Beyond Rescue

Don’t get me wrong. I believe spreading the word about the need for more people to adopt dogs from animal shelters is vitally important, quite literally a matter of life and death for hundreds of thousands of dogs nationwide. So it’s wonderful that after the football game on Thanksgiving day, FOX television plans to air Cause for Paws, a two-hour celebrity-packed program devoted to the plight of shelter dogs. The show – the brainchild of a TV-producer who says his pit bull rescues inspired the project – is entertainment and fundraiser rolled into one.

But rescue alone isn’t going to solve the crisis of overcrowded animal shelters – a crisis that results in the euthanization of about four million healthy, adoptable dogs and cats in U.S. shelters each year. If we, as a country, are going to stop the killing, we must increase the number of pets that get spayed and neutered.

I’m sure Cause for Paws will address spay/neuter; I’m sure that a celebrity or two will urge pet owners to fix their pets. The problem is, not every pet owner has access to a spay/neuter facility and many of those who do simply can’t afford to pay for the procedure.

According to SpayFirst director Ruth Steinberger, fewer than ten states have accessible and affordable spay/neuter services available to pet owners. Accessibility, Steinberger argues, means having a veterinary clinic, a spay/neuter facility, or a program that transports pets to a facility within fifty miles of a pet owner’s home. Affordability means the cost of the surgery is less than what a low-wage or minimum-wage worker makes in a day, which is about $50.

A number of people I spoke with in the course of reporting Dogland – those on the front lines of the battle to save lives – lamented that not enough attention surrounding our shelter crisis goes to spay/neuter. As one shelter volunteer in Tennessee told me, “They’re making them twelve at a time and we’re adopting them out one at a time. So, we’ve got a math problem.”

Getting people energized about rescue is easy: Who can resist homeless dogs and puppies in all their adorableness? Getting people energized about spay/neuter is more challenging.

So I leave you with this thought: On Thanksgiving evening, donations will flood in to Cause for Paws, and that money will be granted to organizations doing the critical work of rescue. But this holiday season, if, like me, you are inclined to give charitably to animal welfare organizations, consider donating to a non-profit working to save lives in a way that may be less cute and cuddly, but is just as important.

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Here are several organizations working to make spay/neuter affordable and accessible:

Pets for Life  *  Coalition to Unchain Dogs  *  SpayFirst

Any well-regarded low-cost spay/neuter clinic, such as Gaston Low-Cost Spay/Neuter Clinic, First Coast No More Homeless Pets, and the Humane Alliance

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Autumn Book News

I’ve always loved the way autumn ushers itself into the northeastern United States: Leaves turn orange and amber and yellow; the sky, devoid of clouds, shines the brightest lightest blue; and summer’s heat and humidity retreat, leaving the air brisk and invigorating. This is also the time of year that the Jewish people celebrate the High Holy Days – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These are days of reflection, when we contemplate the year behind us and welcome the new one stretching before us.

Four years ago, Rosh Hashanah fell on a gorgeous fall day. My family had yet to go to synagogue, had yet to read the passage about this being the time of year when God makes his plans for how each of us will experience the year ahead. But apparently God had already made his plans for our dog, Gryffin, because that Rosh Hashanah morning, in the car with my husband and our eldest daughter, en route to the Sourland Mountains for an hour-long hike, a tumor that we hadn’t known was tucked behind Gryffin’s ribcage ruptured. Several hours later, our boy was dead, and we were sitting in a pew in our synagogue wrestling with our grief and our shock.

I didn’t know then that I would look back at that day as the start of a new journey – a journey that would begin with my family adopting Galen, a rescue dog from a North Carolina animal shelter, and that would culminate with the publication of my first book.

That book, Dogland: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Dog Problem will be released by Ashland Creek Press next autumn. (Despite living in the digital age, book publishing moves at a pace seemingly closer to that of the Gutenberg press than that of the Internet.)

Dogland is Galen’s story, and it is the story of the South, where, more than in any other region of the country, healthy, adoptable dogs in overcrowded animal shelters are euthanized to make room for the next ones that will inevitably come through their doors. And it is the story of humble visionaries who believe there is a home for every shelter dog, that spay/neuter rates can rise in the even the poorest communities, and that the South’s children – the next generation of dog owners – can transform a culture. What’s more, they believe that their ideas and their passion can transcend the South to the many communities throughout the United States where euthanasia is used to remedy the problems of shelter overpopulation.

In the coming months I will be moving this blog to a new website built to herald the release of Dogland. I hope you will come with me, that you will continue to support this blog, and that you will consider purchasing (and reading) Dogland. All the proceeds from the book will be funneled back to the people and programs working to end shelter euthanasia, which remains the leading cause of canine death in the United States.

-Jacki

My Black Merle Aussie Sheprador

I’ve always considered Galen a mutt, or in more politically correct terms, a mixed breed. I thought of Gryffin the same way. When people would inquire about his pedigree – and they often did because he was fabulously handsome – I would answer, “Pure mutt.”

But now I realize I wasn’t giving my dogs their due.

I should have answered with their “razas unicas” – their unique breed names. Thus, Gryffin was my beloved Golden Flag-tailed Chowtriever.

Gryffin

Gryffin

Galen is my quirky Black Merle Aussie Sheprador.

Galen

Galen

If you’ve never heard of such breeds, I’m not surprised. As I said, these breeds are unique.

Perhaps, I should explain.

A video by an animal rescue organization out of Costa Rica, highlighting its efforts to increase adoptions, is burning up the Internet. The organization – Territorio de Zaguates or Territory of the Street Dogs – runs a sanctuary for the country’s abandoned dogs. These are canines – there are upwards of 500 of them at the sanctuary at any given time – that if adopted, would make great companions. The problem – and the impetus for the campaign – was that the dogs weren’t being adopted, primarily because many Costa Ricans have a stigma against mutts. Such dogs are perceived as less valuable than purebreds and, according to a blogger who visited the sanctuary, are “widely referred to as rats.”

The innovative campaign, which includes social media, community outreach, a national art exhibit, and TV appearances, seeks to undue this stigma by highlighting the “razas unicas” of the country’s canines. “They only exist in our country,” a dog expert crowed on one of Costa Rica’s most popular programs. “They are wonderful specimens… they are unique breeds.”

The message, as simple and creative as it is, is being heard. Attitudes are shifting. Adoptions are up. And as the campaign continues, dog lovers everywhere can only hope these trends continue and, they might, perhaps, even heed the message themselves. After all, who wouldn’t want to own a Shaggy Shepherd Dachspaniel, an Eye-patched Australian Dalmapointer, or a Schnaufox Melenudo?

As for me, I’m very happy with my Black Merle Aussie Sheprador, because it’s not just her breed that’s unique — she has one heck of a unique personality, too.

***

I’ve got lots of links to share. Click here to see the video and here to see Territorio de Zaguates’ facebook page.

Go to Buzzfeed to see photos of some of Costa Rica’s canines, along with their unique breeds. My eleven-year-old daughter and I laughed together, as nothing puts a smile on your face like close-ups of smiling mutts mugging for the camera.

Go to Travel Mother to read the story of one blogger’s hike with Costa Rica’s street dogs. “The herd of five hundred dogs pouring out of their enclosure is a spectacular site. The pack flows like a rapid river as they turn down the trail entrance and out to the open hills. We volunteers then follow them for a couple hours of exercise, fresh air, and doggy-human socialization.” (Added to my bucket list: Hiking with the street dogs of Costa Rica.)

Saving lives… one photograph at a time

There is something compelling about a dog’s face – its physical contours, its expression.  And the eyes – the eyes seem to have so much to say. I often stare into Galen’s dark brown eyes, wanting desperately to know what she’s thinking.

I recently came across some photographs that resonated with me more than any I’ve ever seen, for they are as powerful as the dogs they feature. Just drink in these faces.

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Each of these dogs is a shelter dog, and each portrait is part of an on-going series called Landfill Dogs. Since being photographed some have been adopted. Some still sit on the canine equivalent of death row.

The portraits are the work of photographer Shannon Johnstone, who is crusading to save dogs’ lives one photograph at a time. Each week, she takes a dog that’s been in North Carolina’s Wake County shelter for at least fourteen days – that will be euthanized if not adopted – to a landfill-turned-county-park to be photographed for the shelter’s website.

“Each dog receives a car ride, a walk, treats, and about two hours of much needed individual attention,” she writes on her website. “My goal is to offer an individual face to the souls that are lost because of animal overpopulation, and give these animals one last chance.”

I saw Shannon’s photography for the first time in late 2012, after she had completed Shelter Life and Discarded Property, two series chronicling life and death in North Carolina animal shelters. According to her site, North Carolina euthanizes more than 250,000 dogs and cats annually simply because they are homeless.

The photos in the Discarded Property series are graphic – close-ups of dogs and cats being anesthetized, dead dogs splayed on a shelter floor beside their feces, a freezer piled with cat carcasses, a large black garbage bag filled with dead kittens.

“Those pictures are hard to look at,” Shannon said when we spoke by phone. “They ended up repelling people as much as they attracted them.”

That’s, in part, why this latest project takes a different approach to telling the story of the state’s overpopulation problem. Shannon hopes that these portraits will inspire adoptions and increase awareness of the plight of homeless animals.

After all, from awareness comes change. And change could lead to fewer dogs dying in North Carolina’s shelters and in shelters across the country.

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I encourage you to visit the Landfill Dogs facebook page and Shannon’s website to see more of her work chronicling the canine and feline costs of animal overpopulation.

A Simile I Can Believe In

“Dogs are like tattoos.

Ask folks about their tattoos and they can tell you exactly what was going on in their lives when they got them, how the idea came to them, why it seemed, at the time, a good thing to do… They mark their owners permanently with a visual memorial of the past.  Like dogs do.

I’ve never had a tattoo, but I’ve had many dogs, and all of them have left their own indelible marks on me.”

I wish I could take credit for that passage, but those words belong to Ken Foster and are from his book The Dogs Who Found Me:  What I’ve Learned From Pets Who Were Left Behind.  It’s a compelling story about a man who had the misfortune to be living in downtown New York City on 9/11 and in New Orleans during Katrina, and the dogs who found him during those in-between years.

When I read the passage I had to put down the book and contemplate the three dogs that have graced my life:

  • Sammie, a West Highland White Terrier, who joined my family when I was thirteen.  She was a peace offering from my parents who had just announced they were splitting up.  It was sort of like, “On the downside, your parents are getting divorced, but on the upside you are finally getting that dog you’ve always wanted.” (Apologies to mom and dad if that’s not the message you intended to send.)
  • Gryffin, a Retriever-Chow mix I adopted from the Humane Society in Georgia, when I was living in Philadelphia but working for a company in Atlanta. My girlfriend had adopted Gryffin’s brother and was crusading to save the entire litter. In uncharacteristically spontaneous fashion – I am one of the least spontaneous people you will ever meet – I quickly got okays from my fiancé, from Delta airlines (to let the puppy fly coach with me to Philly), and from the Humane Society (which had to approve my adoption request). It was the best, if only, spontaneous decision I’ve ever made.
  • Galen, a Labrador retriever-Australian shepherd mix my husband and I adopted just two months after Gryffin’s death.  We had planned to wait to adopt another dog, but the emptiness in our house was too much for me to bear.  So with heavy hearts and plenty of urging from our two daughters, we showed up at a local rescue group’s adoption day. That’s where Galen squirmed her cute little puppy self into Kevin’s heart. I had assumed we were looking for a male to replace Gryffin and to even out the uneven gender ratio in our home (one Kevin to three females), but Galen had him hooked.  She still does.

I’ll have to ask my friend Shari about the indelible marks her dogs have left on her.  When I met Shari in Atlanta, she was living with Hank and Lou and at least one cat.  These days she lives in New Jersey, and while Hank and Lou past before she made the journey north, she did bring along Penny.

Little Miss Penny

Penny is a princess with a mean streak who keeps her recently adopted brother, Calvin, in line.

Calvin

Both Penny and Calvin are rescues.

If you own or have ever owned a dog, I hope Foster’s words inspire you to take a walk down memory lane… with your dog, of course.

***

If you rescued a dog (or dogs), send me a picture (or two). I’ll post the pictures on shesadork.com. And if you have a story to tell about your dog, send that along, too. –Jacki

Dogs are Teachers, Too

I never stop being amazed at how many people I meet in the Northeast who have made a dog from the South a member of their family.  And now I know someone for whom one just wasn’t enough.

I’m taking an online non-fiction book writing course, and it is through this course that I met Loren.  We have much in common: a background in television, a yearning to write a book, and a love of dogs, but where as I have only one canine companion, Loren has three.  They are her children.

I’ve said many times that my first dog, Gryffin, prepared me for motherhood, and I believe that Galen, in all her quirkiness, is inspiring me to write. Loren — in her introduction to our classmates — noted that despite having both graduate and undergraduate degrees, “My dogs have taught me more than I learned in college.”  Amen.

Here are pictures of Loren’s beautiful dogs.

Orry

Orry Maine, a Tennesee native.

“He was named “Monty” which he clearly had no interest in acknowledging, and we played Rumplestiltskin until he perked up at this most unlikely choice.  Not sure why absolutely no one remembers this, but it was the name of Patrick Swayze’s charter in North and South, which seemed very appropriate.”    -Loren

Stella

 

 

 

 

Stella, from Alexandria, Louisiana.

Pete

 

 

Pete, from Austin, Texas. “The product of the best rescue we have encountered.” -Loren

Orry and Stella

“They blend together so well that it is impossible to imagine them existing apart.  This morning, they were laying side by side and I saw Orry casually put his arm over his sister’s back, where it lay for another fifteen minutes of sleep. The magic of rescue.” -Loren

If you rescued a southern pup, send me a picture (or two).  I’ll post the pictures of your pooch, too. -Jacki

Louie, Louie

If Louie could talk, perhaps he’d tell us how he and two friends found themselves wandering along Franklin Blvd., the main thoroughfare through Gastonia, North Carolina, on a hot day in August. But since Louie is a dog, unless someone comes forth to claim him, all we know is that Louie is a stray.

Vet techs at Gastonia’s lone low-cost spay-neuter clinic, located on a busy stretch of the thoroughfare, spotted Louie and his two friends, a female Labrador Retriever mix and a male Australian Shepherd mix, navigating their way through parking lots and traffic. Three techs grabbed leashes and corralled the dogs into the safety of the clinic.

That’s where Louie and his friends said their good-byes.

Kathy Cole, a clinic employee and long-time animal advocate, had little trouble persuading Lucky Labs of Charlotte to take Louie’s female friend, and she placed the Aussie with a mixed breed rescue. But she couldn’t find any takers for Louie. Perhaps, she says, that’s because she first identified him as a Chow, a breed with a reputation for being aggressive. Kathy’s since revised her initial assessment and now thinks Louie may be a cattle dog mix, but without DNA testing, there’s no knowing for sure.

Galen

I met Louie when I was in Gaston County researching my own dog’s background. I adopted Galen almost two years ago in New Jersey, but she’s a native Gastonian. She and her siblings were pulled from the county shelter and transported north thanks to two women who devote much of their time and some of their own money to rescuing dogs and cats from kill shelters in the South.  My reporting led me to the clinic, which is the brainchild of the Animal League of Gaston County, a non-profit animal welfare organization.  The group hopes that clinic veterinarians will spay and neuter so many dogs and cats that there will be fewer litters, like Galen’s, that end up in the county’s shelter, where they have a better chance of being killed than adopted.

Louie, at the Animal League of Gaston County’s spay/neuter clinic

I’m no dog expert, so I couldn’t add much to the discussion of Louie’s lineage. The color of his thick golden-brown coat is as Chow-like as it is Golden Retriever-like, and he has a big block head with a line of white fur from his forehead to his snout.  His dark eyes lack the sparkle I so often see in Galen’s, and his demeanor is gentle, his facial expression sad.

When I first saw Louie, he was in the rear of the clinic in one of the metal cages that house dogs and cats recuperating from surgery.  The clinic was serving as a temporary shelter, while Kathy and the other vet techs called everyone they knew to find him a foster home.

If I found a stray dog in my central New Jersey neighborhood, I would have no qualms taking him to St. Hubert’s animal shelter. My town outsources animal control work to St. Hubert’s, which is a non-profit animal welfare organization, and I know the folks there would do all they could to find him a good home. First, per New Jersey law, they would hold him for seven days to give his owner time to find him. Then, if no one claimed him, they would put him up for adoption and work tirelessly to find him a forever home.

Kathy Cole won’t turn Louie in to Gaston County Animal Control, because, she says, he will be killed. Unlike St. Hubert’s, the county’s shelter is simply a holding facility and a very crowded one at that. As a stray, Louie would be held for three days, and if no one claimed him, he would likely be killed to make room for newcomers. It wouldn’t matter that Louie is neutered – Kathy had one of the clinic’s veterinarians take care of that – and that Louie has all his vaccinations – she took care of that, too.  In other words, it wouldn’t matter that Louie, who Kathy guesses is about two-and-a-half years old, is a perfectly healthy, adoptable dog.

Perfectly healthy, adoptable dogs are being killed in Gaston County and throughout large swaths of the South because too many people cannot afford to, or will not, spay and neuter their dogs, and too many shelters are not equipped to be adoption centers for reasons ranging from a lack of money and staff, to old and decrepit facilities, to a fatalistic view by some shelter directors that there are simply too many dogs to save.

The good news:  There are people in many of these communities who will no longer accept the killing of healthy animals and who are taking actions to address the problem, people like the folks at the Animal League of Gaston County whose three-year-old clinic has already spayed and neutered more than 10,000 dogs and cats.

***

As I write this post on Sunday afternoon, September 9, Kathy Cole is driving the streets of Gaston County looking for Louie.  She found him a foster home a little over a week ago, but within an hour of being there, Louie jumped the fence and ran away; the foster found Louie sitting under a tree three days later.  Louie returned to the clinic and lived there until Friday, when again, Kathy placed him in a foster home.  Again, Louie stayed an hour before running away. At least now Louie is wearing a dog tag with the animal clinic’s name and phone number, so we can only hope that whoever finds him contacts Kathy, not Animal Control.

If only Louie could talk, he could tell us who he’s looking for and where he wants to go.