Hey, PeTA, Leave Those Pets Alone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Takes a Village to Help Animals In Need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many of the racing industry's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A typical livestock auction. Which of these fine people are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: stophorseslaughter.com

Photo credit: stophorseslaughter.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lot-A-Dot Siri Kid.

Lot-A-Dot Siri Kid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A beautiful, clean Siri after a bath.

A beautiful, clean Siri after a bath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siri and me.

Siri and me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some signs to look out for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An emaciated stallion. Photo credit: Queensland Times

An emaciated stallion. Photo credit: Queensland Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saving Alex, the Unbreakable Jindo Dog

Animal rescuers truly are some of the most dedicated, generous, loving individuals I have ever met. The lengths to which some of these people will go to help animals is so inspiring, it’s actually helped restore some of my faith in humanity. Covering animal welfare and cruelty issues like I do, I have often found myself losing that faith when I see how human beings continue to abuse and enslave animals throughout the world. But then I get to connect with special people who value and appreciate animals, who see non-human species as beings deserving of respect and compassion and freedom from harm. Like me, they just want to make a positive difference in the lives of innocent creatures.

The following story is a perfect example of people willing to go the extra mile to help an animal in need, regardless of the obstacles or odds against them. It’s the story of a traumatized Korean Jindo mix dog named Alex, who was given a second – and a third – chance at life, thanks to a kind-hearted savior and an amazing rescue organization that refused to give up on him. They are the true heroes of this story.

When Craig Petronella first met Alex, he was a scared, dirty, skinny little puppy confined to a filthy crate. The little white pup was only eight weeks old, yet he was already living with his second abusive owner. As a U.S. Service member stationed in South Korea, Petronella would regularly pass by little Alex and couldn’t help but notice the pup’s sad situation. Being confined to a filthy crate 24/7 is no life for a tiny puppy, but in Korea, it’s actually common practice to crate or chain dogs outside indefinitely, with little human contact and minimal care.

One day, Petronella found out that Alex’s owner no longer wanted him and was ready to either sell the pup to dog meat traders or abandon him to the streets. South Korea is home to a thriving dog meat trade that murders approximately 2 million dogs each year, so whether he was set loose or sold, the pup appeared doomed to end up on someone’s dinner plate.

But the kind military serviceman wasn’t going to let that happen. After convincing Alex’s owner to let him adopt Alex, Petronella brought the pup home during one of his leave times to live with him and his family in Virginia. The Petronellas were experienced dog owners, so they assumed that with a little love and patience, Alex would soon forget his abusive past and begin to enjoy life as a beloved member of their family.

Alex flashes his sweet smile. Photo credit: Treasured k9s

Alex flashes his sweet smile. Photo credit: Treasured k9s

But sometimes love isn’t enough when it comes to rehabilitating an abused dog. Due to his early trauma, the young Jindo mix suffered from deep-seated fear issues that began to worsen as he grew. When confronted with anything that frightened him, such as fast movements, loud noises or strange people, the dog would “shut down” by trembling uncontrollably, pressing his eyes tightly shut and cowering against the ground, paralyzed in fear. If he couldn’t hide, he’d act out aggressively.

Though the family loved Alex and tried their best to train and work with his issues, they finally realized his growing problems were beyond their scope. With no one willing to adopt the troubled eight-month-old pup, the family feared they would have no other choice but to euthanize him. But not willing to give up on Alex until they had exhausted every last option, the Petronellas reached out to a rescue organization they hoped would be his saving grace.

Enter Treasured k9s, a nonprofit organization that specializes in rescuing and rehabilitating Jindo dogs throughout the east coast region. Since their founding in 2008, this rescue has saved, rehabilitated and re-homed approximately 70 Jindos, many with behavioral challenges that most rescues would not want to deal with and shelters would simply euthanize. But then, this type of dog isn’t meant for the inexperienced dog owner.

A white purebred Jindo. This magnificent breed also comes in "yellow," black and tan, brindle and solid black coat colors. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

A white purebred Jindo. This magnificent breed also comes in “yellow,” black and tan, brindle and solid black coat colors. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

As a rare, primitive breed originating from Jindo Island, the Korean Jindo is a magnificent, highly instinctual dog originally bred for hunting and protection. While they are revered as Korea’s national treasure and considered status symbols throughout Korean-American communities, indiscriminate and irresponsible breeding combined with inexperienced dog ownership has resulted in more and more Jindos meeting their deaths in U.S. shelters every year, Kristen Edmonds, founder and president of Treasured k9s, explained to me.

“They’re very aloof, not typically warm to strangers, very dominant and their instincts are very high, so they’re not your typical happy-go-lucky dog,” Kristen said. “You really have to be a strong, confident leader with them. They’re very active, so they need a lot of exercise and they’re a very healthy, long-lived breed, so you could easily end up with one for 18-20 years. But you really have to be the right personality for this kind of dog. If you understand their personalities you’ll never have another type of dog because they’re the most intelligent, loyal, intuitive dogs you’ve ever had in your life.”

Because they’re naturally protective and territorial, Jindos typically don’t do well in shelter environments, becoming fear aggressive and thus, un-adoptable. And that’s basically a death sentence for this complex, misunderstood breed of dog.

Alex having a zen moment. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

Alex having a zen moment. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

But Kristen wasn’t going to let Alex meet that sort of end. Figuring he was at a prime age to overcome his issues, she agreed to take him on and headed straight for New York-based Dog Behaviorist Jeff Kolbjornsen, who estimated the young dog would need a couple of months of training and rehabilitation to help build his confidence and learn to trust people. But once Alex was evaluated, it became obvious that not only was this process going to take more time, it was also going to be more challenging than expected.

“When Alex first arrived at our center he was extremely fearful of me, had no training skills at all, and had a huge fear of the leash and collar that he was required to wear for training,” Kolbjornsen said. “The degree to which Alex bucked, screamed, and tried to get away by trying to bite was one of the more severe fear-induced demonstrations that I have seen.”

Plus, the trauma of being separated from his family wasn’t helping matters, explained Kristen. Here he was, in a strange place with a strange man (he was very sensitive to men to begin with) and all these new people – the nervous pup was simply terrified.

But after six months of daily socialization and rehabilitation – to the tune of $20,000 – Alex had slowly blossomed into a happier, more well-adjusted dog. Yes, that training bill had cost Treasured k9s a lot more than they’d planned, but seeing Alex playing nicely with other dogs, being more at ease with new people, obeying commands, and understanding his role and hierarchy in human relationships was worth every penny, Kristen said.

“The good thing about Alex is he’s very interested in positive reinforcement and reward, which makes it a lot easier to work with him,” explained Kristen. “We’ve come across many Jindos who have absolutely no interest in pleasing you, or in treats or toys, so when you can’t use positive reinforcement it can really be more difficult to work with them.”

Alex enjoying a good scratch. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

Alex enjoying a good scratch. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

Kristen should know. She began rescuing Jindos by accident after volunteering with a Siberian husky rescue that sent her a foster dog who appeared to be a small white husky but turned out to be Jindo mix. Plus, her mother-in-law is Korean, so Kristen has a strong understanding of the culture and where these dogs originate. Intrigued, Kristen began to research Jindos and how they were becoming more prevalent along with the increasing South Korean population in the U.S. After realizing there were only two small Jindo rescues in California (a state where homeless Jindos are the biggest problem), Kristen saw a need for a breed-specific rescue that could cover the eastern U.S.

With his formal training completed, Alex arrived at his foster home, where he adapted quickly. But when the family’s Jindo began displaying aggression toward him, Kristen moved Alex to a second foster home, where he has remained and been thriving ever since. Now over a year old, he is simply waiting for the perfect forever home, one capable of providing him with structure, rules and boundaries.

“He’s really come around a lot faster than we expected because he’s been moved twice now and he hasn’t had any setbacks – it’s all been positive and it’s actually helped him,” Kristen said. “He’s happy, sweet, very loving, he’ll get up on the sofa and cuddle, and he loves to play. He’s gorgeous, a little bigger than your typical Jindo at about 50 lbs, and a little longer and taller. We think he’s a Jindo mix because he’s got a softer personality than your typical Jindo – they’re more cat-like in that they like their affection and then they’re done.”

While Alex still reacts fearfully to loud noises, he is no longer fear reactive. Still, whoever adopts this sweet boy will have to understand that working through his fear triggers will probably be a lifelong process, advised Kristen.

“My goal is to place Alex with an owner who is calm, observant and firm – he requires patience, not dominance,” she said. “He would excel in a home with another medium to large-sized, active and confident dog, someone to keep him in check and help him gain confidence by example. Because he’s not full Jindo, he is a little too happy-go-lucky for a purebred Jindo. These dogs have a very strong attitude of ‘we must follow the dog pack rules – don’t be too happy,’ so all the other Jindos he’s been around have been getting mad at him.”

Alex and his foster brother, Cosmo. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

Alex and his foster brother, Cosmo. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

Alex’s ideal home would also be one without cats or children, although older, calm and dog-savvy kids in an experienced home could work, Kristen said. His new family will also need to live in the New York Tri-state area, as this will allow Treasured k9s, along with Kolbjornsen, to act as an ongoing support system, if needed.

Meanwhile, Alex’s foster mom, Amanda, has been doing a fabulous job continuing his training and building his social skills, including challenging him to overcome some smaller fear issues.

“He loves to run and chase,” Amanda said. “If you aren’t paying attention to him he’ll come over and sit in front of you until you play with him. He can get wound up while playing outside but once inside he settles down nicely. He does have a ‘personal space bubble’ in that he seems to be fearful of anything that gets too close to him uninvited, which makes sense since he’s still building trust.”

Ultimately, Alex deserves a patient, loving, forever home willing to do what it takes to help the overgrown pup become the wonderful dog he is destined to be. The once-mistreated Jindo mix is living proof that even the most difficult rescue and rehabilitation cases deserve a second (and a third) chance.

“In the right home Alex is only going to continue to thrive and blossom and once he really settles in he’s going to be a sweet, great, fun dog,” Kristen said. “He’s just a big, goofy puppy – that little puppy that never got to be.”

Just a big puppy. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

Just a big puppy. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

Sometimes it takes a village to save an animal, and in this case, that village succeeded beyond any expectation.

Treasured k9s is in dire need of donations to help with Alex’s remaining $10,000 training bill. If you’d like to help this wonderful organization continue saving and rehabilitating more Jindo and Jindo mix dogs like Alex, please visit their website donation page.

Also, if you live in the New York Tri-state area and think Alex might be the right fit for you (and vice versa), please visit the Treasured k9s website and fill out an application today! You can also learn more about this great organization and their dogs on Facebook.

“Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out, “good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied, “throwing starfish into the ocean.”

“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, “the sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “but, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.” – Loren Eiseley

Hawaii’s Ongoing Dog Meat Saga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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