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

What Happens To All the Pretty Horses (When They’re No Longer Wanted) – Part Two

I will never know for sure what happened to Siri, but as the years went by and I learned more about what happens to unwanted horses in this country, I began to put two and two together as I mulled over my experience with the man in the white cowboy hat. And that’s when I came to a terrible realization – that man had likely been a “kill buyer,” someone who made his living gathering up horses from random sources and selling them to slaughterhouses. He had thought nothing of taking an unwanted pony from a gullible child. And I had willingly given Siri to him.

A kill buyer is a special kind of heartless individual whose main goal is to fill up his trailer with as many horses as he can cram inside, preferably healthy equines that will fetch the best price per pound for their meat. Scumbags like him typically frequent livestock auctions, buying mass quantities of horses at unbelievably cheap prices. Whether they’re sleek hunter jumpers, pregnant mares, draft horses, retired racehorses or innocent foals cast off by the Pregnant Mare Urine (PMU) industry (producers of the estrogen-replacement drug Premarin®), he doesn’t give a damn. His goal is to load them up, get them to the nearest slaughter plant and collect his money. So what if the horses starve, suffer or fall and break their legs during the long, stressful journey? He doesn’t care. He’s a calloused jerk.

The terrified eye of a horse headed to slaughter. Photo credit: rtfitchauthor.com

The terrified eye of a horse headed to slaughter. Photo credit: rtfitchauthor.com

I realize that people have to do all sorts of things to survive in this world, but I will never understand the mindset of a person who profits from suffering. Maybe the man in the white cowboy hat thought he was doing an important service, taking unwanted horses off of people’s hands, including mine. I’ve often wondered if he felt any twinge of guilt as he drove away with Siri, a bratty little pony who had done nothing wrong but simply end up with the wrong owner. I doubt it. He was probably just thrilled with his good fortune of stumbling upon a free, healthy pony he could turn around and sell for a bigger profit. Never mind that Siri was only 12 years old and had many years of life left in him. To him, my pony was just another way to line his pockets.

According to the USDA, approximately 92 percent of American horses that end up going to slaughter are healthy and would otherwise be able to continue leading productive lives. While horse slaughter has been illegal in the U.S. since 2007, killer buyers are still out in full force, transporting mass quantities of horses over our northern and southern borders to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, which supply the horsemeat trade in Asia and the European Union. Last year alone, more than 140,000 American horses were slaughtered for human consumption in foreign countries including Japan, France, Belgium and Switzerland, where horsemeat is considered a delicacy.

Where no horse deserves to end up. Photo credit: rtfitchauthor.com

Where no horse deserves to end up. Photo credit: rtfitchauthor.com

The problem is that, as with dogs and cats, horses have become disposable. While most people consider equines companion animals rather than livestock, they are also used for entertainment, sport and financial gain, making them commodities that are only useful if they’re winning prizes or making money. And in order to create that perfect reining horse or racing champion, horses are being overbred, often indiscriminately. But if they don’t perform or race well, or aren’t born with the right color or conformation, those “surplus” animals are simply discarded, thrown out like yesterday’s trash.

As two of the biggest groups responsible for our surplus horse problem, Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred breed associations register over one million foals a year, making it no surprise that the majority of U.S. horses ending up in slaughter plants are Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds. To add insult to injury, these breed groups are often comprised of folks who would rather support horse slaughter – a convenient and profitable avenue to legally dispose of their equine rejects – rather than take personal responsibility for their animals. So these magnificent creatures, who have done nothing wrong except to grow older or not meet their performance expectations, are rewarded with terrible, inhumane deaths at the hands of foreign slaughter plants.

How many of the racing industry's

How many of the racing industry’s “losers” will end up going to slaughter? Too many! Photo credit: clockworkhare.com

Hopefully, all of that will change with the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, which, if passed, would prevent the transport of American horses across U.S. borders, thus keeping them out of the slaughter pipeline. One of the arguments supporting this bill is that since American horses are not raised for food and are often given a wide variety of drugs and veterinary treatments over the course of their lives, their meat poses a risk to human health. While SAFE, which was introduced on March 12, 2013, in a previous session of Congress, was sadly not enacted, it was just reintroduced last week under bi-partisan support.

So once this bill becomes law (fingers crossed), and once slaughter is no longer a convenient “dumping ground” for unscrupulous breeders and owners, what does our country do with all the unwanted horses? While there are a plethora of amazing horse rescue organizations tirelessly working to save as many homeless equines as possible, can we really rescue our way out of this problem? I doubt it.

Then there’s the option of human euthanasia. If given no other choice, most loving, responsible horse owners would rather put their horses to sleep than have them end up at a slaughter facility, right? Certainly, I would rather have had Siri put down by a veterinarian rather than give him to that poor excuse of a human being with dollar signs in his eyes. But what do you do when euthanizing one horse can cost upwards of $300-$800 and you’re stuck with a stable-full of old, chronically injured or unwanted animals no one will buy and no rescue can take?

Horses crammed together in a livestock auction holding pen. Photo credit: markamerica.com

Horses crammed together in a livestock auction holding pen. Photo credit: markamerica.com

Since I’ve been out of the horse world for many years, I figured I should get an educated perspective from someone who understands the current state of affairs when it comes to this topic. So I consulted with Darrith Russell, a long-time horsewoman and rescuer who is also the co-founder of Bearfoot Ranch, a non-profit therapeutic equestrian center and rescue facility for abused or neglected horses here in Georgia. Needless to say, I got quite a reality check.

“It’s literally a war,” Darrith said. “The recession hit us really hard and a lot of horses were misplaced, with not enough homes for all of them. I was glad to hear there were no longer slaughterhouses in the U.S., but after going through the recession and seeing what happens when there are no places for horses that are broken, old and nobody wants, it really does sort of change your mind. You start looking at it and going, ‘what’s worse, death or starvation?’ So it really has presented a problem with the horse industry and a bad one, and the ones that are suffering the worst are the animals themselves.”

She continued, “I can’t tell you how many people have called me in tears because they have this horse they’ve raised from a baby who they absolutely love, but they’ve lost their job, their home, they can’t feed the horse and they have no recourse. So you know what happens to those horses? They go to auction and from auction they might go to some breeder who buys them for a bargain and thinks they’re going to breed them and make money. So now you have crossbred horses that aren’t worth anything, basically just dog food on a hoof. Horse slaughter is sad but I have to say I’m not totally against it, I’m against the cruelty of it…that just horrifies me.”

A typical livestock auction. Which of these fine people are

A typical livestock auction. Which of these fine people are “killer buyers?” Photo credit: regardinghorses.com

While Darrith said she absolutely agrees with stopping the pipeline of American horses going to slaughter in Mexico and Canada, she does think there needs to be a more humane alternative for unwanted horses, especially for economically strapped owners who don’t have the financial resources to euthanize their expensive pets.

“Another problem is the chemicals that are used to stop a horse’s heart are not exactly environmentally friendly and make (the meat) unusable for anything else,” she said. “So what are we going to do? We can’t just be burying a bunch of horses everywhere. It would be better for us to come up with a different system for humane slaughter so that we’re not scaring the animals, so we can put them down gently and then recycle – that would be a perfect scenario. A lot of people won’t be able to do it, it’s not for everyone, but it’s a better scenario than what we’re doing right now. None of it’s good, but the thing to do is to try to have a better solution so we can do the best we can with a bad situation.”

While I may not agree with this line of thinking – I personally don’t believe there is or can be such a thing as “humane slaughter” – I respect Darrith’s views as an experienced, passionate and dedicated horsewoman and rescuer and can understand how those on the front lines of the unwanted horse predicament might have more pragmatic views. But instead of coming up with a “gentler” way of killing these animals, why not prevent the problem entirely? She couldn’t have agreed more.

“We need to do the same thing the European Union has done and register breeders,” Darrith said. “You need to have a permit to breed, so it costs you to breed and you have to be a recognized breeder or you don’t breed, period. That money would go directly to support rescue organizations, and there would be a pool of money for people to pull upon if they (need help with unwanted horses). So I think stopping the river at the source by passing legislation for breeders and limiting the amount of breeding going on would be the best place to start.”

What should be the fate of all horses - a safe retirement.

What should be the fate of all horses – a safe retirement.

As with our dog and cat overpopulation problem, irresponsible, indiscriminate breeders are indeed at the heart of this equine crisis. Ultimately, stopping this cruel cycle of abandonment, abuse and inhumane death is about holding these individuals accountable for the animals they are mass-producing and discarding at alarming levels. Like puppy mills, there is nothing humane about churning out mass quantities of animals for profit without any regard for their health, welfare or future wellbeing.

But until things change, if ever, the unwanted horse problem will persist. Too many horses will continue being born, too many will become homeless, and too many will end up on foreign dinner plates. Those industries and individuals who use and discard horses for their own gain, all while calling themselves “horse lovers,” should be ashamed.

Like dogs and cats, horses are considered companion animals deserving of humane consideration. They may play important roles as working and sporting animals, but they are not commodities and they are not bred or raised for food. Horses are living, breathing, sentient beings with a high degree of physical and emotional sensitivity and we have an ethical and social responsibility to protect them from neglect, pain and suffering. And when it’s their time, we owe it to our horses to help them leave this earth with grace and dignity. Certainly, my long lost pony deserved the same.

Forgive me, Siri, for not knowing any better, for not doing enough to protect you from what I believe may have been your terrible fate. You were a bratty, pain-in-the-butt pony, but you certainly didn’t deserve to suffer or die because of it. Had I been more aware I would have done anything to make sure you were safe, even if that meant keeping you for the rest of your life. But I don’t have a time machine, so all I can do now is try to warn other people so they don’t make the same mistake with their horses. You were a good boy and I’m sorry for my childish ignorance. Many years have passed, yet the image of you being driven away in that man’s trailer still haunts me. I can only hope that your last hours were tolerable and that your death was swift. I hope you never knew what hit you.

Photo credit: stophorseslaughter.com

Photo credit: stophorseslaughter.com

Want to help stop horse slaughter? According to The Horse Fund, you can:

  • Support organizations working to end to horse slaughter.
  • Be a responsible horse owner.
  • Sponsor a horse in a rescue or sanctuary.
  • Think before you breed. Adopt from a rescue or sanctuary instead.
  • Set up a special bank account to pay for humane euthanasia by a veterinarian and disposal of the remains.
  • Say no to Premarin® and Prempro®. Take a safe alternative that is not made with pregnant mare’s urine.

And lastly, pick up the phone and urge your U.S. Senators and Representatives to protect America’s horses by supporting the SAFE Act!

To learn more about horse slaughter and what you can do to stop it, visit the HSUS and check out their Horse Slaughter Facts page.

“People don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.” – Friedrich Nietzsche