They Called Her Sunshine – How a Rescued Street Dog Became an Ambassador for Abandoned Canines Everywhere

She had all but given up hope. Severely emaciated, infected with mange and covered in sores, the dying street dog began staggering down the side of the road, one slow, agonizing step at a time. Perhaps in one final attempt to find food, she had rallied every last bit of energy to crawl out of hiding and into the sunlight. Because like many street dogs on the brink of succumbing to injury, starvation or disease, her choice was clear – fight to survive or surrender to death. But call it chance, luck or destiny, everything changed for the ailing dog at that very moment. She had been seen.

“My girlfriend Julie and I were leaving my house to go shopping and were driving down our block when we both saw the dog at the same time,” said Caron Comas, longtime animal lover and devoted dog mom. “She was barely moving, sort of walking up the street. We hit the brakes, looked at each other and said, ‘is that a dog?’ The sight of her was just enough to make you fall apart.”

But when the women got out of the car and tried to get the dog to come to them, the frightened canine simply turned and ran the other way, quickly escaping under an abandoned house across the street from Caron’s home.

Shopping plans quickly forgotten, Caron ran back to her house to get something for the dog to drink and eat while Julie stood guard by the opening in the house where the fleeing canine had disappeared. After some coaxing, the dog’s intense hunger and thirst eventually won out over her fear and she began accepting a little food and water from the women, who couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The creature was a pink, almost hairless bag of bones, with irritated, crusty skin and deep, open sores around her hips and back legs, most likely caused from lying in one place for a very long time. The largest wound, located on her left hip, was so deep Caron could see exposed muscle tissue and joint material.

Sunshine when she was first discovered, in terrible condition and close to death. Photo credit: Caron Comas.

Sunshine when she was first discovered, in terrible condition and close to death. Photo credit: Caron Comas.

Knowing she had to act quickly to save this dog from certain death, Caron jumped on Facebook and began searching for help. That’s when she discovered Pause for Paws, a non-profit rescue organization dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and finding loving homes for San Antonio’s abandoned street dogs. She sent them an urgent message along with a snapshot she’d taken of the dog cowering under the house, a disturbing image that quickly caught the attention of Pause for Paws Director Sharal Mackenzie, who immediately got on the phone with Caron to determine the desperate pup’s location.

As someone who’s seen her fair share of street dogs on their last legs, Sharal knew this one was in big trouble. Without hesitation she reached out to Save Our Street Dogs San Antonio Texas (SOS-SATX), an all-volunteer group of dedicated street dog rescuers, to see if they had any members in the area who could pick up the dog.

“When I saw how bad the dog was I knew we weren’t going to have much time to get her, or she was going to disappear somewhere and never be seen again,” Sharal said.

Which was exactly what everyone feared had happened, because by the time SOS volunteers arrived at the abandoned house the dog had flown the scene. When they returned the next day, again, no sight of her. That’s because The City of San Antonio Animal Care Services (ACS) had gotten to her first.

Sunshine upon arrival at Castle-West Animal Hospital, where she was immediately attended to by the amazing Dr. McGehee and his wonderful staff. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Sunshine upon arrival at Castle-West Animal Hospital, where she was immediately attended to by the amazing Dr. McGehee and his wonderful staff. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

“Thank goodness they picked her up because if someone hadn’t gotten her she would have been one of numerous dogs who die under houses or in bushes and nobody even realizes they’re gone,” said Sharal.

As a city shelter with a good working relationship with many of the rescue groups in the San Antonio area, ACS willingly released the dog to Pause for Paws, who then rushed her to Castle-West Animal Hospital and Dr. Bill McGehee, the rescue’s longtime, beloved veterinarian.

After someone was overheard saying, “That dog looks like she could use a little sunshine in her life,” the canine was promptly christened Miss Caron Sunshine, in honor of her rescuer.

The newly named Sunshine had quite an extensive laundry list of medical issues. Besides being anemic and severely emaciated, she was plagued with demodectic mange, hookworms, dry, fragile skin and ugly, gaping pressure sores on both sides of her hips. The ugliest one on her left side was so deep it went straight to the bone.

“When Pause for Paws brought Sunshine in she could barely stand or walk,” said Veterinary Technician Jennifer Rodriguez, who is also a foster volunteer with Pause for Paws. “She was very pale and by her skin color and her eyes, you could see she was at the last bit of her life. As soon as she came in we started doing blood work, taking pictures and figuring out what was going on with her so we could come up with a treatment plan.”

Sunshine enjoying the comforts of a doggie bed at the clinic. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Sunshine enjoying the comforts of a doggie bed at the clinic. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

A blood transfusion produced miraculous results, and by the next day, Sunshine was active, aware and alert. But while it seemed the lucky canine had been delivered from death’s door, it was clear she had quite a road of recovery ahead of her, with myriad physical issues needing to be addressed. Along with antibiotics, iron supplements and several de-wormings, Sunshine’s intensive treatment regimen included daily mange baths and hydrotherapy to wash away dead skin, dirt and debris and infuse her wounds with oxygen to promote healing. In addition, x-rays revealed dysplasia in one of her hips.

“This showed us evidence of her age, which we think is about six years, as well as the wear and tear of being out in that kind of environment,” said Jennifer, who developed an immediate bond with Sunshine and ended up managing the majority of her care. “Although we’ll never know for sure, I can definitely tell you she was on the street for a long period, for her hair to die off, her skin to be so frail and for her weight loss to be so severe.”

With the cost of Sunshine’s care estimated at $5,000 or more, Pause for Paws quickly took to social media, where they shared her story and rallied supporters. Soon the lucky pup had her own Facebook page, hundreds of “fans” rooting for her recovery and a generous community of donors who not only contributed funds but also medical and pet supplies. One supporter even sent Sunshine special doggie pajamas to protect her sun-sensitive skin.

“(Sunshine’s medical care) would not have been possible without the support of so many kind-hearted donors who contributed to her GoFundMe campaign and directly to Castle-West,” said Sharal. “And of course, we let everyone know that anything not used for Sunshine would be used for the other animals that come in to our rescue.”

One of the most compelling things about Sunshine is her soulful eyes – they just draw you in. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

One of the most compelling things about Sunshine is her soulful eyes – they just draw you in. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Feeling better by the day and clearly on the road to recovery, Sunshine quickly settled into life at the clinic, becoming a fast favorite of the Castle-West staff and clientele, as well as a local celebrity. As her body healed her personality blossomed. True to her name, Sunshine’s demeanor proved to be sweet and sunny, her personality loving and affectionate. Soon she had joined the ranks of the privileged staff dogs, earning free roam of the clinic and soaking up as much attention as she could get from visitors and employees alike.

“She picked up very quickly where she can go, where she can’t and where she can lie down, and she was very well-mannered as far as socializing with the other dogs and animals,” Jennifer said. “She started learning where the biscuits were and started trying to open that container, and figuring out where the dry food is and poking at that with her nose. And of course, we had to watch every trashcan and countertop, because human food is her number one focus.”

After almost two months of top-notch rehabilitation and care, Sunshine was a transformed dog. While all of her fur had yet to grow back, her skin was improving and most of her wounds had healed up well. But after such a long stay at the vet clinic, it was time for Sunshine to take her next step – she was ready to graduate to a foster home.

Sunshine getting attention from a young client at Castle-West. After everything she's been through, it's amazing how much she loves people - of all shapes and sizes! Photo credit: Pause for Paws

Sunshine getting attention from a young client at Castle-West. After everything she’s been through, it’s amazing how much she loves people – of all shapes and sizes! Photo credit: Pause for Paws

“I already knew Sunshine was a great dog, she just needed to be shown where to be,” explained Jennifer, who is also an experienced dog trainer. “I knew that her hips were going to take a while to heal and while everyone wanted to foster her, I knew she couldn’t go into a home until they healed up. I thought if she does okay at my house and learns things like how to use a doggie door, not to dig in the trash and be gentle and nice with the other animals at the house, it would be fine with me if I took her and still did the treatments she needed while giving her a different environment.”

Just as she’d done at the clinic, Sunshine immediately adapted to her new environment, this time in Jennifer’s home, where she quickly learned household routines and good manners by following the lead of her five canine and two feline foster brothers and sisters. Her life now a far cry from her lonely existence on the streets, Sunshine was getting a taste of what she’d always deserved – to be a cared for, beloved pet. Watching her lounging on the couch, learning to play with toys, napping in comfy doggie beds or running around with Jennifer’s dogs in their huge backyard, it seemed as if Sunshine the once-invisible street dog had all but forgotten her unfortunate past.

“She learned right away not to pee in her cage and not to go in the clinic and she’s never soiled in my house, so that makes me think she may have had some experience in a house environment, that and in the way she connects with people,” said Jennifer. “She didn’t mind people being all over her, touching her head. She was so interested in them – she just gravitated toward that love.”

Sunshine getting some love from her admirers at a Pause for Paws adoption event. She loves having her head petted! Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Sunshine getting some love from her admirers at a Pause for Paws adoption event. She loves having her head petted! Photo credit: Corazon Photography

But when it comes to the fate of most street dogs, Sunshine’s happy story is definitely the exception rather than the rule. While the number of stray dogs in the U.S. is unknown, according to the World Health Organization, there are an estimated 600 million dogs living on the streets throughout the world. In San Antonio alone there are approximately 150,000 stray dogs, a serious problem that several rescue groups, including Pause for Pause, are trying to address.

According to Sharal, one reason street dogs are able to proliferate in San Antonio is due to the region’s milder climate, which makes it easier for stray and abandoned dogs to scrounge, reproduce and survive for longer periods of time until they eventually succumb to injury, starvation or illness. Most of the city’s street dogs are actually lost or abandoned pets, she explained.

“It’s primarily the lost dogs who are going to get picked up and rescued off the street, and most of those are very grateful dogs once we pick them up,” Sharal said. “We find a high percentage are housetrained and never wanted to be on the street in the first place. Then there are the dumped dogs – they’re the ones sitting by the side of the road, watching every car, because no matter how bad their owner was, that loyalty is still there. You can see them sitting in the median, just watching cars go by, and that’s usually when they get hit.”

She continued, “Then there are the community dogs that people don’t want to admit are theirs when they’re picked up or when something happens to them. These dogs have never had shots, never been fixed or probably ever had any care but they’re not totally unloved dogs, there’s just a different attitude (about pets) here. But in general, most of the stray dogs we pick up are pretty nice dogs once we get them out of the street environment. They may look feral but once you get them back in a home and they know they’re in a safe place they’ll switch right over.”

Sunshine and her devoted caretaker and foster mom, Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Sunshine and her devoted caretaker and foster mom, Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Meanwhile, Sunshine has continued to flourish under Jennifer’s loving care and weekly follow-up visits at Castle-West, where she enjoys socializing with her adoring fans, hanging out with the staff and “helping” with patients. She has also become a regular fixture at Pause for Paws adoption events, where people often stop by just to get a picture taken with her.

“I do sometimes take her out to different things and she’s great on the leash,” Jennifer said. “She loves to go on car rides – she waits every day to see if I’m going to open that door so she can jump in the car. She does have a little bit of separation anxiety, I think because we’ve spoiled her so much at the clinic, and she definitely wants to be out there and doing everything. For a street dog, her personality is absolutely amazing – she’s every rescue dream you’d want.”

Three months after her rescue from the streets of San Antonio, Sunshine’s happy ending appears to be within reach. The lucky pup has already landed a wonderful family that has been following her story since the beginning and has waited patiently for the chance to adopt her. Once they’ve been approved by Pause for Paws, Sunshine will be ready to embark upon her next chapter – life in a loving, forever home. But none of that would have been possible without the village of amazing people who worked together to save one incredible dog.

“This was a case of the whole community coming together to save one dog,” Sharal said. “It was the good Samaritan, it was SOS-SATX getting someone out there in a hurry, it was having ACS being willing to work with us, it was our vet, Dr. McGehee, who is fantastic and can do miracles, and it was Jennifer for taking such great care of her. And last but not least, it was the community, the people who were touched by Sunshine’s story and did something to save a dog’s life. They saved many dogs’ lives when they got involved, started caring and started believing that they could actually do something to help.”

Sunshine's incredible village of rescuers. From left to right, back row: Caron Comas, Sharal Mackenzie, Elsa Benavidas and Deanna Lee from SOS-SATX; front row: Dr. Bill McGehee, Miss Caron Sunshine and Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Sunshine’s incredible village of rescuers. From left to right, back row: Caron Comas, Sharal Mackenzie, Elsa Benavidas and Deanna Lee from SOS-SATX; front row: Dr. Bill McGehee, Miss Caron Sunshine and Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Our global street dog problem is a human-created problem. Be part of the solution by spaying and neutering your pets, providing them with care and not letting them roam free. If you see a stray dog, especially one in bad shape or in distress, here’s what you can do:

  • Don’t just walk away, do something. If you don’t feel comfortable handling the dog yourself, contact animal control or a street dog rescue group. Don’t just leave the animal where it is and think someone else will take care of it. That attitude of, “it’s not my problem” is why so many dogs end up dying on the streets.
  • Get a photo of the dog, as the shelter or agency will most likely ask for one.
  • Once you’ve reported the dog, don’t think it’s no longer your responsibility – that will rarely get the dog off the street. Be willing to follow-up and follow through to make sure the dog receives the attention and care it needs.
  • If you are able to retrieve the dog (please use caution when handling a stray dog, especially if it’s injured), don’t just keep it! That cute little dog you just picked up off the street may have an owner. Think in terms of what would you want somebody to do if it was your dog. Take it to a shelter or a vet who can scan it for a microchip, then do what you can to get the dog home, including posting signs in the area where it was found and/or circulating photos on social media.
  • If you see a mother dog and her puppies on the street, don’t just pick up the puppies and leave the momma behind. Leaving an unsterilized, lactating female dog on the street is not only cruel but also perpetuates the problem, as she will simply reproduce again.
  • Consider fostering the dog. This not only saves a life, it also allows shelters and rescues groups with space issues to help more dogs. Like Pause for Paws, many shelters and rescue organizations will provide medical care and supplies – all you have to do is supply a home, some food and love!
  • If you can’t foster, donate. For most shelters, especially smaller ones, money is always an issue, so anything you can donate to help the animals will be incredibly appreciated. Having that extra funding may mean the difference between that shelter being able to help another animal or having to turn it away.
  • Get out and promote spay and neuter. Talk to people, especially your neighbor with the unsterilized dog that keeps having puppies. Be diplomatic and take every opportunity to educate people in a kind, non-judgmental way. Talk to them about why their dog acts crazy or aggressive because he’s living in the backyard alone on a chain. Educate wherever and whenever you can – spreading awareness does make a difference!

Sometimes it takes a whole community to make a difference for dogs in need – Sunshine’s story is living proof of that fact. Because in the end, every dog deserves a home and all dogs are equally deserving of living safe, happy lives as beloved companions. Our planet’s street dog problem is not a canine problem, it is a mess we humans have created through reckless overbreeding and irresponsible pet ownership. We domesticated dogs to live side by side with us and they have remained loyal to us for thousands of years. We owe it to them to fix this crisis once and for all.

“Stop pretending that if your dog gets lost or you dump a dog that someone else is going to take care of it,” Sharal asserted. “Stop pretending that euthanasia is the worst thing that can happen to a dog…there are many worse things than that. There’s no happy ending for these dogs unless they get rescued.”

Miss Sunshine, who - as evidenced from the white fur with black speckles growing in - appears to be a Dalmatian mix. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Miss Sunshine, who – as evidenced from the white fur with black speckles growing in – appears to be a Dalmatian mix. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

“Roving dogs do not indicate compassion and civilization in society; they betray instead the ignorance and lethargy of its members…that means we should keep them and treat them with respect as we do our companions and not allow them to roam about.” – Mahatma Ghandi

Bearing Witness at Yulin – A Rescuer’s Mission

Picture this: you’re an international animal rescuer and welfare advocate, tasked with documenting one of the most egregious forms of animal cruelty on the planet – the dog and cat meat trade. You’ve arrived in Yulin, China, a sub-tropical city located in the Guangxi province, a notorious hotbed for pet meat consumption. It’s your very first trip to this magnificent country, but you won’t be doing any sightseeing. Instead, you’ll be attending the city’s 5th annual summer solstice lychee and dog meat “festival,” a barbaric event held every June that attracts thousands of people seeking to celebrate the season by feasting on heaping plates of dog meat and lychee fruit.

As a 20-year cruelty investigator and front-line rescuer in the U.S., you’ve seen your fair share of brutality against animals, yet you know that what you’re about to witness is the stuff of nightmares, visions that will probably haunt you for the rest of your life. But you must put your emotions aside. Your mission is to document what you see and bring it to the world while supporting Chinese activists fighting to end the festival and the trade.

You’re Adam Parascandola, director of animal protection and crisis response for Humane Society International, and this is the story of your experience at the Yulin dog meat festival – the good, the bad and the very, very ugly.

Caged dogs sit on the side of Renminzhong Rd., waiting to be transferred to a slaughterhouse in a narrow alley. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Caged dogs sit on the side of Renminzhong Rd., waiting to be transferred to a slaughterhouse in a narrow alley. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

It was 3:30 in the morning on June 22, the opening day of the festival. Tipped off by activists that a large truck has arrived at Dongkou Market and was unloading dogs at one of the slaughterhouses, Adam and his cohorts – a Chinese activist, an AP photographer and a New York Times reporter – raced to the scene (read the compelling NYT article here). In an attempt to throw off animal activists who have been protesting the festival with increasing fervor each year, the Yulin government had instructed butchers to go from slaughtering dogs out in the open during the daytime to concealing their gruesome activities under the cover of darkness or behind closed doors, Adam explained.

“By the time we got there the truck was mostly unloaded and the slaughterhouse had moved all the dogs into a large pen, where they were standing three or four deep on top of each other,” he said. “The area where they were actually doing the killing was hidden behind a wall, so we didn’t see that part but what I did see and document on video was this man who goes into the pen with a big stick and just starts beating the dogs. They believe frightening the animals improves the meat in some way. The dogs were screaming, trying to get away and get out of the cage – it was a really heartbreaking scene.”

He continued, “It took (the butchers) 20 minutes to realize they could just shut the door in our faces, which they did, but we could still hear the dogs. The local government had been claiming that these slaughters weren’t occurring at the festival, so we felt it was very important to document that they were actually killing dogs onsite.”

A cat climbs up the cage at the slaughterhouse, trying to escape. This cat was later rescued by Peter Li, HSI China policy specialist. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

A cat climbs up the cage at the slaughterhouse, trying to escape. This cat was later rescued by Peter Li, HSI China policy specialist. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

At this point in our interview, I just had to ask – how does he do it? How does someone who loves animals and has dedicated his life to helping them emotionally handle such horrendous cruelty and suffering?

“It’s definitely different because although I’ve been in this field for about 20 years, most of my work has been in the U.S. where (animal cruelty) is illegal already,” he said. “Although it was kind of like going to a factory farm or a slaughterhouse, which is really tough, for me it was especially hard because there’s nothing you can do to help those animals at that moment. So in cases like that, I just try to focus on the long-term, that this is going to help make things better for animals in the future, and that because the animals can’t speak for themselves we have a responsibility to be there and witness it. I also tell myself that it’s going on whether I’m there to see it or not. The slaughterhouse was very tough and it was definitely emotional in the moment but because I’ve done this for so long I sort of just push through and focus on the work. Not that the emotions don’t come up later.”

As the day progressed, Adam and his team – now joined by local and international media and activists from Vshine Animal Protection Group – continued documenting the festival while making sure to move together as a group for safety reasons. While some butchers expressed their displeasure at being filmed by throwing boiling water at the activists, Adam said he never felt that his life was in danger. As a foreigner in a city not accustomed to international travelers, if anything he felt like more of a curiosity than an object of anyone’s vitriol.

Diners waiting for a seat at one of Yulin's dog meat restaurants. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Diners waiting for a seat at one of Yulin’s dog meat restaurants. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

“It could be intimidating because these folks surround you and they’re taking pictures but I could sense that it wasn’t really hostile against us,” Adam said. “(The butchers and locals) definitely harassed the Chinese activists and the ones who come to buy dogs – there were scuffles that broke out with them. But nobody interfered with my documenting or with any of the other photographers at the live market.”

And for an animal lover, that market was pure hell on earth: thousands of ill-fated dogs and cats of all sizes, ages and breeds languishing in tiny, filthy cages, simply waiting to die. Whether by truck, bicycle or moped, most had been transported over long distances under horrific conditions and deprived of food and water, so they appeared stressed, traumatized, even sickly. Worst of all, many seemed to be former pets.

“That was important to see because dogs being stolen for the meat trade is a real problem in China,” Adam said. “You can definitely recognize it – I saw a Dalmatian and a Chow at one point and many dogs wearing collars.”

Small dogs await their doom at a slaughterhouse. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Small dogs await their doom at a slaughterhouse. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Although much of the country’s populace has turned away from the gruesome culinary “tradition,” it’s estimated that as many as 10 million dogs and four million cats are eaten annually in China. But as the divide grows between older generation dog meat traders and younger generation Chinese animal activists who want the trade to stop, clashes between activists and dog meat traders are becoming more and more commonplace, making events like Yulin a veritable battleground in China’s burgeoning animal rights movement.

“This isn’t a traditional festival that’s gone on for hundreds of years,” Adam explained. “Five or six years ago the dog meat traders felt that their market was declining, so they came up with the idea of an annual festival to drum up business. The local government initially thought by sponsoring it they could help bring tourism to Yulin, which completely backfired, so they quickly backed away and said they weren’t going to be involved. There was a lot of confusion this year because the government said there was no festival, which basically meant that they had pulled their sponsorship, but it’s not like they were taking action to make sure it wasn’t occurring.”

The good news is that this festival of torture may be on its last legs. For the past four years, domestic and international activists as well as animal lovers throughout the world have become increasingly vocal in their outrage and opposition to the gory event, calling upon the local government and the Chinese public to end dog and cat-eating in China and the cruel practices inherent in the unregulated trade. All that unwelcome global attention and criticism appears to have had an impact, reducing a once bustling event known to take the lives of 10,000 dogs and cats to a smaller, more subdued gathering with fewer traders, stalls and animals.

Chinese activists from Vshine Animal Protection Group in-action at Yulin. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Chinese activists from Vshine Animal Protection Group in-action at Yulin. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

“At last year’s festival you could see rows and rows of booths selling dog carcasses but this year there were maybe two or three vendors,” Adam said. “(The local government) also banned the outdoor tables, which meant people had to wait longer to get into the restaurants, and it rained. But I believe all the massive attention and condemnation is the reason the festival was so drastically reduced this year.”

Thanks to the magic of social media, much of that massive attention and condemnation was fueled by hundreds of thousands of animal lovers, including celebrities such as Ricky Gervais, flooding domestic and international social media sites with online petitions, awareness campaigns and messages condemning both the festival and the trade.

“The response from people and the media was greater than we ever could have hoped for,” Adam said. “Although we have yet to see how effective (social media activism) will be with the Chinese government, I feel like we’re seeing new people coming to the movement in China. Many of them didn’t know about Yulin before this, so I think (social media has) been really helpful in bolstering those individuals who oppose the trade and letting them know that they’re not fighting this battle alone, that there are many people around the world who support their efforts.”

Vshine activists with animals rescued by Peter Li, HSI China policy specialist. Vshine means “a small light of kindness that brings great change.”

Vshine activists with animals rescued by Peter Li, HSI China policy specialist. Vshine means “a small light of kindness that brings great change.”

Although Adam said he will never forget what he witnessed at Yulin, he has since been busy laying the groundwork for a more humane China. Just last month, he returned to the country to help HSI launch China Animal Protection Power (CAPP), a command center in Dalian, China that provides financial support and training for Vshine and other animal activists dedicated to intercepting, rescuing, sheltering and adopting out companion animals seized from meat trucks. Since Yulin the task force has rescued more than 1,400 dogs, Adam boasted.

Caption: VShine means “a small light of kindness that brings great change.”

Heartened by so many young and passionate Chinese citizens who have taken it upon themselves to challenge their country’s antiquated attitudes toward animals and improve China’s reputation as a developing and progressive nation, Adam said he does see a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the end of the pet meat trade.

“It’ll be telling to see what happens between this year and next year, and whether the festival goes on in terms of the Yulin government’s reaction to this kind of intense scrutiny and pressure,” Adam said. “China is very different from South Korea in that there is a huge movement within the country to end the consumption of dog and cat meat. Even though the rise in pet ownership is relatively new, I think it’s more established in China than in Korea and the activists are extremely dedicated. I strongly believe that we will see the end of the dog and cat meat trade in Asia in the next decade…and I suspect that China will lead the way.”

Adam with Ricky, a very lucky dog rescued by Peter Li from a Yulin slaughterhouse a few weeks prior to the festival. Ricky (named after HSI supporter Ricky Gervais) was later brought to the U.S. and Washington Animal Rescue League, where he was rehabilitated and adopted into a loving home. Photo credit: Washington Animal Rescue League.

Adam with Ricky, a very lucky dog rescued by Peter Li from a Yulin slaughterhouse a few weeks prior to the festival. Ricky (named after HSI supporter Ricky Gervais) was later brought to the U.S. and Washington Animal Rescue League, where he was rehabilitated and adopted into a loving home. Photo credit: Washington Animal Rescue League.

I certainly hope so. Human beings are slow to change, and those who make their living off the backs of animal exploitation aren’t likely to surrender their livelihoods willingly. So while I agree we may indeed see an end to the dog and cat meat trade in the near future, it won’t come without a long, ugly fight. Which led me to my next question – how does Adam stop himself from hating those people – not to mention entire cultures – who support and condone such heinous cruelty?

“It’s hard not to feel anger when you see someone beating dogs the way that I witnessed at Yulin,” Adam admitted. “But undercover investigations at U.S. factory farms have shown us an equal amount of callous disregard for the suffering of animals, so I don’t think cruelty is cultural in that sense. I think that anyone employed in an industry that depends on cruelty has to dehumanize the animals on some level or they wouldn’t be able to continue doing their job. This dehumanization unfortunately often leads to even greater cruelty and an antagonistic attitude towards the animal in question – it’s a product of industries that thrive on exploitation. As for the population who consumes dog meat, much like the rest of the world, most choose to shield themselves from the horror and cruelty that has brought the meat to them and remain ignorant of the true suffering caused by the trade. Cultures, much like individuals, evolve over time and heinous acts that long ago didn’t cause people to bat an eye would be greeted with revulsion if witnessed today.”

He went on, “Though I am appalled by cruelty and hate the actions of these individuals, that doesn’t lead me to hate the individual or the culture. Anyone who lives a life that involves engaging in cruelty on a daily basis is an individual who is deprived of the joy and contentment of celebrating the beauty of the creatures we share the earth with. On some level they are hurting themselves and navigating the world in an unskilled manner that causes suffering (except for the few true psychopaths who aren’t affected by the suffering of others) and they deserve our compassion, as well. Were they to open their hearts to this compassion they would surely abandon these practices. We have seen people make this transformation in their lives and turn away from cruelty, whether toward animals or humans, and to compassion. We all have that capacity.”

Dog carcasses hung up for sale in Dongkou market, as a dog looks on. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Dog carcasses hung up for sale in Dongkou market, as a dog looks on. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

I don’t know about you, but I’m truly grateful that we have incredible individuals like Adam Parascandola fighting the good fight in the effort to create a kinder, more compassionate world for animals everywhere. He is a true voice for the voiceless. Thank you, Adam.

To learn more about the dog meat trade in China, check out this excellent CNN article.

Want to see this cruel trade come to an end? Please support HSI and their incredible anti-dog and cat meat campaigns by visiting their donation page.

“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” – Mahatma Gandhi

The Homeless Pit Bull Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five little bullies looking for love.

Five little bullies looking for love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That face...

That face…

The Plight of Cats In South Korea

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: koreajoongangdaily.com

Photo credit: koreajoongangdaily.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

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

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

Finding Justice for Ronzo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ronzo's reward poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ronzo shortly before his passing.

Ronzo shortly before his passing.

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

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

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

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

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