Letter To Gizmo – My Baby, My Companion, My Dog

Dearest Gizzy,

Somehow I never thought this day would come, yet come it did, and with a vengeance. I guess when we humans bring members of your species into our lives, we sort of have to live in denial that you won’t live forever. I was no exception in my tight adherence to that unspoken rule. Even as your muzzle grew gray, your eyes cloudy, your ears deaf, and your body stiff and sickly, I refused to believe you would leave me any time soon, because the thought of losing you was completely intolerable.

How could I have loved a little dog like you so much? How could I have not? You were love incarnate on four legs, the embodiment of everything good, sweet, giving, and kind. You were my baby boy, my little man, my puggy angel. I made up silly songs just for you, inane little rhymes you’d listen to over and over again with bright-eyed delight, smiling back at me with your wide, pushed-in grin, your sweet roll-shaped tail wiggling happily. You had no idea what I was saying, but how you ate up any special attention that Mommy gave you. That was your way – you ate life.

I will never forget the moment I first laid eyes on you. You were playing with your littermates and bouncing around like a little bunny, all of nine weeks old. When I’d finally decided to fulfill my lifelong desire to get a pug I knew I’d wanted a boy, and you were the last male left in the litter. I picked you up, and you looked at me with wide, seal pup eyes that could have melted the hardest of hearts. And without hesitation you licked my face, as if to say, “hi Mommy, what took you so long?” And that was that. We named you Gizmo because you looked like a little wind-up toy, a name that always fit you to a t.

Baby Giz

Baby Gizmo the day I brought him home.

What followed was almost 13 amazing years of a cross-species bond based on love, trust, and companionship. I raised you, cared for you, trained you, took you places, pampered you, slept next to you, and anticipated your every need. We developed an unspoken understanding, an effortless synergy, and unshakable connection. You embedded yourself in my heart, wrapping me around your paw with ease.

As the years passed and my life circumstances changed, there were times I needed you more than ever, and you never failed me. You were always there, a constant I could depend on and look to for unconditional love, comfort, and endless humor, my doggie anti-depressant of sorts. When it came down to it, we just “got” each other. Even though I adored your German Shepherd siblings, Hugo, Heidi and Chloe Bear (and still do), they knew Gizzy had Mommy’s special love. They are my heart dogs, but you were my soul dog.

There are so many memories tumbling around in my brain, snapshots of moments so precious I’m afraid if I don’t nail them down they’ll disappear. How do I preserve them forever in the scrapbook of my memory? It’s as if our life together keeps flashing before my eyes, and I don’t want to lose a moment of it, even though I know there’s so much I’ve already forgotten. But the essence of you is still with me – your beautiful face (so pretty people often thought you were a girl), the impish, happy spirit of an innocent being who never seemed to have a bad day. I want to remember all of it – your hilarious antics and endearing naughtiness; your sweet, affectionate, yet sometimes stubborn nature; your quiet intelligence and cocky confidence, and of course, your incredible passion for gastronomy. “Mommy loves you too much,” the vets would say to you, indirectly admonishing me about your weight. And though they were right, was it really possible to love you too much? Not a chance.

Gizzy at B-day party 2-crop

Gizmo and I at a doggie birthday party for a little pug named Johnny. I’ll remember it as the day he learned how to mark in the house, a lovely habit I could never seem to train out of him.

I’d known you were in trouble that Sunday afternoon when I offered you a baby carrot – your favorite treat – and you let it drop from your mouth. You were only six weeks away from your 13th birthday, an event I was already planning to celebrate with your favorite cake from the local dog bakery. You’d been breathing harder for the past couple of weeks, but I’d simply blamed it on the warmer weather and the pollen in the air. The last two years had been hard on you, as the bronchial disease, arthritis, and all the drugs you now lived on so you could breathe and move without pain had gradually stolen your strength, energy, and ability to do all the things you used to love. No more brisk walks around the neighborhood, riding in the car, playing with your pack, or visiting the dog park. Time isn’t kind to any of us earthly creatures, but it seemed particularly unfair to you, the sweetest being ever to walk the earth. But while I could tell you were declining, you seemed to be holding on. You didn’t want to leave, and I didn’t want to let you go. Not yet, not ever.

Yet when I saw the ashen color of your tongue, the glazed expression in your eyes, and heard the raggedness of your breathing, I knew this was no false alarm. Off to the emergency vet we raced, with me weaving in and out of traffic as I urged you to hang on, to stay with me, reassuring you we were almost there. And even as you struggled to breathe, even as you seemed close to losing consciousness, your eyes never left my face, as had always been your way whenever we went anywhere in the car. But this was a different trip, and we both knew it.

Pug angel (16 months)2

Gizzy at 16 months. Such a pretty pug.

Two days later, the doctors had done what they could to keep you stable, but there was no fixing anything. Your heart was failing, filling your lungs with fluid. And though I’d wanted to keep you comfortable long enough for Daddy to get home from his work trip, when I saw you lying listlessly in ICU and gazed into your tired eyes I knew. You were leaving whether I liked it or not, and it would be cruel to keep you alive for selfish reasons. The vet gave you a nice shot of morphine, and I took you home, knowing as we drove that it wouldn’t be long. Because this time, you weren’t watching my face as I drove, you were simply lying in the passenger seat, staring into space as you struggled to breathe.

Your homecoming was a solemn one. Heidi and Chloe sniffed you over as I propped you up with blankets and got you comfortable in your bed, realizing our family vet wouldn’t be getting here in time to help you along. Knowing we would have to ride this out together, I climbed in bed behind you and wrapped myself around your poor, exhausted little body, so weary from trying so hard to breathe. Hadn’t I just been here, 17 months earlier, spooning Hugo as he left this world? I wept silently as I pet you gently, fighting to keep my voice even as I told you that Mommy was here, that it was okay to go, and that I would love you forever. Although you were already drifting to another place, you must have felt my tears wetting your fur.

It happened fast. Your breathing ceased. Your body stiffened, then fell slack. Your little heart fluttered beneath my hand, once, twice, then grew still. And all I could say the whole time was, “I love you so much, I love you so much, I love you so much,” because that was the last thing I wanted you to hear as you left. And as my words turned to sobs, Heidi and Chloe jumped up and huddled close, nosing you, then me, finally returning to their spots on the rug. I could see in their eyes that they understood what had just happened, and they watched intently as I smothered your head, your face, and sweet little paws with tearful kisses. And though pain shattered through every ounce of my flesh, for a moment I imagined I felt you nearby, bouncing around like a little bunny, so happy to be free, trying to tell me, “I’m okay, Mommy, don’t cry, I’m okay, see?” But just as suddenly as it came, the image flew away, and the world felt suddenly colder without you in it.

Atmydesk(withassistant)-2

Gizzy assuming his position while I write. My legs would always fall asleep, but the pins and needles were worth it.

Two weeks later, my heart is raw, radiating pain with every beat. It’s as if someone ripped it out of my chest, threw it off a 12-story building, then scooped it up and shoved it back into my body. Most days, I alternate between states of depression, healthy suppression, and numb resignation, knowing I must move on because I have no choice otherwise. Your sisters need me, and I want so much to make up for all the love and attention that often went to you more than it did to them. But when I do the simplest things, such as walk into the kitchen and realize you’re not following close behind, or lie on the bedroom floor to stretch and don’t hear you running into the room to jump on top of me or rest your head on my chest so I’ll stop and cuddle you, I lose my composure. I know this grief must ebb and flow at its own pace, but it hurts to harbor so much pain. Still, I am slowly becoming resigned to the fact that the longer I live, the more lives – human and canine – I will have to grieve. That is an earthly reality we must all face.

Some might read this and think, “give me a break, he was just a dog,” but then, those people have obviously never known the love of an intelligent, sentient being like you. Yes, you were a dog, but that doesn’t mean your life wasn’t important. If anything, it was all the more sacred and divine. Yours was a life that never knew suffering, abuse or neglect. You wanted for nothing and you were cherished, utterly and completely. You made me a better person, just for being in my life. I am so grateful to have had the chance to be your human mommy.

The Babies - July '08-2

Gizzy and his pack (from left to right), Heidi, Hugo and Chloe Bear. He was always sizing up Hugo for alpha status, as this photo clearly illustrates.

Be at peace and run free, my baby boy. Not a day will go by that I won’t think of you and wish you were with me, that I won’t long to kiss your round little head and breathe in your sweet doggie smell. If there’s another plane of existence beyond this life, I know you will be there waiting for me, with Hugo at your side, and someday, Heidi and Chloe – the Lionheart pack will be complete. But if such a thing is possible, I will hope you will come back and be my dog again. It may just be a fantasy, but it comforts me, the idea of finding you once more. I picture myself years from now, looking for a rescue dog who really needs a home. And while he may not be a pug or look anything like you, while his eyes may not resemble a seal pup’s, your impish, happy spirit will shine out behind them, and I will know it’s you. You’ll look up at me and pause, perhaps cocking your head, because even though you’ve never met me, I will somehow seem familiar. I’ll bend down to greet you, stroke your soft chest and let you sniff me over, your tail beginning to wag and your body starting to wiggle. And without hesitation, you will lick my face, as if to say, “Hi Mommy, what took you so long?” And that will be that.

Love you forever, little man,

– Your Mommy

Gizzy sweet roll

The sweet roll. (Photo by Chris Savas)

“Grieve not, nor speak of me with tears, but laugh and talk of me as if I were beside you. I loved you so – ‘twas heaven here with you.” – Isla Paschal Richardson

Frisky – A Cautionary Cotton Tale

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

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

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

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

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

Frisky & me

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer & Jack Sparrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Keys & Bree

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

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

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

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

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

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

MS Puppy Mill Rescue, Site 2

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

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

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

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

bunny

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

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

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

Chico & Tilda

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

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

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

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

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

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

MyHouseRabbit.com

HopperHome.com

Make Mind Chocolate Facebook page

The Language of Lagomorphs

ClickerBunny.com

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

Jennifer & Jack Sparrow-2

Photo by Chris Savas.

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

My Evolution From Dog Owner to Dog Mom (and How I’m Trying to Forgive Myself for the Mistakes I’ve Made With Dogs In the Past) – Part 2

Our ranch wasn’t the same without Samson. For several days I walked all over our property and rode the length of the canyon, calling his name and looking everywhere, all to no avail. Certainly, our faithful Dane hadn’t run away. Sam had always been good about staying close to home and wasn’t prone to wandering off like Harley used to (had Harley been neutered we wouldn’t have had that problem, but my dad believed neutering “ruined” a dog). It just wasn’t like him to take off, and coupled with his strange behavior over the past few weeks I knew something was wrong. Still, I hoped that somehow Sammy would find his way back to us and all would be well with the world again.

About a week later Temptor and I were coming home from an afternoon trail ride, the light turning golden as the sun headed toward the eastern horizon. Although I always loved our quiet excursions in the mountains, our rides weren’t the same without Sammy, and I think even Temptor missed him, too. That day I had decided to take a different path home and enter from the front of our ranch, up alongside our property line to a small gap in the fence at the top of a hill, where I wouldn’t have to dismount and unlock any gates. But as we were trotting past a large clump of Sumac bushes a foul smell hit me. Suspecting what it was but hoping I was wrong, I pushed Temptor into a canter and rushed him back to the stable, where I quickly dismounted and tied him in a stall. He protested a bit, as he didn’t understand why I was straying from our usual post-ride routine, but I knew I needed to get back to those bushes and find the source of that odor, and as soon as possible.

As I ran through the front paddock, climbed through the fence and approached the giant Sumac I was once again hit with the strong stench of rotting flesh. The bushes were so thick I had to pull and push my way inside, which I hated doing, as ticks like to hang out in Sumac leaves. But I pushed forward, and as I did the smell grew stronger. And that’s when I saw Sam, lying in a small clearing at the base of the bushes.

I didn’t have a clear view, as I would have needed to crawl on my belly to get much closer, but as I crouched down and peered through the branches, I caught sight of that distinctive blue merle coat, those floppy ears, the black leather collar and silver tag. As I stared harder I noticed Sam’s skin appeared to be moving – maggots were making quick work of what was left of him. Tears welled up in my eyes. There was no point in trying to get closer or move him – the overgrown Sumac bushes were to be his final resting place.

So I went home and told my parents and my sister, who cried inconsolably, as she’d always loved her “Whammy.” Our Sam, our best ranch dog, was gone. He hadn’t run away, he had run off to die by himself. We thought he had simply passed away of old age, another Great Dane gone before his eighth birthday.

It wasn’t until many years later when I briefly worked as a veterinary technician in my late 20s and learned how canine periodontal disease can lead to heart disease, that I realized what had actually happened to Samson. Bacteria from the infection in his mouth had most likely traveled to his heart and caused endocarditis, or inflammation of the heart valves, which led to inevitable heart failure. And while large, big-chested breeds like Danes can be prone to heart disease, what had happened to Sam could most likely have been prevented through basic dental and veterinary care. Yes, he had already been old for a Dane and may have only had another year or two left, but at least we could have made sure he died painlessly and peacefully rather than sick, weak and alone under a Sumac bush.

Realizing all of this was a “live and learn” moment for me, but one that came at a big price. I became wracked with guilt, believing I was responsible for Sammy’s unnecessary suffering and untimely demise. I had seen the state of his mouth, and yet I had said and done nothing. For years I would punish myself whenever I thought about Sam, dwelling on how much he’d suffered and feeling like a terrible person who had neglected and abused her dog. It probably wasn’t productive to beat myself up about it over and over, but it served as a huge lesson I will never forget.

My thoughts began to turn to the other animals that had come and gone in my life, some before and after Sam, creatures I thought I’d cared for to the best of my abilities. Yet when I thought about how they’d lived and died, I wondered if I hadn’t let them down, too. I had never hurt any of them intentionally, but like Sam, there were some who had probably suffered due to my ignorance, selfishness and indifference. I began to doubt myself, picturing all of those sweet faces and thinking back on how I had treated them, some better than others. Thus began a shifting of my consciousness, one that took many years and a lot of self-examination. But ultimately, it took a very special teacher to help me evolve from a pet owner to a true pet parent.

Everything changed when a German shepherd named Max came into my life. He belonged to a man who later became my husband (and ex-husband nine years later) and was one of the most regal, intelligent and loyal dogs I had ever met. I had always admired GSDs – their intellectual capacities, their beauty, their fierce devotion to their families – but had never had much contact with them, and in a sense, Max was my baptism to the breed. Sort of a baptism by fire.

Max was wonderful but he had some serious faults. He was extremely fear aggressive toward other dogs, and very wary of strange people (he would actually try to bite them if they weren’t introduced “correctly.”) Mike had raised Max from a six-week-old pup and adored the dog but he had made a series of socialization and training mistakes that resulted in Max’s chronic behavioral problems. Consequently, being out in public was never a fun time with Max, so Mike simply avoided taking the dog anywhere where there would be people or other canines. But despite those great inconveniences, Mike was the most dedicated dog owner I’d ever seen, always going out of his way to meet Max’s needs, keep him happy and out of trouble.

I had never lived in an apartment (or inside any dwelling, for that matter) with a dog before, and when I would get annoyed that Max was always in my face or irritated with how he limited our social life, Mike would remind me that while Max had his faults, he was our responsibility and we were his pack. Max was “a person” who had feelings, and his feelings mattered.

Through Max, I learned how to truly understand, care for and love dogs as I never had before. I’d always thought of myself as an animal lover, yet I came to realize there was a big difference between someone who “owns” a pet and someone who “parents” one. While Max definitely tested my patience, especially when he’d freak out trying to get at another dog when we were out on a walk, when we’d come home from long hours waiting tables to find diarrhea all over the carpet, or when we couldn’t have people over because he couldn’t be trusted – indeed that was not endearing. But as time passed and I learned to have empathy for Max, I slowly became more patient, tolerant, and compassionate. Learning to appreciate and understand Max opened my heart in a way it had never been before, and when we brought Hugo, a gorgeous little GSD puppy, into our lives a few years later, my heart simply swelled with love. I became a Mommy, plain and simple.

But all these years later I admit I am sometimes haunted by the animals of my past. Perhaps it’s not uncommon for people who’ve had animals all their lives to feel sadness and shame for how they may or may not have treated their pets, especially if those people had to go through a long learning curve like I did. When my thoughts return to Sam I am still prone to pangs of regret, wishing I could have saved the loyal Dane who needlessly suffered as a result of my ignorance.

Figuring I could use some professional advice, I talked to Susan Lovell, Ph.D, a psychologist who runs a private practice counseling adults and couples in Santa Monica, California (full disclosure: my aunt). She told me there are two kinds of guilt – persecutory guilt, which is a neurotic state of mind in which people have an overwhelming sense of guilt for situations they’re not actually responsible for, and reparative guilt, in which a person feels remorseful and regretful about an action that hurt or injured someone else and wants to take action to make amends (perhaps something as simple as saying, “I’m sorry”). What I needed to do, she recommended, was move from the former to the latter.

“Getting over the guilt you feel will require you to move from the understandable guilt of having hurt something you loved, even if it was inadvertent or from ignorance, and turning it into a form of repair in which you take actions to ensure that it hopefully won’t happen again,” Dr. Lovell said. “While it’s important to understand the state of mind you had at the time and forgive yourself, understand that you will always have regret. The issue is not letting the regret stop you from moving forward.”

And so I have made the decision to do just that. While I will always feel badly about Sam, I cannot change the past, I can only learn from the mistakes I made and allow him and all the other animals who have walked through my life to leave their indelible paw prints on my heart. Animals don’t live in the past and neither should I. Instead, I will let their memories inspire me to not only be a better caretaker and dog mom, but also a better human being. I now embrace the belief that animals are not less-intelligent creatures that exist for our pleasure or to suit our purposes, but are sentient beings who feel emotions, form attachments, experience pain and deserve respect and protection.

Today, my three dogs definitely benefit from what I have learned and who I have become. While I’m far from perfect (sometimes I still get impatient and raise my voice when they do something really aggravating), I consider them my children who deserve all the love, care and consideration I can possibly give them. I go out of my way to meet their physical, emotional and mental needs, and when I can prevent or stop their pain or suffering, I do it without hesitation. I will never let what happened to Sam happen to them.

While I will always wish I could have been a better guardian of the animals of my past, all I can do now is keep growing, continue learning, do my best and give back. I have become a voice for the voiceless and know without a doubt that making the world a safer, more compassionate place for animals is indeed my true calling in life. I think Samson would appreciate that.

That sweet Sammy smile.

That sweet Sammy smile.

“Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains un-awakened.” – Anatole France

My Evolution From Dog Owner to Dog Mom (and How I’m Trying to Forgive Myself for Mistakes I’ve Made With Dogs In the Past) – Part One

Samson was a blue merle Great Dane and my best trail dog. There wasn’t anywhere my horse and I could go where he wouldn’t follow. The lady who owned the Appaloosa farm down the road gave Sam to my family after our first Great Dane, Harley, had to be put to sleep when his hind end “gave out.” Harley was the funniest, most wonderful dog and only eight years old when he died. I guess that’s why Great Danes have been dubbed “the heartbreak breed,” because they’re such amazing dogs that live terribly short lives. I’m sure there’s more we could have done medically to keep Harley comfortable and extend his life, but in those days it seemed like a lot of people simply “let nature take its course” with their animals. It was the early 80’s, when most pets weren’t viewed as children like they are today. Especially out in the canyon where we lived, a dog got old and it died or you dropped it at the vet and ended its suffering – end of story.

So we got Sammy. I think the breeder wanted to get rid of the young dog because he was too submissive and she preferred more protective Danes that could guard her giant herd of high-bred spotted horses. The ranch had recently gone through an attempted horse-napping, with the thieves rounding up and dumping their dogs miles away so the criminals could return to the scene and steal the choicest horses undisturbed. Sammy had been one of those dogs, and as a result, had been deeply traumatized by the experience. But we were happy to take him off the woman’s hands, as my dad’s heart was broken over losing Harley and wanted very badly to fill the hole our late harlequin had left in his wake. In fact, I don’t think Dad even waited a day between putting Harley down and bringing Sammy home.

Harley the harlequin. My dad never got over losing him.

Harley the harlequin. My dad never got over losing him.

Sam wasn’t the outgoing, silly clown Harley had been, but he was sweet and loving and adjusted to life on our ranch very quickly as if he’d lived with us his whole life. Having grown up with horses and an array of other animals on the Appy farm, Sam was a natural around our four cats, six chickens, one rooster and even our little African pygmy goat, Nadia (in fact, before long Nadia became convinced that Sammy was her new boyfriend – suffice it to say it got “weird” at times). But he was especially comfortable around Temptor, my Appaloosa gelding who had a sly, cranky side he sometimes liked to take out on dogs. As he had with Harley, Temptor took great pleasure in chasing Sam out of his paddock, ears flattened, teeth bared and nostrils flaring as he charged the rapidly retreating canine. But Sam, ever the sweet, gentle subordinate, never seemed to take it personally and would return to my horse’s side again and again, hoping to finally be accepted into his “herd.” Eventually, I think Temptor just gave up and let the dog be.

Dogs love routine, and every morning it was Sam’s job to accompany me to the stable for our daytime feeding ritual. I’d open our kitchen door and there would be Sam, patiently waiting with that big, droopy smile, his long, whip-like tail wagging slowly to and fro. He loved hanging out and sniffing around in the tack room while I measured out Temptor’s breakfast into a bucket, then trailing me to the paddock and standing close as I dumped the contents into my hungry equine’s feed bin. Sam didn’t mind that he always ate last. He was just happy to be a part of it all. He was a ranch dog, plain and simple.

A young Samson.

A young Samson.

Before long the gentle Dane had also memorized my riding routines. He knew the difference between a weekend and a school day, and that when it was summer every day was a riding day. On afternoons after school, when I’d only have an hour to ride before starting my homework, Sam would follow us out to the flat area in our big pasture, where I’d put Temptor through his paces in a large circle. Meanwhile, Sammy would entertain himself by hunting for rabbits or ground squirrels in the long field grass or dozing under a nearby tree. But on weekends or summer days, Sam knew that two hours after Temptor’s feeding we’d be ready to prepare his buddy for a trail ride. Ever the patient gentleman, Sam would lie close by as I curried and brushed Temptor’s brown and white coat to a gleam, head between his giant paws, amber eyes following my every move. But once the saddle was on and I had my boot in the stirrup, the enthusiastic canine was ready to go, leaping to his feet and excited to perform his favorite job – trail guide!

Throughout most of my adolescence, I can’t remember a time when Sam wasn’t there on the trail with Temptor and me. Nothing made him happier than leading the way or picking up the rear as the three of us ventured over miles of fire roads and meandering trails through the sagebrush-covered mountains or down to the beach south of Paradise Cove. Like Temptor, the dog had amazing endurance and could trot or lope alongside us for long stretches of time and distance, maybe stopping here and there to investigate a scent or chase something furry, but otherwise perfectly content to amble along on our rambling adventures.

An older Sammy.

An older Sammy.

On weekends and during the summer months we’d meet up with my girlfriend Catherine and her little brother Eric and their horses for all-day excursions, which usually turned into racing contests. As we’d gallop along like The Wild Bunch, young and crazy and fearless, Sammy would always manage to keep up with us with his long, loping strides, all the while managing to stay clear of all three sets of thundering hooves. Sometimes we’d pack a lunch or head back to Catherine’s ranch for a light meal under the oak trees, Sam lying in the cool grass and waiting for me to toss him a few morsels. He was a good dog and my buddy and I couldn’t imagine going on a ride without him. Then one day he just stopped coming along.

It happened almost overnight, the change in Sammy. I first noticed something was off when I was heading out for a quick afternoon ride after school and noticed Sam wasn’t trotting alongside in his usual place. I turned around in the saddle and saw him heading in the opposite direction, toward home. Confused, I called his name once, then twice, but he just glanced back at me and kept going. When I yelled at him to “come” he started running faster, probably thinking he was in trouble. But whatever the reason for his strange behavior, it wasn’t like him to cut a ride short. When I returned home an hour later, Sam was lying by the kitchen door as if nothing had happened, ears back and tail thumping on the cement as I walked up, perhaps hoping I’d forgiven him. He was seven years old now and his muzzle was almost completely gray. But wasn’t he too young to be slowing down just yet?

Sam, the greatest ranch dog in the world.

Sam, the greatest ranch dog in the world.

Lately, I’d noticed he hadn’t been eating as much and had lost some weight. Still, he’d always been a lanky Dane. The Blue Jays always seemed to be finishing Sam’s food instead of him, making a ruckus as they dive-bombed his food bucket and flew away with giant chunks of kibble in their beaks. At that time gourmet, premium or holistic dog food wasn’t exactly commonplace, or even available, I imagine. Like most dogs at the time, ours ate good ole’ Purina Dog Chow, the kind of cheap kibble I wouldn’t dream of letting my dogs eat now. I can only imagine what was in it – corn, wheat, soy, artificial coloring and preservatives and cheap meat by-products from unknown sources. Sam might as well have been living on junk food. Still, he’d always been a good eater, until recently.

It was only by accident that I noticed the dog’s mouth. Maybe I smelled a foul odor when I knelt down next to him, or maybe as I stroked his face I moved his jowls and caught sight of his teeth, I’m not sure. But I remember doing a double-take and pulling his lips back, exposing teeth coated in thick brown tartar and red, inflamed gums. At 18 years old, I knew nothing about canine dental care and had never heard of anyone having their dog’s teeth cleaned by a vet. I’d noticed Sam’s tartar-stained teeth before, but the situation had obviously grown worse. But like most minor problems our animals had from time to time, from fleas and hot spots to little cuts and abrasions, I figured Sammy’s mouth would just heal up on its own. And though his gums definitely didn’t look right, I simply ignored the issue, figuring it was just a typical condition some dogs developed from time to time. I don’t know why I didn’t say anything to my parents. I wish I had. I wish I’d known enough to put two and two together, that the reason Sam didn’t want to go on rides anymore was due to the raging infection in his gums, which by then was probably destroying his heart. But I had no clue that my dog was showing signs of heart disease, I just thought he was getting old and tired. Three months later, Samson disappeared.

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.

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.