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

Dearest Gizzy,

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

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

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

Baby Giz

Baby Gizmo the day I brought him home.

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

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

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

Gizzy at B-day party 2-crop

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

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

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

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Gizzy at 16 months. Such a pretty pug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Babies - July '08-2

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

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

Love you forever, little man,

– Your Mommy

Gizzy sweet roll

The sweet roll. (Photo by Chris Savas)

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

The Right To Roam – Protecting The Street Dogs of Kathmandu

Take a stroll through the ancient capital city of Kathmandu, Nepal and you won’t be able to miss them – stray dogs walking along roads, dozing in the sun, hanging out in ancient temples, scavenging on garbage scattered by the roadside. Some appear to be in decent condition, while others suffer from advanced skin ailments, infected wounds, broken bones, and starvation – a sad sight to behold, especially for dog-loving tourists drawn to the valley for its world-renowned mountain trekking. Far from being revered, Kathmandu’s strays are typically considered a nuisance and often fall prey to abuse at the hands of local residents. And the dogs are everywhere – according to Kathmandu Animal Treatment Center (KAT), there are over 22,000 “road dogs” living in Kathmandu valley alone. But while programs exist to help the city’s disadvantaged people and orphaned children, there are very few resources to help the dogs.

Enter Pravin Sharma, owner of Le Sharma Trading Inc., a fair-trade pet product company that sells natural dog chews and artisanal dog toys, beds and accessories made in Nepal. He decided to set up a street dog feeding program to not only care for these desperate creatures but to also spread awareness about their plight.

“Every day hundreds of dogs go hungry and are abused in Kathmandu valley,” said Sharma. “This fact always bothered me when I lived there, and I used to take some measures on a small scale – feeding them, taking care of the ones around my house and encouraging others to do so. Since I was born and brought up in Nepal, I wanted to give back to the country and society in any way I can. Thus, with the income we receive by selling dog products in developed countries, we try to invest a significant amount in doing something good back home.”

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A street dog roams the city of Kathmandu in search of food (Photo courtesy Pravin Sharma).

So Sharma rallied together a small team of kindhearted locals to feed the dogs and provide basic emergency veterinary care. Meals consisting of water buffalo meat, rice, bread, and biscuits are served three times per week in different locations around the valley, including the Pashupatinath Temple, one of the most famous and sacred Hindu temples in Nepal, and the Boudhanath Stupa, considered the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.

In one year alone this feeding campaign has nourished more than a thousand hungry canines, with Sharma’s volunteers making a point of involving locals whenever possible in an attempt to change their negative perceptions about the dogs.

“Nepal is an extremely delightful nation, and generally, the Nepalese are delicate and kind, but like every nation, it has a savage side,” explained Sharma. “Although there are a few local and international organizations that work for the welfare of the stray dogs in Kathmandu valley, there are no legal protections, so animal abusers act with full freedom, throwing stones or boiling water at them, or casually kicking them as they pass by. This is all due to lack of awareness. Thus, we were inspired to carry out these programs not just to feed the dogs, but to also make people aware and inspire them to stop abusing these creatures.”

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A mama street dog and her pups. Without humane population control, the cycle of unwanted litters continues (Photo courtesy Pravin Sharma).

Although Sharma agrees that his feeding program is not the ultimate solution – he intends to provide more extensive veterinary services for the dogs once greater funding can be secured – he is doing what he can in the face of a daunting situation. After all, Kathmandu is a city still recovering from a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that claimed almost 9,000 Nepalese citizens in April of last year, so with the community focused on surviving and rebuilding, its road dogs have become nothing more than an afterthought.

“Due to the recent devastating earthquake, a lot of dogs lost their lives, and many lost their homes and were forced to become strays,” Sharma said. “Our feeding program will improve this issue for the short term, but our hope is that the awareness we’ve been spreading by involving locals in the program will help us solve this issue for the long term.”

Nepal isn’t the only developing nation long known to have street dogs as part of its landscape. Humane Society International estimates that there are 250-300 million free-roaming dogs wandering the globe. And just like in other countries where street dog numbers have exploded, Nepal’s is a human-created problem derived from a lack of awareness, education, and most importantly, access to sustainable, affordable, and humane canine population control.

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A lucky road dog lands a quick meal (Photo courtesy Pravin Sharma).

Although stray dogs in Nepal are typically not “owned,” pet dogs can be as much a part of the street dog population as truly homeless canines in some non-westernized countries. In fact, according to Kelly O’Meara, HSI director of companion animals and engagement, there are three basic categories of “free roaming” dogs throughout the world.

“We have discovered that the majority of street dogs are technically ‘owned’ in some fashion or another, in that the dog has a person and a home within their roaming distance, so they receive some element of care,” she explained. “Then there are community dogs that live in a neighborhood and are very tolerated, with a few people within that particular neighborhood identifying that the dog is one they care about or even love to some degree. Then there are true strays that have no real ties to people, that live among people to some degree, but don’t rely on direct interaction with them.”

She continued, “Most developing countries share the same problem when it comes to management of dogs in the streets, and there are certainly some countries that have it far worse than others. In places like Latin America, we’ve found that while there are more dogs living on or roaming the streets, that the majority of them are owned. Throughout various cultures in the region street dogs are very tolerated, so dogs roaming the streets is not an unusual sight there, and there are millions upon millions of them in Latin America. Generally, you’ll find that some of them may be in better condition than the free-roaming dogs you’ll find throughout Asia, for example, and that has everything to do with direct human behavior and attitudes toward those dogs.”

Street Dogs in Thimphu, Bhutan

Stray dogs nap along a busy road in Thimphu, Bhutan, where Humane Society International recently completed a successful 5-year street dog welfare program (Photo courtesy Kuni Takahashi/AP Images for Humane Society International).

And attitudes are everything when it comes to how governments deal with stray canine populations. According to O’Meara, most typically follow three main methods – mass killing, sheltering, or sterilization and vaccination.

Faced with rabies outbreaks and other threats to human health, countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Kenya, Egypt, Russia, much of eastern Europe and the Baltic countries have frequently turned to mass killing campaigns as a quick and immediate “solution” to their stray problem. Meanwhile, countries including Italy, Thailand, and India have made a practice of warehousing street dogs in large shelters that are often unequipped to handle large dog populations. Since adoption rates in these countries are pathetically low, these poor creatures either spend their whole lives imprisoned or end up being euthanized for space.

Not only is the mass killing and sheltering of street dogs inhumane, it’s also incredibly ineffective, asserted O’Meara.

“We can prove across the board that whether you’re killing and/or removing them from the streets, it doesn’t solve the problem – it’s a Band-Aid,” she said. “You’re simply creating a void in that community, and nothing has changed other than the fact that you’ve removed that dog. There will always be other dogs, you’ll never catch them all, and the most elusive, least sociable dogs you didn’t catch will be the ones to take its place.”

She continued, “Before, you had dogs who were friendlier, more sociable, more tolerated and interactive with people, and now you’re replacing them with the unknown, so you’re actually creating a worse problem than you had before. This is where rabies has become a greater issue over and over again in these places because the friendliest dog you can catch is not the problem, they’re not the ones who are going to bite you and potentially spread the virus. Yes, you’re addressing the situation, but not only haven’t you done anything at all and potentially created a worse situation, you’ve also created a poor image for your country for your inhumane treatment of animals.”

India Street Dog Program

HSI’s street dog program in action in Jamshedpur, India (Photo courtesy Humane Society International).

Although Nepal had once used poisoning as a method to manage its road dogs, the government abandoned the cruel practice after street children died from consuming poisoned dog food, explained Sharma.

“People have the mentality that stray dogs should be killed instead of taken care of and fed,” he said. “That is the first thing that needs to change if we want any progress for street dogs in Kathmandu or in any part of the world. Besides trying to spread awareness and involve more people in our programs to change this mentality, we are also conducting humane education campaigns by going to different schools and teaching children how to treat and care for animals. That way, they won’t have to face in the future what we are facing now.”

Luckily, help is coming to Nepal in the form of Humane Society International, which plans to launch a Street Dog Welfare campaign in Kathmandu on April 20. As it is doing in ten other countries, including Bhutan, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guyana, India, Panama, the Philippines, and several U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, HSI will help Nepal establish a mass sterilization and vaccination program to humanely manage street dog numbers, prevent disease, and most importantly, provide a permanent solution to a problem that has plagued Kathmandu valley for generations, said O’Meara.

“It’s going to start off as a pilot program, which means it will be carried out within a period of time with the intent to show its breadth, success rate, and possibility,” she explained. “We’ll be training local talent and personnel, including veterinarians and government officials, and setting it up from start to finish so we’ll be able to hand over a program that’s fully implemented, and has the resources in place to maintain it in the hope that the government will carry it on from there.”

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Road dogs coexisting with Kathmandu’s citizens in the city’s busy downtown. Photo courtesy of Pravin Sharma.

Similar to TNR (trap-neuter-return) for feral cats, stray dogs are humanely captured, sterilized, immunized, and then released back into their communities. No longer at risk of spreading disease or capable of reproducing, the dogs will slowly die off over time, gradually reducing and potentially eradicating the stray overpopulation issue.

When I told him about HSI’s forthcoming plans in his home country, Sharma was thrilled.

“This is a team project that cannot be achieved by just one group of a few dedicated dog-lovers, so I’m very excited to hear about this,” he said. “The more people that can help the dogs, the better. Attitudes are changing and improving in Kathmandu, pet stores are opening up, and you can see how people love their dogs, but we have to work harder at teaching the new generation. We have to help them understand that dogs are living beings, too.”

To learn more about Humane Society International’s incredible Street Dog Welfare initiative and how to become a Street Dog Defender, go here. You can also help support the Le Sharma Trading street dog feeding campaign by purchasing some of their handmade, eco-friendly pet products on their website, or donating here.

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” – Dalai Lama

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MyHouseRabbit.com

HopperHome.com

Make Mind Chocolate Facebook page

The Language of Lagomorphs

ClickerBunny.com

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

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Photo by Chris Savas.

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

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 on 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 seabird, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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