From Farm to Family – How a Dog Destined for the Dinner Table Got a Second Chance at Life

Martyn Stewart had no intention of adopting a dog that day. Tasked with filming the horrific conditions at a South Korean dog farm alongside Humane Society International and Change for Animals Foundation, his mind was simply focused on the difficult assignment at hand. As a sound recordist who has worked in the TV and film industry for many years and documented myriad examples of animal cruelty throughout the globe, Martyn has experienced his fair share of upsetting sights and sounds. But this was his first trip to a dog farm, where dogs were raised for the dog meat trade. Although he knew he would try to do as he’s always done on these assignments – harden his heart, do the job and deal with his emotions later – he still wasn’t sure he was prepared for what he was about to witness.

“I was there filming for the BBC,” Martyn explained. “I do natural soundscapes that layer into documentaries and films and occasionally I shoot video. I’ve been covering the effects of the Asian culture on planet Earth, recording rhinos, elephants, sharks, bear bile bears, etc., and I was in South Korea to tie up domestically what they do there, including to the animals we consider man’s best friends. I believe Asia is credited with 70-80 percent of most animal abuse in the world, which is an enormous percentage, as there’s a vast amount of people living on that continent, so it’s a huge problem.”

The dog farm before HSI and CFAF closed it down. It will soon be converted into a rice farm. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

The dog farm before HSI and CFAF closed it down. It will soon be converted into a rice farm. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

As the third and largest dog farm HSI was closing down as part of its strong campaign to help Korean dog farmers exit the trade and transition to more humane forms of farming, this particular operation was home to 103 canines. Most of the dogs were Tosas, a Japanese mastiff breed favored by the South Korean meat trade due to the animal’s large, muscular build.

It is estimated that more than 2 million dogs are consumed in South Korea each year, supplied by hundreds, even thousands of farms (an official census of how many actually operate in the country has never been performed). Unlike countries including China, Vietnam, Laos and Indonesia that rely on strays and stolen pets to supply their gruesome pet meat industries, Korea is the only Asian country that commercially farms dogs for consumption.

Life for dogs on a dog meat farm is a short, miserable existence characterized by deprivation and abuse. Similar to puppy mill dogs, these animals live in small, filthy cages with little or no protection from extreme weather, are fed poor diets, denied exercise, companionship and veterinary care, and never get the chance to feel the ground beneath their feet. But unlike mill dogs, these animals have no chance of ending up in loving homes, only in live meat markets where they are tortured and brutally slaughtered.

SK dog meat farm

The depressing sight of a typical South Korean dog meat farm, this one in Yongdang-dong, Yangsan. Photo credit: Nami Kim of SaveKoreanDogs.

As he followed the team of rescuers through the farm, Martyn was incredibly moved by the conditions of the dogs. Tears trickled down his face as he filmed the tragic scene before him – cages and cages of dogs and puppies barking, whining, jumping at the bars of their cages, some cowering in fear, a few wagging their tails. The smell of decaying food and excrement was overwhelming. It seemed unimaginable that any “human” could justify keeping animals this way. And then he saw him – the dog who would end up changing his life.

“I left the puppy enclosure and turned into a dark under-cover row of double-raised cages,” Martyn wrote. “Here I found a dog completely huddled over, its spirit broken. He would not look up at me and I spoke quietly, telling him he would soon be safe and out of here…he trembled in the darkness. He had a small piece of hardboard that probably measured 18 inches in diameter. This was his only salvation from the hard wire-like base of the cage that had deformed his feet.”

He continued, “I completely broke down and asked about the chances of taking him home with me. Lola Webber of Change for Animals Foundation…was there with me at this time and she told me my chances were probably 100 percent. I made up my mind right there that I would take this mentally and physically abused dog home with me…I decided to name him Pocket in honor of a friend’s son I’d met in Nepal; my friend’s tireless work helped close down the abusive Gadhimai festival.”

Pocket when Martyn first saw him - traumatized, defeated and broken. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Pocket when Martyn first saw him – traumatized, defeated and broken. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

I could describe more of Martyn’s heart-wrenching experience at the dog farm in greater detail, but I’d just be repeating everything he’s already illustrated in his very touching, first-person account published last month in The Dodo. Instead, I’d rather focus on the more heartwarming chapter of this inspiring story – Pocket after he was rescued.

Fast-forward almost two weeks later to the end of September. By then, all 103 dogs had been removed from the farm, checked over medically and flown to San Francisco. There they were housed at a temporary shelter and assessed before being distributed among HSI emergency shelter partners throughout California and into Washington state, where they would be rehabilitated and adopted into loving homes. As it turned out, the shelter where Pocket and five other dogs would be sent was PAWS in Lynnwood, WA, not far from Martyn’s home in Greater Seattle. So to help with the transport effort, Martyn and his wife Noeleen drove down to Tacoma, met the HSI team, picked up Pocket and his canine comrades and delivered them to PAWS.

Since dogs raised on dog meat farms are not well cared for and fed extremely low-quality diets typically comprised of swill and offal, it was no surprise that Pocket was infected with parasites, was terribly underweight and developed kennel cough not long after arriving in Washington. But once he was treated, vaccinated and neutered, Pocket was ready to go home with the Stewarts, who were looking forward to nurturing him and getting him acquainted with his new life.

Pocket snuggles in his new doggie bed. Could he be dreaming or had he found heaven? Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Pocket snuggles in his new doggie bed. Could he be dreaming or had he found heaven? Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

“One of the most amazing sights was Pocket’s first walk on grass,” Martyn said. “He had never seen or smelled it, had never seen a bird or a squirrel, had never chewed a stick or interacted with another playful dog. Giving him his first squeaky toy was a joy to watch.”

As the proud parents of Bucket, a boisterous 8-month-old golden Labrador retriever, the Stewarts were well aware that adding another young dog to the household would be twice the work. But then, Pocket wasn’t any ordinary 7-9-month-old pup – he was a traumatized dog who had known nothing but deprivation and abuse. Helping him heal physically and emotionally was going to take lots of time, love and patience. But Martyn wasn’t daunted; he was prepared to do everything in his power to help Pocket feel safe and loved. And initially, that meant giving up sleep.

“That first week I didn’t even know what a bed was and was walking around like a zombie because Pocket was having nightmares and would bark in his sleep,” he said. “Who knows what a meat dog dreams about? So I was lying down on the floor with him and I’d wake up feeling like someone had crushed me with a steamroller. When you get a dog you have a commitment for life and that’s what you have to keep telling yourself, but that first week definitely made me feel my age.”

Pocket enjoying all the trappings of his new life, including a leisurely sunbath, something he'd never had the chance to experience at the horrible dog farm. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Pocket enjoying all the trappings of his new life, including a leisurely sunbath, something he’d never had the chance to experience at the horrible dog farm. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Besides night terrors, Pocket had other obstacles to overcome. One issue was his deformed feet and weak lower front legs, caused by having to walk and stand on wire flooring for his entire life. Since he’d never received any exercise and his muscles were terribly weak, the dog had adapted by walking on his wrists.

“It’s kind of how his feet evolved to try to live in the conditions he was in,” Martyn explained. “His front legs became lower, like he had on snowshoes or big flippers. But now that he’s walking and putting on muscle he’s starting to elevate his legs and using the pads on his feet, so they’re straightening up quite well.”

He continued, “He’s got lopsided ears because he’d been attacked by other dogs and the farmer had stitched him up with heavy string like you’d see in a potato sack – it was just so crude and horrible. The farmer would have done it without anesthetic and Pocket would have been screaming in agony. So he’s got scarring all over his neck and one ear is about two inches down from the other, giving him this floppy approach on his face. His hearing is okay, he’s just going to have these deformities, these battle wounds that are a memento of his early life.”

Pocket's adorable, floppy face. Don't you just want to kiss it? Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Pocket’s adorable, floppy face. Don’t you just want to kiss it? Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

As those first days and weeks went by, Pocket’s new world began to slowly unfold before him, with so many new “firsts” to experience. Life is good when you’re a cherished family dog! Here he was, eating yummy, nutritious food, going for walks in the woods, playing with toys, meeting other friendly dogs, riding in the car, sleeping in a warm, comfy bed and best of all, receiving tons of love. Whenever something new, such as strange sounds, became overwhelming or frightening for him, Pocket quickly learned to look to his pack for safety and reassurance.

“Bucket is roughly the same age as Pocket, so I often look at the parallels between the two of them,” Martyn said. “We’ve had Bucket since he was 12 weeks old and he’s had the chance to be a puppy, but Pocket had his puppyhood cruelly taken from him, so he’s having to catch up with everything. Bucket is like his therapy dog, but he can also be overwhelming because he just wants to play and wrestle him to the ground every five seconds. But Pocket really looks to him for how to be a dog and help get him out of his (anxious) state of mind.”

Picturing Pocket loping after Bucket as they bound along a wooded trail, stopping to watch birds, chase squirrels, taking in all the enchanting sights, fascinating sounds and interesting smells, I am incredibly heartened to think of how far this amazingly resilient dog has come. Seven weeks ago Pocket was just another nameless dog on a South Korean dog farm, simply waiting for death. Now he is a pampered pet enjoying a wonderful life with a loving family committed to helping him heal from his traumatic beginnings. To be safe, loved and valued – that’s what all dogs, including meat dogs, deserve.

Enjoying a lovely neck massage from his new mommy while brother Bucket wonders why he's not getting one, too! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Enjoying a lovely neck massage from his new mommy while brother Bucket wonders why he’s not getting one, too! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

“His personality is just adorable,” Martyn gushed. “He’s not a guy who shows you a ton of emotion – I haven’t had a lick out of him yet – and he just looks at you with these big, sorry eyes. He has a bed at the side of our bed with a gate around it so he feels secure, and now he sleeps all night. Then when you see him in the morning you get the wag of the tail – his tail never wagged before.”

He continued, “He’s nervous and aware of everything going on around him but watching him trying to compute it all into his little mind, I think he’s doing amazing. He doesn’t have the total confidence you’d expect from a dog but I’d expect him to behave like he is after everything he’s been through.”

It takes a very special person to rehabilitate an animal from the meat trade. These creatures have been through a tremendous amount of stress and trauma and have likely never known love or affection. And while the concept of adopting a dog or a cat from these circumstances may appeal to some well-meaning, kindhearted individuals, prospective adopters must be prepared for the kinds of challenges these animals can present, including behavior, training and health care needs that may exceed what most people are willing or able to handle. But with a great amount of time, patience and training, dog meat dogs can indeed become wonderful lifetime companions.

Hiking through the nature preserve near his new home, Pocket must be thinking,

Hiking through the nature preserve near his new home, Pocket must be thinking, “who knew being a dog could be so much fun?” Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

“People need to understand that a rescued meat dog is far different than a dog you’d normally go pick up,” Martyn asserted. “These dogs have come through a hell of a lot of trauma in their lives and all they’ve ever seen is abuse. I get so many messages from people saying, ‘I want one of those dogs because I think it would be cool to have something with history,’ like it’s a status symbol for them. You can’t just go and grab something and think you’re adopting a dog like you would anywhere else. You have to take this dog for what it is and be able to put into it what any abused animal would require.”

Meanwhile, Pocket has become a bit of a celebrity. Besides serving as one of the poster dogs for HSI’s anti-dog meat campaign, he has his very own Facebook page, Pocket for Change, in which he “journals” about his new life alongside beautiful photos and heartwarming videos, compliments of his talented dad. You can also check out his growing video library on YouTube.

But while most people who learn about Pocket are warmed and inspired by his story, there will always be naysayers, in this case, those who question the validity of rescuing dogs from other parts of the globe.

From abused meat dog to pampered pooch - no more bad dreams for this guy! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

From abused meat dog to pampered pooch – no more bad dreams for this guy! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

“I’ve had a lot of feedback from people saying, ‘why can’t we save our own dogs instead of going over there?’ but I don’t see it that way, I see things universally and think every animal matters,” Martyn said. “I encourage everybody to adopt any dog, be it from Korea or any other part of the world, including the U.S. Animals all over the planet are in need of our help. By reaching out to these dogs in South Korea, it makes us aware of problems not just on our own doorstep but on others’ too. Animals’ lives don’t just end at home, animal abuse is a global issue.”

While it’s hard for Westerners to understand why anyone would want to torture, kill and eat a companion animal, in the end, it’s hypocritical for us to condemn other cultures for their dietary choices when we have much to answer for in the way our culture treats animals considered food rather than friends.

“Throw a stone at Asia for the dog meat trade and you break your own window if you also eat meat – think about it,” Martyn stressed.

By sharing his story and demonstrating to the world that meat dogs are just as loving and deserving of compassion as any pet dog, Martyn hopes that Pocket will not only help change the hearts and minds of people within dog-eating nations but also inspire others to join the movement to stop this inhumane trade.

“I hope that Pocket will shine a light on every dog in South Korea and the rest of the world (and) show that there is always hope,” he said. “Like the starfishes washed up on the beach, if we can save one, we can save them all.”

Pocket with his devoted dad. He's even learning the art of the selfie! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Pocket with his devoted dad. He’s even learning the art of the selfie! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Thanks to their incredible partnership and campaign launched at the beginning of this year, HSI and CFAF have so far shut down three South Korean dog farms, resulting in the rescue and re-homing of 186 dogs in the U.S. If you’d like to support this progressive effort to end South Korea’s dog meat trade and raise awareness among Koreans about the plight of “meat dogs,” please go here.

For a glimpse into the Korean dog meat trade as imagined from a dog’s perspective, check out this animated video, Draw My Life.

To learn more about the dog meat trade in South Korea and how you can help, please visit koreandogs.org.

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” ~Albert Einstein

They Called Her Sunshine – How a Rescued Street Dog Became an Ambassador for Abandoned Canines Everywhere

She had all but given up hope. Severely emaciated, infected with mange and covered in sores, the dying street dog began staggering down the side of the road, one slow, agonizing step at a time. Perhaps in one final attempt to find food, she had rallied every last bit of energy to crawl out of hiding and into the sunlight. Because like many street dogs on the brink of succumbing to injury, starvation or disease, her choice was clear – fight to survive or surrender to death. But call it chance, luck or destiny, everything changed for the ailing dog at that very moment. She had been seen.

“My girlfriend Julie and I were leaving my house to go shopping and were driving down our block when we both saw the dog at the same time,” said Caron Comas, longtime animal lover and devoted dog mom. “She was barely moving, sort of walking up the street. We hit the brakes, looked at each other and said, ‘is that a dog?’ The sight of her was just enough to make you fall apart.”

But when the women got out of the car and tried to get the dog to come to them, the frightened canine simply turned and ran the other way, quickly escaping under an abandoned house across the street from Caron’s home.

Shopping plans quickly forgotten, Caron ran back to her house to get something for the dog to drink and eat while Julie stood guard by the opening in the house where the fleeing canine had disappeared. After some coaxing, the dog’s intense hunger and thirst eventually won out over her fear and she began accepting a little food and water from the women, who couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The creature was a pink, almost hairless bag of bones, with irritated, crusty skin and deep, open sores around her hips and back legs, most likely caused from lying in one place for a very long time. The largest wound, located on her left hip, was so deep Caron could see exposed muscle tissue and joint material.

Sunshine when she was first discovered, in terrible condition and close to death. Photo credit: Caron Comas.

Sunshine when she was first discovered, in terrible condition and close to death. Photo credit: Caron Comas.

Knowing she had to act quickly to save this dog from certain death, Caron jumped on Facebook and began searching for help. That’s when she discovered Pause for Paws, a non-profit rescue organization dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and finding loving homes for San Antonio’s abandoned street dogs. She sent them an urgent message along with a snapshot she’d taken of the dog cowering under the house, a disturbing image that quickly caught the attention of Pause for Paws Director Sharal Mackenzie, who immediately got on the phone with Caron to determine the desperate pup’s location.

As someone who’s seen her fair share of street dogs on their last legs, Sharal knew this one was in big trouble. Without hesitation she reached out to Save Our Street Dogs San Antonio Texas (SOS-SATX), an all-volunteer group of dedicated street dog rescuers, to see if they had any members in the area who could pick up the dog.

“When I saw how bad the dog was I knew we weren’t going to have much time to get her, or she was going to disappear somewhere and never be seen again,” Sharal said.

Which was exactly what everyone feared had happened, because by the time SOS volunteers arrived at the abandoned house the dog had flown the scene. When they returned the next day, again, no sight of her. That’s because The City of San Antonio Animal Care Services (ACS) had gotten to her first.

Sunshine upon arrival at Castle-West Animal Hospital, where she was immediately attended to by the amazing Dr. McGehee and his wonderful staff. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Sunshine upon arrival at Castle-West Animal Hospital, where she was immediately attended to by the amazing Dr. McGehee and his wonderful staff. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

“Thank goodness they picked her up because if someone hadn’t gotten her she would have been one of numerous dogs who die under houses or in bushes and nobody even realizes they’re gone,” said Sharal.

As a city shelter with a good working relationship with many of the rescue groups in the San Antonio area, ACS willingly released the dog to Pause for Paws, who then rushed her to Castle-West Animal Hospital and Dr. Bill McGehee, the rescue’s longtime, beloved veterinarian.

After someone was overheard saying, “That dog looks like she could use a little sunshine in her life,” the canine was promptly christened Miss Caron Sunshine, in honor of her rescuer.

The newly named Sunshine had quite an extensive laundry list of medical issues. Besides being anemic and severely emaciated, she was plagued with demodectic mange, hookworms, dry, fragile skin and ugly, gaping pressure sores on both sides of her hips. The ugliest one on her left side was so deep it went straight to the bone.

“When Pause for Paws brought Sunshine in she could barely stand or walk,” said Veterinary Technician Jennifer Rodriguez, who is also a foster volunteer with Pause for Paws. “She was very pale and by her skin color and her eyes, you could see she was at the last bit of her life. As soon as she came in we started doing blood work, taking pictures and figuring out what was going on with her so we could come up with a treatment plan.”

Sunshine enjoying the comforts of a doggie bed at the clinic. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Sunshine enjoying the comforts of a doggie bed at the clinic. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

A blood transfusion produced miraculous results, and by the next day, Sunshine was active, aware and alert. But while it seemed the lucky canine had been delivered from death’s door, it was clear she had quite a road of recovery ahead of her, with myriad physical issues needing to be addressed. Along with antibiotics, iron supplements and several de-wormings, Sunshine’s intensive treatment regimen included daily mange baths and hydrotherapy to wash away dead skin, dirt and debris and infuse her wounds with oxygen to promote healing. In addition, x-rays revealed dysplasia in one of her hips.

“This showed us evidence of her age, which we think is about six years, as well as the wear and tear of being out in that kind of environment,” said Jennifer, who developed an immediate bond with Sunshine and ended up managing the majority of her care. “Although we’ll never know for sure, I can definitely tell you she was on the street for a long period, for her hair to die off, her skin to be so frail and for her weight loss to be so severe.”

With the cost of Sunshine’s care estimated at $5,000 or more, Pause for Paws quickly took to social media, where they shared her story and rallied supporters. Soon the lucky pup had her own Facebook page, hundreds of “fans” rooting for her recovery and a generous community of donors who not only contributed funds but also medical and pet supplies. One supporter even sent Sunshine special doggie pajamas to protect her sun-sensitive skin.

“(Sunshine’s medical care) would not have been possible without the support of so many kind-hearted donors who contributed to her GoFundMe campaign and directly to Castle-West,” said Sharal. “And of course, we let everyone know that anything not used for Sunshine would be used for the other animals that come in to our rescue.”

One of the most compelling things about Sunshine is her soulful eyes – they just draw you in. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

One of the most compelling things about Sunshine is her soulful eyes – they just draw you in. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Feeling better by the day and clearly on the road to recovery, Sunshine quickly settled into life at the clinic, becoming a fast favorite of the Castle-West staff and clientele, as well as a local celebrity. As her body healed her personality blossomed. True to her name, Sunshine’s demeanor proved to be sweet and sunny, her personality loving and affectionate. Soon she had joined the ranks of the privileged staff dogs, earning free roam of the clinic and soaking up as much attention as she could get from visitors and employees alike.

“She picked up very quickly where she can go, where she can’t and where she can lie down, and she was very well-mannered as far as socializing with the other dogs and animals,” Jennifer said. “She started learning where the biscuits were and started trying to open that container, and figuring out where the dry food is and poking at that with her nose. And of course, we had to watch every trashcan and countertop, because human food is her number one focus.”

After almost two months of top-notch rehabilitation and care, Sunshine was a transformed dog. While all of her fur had yet to grow back, her skin was improving and most of her wounds had healed up well. But after such a long stay at the vet clinic, it was time for Sunshine to take her next step – she was ready to graduate to a foster home.

Sunshine getting attention from a young client at Castle-West. After everything she's been through, it's amazing how much she loves people - of all shapes and sizes! Photo credit: Pause for Paws

Sunshine getting attention from a young client at Castle-West. After everything she’s been through, it’s amazing how much she loves people – of all shapes and sizes! Photo credit: Pause for Paws

“I already knew Sunshine was a great dog, she just needed to be shown where to be,” explained Jennifer, who is also an experienced dog trainer. “I knew that her hips were going to take a while to heal and while everyone wanted to foster her, I knew she couldn’t go into a home until they healed up. I thought if she does okay at my house and learns things like how to use a doggie door, not to dig in the trash and be gentle and nice with the other animals at the house, it would be fine with me if I took her and still did the treatments she needed while giving her a different environment.”

Just as she’d done at the clinic, Sunshine immediately adapted to her new environment, this time in Jennifer’s home, where she quickly learned household routines and good manners by following the lead of her five canine and two feline foster brothers and sisters. Her life now a far cry from her lonely existence on the streets, Sunshine was getting a taste of what she’d always deserved – to be a cared for, beloved pet. Watching her lounging on the couch, learning to play with toys, napping in comfy doggie beds or running around with Jennifer’s dogs in their huge backyard, it seemed as if Sunshine the once-invisible street dog had all but forgotten her unfortunate past.

“She learned right away not to pee in her cage and not to go in the clinic and she’s never soiled in my house, so that makes me think she may have had some experience in a house environment, that and in the way she connects with people,” said Jennifer. “She didn’t mind people being all over her, touching her head. She was so interested in them – she just gravitated toward that love.”

Sunshine getting some love from her admirers at a Pause for Paws adoption event. She loves having her head petted! Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Sunshine getting some love from her admirers at a Pause for Paws adoption event. She loves having her head petted! Photo credit: Corazon Photography

But when it comes to the fate of most street dogs, Sunshine’s happy story is definitely the exception rather than the rule. While the number of stray dogs in the U.S. is unknown, according to the World Health Organization, there are an estimated 600 million dogs living on the streets throughout the world. In San Antonio alone there are approximately 150,000 stray dogs, a serious problem that several rescue groups, including Pause for Pause, are trying to address.

According to Sharal, one reason street dogs are able to proliferate in San Antonio is due to the region’s milder climate, which makes it easier for stray and abandoned dogs to scrounge, reproduce and survive for longer periods of time until they eventually succumb to injury, starvation or illness. Most of the city’s street dogs are actually lost or abandoned pets, she explained.

“It’s primarily the lost dogs who are going to get picked up and rescued off the street, and most of those are very grateful dogs once we pick them up,” Sharal said. “We find a high percentage are housetrained and never wanted to be on the street in the first place. Then there are the dumped dogs – they’re the ones sitting by the side of the road, watching every car, because no matter how bad their owner was, that loyalty is still there. You can see them sitting in the median, just watching cars go by, and that’s usually when they get hit.”

She continued, “Then there are the community dogs that people don’t want to admit are theirs when they’re picked up or when something happens to them. These dogs have never had shots, never been fixed or probably ever had any care but they’re not totally unloved dogs, there’s just a different attitude (about pets) here. But in general, most of the stray dogs we pick up are pretty nice dogs once we get them out of the street environment. They may look feral but once you get them back in a home and they know they’re in a safe place they’ll switch right over.”

Sunshine and her devoted caretaker and foster mom, Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Sunshine and her devoted caretaker and foster mom, Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Meanwhile, Sunshine has continued to flourish under Jennifer’s loving care and weekly follow-up visits at Castle-West, where she enjoys socializing with her adoring fans, hanging out with the staff and “helping” with patients. She has also become a regular fixture at Pause for Paws adoption events, where people often stop by just to get a picture taken with her.

“I do sometimes take her out to different things and she’s great on the leash,” Jennifer said. “She loves to go on car rides – she waits every day to see if I’m going to open that door so she can jump in the car. She does have a little bit of separation anxiety, I think because we’ve spoiled her so much at the clinic, and she definitely wants to be out there and doing everything. For a street dog, her personality is absolutely amazing – she’s every rescue dream you’d want.”

Three months after her rescue from the streets of San Antonio, Sunshine’s happy ending appears to be within reach. The lucky pup has already landed a wonderful family that has been following her story since the beginning and has waited patiently for the chance to adopt her. Once they’ve been approved by Pause for Paws, Sunshine will be ready to embark upon her next chapter – life in a loving, forever home. But none of that would have been possible without the village of amazing people who worked together to save one incredible dog.

“This was a case of the whole community coming together to save one dog,” Sharal said. “It was the good Samaritan, it was SOS-SATX getting someone out there in a hurry, it was having ACS being willing to work with us, it was our vet, Dr. McGehee, who is fantastic and can do miracles, and it was Jennifer for taking such great care of her. And last but not least, it was the community, the people who were touched by Sunshine’s story and did something to save a dog’s life. They saved many dogs’ lives when they got involved, started caring and started believing that they could actually do something to help.”

Sunshine's incredible village of rescuers. From left to right, back row: Caron Comas, Sharal Mackenzie, Elsa Benavidas and Deanna Lee from SOS-SATX; front row: Dr. Bill McGehee, Miss Caron Sunshine and Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Sunshine’s incredible village of rescuers. From left to right, back row: Caron Comas, Sharal Mackenzie, Elsa Benavidas and Deanna Lee from SOS-SATX; front row: Dr. Bill McGehee, Miss Caron Sunshine and Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Our global street dog problem is a human-created problem. Be part of the solution by spaying and neutering your pets, providing them with care and not letting them roam free. If you see a stray dog, especially one in bad shape or in distress, here’s what you can do:

  • Don’t just walk away, do something. If you don’t feel comfortable handling the dog yourself, contact animal control or a street dog rescue group. Don’t just leave the animal where it is and think someone else will take care of it. That attitude of, “it’s not my problem” is why so many dogs end up dying on the streets.
  • Get a photo of the dog, as the shelter or agency will most likely ask for one.
  • Once you’ve reported the dog, don’t think it’s no longer your responsibility – that will rarely get the dog off the street. Be willing to follow-up and follow through to make sure the dog receives the attention and care it needs.
  • If you are able to retrieve the dog (please use caution when handling a stray dog, especially if it’s injured), don’t just keep it! That cute little dog you just picked up off the street may have an owner. Think in terms of what would you want somebody to do if it was your dog. Take it to a shelter or a vet who can scan it for a microchip, then do what you can to get the dog home, including posting signs in the area where it was found and/or circulating photos on social media.
  • If you see a mother dog and her puppies on the street, don’t just pick up the puppies and leave the momma behind. Leaving an unsterilized, lactating female dog on the street is not only cruel but also perpetuates the problem, as she will simply reproduce again.
  • Consider fostering the dog. This not only saves a life, it also allows shelters and rescues groups with space issues to help more dogs. Like Pause for Paws, many shelters and rescue organizations will provide medical care and supplies – all you have to do is supply a home, some food and love!
  • If you can’t foster, donate. For most shelters, especially smaller ones, money is always an issue, so anything you can donate to help the animals will be incredibly appreciated. Having that extra funding may mean the difference between that shelter being able to help another animal or having to turn it away.
  • Get out and promote spay and neuter. Talk to people, especially your neighbor with the unsterilized dog that keeps having puppies. Be diplomatic and take every opportunity to educate people in a kind, non-judgmental way. Talk to them about why their dog acts crazy or aggressive because he’s living in the backyard alone on a chain. Educate wherever and whenever you can – spreading awareness does make a difference!

Sometimes it takes a whole community to make a difference for dogs in need – Sunshine’s story is living proof of that fact. Because in the end, every dog deserves a home and all dogs are equally deserving of living safe, happy lives as beloved companions. Our planet’s street dog problem is not a canine problem, it is a mess we humans have created through reckless overbreeding and irresponsible pet ownership. We domesticated dogs to live side by side with us and they have remained loyal to us for thousands of years. We owe it to them to fix this crisis once and for all.

“Stop pretending that if your dog gets lost or you dump a dog that someone else is going to take care of it,” Sharal asserted. “Stop pretending that euthanasia is the worst thing that can happen to a dog…there are many worse things than that. There’s no happy ending for these dogs unless they get rescued.”

Miss Sunshine, who - as evidenced from the white fur with black speckles growing in - appears to be a Dalmatian mix. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Miss Sunshine, who – as evidenced from the white fur with black speckles growing in – appears to be a Dalmatian mix. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

“Roving dogs do not indicate compassion and civilization in society; they betray instead the ignorance and lethargy of its members…that means we should keep them and treat them with respect as we do our companions and not allow them to roam about.” – Mahatma Ghandi

Saving Mandy – Part Two

I lay awake most of the night, my mind mulling over the events of the day like a video on an endless loop. I couldn’t stop thinking about Mandy, the sweet-faced, red-coated little Mastiff mix we’d left behind at the animal shelter, where her future remained uncertain. I didn’t just want to get her out of there, I had to get her out of there. But there were obstacles to overcome first. Bringing her home with me was impossible and Angels Among Us Pet Rescue was already overflowing with animals and not enough foster homes. Later that day I’d even called a couple of dog-friendly acquaintances to see if they could house Mandy temporarily but neither were interested in taking on a young, untrained and very active shelter dog who would need food and housing for an indeterminate period of time. It hurt me to the core, thinking about that sweet little girl lying alone and confused on that cold, hard cement floor, just because she had nowhere safe to land. But in the end, wasn’t she just one of thousands, even millions of shelter dogs who find themselves in that same tragic predicament every day in this country? Still, I tried my best to nurture a tiny flicker of hope as I thought about all that had transpired just hours earlier.

My heart had ached as we’d driven away from the shelter. From the sanctity of Jennifer’s comfy SUV, we gazed out at the bleak scenery before us – dilapidated houses, shoeless children, broken down cars, people in disheveled clothing walking around aimlessly or sitting like statues on shabby porches, their eyes staring into nothingness – all snapshots of a typical disadvantaged inner-city neighborhood. How could a city like Atlanta, with so much wealth and abundance at its disposal, condone such chronic impoverishment? And how could its citizens throw their animals away like trash, including such sweet and deserving dogs like Mandy, whose only mistake was being born into the wrong circumstances. I will never understand why human society must work this way.

We were seconds from getting onto the freeway when Nick touched my shoulder and suggested we turn around and go back to the shelter. What if we took some pictures and made a short video of Mandy and then posted them on the Angels foster Facebook page? Maybe by some miracle someone would come forward and volunteer to take her in. Certainly giving up and driving away wasn’t going to get her out of harm’s way but going back and doing whatever we could to save her just might. Jennifer looked over at me, beaming, and promptly made a U-turn at the intersection.

Mandy at the shelter, posing for her Angels foster plea picture.

Mandy at the shelter, posing for her Angels foster plea picture.

I couldn’t wait to get back to the kennel and pull Mandy her out of her run. When I approached she was lying in her original spot, wrinkly head between her paws, dozing. I called out, “pup, pup, pup,” and her head snapped up. Her soulful eyes met mine and she leaped to her feet excitedly. Nick let himself into the run and looped a leash over her head, all the while holding her kennel mate, the frantic blue pit bull, back with one leg as he pulled Mandy to freedom.

The moment we let her loose in the play yard it was like someone had flipped a switch. The once sedate, solemn-faced dog immediately transformed into a happy, playful puppy, diving for the nearest squeaky toy and running around with it in her mouth. She was sweet, affectionate, beautiful and adorable. Other dogs walked by and it was obvious she just wanted to interact and play with them. There wasn’t an aggressive bone in her body and she seemed to love everybody she met. Jenn, Nick and I looked at each other and practically cried out in unison, “what an awesome dog!”

After spending a little time playing with her, we took some pictures and made a video. Nick insisted I do the talking, which typically isn’t my forte, and I had to force myself to keep from crying as I stared into the camera and pleaded with our foster network to consider taking her in. Although returning her to the kennel was tough – the blue pittie began dominating Mandy as soon as she returned – this time we walked away hopeful. We had done what we could and would leave it up to one of our kind-hearted foster volunteers to jump in and do the rest.

Still, as I lay there that night, picturing Mandy’s sweet, wrinkly face and confused, pleading eyes staring back at me through the chain link as we shut her back in her run, I felt tears trickling down my face. I wondered if perhaps I might be experiencing some displaced grief for Mandy’s namesake, my dear friend Amanda, whose death several days earlier still seemed incomprehensible to me. But whether I was crying over Mandy the canine or Mandy the human, either way I became inspired to do something I hadn’t done in years – pray.

How could you not fall in love with that face?

How could you not fall in love with that face?

Now anyone who knows me well understands that I am not a religious or even a very spiritual person. I believe that when we die it’s basically game over. No heaven, no hell, no going to a “better place,” just nothingness. Sure, the idea of disappearing into oblivion isn’t a pleasant one, but then I like to reason that if not existing before I was born wasn’t horrible or scary, then why should the concept of not existing after I die be so terrifying? If anything, transitioning out of the physical body is probably like falling into a deep sleep similar to going under anesthesia, only you never wake up.

Logic and scientific evidence point to this being the most likely end-of-life scenario, yet almost every time someone close to me has died I’ve had experiences that have made me question the finality of death via incredibly vivid dreams that feel more like visitations. During these experiences I can feel their touch, see every detail of their faces, their eyes, their smile. And most of all, I can feel the love, that tangible bond between us. They tell me they have to go away, and while I’m sad and don’t want them to leave, I understand I have to let them go. When they hug me goodbye I can feel the warmth of their skin, their arms around me, their breath. And that’s when I wake up, usually in tears but at the same time elated, feeling as if I’d actually been with them. Twice those dreams have happened just hours before I even knew those friends had died, as if they wanted me to hear it from them first.

Being a rational person, I could easily tell myself that these are simply comforting hallucinations created by my brain to make the pain of loss and grief more bearable. Yet at the same time, I must concede that the universe is an amazing, mysterious place with infinite aspects we humans have yet to even attempt to understand. So to keep it simple I will leave it at this – whether Amanda and my other loved ones have really come to me in dreams or whether those visitations are simply apparitions manufactured by my brain to make me feel better, I will never know, but I am grateful to have experienced them nonetheless. Life is a mystery, and so too is death.

Figuring it was worth a try, I began talking to Amanda, hoping that if my girlfriend’s energy was somehow hovering in the ether she’d hear me and maybe help me save this dog. What did I have to lose?

Just a puppy.

Just a puppy.

The next day found me in yoga class, trying to clear my mind and focus my breathing as I moved and sweated from pose to pose. Yet despite my efforts to quiet my brain, I couldn’t stop thinking about little Mandy, wondering how she was doing and hoping one of the Angels fosters had been swayed by her Facebook video. So when I got to my car and saw there was a message on my phone from Jennifer and Nick, my heart leaped, and upon hearing their excited voices on the other end of the line began to sob. One of our regular foster volunteers, Chrissy Frey, had agreed to take Mandy, who would be released from the shelter that afternoon. I was ecstatic!

I felt like a crazy person, crying hysterically one moment and laughing uncontrollably the next as I silently thanked Amanda, wherever she was, imagining she’d somehow had a hand in this, my first rescue. Because the fact that Angels was so full and Mandy had found a foster home so quickly was nothing short of a miracle.

People who foster animals in-need are indeed their own breed of kind-hearted human. I have so much respect and admiration for them. They’re the kind of selfless individuals who think nothing of opening their homes and lives to homeless creature after homeless creature, happy to provide them with food, shelter, care and love for as long as it takes to find them forever homes. Whether caring for the sickly, rehabilitating the abused or comforting the neglected, foster volunteers are a crucial part of any successful rescue organization and are absolutely vital in helping these deserving animals achieve the kinds of lives they were always meant to live – that of beloved, cherished companions.

Chrissy is such a special person. Kind, intelligent, generous, nurturing and open-hearted, she is not only an experienced dog mom who truly understands the nuts and bolts of caring for canines and bringing the best out in them, but is also someone who goes the extra mile for every dog she takes in, whether they’re her own babies or just passing through on their way to new families.

Mandy and her doting foster mommy.

Mandy and her doting foster mommy.

Despite the fact that Mandy had no manners when she arrived in Chrissy’s home – along with tons of puppy energy and a host of destructive tendencies – Chrissy’s patience, calm, centered energy and loving attention has done wonders for the wayward, nine-month-old pup, who has been thriving in her care for over two months now. Every time I’ve had a chance to visit Chrissy’s home it’s obvious how secure, loved and happy Mandy feels there. And although part of me is envious that I didn’t get the chance to foster Mandy myself, not to mention develop the kind of special bond she has with Chrissy, I’m so grateful that such a wonderful person ended up being the ideal guardian for this precious dog. I don’t think there is anyone I could have chosen who would have been more perfect for her.

While Mandy appears to be well on her way to finding her happy ending, I have been coming face-to-face with the hard, cold reality of Amanda’s tragic life. Not long after she died, I reached out to one of her old boyfriends, one of the few men she’d dated back in the day who’d actually been good for her and treated her well. He finally called me back a few weeks ago, and it was so great to hear that deep, familiar voice again. As we spoke he brought it all back to me, the fun times we’d had hanging out in L.A., just the three of us or with our gang of crazy, colorful friends. We were young, irreverent, edgy and cynical back then, yet still optimistic about our futures as artists. None of us expected to change the world, only to achieve enough success so we could be free to do what we wanted and enjoy our lives. But there was nothing lighthearted or nostalgic about the conversation that eventually ensued.

Unlike me, Amanda’s ex had stayed friends with her after she’d abandoned acting and left Hollywood, continuing to be her shoulder to lean on whenever she needed him over the years, which was usually when she was hurting or in trouble. As he began to fill in the blanks for me, describing what had happened to her during the two decades I’d been out of her life, it began to dawn on me that the person I thought I knew so well was actually someone I barely knew at all.

Chrissy and Mandy at a recent Angels Among Us adoption event.

Chrissy and Mandy at a recent Angels Among Us adoption event.

What he proceeded to describe was a crazy, haphazard, dysfunctional existence fueled by drug addiction and abusive relationships, resulting in several arrests, jail time, three children from different fathers – none of whom she was able to maintain custody – and a number of failed attempts at sobriety. She’d lived in trailers, on the streets, shacked-up with various men, sometimes running from dangerous people but always running from herself. Eventually, she did get off the hard stuff and ended up crawling back to her family, who had since hardened their hearts to her after so many years of enduring her insanity.

As his story continued to unfold, I realized with sadness that I’d only known the version of Amanda she’d wanted me to know. So many of the things she’d shared with me about herself had just been partial truths, downright lies or lies of omission. While I understand that most people are untruthful in order to protect themselves from rejection and judgment, it still hurt that she hadn’t trusted my loyalty enough to know I would have stuck by her, no matter how ugly her secrets turned out to be. Yet at the same time, I really had no right to be offended – I was the one who’d walked away from our friendship. But once I was able to put my ego aside, I felt grateful for my newfound clarity, of being able to see and understand her in a way I’d never been able to when she was alive.

In the end, Amanda had never really, truly gotten sober. After all, she had a good excuse for self-medicating – pain. Due to a host of health problems in recent years, she was often in great discomfort and began using an assortment of painkillers to manage it. An accidental morphine overdose was what finally freed her from her troubled life.

Mandy taking a break from swimming with her doggie pals at the nature preserve near Chrissy's house. She's an active girl and Chrissy has been amazing making sure she gets plenty of exercise!

Mandy taking a break from swimming with her doggie pals at the nature preserve near Chrissy’s house. She’s an active girl and Chrissy has been amazing making sure she gets plenty of exercise!

I wasn’t able to save Amanda. I wasn’t there to drag her to an AA meeting, sit with her while she went through withdrawals, or talk her out of it doing something self-destructive. I probably wouldn’t have been able to, anyway – Amanda lived by her rules and always did what she wanted to do. Her life and her death were a tragedy, but she lived and died on her own terms. Maybe that’s why saving her canine namesake, and seeing her through to a new life with a loving family, has become everything to me. And while that may not be enough to make up for abandoning Amanda in her time of need or to ease the pain of losing her forever, it has gotten me further along the road to healing, to finally forgiving myself.

I think ultimately some of us rescue not only because we value the lives of animals but also because deep down we’re trying to save and heal those lost, abused, neglected and vulnerable parts of ourselves. I know that’s true for me. And while Amanda wasn’t able to find peace and happiness in this lifetime, I believe Mandy will.

I’d like to think that if Amanda had lived she would have eventually revealed the truth of who she was, what she had done and what had happened to her. I’d like to believe she would have trusted me enough to let herself be radically honest, knowing I would have been there to listen, not to judge, and that I would never have abandoned her again. That eventually, there would have been no more secrets or lies between us. I have to go on believing that. And so I will.

Mandy and me a month after her rescue. I will never forget this wonderful pup, who has inspired me to fight for shelter dogs everywhere!

Mandy and me a month after her rescue. I will never forget this wonderful pup, who has inspired me to fight for shelter dogs everywhere!

“Saving one dog will not change the world, but surely for that one dog, the world will change forever.” – Karen Davison

Saving Mandy – Part One

Amanda was my soul sister. Intelligent, talented, hilarious and extremely irreverent, she was the fraternal twin I’d never had but always wanted. We met when I was 22 and she was 18, at a Hollywood recording studio where a mutual friend was cutting an album. Bright, fresh-faced and disarmingly pretty, she was a little blond dynamo with an infectious energy, cool sense of style and a delicious sense of humor. I immediately fell in love with her – it was like we’d been friends our entire lives. And from that day forward we became practically inseparable, hanging out whenever we could, yacking on the phone for hours. She even moved into an apartment just two blocks away from mine. Some of our antics, adventures and escapades from those early days are legendary. And while I always came second to whomever she was dating, I was her main girl and she was mine.

As a child actress and teen film ingénue who’d starred a hit movie by the time she was 15, Mandy was someone accustomed to a lot of attention and adoration. In fact, she was often recognized when we were out together in L.A., be it at El Coyote, Canters Deli, La Poubelle or some of our other favorite haunts. Although the Mandy I knew was generous, easy-going and down-to-earth, she could turn on the charm and play the superficial celebrity game when she needed to – it was almost like she had two distinct personalities. And like most actors who work in “the business,” she could be terribly self-involved and narcissistic.

One of our favorite L.A. stomping grounds. Photo credit: lostinasupermarket.com

One of our favorite L.A. stomping grounds. Photo credit: lostinasupermarket.com

While she loved me and valued our friendship, I always knew that being with her meant putting up with the “Mandy Show.” After all, this was her world and I was simply living in it. But introvert that I am, I didn’t mind being in her shadow all that much. I’ve never been impressed by popularity, wealth or fame, and Hollywood always felt like high school to me. It wasn’t a world I coveted or wanted to be a part of, although I found its inherent dysfunction rather fascinating. Really, I just loved Amanda and wanted to be her friend, flaws and all, and knowing that I was special to her made it all worth it for me. That is, until she discovered drugs.

Addiction is a terrible, seductive, destructive force, and in my younger years, I watched several people succumb to its dark siren song. Amanda had always been intrigued by the underbelly of life, so it was no surprise to me when she started dabbling with mind-altering substances and eventually got involved with a small-time drug dealer. In the years since we’d met she’d grown increasingly disillusioned with acting and often talked about leaving the business. Growing up in Hollywood had distorted her sense of reality and the world, but she couldn’t stand the idea of being a “normal” person – it simply wasn’t exciting or interesting enough for her. So by 23 years of age, she was simply burned out and looking to rebel.

Tinsel town from behind the Hollywood sign. Photo credit: store.chrispzero.com

Tinsel town from behind the Hollywood sign. Photo credit: store.chrispzero.com

Soon enough, coke and heroine became her new passions. Suddenly she became willing to sacrifice everything – her career, her relationships, her family, her reputation, even her dog – for drugs. I’d always known she had a crazy streak and was capable of all kinds of self-destructive behavior, which she’d typically played out in a devilish spirit of fun, but this was different. I tried to reach out and reason with her, but she became secretive and evasive, repeatedly denying she had a problem. The space between us grew and eventually became a chasm as I realized I was no longer useful or important to her. I knew I couldn’t stop her from going down this path, a path I had no intention of following, so I walked away and went on with my life.

Twenty years came and went. All the while I never stopped thinking about Amanda, hoping she was okay, praying she wouldn’t die of an overdose or at the hands of an abusive boyfriend. Then last year I decided I was ready to reach out. I sent a letter to her parents, hoping it would get to her, which it did. And when I finally got that first voicemail I was delighted, yet saddened, all at the same time.

I barely recognized her voice. Gone was that impish, girlish energy, that inimitable Mandy liveliness. This voice was slow, slurred and weary. Although she’d been clean for a while, it was obvious she’d been through the ringer, that all those years of drug abuse had taken the spark out of her soul. Since we’d parted ways she’d been arrested several times, gone to jail, gotten clean, even had a daughter. She’d moved back to her hometown, where she was trying to figure out what to do with her life. She admitted that she didn’t know who she was or what she was supposed to be. And true to form, most of our phone conversations were about her, but that was okay. I was just happy to have her back in my life.

How I wish I could have hugged Amanda again, just one more time. Photo credit: piclist.com

How I wish I could have hugged Amanda again, just one more time. Photo credit: piclist.com

We talked about seeing each other, although I must admit I was afraid of the changed person I might face. I’d seen recent pictures of her circulating online and it was obvious that the drugs had ravaged her face, her teeth and her body. Yet I was so relieved to know she was safe and sound, that she had survived what she liked to call “just a phase.” I realized how much I’d missed her and when we talked about old times and laughed like we used to, I’d get glimpses of the old Mandy and suddenly all felt right with the world. Before we hung up we always said I love you. And then she stopped answering my calls.

I knew that morning that something was wrong. I’d had a dream the night before that she and I were together, finally reunited after so many years apart. We were in a crowded club and I put my arm around her so we wouldn’t get separated. The dream was so realistic I could actually feel how thin and fragile she was. Wordlessly she told me she needed space and time to heal, that I couldn’t be a part of that and she hoped I would understand. I told her I did and that I’d see her soon. Then I woke up.

Photo credit: talkwiththepreacher.org

Photo credit: talkwiththepreacher.org

I went straight to my phone and texted her. No response. All day I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to call her parents. I didn’t have their phone number so I did a Google search, hoping to find it online. And that’s when I saw the headlines. She had been found dead in her apartment the day after the 4th of July, after missing dinner with her family. I couldn’t believe it. She was only 43 years old. All those plans of seeing her again, gone. All those future phone conversations – we had so many more catch-up stories to tell – were not to be. All those hugs we couldn’t wait to share, they were never going to happen.

I couldn’t believe that my girl, my soul sister, was gone. To make matters worse, it was July 8, Mandy’s 44th birthday. Instead of celebrating with cake and presents, her family was putting her in the ground. I was numb with grief. But nothing soothes my soul like being with animals, so when my rescue friends, Jennifer and Nick from Angels Among Us Pet Rescue, invited me to spend the day visiting a couple of Atlanta metro animal shelters and possibly rescue a few dogs, I jumped at the chance to join them.

This is what we faced that day at Fulton County Animal Services, which is an amazing facility run by wonderful, compassionate individuals doing their best to help animals that the irresponsible pet-owning public continually dumps upon them.

This is what we faced that day at Fulton County Animal Services, which is an amazing facility run by wonderful, compassionate individuals doing their best to help animals that the irresponsible pet-owning public continually dumps upon them.

The kennel was absolutely packed. I hadn’t been to a municipal animal shelter in many years, so when we walked in I’ll admit it took me a few minutes to get my bearings and my emotions under control. There seemed to be hundreds of dogs in there, as many as five or six to a run, their voices raised in a cacophony of barking that echoed throughout the kennel and into my brain. So many pit bull-type dogs with sweet faces and pleading eyes, whining, crying, jumping up against the chain link barriers, desperate for salvation and hungry for love. It hurt to give them attention and it hurt even more to walk away, wishing I could save every one of them and quietly hating the irresponsible humans who had put them there.

I was walking down the last aisle of dog runs when I spotted her, a large, gangly red dog with a Mastiff-like head, smooth coat and a very sweet face. Lying to one side, she looked like a sphinx, gazing about her with a noble yet solemn expression, as if determined to maintain her composure in such undignified surroundings. She lay calmly, stoically, as if she understood the futility of joining her brethren in their never-ending song of longing and despair. I’m not sure if it was her dark, soulful eyes, those big paws or that wrinkly face that got me, but I felt immediately pulled to her.

The red girl minutes after I first saw her, a hidden gem among throngs of homeless dogs.

The red girl minutes after I first saw her, a hidden gem among throngs of homeless dogs.

As I approached the run, one of her kennel mates, a blue female pit bull, rushed the fence, tail whipping back and forth at top speed in anticipation. Feeling sorry for the poor girl, I crouched down and pressed my hand against the chain link so she could sniff and lick my skin. Yet all the while I fixed my gaze on the red girl, who hadn’t moved and was politely watching me, as if waiting her turn. When I called to her she jumped up, a flicker of hope alighting in her eyes, but the blue pit became territorial and immediately blocked her path. It was obvious that she was the dominant dog in the run and that the red girl was the submissive, the way she hung back with her head low, afraid to get too close for fear of reprisal.

“Jenn, look at this dog!” I called over to my friend, who’d been busy checking out some of the small dogs she wanted to pull, “She’s so special.”

Like me, Jennifer’s face was tight with emotion. No matter how frequently a rescuer pulls from high-kill shelters, I don’t think they ever get used to the sight of so many homeless dogs, the multitude of innocent creatures who have ended up in such terrible circumstances at no fault of their own. Almost two million of them lose their lives in U.S. shelters every year because of human irresponsibility and over-breeding. People suck, she and I have agreed in unison, over and over.

The blue pit and the red girl. The shepherd mix in the background seemed defeated and didn't bother to get out of bed.

The blue pit and the red girl. The shepherd mix in the background seemed defeated and didn’t bother to get out of bed.

“I want to pull this dog, can we do it?” I asked beseechingly, watching Jennifer’s face as she gazed at the beautiful red girl, who was now pacing back and forth behind the blue pit, her wrinkly face full of longing. Jenn explained that we’d have to get a foster home lined up first, as our rescue already had over 800 animals in its system and boarding yet another dog wasn’t an affordable option. Plus, most of our foster families were already overwhelmed with animals. It didn’t look good. Yet I could tell from her face that Jenn also saw what I saw, that there was something very special about this wrinkly-faced dog. We looked at each other and sighed.

Crouching down next to me, Jenn coaxed the blue pit to one side of the run and kept her distracted so the red girl could finally get to me. As I poked my fingers through the fence, stroked her soft fur for the first time and felt her warm tongue bathe my hand in kisses, I could barely contain my emotions. I had to get her out of here, but there was no way I could foster her myself, as my German shepherds, Heidi and Chloe, disliked other dogs and would surely beat her to a pulp. Yet I felt destined to save this dog. She could not die here! After all, I had already named her.

Nick joined us and we agreed it was time to go. I gazed into the young dog’s eyes and told her I was sorry. It was agonizing to get up and leave her there, as every instinct, every fiber of my being screamed at me to do otherwise. But what could I do? We had to find a foster or she had nowhere to land. As I followed Jenn and Nick toward the door, I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder, just in time to see Mandy put her paws up on the side of the run and watch me walk away.

Mandy pleading with us to get her out of there.

Mandy pleading with us to get her out of there.

To be continued…

Bearing Witness at Yulin – A Rescuer’s Mission

Picture this: you’re an international animal rescuer and welfare advocate, tasked with documenting one of the most egregious forms of animal cruelty on the planet – the dog and cat meat trade. You’ve arrived in Yulin, China, a sub-tropical city located in the Guangxi province, a notorious hotbed for pet meat consumption. It’s your very first trip to this magnificent country, but you won’t be doing any sightseeing. Instead, you’ll be attending the city’s 5th annual summer solstice lychee and dog meat “festival,” a barbaric event held every June that attracts thousands of people seeking to celebrate the season by feasting on heaping plates of dog meat and lychee fruit.

As a 20-year cruelty investigator and front-line rescuer in the U.S., you’ve seen your fair share of brutality against animals, yet you know that what you’re about to witness is the stuff of nightmares, visions that will probably haunt you for the rest of your life. But you must put your emotions aside. Your mission is to document what you see and bring it to the world while supporting Chinese activists fighting to end the festival and the trade.

You’re Adam Parascandola, director of animal protection and crisis response for Humane Society International, and this is the story of your experience at the Yulin dog meat festival – the good, the bad and the very, very ugly.

Caged dogs sit on the side of Renminzhong Rd., waiting to be transferred to a slaughterhouse in a narrow alley. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Caged dogs sit on the side of Renminzhong Rd., waiting to be transferred to a slaughterhouse in a narrow alley. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

It was 3:30 in the morning on June 22, the opening day of the festival. Tipped off by activists that a large truck has arrived at Dongkou Market and was unloading dogs at one of the slaughterhouses, Adam and his cohorts – a Chinese activist, an AP photographer and a New York Times reporter – raced to the scene (read the compelling NYT article here). In an attempt to throw off animal activists who have been protesting the festival with increasing fervor each year, the Yulin government had instructed butchers to go from slaughtering dogs out in the open during the daytime to concealing their gruesome activities under the cover of darkness or behind closed doors, Adam explained.

“By the time we got there the truck was mostly unloaded and the slaughterhouse had moved all the dogs into a large pen, where they were standing three or four deep on top of each other,” he said. “The area where they were actually doing the killing was hidden behind a wall, so we didn’t see that part but what I did see and document on video was this man who goes into the pen with a big stick and just starts beating the dogs. They believe frightening the animals improves the meat in some way. The dogs were screaming, trying to get away and get out of the cage – it was a really heartbreaking scene.”

He continued, “It took (the butchers) 20 minutes to realize they could just shut the door in our faces, which they did, but we could still hear the dogs. The local government had been claiming that these slaughters weren’t occurring at the festival, so we felt it was very important to document that they were actually killing dogs onsite.”

A cat climbs up the cage at the slaughterhouse, trying to escape. This cat was later rescued by Peter Li, HSI China policy specialist. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

A cat climbs up the cage at the slaughterhouse, trying to escape. This cat was later rescued by Peter Li, HSI China policy specialist. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

At this point in our interview, I just had to ask – how does he do it? How does someone who loves animals and has dedicated his life to helping them emotionally handle such horrendous cruelty and suffering?

“It’s definitely different because although I’ve been in this field for about 20 years, most of my work has been in the U.S. where (animal cruelty) is illegal already,” he said. “Although it was kind of like going to a factory farm or a slaughterhouse, which is really tough, for me it was especially hard because there’s nothing you can do to help those animals at that moment. So in cases like that, I just try to focus on the long-term, that this is going to help make things better for animals in the future, and that because the animals can’t speak for themselves we have a responsibility to be there and witness it. I also tell myself that it’s going on whether I’m there to see it or not. The slaughterhouse was very tough and it was definitely emotional in the moment but because I’ve done this for so long I sort of just push through and focus on the work. Not that the emotions don’t come up later.”

As the day progressed, Adam and his team – now joined by local and international media and activists from Vshine Animal Protection Group – continued documenting the festival while making sure to move together as a group for safety reasons. While some butchers expressed their displeasure at being filmed by throwing boiling water at the activists, Adam said he never felt that his life was in danger. As a foreigner in a city not accustomed to international travelers, if anything he felt like more of a curiosity than an object of anyone’s vitriol.

Diners waiting for a seat at one of Yulin's dog meat restaurants. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Diners waiting for a seat at one of Yulin’s dog meat restaurants. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

“It could be intimidating because these folks surround you and they’re taking pictures but I could sense that it wasn’t really hostile against us,” Adam said. “(The butchers and locals) definitely harassed the Chinese activists and the ones who come to buy dogs – there were scuffles that broke out with them. But nobody interfered with my documenting or with any of the other photographers at the live market.”

And for an animal lover, that market was pure hell on earth: thousands of ill-fated dogs and cats of all sizes, ages and breeds languishing in tiny, filthy cages, simply waiting to die. Whether by truck, bicycle or moped, most had been transported over long distances under horrific conditions and deprived of food and water, so they appeared stressed, traumatized, even sickly. Worst of all, many seemed to be former pets.

“That was important to see because dogs being stolen for the meat trade is a real problem in China,” Adam said. “You can definitely recognize it – I saw a Dalmatian and a Chow at one point and many dogs wearing collars.”

Small dogs await their doom at a slaughterhouse. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Small dogs await their doom at a slaughterhouse. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Although much of the country’s populace has turned away from the gruesome culinary “tradition,” it’s estimated that as many as 10 million dogs and four million cats are eaten annually in China. But as the divide grows between older generation dog meat traders and younger generation Chinese animal activists who want the trade to stop, clashes between activists and dog meat traders are becoming more and more commonplace, making events like Yulin a veritable battleground in China’s burgeoning animal rights movement.

“This isn’t a traditional festival that’s gone on for hundreds of years,” Adam explained. “Five or six years ago the dog meat traders felt that their market was declining, so they came up with the idea of an annual festival to drum up business. The local government initially thought by sponsoring it they could help bring tourism to Yulin, which completely backfired, so they quickly backed away and said they weren’t going to be involved. There was a lot of confusion this year because the government said there was no festival, which basically meant that they had pulled their sponsorship, but it’s not like they were taking action to make sure it wasn’t occurring.”

The good news is that this festival of torture may be on its last legs. For the past four years, domestic and international activists as well as animal lovers throughout the world have become increasingly vocal in their outrage and opposition to the gory event, calling upon the local government and the Chinese public to end dog and cat-eating in China and the cruel practices inherent in the unregulated trade. All that unwelcome global attention and criticism appears to have had an impact, reducing a once bustling event known to take the lives of 10,000 dogs and cats to a smaller, more subdued gathering with fewer traders, stalls and animals.

Chinese activists from Vshine Animal Protection Group in-action at Yulin. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Chinese activists from Vshine Animal Protection Group in-action at Yulin. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

“At last year’s festival you could see rows and rows of booths selling dog carcasses but this year there were maybe two or three vendors,” Adam said. “(The local government) also banned the outdoor tables, which meant people had to wait longer to get into the restaurants, and it rained. But I believe all the massive attention and condemnation is the reason the festival was so drastically reduced this year.”

Thanks to the magic of social media, much of that massive attention and condemnation was fueled by hundreds of thousands of animal lovers, including celebrities such as Ricky Gervais, flooding domestic and international social media sites with online petitions, awareness campaigns and messages condemning both the festival and the trade.

“The response from people and the media was greater than we ever could have hoped for,” Adam said. “Although we have yet to see how effective (social media activism) will be with the Chinese government, I feel like we’re seeing new people coming to the movement in China. Many of them didn’t know about Yulin before this, so I think (social media has) been really helpful in bolstering those individuals who oppose the trade and letting them know that they’re not fighting this battle alone, that there are many people around the world who support their efforts.”

Vshine activists with animals rescued by Peter Li, HSI China policy specialist. Vshine means “a small light of kindness that brings great change.”

Vshine activists with animals rescued by Peter Li, HSI China policy specialist. Vshine means “a small light of kindness that brings great change.”

Although Adam said he will never forget what he witnessed at Yulin, he has since been busy laying the groundwork for a more humane China. Just last month, he returned to the country to help HSI launch China Animal Protection Power (CAPP), a command center in Dalian, China that provides financial support and training for Vshine and other animal activists dedicated to intercepting, rescuing, sheltering and adopting out companion animals seized from meat trucks. Since Yulin the task force has rescued more than 1,400 dogs, Adam boasted.

Caption: VShine means “a small light of kindness that brings great change.”

Heartened by so many young and passionate Chinese citizens who have taken it upon themselves to challenge their country’s antiquated attitudes toward animals and improve China’s reputation as a developing and progressive nation, Adam said he does see a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the end of the pet meat trade.

“It’ll be telling to see what happens between this year and next year, and whether the festival goes on in terms of the Yulin government’s reaction to this kind of intense scrutiny and pressure,” Adam said. “China is very different from South Korea in that there is a huge movement within the country to end the consumption of dog and cat meat. Even though the rise in pet ownership is relatively new, I think it’s more established in China than in Korea and the activists are extremely dedicated. I strongly believe that we will see the end of the dog and cat meat trade in Asia in the next decade…and I suspect that China will lead the way.”

Adam with Ricky, a very lucky dog rescued by Peter Li from a Yulin slaughterhouse a few weeks prior to the festival. Ricky (named after HSI supporter Ricky Gervais) was later brought to the U.S. and Washington Animal Rescue League, where he was rehabilitated and adopted into a loving home. Photo credit: Washington Animal Rescue League.

Adam with Ricky, a very lucky dog rescued by Peter Li from a Yulin slaughterhouse a few weeks prior to the festival. Ricky (named after HSI supporter Ricky Gervais) was later brought to the U.S. and Washington Animal Rescue League, where he was rehabilitated and adopted into a loving home. Photo credit: Washington Animal Rescue League.

I certainly hope so. Human beings are slow to change, and those who make their living off the backs of animal exploitation aren’t likely to surrender their livelihoods willingly. So while I agree we may indeed see an end to the dog and cat meat trade in the near future, it won’t come without a long, ugly fight. Which led me to my next question – how does Adam stop himself from hating those people – not to mention entire cultures – who support and condone such heinous cruelty?

“It’s hard not to feel anger when you see someone beating dogs the way that I witnessed at Yulin,” Adam admitted. “But undercover investigations at U.S. factory farms have shown us an equal amount of callous disregard for the suffering of animals, so I don’t think cruelty is cultural in that sense. I think that anyone employed in an industry that depends on cruelty has to dehumanize the animals on some level or they wouldn’t be able to continue doing their job. This dehumanization unfortunately often leads to even greater cruelty and an antagonistic attitude towards the animal in question – it’s a product of industries that thrive on exploitation. As for the population who consumes dog meat, much like the rest of the world, most choose to shield themselves from the horror and cruelty that has brought the meat to them and remain ignorant of the true suffering caused by the trade. Cultures, much like individuals, evolve over time and heinous acts that long ago didn’t cause people to bat an eye would be greeted with revulsion if witnessed today.”

He went on, “Though I am appalled by cruelty and hate the actions of these individuals, that doesn’t lead me to hate the individual or the culture. Anyone who lives a life that involves engaging in cruelty on a daily basis is an individual who is deprived of the joy and contentment of celebrating the beauty of the creatures we share the earth with. On some level they are hurting themselves and navigating the world in an unskilled manner that causes suffering (except for the few true psychopaths who aren’t affected by the suffering of others) and they deserve our compassion, as well. Were they to open their hearts to this compassion they would surely abandon these practices. We have seen people make this transformation in their lives and turn away from cruelty, whether toward animals or humans, and to compassion. We all have that capacity.”

Dog carcasses hung up for sale in Dongkou market, as a dog looks on. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Dog carcasses hung up for sale in Dongkou market, as a dog looks on. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

I don’t know about you, but I’m truly grateful that we have incredible individuals like Adam Parascandola fighting the good fight in the effort to create a kinder, more compassionate world for animals everywhere. He is a true voice for the voiceless. Thank you, Adam.

To learn more about the dog meat trade in China, check out this excellent CNN article.

Want to see this cruel trade come to an end? Please support HSI and their incredible anti-dog and cat meat campaigns by visiting their donation page.

“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Losing Hugo – How I Went On Living When My Beloved Dog Died

Burying my face in his thick, furry neck, I felt my dog take his very last breath. Hugo, my beautiful 14-year-old German shepherd, was gone. Lying with him in his bed, spooning his now motionless body, I sobbed with an intensity that shook me to the very core of my being. I realized I was crying harder than I had in years, my grief so deep and intense, it felt as if a part of me had been clawed out and torn away.

Hugo was the first dog I’d raised from cradle to grave. I had had other dogs before him but what I felt for Hugo was different. He was born the night my father died, so I liked to imagine that he’d been sent from a spiritual realm to serve as my protector and guardian, to be my “angel puppy.” But if anything, this special being in canine form came into my life to become one of my greatest teachers. A demanding puppy to raise, he was fear aggressive from an early age and became overly protective of me to a fault. I know I made a ton of mistakes with him. Yet in facing the challenges he presented I had no choice but to become a more patient, compassionate and understanding person, to work with his issues while accepting him for who he was – a wonderful but sometimes difficult dog.

But despite his shortcomings that often tested my patience to its limit, Hugo was my baby boy and I was his mom, committed to him for life. Through our years together he saw me through some very difficult and tumultuous times. He was a constant, steady and unconditionally loving presence in my life, always there to lick away my tears and make me laugh with his silly personality. I adored him and kept him out of trouble and in return, he gave me his undying loyalty and devotion. I was his person, and as time passed our special connection only solidified. We understood and accepted each other, flaws and all.

But now here I was, holding Hugo’s old, crippled body as it began to grow cold in my arms. I showered his grizzled head with tears and kisses, remembering when only 14 years ago I had taken that fuzzy little sable puppy in my arms for the first time, held him out in front of me and declared “he’s perfect!” Because he was.

Baby Hugo at 9 weeks. Who would suspect that this adorable little bundle of joy was really a naughty little brat in disguise?

Baby Hugo at 9 weeks. Who would suspect that this adorable little bundle of joy was really a naughty little brat in disguise?

As the vet took his leave and we waited for the pet crematory funeral director to arrive, it dawned on me that the depth of my sadness far surpassed anything I had felt when a human friend had died. In fact, I had just lost a close girlfriend the month before to cancer, and even though I had loved her dearly I certainly hadn’t felt this level of grief. Was there something wrong with me, or was I experiencing something akin to what one might feel when losing a child?

Bewildered and curious about this phenomenon, I later consulted with my friend Betty Carmack, author of “Grieving the Death Of a Pet” and pet loss support group counselor at the San Francisco SPCA, a volunteer position she had recently retired from after 32 years.

No, I wasn’t weird, she reassured me. In fact, my feelings were far from uncommon.

“That was a theme I heard consistently in my group, that people were grieving more for their pet than they ever did for their parents, sibling or friend, that the grief they felt for their animal was like no other grief,” Betty said. “That’s because of the relationship we have with our animals – it’s unconditional love, it’s deep and it doesn’t carry all the baggage that human relationships carry. Then there’s that loving, that mothering, that caregiving that people do for their animals. I heard people say all the time: she was like my baby, she was like my child.”

A strapping young Hugo and his adoring Mommy.

A strapping young Hugo and his adoring Mommy.

During the holiday season, I missed Hugo so terribly. I longed to be in his magnificent presence, to laugh at his silly antics, to feel those intense lion eyes watching my every move. Yes, I had my three other dogs to care for and adore, but the house wasn’t the same without my Hue. My husband, friends and family were so kind and understanding and I was surrounded by love, compassion and gestures of caring. Yet I ached.

To make matters worse, a little nagging thought began clouding my mind: had I really done everything I could for my boy, who had suffered from terrible, debilitating arthritis in his last year? I thought I had followed every medical, natural and pharmaceutical protocol known to man, but was there something else I could have done that might have made him more comfortable or better yet, extended his life?

Betty assured me that these moments of self-doubt and guilt are also very common for people, especially when their pets have died from illness or old age.

Hugo showing his silly side.

Hugo showing his silly side.

“Some people would come to the group questioning themselves and thinking that maybe they didn’t do enough or didn’t do as well for their animal as they could have,” Betty said. “But when they would tell their story about what they did do for their animal, people would say to them, ‘you did so much for him,’ or ‘he was so lucky to have you, that you loved him that much.’ To get that kind of feedback and support was so comforting and healing for people going through those kinds of difficult feelings.”

While I had enough support at home to help me through my grief, I could see the incredible value in joining a group like Betty’s to work through the rollercoaster of emotions I was experiencing. I felt so grateful I had people in my life who understood and could relate to my pain, imagining how terrible it would be if instead of sympathetic eyes and warm hugs I had been met with blank stares or even worse, comments like, “well, can’t you just go get another dog?” What would I have done then?

Betty reminded me that while Western society has definitely come a long way when it comes to acknowledging the significance of losing a pet, there are still those who don’t understand how deep and intense that pain can be and as a result, may trivialize those feelings.

“That can be part of the sadness, when someone negates a relationship that was so vitally important to you,” she said. “I would always tell people to only put their grief out where they know it’s going to be respected and treated tenderly because it’s too private and too personal to let it get trampled on. I would then encourage them to find that one person, that one friend with whom they could share their feelings, someone who would respect and honor their grief.”

Huey on his 4th birthday, protecting his new toy from the rest of the pack.

Huey on his 4th birthday, protecting his new toy from the rest of the pack.

Here are some other helpful suggestions Betty shared with me for coping with the loss of a beloved companion:

  • Be compassionate, loving and gentle with yourself. You just experienced a major loss and have every right to be upset and to grieve, for as long as it takes to heal.
  • Allow yourself to feel your emotions, the good, bad and ugly. Acknowledging your feelings will help you process the loss, so if you’re angry over your dog’s death, let yourself vent your frustrations.
  • Cherish the warm and funny memories. Remember when your dog did something naughty or silly and let yourself laugh. Laughter can be extremely healing!
  • Memorials, rituals and tributes are great ways to honor your dog and work through your grief. Put together a photo album or scrapbook, journal about your dog, write poetry and songs, create a memory garden. Many pet crematories and cemeteries offer myriad services and products to help comfort pet owners, including online forums where people can make tributes, as well as beautiful urns, keepsakes and jewelry to hold pet remains.
  • If you’re finding it difficult to move through your grief, consider finding a pet loss support group, online chat room or a counselor. You don’t have to go through this alone. There are numerous groups, hotlines, online sites and books available to help validate your feelings and guide you through your pain.

Almost nine months later, I am still hurting over the loss of my Hugo but am finding ways to honor his memory and focus mostly on the good times we shared. Life without him hasn’t been easy, though. I still look for him in the house at times, thinking he’s right there next to me, eyeballing me for a treat, watching my every move, always at the ready to shower my face with kisses. His constant whining for my attention used to get on my nerves at times but now it’s like an old song I long to hear. And while I love my three fur kids beyond measure and know my life will always be filled with dogs, there will never be another like Baron Hugo Von Tollhaus, my angel puppy. To say he took a piece of my heart with him is an understatement. To me, he was a person in a dog suit, a special being who opened my heart as it has never been opened before. He was my teacher, my guardian, my child. Because of him, I am forever changed, and for the better.

Hugo at 13 with his still-adoring Mommy.

Hugo at 13 with his still-adoring Mommy.

“It came to me that every time I lose a dog, they take a piece of my heart with them. And every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.” – Unknown

The Homeless Pit Bull Conundrum

Hey you, pit bull breeder. Yeah, you, the jerk who thinks it’s cool to make money off the backs of poor, innocent dogs. You’re the kind of person who thinks nothing of letting your dogs produce litter after litter so you can sell their pups on Craig’s List or to anyone with cash-in-hand. You don’t care if your “breeding stock” has temperament issues, genetic defects or health problems. You don’t know anything about their bloodlines and you’ve probably never even taken them to the vet. Maybe they’re just existing out in your backyard, probably on chains, where they’re just lucky enough to get a bowl of cheap food, a little water and a pat on the head once in a while. Or maybe you’re just an irresponsible idiot who didn’t fix your dog and now she’s pregnant – again. And the puppies? You don’t care where they go, who they go to or what happens to them – their wellbeing is not your problem. If you can’t sell them then you’ll just dump them at your local shelter. Sure, let those nice people deal with your mess – that’s their job, right? So what if these unfortunate facilities are already packed to the gills with hoards of homeless pit bulls just like yours? But that thought never occurs to you and even if it does, you don’t give a damn. Meanwhile, legions of animals suffer and die because of you, another ignorant, selfish jerk who shouldn’t be allowed to even own a dog.

If I sound angry it’s because I just came away from a very upsetting visit to one of our local shelters here in Atlanta. Mind you, Fulton County Animal Services is an amazing facility, managed by the incredible LifeLine Animal Project and thus, run by a great group of kind, knowledgeable and dedicated, animal-loving individuals trying their very best to manage the burden our irresponsible pet-owning public has thrown at them. It was just a few days after the 4th of the July weekend, so understandably the shelter was extremely crowded. In fact, it was jam-packed, with triple the number of dogs the facility was designed to house. So while I knew I had arrived at a pretty a-typical, stressful time, it was an important scene for me to witness. Sometimes you have to experience something for yourself before you can truly grasp the reality of a situation.

I have long been aware of our nation’s homeless pit bull crisis. I know that pits and pit mixes are the most euthanized dogs in the U.S., with shelters destroying approximately 1 million of them every year (that’s almost 2,800 per day!). Still, I wasn’t prepared for what I witnessed firsthand at the shelter. We’re talking cages and dog runs practically overflowing with canines of all shapes and sizes, more than half of them pits or pit bull-types. It wasn’t unusual to have three, four or even five of them in one run. But here is where I have to give the Fulton County staff so much credit – for the amount of dogs and cats they were housing that day (465, to be exact), the place was incredibly clean and the animals were well cared for. Yet that didn’t take away from the upsetting scene before me.

A sweet young pit bull vying for my attention at Fulton County Animal Services.

A sweet young pit bull vying for my attention at Fulton County Animal Services.

I walked over to the first dog run and slowly crouched down. Four young pitties swarmed toward me, eagerly jumping up, whining, pawing and licking at my hand, which I had pressed against the chain link so they could smell me. Unlike some people, I’m not intimidated by bully breeds and am pretty adept at reading canine body language, so I didn’t hesitate to get down to their level while making sure to avoid initial eye contact. But this little group of friendly, tail wagging butt-wigglers was far from threatening – they were practically climbing all over each other to get as close to me as possible. As I took in all of their sweet, innocent, wide-jawed faces, feeling their warm breath and plaintive little licks wetting the back of my hand, I felt myself become overwhelmed with emotion.

I got up and walked away, trying to control myself. These unfortunate dogs didn’t need my sad energy – they were upset enough. One of my fellow volunteers from Angels Among Us Pet Rescue caught my gaze and my eyes welled up with tears. She understood. As someone who pulls dogs from Atlanta Metro area shelters on a regular basis, she’s been through this hundreds of times. I pulled myself together, taking deep breaths and steeling my heart before moving on to the next group of dogs, then the next, giving attention to anyone who wanted it along the way. I can’t recall passing a dog run without at least one or several pit bull-types in it.

I don’t think many people, especially those who breed them intentionally or unintentionally, fully grasp just how desperate the situation is for pit bulls in America. Feared and misunderstood by the general public (thanks in part to their vilification by the media), they have become the unfortunate victims of a particular subculture that not only views them as a status symbol but also enjoys using them for financial gain via breeding and dog fighting. As a result, this “breed” (the “pit bull” is actually a bully breed-type classification, not an actual breed) often ends up in the hands of abusive and irresponsible individuals. Add in targeted kill policies at shelters, breed specific legislation and breed bans, and you have a dog with more riding against it than any other type of canine. To put it simply, they are the most abused, misused and euthanized type of dog in our nation today.

Five little bullies looking for love.

Five little bullies looking for love.

Unlike Fulton County, many animal shelters have a no-adopt policy for pit bulls, so they’re either saved by rescue groups or killed, just for being pit bulls. Even sweet, tiny puppies don’t escape the euthanasia needle. So in the face of such a bleak reality, how can anyone justify breeding pit bulls right now? Not until the amount of good homes catch up with the amount of homeless dogs! Yes, there is definitely a place for ethical, responsible hobby breeders – I am not so militant about adoption and rescue that I’m against all breeders – but there is no place for backyard breeders, especially those churning out pits. Anyone who cares about dogs should be saving their lives, not adding more of them to our already saturated society.

Frustrated and needing expert advice, I consulted Lara Hudson, director of Fulton County Animal Services. As someone on the front lines of this challenging situation, I figured she would have a better understanding of what needs to be done to fix the homeless pit bull problem.

“Pit bull terriers are very popular, so this ‘breed’ is at the top of the list for many statistics because of their popularity,” she explained. “Combine this with the fact that any mixed breed, pit-looking dog is called a ‘pit bull terrier’ and then consider that if you breed mixed breed dogs and breed them again, they start to look like a generic pit mix, and thus, it looks like we have a pit bull problem. I disagree. Honda Accords are the most popular car in America. They are also the most stolen and they probably get the most tickets. Same with pit bull terriers. They are the majority ‘breed’ in our shelter and they are the majority ‘breed’ in households in this area. They are the breed most often filed on bite reports, etc. So I think the better question would be what are we going to do to alleviate the homeless pet problem in our city? For example, LifeLine just launched the ‘I’m In’ campaign on July 1 in an effort to make Atlanta Metro ‘No-Kill’ by the end of 2016.”

You could tell this girl had been through the ringer. Note the battle scars on her head.

You could tell this girl had been through the ringer. Note the battle scars on her head.

While all this made sense, it definitely wasn’t the answer I was expecting. But I could definitely appreciate Lara’s broader perspective on the issue. After all, she has a pretty clear understanding of the community she serves and the issues it faces.

“To put it simply, it’s a problem with education,” she explained. “When you drive through some of the areas in our community and you see where a lot of these stray dogs come from, you realize that these people’s kids aren’t even being taken care of. A lot of people really do love their dogs but their parents, grandparents, and their grandparents’ parents all tethered their dogs outside. It’s going to take generational change and improving the conditions where these animals are coming from so it trickles down.”

She continued, “We need more resources, ways to help people who don’t have enough money to take their animals to the vet, because what happens when people can’t do that? Their animals get sick, they turn them into the shelter or they let them go. So I think casting a bigger net by providing better resources for people who want the help is going to save more animals than aggressively going after the minority of people not doing the right thing, regardless of their resources.”

I understand that change takes time and that there’s no magic bullet to solve this problem. Still, it’s terribly frustrating and upsetting, thinking about all those homeless dogs – pit bulls or otherwise – dying in our nation’s shelters every day. But I guess when it comes to changing irresponsible human behavior there are no quick solutions. Mandatory spay and neuter legislation has been proven to be ineffective and enforcing breeder licensing fees is extremely difficult. Continuing to educate the public about responsible dog ownership, including the benefits of spaying and neutering their pets, and offering those services for free or at very low-cost is one tried-and-true solution, but it’s a process and a gradual one at that. Educating the public about bully breeds to help clear up fears or misconceptions about them is another way to increase their adoption numbers. But no matter how hard we try, we’re simply not going to rescue our way out of this problem. It’s a very frustrating conundrum with no simple or expedient solutions.

Two sorrowful kennel mates. I wished I could save them all.

Two sorrowful kennel mates. I wished I could save them all.

Meanwhile, people who want to their breed dogs, especially pit bulls, should have to spend time volunteering at their local animal shelters so they can witness the tragedy of pet homelessness firsthand. They should have to spend time in the kennels, see the faces and watch as one wonderful dog after one wonderful dog disappears into the euthanasia room (or better yet, watch them take their last breaths). Maybe that will help change their tune. Maybe then they’ll fully grasp that the most responsible, compassionate choice is to not contribute to the problem by spaying and neutering their pets.

Pit bulls and pit bull-type dogs are some of the most wonderful, loving and loyal companions anyone could wish for, but they’re definitely not the right fit for everyone. It takes a special kind of person to become a successful pittie parent, so please do your research before bringing one into your life.

For more information about pit bulls, their history and their plight, check out this article published in Pacific Standard magazine as well as this wonderful piece featured in Esquire, both published last year. And while you’re at it, visit Pit Bull Rescue Central for tons of great educational and adoption information resources!

“He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” – Immanuel Kant

That face...

That face…