The Story of Daijon, a Pillar of Strength

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Cris, it will require:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Care Like I Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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