbred mare and I was completely enamored with her. Tequila was an ex-racehorse who had clearly been neglected for a while, and I found a great sense of purpose and pride in bringing her back to health. It felt wonderful to watch her bony frame become strong and well-muscled, her dull chestnut coat turn a shiny copper red. Riding her was an absolute joy, and she could run like the wind with a rocking, flowing gate that was easy to sit. With her sweet, gentle nature and calm demeanor, she was the total opposite of the spotted little hellion who still wouldn’t let me catch him if he could help it. So naturally, I wanted to spend most of my time with Tequila. But so did Siri. When I’d take his new stablemate out for a ride, leaving him behind in their shared paddock, the pony would whinny nonstop, working himself into a desperate lather and pacing the fence until our return.

My father began talking with me about finding Siri a new home. He didn’t see the point in having two horses to feed when I was only riding one of them, and Siri was too wild and unpredictable for my younger sister, who was afraid to even get near him. In many ways, I had already emotionally divorced myself from my pony, so it didn’t take much to persuade me to put him up for sale. Since the horses were my passion and hobby, my parents let me handle the transaction, thinking it would be a good experience for me. Little did I know that what could have been a positive, educational experience turned out to be one of the cruelest lessons I’d ever learn, one that still haunts me to this day.

A beautiful, clean Siri after a bath.

A beautiful, clean Siri after a bath.

I placed an ad in the local paper. Five hundred dollars wasn’t much to ask for a strong, healthy, 12-year-old pony, yet the ad went unanswered. Weeks turned into months and I was getting frustrated. The attachment between Tequila and Siri was getting stronger and becoming more of a nuisance, with the mare becoming more and more resistant in leaving her buddy behind on rides, often pulling to go home and get back to him as soon as possible. Again, the pony seemed to be an obstacle to my happiness, my fantasies of having a horse that loved me and would do anything for me, just like in the Black Stallion and Marguerite Henry novels I had read over and over. I felt I could have that magical connection with my mare, yet that bratty pony was getting in the way yet again.

The day my “Free Pony to Good Home” ad appeared in the paper, the phone rang. A man said he was calling about the ad and asked if he could come out that same day. He didn’t ask any questions about Siri, just for directions to our property. A few hours later a two-ton truck pulling a slightly dented horse trailer pulled up in front of our house and a man in a white cowboy hat jumped out. He appeared to be in a rush and was all business, opening the trailer door, asking where Siri was and could I please get him. I couldn’t help but notice that he wouldn’t look me in the eyes.

I had put Siri in the stable earlier that day so I wouldn’t have a problem catching him. For months I had dreamed of not having to deal with him anymore, yet as I led him up to the strange man waiting by the trailer, I felt apprehensive, even sad. The guy didn’t look Siri over, ask any questions, or even pet him, just took the lead rope from my hand and turned to load him in the trailer. Siri didn’t like horse trailers and tried to balk, but the man was obviously experienced with loading difficult horses and after a short struggle had him inside and tied securely.

I asked the man if he wanted Siri’s bridle and saddle but he said he didn’t need it, which surprised me. Good tack is valuable and anyone buying a horse usually expects some tack to be included. I then offered him Siri’s registration papers but he said he didn’t need them, either. He must have seen the confusion in my face because after a moment he nodded and took them anyway, reading Siri’s registered name out loud in a sarcastic voice, as if to humor me, “Lot-A-Dot Siri Kid, huh? Okay, Lot-A-Dot, let’s go.”

“He goes by Siri,” I said to the man’s back, feeling a catch in my throat. I was almost 13 years old and already had good instincts about people. I suddenly knew that giving Siri to this man was a mistake. He didn’t seem to care about anything but taking my pony away from me as quickly as he could.

The man in the white cowboy hat turned and glanced at me. He must have noticed my reddening cheeks, the look of doubt and concern on my face, and maybe he worried for a moment that I might change my mind, because after a second he winked at me and said, “he’ll be fine, don’t worry.” And with that, he jumped into his truck.

I watched the rig pull away, Siri’s thick white tail hanging over the back of the trailer door. As they headed up the driveway, through the front gate and down the road I could just make out the distinctive roan spots on his small muscled rump. Then my little spotted pony was gone forever. And standing there, looking down at Siri’s bridle in my hand, I couldn’t shake the strong feeling that I had done something very wrong. It had all happened so fast I had forgotten to ask the man any questions about where he was taking Siri or if I could visit him someday. The whole experience had left me breathless and confused.

I went into the house and tried not to think about it. I don’t remember my parents asking me how it went or telling them what had happened. I just pushed the whole experience from my mind and went on with my life. It wasn’t until many years later that I began to put the pieces together. And that’s when I realized a horrible truth.

Siri and me.

Siri and me.

Witnessed Animal Cruelty? Don’t Just Stand There, Do Something!

It’s incredibly hard for me to understand why anyone would intentionally hurt an innocent creature. With domesticated animals in particular so dependent on us humans for their care and wellbeing, why would any pet owner allow their animal to suffer or even worse, go out of their way to hurt them? Although conditions for companion animals have greatly improved in the last few decades, especially in western societies, there are still many people who view their pets the old-fashioned way – as property. They don’t recognize animals as sentient beings capable of having emotions and feeling pain, only as objects they have the right to do with as they wish.

It has always dumbfounded me why would anyone leave their dog outside in the freezing cold or extreme heat without shelter (or even at all!), let their injured or sick cat go without veterinary care, or allow their pets to starve. Personally, I think there’s a special place in hell reserved for the !&@$(%)#$* who abuse animals. Just like there are many people in this world who shouldn’t be allowed to have children, there are many people who shouldn’t be allowed to have pets. But unfortunately, our society doesn’t work that way.

This pit bull has spent his entire life chained to a trash can, which his owner considers to be a suitable doghouse.

This pit bull has spent his entire life chained to a trash can, which his owner considers to be a suitable doghouse.

That’s where we animal lovers come in. We sort of have to be the animal welfare watchdogs, making sure the losers and abusers of the world don’t get away with their crimes against non-human species. So in honor of Animal Cruelty Prevention Month, I thought I’d provide some tips about how to recognize animal cruelty and what to do about it.

First of all, keep in mind that animal cruelty laws vary from state to state (all 50 states have them) and that every city or county will have different animal ordinances that spell out the legal versus illegal ways to treat an animal, so it’s important to understand what is or isn’t considered prosecutable animal cruelty in your community.

For example, most caring people would never dream of leaving their dog outside on a tether 24 hours a day, seven days a week with little or no socialization, but in many cities and counties throughout the U.S. it’s still legal to do so. However, if that tethered dog is emaciated, with no food, water or shelter in sight, chances are that the owner is in violation and can be cited for animal cruelty.

A kitten with an ulcerated eye, a very painful condition that was simply ignored by his owner.

A kitten with an ulcerated eye, a very painful condition that was simply ignored by his owner.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, animal cruelty comes in two forms – direct violence and neglect. While direct violence is the most obvious, animal neglect is the most common. In fact, tons of animals die from neglect every year, right under the noses of the people in their communities. That’s why it’s important to educate yourself about how to identify animal cruelty when you see it.

Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Animals left outside in extreme weather with no shelter
  • Poor living conditions, including filth and dangerous objects near the animal
  • Lack of food and water
  • Emaciated animals
  • Too many animals living on one property/animal hoarding
  • Wounds on an animal’s body/patches of missing hair
  • Excessive amounts of animals kept in small spaces
  • Untreated injuries or illnesses
  • Animal abandonment
  • Prolonged or excessive barking or howling
  • Acts of violence against animals
Great Danes are not supposed to look like this. Photo credit: newbernnow.com

Great Danes are not supposed to look like this. Photo credit: newbernnow.com

So you suspect an animal is being neglected or have observed it being abused – now what?

Pick up the phone: If it’s an emergency situation, call 911, otherwise, call your local animal control or humane agency as soon as possible. Most large municipalities have an animal control department, animal shelter or humane society. If you don’t have an animal control in your area, call the police and report the situation. Relay exactly what you saw, give plenty of details and leave your contact information. You can ask to remain anonymous but do give dispatch a number they can call in case the investigating officer needs to ask you any questions.

Confront the perpetrator (if it’s safe): This is very subjective, but if you feel comfortable and don’t think your life is in danger, speak to the person or have somebody else to go with you, just in case. If I saw my neighbor doing something horrible to an animal I would get my husband to go with me and confront that person, but that’s just me. Ultimately, most cases are best left to law enforcement.

Document the details: If it’s safe, take pictures and/or video of the situation and take plenty of notes. When it comes to prosecuting animal cruelty, a picture really is worth a thousand words and can mean the difference between an abuser getting away with their crime and an actual conviction. When cruelty cases have photographic evidence it’s very hard for the judge to say “not guilty.”

Be persistent and follow-up: If your local animal control or police department isn’t being responsive, call back and ask to speak to a supervisor. It’s important to keep in mind that most law enforcement agencies operate with limited personnel and resources and that most are probably doing their best to conduct timely and efficient investigations. However, if after repeated calls you’re still not getting the response you need, call your local news station – there’s nothing like bad publicity to inspire law enforcement to fix a problem!

An emaciated stallion. Photo credit: Queensland Times

An emaciated stallion. Photo credit: Queensland Times

So an animal control officer has gone to the property to check on the animal – what happens next?

Typically, an officer will investigate your complaint to see if any animal cruelty laws have been violated. If a violation has occurred, the officer may speak with the owner, issue a citation and give the person a chance to correct the violation. If the neglect or abuse is extreme, however, the officer will remove the animal and take it to the county shelter or humane agency where it can be protected from further harm. The agency will then present the case to the local prosecutor’s office for further evaluation and possible prosecution.

Be prepared that you may be asked to testify about what you witnessed. Since animals can’t speak for themselves, human witnesses are crucial for building strong, prosecutable cruelty cases, so be willing and able to do your part, if possible. You can always follow-up on a case by contacting your local government records office and requesting this information in writing. Since cruelty cases are part of the public record, you’ll be able to access information including whether the case went to court, if the owner paid a fine and whether the conviction was a misdemeanor or a felony.

Animals have no voice, so it is our obligation and duty to speak for them, especially when they’re being mistreated. We will only be able to combat animal cruelty if all of us are vigilant and willing to take a stand, so if you witness or suspect animal abuse, don’t just stand there or walk away – report it. Your call may be the only chance that animal has to find help and possibly be rescued from a miserable or life-threatening situation. Animal cruelty is a crime, and the more often abusive individuals are punished for this behavior, the less likely others will be inclined to do the same. So if you see an animal in distress, don’t just assume someone else will take care of the situation – take action!

A neglected dog rescued from a hoarding situation in North Carolina. Photo credit: HSUS

A neglected dog rescued from a hoarding situation in North Carolina. Photo credit: HSUS

For great tips on how to prevent animal cruelty, check out the ASPCA’s Fight Cruelty web page.

“The only obstacle that stands between you and making a difference is getting up and doing it.” – Anonymous

Hawaii’s Ongoing Dog Meat Saga

I absolutely despise the dog and cat meat trade more than any other animal cruelty issue on the face of the earth. It is a horrific, barbaric industry that unfortunately still thrives across Asia and Africa, a form of animal abuse that is so egregiously cruel, I am amazed that animal activists aren’t engaging in more boycott campaigns or live demonstrations than they already are, demanding an end a gruesome industry that has absolutely no place in our 21st century.

This is the issue that horrified me enough to completely change the direction of my career and dedicate my writing to animal welfare. It inspired me to go from an armchair critic to an activist, from a carnivore to a vegetarian. And while there are many animal cruelty problems here and abroad that deserve ongoing attention and swift action, the pet meat trade is the one issue that upsets me far more than any other kind of abuse.

So imagine how horrified I was to discover that technically, it is actually legal to slaughter and eat a companion animal in most states here in the U.S.! Yep, in the supposedly pet-loving U S of A, you can go into a shelter, pick out a dog or a cat, take it home, fatten it up, butcher and eat it in the privacy of your own home. Just don’t try to sell the meat – that’s against the law simply because the USDA doesn’t license or inspect the meat of companion animals.

I was shocked. How could there not be tons of state laws, or even a federal law, to protect dogs and cats from becoming dinner?

After extensive research, including combing every animal legislative website known to man, I discovered that only two states – California and New York – have laws that explicitly prohibit the slaughter, possession and sale of dog and cat meat for human consumption. Meanwhile, New Jersey and Georgia have statutes that simply ban the sale of dog or cat meat, while Virginia outlaws the unnecessary killing of an animal for anything other than “farming activities.”

Last fall, Pennsylvania tried and failed to pass legislation that would have banned the raising, slaughtering or selling of dogs and cats for human consumption, but thanks to a statute included in the bill that prohibited pigeon shooting, NRA lobbyists succeeded in stopping its passage.

So that’s it – two states that have decent laws, three states that sort of touch upon it and 45 states with nothing. Yes, all 50 states do have felony animal cruelty statutes, but most of them are unclear and porous, leaving plenty of wiggle room for pet-eaters to get away with their crimes, depending on how the laws are interpreted.

But do any of our states actually have a big enough problem that would warrant stronger, more explicit legislation? After all, lawmakers aren’t going to go out of their way to enact any kind of law without some sort of need.

According to my friends at the Humane Society of the United States, dog and cat-eating is not a substantial problem in most of America. Yes, there have been rumors of underground dog meat trades in certain areas and isolated, one-off incidents in various communities from time to time, but overall, our country does not house an organized pet meat trade that warrants great concern. But then there’s the Aloha State…

Think Hawaii and you would never imagine that such a beautiful, tranquil place would harbor a very gruesome secret – its very own underground dog meat trade. Yep, thanks to a glaring loophole in the state’s anti-cruelty law, you can actually get away with eating a dog (or a cat) “if bred for human consumption” and killed “humanely.” As a result, a small percentage of Hawaii’s population has continued to satisfy its taste for dog meat, with few repercussions.

A puppy trapped in the Asian dog meat trade. Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

A puppy trapped in the Asian dog meat trade. Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

All that could have changed with the passage of SB773, a bill reintroduced earlier this year by the Hawaii office of the Humane Society of the United States that would have closed that loophole for good and strengthened the state’s existing anti-cruelty law. But for the second year in a row, state legislators killed the HSUS-sponsored bill before it ever had a chance to reach the governor’s desk.

Here’s what Inga Gibson, HSUS Hawaii senior state director, had to say about this very frustrating situation.

“We have cases of dog slaughter every year but none of them can be prosecuted fully because of the way the law is currently written,” she explained. “This bill simply would have closed the loophole and explicitly prohibited the selling, breeding, raising, transporting, trafficking or consumption of dogs or cats, as well as given law enforcement more tools without having to catch the perpetrator in the act of slaughter.”

For most people in the U.S., especially those of us who consider our pets family, the idea that our country would have any sort of issue with dog-eating is both shocking and upsetting. But as someone who grew up in Hawaii and worked in animal shelters and as a humane investigator for many years prior to her position at the HSUS, Gibson said she is all too familiar with Hawaii’s ongoing dog slaughter problem.

“It’s been happening here for years,” she told me. “Unlike some developing countries, Hawaii does not have free-roaming, un-owned dogs, so the dogs who are killed for their meat here are lost, stray or stolen pets. There have been numerous reports of dog slaughter over the years, including two cases last year where dogs were found decapitated with their feet removed, a common method used to prepare a dog for consumption. Most people know it’s been happening for some time but it’s something everyone’s brushed under the rug, just hoping their pet doesn’t end up being a victim.”

Here’s an undercover video shot by Carroll Cox, president of EnviroWatch and longtime anti-dog meat activist in Hawaii who posed as a meat buyer and rescued this dog from certain death:

Despite plenty of evidence to support the need for a stronger anti-slaughter law, Aloha State lawmakers have been historically resistant to doing anything about it. In fact, proposed legislation explicitly prohibiting the slaughter of dogs and cats has come before the state legislature for the last eight years, yet somehow never managed to gain enough traction to make it through the necessary hearings, she explained.

“It’s never been publicly voted down but was always held up due to some process, such as running out of time or not being scheduled for the appropriate hearings,” Inga said. “However, it’s only since last year that HSUS has made this bill a priority, and that was because of the 2007 case of Caddy.”

As the most well-known victim of Hawaii’s dog meat trade, Caddy was an 8-month-old Lab/Shepherd mix who was stolen from the Moanalua Golf Club after his owner gained permission to leave him in an equipment shack while he golfed. Landscape workers at the club later pleaded guilty to stealing, slaughtering and eating the dog. While the men were charged with felony animal cruelty, both got off on probation. Still, thinking this case would send a strong message to the community about the consequences of engaging in this cruel practice, the HSUS hoped the problem would dissipate. But when Gibson continued to receive reports of dogs being slaughtered throughout Hawaii, the organization realized it was time to push for a stronger law.

So in early 2014, they did just that, introducing SB2026, an anti-slaughter and trafficking bill that received overwhelming support from the community and passed unanimously all the way through its Senate and House committees. Until it died when the House failed to schedule it for a final hearing.

Dog owners and Inga Gibson (far right) gather at the Hawaii Capitol in support of 2014 Senate Bill 2026.

Dog owners and Inga Gibson (far right) gather at the Hawaii Capitol in support of 2014 Senate Bill 2026.

“It shocked me because we had the most heartfelt testimony from people, people crying and telling stories about dogs being stolen by people they later found out were dog traffickers,” Inga said. “Even with all that, the bill didn’t pass. And the headlines were, ‘Still Legal in Hawaii: Eating Pets,’ and we thought, is this is the message we’re sending, is this what we want to be known for? It was so shameful.”

While the majority of Hawaii residents abhor the practice of eating dogs, Gibson theorized that the small percentage of the population who are engaging in this practice aren’t doing it out of need but rather to satisfy a taste preference cultivated in their home countries.

“No one is consuming dog meat here due to poverty or war times or because it’s a food staple,” Inga said. “This isn’t a dietary issue, it’s a food choice and they’re using the excuse of ‘culture’ for the continuation of those activities. They know it’s not socially acceptable, as this is all done in backyards with dogs that come from underground sources, but I don’t know if they know it’s wrong legally. But these are people’s pets, these are family members and they deserve our protection.”

Besides the immense cruelty it inflicts, this illegal and unlicensed backyard industry also poses serious public health risks. Toxoplasmosis, e-Coli, cholera, trichinellosis, and other infectious parasitic, bacterial and zoonotic diseases can be transferred to humans when slaughtering, handling or even eating dogs or cats. Rabies transmission through dog meat is the reason many Asian countries including the Philippines, Hong Kong, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand have long prohibited the trade, although enforcement remains an ongoing problem.

A rescued meat dog in Thailand stares up hopefully at its rescuers. Photo credit: Soy Dog Foundation.

A rescued meat dog in Thailand stares up hopefully at its rescuers. Photo credit: Soy Dog Foundation.

So while 48 states without strong anti-slaughter laws may not see a need to enact this kind of legislation, what’s Hawaii’s excuse? After all, this is a state where dogs are being stolen from people’s yards and sold to dog traders (evidently for $35 per dog) with customers waiting in the wings to purchase their “products.” It is even rumored that some restaurants actually serve dog meat if you know how to order it. How could Hawaii lawmakers not recognize the urgent need to protect their constituents’ pets?

“This is the reality of Hawaii politics, a plantation-era mentality that clings to activities perceived as ‘cultural,’ regardless of whether they’re right or wrong in the 21st century,” Inga explained. “No one has stood up and supported dog slaughter, but legislators are avoiding this issue because they don’t want to be seen as discriminating against any particular ethnicity. So I believe it’s an avoidance of controversy or of anything that could be perceived as controversial. But in refusing to pass this bill, they’re simply defending an indefensible practice.”

I love it when people try to make the “culture” argument to defend or justify animal cruelty. After all, human sacrifice and slavery were once part of our culture. So was binding women’s feet. Humans are supposed to evolve and change with the times, and the myriad cultures that inhabit the state of Hawaii should be no exception. We DO NOT eat dogs and cats in the United States of America, period. Culture is not a viable excuse!

Curious about why he didn’t think this ongoing cruelty was significant enough to have supported SB773 and not just let it die (which he did), I tried contacting Hawaii Senate committee chairman Maui Senator Gil Keith-Agaran but he didn’t bother to respond to my repeated requests for comment.

Despite two years of disappointment, Inga said the Hawaii HSUS remains undeterred and will reintroduce the bill again next year.

So what can you do to help get behind the animal-loving citizens of Hawaii and finally get this much-needed bill passed into law? Contact Hawaii Governor David Ige and urge him to support anti-dog and cat slaughter legislation as well as stronger animal protection laws in his state. You can also follow this important issue by visiting the Hawaii HSUS Facebook page.

While I love Hawaii and would love to visit, I certainly won’t be experiencing that “Aloha spirit”anytime soon – I do not spend my tourist dollars in places that support the dog and cat meat trade. So that means that besides Hawaii, I won’t be traveling to China, South Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia or Indonesia, either, to name just a few places that condone this abhorrent practice. That’s fine. I’d rather go back to Europe, anyway.

Dogs living out their short lives in filthy cages at a South Korean dog meat farm. Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

Dogs living out their short lives in filthy cages at a South Korean dog meat farm. Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Pet Stores and Puppy Mills – Don’t People Know Any Better?

They drive me absolutely bonkers – people who purchase puppies from pet stores. It just boggles my mind why anyone would still do this when there is such a plethora of information out there about the direct connection between pet shops and puppy mills. It’s almost common knowledge that you should NEVER purchase a puppy from one of these businesses, yet people still do it. So I have to wonder, do these people know but just don’t care, or are they simply ignorant?

Case in point, I have a friend who wanted to surprise her son with a puppy on his 8th birthday. Did she take the time to research a specific breed and look for a “responsible breeder” from whom she could purchase a healthy, well-bred, home-raised puppy, or even better, consider surprising her child with a gift certificate to their local Humane Society so he could pick out a rescue dog? Nope. She simply ran out to her neighborhood puppy boutique and bought an over-priced and most likely, badly bred “designer” pup because it was “cute” and she was in a big hurry to get a dog in time for her son’s birthday party. Just so she could stick the poor thing in a gift box with a bow on top and film her boy’s “priceless” reaction as he opened his present, squealing in excitement (the boy, not the pup). Cue barfing sound.

I know I sound like a bitter, cynical curmudgeon but it just makes me so upset, the impulsiveness, ignorance or indifference of people who are knowingly or unknowingly helping to perpetuate an incredibly cruel, greedy and inhumane industry – commercial dog breeding. Devoted rescue people and animal welfare organizations have been tirelessly trying to educate the public about mass breeding facilities, aka puppy mills, for years and years, yet people like my friend think it’s perfectly okay to plunk down $800-$2,000 dollars on a ridiculously over-priced puppy because they “want it and they want it now,” putting about as much thought into buying a dog as they would a stereo.

Photo credit: cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com

Photo credit:
cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com

So here’s what I wish I could say to my friend, who is a smart, professional woman and really should have known better. No, I will probably never say any of this to her face, but maybe she’ll read it and get the hint (and possibly stop talking to me). Or she’ll never read it and be none the wiser. Here goes.

Congratulations, _____, you just purchased a puppy mill puppy! What is a puppy mill, you ask? A puppy mill is a commercial breeding operation that churns out mass quantities of puppies for profit, with no regard for the genetic quality, health and welfare of their dogs. These lovely operations exist for the sole purpose of making money and are a huge contributor to our nation’s pet overpopulation problem. According to The Puppy Mill Project, approximately 2.5 million puppies are born in puppy mills every year. In fact, it is believed that 99 percent of all puppies sold in pet stores come from these despicable places, so I can pretty much guarantee that your son’s furry little birthday present came from a puppy mill.

Photo credit: Humane Society of the United States

Photo credit: Humane Society of the United States

Life really sucks in these horrific places. Breeding dogs and puppies are kept in squalid, inhumane conditions, deprived of veterinary care, exercise, socialization, grooming and proper nutrition. They live in filthy cages and often sleep in their own waste. Puppies are typically born with congenital illnesses and behavioral problems, made worse by the fact that they’re often torn from their mothers and sold to pet shops before they’re even weaned. But at least the little guys get the chance to escape the puppy mill and hopefully live out their lives in decent homes. For their parents, however, the hell never ends.

Can you imagine spending your whole life in a cage with wire flooring that causes severe injuries to your feet and legs? Thanks to the Animal Welfare Act, it’s actually legal to keep a dog in a wire cage – stacked on top of other wire cages – for its entire life. What a nice way to treat man’s best friend.

Photo credit: Humane Society of the United States

Photo credit: Humane Society of the United States

Forced to reproduce over and over, breeding dogs live miserable lives, never knowing the feeling of grass under their feet, the compassionate touch of a human, or life in a loving home. They either spend their entire lives outdoors, exposed to the elements, or crammed inside filthy structures where they never get to breathe fresh air or feel the sun on their fur. When they are no longer able to breed they are either auctioned off or killed.

Yes, I’m sure that friendly pet store employee went out of her way to confidently assure you that your sweet little designer puppy came from a “USDA licensed breeder.” But don’t be fooled – that claim is meaningless. Every breeder who sells to a pet store or a puppy broker is required to be licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture. But that doesn’t mean that these mill operators are required to give a damn about the quality or wellbeing of their dogs. And the USDA is sadly lax when it comes to inspecting these facilities or enforcing legal standards of care, which are shamefully lacking and far from what any reasonable person would consider humane, anyway. In fact, many puppy mills continue to operate despite numerous cruelty violations. So to sum it up, USDA breeders ARE puppy mills, plain and simple.

Photo credit: Humane Society of the United States

Photo credit: Humane Society of the United States

Responsible private breeders, aka “hobby breeders,” those who actually care about what they breed and who they sell to, DO NOT sell their dogs to pet stores or puppy brokers, advertise in newspapers or sell their dogs over the Internet. They go out of their way to screen potential buyers to make sure their puppies go to good homes and will take lifetime responsibility for the animals they’ve bred. They take pride in their dogs, breed for health and temperament as well as physical beauty, and often have long waiting lists for their litters.

Although I’m not a big fan of breeding in general (I believe that our country, not to mention our world, could use a complete moratorium on dog breeding until we get our homeless pet population under control), I do believe there is a place for responsible purebred dog breeders, although the “good” ones seem to be very few and far between.

Then there are “backyard breeders,” another scourge of the canine world. But that’s another rant for another time.

No, you did not “rescue” your puppy from that pet shop. What you did was create more demand for another mill puppy, further condemned your puppy’s parents to a lifetime of suffering, and supported one of the largest systematic forms of animal cruelty in the nation. Not to mention you helped keep the greedy pet store in business, which egregiously overcharged you for your impulse buy, by the way.

Photo credit: stlouis.cbslocal.com

Photo credit: stlouis.cbslocal.com

Next time, consider adopting from your local shelter or a rescue. Over 2 million pets die in U.S. shelters every year, so not only would you be saving an innocent life, you’d also be ensuring that your money doesn’t support a puppy mill and the lousy businesses that sell them. If you have your heart set on a particular breed, keep in mind that one out of every four dogs in shelters are purebred and that there are tons of breed-specific rescue groups literally overflowing with dogs looking for good homes.

So congratulations on your furry little bundle of joy! I truly hope your new puppy beats the odds and grows up to be a healthy, happy, well-adjusted member of your family, free from the congenital defects and behavioral issues typical of a puppy mill dog. Meanwhile, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for you.

So that’s what I would say if I knew my friend wouldn’t freak out on me and maybe end our friendship. I probably just need to “get over it” and be happy for her and her son. She bought the doggie in the window, end of story. And I know what it’s like, to walk into one of those stores, stare through the glass partition, make eye contact with a sweet little fur baby and feel my heart melt. Only I knew enough to walk away and she didn’t, apparently. Who knows, maybe she’ll eventually find out where her dog came from, realize her mistake, and vow to never do it again. After all, I didn’t always know about the evils of pet stores and puppy mills – I had to learn it all on my own. In the end, I guess you have to meet people where they are and hope they’ll become enlightened when the time is right. You can only hope.

To learn more about the evils of puppy mills and how to stop them, as well as how to responsibly acquire a puppy, visit the ASPCA and HSUS websites for tons of great information and resources. Interested in giving a former mill dog a loving home?Check out National Mill Dog Rescue for more information on how to adopt today!

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” – William Wilberforce

The Story of Daijon, a Pillar of Strength

I love my job. It is truly a gift, to be able to dedicate your life to something that inspires you, makes you look forward to getting up in the morning, sparks your creativity and motivates you to be the best at what you do, every single day. But up until recently, that wasn’t always the case. I’ve had a long history of jobs I either hated or didn’t care about, jobs that stole my energy, my time and my soul, just so I could pay my bills and “live.” But all that began to change when I decided to get serious about my writing and pursue it professionally, and then more recently, when I made the choice to stop wasting my talent writing about topics I didn’t care about and focus on my greatest passions – dogs and animal welfare.

Still, what I write about often isn’t easy for me. In fact, covering these stories can be downright heartbreaking. Animals are still so abused and exploited in our society, in our selectively animal-loving society. That’s because we humans suffer from a hard case of “speciesism.” We love our dogs and cats, but we disregard the lives and rights of farm animals, those used in scientific experiments, for clothing or entertainment – anything that benefits us humans. Then there are those who neglect their own pets, treating them as objects to do with as they please rather than as cherished members of their family. I don’t know how those people even sleep at night.

Lowest among those on the animal-abusing food chain are dogfighters, vicious, sadistic people who think setting two dogs against each other in a gruesome fight to the death is not only fun but also a great way to make money. American pit bull terriers and other bully breeds are the most common dogs victimized by this industry and bred for fighting, due to their brute strength, a strong sense of loyalty and willingness to please their people. But these people don’t love their dogs. They either kill them after they lose fights or let them die from their wounds. Meanwhile, submissive dogs that won’t fight are typically used as sparring partners, or “bait.”

And that’s what leads me to my story. It starts out sad, but bear with me, it gets better. It’s all about a lovable pit bull that was rescued from the cruel underworld of dogfighting and is now looking for the perfect forever home. It’s one of those tales that inspires me to spring out of bed in the morning (okay, maybe I don’t “spring,” exactly) and rush to my computer so I can write an article that might make a difference in the life of a very deserving animal.

I am a huge fan of Angels Among Us Pet Rescue, a non-profit charitable organization dedicated to saving companion animals from high-kill shelters here in Georgia. They do amazing work and are tireless in their passion and determination to rescue and rehabilitate every single dog or cat they can possibly help, then adopt out into loving homes.

A little over a month ago Fulton County Animal Services received an anonymous call about a pit bull that had been hit by a car and left for dead by the side of a road in Atlanta. When dispatch went to retrieve the injured dog, they realized that his wounds were not consistent with a car accident, but with dogfighting. They immediately reached out to Cris Folchitto, who is a full-time AAU volunteer and foster with many years of experience working with bully breeds and ex-fighting dogs. She quickly became the pit bull’s advocate and has been there for him ever since.

Daijon after surgeryCris comforting Daijonimage4

I’ll spare you all the graphic details about the dog’s myriad wounds, medical procedures and rehabilitation (I think the images below say it all), but suffice it to say that the amazing veterinary professionals at Georgia Veterinary Specialists and Chattahoochee Animal Clinic worked wonders piecing the poor pup back together and essentially saving his life. And Cris has done an incredible job helping this sweet canine go from an abuse victim to a happy, loving and playful guy who is ready to spend the rest of his life as a beloved companion.

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I had the chance to visit Daijon (his name means “pillar of strength”) and Cris last week at the clinic, where the goofy pit bull has become a staff favorite, charming anyone who comes near him – including me! Watching him bounding across the yard in fast pursuit of the tennis ball Cris was throwing for him, you’d never suspect that this playful hunk had been on the brink of death just a month before. Though he still wears the battle scars of a life of abuse, his wounds are healing well, his body is filling out, and he possesses an infectious, playful energy that is incredibly touching and irresistible. After everything he’s been through, it’s amazing how loving and trusting he is toward humans and how eager he is for any affection they’ll show him.

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As we took turns playing and cuddling with Daijon, I asked Cris why she has devoted so much of her life to rescuing, fostering, training and rehabilitating bully breeds and what makes these dogs so special to her.

“I have always fought for the underdogs and against the discrimination of bully breeds and their literal extermination,” she said. “They are so smart and extremely eager to please. They are big goofballs and their smiles are contagious, but they can be hardheaded and bossy, that’s why they need an experienced dog owner and solid leadership. They’re not great guard dogs, as they love everybody and only in extremely rare cases have they been aggressive towards humans. Some people will change direction when they see a bully breed dog or even pick up their dogs or children. Some boarding or daycare facilities do not accept bully breeds. So when you own a bully breed you aren’t just a dog owner, you are an advocate for the breed. They really are phenomenal animals.”

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As the most euthanized, neglected and mistreated breed of dog due to their unfortunate association with a subculture that has used, abused and overbred them, pit bulls have definitely been given a reputation they don’t deserve. Forgiving, resilient, smart and loyal, they are eager to please, often the easiest to train and make amazing family companions, said Cris. As Daijon showered my face with sweet kisses, I agreed that while there may be exceptions – any mistreated or un-socialized dog can become aggressive and dangerous – it’s the humans that are the problem, not any specific breed of dog.

While all 50 states have enacted anti-dogfighting laws, this cruel practice still continues throughout the country. Cris told me that in Georgia, dogfighting occurs mostly in rural areas or in less economically advantaged parts of Atlanta, where dogfights are typically held in abandoned warehouses or buildings under the cover of darkness. So what will it take to finally stop this barbaric blood sport once and for all?

According to Cris, it will require:

  • Harsher penalties and prison sentences for dogfighters, both spectators and organizers.
  • More animal welfare investigators in the field.
  • Banning backyard breeding (the primary source of dog procurement for fighting and bait dogs) and making sure that only licensed breeders can sell dogs that must be spayed or neutered before delivered to their new owners.
  • Making sure that shelters thoroughly screen potential adopters, have statewide “Do Not Adopt To” lists that they follow, and spay or neuter all animals before they leave the shelter.
  • Recognizing pets as living entities, not “property.”

Watching Daijon devour his dog biscuits with relish, I asked Cris to describe his perfect home. While she admitted she would adopt Daijon in a heartbeat if she didn’t already have 12 dogs at home, four of them fosters (and I thought parenting three dogs was a lot of work!), Cris said that Daijon deserved a loving home where he could either be the only dog or live in a family with other young, balanced dogs who could help him burn off his enthusiastic energy.

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“He loves people and is very food driven, which will make him easier to train,” she said. “Rehabilitating a former fighting dog requires love, stability, a solid pack leader and exercise. So I would say he needs experienced dog owner or a person who is willing to learn, be patient and devote time to him. A fenced backyard would be paramount for him to run and play. If the home has children they should be above the age of six, as he is clumsy, goofy and doesn’t completely know his strength and could easily knock smaller kids down by running into them.”

I’ve never shared my life with a pit bull or any bully breed before, as I’m sort of a diehard German shepherd and pug devotee, but after meeting such a special soul as Daijon, I think I might consider rescuing a pit bull someday. While he won’t be coming home with me, I know he’ll find the perfect situation with the right person. After all, this sweet, courageous boy has been through so much, he truly deserves the best life any loving human being could possibly give him. And in the end, Daijon is just further proof that dogs truly are the most resilient, loyal and forgiving creatures with such an innate ability to move forward and live in the present. We humans could really learn so much from them.

If you live in Georgia and think Daijon could be the perfect lifetime companion for you, please contact Angels Among Us Pet Rescue and fill out an application. You can also learn more about this amazing organization by visiting their Facebook page.

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“Compassion for animals is intimately associated with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.” ― Arthur Schopenhauer, The Basis of Morality

Why I Care Like I Do

Blame it all on Facebook. There I was, innocently scrolling through my morning news feed, sipping coffee and catching up with what my friends were doing, when I stumbled upon a photograph that changed my life.

The image depicted several German shepherds on the back of a rickety-looking truck, packed in cages far too small for their large, long-legged bodies. In fact, the dogs were crammed in so tightly, their paws stuck out between the metal bars in awkward, seemingly painful positions. Languishing beneath a thin tarp that barely shielded them from the hot sun, they were clearly suffering, their mouths hanging open as they panted, their faces the epitome of stress and exhaustion. And there, leaning against the truck’s passenger side door stood the driver, a skinny Asian man smoking a cigarette with a blasé expression on his face, seemingly oblivious to the anguish of the animals in his care.

The scene hit me square in the heart. These poor canines could have been my shepherds, who at the time were dozing contentedly in their respective spots on my home office floor, their bellies full of breakfast. And as I read the photo’s caption my blood turned to ice. These beautiful, intelligent, emotional creatures weren’t headed to a shelter or anyplace where their suffering would be ended and eventually forgotten. These unfortunate dogs were headed to the live meat markets of Vietnam, where they would be slaughtered and eaten.

I felt as if my brain was about to explode. Did people in Asia really eat dog meat? Wasn’t that just an old joke? Maybe they had in the past, during times of desperation, of famine, but not now, not in the 21st century! I simply couldn’t believe what I was reading. I had to know more. I did a Google search and began to read and read and then read some more. And with every article, every website, every image, graphic or otherwise, my heart began to break into more and more pieces.

Yes, I discovered, people in Asia and even Africa eat dog (and cat) meat. In fact, pet meat is a multi-billion-dollar, unregulated trade, especially in parts of China, South Korea and Vietnam, where the flesh of companion animals is considered a delicacy and purported to have (unproven) health benefits. Approximately 10 million dogs and cats are eaten each year in China alone. But the worst part? These “humans” involved in this trade weren’t just killing these animals, they were torturing them first, living under the false belief that the adrenaline stimulated by intense fear and suffering makes a dog or cat’s meat more flavorful and beneficial to one’s health.

Suddenly my reality was no longer the same. I felt like Alice after she’d fallen down the rabbit hole, or Neo in “The Matrix” after he swallowed the red pill. I knew I couldn’t go back to being happily oblivious that this level of cruelty existed – those days were over. I would have to do something, and at that very moment, I decided that I would do what I did best – write. I would use my writing skills to let the world know that this horrible trade existed and must be stopped.

Mind you, my objective wasn’t to condemn any culture for its food choices but to stop this egregious cruelty. To “humanely” kill and then eat an animal is one thing, but to intentionally put it through prolonged, agonizing pain is another. That is simply barbaric and wrong.

I felt like I was on fire. I contacted the animal welfare organization that had posted the photo and volunteered my writing and editing services to them. I learned everything I could about the trade, its history, its economic impact, its players and the propaganda and fake medicine they tout to perpetuate the demand and thus, line their pockets. I forced myself to watch videos I now wish I hadn’t seen and cried out loud in horror and despair. What I was witnessing was raw barbarity. How could any human being do such things to another living creature?

My brain haunted with images I couldn’t shake, I lay awake at night, staring into the darkness and sobbing at the thought of all those innocent animals that were probably suffering right at that very moment, while I was powerless to stop it. Unable to halt my tears, I often awakened my poor husband, who wasn’t sure what to do but hold me until I cried myself to sleep.

I knew it was wrong to blame an entire culture, that there were many wonderful animal lovers and activists in these countries who cared about animals, despised this trade and were fighting to stop it, but I struggled with hateful, judgmental and racist thoughts nonetheless. Though I tried to remind myself that people involved in the dog and cat meat trade were most likely ignorant and desensitized individuals who were the product of an environment bereft of compassion and empathy, I hated them nonetheless.

It seemed that the more I learned, the angrier I became. I went through a very bitter, cynical period. I got irritated when someone would ask me what I was writing about and when I would try to tell them they’d make a face and cut me off with, “ugh, okay, stop, I don’t want to know!” I didn’t understand why people would rather be ostriches choosing to remain ignorant rather than become enlightened so they could either do something to stop this suffering or simply help to spread awareness, too.

Then I realized I was being a bit of a hypocrite – with my own eating habits. Here I was, consuming the meat of farm animals while at the same time judging other cultures for eating the meat of companion animals. What made the lives of pigs, chickens, cows, lambs and turkeys any less important than those of dogs and cats? No creature, be it human or non-human, wants to suffer and die. I knew I had to walk the walk if I was going to talk the talk, so I started reading everything I could about the evils of factory farming to help lose my taste for animal flesh, something I had always consumed in moderation but still enjoyed from time to time. I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” and from cover to cover in two days. What a brilliant book. It opened my mind and did its job by ending my desire to eat meat forever. It’s been two years since I last tasted animal flesh and I’ve never looked back.

I felt good about not eating animals. I had been practicing yoga for almost 20 years and had always tried to live by the yamas and niyamas (the essential principles of a yogic life), one of the most important being ahimsa, or non-violence. But while I had stopped being violent in my eating habits, I was still being violent in my thoughts – toward people who either didn’t seem to care or “didn’t want to know.” I realized that harboring all this anger and resentment was only hurting my psyche and not solving anything, so I began to shift my thinking and my attitude. After all, did I really want to be one of those self-righteous vegans? Not really.

Sure, anyone with a compassionate (non-psychopathic) heart cares about animals, but I do believe there is such a thing as “compassion fatigue” in our society. Our world is riddled with so many problems, so much cruelty and pain, that I think most people feel helpless, overwhelmed and not sure what to do or where to even begin. So they shut down. I’ve certainly been there. And just because my eyes were open didn’t mean that everyone, even members of my own family, were interested in opening theirs.

I couldn’t blame some of my friends for saying they couldn’t read my Facebook posts anymore, which had become an outlet for my burgeoning animal activism. So what if they just wanted to see pictures of cute, fuzzy puppies with inspiring quotes to make them feel all warm and fuzzy inside? I knew I had to try to understand where most people were coming from so I could let go of my frustration with their lack of “likes” when I posted something I thought was really urgent and important. I knew I would find my “tribe” of fellow animal activists eventually, but meanwhile, it was time to find other platforms for my animal-centric writing and awareness efforts. And that’s when I began to write for Dogster.com and soon after, started this blog.

For thousands of years, humans have been exploiting animals for their own benefit. What right do we have to continue this tyranny, especially now that we know without a doubt that animals are sentient beings who have emotions and feel pain, just like us? Non-human species don’t have the ability to fight for their rights, tell their own stories, or change the systems that are harming, enslaving and murdering them. So I will tell their stories and be their voice and maybe, just maybe, I will get through to someone and they will feel inspired to help animals, too. Just imagine if everyone did one thing, big or small, to make a difference – what a safer, happier and more compassionate world we could co-create together!

So this blog is dedicated to the animals, to all the amazing, unique and inspiring individuals, past and present, who have touched my life, loved me unconditionally and always stood by me. I have been lucky enough to call many dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, goats and horses my closest friends, creatures who made me laugh, gave me love and asked for very little in return except to be taken care of and treated with kindness. They have been my greatest teachers, forever inspiring me to be a better person and a more loving caretaker. I can’t imagine who I would be or what my life would be like without them.

Me and my boys, Hugo (left) and Gizmo (right). Hugo has since traveled to the Rainbow Bridge. His mommy really misses him.

Me and my boys, Hugo (left) and Gizmo (right). Hugo has since traveled to the Rainbow Bridge. His mommy really misses him.

“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” – Martin Luther King Jr.