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…

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…

Finding Justice for Ronzo

Frightened, sick and in excruciating pain, the young Cocker Spaniel knew he was in trouble. Like most stray or abandoned animals in peril, he had sought out a quiet place to hide, in this case, a densely wooded area behind a row of houses, where he could stay concealed and as motionless as possible. But besides avoiding discovery, the dog had other reasons for keeping still – his fur was so matted that even the slightest movement shot waves of agony through his body as thick, tight tangles pulled and tore at his raw and wounded flesh. But while instinct told him to fight to survive, the young spaniel could feel himself growing weaker from the infection raging through his body. All he wanted was rest and relief from his misery.

Humans had never been kind to him, so when the little dog heard the sounds of footfalls approaching he became terrified, as the presence of people usually meant more pain. Peering between the long tendrils of fur that hung down over his tired eyes, he could see a figure coming toward him, someone holding a pole with a noose at the end. Too weak to run or fight, the dog warned the human to stay away with a few feeble barks and attempts to bite, but all to no avail. Within seconds that noose was tight around his neck – he was captured.

This is how Ronzo looked when he arrived at the Clayton County Animal Shelter.

This is how Ronzo looked when he arrived at the Clayton County Animal Shelter.

Such was the predicament of this young spaniel when he was found at the intersection of Bethsaida Rd. and West Fayetteville Rd. in Riverdale, Georgia on May 28, 2015. Although it is unclear if the dog lived at the residence near the woods where he was found, had been dumped or wandered there on his own, it was evident to the Clayton County Animal Control officer that this dog needed help, and fast.

“His condition was so horrendous that Clayton County Animal Shelter immediately called our rescue to ask if we could take him,” Jennifer Naujokas, a full-time volunteer with Angels Among Us Pet Rescue, explained. “It was evident that the dog had been severely neglected for his entire life – he was just covered in mats and was biting. His mats were so thick and bound to his skin that it appeared he had never been brushed. Cocker Spaniels require quite a bit of grooming and maintenance because of their beautiful, fast-growing coats – obviously whoever owned him didn’t pay any attention to this.”

In less than an hour, an AAU rescue volunteer had the newly named Ronzo en route to Peachtree Corners Animal Clinic, where he would receive immediate treatment and a much-needed shave. But once vet staff began removing the spaniel’s densely matted fur it became clear that the dog’s condition was much worse than originally anticipated.

A very sick and matted Ronzo on his way to Peachtree Corners Animal Clinic.

A very sick and matted Ronzo on his way to Peachtree Corners Animal Clinic.

“We started that process and then immediately realized what was going on,” said Peachtree Corners Relief Veterinarian Dr. Michelle Gardin in a recent TV news report on Fox 5 Atlanta. “There were literally thousands of maggots on this dog. It was very upsetting and very sad to see how bad he was.”

In dire need of emergency surgery and 24-hour critical care, Ronzo was rushed to BluePearl-Georgia Veterinary Specialists, where he underwent two surgeries over two days in an attempt to clean and repair the multitude of raw, open wounds covering half of his body and remove the hoards of maggots eating him alive.

“Once GVS got him somewhat stabilized they started the surgeries,” Jennifer continued. “He had maggots on his skin, inside his skin, inside his organs, just hundreds and hundreds of maggots, and every time they went in they found more. Normally they wouldn’t have done two major surgeries like that back to back but if they hadn’t done the second surgery he would have died for sure, so we had to take that chance.”

The sad and disturbing reality of Ronzo's condition after his coat was removed.

The sad and disturbing reality of Ronzo’s condition after his coat was removed.

Ronzo’s life hung in the balance, his chances of survival at 50/50. Strong pain and sedation meds, antibiotics and IV fluids coursed through his emaciated, wound-riddled body, fighting to stop the sepsis infection while helping to keep the poor dog more comfortable than he’d probably been in months. Despite his tragic state, he was a beautiful blue merle-colored spaniel, estimated to be only 10 months old – he was just a puppy! While his road to recovery would undoubtedly be a long one if Ronzo survived he had such a long life ahead of him, as Cocker Spaniels can live 16 years and longer.

After surviving the first night it seemed that Ronzo wanted to live. Besides lifting his head, he allowed a couple of AAU volunteers and vet staff to pet him. He had so many people rooting for him, including the rescue’s thousands of Facebook fans. Yet the happy outcome Ronzo so greatly deserved – that of a healthy, happy, beloved companion – was not to be. On May 30, just two days after his rescue, Ronzo’s broken little body shut down. He had crossed the Rainbow Bridge, finally free from his suffering.

As the story of Ronzo’s passing took wing across the Internet, cries for justice began to grow. Without missing a beat, AAU immediately turned its attention to finding the sub-human responsible for Ronzo’s abuse, neglect and untimely death. Soon a private citizen came forward, donating $1,000 to a reward fund for information leading to the arrest of Ronzo’s former owner, and not long after that, the Humane Society of the United States offered an additional $5,000.

Ronzo's reward poster

“We see many cases of animal abuse and neglect (but) Ronzo touched many of us because he must have suffered for such a long time,” said Debra Berger, state director of the Georgia HSUS. “While HSUS recognizes that money cannot undo the suffering that Ronzo experienced, we offer this financial contribution to the reward fund in the hope that the perpetrator will be found. The seriousness with which the Clayton County Police Department is pursuing this case leads us to trust that justice will be served and that the community will understand that animal abuse against sentient victims is a serious crime.”

Since then, AAU has been busy posting signs and flyers from Sandy Springs to Riverdale, while the Georgia HSUS is in process of issuing a nationwide press release in the hopes that someone will be willing to come forward and lead authorities to Ronzo’s former owner. Thus far, no legitimate leads have surfaced.

Although she is devastated that poor Ronzo couldn’t be saved, Jennifer says she remains more committed than ever to rescuing dogs like him, especially those from Clayton County Animal Shelter, a troubled facility notorious for its overcrowding problems, questionable euthanasia practices and sick and injured animals. In fact, the shelter recently experienced its fair share of bad publicity when an alleged outbreak of canine flu prompted the facility to euthanize 64 dogs in one day, causing a public outcry among Atlanta’s passionate animal rescue community

How Ronzo should have looked. Photo credit: maryscockerhaven.com

How Ronzo should have looked. Photo credit: maryscockerhaven.com

“If anything, Ronzo has only fueled my desire to save the dogs of Clayton County,” Jennifer said. “I want to continue rescuing and placing these amazingly wonderful dogs who, despite their neglect and abuse, are so awesome! Not only does this shelter have a huge pit bull population but they also have highly adoptable dogs with dire medical needs that a lot of rescues can’t take on. I estimate we’ve pulled over 1,000 dogs from that shelter in the last three years alone, many with serious medical cases, from parvo and pneumonia to needing limbs amputated. I don’t know why Clayton ends up with these huge medical cases but they do, so they’re always on my radar.”

Although all 50 U.S. states have felony animal cruelty laws, legislation doesn’t appear to be doing enough to deter our nation’s irresponsible pet owners and sociopaths from neglecting and abusing animals. If anything, the justice system remains slanted in favor of those abusive individuals instead of the innocent, defenseless and voiceless victims that so greatly depend on humans for their protection and care. But until animals are considered sentient beings rather than property, living creatures that deserve rights and protections from bodily harm just like humans, the abuse and cruelty will continue.

“I think it’s going to take more eyewitnesses caring enough to step forward (and report animal abuse),” Jennifer asserted. “I think a lot of people who know about, see or hear such abuse are scared to come forward. So it’s going to take the police to protect those citizens, let them know that they can remain anonymous, and give them some level of comfort that it’s okay to talk about it.”

Ronzo shortly before his passing.

Ronzo shortly before his passing.

While Ronzo’s short, unfortunate life may have come to an end, his story will live on, reminding all of us to be a voice for the defenseless and the voiceless, especially those victimized by abuse. Animal cruelty is a felony, so if you witness the abuse, neglect or mistreatment of an animal, don’t hesitate to call the police – they are there to protect you and that animal! And please, do not own a dog if you are not willing or able to care for it properly for its entire life – they are a big responsibility and their care can be costly, especially those breeds that require frequent professional grooming. As intelligent, sentient beings who experience emotions, dogs are pack animals that need to be with their humans. They suffer greatly when isolated, neglected, abused or abandoned.

“In all of my years in rescue, Ronzo’s story is one of the most horrific cases – I’ve never seen something so gruesome,” Jennifer said. “While the ultimate goal is finding the person who did this to Ronzo and putting them in jail, I’m hoping his tale will inspire people to learn about caring for their dogs, watch out for the dogs in their neighborhoods, and report something if it doesn’t seem right. We have to speak up for those that can’t speak for themselves.”

If you or anyone you know has any information regarding Ronzo and his former owner, please contact Jennifer Naujokas at 404-421-2971, jnaujokas@angelsrescue.org or email Angels Among Us Pet Rescue at info@angelsrescue.org. All informants will remain anonymous, however, the $6,000 reward will only be granted if the perpetrator is arrested. If you would like to help AAU rescue more dogs in-need like Ronzo, please consider donating to this amazing organization.

“I hold that, the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Volunteering With an Animal Rescue – How To Be of Service (Without Giving Up Your Life)

I absolutely adore pugs. Next to German shepherds and Great Danes, they are my all-time favorite breed. At the time I decided I wanted to get involved in dog rescue, I was living in another city that had one small rescue tasked with rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming the area’s neglected, abused and abandoned pugs. I had long admired this amazing little organization, so when I heard that its founders were moving out-of-state and searching for volunteers to take over the rescue, I jumped at the chance to get involved. I imagined how rewarding it would be to use my writing skills to help homeless pugs find loving families where they would be adored and cherished as much as my pug, Gizmo, was (and still is).

I remember showing up at that first meeting, so excited to be a part of something so meaningful and knowing exactly how I could best be of service – I would write and edit their quarterly newsletter. About two-dozen people were in attendance, all pug lovers like me who were passionate about seeing the rescue continue. Sitting in a large circle with snacks in our laps and drinks in our hands, we made quick work of getting down to business and in less than two hours had elected nine new board members, signed up several foster homes and had a newsletter team in place, the latter consisting of two other women and myself. As I walked away from the meeting I felt positive and hopeful that my skills would be useful and appreciated.

While I thought I had made it abundantly clear to the rescue’s leadership that working on the newsletter was all I could offer, as I had a husband, four dogs and two jobs taking up the lion’s share of my time and energy, within weeks that boundary began to crumble. Things at the organization quickly became complicated as our initially robust group of enthusiastic volunteers dwindled to just 12 core members and a handful of fosters. As a result, the group was having a hard time managing the deluge of homeless and often sick or injured dogs in desperate need of transportation, veterinary care and placement.

Photo credit: 3milliondogs.com

Photo credit: 3milliondogs.com

Wanting very much to help my new rescue colleagues through this tough period, I agreed to fill in the gaps and do whatever I could with what limited time I had, hoping that once the dust settled and more volunteers came on board I could go back to concentrating solely on the newsletter. But weeks soon turned into months, and any free time I could spare continued to be spent picking up and dropping off pugs, reviewing adoption applications, conducting pre-adoption home checks, attending rescue meetings and assisting at adoption events, not to mention helping out with our annual Halloween pug costume party, the rescue’s biggest fundraising effort.

Mind you, I’m not complaining, as much of what I experienced that first year was very worthwhile and rewarding. While there were plenty of upsetting moments, like witnessing the callous indifference of people and their lame excuses for surrendering their dogs – moving, having a baby, behavioral problems – the experiences I had and the lessons I learned were incredibly enlightening and valuable. It felt amazing to be able to deliver a sweet little pug to his forever home, seeing him welcomed by his new family and knowing that formerly abused or abandoned dog was destined for a wonderful life – I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything in the world. Yet as time passed I found myself stuck in a sort of “rescue vortex” from which I didn’t feel justified dislodging myself. No, I wasn’t doing nearly as much as my other rescue colleagues were – some of them lived and breathed pug rescue – but my home life was already strained and here I was running off to help other dogs when my own pups weren’t getting enough of my attention. While I knew the rescue needed me, I also knew that something had to give, and soon. But instead of finding a way to cut back on my volunteer time and return to my original intention, I began to feel greater pressure to give more of myself while at the same time feeling like no matter what I did, it simply wasn’t enough.

I had only been volunteering with the rescue for over a year and was already feeling burned out. I was so discouraged, as I thought volunteering with a rescue was supposed to be about helping dogs in-need, not about fitting in with a clique, pleasing people or going along with pack-mentality politics. No, I wasn’t a martyr and I never would be – I wasn’t like some of my rescue colleagues who seemed to take pride in bragging about how stressed, exhausted and over-extended they were rescuing pugs. While helping dogs was indeed important, I believed my life should come first. And I certainly couldn’t remember the last time I had felt any sense of gratitude from anyone in the group for what I was contributing, be it insufficient in their eyes. So I began to say no. And that’s when things started to go south.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the story – suffice it to say that my relationship with the pug rescue came to a close just a few months later and that our parting of ways wasn’t a happy one. I get it that I had been the weakest spoke in their wheel, that the rescue was small, understaffed and overwhelmed with dogs, and that the group needed core members willing and able to give more of their time, energy and passion to keeping the organization afloat. I had set myself up to fail by not speaking up, reasserting my boundaries and sticking to them. Being “nice” had backfired on me. Instead of the rewarding experience I had hoped it would be, my first volunteer effort with a dog rescue left me feeling unappreciated, slighted, used and discarded.

Photo credit: volunteer forever.com

Photo credit: volunteer forever.com

While it took almost seven years for me to want to get involved with rescue again, I didn’t let that first negative experience derail my passion for helping animals. Since then I have volunteered with a couple of groups and through trial and error believe I now know the difference between a legitimate, professional, well-organized rescue that deserves my freely given time and energy, and one I should avoid at all costs.

Animal rescue organizations are run by humans, humans have egos and often those egos get in the way of what those individuals are supposed to be doing – helping animals. From narcissists and martyrs to hoarders and control freaks, the animal rescue world does indeed attract its fair share of very “colorful” folks, particularly women with strong and emotional personalities. But while there are certainly plenty of groups to steer clear of, there are also myriad rescue organizations made up of wonderful individuals who always put the animals first and understand the incredible value of good volunteers. So while my story can serve as a cautionary tale for what not to do when volunteering with a rescue, it’s not meant to dissuade anyone from getting involved in such a rewarding and worthwhile effort.

So to ensure you have the best experience possible and are able to help the animals in the best way possible, here are a few things to keep in mind before volunteering with a rescue group:

Do your homework: Unfortunately, the non-profit world is full of scammers who will take full advantage of your generosity if you let them, so make sure you do your due-diligence and research the organization before getting involved. Make sure the group is a 501(c)(3), which means it has been approved by the IRS as a tax-exempt, charitable organization. While this doesn’t guarantee the group’s leadership is well-intentioned, it at least demonstrates that they were serious enough to undergo the extensive amount of paperwork and waiting time necessary to attain official nonprofit status.

Next, check out the group’s website and do an Internet search to see what has been written about them. How long has the rescue been around and how many people are involved? Does the group have a Facebook page, and if so, what are they posting and how many “friends” do they have?

“There’s always someone who’s going to write a bad review, but a larger rescue, especially one that’s been around for a while, is more likely to be in compliance than some smaller, no-name, nobody-knows rescue,” explained Danielle Kramer, a frontline animal rescuer who has volunteered with a wide array of rescue groups for over 20 years, including Angels Among Us Pet Rescue and Atlanta Boxer Rescue. “Not that small rescues are bad, you’re just going to want to do your homework and make sure you’re not working with an animal hoarding situation disguised as a rescue.”

She continued, “If you see a rescue group bashing other rescues, run because that’s not a good sign. That means that rescue is on a power trip and they’re not looking at the whole picture. It’s so important for rescues to be supportive of one another and not backstab each other because it’s not a competition. Good rescues will want to work with others with the same goal in mind – to save lives.”

Lastly, talk to someone who has worked with the rescue and ask plenty of questions, including, what are the group’s adoption procedures and are they in-line with those of other successful rescues? All good rescues will usually follow the same best practices, so make sure the rescue you’re interested in is following them, as well. Does the rescue provide training and/or supplies and is there a network of fellow rescuers you can rely on for support? If you’re interested in fostering, ask about their pre-screening procedures and how they handle any emergency situations. Information like this will give you a clearer picture of whether the group is run like a business or a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of operation.

Photo credit: patch.com

Photo credit: patch.com

Consider your commitment level: How much time you can devote to your chosen rescue group will depend on your lifestyle, so think about how many hours per week or month you’ll be able to commit. Responsible, reliable volunteers are a boon for any rescue group, so set yourself up to succeed by being clear about what you can or can’t do and stick to your boundaries. It’s always a good idea to start off small and see how you do rather than jumping in full-tilt and risk becoming overwhelmed, so consider sticking a toe in the water rather than swan diving into rescue.

“Some people can live and breathe rescue, while others may only donate an hour or two per month, but that’s equally important,” says Danielle. “No effort in rescue and no act of kindness is too small. Even if that means donating one bag of dog food, anything helps. Even if you can only do one home check once a month, that’s still one more home check and one more dog you’re helping.”

Figure out your ideal volunteer role: Consider what kinds of activities would be the best fit for you and stay true to your intentions. Would you prefer hands-on or behind-the-scenes activities? Do you want to work with a group of people or carry out projects on your own? Do you like structure or are you a self-starter? Do you like learning new skills or would rather stick with the abilities you already have? Are you able to foster animals, join rescue teams, or maybe just walk some dogs at an adoption event? Be clear about what you want to accomplish and never, ever be afraid to say “no.”

“If people want to help, it doesn’t matter what they want to do, especially if they’re new to rescue and don’t want to be on the frontlines, that’s okay,” Danielle said. “They can start off small, or even bring their kid to an adoption event so he can learn, go walk a dog or play with the rescue puppies – that’s such a great life lesson. Every position is important, no matter what it is, even if it’s only once a year – everything you can do helps!”

Photo credit: arlboston.com

Photo credit: arlboston.com

Decide if it’s a good fit: Your time and energy are valuable, so it’s important to select a rescue group that reflects your values, is made up of people you feel comfortable with, and is appreciative of your efforts. Notice, what is the overall “energy” of the group? Is it warm and friendly or does the dynamic feel cliquey like high school? Does the group express gratitude for what you’re able to offer or do you feel pressured to do more? Does the group work to resolve conflicts productively and diplomatically or are its members prone to petty arguments, gossip and backstabbing behavior? All that does is take the focus away from what the rescue is supposed to be doing – helping animals. So even if the group just “feels” wrong, don’t hesitate to walk away and look for another opportunity, one where your blood, sweat and tears will be better spent.

“A rescue should never guilt you into doing more than you want or can do,” said Danielle. “Who are you to judge what anyone is doing out of the kindness of their heart? It’s not fair for anybody in a rescue to be demanding of their volunteers because then those people will be turned off and never want to volunteer again. If a rescue is that desperate or struggling that much, walk away and find a different one because it’s probably going to be a negative, frustrating experience to work with them.”

I’m glad I didn’t let my negative experience with the pug rescue derail me from helping animals indefinitely. If anything, it only helped me identify what to look for and what to avoid in a group, while strengthening my resolve to find that perfect fit. Thanks to that hard but important lesson several years ago, I finally found a rescue group I enjoy working with whenever I have a chance, one that appreciates what I’m able to offer and whose philosophy aligns with my values. Best of all, I’ve met the most amazing, like-minded people, some who have even become great new friends. Volunteering with an animal rescue is so worth it. Imagine how many animals we could help if everyone did their part to pitch in and make a difference. What a better, more humane world that would be!

Photo credit: youtube.com

Photo credit: youtube.com

“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” – Mitch Albom

Hey, PeTA, Leave Those Pets Alone!

Unless you’re an animal lover who’s been hiding under a rock lately, you’ve heard about PeTA’s disturbingly high-kill rate at its Norfolk, Virginia shelter. We’re talking almost 90 percent. And if you’re like me you’ve probably been scratching your head in wonderment since you learned about these unsettling activities. Isn’t this organization called the “People for the ETHICAL Treatment of Animals?” How is euthanizing so many dogs and cats ethical? It seems completely counterintuitive to what PeTA professes itself to be – a passionate defender of animal rights.

As a former supporter of this organization, I was very disappointed to learn about its antiquated and drastic approach to dealing with unwanted, abused and neglected companion animals, a deadly practice that has evidently been going on for quite some time. It was very disillusioning for me, as I’ve always admired the amazing work PeTA has done to educate the public about animal abuse and expose the callous individuals and cruel industries that harm non-human species. From factory farming and fur to cosmetic testing and circuses, PeTa’s powerful investigations and public demonstration campaigns have been instrumental in helping to spread awareness, change behaviors and shift our society’s attitudes toward animals. The organization has been admirably relentless in driving the point home that animals do not deserve to be used, abused or enslaved by humans, and that we have no right to take their innocent lives. And for that reason, I became a believer.

PeTA demonstrators protesting the B.C. Dairy Industry Conference in Vancouver, Canada. Photo credit: straight.com

PeTA demonstrators protesting the B.C. Dairy Industry Conference in Vancouver, Canada. Photo credit: straight.com

But why is it okay for PeTA to preach about not killing cows, chickens or pigs, only to turn around and destroy thousands of dogs and cats at its “shelter,” a place that by definition should be safe, temporary home for animals offered for adoption? For the past nine years, PeTA’s adoption rate has hovered around a dismal 1 percent, while its euthanasia rate has remained frighteningly high. While the organization adamantly defends its high-kill practices, claiming its “shelter of last-resort” only euthanizes sick, old, injured, abused and neglected animals no one else wants, there is a plethora of evidence to the contrary, and it is troubling.

According to tragic, first-person accounts from former PeTA employees and watchdog groups, the well-funded organization is quick to dispatch healthy, young and adoptable dogs and cats alongside the sick and too far-gone, often within hours of obtaining them, while making no concerted effort to find the animals new homes. In some cases PeTA employees have actually stolen pets from their homes, only to euthanize them immediately.

Former PeTA activist, “D” (who wishes to conceal her identity, due to the fact that she fears repercussions from the organization) began distancing herself from PeTA once she learned about the nefarious activities at its Norfolk headquarters.

“I helped PeTA with an investigation against a factory pig farm,” D told me. “They ended up getting felony counts against the people who were abusing the animals, which was great (because) a lot of times these people just pay a fine, get a smack on the wrist and move on. In those days PeTA didn’t used to have a shelter or get into that kind of involvement, they were more about investigations exposing people and companies for how they were abusing animals. That’s the path they used to be on when I was with them years ago and I believed deeply in that until they turned hard right and started killing companion animals.

She continued, “I didn’t understand what they were doing. I’ve tried to take a step back and understand their mentality but I can’t. A 90 percent euthanasia rate contradicts everything they’re supposed to represent. And I don’t understand the concept of not wanting (adoptable animals) to become companions in really good homes, where they can get lots of love. It’s just really sad that PeTA has gone the route that they went. It’s disappointing on so many levels and I think they’ve lost a lot of supporters because of it.”

Hoping to interview people with first-hand knowledge of PeTA’s Virginia operations, I reached out to an animal rescue friend who works with two former employees of the Norfolk shelter, but she said they were uncomfortable speaking to me, even anonymously. Like others who have worked for PeTA, they feared the organization’s intimidation tactics, designed to silence those who speak out against it. Although I was disappointed, as it’s going to take more than one or two brave souls to come forward and convince skeptics that this animal rights behemoth is indeed flawed and in dire need of culture reform, I understood their resistance to speak.

Another innocent life stuck in a municipal animal shelter. Photo credit: rosyandrocky.com

Another innocent life stuck in a municipal animal shelter. Photo credit: rosyandrocky.com

You have to wonder what lies at the heart of such a hypocritical ideology that would condemn killing animals used for food, clothing, entertainment and experiments, yet condone and willingly execute the mass slaughter of dogs and cats. Again, this is coming from a donor-funded entity claiming to be a leading defender of animal rights. Could it stem from the fact that PeTA doesn’t “believe” in pet-keeping, as its website clearly states, or its skewed philosophy that dogs and cats are “better off dead” than homeless or neglected?

I agree that the pet trade causes its fair share of suffering, especially at the hands of irresponsible, selfish and cruel humans who systematically contribute to the abuse, neglect and over-breeding of companion animals, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t multitudes of kind, responsible people who deeply love their animals and are willing to do whatever it takes to provide them with safe, healthy and happy lives. We pet parents love our fur babies and it’s fair to say that our “children” love us, too.

Companion animals have been with us for thousands of years and they’re not going away anytime soon. Yes, we have a global dog and cat overpopulation crisis – there is no denying that sad reality. But this is a man-made crisis that must be solved by those who created it, and murdering almost 3 million dogs and cats in our nation’s shelters every year is not the solution. There are way too many people on this planet, many of them suffering in poverty, yet would any civilized society find it morally or ethically acceptable to euthanize them? The innocents in this cruel equation should not be the ones paying the ultimate penalty.

While PeTA’s shelter isn’t the only high-kill facility in this country euthanizing healthy animals, most municipal shelters at least try to give the dog and cats in their care a chance at finding new homes, be they brief windows of opportunity. Then there are those good-intentioned shelters working very hard to reform their operations, reduce their kill rates, increase their adoptions, and even go “No-Kill.” Yes, our animal sheltering system is indeed flawed and in need of strong and expedient reform, but we must also remember that these facilities are our nation’s pet dumping grounds tasked with “cleaning up” the mess our irresponsible and negligent public has created.

There has got to be a better way. We can’t just keep killing hoards of dogs and cats year after year, and we can’t continue to allow people to get away with abusing, neglecting, abandoning and not sterilizing their animals. We’re not going to rescue our way out of this problem but neither are we going to euthanize our way out of it. Surely the solution lies in stronger legislation along with progressive educational efforts and community services, including pushing adoption as the most attractive way to obtain a pet; comprehensive and enforceable spay and neuter laws; stronger anti-cruelty ordinances and expanding free or low-cost spay and neuter services funded by higher breeder licensing fees. But until those solutions create a sea change in pet owner behavior, countless rescues, shelters and humane societies will be forced to deal with our pet surplus problem to the best of their abilities.

This is NOT the solution! Photo credit: mindwatch.com

This is NOT the solution! Photo credit: mindwatch.com

The word “ethical” is defined as, “pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct.” Clearly, there is nothing ethical about PeTA’s systematic destruction of healthy, adoptable companion animals. Aren’t animal protection organizations supposed to protect animals? An organization can’t expect to survive by maintaining a philosophy so diametrically opposed to what it’s supposed to be championing.

The good news is that the Commonwealth of Virginia appears to have said, “enough!” to PeTA’s bloodthirsty behavior. On Feb. 23, the Virginia House of Delegates passed SB 1381, which clarifies the purpose and definition of an animal shelter, requiring state facilities to be “operated for the purpose of finding permanent adoptive homes.” This means that when this law goes into effect in July, PeTA’s Virginia facility will have to become a true shelter that actually houses and adopts out animals or get out of the shelter – and euthanasia – “business” entirely. We who love dogs and cats can only hope that this new law will actually bring an end to the indiscriminate killing machine the Norfolk operation has become, perhaps incentivizing its leadership to shut it down completely. But while I imagine PeTA will choose to adjust its tactics rather than distance itself from companion animals entirely, the organization will certainly have a long way to go in improving its tainted reputation and regaining the trust of the dog and cat-loving public.

PeTA, do the dogs and cats of the world a favor and leave them to the rescue organizations and shelters that “believe in” companion animals, support responsible pet parenting and actually want to help the homeless find loving, forever families. Those homes are out there, people just need to be convinced that rescue and adoption is the best and most rewarding way to acquire their next companion. So leave the homeless dogs and cats to the kindhearted rescuers, those tireless saviors who aren’t daunted by the injured, abused or neglected, who believe that every animal is worth saving.

It’s one thing to euthanize animals who are suffering and beyond help, but it’s another to destroy healthy and adoptable animals who have every potential to live long, happy lives as beloved family members. The good PeTA does for other animals does not balance or cancel out the harm it has been inflicting upon dogs and cats, and for too long. It’s simply homicide. Or rather, “PeTAcide.”

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” – St. Francis of Assisi

It Takes a Village to Help Animals In Need

When Rachel Meier took a job in Rome, Georgia, it wasn’t long before she suspected that something wasn’t quite right in the neighborhood behind her workplace.

“I’d walk out to my car every day and would hear lots of dogs barking, at least ten different dogs,” Rachel told me. “I didn’t think it was normal, so I got in my car and started driving around and I was like, oh-my-God!”

As a four-year cat rescuer with Angels Among Us Pet Rescue, Rachel has seen her fair share of animal abuse and neglect, but she wasn’t prepared for what she witnessed just footsteps from her job – dozens of skinny, chained dogs with no food, water or shelter in filthy, trash-littered backyards, and tons of thin, scruffy cats wandering loose between the houses and along the streets. With winter just around the corner and temperatures about to drop, Rachel knew she had to do something to help these desperate animals, and fast.

For those of you who have never heard of Rome (not to be confused with the capitol city of Italy), it’s a small, rural city 65 miles northwest of Atlanta with a large working-class population. Twenty percent of its citizens live below the poverty line. And if people aren’t able to provide for themselves, then you can pretty much guarantee they’re not properly caring for their pets. Such was the case in the disadvantaged community Rachel had inadvertently stumbled upon.

Without missing a beat, the young rescuer immediately reached out to one of her volunteer friends, purchased some straw bales and bags of pet food, and began canvasing the neighborhood, knocking on doors and offering supplies to anyone who needed them. Thanks to the two kindhearted women, several dogs and cats had softer places to sleep and full bellies that night. But Rachel knew just one random act of kindness wasn’t going to suffice – there was too much need in this community to walk away now. With visions of all those neglected dogs and cats haunting her thoughts, she went home and started to rally her troops. And thus, the Rome outreach and rescue effort was born.

The fifth Rome outreach mission group. From left to right, back row: Meaghan Sopata, Lindsey Kirn, Rachel Meier, Monica Wesolowski, Emily Chason and Jordan Gilchrist; front row: Danielle Kramer, Nick John, Jennifer Naujokas, Lucero Hornedo and Allan Brown.

The fifth Rome outreach mission group. From left to right, back row: Meaghan Sopata, Lindsey Kirn, Rachel Meier, Monica Wesolowski, Emily Chason and Jordan Gilchrist; front row: Danielle Kramer, Nick John, Jennifer Naujokas, Lucero Hornedo and Allan Brown.

By the time Rachel was ready to make her second and third visits to the neighborhood, fellow AAU volunteers Danielle Kramer, Monica Wesolowski and Jennifer Naujokas were on board. And once they witnessed the desperate state of the animals for themselves they, too, became deeply committed to the relief mission.

But in order to pay for all the pet supplies the impoverished community desperately needed, including food, doghouses, straw bales, flea, tick and heartworm preventative, toys and other accessories, the group had to find funding. And that’s where the magic of social media came in.

“We started posting on Facebook among our circle of Angels volunteers, emailing and calling folks and contacting local (pet supply) stores,” Danielle explained. “We asked Petsmart and Petco for expired food and began working with two Tractor Supply Co stores in Canton, which were amazing. They gave us a huge box of toys, cedar shavings, flea and tick treatments and de-wormers, just tons of stuff. We got a lot of donations from the Angels volunteers and started stockpiling supplies.”

Once word spread of the Rome effort, other Angels volunteers jumped on board to pitch in, and before long the group grew from the four core members to a dozen volunteers.

“This is the fifth trip where all of us have been together,” Danielle said. “So far I think we’ve rescued about 40 dogs from the area and helped about 100 animals. We’re trying to get more and more organized and we’ve learned a lot through trial and error, but no matter what, if we’ve helped one (animal), we’ve done well.”

Another lonely, chained and attention-starved pit bull in the more “sketchy” part of the neighborhood. His owner never bothered to come out of his house to see what we were doing. The poor dog cried as we left.

Another lonely, chained and attention-starved pit bull in the more “sketchy” part of the neighborhood. His owner never bothered to come out of his house to see what we were doing. The poor dog cried as we left.

As a long-time admirer of AAU and all the amazing work they do to rescue, rehabilitate and rehome dogs and cats in the Atlanta area, I jumped at the chance to join the group and experience the outreach effort for myself. It was inspiring to be in the company of such generous, compassionate individuals who love animals as much as I do, people more than willing to get up early on a weekend and devote an entire day to helping pets in need.

So last Sunday morning I found myself gathered with the group at our meeting place in the Rome Home Depot parking lot, some of us sipping coffee, all of us prepared to get dirty. It’s obvious these people have developed a close affinity, as there were plenty of smiles, laughter and hugs to be had as everyone greeted each other. After briefly discussing our itinerary, which included visiting and dropping off supplies at approximately 15-20 homes in three neighborhoods, we loaded up on straw bales and caravanned toward our first destination, our five trucks and SUVs packed to the gills with food and supplies. From the moment we arrived at the first neighborhood, it became glaringly obvious to me why this outreach mission needs to exist.

In most disadvantaged communities here in the south, I imagine that most animals live pretty much the same way as they do in the low-income neighborhoods of Rome. While there were a few exceptions, the majority of the dogs we visited lived on chains, often in dirty or overgrown backyards where they received very little human interaction. Forget about going on car rides to the dog park, sleeping on comfy couches or being part of a family – most of these dogs had nothing except for a dilapidated, makeshift dog house, if they were lucky. Fencing is expensive, and since many of the people don’t allow their dogs indoors – especially the large dogs – these animals are simply left outside to brave the elements and “guard” their owners’ property.

While most of the dogs were initially defensive when we approached (being tethered makes dogs more aggressive and protective of their space), once they realized we were there to give them treats, food and attention, the majority of them melted into friendly puddles of wiggling, wagging, squealing love, simply starving for attention and drinking up every ounce of it.

Allan and a sweet blue pittie who was so excited to see us he almost knocked us over!

Allan and a sweet blue pittie who was so excited to see us he almost knocked us over!

“This effort is so important to me because I’ve seen a change in these animals,” Rachel told me. “I see in their eyes how appreciative they are and how much even the small things we do for them mean. I’ve seen ‘ferocious’ dogs turn into playful puppies and sad, frightened puppies turn into happy, bouncing, playful things. I believe every animal has a soul and every creature deserves love and happiness, so I want to bring it to these poor souls in any way that I can. They deserve better than what they were dealt and if I can’t physically remove them from the situation and place them in a better one, then I at least want to better their lives in some way.”

As we slowly drove down the streets, stopping at homes and meeting with pet owners the core group had established relationships with, people came out of their small, rundown homes to greet us, some of them with wide-eyed children in tow. Most of the pet owners asked for dog or cat food and appeared genuinely appreciative for the help, some smiling with gap-toothed grins, their weathered faces glowing like kids on Christmas morning.

Meanwhile, Rachel moved about with laser-like focus, calling out to us for different supplies, making sure every pet household got what they needed and making note of what she’d need to bring next time. Danielle and Jennifer appeared to be more of the diplomats of the group, engaging with the people and gently advising them about proper pet care when it seemed appropriate to do so, all without sounding judgmental or superior. I was so impressed with their patience and restraint.

“A lot of these people are very receptive (to the information we give them) but you do have to be very careful in how you educate them because we are guests in their neighborhood and it’s easy to offend anybody,” Danielle told me. “No matter what your personal emotions are about something, you have to speak to them with respect. If they don’t want us in this neighborhood I guarantee you there will be folks who won’t allow us here.”

Lucero and Lindsey checking out a puppy with an open spay suture - at least her owner had her spayed. Too bad she already had her outside on a chain, though.

Lucero and Lindsey checking out a puppy with an open spay suture – at least her owner had her spayed. Too bad she already had her outside on a chain, though.

As the morning turned to mid-day, it seemed to me like every family we visited either had a tethered, sick, injured, pregnant or nursing animal. Even though low-cost spay and neuter is indeed available in many communities here in Georgia, few of these people seemed to know about these services or simply hadn’t taken advantage of them. As a result, some homes we visited were simply overwhelmed with too many animals, including one house with two female dogs that had both given birth a couple of weeks apart, resulting in 13 canines under one roof. Another family had been living with 15 small dogs in a tiny, 800-square-foot house and were relieved at the concept of surrendering a few of them to us. When the woman became teary-eyed at the reality of parting with “her babies,” we assured her they would all go to great homes.

Due to the fact that AAU now has upwards of 800 animals in its system, the rescue asks that volunteers make every effort to secure a foster home before accepting an owner surrender so the animal has a safe and secure place to land. While the group tends to rely mostly on AAU for taking any surrendered pets from the community, it also works with a couple of other rescues, including Road Trip Home Animal Rescue, which transports dogs out of Georgia and into regions with higher demand for rescue pets, and Furkids, another amazing local organization that focuses on rescuing cats and small dogs.

Once the woman agreed to surrender five of her 15 dogs, Jennifer and Danielle began a flurry of text messages with their foster network, trying to find placement for the scruffy terrier mixes. Mission accomplished, we loaded the pups in crates and packed them in the back of Jennifer’s SUV, quietly jubilant that these lucky dogs were now headed for much better prospects.

The rest of the day became a blur of more desperate dogs on chains, more litters of puppies or dogs with puppies on the way, cats running around everywhere, none of them fixed, one of them badly injured. One skinny, chewed-up looking tomcat ran up to me as I took a break by Danielle’s truck, crying beseechingly as if he knew I was there to help him. I quickly opened a can of cat food and sat by the skinny feline as he enjoyed his meal, yellow eyes glazed over in contentment. He reminded me of a tiger-striped cat I had had as a child and a wave of melancholy washed over me.

The thin and battle-scarred tom cat enjoying his meal.

The thin and battle-scarred tom cat enjoying his meal.

I must admit it was challenging to not feel animosity toward the people for the neglect we continued to witness, house after house, street after street. But once you started talking to them and looking into their eyes, you realized that most of them were actually kind people who cared about their pets, they just didn’t know any better or simply couldn’t afford to take better care of them.

“A lot of the way these people treat their animals comes out of ignorance – nobody ever taught them how to properly care for an animal,” Danielle explained as we drove to the next street. “Some of them think they’re doing right by them, like, ‘yes, my dog is chained outside, but I feed him.’ They simply don’t understand.”

It makes sense that if you don’t have enough money to take care of yourself and your family, you’re probably not going to spend what little you do have on veterinary care or premium food for your dog. So if your dog gets sick, pregnant or goes without a meal, that’s just how it is, and the animal has to live (or die) with its lot in life. Yes, maybe I am different in that I have always put my animals first, and if I couldn’t afford to properly care for a pet I wouldn’t have one in the first place, but not everyone thinks that way. And therein lies the emotional and mental torture of rescue – enduring the ignorance of human beings and the intentional or unintentional cruelty they inflict upon their pets.

Looking around, watching all these wonderful volunteers bedding down new doghouses with straw, petting dirty, neglected dogs and spooning cans of cat food into bowls for hoards of hungry kitties, I had to wonder, when does this end? As long as these people are living in poverty, so will their animals. So is it realistic for Rachel and her group to just keep coming out here month after month, year after year, and if so, is that really going to solve anything in the long run? Wasn’t this mission like putting a Band-aid over a much deeper, larger wound?

This desperate little Chihuahua couldn’t stop barking with excitement when we arrived. A dog like this belongs on someone’s lap, not on a tether.

This desperate little Chihuahua couldn’t stop barking with excitement when we arrived. A dog like this belongs on someone’s lap, not on a tether.

“I would like to see tethering laws as well as laws for spaying and neutering to end the vicious cycle of overpopulation, euthanasia, and homelessness, but until that happens I will continue to help,” Rachel said. “I have an amazing group of people who help me, from monetary, food, toy and medication donations to physically going out here and ‘getting dirty.’ I can’t do it without this group and so as long as I have their support and can physically and mentally do this, I will.”

Since irresponsible pet ownership and indiscriminate breeding are the main culprits of our pet overpopulation problem, it is indeed spay and neuter (and in my opinion, mandatory spay and neuter) that will ultimately solve this crisis. And that’s why one of the main objectives of the Rome group is to help the community stop the vicious cycle of litter after litter of puppies and kittens being born into poverty and neglect.

“We have approximately 20 or so dogs that the owners would like to have spayed and neutered – that is huge!” Jennifer exclaimed. “This is the first time we’ve heard such glorious of words of wanting to stop the cycle in this community. We are going to work very hard to find a spay and neuter vehicle to come out here in a few weeks.”

As the day wound to a close, I have to admit I was feeling somewhat zombie-like. How many more sad, lonely pit bulls would I see chained in dirty backyards, leaping excitedly at the prospect of any shred of loving attention from a human being? I wanted to take every one of them home with me, especially a blonde and white little girl whose soulful eyes pleaded with me as if to say, “please get me out of here.” It was torture to walk away from her. I haven’t been able to get her out of my head since.

This is the sweet blonde and white pit bull who touched me deeply. She’d obviously been bred numerous times.

This is the sweet blonde and white pit bull who touched me deeply. She’d obviously been bred numerous times.

“Not everybody can do this,” Danielle told me frankly as we drove away. “You have to be emotionally able to handle what you’re going to see and you have to be mentally and emotionally prepared for it. I would welcome anybody who would want to come out and do this but when people ask me about it I’m very honest with them. I tell them, ‘this is what you’re going to see, this is what it’s going to be like and it’s not the safest environment.’ It’s a great feeling to be helping and bringing supplies, and even though you can’t take that dog you’re making its life as comfortable as you can. But the hardest part is when you’ve got to walk away and you see those eyes watching you and they’re looking at you like, ‘come back!’ That’s the part that can haunt you.”

As someone who has always had an affinity for animals and has dedicated her life to spreading awareness about the cruelties non-human species face, I am very grateful to have had such an experience with an incredible group of fellow animal lovers. I walked away with a better perspective and understanding for what frontline rescuers are up against in this region, especially in disadvantaged communities where animal husbandry appears to be two or three decades behind the times. Ignorance begets ignorance, and while many of these people may mean well, they are simply victims of poverty and poor education, plain and simple. Surely these humans deserve our compassion, too.

But ultimately, stamping out animal neglect in our country, whether in rural southern communities or elsewhere, will ultimately come down to enacting stronger anti-cruelty legislation. No community should allow the indefinite tethering of a dog, under any circumstances. But until practices like this are outlawed and people are punished, their behaviors won’t change and the changes won’t be lasting.

“The biggest thing for Rome right now would be anti-tethering laws because all of these dogs are on chains, so that would eliminate that,” said Danielle. “Either you bring your animal inside or you don’t have one or you’re going to keep getting cited and fined, which a lot of these folks can’t afford. That’s where it will start – they’ll have to be held accountable for how they treat their animals. So it’s baby steps toward a bigger picture, that’s what this mission is.”

But until local lawmakers become inspired to enact tougher laws to protect the interests of animals, people like Rachel and her passionate group of kindhearted volunteers will continue to pick up the pieces, either removing animals from the community or helping the remaining ones live more comfortable lives. It may seem like one drop of water in a huge ocean of need, but even small steps can make a difference, even if it’s one pet and one pet owner at a time.

According to the family of this Australian shepherd/cattle dog mix, once the puppy is big enough he’ll be living outside (on a chain, no less) because he’s “too active.”

According to the family of this Australian shepherd/cattle dog mix, once the puppy is big enough he’ll be living outside (on a chain, no less) because he’s “too active.”

Although I highly recommend participating in a community outreach mission with a local rescue group, it’s definitely not for everyone. Improving the lives of animals doesn’t necessarily mean you have to “get dirty” or even donate money. Here are some other ways you can make a difference:

  • Become a foster parent: Rescues are teaming with animals who need safe, loving and secure foster homes where they can be cared for, socialized and nurtured until they find their perfect forever homes. Fostering animals is so rewarding and while it can be sad to say goodbye, you can rest assured knowing you’ve played a crucial role in helping that animal along its path toward the amazing life it deserves.
  • Get up and do something: Anybody can sit back, judge and point fingers. If you don’t like the way animals are treated and you want to see a change, become the change. Write letters to your local legislators, start an online petition, volunteer at your local shelter, donate supplies to a rescue organization or spread the word about animal welfare on social media.
  • Be kind and help out: If you notice someone neglecting their dog, instead of judging or quietly despising them, ask the person if they need a bag of dog food, a $5 bail of straw or a doghouse. Remember, it’s about helping that animal, not whether you like that person or not. And who knows, maybe that individual could use your help, too? No random act of kindness is too small, so just do it.

“Animals don’t have a voice, we are there only voice,” Rachel said. “You can’t just think, ‘someone else will help,’ you have to help and in any way you can. Speak out if you see abuse. Start an outreach program if your community needs it – it’s easier than you think. There are people everywhere who are willing to help, and the difference you will make for the animals will be more than you could ever imagine.”

If you’d like to help this amazing group continue their mission helping the disadvantaged animals of Rome, please go to the group’s GoFundMe page – every little bit helps!

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Witnessed Animal Cruelty? Don’t Just Stand There, Do Something!

It’s incredibly hard for me to understand why anyone would intentionally hurt an innocent creature. With domesticated animals in particular so dependent on us humans for their care and wellbeing, why would any pet owner allow their animal to suffer or even worse, go out of their way to hurt them? Although conditions for companion animals have greatly improved in the last few decades, especially in western societies, there are still many people who view their pets the old-fashioned way – as property. They don’t recognize animals as sentient beings capable of having emotions and feeling pain, only as objects they have the right to do with as they wish.

It has always dumbfounded me why would anyone leave their dog outside in the freezing cold or extreme heat without shelter (or even at all!), let their injured or sick cat go without veterinary care, or allow their pets to starve. Personally, I think there’s a special place in hell reserved for the !&@$(%)#$* who abuse animals. Just like there are many people in this world who shouldn’t be allowed to have children, there are many people who shouldn’t be allowed to have pets. But unfortunately, our society doesn’t work that way.

This pit bull has spent his entire life chained to a trash can, which his owner considers to be a suitable doghouse.

This pit bull has spent his entire life chained to a trash can, which his owner considers to be a suitable doghouse.

That’s where we animal lovers come in. We sort of have to be the animal welfare watchdogs, making sure the losers and abusers of the world don’t get away with their crimes against non-human species. So in honor of Animal Cruelty Prevention Month, I thought I’d provide some tips about how to recognize animal cruelty and what to do about it.

First of all, keep in mind that animal cruelty laws vary from state to state (all 50 states have them) and that every city or county will have different animal ordinances that spell out the legal versus illegal ways to treat an animal, so it’s important to understand what is or isn’t considered prosecutable animal cruelty in your community.

For example, most caring people would never dream of leaving their dog outside on a tether 24 hours a day, seven days a week with little or no socialization, but in many cities and counties throughout the U.S. it’s still legal to do so. However, if that tethered dog is emaciated, with no food, water or shelter in sight, chances are that the owner is in violation and can be cited for animal cruelty.

A kitten with an ulcerated eye, a very painful condition that was simply ignored by his owner.

A kitten with an ulcerated eye, a very painful condition that was simply ignored by his owner.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, animal cruelty comes in two forms – direct violence and neglect. While direct violence is the most obvious, animal neglect is the most common. In fact, tons of animals die from neglect every year, right under the noses of the people in their communities. That’s why it’s important to educate yourself about how to identify animal cruelty when you see it.

Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Animals left outside in extreme weather with no shelter
  • Poor living conditions, including filth and dangerous objects near the animal
  • Lack of food and water
  • Emaciated animals
  • Too many animals living on one property/animal hoarding
  • Wounds on an animal’s body/patches of missing hair
  • Excessive amounts of animals kept in small spaces
  • Untreated injuries or illnesses
  • Animal abandonment
  • Prolonged or excessive barking or howling
  • Acts of violence against animals
Great Danes are not supposed to look like this. Photo credit: newbernnow.com

Great Danes are not supposed to look like this. Photo credit: newbernnow.com

So you suspect an animal is being neglected or have observed it being abused – now what?

Pick up the phone: If it’s an emergency situation, call 911, otherwise, call your local animal control or humane agency as soon as possible. Most large municipalities have an animal control department, animal shelter or humane society. If you don’t have an animal control in your area, call the police and report the situation. Relay exactly what you saw, give plenty of details and leave your contact information. You can ask to remain anonymous but do give dispatch a number they can call in case the investigating officer needs to ask you any questions.

Confront the perpetrator (if it’s safe): This is very subjective, but if you feel comfortable and don’t think your life is in danger, speak to the person or have somebody else to go with you, just in case. If I saw my neighbor doing something horrible to an animal I would get my husband to go with me and confront that person, but that’s just me. Ultimately, most cases are best left to law enforcement.

Document the details: If it’s safe, take pictures and/or video of the situation and take plenty of notes. When it comes to prosecuting animal cruelty, a picture really is worth a thousand words and can mean the difference between an abuser getting away with their crime and an actual conviction. When cruelty cases have photographic evidence it’s very hard for the judge to say “not guilty.”

Be persistent and follow-up: If your local animal control or police department isn’t being responsive, call back and ask to speak to a supervisor. It’s important to keep in mind that most law enforcement agencies operate with limited personnel and resources and that most are probably doing their best to conduct timely and efficient investigations. However, if after repeated calls you’re still not getting the response you need, call your local news station – there’s nothing like bad publicity to inspire law enforcement to fix a problem!

An emaciated stallion. Photo credit: Queensland Times

An emaciated stallion. Photo credit: Queensland Times

So an animal control officer has gone to the property to check on the animal – what happens next?

Typically, an officer will investigate your complaint to see if any animal cruelty laws have been violated. If a violation has occurred, the officer may speak with the owner, issue a citation and give the person a chance to correct the violation. If the neglect or abuse is extreme, however, the officer will remove the animal and take it to the county shelter or humane agency where it can be protected from further harm. The agency will then present the case to the local prosecutor’s office for further evaluation and possible prosecution.

Be prepared that you may be asked to testify about what you witnessed. Since animals can’t speak for themselves, human witnesses are crucial for building strong, prosecutable cruelty cases, so be willing and able to do your part, if possible. You can always follow-up on a case by contacting your local government records office and requesting this information in writing. Since cruelty cases are part of the public record, you’ll be able to access information including whether the case went to court, if the owner paid a fine and whether the conviction was a misdemeanor or a felony.

Animals have no voice, so it is our obligation and duty to speak for them, especially when they’re being mistreated. We will only be able to combat animal cruelty if all of us are vigilant and willing to take a stand, so if you witness or suspect animal abuse, don’t just stand there or walk away – report it. Your call may be the only chance that animal has to find help and possibly be rescued from a miserable or life-threatening situation. Animal cruelty is a crime, and the more often abusive individuals are punished for this behavior, the less likely others will be inclined to do the same. So if you see an animal in distress, don’t just assume someone else will take care of the situation – take action!

A neglected dog rescued from a hoarding situation in North Carolina. Photo credit: HSUS

A neglected dog rescued from a hoarding situation in North Carolina. Photo credit: HSUS

For great tips on how to prevent animal cruelty, check out the ASPCA’s Fight Cruelty web page.

“The only obstacle that stands between you and making a difference is getting up and doing it.” – Anonymous

Saving Alex, the Unbreakable Jindo Dog

Animal rescuers truly are some of the most dedicated, generous, loving individuals I have ever met. The lengths to which some of these people will go to help animals is so inspiring, it’s actually helped restore some of my faith in humanity. Covering animal welfare and cruelty issues like I do, I have often found myself losing that faith when I see how human beings continue to abuse and enslave animals throughout the world. But then I get to connect with special people who value and appreciate animals, who see non-human species as beings deserving of respect and compassion and freedom from harm. Like me, they just want to make a positive difference in the lives of innocent creatures.

The following story is a perfect example of people willing to go the extra mile to help an animal in need, regardless of the obstacles or odds against them. It’s the story of a traumatized Korean Jindo mix dog named Alex, who was given a second – and a third – chance at life, thanks to a kind-hearted savior and an amazing rescue organization that refused to give up on him. They are the true heroes of this story.

When Craig Petronella first met Alex, he was a scared, dirty, skinny little puppy confined to a filthy crate. The little white pup was only eight weeks old, yet he was already living with his second abusive owner. As a U.S. Service member stationed in South Korea, Petronella would regularly pass by little Alex and couldn’t help but notice the pup’s sad situation. Being confined to a filthy crate 24/7 is no life for a tiny puppy, but in Korea, it’s actually common practice to crate or chain dogs outside indefinitely, with little human contact and minimal care.

One day, Petronella found out that Alex’s owner no longer wanted him and was ready to either sell the pup to dog meat traders or abandon him to the streets. South Korea is home to a thriving dog meat trade that murders approximately 2 million dogs each year, so whether he was set loose or sold, the pup appeared doomed to end up on someone’s dinner plate.

But the kind military serviceman wasn’t going to let that happen. After convincing Alex’s owner to let him adopt Alex, Petronella brought the pup home during one of his leave times to live with him and his family in Virginia. The Petronellas were experienced dog owners, so they assumed that with a little love and patience, Alex would soon forget his abusive past and begin to enjoy life as a beloved member of their family.

Alex flashes his sweet smile. Photo credit: Treasured k9s

Alex flashes his sweet smile. Photo credit: Treasured k9s

But sometimes love isn’t enough when it comes to rehabilitating an abused dog. Due to his early trauma, the young Jindo mix suffered from deep-seated fear issues that began to worsen as he grew. When confronted with anything that frightened him, such as fast movements, loud noises or strange people, the dog would “shut down” by trembling uncontrollably, pressing his eyes tightly shut and cowering against the ground, paralyzed in fear. If he couldn’t hide, he’d act out aggressively.

Though the family loved Alex and tried their best to train and work with his issues, they finally realized his growing problems were beyond their scope. With no one willing to adopt the troubled eight-month-old pup, the family feared they would have no other choice but to euthanize him. But not willing to give up on Alex until they had exhausted every last option, the Petronellas reached out to a rescue organization they hoped would be his saving grace.

Enter Treasured k9s, a nonprofit organization that specializes in rescuing and rehabilitating Jindo dogs throughout the east coast region. Since their founding in 2008, this rescue has saved, rehabilitated and re-homed approximately 70 Jindos, many with behavioral challenges that most rescues would not want to deal with and shelters would simply euthanize. But then, this type of dog isn’t meant for the inexperienced dog owner.

A white purebred Jindo. This magnificent breed also comes in "yellow," black and tan, brindle and solid black coat colors. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

A white purebred Jindo. This magnificent breed also comes in “yellow,” black and tan, brindle and solid black coat colors. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

As a rare, primitive breed originating from Jindo Island, the Korean Jindo is a magnificent, highly instinctual dog originally bred for hunting and protection. While they are revered as Korea’s national treasure and considered status symbols throughout Korean-American communities, indiscriminate and irresponsible breeding combined with inexperienced dog ownership has resulted in more and more Jindos meeting their deaths in U.S. shelters every year, Kristen Edmonds, founder and president of Treasured k9s, explained to me.

“They’re very aloof, not typically warm to strangers, very dominant and their instincts are very high, so they’re not your typical happy-go-lucky dog,” Kristen said. “You really have to be a strong, confident leader with them. They’re very active, so they need a lot of exercise and they’re a very healthy, long-lived breed, so you could easily end up with one for 18-20 years. But you really have to be the right personality for this kind of dog. If you understand their personalities you’ll never have another type of dog because they’re the most intelligent, loyal, intuitive dogs you’ve ever had in your life.”

Because they’re naturally protective and territorial, Jindos typically don’t do well in shelter environments, becoming fear aggressive and thus, un-adoptable. And that’s basically a death sentence for this complex, misunderstood breed of dog.

Alex having a zen moment. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

Alex having a zen moment. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

But Kristen wasn’t going to let Alex meet that sort of end. Figuring he was at a prime age to overcome his issues, she agreed to take him on and headed straight for New York-based Dog Behaviorist Jeff Kolbjornsen, who estimated the young dog would need a couple of months of training and rehabilitation to help build his confidence and learn to trust people. But once Alex was evaluated, it became obvious that not only was this process going to take more time, it was also going to be more challenging than expected.

“When Alex first arrived at our center he was extremely fearful of me, had no training skills at all, and had a huge fear of the leash and collar that he was required to wear for training,” Kolbjornsen said. “The degree to which Alex bucked, screamed, and tried to get away by trying to bite was one of the more severe fear-induced demonstrations that I have seen.”

Plus, the trauma of being separated from his family wasn’t helping matters, explained Kristen. Here he was, in a strange place with a strange man (he was very sensitive to men to begin with) and all these new people – the nervous pup was simply terrified.

But after six months of daily socialization and rehabilitation – to the tune of $20,000 – Alex had slowly blossomed into a happier, more well-adjusted dog. Yes, that training bill had cost Treasured k9s a lot more than they’d planned, but seeing Alex playing nicely with other dogs, being more at ease with new people, obeying commands, and understanding his role and hierarchy in human relationships was worth every penny, Kristen said.

“The good thing about Alex is he’s very interested in positive reinforcement and reward, which makes it a lot easier to work with him,” explained Kristen. “We’ve come across many Jindos who have absolutely no interest in pleasing you, or in treats or toys, so when you can’t use positive reinforcement it can really be more difficult to work with them.”

Alex enjoying a good scratch. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

Alex enjoying a good scratch. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

Kristen should know. She began rescuing Jindos by accident after volunteering with a Siberian husky rescue that sent her a foster dog who appeared to be a small white husky but turned out to be Jindo mix. Plus, her mother-in-law is Korean, so Kristen has a strong understanding of the culture and where these dogs originate. Intrigued, Kristen began to research Jindos and how they were becoming more prevalent along with the increasing South Korean population in the U.S. After realizing there were only two small Jindo rescues in California (a state where homeless Jindos are the biggest problem), Kristen saw a need for a breed-specific rescue that could cover the eastern U.S.

With his formal training completed, Alex arrived at his foster home, where he adapted quickly. But when the family’s Jindo began displaying aggression toward him, Kristen moved Alex to a second foster home, where he has remained and been thriving ever since. Now over a year old, he is simply waiting for the perfect forever home, one capable of providing him with structure, rules and boundaries.

“He’s really come around a lot faster than we expected because he’s been moved twice now and he hasn’t had any setbacks – it’s all been positive and it’s actually helped him,” Kristen said. “He’s happy, sweet, very loving, he’ll get up on the sofa and cuddle, and he loves to play. He’s gorgeous, a little bigger than your typical Jindo at about 50 lbs, and a little longer and taller. We think he’s a Jindo mix because he’s got a softer personality than your typical Jindo – they’re more cat-like in that they like their affection and then they’re done.”

While Alex still reacts fearfully to loud noises, he is no longer fear reactive. Still, whoever adopts this sweet boy will have to understand that working through his fear triggers will probably be a lifelong process, advised Kristen.

“My goal is to place Alex with an owner who is calm, observant and firm – he requires patience, not dominance,” she said. “He would excel in a home with another medium to large-sized, active and confident dog, someone to keep him in check and help him gain confidence by example. Because he’s not full Jindo, he is a little too happy-go-lucky for a purebred Jindo. These dogs have a very strong attitude of ‘we must follow the dog pack rules – don’t be too happy,’ so all the other Jindos he’s been around have been getting mad at him.”

Alex and his foster brother, Cosmo. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

Alex and his foster brother, Cosmo. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

Alex’s ideal home would also be one without cats or children, although older, calm and dog-savvy kids in an experienced home could work, Kristen said. His new family will also need to live in the New York Tri-state area, as this will allow Treasured k9s, along with Kolbjornsen, to act as an ongoing support system, if needed.

Meanwhile, Alex’s foster mom, Amanda, has been doing a fabulous job continuing his training and building his social skills, including challenging him to overcome some smaller fear issues.

“He loves to run and chase,” Amanda said. “If you aren’t paying attention to him he’ll come over and sit in front of you until you play with him. He can get wound up while playing outside but once inside he settles down nicely. He does have a ‘personal space bubble’ in that he seems to be fearful of anything that gets too close to him uninvited, which makes sense since he’s still building trust.”

Ultimately, Alex deserves a patient, loving, forever home willing to do what it takes to help the overgrown pup become the wonderful dog he is destined to be. The once-mistreated Jindo mix is living proof that even the most difficult rescue and rehabilitation cases deserve a second (and a third) chance.

“In the right home Alex is only going to continue to thrive and blossom and once he really settles in he’s going to be a sweet, great, fun dog,” Kristen said. “He’s just a big, goofy puppy – that little puppy that never got to be.”

Just a big puppy. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

Just a big puppy. Photo credit: Treasured k9s.

Sometimes it takes a village to save an animal, and in this case, that village succeeded beyond any expectation.

Treasured k9s is in dire need of donations to help with Alex’s remaining $10,000 training bill. If you’d like to help this wonderful organization continue saving and rehabilitating more Jindo and Jindo mix dogs like Alex, please visit their website donation page.

Also, if you live in the New York Tri-state area and think Alex might be the right fit for you (and vice versa), please visit the Treasured k9s website and fill out an application today! You can also learn more about this great organization and their dogs on Facebook.

“Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out, “good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied, “throwing starfish into the ocean.”

“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, “the sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “but, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.” – Loren Eiseley

Pet Stores and Puppy Mills – Don’t People Know Any Better?

They drive me absolutely bonkers – people who purchase puppies from pet stores. It just boggles my mind why anyone would still do this when there is such a plethora of information out there about the direct connection between pet shops and puppy mills. It’s almost common knowledge that you should NEVER purchase a puppy from one of these businesses, yet people still do it. So I have to wonder, do these people know but just don’t care, or are they simply ignorant?

Case in point, I have a friend who wanted to surprise her son with a puppy on his 8th birthday. Did she take the time to research a specific breed and look for a “responsible breeder” from whom she could purchase a healthy, well-bred, home-raised puppy, or even better, consider surprising her child with a gift certificate to their local Humane Society so he could pick out a rescue dog? Nope. She simply ran out to her neighborhood puppy boutique and bought an over-priced and most likely, badly bred “designer” pup because it was “cute” and she was in a big hurry to get a dog in time for her son’s birthday party. Just so she could stick the poor thing in a gift box with a bow on top and film her boy’s “priceless” reaction as he opened his present, squealing in excitement (the boy, not the pup). Cue barfing sound.

I know I sound like a bitter, cynical curmudgeon but it just makes me so upset, the impulsiveness, ignorance or indifference of people who are knowingly or unknowingly helping to perpetuate an incredibly cruel, greedy and inhumane industry – commercial dog breeding. Devoted rescue people and animal welfare organizations have been tirelessly trying to educate the public about mass breeding facilities, aka puppy mills, for years and years, yet people like my friend think it’s perfectly okay to plunk down $800-$2,000 dollars on a ridiculously over-priced puppy because they “want it and they want it now,” putting about as much thought into buying a dog as they would a stereo.

Photo credit: cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com

Photo credit:
cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com

So here’s what I wish I could say to my friend, who is a smart, professional woman and really should have known better. No, I will probably never say any of this to her face, but maybe she’ll read it and get the hint (and possibly stop talking to me). Or she’ll never read it and be none the wiser. Here goes.

Congratulations, _____, you just purchased a puppy mill puppy! What is a puppy mill, you ask? A puppy mill is a commercial breeding operation that churns out mass quantities of puppies for profit, with no regard for the genetic quality, health and welfare of their dogs. These lovely operations exist for the sole purpose of making money and are a huge contributor to our nation’s pet overpopulation problem. According to The Puppy Mill Project, approximately 2.5 million puppies are born in puppy mills every year. In fact, it is believed that 99 percent of all puppies sold in pet stores come from these despicable places, so I can pretty much guarantee that your son’s furry little birthday present came from a puppy mill.

Photo credit: Humane Society of the United States

Photo credit: Humane Society of the United States

Life really sucks in these horrific places. Breeding dogs and puppies are kept in squalid, inhumane conditions, deprived of veterinary care, exercise, socialization, grooming and proper nutrition. They live in filthy cages and often sleep in their own waste. Puppies are typically born with congenital illnesses and behavioral problems, made worse by the fact that they’re often torn from their mothers and sold to pet shops before they’re even weaned. But at least the little guys get the chance to escape the puppy mill and hopefully live out their lives in decent homes. For their parents, however, the hell never ends.

Can you imagine spending your whole life in a cage with wire flooring that causes severe injuries to your feet and legs? Thanks to the Animal Welfare Act, it’s actually legal to keep a dog in a wire cage – stacked on top of other wire cages – for its entire life. What a nice way to treat man’s best friend.

Photo credit: Humane Society of the United States

Photo credit: Humane Society of the United States

Forced to reproduce over and over, breeding dogs live miserable lives, never knowing the feeling of grass under their feet, the compassionate touch of a human, or life in a loving home. They either spend their entire lives outdoors, exposed to the elements, or crammed inside filthy structures where they never get to breathe fresh air or feel the sun on their fur. When they are no longer able to breed they are either auctioned off or killed.

Yes, I’m sure that friendly pet store employee went out of her way to confidently assure you that your sweet little designer puppy came from a “USDA licensed breeder.” But don’t be fooled – that claim is meaningless. Every breeder who sells to a pet store or a puppy broker is required to be licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture. But that doesn’t mean that these mill operators are required to give a damn about the quality or wellbeing of their dogs. And the USDA is sadly lax when it comes to inspecting these facilities or enforcing legal standards of care, which are shamefully lacking and far from what any reasonable person would consider humane, anyway. In fact, many puppy mills continue to operate despite numerous cruelty violations. So to sum it up, USDA breeders ARE puppy mills, plain and simple.

Photo credit: Humane Society of the United States

Photo credit: Humane Society of the United States

Responsible private breeders, aka “hobby breeders,” those who actually care about what they breed and who they sell to, DO NOT sell their dogs to pet stores or puppy brokers, advertise in newspapers or sell their dogs over the Internet. They go out of their way to screen potential buyers to make sure their puppies go to good homes and will take lifetime responsibility for the animals they’ve bred. They take pride in their dogs, breed for health and temperament as well as physical beauty, and often have long waiting lists for their litters.

Although I’m not a big fan of breeding in general (I believe that our country, not to mention our world, could use a complete moratorium on dog breeding until we get our homeless pet population under control), I do believe there is a place for responsible purebred dog breeders, although the “good” ones seem to be very few and far between.

Then there are “backyard breeders,” another scourge of the canine world. But that’s another rant for another time.

No, you did not “rescue” your puppy from that pet shop. What you did was create more demand for another mill puppy, further condemned your puppy’s parents to a lifetime of suffering, and supported one of the largest systematic forms of animal cruelty in the nation. Not to mention you helped keep the greedy pet store in business, which egregiously overcharged you for your impulse buy, by the way.

Photo credit: stlouis.cbslocal.com

Photo credit: stlouis.cbslocal.com

Next time, consider adopting from your local shelter or a rescue. Over 2 million pets die in U.S. shelters every year, so not only would you be saving an innocent life, you’d also be ensuring that your money doesn’t support a puppy mill and the lousy businesses that sell them. If you have your heart set on a particular breed, keep in mind that one out of every four dogs in shelters are purebred and that there are tons of breed-specific rescue groups literally overflowing with dogs looking for good homes.

So congratulations on your furry little bundle of joy! I truly hope your new puppy beats the odds and grows up to be a healthy, happy, well-adjusted member of your family, free from the congenital defects and behavioral issues typical of a puppy mill dog. Meanwhile, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for you.

So that’s what I would say if I knew my friend wouldn’t freak out on me and maybe end our friendship. I probably just need to “get over it” and be happy for her and her son. She bought the doggie in the window, end of story. And I know what it’s like, to walk into one of those stores, stare through the glass partition, make eye contact with a sweet little fur baby and feel my heart melt. Only I knew enough to walk away and she didn’t, apparently. Who knows, maybe she’ll eventually find out where her dog came from, realize her mistake, and vow to never do it again. After all, I didn’t always know about the evils of pet stores and puppy mills – I had to learn it all on my own. In the end, I guess you have to meet people where they are and hope they’ll become enlightened when the time is right. You can only hope.

To learn more about the evils of puppy mills and how to stop them, as well as how to responsibly acquire a puppy, visit the ASPCA and HSUS websites for tons of great information and resources. Interested in giving a former mill dog a loving home?Check out National Mill Dog Rescue for more information on how to adopt today!

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” – William Wilberforce