Is No Kill Really Possible? Part 3: Silencing the Skeptics

The evolution of the no-kill movement and its success in hundreds of cities and towns throughout the U.S. is proof that there is indeed a better way in managing our homeless pet problem. After all, it’s about time our sheltering system moved past the outdated and barbaric “cage and kill” paradigm and into a new era of progressive reform. By implementing a comprehensive portfolio of lifesaving programs and services, shelters can begin to transform themselves from dark, depressing places where homeless pets go to die, to welcoming community centers invested in saving healthy and treatable pets. We’ve already looked at what it takes for a shelter to achieve no-kill status, and the methodology is far from rocket science. So why isn’t every shelter jumping onboard the lifesaving train?

Unfortunately, there can be a wide variety of barriers to no-kill reform, including lack of funding, staffing, resources, community support, and leadership vision. So if you’re an under-funded, understaffed, open-admission municipal shelter overwhelmed with the throngs of unwanted pets your community continually dumps at your doorstep (as opposed to limited or closed admission shelters that can pick and choose the animals they take in), and you have no additional resources at your disposal, then the odds of being able to implement lifesaving programs isn’t favorable. After all, municipal shelters were originally created to protect people from stray animals that could be carrying transmittable disease, not to save lives. So while our society’s expectations of what a shelter “should” do – help pets leave out the front door with a loving family instead of out the back door in a body bag – has changed over time, perhaps our expectations exceed our current reality.

“Often organizations and public agencies, animal control agencies in particular, don’t have the resources they need because their communities aren’t investing enough to allow them the opportunity to do those kinds of (lifesaving) programs well,” said Jodi Buckman, ASPCA senior director of community outreach. “There’s a lot that goes into these programs, so while the programs exist, sometimes the resources don’t. Then it isn’t really about whether the shelter is choosing to euthanize a healthy animal or not, it’s about the community’s commitment to ensuring the resources are available to manage that shelter population responsibly.”

She continued, “We believe shelters have access to the tools they need and have to take responsibility for finding creative opportunities for positive outcomes for animals, but that shelters aren’t alone in that responsibility when it comes to resources. We don’t want them doing (no-kill) poorly – we see the results of that, where organizations are so desperate to not have to consider euthanasia at any turn that they end up with a hoarding-like situation. We have multiple examples where we’ve been called in to support local law enforcement in resolving some of those cases and that is institutional suffering of a horrific scale. So whatever we have to do, we have to do it responsibility, and that’s a difficult line to walk.”

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Understanding the barriers to lifesaving aside, why would anyone disagree with the no-kill philosophy in principle? Because really, how could anyone who claims to care about animals scoff at the idea of saving healthy and treatable dogs and cats from a needless death? Even harder to understand is why any animal “welfare” organization would cling to the status quo, claiming that no-kill is a direct line to animal neglect and abuse.

One of the loudest defenders of traditional shelter euthanasia is PeTA, a group that identifies itself as a leading animal “protection” organization, yet seems to have no problem condoning and participating in the senseless murder of healthy and treatable companion animals simply because they’re homeless. So many animal advocates, including me, have a very difficult time wrapping their heads around the twisted thinking that “humanely euthanizing” homeless dogs and cats is somehow “saving them” from the specter of possible abuse. Why not give these innocent beings a fighting chance rather than rob them of the possibility of a wonderful life with a loving family? But anyone who has bothered to learn the truth about PeTA understands that they aren’t, nor have they ever been, in the “business” of lifesaving (you can read more about PeTA’s disturbing euthanasia practices here).

PeTA founder Ingrid Newkirk paints a very bleak (and extreme) picture of no-kill:

“Making euthanasia the last resort does not contribute to animal abuse, it means you have to find other solutions,” said Rebecca Guinn, LifeLine Animal Project founder and CEO. “What would be unethical is for us to euthanize animals as a result of our failure to be resourceful, a lack of resources, or a failure of imagination. If you’re a shelter that takes euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals off the table and you don’t do anything else, then yeah, you’ve got a problem – that’s just math.”

So unless you’re content with the “adopt a few and kill the rest” status quo, you know that no-kill can and does work when handled responsibly and ethically. Long-term warehousing or hoarding of unadoptable animals because a shelter or rescue simply opposes euthanasia is irresponsible and cruel, but that’s the extreme end of no-kill done wrong. So is it not defeatist to believe there’s no middle ground between killing and hoarding?

“It’s unfair and inappropriate to allow examples of people or poorly handled situations to characterize the real objective of no-kill, which is that as communities and citizens in this country we shouldn’t be comfortable killing savable pets,” asserted Judah Battista, Best Friends Animal Society co-founder and chief regional programs officer. “Everyone recognizes that there are genuine acts of mercy for animals that are suffering, and that it is the right and kind thing to do, but to conflate that with this idea that you have to warehouse them or you’re justifying warehousing because you support no-kill is a false choice – it’s not one or the other. No-kill is only controversial within animal welfare circles where people get hung up on semantics, (and) the idea that it is at all controversial is letting people who don’t want to change the existing system control the narrative.”

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A kitten vies for a little love and attention at Dekalb County Animal Services. (Photo courtesy LifeLine Animal Project)

While leading animal welfare organizations such as HSUS and ASPCA do not openly support no-kill, they do work to reduce the killing of healthy and treatable shelter pets through various national programs designed to drive adoption, promote the human-animal bond, encourage responsible pet ownership, and prevent animals from ending up in the shelter in the first place, for example, HSUS’s Pets For Life Program.

You can read about HSUS and ASPCA’s positions on no-kill shelters and euthanasia here and here.

Regardless of semantics or how these organizations support lifesaving, the main goal of any true-blue animal advocacy agency should always be the same – preventing cruelty and saving innocent lives.

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 What’s the difference between ASPCA and HSUS?

As North America’s oldest humane society, ASPCA (aka, “The A”) primarily focuses on preventing animal cruelty and pet homelessness; cruelty investigation, response and rescue assistance; public policy and legal advocacy; spay and neuter; shelter support grant programs, and running its New York City-based shelter and adoption center. While the bulk of its work has historically revolved around companion animals, it also focuses on equine and farm animal welfare issues.

HSUS is the nation’s largest animal protection organization that works to reduce animal suffering and create meaningful social change through progressive legislation; making sure existing laws are enforced; public awareness campaigns and investigations; assisting large corporations in reforming their animal welfare policies, and providing direct care, rescue, and services for animals in crisis. Its work focuses on a broader range of animals, including wildlife, marine, farm and companion animals, as well as animals in crisis throughout the world.

Contrary to popular belief, neither group is an umbrella organization for the myriad SPCAs and humane societies across the country.  ____________________________________________________________________________

By putting us face-to-face with the shameful reality of how our society has historically handled its homeless pet population and forcing us to re-examine the purpose of animal shelters, the no-kill movement has been integral in advancing our expanding humane movement. It has given us a more compassionate, humane alternative to murder, and a morally sound destination for our pet-loving society to aspire. It has shown us that achieving a no-kill society is possible, although it certainly won’t happen overnight – it will require time, effort, commitment and support from all stakeholders, including animal shelters, rescue groups, animal welfare organizations, communities, and citizens, all equally invested in lifesaving. Because, in the end, shouldn’t a “shelter” be just that – a place where animals are protected and cared for until they can be placed into loving forever homes?

“Euthanasia has always been considered a necessary evil, and we’ve shown that it’s not necessary, so if you take ‘necessary’ out of the equation, it’s wrong,” said Guinn. “You have to believe that animal lives have value, and if you believe that, then killing them simply because you can’t find them a home is not okay. I’ve always felt that we have an obligation to dogs and cats, or any animals we domesticated, to provide for them – it’s our duty as human beings.”

What about us pet parents, rescuers and animal advocates – could we be playing a role in condoning the status quo by being part of the problem rather than the solution? I see it all the time, especially online – individuals and rescue groups badmouthing well-meaning shelters, other rescues, and national animal welfare organizations, wasting time promoting vitriol and suspicion rather than doing anything helpful or proactive. Yes, many animal rescuers are incredibly passionate people, but that “passion” can sometimes come off as “crazy” if it isn’t channeled in a strategic and productive way. So when we criticize others or burn bridges rather than look for common ground so we can collaborate in saving more animals, we aren’t helping anyone, especially the dogs and cats we claim to adore.

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Lefty, one of many sweet and adorable pups waiting for their forever homes at Dekalb County Animal Services. (Photo courtesy LifeLine Animal Project)

I believe that as more and more shelters move away from cage-and-kill and toward the beacon of lifesaving, no-kill will one day become a commonplace industry practice, making the need to use the term as a qualifier obsolete. It will simply be a given that shelters no longer kill healthy and treatable pets, reserving euthanasia only for the behaviorally or physically irredeemable.

“We’re in a position right now in animal welfare to be witnessing and contributing to a social transformation, from a society that accepted shelters as a place that collected, held and disposed of animals in the community, to one that expects shelters to provide a temporary social safety net for animals to get placed into new homes, and for those that are suffering, to be cared for and shown mercy when it’s appropriate,” said Battista. “The cusp of that is happening now, in community after community after community. The fact that it’s happening quietly is the thing we need to change, but it is happening, and all of us should be sharing the news that we’re winning!”

So what can you do to support the no-kill crusade?

  • Make adoption your first choice in acquiring a new pet
  • Always spay and neuter
  • Volunteer and/or donate to your local shelter and/or rescue groups
  • Help disprove the negative misconceptions about shelter or rescue pets by spreading the word that these animals make wonderful family companions!
  • If your local shelter is not yet no-kill, talk to them about their barriers to lifesaving and how you can help support them in making the transition
  • Become a foster pet parent
  • Spread awareness and educate others about adoption, spay and neuter, responsible pet parenting, and animal welfare
  • Reach out to your local animal-friendly legislators and encourage them to pass stronger animal welfare and anti-cruelty legislation
  • Only donate to national animal welfare agencies that support lifesaving
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Volunteer Sarita Carden bottlefeeds a neonatal kitten in the Kitten Nursery at the Best Friends Los Angeles adoption center and shelter. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society)

“Mankind is not the only animal that laughs, cries, thinks, feels and loves. The sooner we acknowledge that animals are emotional beings, the sooner we will cease destroying animals and embrace them as our brothers and sisters.” – A.D. Williams

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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/

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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, PhD, 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 possible 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 80s, 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. But lately 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.

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 everyday 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 doghouse, 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 every 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 viscous 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 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 stable mate 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 dumfounded 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