A dog of a cat

I played fetch with a cat.

Yes, you read that right.

A black and white cat enamored with a tiny stuffed toy that resembles a Christmas stocking, only it’s hot pink with a silver cross-stitch, not red.

The entire experience was striking. First, I had no idea that cats fetched. Fetching, so far as I knew, is something dogs do—even if, like Galen, they don’t necessarily do it well. Second, I’m not a cat person (sorry, cat people). I was scratched by a cat when I was four or five, and I’ve never quite gotten over my ensuing fear. I’m also allergic, so I do my best to avoid cats completely.

But now I’ve met Tuxedo, and I’m rethinking my antipathy.

Tuxedo and a  favorite toy

Tuxedo and a
favorite toy

Tuxedo—he’s aptly named—lives with a fabulous seamstress who rescued me when I was in desperate need of someone to quickly and expertly tailor several dance costumes to fit my twelve-year-old’s slender frame.

When I picked up the costumes, I brought still one more, and the seamstress offered to sew it on the spot. So while she stitched, I sunk into the black leather couch in her living room. I was about to reach into my purse, which I’d set on the coffee table, when Tuxedo jumped up and began rubbing the right side of his head and his long white whiskers back and forth across the top of the purse. Wonderful, I thought. Cat hair. I glared at him.

Perhaps sensing my displeasure, Tuxedo stepped away from the bag—and me. But only temporarily. In the time it took me to pull my phone from my purse, he returned. But not to the table—to the couch. And he brought his tiny pink toy, which he dropped in my lap. Instinctively I threw it, and he retrieved it. I looked at him quizzically. Cats don’t fetch, I thought. I do, he seemed to respond, batting the toy against my leg. I threw it again and again.

The seamstress told me Tuxedo hides toys throughout the house, so no matter where he is, he has a toy at the ready. She added that he’s been fetching since she brought him home several years ago from a New Jersey shelter.

While researching my book, Dogland, my focus was on the plight of shelter dogs, but in my travels, I learned that the situation for homeless cats in this country is even more tenuous. According to the American Humane Association, an estimated 71 percent of cats that enter U.S. animal shelters are euthanized. This is largely due to a burgeoning population of feral cats and the fact that fewer cats than dogs—only 2 percent of cats—are reunited with their owners.

My younger daughter would love us to adopt a cat. In her stuffed animal days she collected an assortment of cats in various sizes and colors—one even meowed and moved its limbs. She holds my cat allergy against me and says that when she lives on her own, she will adopt both a dog and a cat. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I hope she does.

And I hope, like Tuxedo, the cat will play fetch. I’m game!

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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

Superdogs

Police accuse a New Jersey woman of suffocating to death four five-week-old American Bulldogs by stuffing them in a cooler.

Puppy Doe Photo from the Animal Rescue Leage

Puppy Doe
Photo from the Animal Rescue Leage

A Massachusetts resident finds a lifeless young Pit Bull near a Quincy park. “Puppy Doe,” as she is called, has so many broken bones and stab wounds, is so malnourished and weak, that veterinarians can’t save her.

A night-time break-in at a Georgia shelter leaves three dogs dead and fifteen injured. Police say it’s possible that the shelter’s dogs were attacked by dogs brought in by people involved in dog fighting, who wanted to prep their dogs for future fights.

I read about each of the above heartrending cases in the past several weeks. The stories are hard to stomach. I’d love to write that they are unique, aberrations. But they are not. Dogs are the victims of abuse and cruelty more often than any other animal, according to Pet-Abuse.com.

They deserve so much better.

These stories got me thinking about a foundation started in September by Leigh Ann Errico, a friend of a friend. The kidkind foundation and its companion website, www.wearthecapekids.com, are committed to making our communities better places to live, by “restoring the power of kindness and good character.” Errico, the mother of four, writes she’s been disheartened by “the seemingly never-ending string of jaw-dropping news stories,” of incivility, of cyber-bullying, of people treating others in ways they would never want to be treated themselves.

The idea behind “Wear the Cape” is that “we are all everyday heroes, or at least capable of being heroes by doing the right thing, the kind thing, the helping and inclusive thing.” Dogs wear the cape every day: They love us, protect us, are our most loyal friends and trusted teachers. And they do all of this unconditionally.

Perhaps one of their greatest gifts is that dogs help parents raise children in ways that benefit all of society. Here’s how: Researchers investigating the human-animal bond routinely find that children who grow up with a dog have greater compassion, tolerance, and empathy for others.

sisters

sisters

Like so many parents, my husband and I are trying to instill empathy in our daughters. We are fortunate to have Galen to help us in this endeavor. She is there every morning to wake our girls with a cold wet nose to the face. She is there every afternoon, the first to greet them when they get off the school bus. (I remain in the house and watch from the window as their backpacks fall to the ground, smiles brighten their faces, and they drop to their knees to say hello to their tail-wagging sister who’s as thrilled to see them as they are to see her.) I see their love for Galen grow every time they pet her, kiss her, talk to her. And she never fails to return the affection.

Just as dogs are our heroes, we need to be theirs. And that leads me to one other story I read this past week: A two-year-old Pit Bull riddled with bullets was left to die on an Arizona mountain trail. A female hiker found the dog and carried its limp, 47-pound body down the mountain, saving its life. She named the dog Elijah, and her family is now fostering him.

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.

***

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.

Life and Death Decisions… Daily

Imagine: You are the director of an animal shelter. During the last week of February, your shelter took in 48 dogs. Now the spring birthing season — when intake numbers traditionally spike — is  upon you. You’ve been working hard to increase the shelter’s adoption rates, but you can’t call the shelter No Kill – not yet, not by a long shot; healthy dogs are still put down daily to make room for those that will inevitably come through the door. Unfortunately, your situation is echoed throughout the United States, primarily in the South, where studies show spay and neuter rates are lower than in any other region. This leads to more dogs having more litters, and that, of course, leads to more crowded shelters.

Now in comes a pregnant stray. Shelter volunteers name her Maple – she’s a friendly retriever mix with red-gold fur and a sweet disposition.

You get that all-too-familiar sick feeling deep in your stomach.

The law prohibits you from adopting out dogs that have not been spayed or neutered.  That means you can’t release Maple unless she is spayed, and spaying will kill her puppies.  If you hold Maple until she births her pups, you will have to kill other dogs to open up space for her litter.

You ask yourself:  Does it make more sense to euthanize puppies yet to be born or to euthanize those that are already living?  The decision is yours; you must make it.

***

In too many shelters across the country, shelter directors make life and death decisions daily.  There is just not enough room in overcrowded shelters to house all the dogs that are picked up as strays or surrendered by their owners.  These are healthy dogs, adoptable dogs, dogs that would make great pets.

Finding homes for the country’s homeless dogs must be a priority, or shelters will continue to use euthanasia to control their populations, and euthanasia due to homelessness will remain the leading cause of canine death in the United States. But as the spring mating season is upon us, there is something dog owners can do to stem the flow of new litters: Spay and neuter your pets, and encourage others to spay and neuter theirs. Veterinarians say you and your pet will reap the benefits:

  • Altered pets live longer, healthier lives. (Females will not get ovarian or uterine cancer; males will not get testicular cancer and are less likely to suffer from prostate disease.)
  • Altered pets are easier to train.
  • Altered pets have less desire to roam, making them less likely to become lost or hit by a car.
  • Altered pets have fewer behavior and temperament problems.
  • Altered pets tend to be less aggressive, yet they remain protective of their families.

***

There is an abundance of information online regarding the reasons to, and the benefits of, spaying and neutering your pet.  Here’s a link to get you started, should you want to learn more:  American Humane Association.

Dogs aren’t the only ones to drop the ball

Albuquerque, New Mexico has a puppy problem. In December, city shelters took in 347 abandoned or surrendered puppies. That number, of course, doesn’t include all the adult dogs that also entered the shelter that month. So what will become of all these potential pets? The shelters and rescue groups will do their best to adopt them out. But the reality is that a number of the dogs – and puppies – will be killed.

According to the city’s Animal Welfare Department, “Every year, thousands of kittens and puppies are born into short lives of suffering and death in Albuquerque because people did not spay or neuter their pets. There are simply not enough homes for the animals that are born because of this type of neglect.”

This “neglect” is certainly not unique to residents of Albuquerque; all over the country there are people who find one reason or another not to spay or neuter their pet. But the city is launching a campaign it hopes will result in fewer litters. The campaign is one part media blitz – public service announcements, banners on buses, and water bill inserts will proclaim the import of spaying and neutering – and one part action – the Animal Welfare Department will offer free and low-cost surgeries to low- and moderate-income residents.

I learned about the public service announcement via a KOAT-TV news story on the web. I love the PSA. I dislike the news story.

First, the PSA. The idea behind it: If you think an unintended pregnancy is a serious problem for you, you should know it’s just as serious for your pet – and its offspring. In one scene a good-looking young couple sits at a kitchen table with an open pregnancy test in front of them.

Woman: I can’t believe this is happening.
Man: It was your responsibility.
Woman: I should have gotten her spayed when I had the chance.
Cue the cat: It jumps onto the table and meows loudly.

In another scene a man is watching TV when the phone rings. Upon answering it he hears a male voice yell, “Your boy got my girl pregnant!” The “boy” is the handsome husky viewers see chewing a bone on the couch. “I knew I should have gotten you neutered,” the man says to his dog.

It’s a great ad: Hopefully the humor will get people watching and the message will get people acting.

Now to the news story, which you can watch here. It got my journalism hackles up for two reasons. First, the light, fun tone of the story belies the seriousness of the issue it’s covering. For example, the reporter leads into her story saying of the city’s problem, it’s “a cute one.” Second, and this is really what’s most significant, is nowhere in the news story does the reporter explain the tragic consequences of pet overpopulation. It’s not crowded shelters, as mentioned in the piece. It’s the unnecessary euthanizing of healthy animals. This fact – perhaps the most important in a story about pet overpopulation – was completely left out.

What do you think? Am I critiquing this story through an advocate’s eyes rather than a journalist’s? I don’t think so. What I do think is that the city of Albuquerque deserves kudos for its campaign. As for KOAT-TV, it dropped the ball on a very important story.

In My Absence

It’s been a busy week that unfortunately left little time for writing. Among other things, I was finalizing plans for my trip to North Carolina, where I will get to lay eyes on Galen’s hometown and the shelter that put her on death row.  I leave this afternoon. But this morning, as I ate left-over waffles and skimmed my favorite newspaper, I came upon an article that spoke to me.  So since I have no story of my own to offer up, I recommend Four-Legged Reason to Keep It Together from the Sunday Styles section of today’s Times.  Happy reading!