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.”

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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.

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/

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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

Marc Ching – A Brave Rescuer On a Mission of Compassion

“You cannot tell a country who does not have the same value system as we do to love dogs. The only way is to plant a seed. And to let dogs themselves soften their hearts. In time I am certain you will no longer have a society that eats them. That no longer bashes in their skulls because their lives will now hold meaning.” – Marc Ching

Lucky for dogs everywhere, there are a growing number of animal advocates, rescuers and activists throughout the world fighting on behalf of man’s best friend. But not everyone is willing to risk life and limb – or come face-to-face with one of the planet’s most violent forms of animal cruelty – in the process. Enter Marc Ching, founder of the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation and owner of The PetStaurant. A holistic pet nutritionist and Japanese herbalist by profession, this incredibly brave rescuer has taken it upon himself to save as many dogs as he can from the Asian pet meat trade.

Ching’s harrowing odyssey into this dark underworld began last May, when he learned about the summer solstice lychee and dog meat “festival” in Yulin, China. Shocked and disbelieving that such an inhumane practice could actually exist in the modern world, Ching bought a plane ticket, grabbed a backpack and headed to China with a raw determination to witness the trade for himself and rescue as many dogs as possible.

Ching the rescuer

This is Marc Ching – rescuer, savior and modern day hero. These poodle pups were rescued from a trash bag. Photo courtesy of Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation.

“My first trip was after the Yulin festival, on Sept. 1,” he says. “When I went to China I saw things I didn’t know people could do. I knew they ate dogs there but I didn’t know about the torture and abuse aspect associated with the preparation of the meat. It’s one thing to read about it or go to a dog farm, which is like a very dirty breeding facility, but it’s another to go to a slaughterhouse and see the methods people have created just to harm another living creature. It doesn’t make sense to me – it’s unspeakable.”

Since that first fateful journey, which shook him to the core but also galvanized his resolve to keep coming back and save more dogs, Ching has made three additional trips, rescuing a grand total of 249 canines from some of the worst and largest slaughterhouses in notorious dog meat locales including China’s Guangzhou province; Busan, South Korea and Hanoi, Vietnam. Unfortunately, only 61 dogs survived their ordeal.

“My trips are a little different than those of most people who rescue from the dog meat trade,” Ching says in his soft Hawaiian accent. “Typically people go to dog farms and try to shut them down or push meat trucks off the road. I actually go into the slaughterhouses and rescue dogs that are being dismembered, tortured or abused.”

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A slaughterhouse in Hanoi, Vietnam, a city notorious for its incredibly violent meat trade. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

As the founder of a nonprofit focused on rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming severely abused dogs in the U.S., Ching is no stranger to cruelty. But he admits his rescue missions to Asia have come at a cost both mentally and physically – he’s been beaten, held hostage, had a machete put to his throat, a gun at his head, and lives with visions that will haunt him for the rest of his life. But neither mental anguish nor fear of death has deterred this gentle savior from his quest.

Since that first fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants trip to China, Ching has developed a more organized process that includes travel itineraries, securing translators and veterinarians in advance, working with teams of researchers to locate slaughterhouses, and finding ways to obtain undercover video footage – without getting caught (he was beaten severely when a South Korean butcher caught him wearing a GoPro). Posing as a wealthy American dog meat buyer, he makes a point of never going to the same slaughterhouse twice.

“It’s actually a great cover,” Ching boasts. “When I come into a country I prep my translator for about two hours before we go out, so when he goes to a slaughterhouse with me he knows what to say. He’ll tell the butchers, this is my client, he’s a rich American and he wants to buy (large quantities of) dogs that have been abused and tortured but still alive, because he’s going to kill them himself, prepare the meat and export it to America.”

Ching rescuing hope-crop

Marc with Hope, the first dog he rescued from a slaughterhouse in China. Hope has since recovered from his injuries and has been brought back to the U.S., where he serves as an ambassador for Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation’s China Effort. He is indeed a miracle! Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

He continues, “Before we go out we call local veterinarians and ask them how many dogs they can take, treat and keep for a few months, because the number of vets we find determine the number of dogs we save. So our process now is to take the dogs, load them up in vans and get them straight to the vets.”

For those unfortunate dogs who don’t make it to the vet, Ching makes a point of driving them into the countryside and giving them a dignified burial.

“At least they knew in their last moments that someone cared for them,” he says.

Despite the unspeakable horrors and mental anguish he has endured along the way, Ching insists his Asia efforts are worth the pain and sacrifice, especially when he’s able to fly dogs to the U.S. and bring them to his foundation in Sherman Oaks, Calif. So far, Ching has brought back 46 lucky dogs, most of which have since been rehabilitated and adopted into loving homes.

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These puppies were rescued from a slaughterhouse in China. It is unthinkable that anyone would want to harm such innocent beings. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“It’s very expensive to bring these dogs to the U.S., so I try to adopt out locally to Canadians or veterans who live there, as well as to great local Asian people who would never hurt their dogs,” says Ching. “But the ones that I bring back are the dogs that really mean something to me – they all have a story. I also realize these dogs have value here…people in America rally around them. Part of raising awareness is showing people the end product of (my rescue missions), so it becomes tangible to them. It spreads awareness that there are people in these countries doing these things and we should do something to stop it.”

Ching says one of his most special rescues is Sorrow, a black and white French bulldog he saved within minutes of being brutalized in a slaughterhouse in Tongzhou, China.

“That’s a dog who means a lot to me because he’s become the face of what I do now, as so many people have seen that picture of him with his mouth and feet bound,” says Ching. “If you love animals, especially dogs, and you see that picture, it’s just emblematic of what they’re doing over there. That dog and the dogs I rescued from that slaughterhouse, they are miracles, because once an animal enters a place like that, there’s no getting out – they were supposed to die. So I think people connect to that image, because he really is a miracle.”

Sorrow upon rescue

Sorrow just moments after his rescue. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

Rescuing and getting treatment for dogs in other countries, especially those with extensive medical needs, can be incredibly costly. As the saying goes, “if you want to help animals, get rich.” Luckily, Ching’s thriving wellness and nutrition-centered pet store, ThePetStaurant, has enabled him to fund his Asia missions without having to rely heavily on donations, although he always appreciates any help he can get from his passionate supporters.

“My business is very successful, but where most people would buy a Rolex watch, I save dogs,” says Ching. “I never want someone to look at what I do and pollute it by saying I do it for (donation) money because that’s not possible – I lose a few hundred thousand dollars a year on these rescues because they’re so expensive. But in the end it’s worth it because this means so much to me.”

Ching’s purity of intention is also reflected in the beautiful, tragic, yet inspiring writings he posts on Facebook and Instagram before, during and after his missions. Writing has essentially become a therapeutic outlet for Ching, who admits he has been deeply traumatized by what he has experienced. Yet besides helping him to heal his heart and mind, his heartfelt, sometimes gut-wrenching posts have also touched the hearts of thousands of animal lovers throughout the world, devoted social media fans who follow his travels and cheer him on, every step of the way.

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Marc on the back of his translator’s moped in Hanoi, following a near-death experience at a slaughterhouse. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“I actually post in real time when I’m (in Asia), so I’m able to take my experiences and use my words to paint a picture so people can feel the moment,” says Ching. “I think they appreciate that and they can see what it’s like out there.”

But after staring into the jaws of death one too many times, this devoted husband and father of two has begun to rethink his strategy, from one of rescuing to shifting a mindset that will inspire lasting change.

“In starting this I didn’t have a goal, I just went out there and rescued dogs from slaughterhouses,” Ching explains. “Internally, I felt like it was a way to save myself, because it’s addicting, that moment when you feel like a hero. But in the long run, especially on trip three, it because so burdensome on my consciousness I even had a hard time living my life. Now my goal has changed from risking my life to creating an effort where I’m doing something to end (the dog meat trade).”

At the core of this new strategy is a media campaign in China and South Korea that will feature a short documentary tempered with graphic undercover video footage Ching and two undercover slaughterhouse workers have compiled over the last several months. Dubbed “The Compassion Project,” its intention is to shed light on the abusive practices tied to the trade, turn people away from eating dog meat and support change.

Ching and rescue

Marc with a very grateful Bull terrier he rescued from Li Yuan, China. The kisses make it all worthwhile! Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“In China and South Korea they care more about image, so my goal is to put this media campaign together, line up celebrities and schedule important meetings with people in the government. My message will be, ‘you can be hated by all these countries because of this inhumanity or you can rise up and decide that your country is better than that.’ In our culture we used to have slavery and lynching, but one day we realized that was no longer acceptable and we changed. I believe their countries are no different and that they’ll change in time, too.”

He continues, “Their celebrities (are very important to them). If Yao Ming did the same thing for us as he did (for WildAid’s anti-shark fin soup campaign) in China, I could almost guarantee dog meat would be wiped out in a matter of months because these places where they’re doing it would have so much local opposition, they’d have to end it.”

Meanwhile, Ching is about to embark upon a fifth mission, this time to Thailand, Cambodia, northern Vietnam, South Korea and Yulin, China, a trip he expects to be his “most intense yet.” It appears there is no stopping this determined rescuer.

Sorrow&foster brother-2

Sorrow snoozing with his foster brother. He is back in the U.S., doing great and already has several prospective families vying to adopt him! Photo courtesy of Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation.

When a human being bears witness to terrible atrocity, they are forever changed. I can attest to that, just from researching and writing about the dog and cat meat trade. So when I tell Ching he is my hero, that I could never do what he is doing, that I am so grateful that there are people like him in the world, willing to do whatever it takes to make a difference in the lives of animals, he just laughs.

“I recently wrote a post where I describe what that moment of rescue is like for me,” he tells me. “I go into this place and it’s like you’re breathing into the rain. That’s what it’s like because there’s blood everywhere, everywhere there’s screaming, and it’s usually raining for some reason, and I’m just drenched. And when you save this dog and this dog looks at you, it’s like that moment when you’re in love with someone…it’s amazing. I don’t think people realize that there’s beauty in what I do.”

To learn more about Marc Ching, read his incredibly heartfelt writing and find out how to support his efforts, check out the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation website and Facebook page.

Ching rescuing Sorrow

Ching cradling Sorrow before heading to the vet. Many dogs that end up in the Asian dog meat trade are lost or stolen pets. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“People look away from the pictures because they cannot stomach it. People do not want to hear about the abuse because they cannot endure to listen to it. But you cannot turn away. You cannot close your eyes because in doing so you just enable it. In doing so you pretend things like this do not exist, and then the suffering and sacrifice become meaningless.” – Marc Ching

The Heroes of Puerto Rico – Part Two – Save A Gato

Once upon a time in the 1950s, some rats decided to take up residence in the colorful colonial town of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. After all, who wouldn’t love to live in such a charming little city by the sea? But the humans who lived there weren’t too happy about their pesky rodent neighbors, whose numbers were increasing rapidly. So they came up with a brilliant idea – bring in some cats. And within a short period of time, their rat problem was solved. The humans were very grateful to the cats, who were allowed to stay in Old San Juan and coexist with them in harmony. That is, until the feline population began to get out of control.

While some good-intentioned people in the community had taken it upon themselves to feed the cats, this did nothing to stop the felines from multiplying. Now there were hundreds of stray cats prowling the streets, getting into garbage and using the city as a giant litter box. Some of them were sick and injured, not a pretty sight for locals or tourists. The city realized it had a veritable “cat-pocalypse” on its hands.

By 2004, one of the biggest hotbeds of the stray cat problem was centered at the Paseo del Morro National Recreation Trail, a waterfront walkway that winds alongside the San Juan Bay and the western section of the San Juan Wall. Approximately 250 feral cats were living along the Paseo, which had recently been refurbished as a public walking and jogging path. But when park service officials proposed “getting rid” of the “problem” by trapping and removing the cats, the animal lovers of Old San Juan would hear nothing of it. Fearing the cats would be euthanized, they started a letter-writing and petition campaign that ended up being signed by thousands of outraged citizens.

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One of the feral cats living along the Paseo del Morro. Some of the felines that prowl around Old San Juan are believed to be descendants of cats that arrived on the ships of the first Spanish settlers when they came to Puerto Rico in the 17th century.

And that’s when three brave ladies decided to come forward and take it upon themselves to save the cats. They asked the National Park Service to give them six months to spay and neuter all of the feral felines along the Paseo, humanely euthanize the sickest animals, and find homes for the adoptable kitties. Happy to have the cat crisis off their hands, the powers that be agreed and Save A Gato was born.

Twelve years later, Save A Gato is a well-established, all-volunteer organization dedicated to helping the street cats of Old San Juan and responsible for managing the Paseo’s feral cat colony. Through humane TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) methods, the organization has decreased the colony’s population from 250 felines in 2005 to around 100. Ferals receive regular food, water, medical care and shelter for the rest of their lives, while kittens and friendly cats get a chance to find forever homes throughout Puerto Rico and in the mainland U.S. via Save A Gato’s adoption program.

While not everyone who lives in OSJ professes to be a cat-lover, some locals acknowledge that along with the narrow cobblestone streets, pastel colored residences and 17th century fortresses overlooking the ocean, the cats have become part of “The Old San Juan Experience” that tourists enjoy. And even kitty naysayers know that the cats play a crucial role in keeping down the rodent population and thus, preventing disease. Since 15 percent of the buildings in OSJ are abandoned, without the cats the rats would once again proliferate.

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Another Paseo feral, this one giving us the evil eye for disturbing his breakfast. Note the tip of his ear has been removed to mark his sterile status. Photo credit: Chris Savas

When I happened to hear about Save A Gato while visiting Puerto Rico last month with my husband, I knew I had to meet this amazing group. We had just spent the day with The Sato Project and I was fired up to meet more inspiring people on the island who were going above and beyond for the welfare of animals. So on our second-to-last day in Old San Juan, Chris and I rose with the sun, got some coffee and walked to the Paseo, thinking we’d check out the feral colony first and take a few photos before heading to the group’s headquarters in the nearby park.

Once on the walkway, it didn’t take long to catch sight of the cats, many of them prowling in the bushes or sunning themselves on the rocks along the water. Some were still enjoying breakfast at one of several feeding stations Save A Gato maintains on the trail and barely acknowledged our presence, while a few of the more sociable kitties seemed to take an interest and began following us. Minutes later we seemed to have attracted a rainbow of cats – calicos, tortoise shells, tigers, marmalades, black and whites, grays, gingers and solid blacks. Most appeared healthy, contented and well fed.

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Myriam Pabon and Irma Podesta, two very dedicated, kind-hearted women who help make Save A Gato possible. Photo credit: Chris Savas

After a 30-minute photo session with the photogenic ferals, we retraced our steps out of the Paseo and up into the park, where Save A Gato maintains a tiny, one-room building called a Casita. This is where 12 of the group’s 20 volunteers take turns caring for adoptable cats and kittens as well as sick or injured cats. Upon arriving at the tiny, bright pink shack, we were immediately greeted by Myriam Pabon, volunteer coordinator and casita director, and Irma Podesta, Save A Gato’s lead rescuer, trapper and social media coordinator. Both have been volunteering with the organization for over a decade.

As we sat down and Myriam began telling us about Save A Gato and how it started, we found ourselves swarmed by a few of the 70 friendly kitties that live around the Casita – all in that same amazing kaleidoscope of coat colors – rubbing up against us, climbing in our laps and mewing for attention. Most are highly adoptable but simply haven’t been able to find the right homes. Chris is terribly allergic to cats but maintained a brave face as he was surrounded by attention-seeking felines. One even climbed into his lap and stared up into his face as if to say, “hey, why aren’t you petting me?”

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Just a few of the 70 cats Save A Gato cares for at the Casita. “Gato” is the Spanish word for cat. Photo credit: Chris Savas

As Myriam continued her story, it became evident that while Save A Gato has made huge strides in OSJ over the past 12 years, the organization is facing its fair share of daunting challenges lately, thanks in part to a bad economy and people abandoning their pets in droves.

“Over 60 percent of the population in Puerto Rico is living in poverty, so if people don’t have money for themselves, their children and their needs, forget about the animals,” Myriam explained. “Because we’re having hard economic times, a lot of people are losing their homes and leaving their animals behind. Even people with money don’t want to spend anything on a cat.”

She continued, “But even people who can’t take care of their pets don’t want to take them to a shelter where they will die. Our problem is we want to decrease the cat population but people are coming from all around the island just to leave their cats here. It’s endless because we have to give priority to the community of Old San Juan and we have so many animals here that aren’t neutered, and we neuter almost weekly.”

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Newbie volunteer Marie Sela cleans out one of the kitten cages in the Casita. Did you know that just one unaltered female cat and her offspring can produce 370,000 cats in just seven years? Photo credit: Chris Savas

Luckily, relief may soon be coming for Save A Gato and the island’s other incredible animal rescue organizations thanks to the Humane Society of the United States, which launched an aggressive animal welfare campaign in Puerto Rico last year. Part of its many progressive initiatives include establishing island-wide high-volume spay and neuter services, providing humane education for all public elementary school students, and working with local governments to crack down on irresponsible pet owners and enforce Puerto Rico’s Animal Protection and Welfare Act 154.

But until that happens, Save A Gato will be working overtime to garner enough support so it can continue its lifesaving mission – helping OSJ’s street cats for the foreseeable future.

“Twelve years ago people didn’t understand spay and neuter, about keeping cats healthy, how to care for them or how to control the population,” said Irma. “Today the metropolitan area is more aware of this, but on the rest of the island people still have no idea of what to do and we don’t have enough programs to help them. People think that if a female cat has 15 kittens, just throw them in the street and let them starve to death. So we really need more funding, more volunteers, more adoptions and the ability to send more cats to the U.S. With enough money we could fix every cat in Old San Juan.”

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This handsome guy is simply waiting for the right home. Could you be his perfect forever human? Photo credit: Chris Savas

Want to help the stray and abandoned cats of Old San Juan? Here’s what you can do:

  • Give money: Save A Gato is in great need of funds to pay for cat food, supplies, veterinary care and spay and neuter surgeries. No amount is too small and every penny goes to helping the cats. To make a donation, go here.
  • Donate supplies: Save A Gato can always use dry and wet cat food, cleaning products, flea preventative, towels, cages, cat toys and bowls. If you live in Puerto Rico or are visiting soon, please contact the organization to set up a time to drop off your donation.
  • Volunteer: Even if you don’t live in Puerto Rico, you can still become a Save A Gato volunteer. Go here to check out all the great ways you can help make a difference!
  • Adopt: Save A Gato usually has about 40 kittens or young cats available for adoption at any given time. If you’re interested in adopting one of their adorable kitties, please reach out to them on their Facebook page or website to set up a time to meet the kittens and take one (or more) home.
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One of my favorite photos I took at the Paseo – a little mustacheoed feral watching us from afar. Whether he was an abandoned pet or born on the streets, we’ll never know. Either way, he seemed content to keep his distance.

Here are some other wonderful animal rescues and shelters in Puerto Rico in need of help and support:

PAW Rescue Humacao

Santuario de Animales San Francisco de Asis

Save a Sato

Vieques Humane Society and Animal Rescue

“Life is life, whether in a cat, or dog or man. There is no difference there between a cat or a man. The idea of difference is a human conception for man’s own advantage.” – Sri Aurobindo

The Heroes of Puerto Rico – Part One – The Sato Project

As a writer and blogger dedicated to spreading awareness about animal cruelty issues throughout the globe, I’m always on the look-out for rescue groups going above and beyond the call of duty to improve the lives of animals. So when I stumbled upon The Sato Project a few months ago, I knew I had to tell their story. This incredible group rescues and rehabilitates abandoned dogs from Playa Lucia, a beach in southeastern Puerto Rico – sadly dubbed “Dead Dog Beach” due to its notorious reputation as a canine dumping ground – and rehomes them in the mainland U.S. Since its founding in 2011, the group has saved 1,400 dogs.

With my husband and I planning to spend his birthday in Puerto Rico, I quickly reached out to Chrissy Beckles, The Sato Project founder and president. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect – she and a small group of volunteers were planning a rescue mission the same week we’d be there, so she generously invited us to tag along. I was ecstatic!

So last month, Chris and I found ourselves parked in front of a roadside lemonade stand in the coastal town of Yabucoa, waiting for a few members of Chrissy’s team to lead us to a vet clinic a few miles away. Although we’d planned on meeting at Playa Lucia, there’d been a change of plans – a couple of dogs the group had in their sights had already been rescued and were en route to Candelero Animal Hospital, the organization’s veterinary partner in Humacao. So while we wouldn’t have a chance to shadow the rescue effort, we’d at least be able to check out the clinic, observe the group’s intake procedures and take a tour of the beach later that day.

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Han Solo, one of two lucky “satos” rescued from Dead Dog Beach that morning. “Sato” is Puerto Rican slang for street dog. Far from revered on the island, they are often abused and killed for sport. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Twenty minutes later, we followed the group’s SUV into a small strip mall, where we were greeted by several smiling women wearing The Sato Project t-shirts. As an all-volunteer, foster-based organization, TSP maintains a dedicated team of ten Puerto Rico and 25 New York Tri-State and Boston-based volunteers. I could tell right away by the way everyone interacted that this was one tight-knit group.

Once inside the cozy clinic we were introduced to Dr. Bianca Aguirre Hernandez, one of Candelero’s three vets and TSP’s director of veterinary services. As a Puerto Rico native and practicing veterinarian for 11 years, she wasted no time spelling out the educational, economic and cultural reasons behind the ongoing pet abandonment crisis that has plagued her birthplace for many decades.

“Few people adopt dogs here and most want to buy them,” Dr. Bianca explained. “This, along with the fact that spaying or neutering is not considered a priority, has increased the amount of strays, so much so that there are just too many dogs for the shelters here to handle. Many of my clients actually get upset if I even say the word ‘castration.’ It’s a really frustrating problem.”

And a big one. According to Humane Society International, there are an estimated 250,000-300,000 roaming dogs in the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, an island just three times the size of Rhode Island. And with its economy in crisis – approximately 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line – pets have become an even lower priority as people struggle to feed themselves and their families.

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Dr. Bianca gives little Han the once-over as Chrissy Beckles looks on. Watching these dedicated women in-action, it’s obvious that The Sato Project is indeed a labor of love and a mission of the heart. Photo credit: Chris Savas

But unlike in the mainland U.S., most people in Puerto Rico choose to abandon their dogs on beaches or in remote locations rather than surrender them to one of the island’s eight open-intake animal shelters, where euthanasia rates top a staggering 95 percent. The thinking is that cast-off pets will have better odds surviving in locations where rescue groups are feeding animals rather than in shelters where they’re immediately doomed.

As we chatted with Dr. Bianca and some of the volunteers, Chrissy walked in, a mangy little brown dog cuddled in her arms. Petite and slender but obviously very strong (she’s an amateur straw weight boxer), Chrissy has that tough, no-nonsense persona you often find in many veteran rescuers, a heart of gold couched inside a tough-as-nails exterior. I liked her immediately.

Dr. Bianca wasted no time in getting down to business on the scruffy little dog. Christened Han Solo in honor of the new Star Wars movie, he was a pathetic sight to behold, with mangy skin, patches of missing fur, bad teeth and what appeared to be a damaged or missing eye. Yet despite all the probing, prodding and poking that included blood tests, skin scrapings, a dental exam and x-rays, he seemed to be enjoying all the attention. In fact, his straggly tail never stopped wagging. We all fell in love with him and agreed he was going to make someone an amazing companion.

Chrissy explained to us that most dogs dumped at Playa Lucia present with skin conditions, heartworm, parasites, bad teeth and suffer from malnutrition, depending how long they’ve lived as strays. But once they’re rescued, all of them receive complete medical screenings and any necessary treatments before being cleared for their “freedom flights” to New York City, where they’re received by TSP volunteers, foster families, local shelter partners and even adopters. While most dogs take about 10 weeks to rehabilitate, some end up staying at the hospital for as long as 9-12 months if they have heartworm or any other health issues requiring long-term treatment.

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Dr. Bianca and Chrissy check out Han’s x-rays. Photo credit: Chris Savas

“We founded Sato Project on the premise of, ‘in a perfect world, how would we vet our animals and care for them?’ and that’s why we really emphasize medical care,” Chrissy said in her Manchester British accent. “I’m not going to send an animal to the U.S. unless I know for sure that it’s healthy, so we do more than our due diligence.”

Unfortunately, Han’s heartworm test came back positive, which meant he’ll be calling Candelero home for several months, bunking up alongside 30 other TSP dogs in the clinic’s bustling kennel. Some are undergoing medical treatment, while others are simply awaiting foster placement and funds to pay for their flights out of Puerto Rico.

While TSP’s mission to save the strays of Puerto Rico could keep Chrissy and her team returning to the island for many years to come, the group’s five-year efforts at Playa Lucia have paid off significantly. Interested in seeing the results for ourselves, Chrissy took us on a tour.

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Tonio, one of the feral dogs in Yabucoa The Sato Project has been feeding for several years. Incredibly wary of humans, he has so far been impossible to catch. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Once a popular spot for beach-goers and sun-worshippers until the satos and drug activity moved in, Playa Lucia was a serene but unkempt landscape, with azure waves lapping debris-littered sand beneath swaying palm trees backed by dense jungle. Chrissy pointed out the several feeding and watering stations the group has set up throughout the beach, maintained by two Puerto Rico-based volunteers who visit twice daily to keep them replenished as well as check for new dogs.

Empty of life other than a couple of lone fisherman and the occasional sea bird, the 80-acre playa appeared to be a far cry from what Chrissy described as a “nightmare scene” of 300 dogs running around in packs.

“When I first came to this beach about eight years ago…I would have to stand in front of 40 or 50 dogs knowing I had the money to take one,” she said. “It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do because while I’d know that the one I took was going to have a phenomenal life, I was giving the rest a potential death sentence. There would be situations where I’d go back again and they wouldn’t be there and I’d never know what happened to them.”

Although a 24-hour police presence, a locked after hours gate and posted warning signs relaying the unlawfulness of abandoning and abusing animals have helped slow the tide of dumped dogs and animal abusers at Playa Lucia, the beach is just one of 300 on the island. And that means people have plenty of options if they’re intent on dumping their dogs.

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Chrissy and Ivette Hernandez, The Sato Project’s local volunteer beach coordinator, show me around Playa Lucia. We didn’t see one dog. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Luckily, change may be coming to the island thanks to the Humane Society of the United States, which launched an aggressive animal welfare campaign in Puerto Rico last year. Initiatives underway include cracking down on puppy mills; providing humane education for more than 400,000 public school students; offering training programs for shelter staff, rescuers, law enforcement, FBI agents and animal control officers, and strengthening and enforcing existing animal cruelty laws.

Meanwhile, Humane Society International is working overtime to bring high-volume spay and neuter services to the island. With mobile clinics in 14 municipalities thus far, the organization plans to expand the program island-wide upon further funding. In addition, TSP will be collaborating with HSI on a microchip and vaccine campaign this spring. So, not only will this progressive program help slow down pet overpopulation and prevent disease, it will also allow law enforcement to track abandoned pets back to their owners, thus making it possible for Puerto Rico’s Animal Protection and Welfare Act 154 to actually be enforced.

“The real source of the cure comes from the education,” asserted Tara Loller, HSUS director of strategic campaigns and special projects. “Once you show people a better approach, educating them about why you don’t throw a litter of puppies into the street, for example, they’re more amenable to making these changes. We hope that once people see firsthand the availability of resources, are educated and see the value of these things, they will come on board and want to be part of this change. We have total buy-in from the Puerto Rican government, as they realize their homeless animal problem negatively impacts their tourism. So we foresee this problem to be totally winnable and are committed to being part of this change long term.”

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Chrissy gives some lunch and a little love to a very friendly stray pit bull, who appeared to have recently nursed pups. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Now that “Dead Dog Beach” appears to be under control, one would think an over-worked rescuer like Chrissy Beckles would want to take a break. After all, she’s made her fair share of personal and financial sacrifices over the past decade she’s been rescuing dogs on the island, including spending limited time at her New York home. But it appears there’s no stopping this rescue warrior. Not only does her group have their sights set on another beach several miles up the coast, there are also plans to turn Playa Lucia into a dog-friendly community, as well as build a sanctuary.

“I love what I’m doing and I know we’re making a difference and that’s why I continue to do it because it’s tangible,” Chrissy said. “There’s no greater fuel than seeing a little dog like Han Solo, who when he woke up this morning had no idea his life was going to change. That will always be fuel to me, to take a dog like that and change its life.”

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Chrissy Beckles, one of the most dedicated, passionate and inspiring rescuers I’ve ever met. “We fight so the dogs of Puerto Rico don’t have to,” is her organization’s motto, one that Chrissy takes literally by fighting in amateur boxing matches to help raise awareness and money for the organization. Photo credit: Chris Savas

To learn more about The Sato Project and support their incredible efforts, please visit their website and check out their Facebook page. You can also make a difference in the lives of Puerto Rico’s animals by supporting the HSUS Humane Puerto Rico campaign.

The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others – Albert Schweitzer

The Forgotten Dogs of Spain

It can happen in an instant, that moment when an animal lover becomes an animal activist. Whether through witnessing an act of cruelty or becoming aware of a grievous animal welfare issue, that person knows they can no longer turn away or hide their head in the sand – they must get involved. Such was the case for Rain Jordan before she became founder and president of Hound Sanctuary. As a longtime lover of sighthounds, she knew she had to do something after learning about the terrible plight of hunting dogs in Spain.

“After volunteering for a local greyhound rescue and while looking for a rescued Ibizan hound to adopt, I came across the podencos and galgos in Spain,” Rain explained. “I learned about how mistreated, even tortured they are in their native land. The horror of their situation compelled me to act.”

The Galgo Español, or Spanish Greyhound, and the Podenco, believed to be a variation of the Ibizan Hound, are the most commonly used sighthounds for hunting rabbit and other small game on the Spanish plains. Extremely docile and eager-to-please, galgos are fast, intelligent and agile dogs commonly used by “galgueros,” or galgo handlers, in a local version of coursing, in which two hounds chase a hare and the dog who gets closest to it wins. Similar in personality, physicality and temperament to the galgo, podencos are not only keen sighthounds but also skilled trackers used to hunt small game and wild boar.

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Galgos in action at a hare coursing competition. Smaller than English greyhounds, they are similar in nature but tend to be playful and have more energy than their racing counterparts.

Yet instead of being viewed as valuable companions by the hunters who own and breed them, these gentle canines are seen as disposable tools that can be easily discarded once they’ve outlived their usefulness. According to Barcelona-based SOS Galgos, which rescues approximately 250 galgos per year, as many as 50,000 Spanish hunting dogs are abandoned or killed every year at the end of hunting season, typically in late February.

“Once they’re done with these dogs, many of their hunter-owners will dispose of them in horrendous ways,” Rain explained. “These include hanging them; throwing them into wells; putting them into garbage cans, alive; burning or drowning them; dumping them on roadsides after breaking one or more of their legs so they can’t get back home or gouging out their eyes so that they can’t find their way back home, or fixing their mouths open to keep them from being able to eat and thus, survive.”

Dogs deemed low-performing or “dirty” hunters are punished with slower, more painful deaths (as payback for “embarrassing” their owners), while those seen as good hunters are “rewarded” with quick deaths or are surrendered to “perreras,” municipal shelters nicknamed “killing stations” for a very good reason. Since most Spaniards view these hounds as second-class animals and undesirable pets, they have little to no chance of being adopted, so euthanasia at these facilities is practically guaranteed.

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A podenco in her element – hunting game. Fast and smooth, they have a light, muscular build, very good hearing and keen sense of smell. Like galgos, podencos are smart, eager-to-please, loyal and gentle but are sometimes prone to stubbornness.

While some high-performing dogs may be allowed to live for two or three hunting seasons, life for a Spanish hound is anything but happy and fulfilling. Between seasons they are kept in deplorable conditions, often in cramped, dark spaces or on short chains. Carelessly over-bred, they are deprived of proper nutrition, exercise and attention. Due to the belief that a starving hound makes a better hunter, they live their entire lives on the brink of starvation, with just enough water and poor-quality food to keep them alive. Many do not survive their neglectful conditions, slowly starving or dehydrating to death or succumbing to untreated diseases, injuries or severe tick infestations.

A dog that manages to reach two or three years of age is usually weakened by malnutrition and lack of care, so it’s simply cheaper for a hunter to kill the animal rather than continue feeding it until the next season. Why keep a worn-out hound when you can pick up a new one for ten euros from one of the many breeding facilities supplying hunters in your region?

Although Spain’s existing animal welfare law forbids the physical abuse, maiming, keeping on short chains and abandonment of dogs, it excludes “working dogs” from its protections, thus allowing hunters to continue their longstanding “cultural tradition” of such sadistic behavior with impunity.

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Rain Jordan and Dahlia, her beloved wire-haired podenca she rescued from a perrera in Valencia, Spain in 2014. Photo credit: Hound Sanctuary

This tragic reality is what compelled Rain to start Hound Sanctuary in her California home in 2013. Dedicated to rescuing podencos, galgos, salukis, borzoi, wolfhounds and deerhounds from Spain and throughout the U.S., the non-profit has so far rescued, rehabilitated, and placed 28 needy hounds in loving forever homes throughout the west coast region of the U.S. and Canada. Although its small army of about a dozen volunteers are all U.S.-based, Hound Sanctuary works with an extensive network of rescue partners in Spain.

Of all the hounds Rain has helped rescue, one of the most memorable was Hero, a red and white Podenco from Spain who had been found with a broken leg.

“His rescuers had repeatedly insisted that he was not friendly, was afraid of everyone and would not let anyone near him – they didn’t seem to have much hope for his adoptability,” remembered Rain. “In fact, when we sent our volunteers to pick him and the other dogs up, one of their volunteers suggested we take another dog instead! It seemed no one gave Hero any respect or any chance at all, as apparently a scared, shy dog equals a hopeless dog in many people’s eyes.”

She continued, “We brought Hero home with the other dogs as planned. Yes, he was shy and scared, but he turned out to be one of the sweetest, calmest, easiest dogs we’ve had through Hound Sanctuary. Whenever someone tells me, ‘oh, no, this dog is very scared,’ I say, that’s my favorite kind of dog, send him over!”

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Hero, renamed Linus, was adopted just a few weeks after his rescue and is now enjoying life as a pampered pet. His new mom calls him her “little cinnamon bun.” Photo credit: Hound Sanctuary

While Hero and the other lucky dogs Hound Sanctuary has rescued have all found their happily ever after, there are thousands more who may never be that fortunate due to the fact there are only so many rescues with so much money, help and space to spare. Although there are some very dedicated, wonderful organizations within Spain working tirelessly to help its native hounds, the majority of assistance currently comes from outside the country, namely the U.S., U.K., Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and The Netherlands.

With the need so overwhelming, Rain and her team have decided to take Hound Sanctuary to the next level in the form of a larger property. Located in Warrenton, Oregon and near completion, the new sanctuary will have enough capacity to house more rescue dogs without the organization having to rely so heavily on foster homes.

“The sanctuary is not a traditional shelter or kennel,” explained Rain. “The dogs have always lived inside the house with us and that will continue to be our policy. We will maintain the non-profit ‘home’ in California and retain volunteers/staff and fosters there, but the full-fledged facility is now in northern Oregon.”

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This is Spencer, a brindle galgo rescued from the Toledo area of Spain. Here he is with his doting adoptive moms, Cynthia Evans and Michelle Sanchez, and his Chihuahua siblings. Photo credit: Hound Sanctuary

While Hound Sanctuary is to be applauded for its heroic efforts to save these very deserving dogs, they and the other handful of organizations like them will continue to have their work cut out for them as long as the Spanish government refuses to get to the root of its country’s very serious animal welfare problem. Because in the end, improving the situation for these dogs (as well as bulls and other tortured animals in Spain) will ultimately require dramatic shifts in archaic attitudes and stopping barbaric practices that have been historically rationalized as “cultural heritage.”

While Spain’s leaders have allegedly given lip service to the idea of changing existing legislation to protect hunting dogs, so far it has taken no action, despite increasing pressure from concerned citizens and animal activists throughout the country. Ironically, many individuals in local government positions also happen to be hunters themselves. For these political reasons and more, individuals in the Spanish rescue community believe it could be many years before anything is done to protect these animals, said Rain.

“There is definitely growing awareness and uproar over the plight of Spanish hounds,” she said. “The challenge in legal protection for them seems to be not just with more and stronger laws, but with enforcement. Tradition is harder to fight than City Hall, but I believe it can be fought – with determination and reason combined with political savvy, good communication skills and plenty of funding.”

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The sleek and very sweet Galgo Español. Why would anyone want to hurt these gentle creatures? The Spanish government should be ashamed for turning a blind eye to their terrible plight.

But until then, Hound Sanctuary and its small army of volunteers will simply focus on the task at hand – rescuing homeless sighthounds in the U.S. and saving the desperate hunting dogs of Spain, who would have no recourse were it not for the kindhearted individuals fighting to give them a second chance at life..

“Our goal is to help many more dogs and to bring awareness about their plight in hopes that more awareness will eventually lead to abatement of the cruelties they currently endure,” Rain said. “These dogs are sweet to the core no matter how broken. They are highly sensitive creatures who deserve respect.”

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Rain and her handsome rescued Ibizan hound, Boy Boy, the inspiration for Hound Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Kevin Johnson, Santa Cruz Sentinel

It can cost $2,700 or more to rescue and rehabilitate a dog from Spain, depending on its individual needs. As a result, Hound Sanctuary is in desperate need of financial support to save more dogs and complete its new sanctuary. To help this incredible organization continue its lifesaving work, please visit their website and check out their Facebook page.

To learn more about Spanish hunting dogs, please visit the European Society of Dog and Animal Welfare (ESDAW) website.

Want to help the forgotten hounds of Spain? Please sign this petition, which asks the Spanish government to prosecute hunters for murdering or abandoning their dogs and to amend the country’s animal welfare law to protect these gentle canines.

“The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.” – Schopenhauer

In the Company of Creatures Great and Small

I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend my birthday. I’d been wanting to volunteer at a farm animal sanctuary for quite some time, especially since I’d started following Farm Sanctuary and Edgar’s Mission on social media (in case you haven’t heard of these wonderful organizations, they are two incredible non-profit farm animal sanctuaries located in the U.S. and Australia, respectively). As a devoted dog mom who hasn’t lived without a canine in over 28 years, and as a volunteer with a local pet rescue, I am constantly around companion animals but have rarely had the chance to interact with pigs, sheep, chickens or cows – those creatures our society views as food, not friends. So when I stumbled upon Sweet Olive Farm Animal Rescue, a sanctuary located in Athens, GA, right outside of my hometown of Atlanta, I promptly reached out and made plans to spend the day lending a hand and hanging out with the animals. I was so excited!

The place was beyond amazing. Nestled on 18 acres of rolling hills and green pastures, the charming little farm is home to over 100 rescued animals, from pigs, sheep, donkeys and alpacas to horses, turkeys, chickens and goats. Complete with a beautiful, turn-of-the-century farmhouse and rustic, 100-year-old barn, it’s a storybook kind of place, the type of boutique farm I’d always dreamed of living on when I was a child. Besides several rescue dogs and two very affectionate Great Pyrenees (whose job it is to guard the sanctuary’s more vulnerable residents against predators), the menagerie also includes three grumpy geese, a friendly llama, two giant hogs and four adorable mini horses with shaggy manes. The only animals missing were cows (I admit I have a “thing” for cows). Still, I was in heaven!

 

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The heartbeat of the sanctuary, the beautifully restored antique barn, all sealed up for the winter. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Within minutes of our arrival, I was making fast friends with the toothy alpacas and Culprit, an incredibly friendly donkey made even more sociable thanks to my large bag of carrots. Meanwhile, my husband Chris went about unpacking his camera equipment, happily anticipating his myriad photo opportunities. Several volunteers bustled about, cheerfully cleaning paddocks, adjusting fences and moving a feeding trough under the watchful guidance of Hope Wehunt, the sanctuary’s full-time farmhand, who greeted Chris and me with a bright, welcoming smile.

Soon we were joined by the brainchildren of the place, partners Kat Howkins and Susan Pritchett, two successful Atlanta businesswomen who originally started Sweet Olive Farm five years ago to accommodate their sizable pack of rescue dogs. Longtime vegans, the Georgia natives have been together for 11 years and share a tremendous passion for animals large and small.

Always in motion, whether attending to the animals, talking to workers or assisting the volunteers with different projects, Susan and Kat appeared to be women on a non-stop mission, so I felt quite privileged to have the chance to sit down with them and hear their story. Because really, how does one start such an ambitious operation?

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Kat and Susan, living it up in their peaceable kingdom. Photo credit: Chris Savas

“We were living in Ansley Park in Atlanta and our neighbors weren’t too crazy about all of our dogs, so they called animal control on us,” explained Kat in her soft southern drawl, squinting at me from under the brim of her straw cowboy hat. “Around that time we’d been looking for a place because we knew our dogs were driving our neighbors crazy and that we had to find somewhere to take them, at least on weekends. So we rented this property and then a Fulton County Animal Control officer asked us, ‘hey, y’all want a pig?’ He was scheduled for euthanasia and I was rushing around, trying to build some fences so we could get him here. And that’s sort of how it all started.”

Before long, the couple not only had the aforementioned Mr. Thelma, the first of what would eventually become their robust army of 10 rescued pot bellied pigs, but also a rooster, a neglected llama, an elderly peacock and a grumpy chestnut mare who’d been rejected by a local petting zoo for biting children. More creatures would quickly follow, animals either rescued from dire circumstances, found as strays or simply unwanted by their owners. Some would have died or been eaten if Kat and Susan hadn’t swept in and delivered them to safety.

“We just started getting animals and it organically turned into what it is now,” Susan told me in her soft, tinkling voice. “We didn’t realize that once we got animals here we’d have to be here all the time – they have to be looked after morning, noon and night. It’s all been an education for us because we didn’t really know anything about animal husbandry, so we’d go online and learn all about goats or all about sheep, etc. So we kind of evolved into it.”

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I have to admit I am completely besotted with pigs. Here I am with Orwell and Prince Charming, the happy recipients of my multiple carrot offerings. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Inspired by Edgar’s Mission in Australia, which the couple visited several years ago to serve as a model for Sweet Olive Farm, the sanctuary is indeed run like a well-oiled machine, with the animals at the very center of its universe. Looking around at all of these beautiful, funny and incredibly sentient creatures as they went about napping, eating, and interacting with humans and each other, I couldn’t help but notice how everyone seemed to get along so well (other than the occasional skirmishes between the turkeys and a couple of trouble-making roosters). How was that possible?

Kat explained that she and Susan make a practice of separating the animals into different interspecies groups according to who gets along best. For example, Culprit is scared of pigs and doesn’t like the male mini horses but he’s just fine living with the alpacas, while the pot bellied pigs, goats, turkeys, chickens and sheep seem to enjoy coexisting in their own paddock. But regardless of their housing arrangements, everyone appeared healthy, well cared for and incredibly content. All their needs are met and they are safe and loved. Somehow, I think they understand how good they have it.

Geese

Sweet Olive Farm’s small but mighty flock of geese. The one on the far right was quite a force to be reckoned with! Photo credit: Chris Savas

Like Farm Sanctuary and Edgar’s Mission, Sweet Olive Farm appears to be part of a growing trend in farm sanctuaries popping up throughout the Western world, safe havens where barnyard species can live out their lives in peace and comfort without being exploited for their meat, eggs, milk or wool. Instead of living short, miserable existences on factory farms and facing the inevitable terror of slaughter, these creatures can actually enjoy their day-to-day lives, be with their own kind, engage in natural behaviors, experience human love and compassion and grow old. In essence, they are allowed to be who they are.

As humans continue to recognize the sentience of farm animals and begin to make more humane food and lifestyle choices, I hope we will see more and more places like Sweet Olive Farm. Still, a more compassionate world can’t happen without public awareness, and that’s why Sweet Olive Farm is also evolving into a place of learning where groups of local schoolchildren can come to the farm, meet the animals and learn about animal husbandry and farm animal welfare. Susan and Kat hope that as more young children are exposed to farm animals, the more understanding and compassion they will develop and carry with them into their adult lives.

Volunteers&Chloe

Volunteering at the sanctuary wouldn’t be complete without stopping to give Chloe, the matriarch of the farm’s pot bellied pigs, a belly rub. Photo credit: Chris Savas

“The kids are our main mission, teaching social responsibility and compassion education,” Kat said. “We tell them we don’t eat meat…(but) I don’t try to tell kids to be vegetarian. I’m just trying to show them that these are animals, and I’ll say thing like, ‘do you really want to eat that turkey after you’ve been here and been around him several times?’ So our goal is really to lead by example rather than being political.”

Running a sanctuary with over 100 animals is not just a full-time, life-consuming venture, it’s also an incredibly expensive one, as Kat and Susan can attest to. With their 501c3 non-profit status soon to be finalized, the couple is looking forward to taking Sweet Olive Farm to the next level through active fundraising efforts that will allow them to increase their volunteer network; build more fences and barns; create an onsite volunteer center; host special events and become a major part of the farm animal rescue community. With two such ambitious, can-do women at the helm of this sanctuary, I have no doubt they will make all of those dreams a reality, and soon.

Turkeys

Like chickens, turkeys possess strong personalities, form friendships and have a range of interests. I found these guys absolutely fascinating! Photo credit: Chris Savas

Volunteering at a farm sanctuary is a great way to give back while spending time with animals you don’t normally get to interact with on a day-to-day basis. For me, it only reaffirmed my decision to live a meat-free life and to continue moving in a cruelty-free direction. Here are some other great reasons to visit one:

It’s good for the soul: Whether you just want to take a tour or volunteer, visiting a farm animal sanctuary is such an amazing experience. You can see how farm animals live with each other and relate to humans, learn their stories and be amazed by their different personalities. Who knows, maybe you’ll even end up sponsoring an animal? Plus, you’ll come away with unforgettable stories to tell!

You can give back: The staff who run these sanctuaries work tirelessly in all kinds of weather and will be extremely grateful for an extra pair of hands. By volunteering, you can help them with a variety of tasks including cleaning, painting and general farm maintenance, or even grant research, event planning and fundraising. Then there’s the extra perk of being able to socialize with the animals!

You might learn some vegan culinary skills: More and more farm animal sanctuaries are offering cooking classes that can introduce you to as well as help you maintain a healthful, plant-based diet. Check the website of the farm sanctuary you’re planning to visit to see if they offer cooking classes and make sure to sign up well in advance.

It’s inspiring and motivating: Being surrounded by so many wonderful farm animals might just inspire you to take action. Volunteering at a particular sanctuary can become a regular hobby or you can reach out to your local and federal legislators on behalf of the millions of animals who aren’t as lucky as the ones you’ve met at a sanctuary. There are so many great ways to help, and there’s no better place to learn how you can be a voice for change.

Tumbleweed

This is Tumbleweed, one of the sanctuary’s three resident goats. Here he is taking a break from chasing Chloe the pig, who didn’t seem to appreciate his very frequent, amorous advances. Poor, confused guy! Photo credit: Chris Savas

When it comes to different animals species, human beings are guilty of playing favorites, designating some animals friends while others food. Due to our societal conditioning, we have maintained a serious disconnect between the way we view the animals we eat and the animals we welcome into our homes and families. Most of us see our dogs and cats as family members, as complex, self-aware individuals who have emotions, are capable of suffering and feel pain. But barnyard animals are no different. So why can’t we view them the same way we view dogs and cats?

I believe that if more people knew, understood and empathized with farm animals the way they do with dogs and cats, most of them would give up animal products for good. I want to believe that if they learned (or wanted to learn) the truth about factory farming and the inherent cruelty of industries that exploit animals, they might make more compassionate lifestyle choices. Contrary to what the meat and dairy industries have brainwashed you to believe, it is possible to live a very healthy life without consuming animal products. And while it’s easy to not let yourself think about where that hunk of meat on your plate came from, in reality it was a living, breathing being who was intelligent, self-aware and didn’t want to die.

The information is out there, and it’s up to all of us to educate ourselves and make choices in alignment with our own morals and principles. To do otherwise is dishonest and unethical. Because in the end, it is hypocritical to claim you love animals and yet continue to eat them. And as I can attest from my experience at Sweet Olive Farm, farm animals are no different from those we call our “pets.” They are amazing, funny, complex individuals who deserve to live out their lives free from harm. We are their caretakers, so it is up to us to create a more merciful world for them. In doing so, we create a kinder world for ourselves.

With the ponies

Surrounded by friendly equines. This, my friends, is what heaven looks like for a lifelong horse-crazy girl! Photo credit: Chris Savas

If you live in the Atlanta area and would like to help the wonderful animals (and humans) at Sweet Olive Farm, please visit their website.

If you live elsewhere, never fear, here are some great websites to help you locate a farm sanctuary near you:

http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/farm-sanctuaries-in-the-u-s-that-are-great-for-volunteering/

http://www.sanctuaries.org

http://www.compassionatefarming.org/sanctuaries.html

“Animals are my friends, and I don’t eat my friends.” – George Bernard Shaw

For the Love of Gray Muzzles – A House With a Very Big Heart

Imagine you’ve had a dog or a cat for its entire life. You raised it from a baby, cared for it, shared your life with it. It trusted and loved you and you enjoyed its company for many years. You might have even called it your “baby.” Then your pet began to grow older. Its muzzle grew gray, its coat became rougher, its eyes turned cloudy, its breath less pleasant. Maybe it developed a congenital disorder, or an illness that required expensive medication. Maybe it began having trouble getting around and started soiling in the house. Your pet, the one you used to think you were so attached to, was gradually becoming more dependent and difficult – it had became “a pain.”

But instead of understanding that caring for an animal through its elderly years is simply part of the commitment you make when acquiring a pet, you decided to rid yourself of the burden by taking it to your local animal shelter. It doesn’t even phase you to when your sweet old pet goes from being so excited about going a ride in the car to cringing in fear when you drag it into the shelter. You don’t even flinch when the shelter worker takes your pet in her arms and walks away with it, trying to hide the look of disgust on her face. As you drive away it doesn’t even cross your mind how frightened, confused and upset your pet is at that very moment, sitting in a cold kennel in a strange, noisy place, wondering where it is and waiting anxiously for you to return. You don’t care that your once adored companion will probably be euthanized within days due to its age and thus, “undesirable” adoption status. But then, that’s not your problem.

There’s a special place in purgatory reserved for the sub-humans who abandon their aging or special needs pets. Who could be so cruel? Of course, there are people who must give up their elderly pets due to circumstances beyond their control, such as changes in lifestyle, chronic illness, going into a nursing home or worse – stuff happens – but those who dump their animals simply because they’d rather not be bothered with their inevitable aging process are the cruelest of sorts. Luckily, there are many wonderful, kindhearted individuals in the world who have made it their mission to save and care for the gray-faced, the forgotten and the discarded. They are the heroes who truly deserve to be celebrated.

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Sherry Polvinale and some of the beloved sanctuary dogs. Senior pups are always up for cuddles! Photo credit: House With a Heart

Sherry Polvinale is such a special person. She is the co-founder and director of House With a Heart Pet Sanctuary, a forever home for elderly and special needs pets (who have lost their families and homes at no fault of their own). Due to advanced age and various medical conditions, these pets would have little chance of being adopted, but at House With a Heart they are safe, nurtured and pampered for the rest of their lives.

“These animals have no one and would otherwise be euthanized all alone in a shelter, frightened and confused,” says Sher. “At House With a Heart they are loved until their very last breath.”

Starting a pet sanctuary was a natural evolution for Sher and her late husband Joe, who had been rescuing and rehoming abandoned dogs and cats together for two decades. Whenever she got a call from someone looking to give up their senior pet it disturbed her to think about all those sweet animals losing their homes simply because they were old and had become inconvenient for their people. But it finally took a “what if” conversation to push Sher into pursuing what turned out to be her true calling in life.

Volunteer Wendy and pups

Volunteer Wendy Reid appears to have a captivated audience – treat time is always an exciting affair at the sanctuary! Photo credit: House With a Heart

“I was at lunch with friends and the question on the table was what would you do with your life if money was no object?” she explained. “I said I would do something like Best Friends Animal Society in Utah, but for senior dogs and cats. My friends said, well…why don’t you?”

So Sher and Joe decided to go for it and soon their Gaithersburg, Maryland home was inhabited by a 10-pack of homeless senior pets (ten animals became their limit, a number Sher soon surpassed after Joe passed way in 2008 from lung cancer). Once their non-profit status was obtained in 2006, House With a Heart was officially up and running.

Nine years and almost 100 dogs and cats later, Sher is living her dream. Over two-dozen dogs and four cats are now enjoying their golden years at the sanctuary, comprised of a clean, comfy home on more than two acres of fenced-in yards and grassy fields. All its furry residents receive high-quality food and treats or special diets, and quality healthcare, including regular wellness screenings and visits to veterinary specialists when needed. Everyone gets plenty of love and attention from Sher, doting sanctuary Vice President Harriette Sackler and the sanctuary’s invaluable army of over 55 devoted volunteers, who help with daily tasks including feeding and administering medications; bathing and grooming; cleaning and laundering; sanctuary and grounds maintenance, and providing exercise and playtime.

Pups in the yard

Some of the residents enjoying a little fresh air – life is awesome at this senior home! Photo credit: House With a Heart

But even with so much assistance, Sher maintains an intensely rigorous schedule and rarely leaves the sanctuary. Some would say she doesn’t have a life. But this devoted caretaker doesn’t see it that way.

“I live here by myself and do all the nighttime and early morning care, then the volunteers come to help during the day,” she says. “Sometimes I get up at 5:30 or 6 a.m., and immediately the animals need me and I may have already gotten up three times during the night to attend to one of the dogs. I’ll go through until midnight or one in the morning and I’m so tired at that point that I’ll just lay down in my clothes and sleep on the couch with the dogs. People think I’m so wonderful because I don’t have a life, but that’s silly – I’m just weird, I’m just different.”

Caring for so many senior and special needs pets is a costly venture – to the tune of $90,000 in annual vet bills – and while donations from generous supporters are incredibly helpful, they aren’t always enough to keep things running. That’s why Sher established a doggie daycare at the sanctuary to help support its operations. As a result, the property is now at maximum capacity, with 37 permanent and short-term care residents all under one roof.

Marzipan

Marzipan thinks he’s still a puppy. After all, you’re only as young as you feel! Photo credit: House With a Heart

While running one of the few senior and special needs pet sanctuaries in the U.S. definitely has its rewards, it also comes with frequent heartbreaks – over 70 pets have passed away in Sher’s home to date. Then there’s the other kind of heartbreak – dealing with pet owners wanting to give up their senior or ailing pets for reasons ranging from heart-wrenching to infuriating.

“People contact us all the time saying they love their pet, have had it for years and it’s been a wonderful companion, but now it’s old, wakes them up at night and has accidents in the house, so they don’t want to be bothered with it any longer,” explains Sher. “Then there are others who truly love their pet but are too ill to care for it, are going into a nursing home, or they’ve passed away and their pet has no one.”

While HWAH isn’t able to take in any more residents (at 70 years young, Sher is looking to retire in about 15 years), it still makes a point of being there for pets in-need by offering guidance to help owners either keep their pets or find them safe placement on their own.

Volunteer Coordinator Martine grooming Peanut

Volunteer Martine Ferguson grooms little Peanut. According to Sher, all he suffers from is a serious case of cute! Photo credit: House With a Heart

“People would call me all the time and I’d be on the phone constantly and feel torn because it would kill me to say no to pets who needed me so desperately,” explains Sher. “So we formed our Give Up Team with counselors who talk to people about their particular situation to see if they’re willing to listen to suggestions and if we can help them in any way. Some people are up for that and we’re able to be helpful in that regard and some people aren’t – all they want is for their pet to be out of their lives and no longer their responsibility.”

Besides counseling, HWAH provides additional pet owner assistance, including its Senior Pet Safety Net online posting service that allows people to post images and information about their older pets they wish to rehome, as well as a Giving Up Pet Resources web page that features an extensive list of rescue groups and humane societies throughout the country.

In addition, the sanctuary also offers donor-funded give-back programs, including “Mitzvah Mutts,” which reserves a space at the sanctuary for a dog or cat whose family is in dire need of temporary pet care due to special circumstances, and “Faith’s Fund,” which provides medical care for senior pets who would otherwise not receive it due to lack of funds.

Gianni

Gianni enjoys being one of four special kitties at the sanctuary. Despite the fact he is missing a leg and was recently diagnosed with diabetes, he’s loving his pampered life! Photo credit: House With a Heart

While Sher is definitely living the intention she voiced out loud at lunch all those years ago, she never would have thought that running HWAH would have done so much for her personally, specifically helping her heal from the loss of her beloved husband and best friend.

“Running the sanctuary has helped me through my grief process and it continues to help me through it now,” says Sher. “But if Joe was alive I think he would be really amazed and really proud and satisfied that we’re doing what we started out to do. Just being here with all the dogs and doing what I do makes me feel close to him.”

While Sher know she’s filling an important need, she hopes for a day when more pet owners will take the commitment of a pet much more seriously, thus eliminating the need for sanctuaries like hers.

“I just wish we could teach people to have more empathy for those who cannot care for themselves,” says Sher. “How can you turn your back on someone who needs your help? If you have a pet realize it has feelings and be responsible for it until the end. Don’t throw it out when the going gets tough.”

Harriette&pups

HWAH Vice President Harriette Sackler enjoying a senior puppy pileup. Photo credit: House With a Heart

Senior pets are some of the most endearing, loving creatures on the planet and just like any dog or cat deserve to live out their lives in the safety and comfort of loving, committed, forever homes. Unfortunately, homeless pets of advanced age are the most difficult pets to place in new homes, have higher euthanasia rates and often live out the rest of their lives in a shelter kennel. So in honor of National Adopt a Senior Pet month, please consider bringing a mature or elderly companion into your life. While they may not be with you for as long as you’d like them to, you will be able to find comfort in the knowledge that you provided a wonderful end-of-life experience for one very special, gray-faced fur baby.

Here are just a few reasons why senior pets are so awesome:

  • They come as they are – their size, appearance and personality are already established
  • They’re calmer and require less exercise
  • Mature dogs will most likely housebroken and know basic commands (although they love to learn new tricks!)
  • They’re much less demanding and destructive than younger animals
  • They’re great company for young and old alike
  • They sense that they’ve been saved (and will be incredibly grateful)
  • You will always be their hero

House With a Heart relies heavily on donations, grants and wish list gifts to accomplish its mission of providing quality care for senior and special needs dogs and cats. If you’d like to help this wonderful sanctuary continue its amazing mission, please visit its donation page. If you live in the Gaithersburg area, consider becoming a HWAH volunteer!

Check out Sher and her incredible sanctuary in this beautiful National Geographic video: