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Kim Kavin

Kim Kavin is an award-winning investigative journalist and author of Little Boy Blue (Barron’s, 2012) as well as a volunteer dedicated to fostering puppies who have been saved from high-kill shelters. She lives in New Jersey with her dogs Blue and Ginger.

Dog's Life: Humane
Repackaging and Rebranding the Business of Dog Rescue
How simple, innovative changes can improve shelter and adoption rates.
Detail of Costa Rican public awareness campaign championing mixed-breed dogs.

In journalist Kim Kavin’s book, The Dog Merchants, she investigates the complex businesses and networks involved in the buying and selling and “homing” of dogs: breeders, pet stores, pet brokers, the AKC, local shelters and rescue organizations. It is her goal to advance the conversation on how dogs are treated, from puppy mills to high-kill shelters. In the following excerpt, Kavin explains how rebranding shelter dogs can make them more desirable and, therefore, adoptable.

Her face is pallid, probably not just in the black-and-white photograph, but also in real life. She’s looking back over her right shoulder at the camera with eyes desperately wide and bloodshot. Nobody has to hear her speak to know she needs to be set free. “Chained to a desk with nothing but a mouse to entertain her,” the flier’s big type reads.

In another flier, it’s a male, also pale-faced and hunched over. He looks as if the air all around has become so thick, so stagnant, that he can no longer bear to rise. The corners of his mouth are turned down, darn near weighted by jowls. “For nine hours a day, he is kept in a tiny box,” it states. “And ignored.”

These fliers aren’t of dogs. They’re of people—models photographed sitting in office conference rooms and in the glow of a cubicle’s computer screen, wearing the dismayed expressions shared by so many nine-to-five prisoners of concrete jungles, all as part of a groundbreaking campaign called the “Human Walking Program.”

It sprang from the brain of Jake Barrow, a creative director in the Melbourne, Australia, office of GPY&R, a creative agency that is 600 people strong with a network of 186 global agencies. Barrow and his colleagues typically work on campaigns for big-ticket clients including the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival and Australia’s Defence Force, but he had an idea that had been in the back of his mind for a few years, and no matter how many times he tried to turn it off, it kept lighting him right back up.

“We were going through a busy period at work, and occasionally, I would walk a friend’s dog just for fun,” Barrow says. “And I thought, ‘Oh, that could be a service for office workers, to go out and walk a dog, completely to benefit the human.’ That was years and years ago, and I just remembered the feeling I got from walking that dog, and it was really good stress relief. It was completely selfish. I’ve been trained to recognize a good idea, and together with my copywriter at the time, we turned it into the Human Walking Program.”

There was no client. No income was to be made. That didn’t stop Barrow and his partner, who worked pro bono on the concept for six months and built it into a small presentation, sort of a miniature version of what they might do for a regular advertising customer. Then they asked one of the account salesmen at GPY&R to call the local shelter in Melbourne— which happens to be The Lost Dogs Home, founded in 1910 and today serving as Australia’s largest, caring for more than 31,000 dogs and cats each year.

“I said, ‘Hi, I’m Jake, this is Dan, we have this idea,’” Barrow recalls with a laugh. “They definitely saw the benefit of showing the dogs as the heroes instead of just sad. We did completely flip it around and say, ‘It’s about the humans getting out of their cages.’”

Shelter workers gave the GPY&R fliers to commuters from 8 ’til 9 a.m. in central business district train stations the week of the event, and they passed them around at all the buildings near the park where the walk would be held. Social media and radio stations were engaged as well, to spread the message that humans needed a break and a stroll—“to go walkies,” as they say Down Under—perhaps even more than the dogs did.

When the day arrived, the weather was gorgeous. Barrow, like everyone else involved, found himself standing in a park, waiting with a rumbly stomach, wondering what the heck might happen next.

“We were quite nervous,” he recalls. “Are we going to get the crowds we want? Is it going to be too big of a crowd? Is somebody going to get bitten by a dog? There were a lot of unknowns. You can only do so much planning for these things.”

During the next few hours, his unease gave way to elation. More than 5,000 office workers came outside to stand right alongside him, leaving behind their ergonomically accented desks for a much-needed meander the way nature intended. The Lost Dogs Home paired each participant with a homeless pooch so they could get to know one another in the fresh air, outside the shelter environment, in a way that would all but obliterate any ingrained ideas about the dogs and let them be seen as the happy, friendly pups they had always been inside their enclosures, where most of the people would have never seen them at all, or might have assumed there was something wrong with them.

“Their negative stereotype still exists, in our experience, because people do not realize that cats and dogs largely end up at shelters as a consequence of a human circumstance,” says Martha Coro, a spokeswoman for The Lost Dogs Home. “The Human Walking Program was first and foremost a creative campaign that challenged people’s intrinsic beliefs about lost and abandoned animals, [and] that also engaged a real-life event to tie it all together.”

After the three-hour walk, amazing things happened. Every one of the dogs got adopted. Hits on the shelter’s online adoption pages spiked 42 percent. A fund-raising appeal one month later became the shelter’s highest-grossing in nearly a decade. Barrow says it was one of the most satisfying days of his life—and even he failed to predict the impact his idea would have next.

“We did the event and the campaign, and whenever we do something more unusual than a television commercial, we create a case study, and we did that with this event and how successful it was,” he says. “Somehow, the website Upworthy got hold of the case study, and the next thing you know, we had half a million hits on this case-study video, and we’re getting calls from all over the world wanting to do a Human Walking Program in their own cities. We ended up saying we can’t ignore it, so we set up a website that lets people create their own Human Walking Program. People can download all the ads and localize them to their area. It’s a step-by-step guide. I know someone did one all the way over in the U.S. The calls were coming from everywhere.”

What’s so great about thehumanwalkingprogram.org— in addition to the fact that it hands over, for free to the world, what Barrow estimates as an $80,000 to $100,000 creative campaign—is that it also makes clear how to copy the strategy as much as the actual walk.

“The creative rebranding of adoption dogs came first,” Coro says, “which in a way [was] just as influential as the event.” And she’s right. What sets the Human Walking Program apart on a crucial level is its professional marketing approach. It was developed by seasoned pros, as an advertising initiative that helped people get to know the product—great dogs— instead of making a desperate plea for money to save their tragic little lives. Beliefs about homeless pooches are often so deep-seated that it takes a physical change of space or a professional advertising campaign to knock biases out of people’s thought process, much like getting them to buy generic-brand foods at the supermarket or new-brand cars off the lot.

“The ads with the sad dogs, I guess there was a time and a place for it, but as far as the general public goes, it gets squashed over now,” Barrow says. “We need something else to wake us up and pay attention.”

More and more shelters around the globe are coming to the same conclusion and partnering their efforts accordingly. Instead of begging people to see the wonderful pooches they know are inside the enclosures, they are looking to leaders in everything from creative design to architecture to retail sales to make new messaging work. It just might be the beginning of an unprecedented rebranding effort, potentially on the scale of what breeders did starting in the mid-1800s when convincing dog lovers that purebreds were the ideal pets in the first place.

The signs of change are worldwide. In Berlin, Germany, the animal-protection society turned to the renowned architect and cat lover Dietrich Bangert to design its multimilliondollar facility, one of Europe’s largest at 163,000 square feet (more than 15,000 square meters, about the size of the largest Target retail store on the U.S. East Coast). The Berlin shelter holds about 1,400 animals at a time and cares for about 12,000 animals a year. Bangert has serious drafting chops and is perhaps best known for his work on an art museum in Bonn and the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven; the result at the Berlin facility was a far different environment than most people imagine as an animal shelter, a modern study in concrete and water so futuristic that it was used as a set for the 2005 Charlize Theron film Aeon Flux, set in the year 2415.

Creating the architecturally inviting space gave potential dog owners a chance to breathe a bit easier when walking inside, so their brains would take precedence over any bad feelings created by more typical shelter buildings. They looked up instead of feeling down. They intuited that it was okay to relax, because nothing they were about to see would depress them. The professionally designed atmosphere allowed people’s minds to focus not on what they thought a shelter might be like, but instead on what was actually before them: friendly, healthy dogs the volunteers had gone so far as to house-train prior to sending them home, in the hopes of making each pairing more likely to stick.

Underlying Dietrich Bangert’s futuristic, geometric design for Tierheim Berlin is the architect’s commitment to creating maximum physical and emotional comfort for the approximately 1,400 animals it shelters, as well as its workers and visitors. A 163,000- square-foot, glass-andconcrete facility, its circular pavilions, with their cantilevered overhangs and splayed walls, incorporate fresh air and natural light. Each pavilion consists of three spherical structures arranged around an enclosed open space, rather like petals on a daisy.

Yet another example is in Costa Rica, where the Territorio de Zaguates shelter had nearly all mixed-breed dogs while adopters primarily wanted purebreds, so it worked with the San Jose–based creative agency Garnier BBDO to launch a marketing campaign around the idea of “unique breeds.” Instead of calling the dogs mutts, they followed the same branding convention long used by breeders, labeling the dogs as things that sounded surprisingly like kennel club– recognized Dandle Dinmont Terriers and Finnish Laphunds: Chubby-Tailed German Dobernauzers, Fire-Tailed Border Cockers, Alaskan Collie Fluffyterriers, White-Chested Dachweilers, and Brown-Eyed Australian Dalmapointers. (Is it really any different from inventing a German Blabrador?)

Watercolor artists painted renderings that mimicked the design of the purebred standard drawings, then added the unique breed names in a highfalutin, royal wedding–worthy typeface. The posters created a visual way for people to process the message that breed names, when it comes to choosing a pet, are often no more than a line of marketing copy.

By the end of the Territorio de Zaguates campaign— “When You Adopt a Mutt, You Adopt a Unique Breed”—the shelter’s dogs had received more than $450,000 in news and public-relations coverage. More than a half-million people had discussed and shared the dogs on Facebook. Adoptions went up 1,400 percent, and the shelter got sponsors who now cover the whole of its operating expenses.

All in all, the teams in Costa Rica and Germany experienced the same thing organizers of the Human Walking Program saw in Australia: Working with professional marketers and designers made a huge impact on people’s perceptions about the dogs, who were suddenly in demand and welcomed into people’s homes en masse—even though the pooches themselves hadn’t changed at all.

“We have been inundated with interest from shelters from South Africa to the USA, which leads us to believe that shelters across the world generally share the same priority of changing the public’s perception of shelter pets,” Coro says from Melbourne, “and now there is a tried and tested plan that can help us all do that.”

Mike Arms is a business-minded advocate who saves dogs without making any excuses for raising their value along with the professional value of the people working with them. Since 1999, he has been president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in California, where he tripled adoption rates while charging some of the highest dog-adoption fees in America and recruiting employees for their business and marketing savvy. (As of 2013, according to an independent auditor’s report, the center’s management salaries and benefits totaled $373,420. Arms’ pay was not itemized.) Nobody can buy a dog from the center for less than $399. A couple of Labrador puppies sold recently for $500 apiece, and a six-month-old Goldendoodle went for $1,000 not long ago. Arms has no problem telling adopters they should pay fair market value because his dogs have just as much intrinsic value, and make just as fabulous pets, as the purebreds going for similar prices from breeders. “Why is it,” he asks, “that somebody can go out and spend $2,000 or $3,000 on a pet and after thirty days realize it’s not for them, and they take it to their local facility, and the minute it crosses that threshold, the value is gone?”

His approach leaves many shelter operators with mouths agape, especially the ones who can’t even give their dogs away for free. Arms believes that their failure has nothing to do with the quality of the dogs, but instead with the quality of the dogs in people’s minds, which he sees as the job of shelter directors to manage. The problem isn’t the dogs. The problem is the marketing.

“I’m getting more and more frustrated with my peers as I get older,” he says. “It just seems like they’re going backwards in time now. They think the way to increase adoptions is to lower fees and come up with gimmicks. That doesn’t increase adoptions at all. All that does is devalue the pets. How in the world can we change the public’s perception of these beautiful pets if we’re the one doing this?”

The root of the problem with homeless dogs and pricing, he says, goes back to the way many rescue organizations got started. It’s usually a woman who finds a puppy in the street and gets him into a loving home. The woman likes the feeling of having done right by the pup, so she helps more dogs, and then more dogs, until she decides to form an organization along the lines of a humane society. “They weren’t getting paid for it,” Arms says. “They just liked doing it as a hobby. So they felt, ‘If I’m not doing it for pay, nobody else should be doing it for pay.’”

Try telling a breeder he should care for all the dogs for free and give them away out of the goodness of his heart. Rescuers often have a completely different mentality, Arms says, one that devalues their own worth as well as the worth of the dogs.

Arms regularly finds himself standing on stage in front of a room filled with rescuers who fit that mold, most of them women, even today. He tells a particular story again and again, one that seems to make the message clear. It starts when he asks them what they would do if they were invited to a formal dinner banquet at a high-end restaurant. What is the very next thing you’d do, he asks, after you accepted the invitation?

To a person, they answer that they’d go out and buy a new dress. “Now, human nature is that a lot of people will put a budget on what they’re going to spend on that outfit,” he tells them. “You go out in the department store and start trying on outfits and none of them fit you right. The color’s not right. You get depressed and you’re going to walk out, and then on your way out you see a dress that’s a hundred dollars more. And it fits. And you buy it. You’re willing to spend three hundred or four hundred dollars on that dress that you’re going to wear three or four times, but you’re not willing to spend it on a dog. What are we teaching the public about value?”

Arms loves dogs just as much as the rescuers in the audience do, but he treats the pooches far more like products than most of his colleagues might—because he believes that’s what gets them into homes. He’s had courtesy shoppers from the department store Macy’s come through his shelter to tell him what he can do better in terms of staffing and displays. He brought in BMW salesmen to train his staff. (“Nobody is a better salesman than a car salesman,” he says.) As of this writing, Bruce Nordstrom, former chairman of the upscale retailer Nordstrom Inc., was scheduled to do training at the center, all because Arms believes the sales techniques in the dog-rescue business need a swift reboot into the modern era of retail sales. He wants to be the BMW of the used-pooch industry, the place where buyers can go and know they’re getting a top-quality product worth every penny of the extra money, not unlike a pre-owned luxury sedan.

“They can call it adoptions or rehoming or whatever they want,” Arms says of rescuers, “but they’re in the business of selling used dogs. And they’d better be good at it, because those lives are on the line.”

Arms has been invited to speak to shelter directors everywhere from British Columbia in Canada to multiple cities in New Zealand, preaching the philosophy that shelters should be run by the savviest marketing and sales people, raising their prices and preaching the overall value of every great pup. Shelter directors should have a heart for dogs, but first and foremost, a mind for business—because that’s the only thing that breaks through stereotypes and helps dog lovers understand what they’re really getting for their money.

“We have to change the public’s perception,” he says. “The public believes the pets in pet facilities are there because there’s something wrong with the pet. We have to teach them that the pet is there because there’s something wrong with the person who had the pet. That’s the reality.”

Dog's Life: Humane
Why Foster? Make a Dog Ready for a New Home
Every dog needs a forever home, fostering helps dogs to find one.

Mac was the hardest for me. He arrived about a year ago, just before Thanksgiving. He was my sixth foster dog in about as many months, and the first one who truly tested my commitment to the big-picture cause of rescue.

He was still a pup, less than a year old, a purebred yellow Labrador who would command well over a thousand bucks from any breeder with a decent website. Mac’s body, though, made it clear that he’d been neglected. On the day he pranced into my back yard giving love and kisses, I could see not only his ribs, but also his collarbone and spine. I wondered if he’d been left tied to a tree, or was perhaps abandoned by a family who simply moved away, before he landed in the gas-chamber shelter that gave him three days to live. He had terrible diarrhea following his transport from the Carolinas to the rescue in Pennsylvania; at first, he didn’t even want to eat. Poor Mac’s stomach must have hurt every single day of his life.

Mac and my own dog, Blue, became immediate pals. They ran in the yard, played tug in the den and cuddled in front of the fi replace on chilly nights. I fed Mac the same high-quality food that Blue gets, took him with us on walks in the park and treated him like a member of the family. As his health issues vanished and his body recovered, his spirit exploded with an even stronger glow. He looked like a completely different dog, and everywhere we went, people stopped me to comment on how gorgeous he was.

They were absolutely stunned, literally set back on their heels, when I told them he was a gas-chamber rescue now available for adoption. The very thought of a dog like Mac being abandoned really messes with most people’s ideas about who shelter dogs are, just as the thought of a normal-looking person like me being a foster mom messes with many people’s belief that only “crazy dog ladies” have foster pups in their homes.

Valerie Price has been shattering those same misconceptions for the past fi ve years. A student adviser at a college in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has fostered more than 150 puppies for Smiley Dog Rescue while working as a student counselor and studying for a master’s degree in business administration.

“People are always surprised when I tell them that these puppies were going to be put down in the shelter,” Price says. “These are beautiful, wonderful puppies. The problem is not with the dogs. It’s the owners who need to be more responsible. I wish people would spay and neuter and stop backyard breeding. That’s why I do this. There’s nothing wrong with these dogs, and I want to speak for them.”

Price has two dogs of her own, Whiskey, a Husky-Samoyed, and Misty, a mutt. Whiskey likes to be in charge, which is why Price sticks to fostering puppies instead of older dogs. Whiskey accepts puppies and often helps nurture them, even when the litters are as big as eight. Price went so far as to build a “dog room” onto her home, a space with a doggy door to the yard and furniture that looks like a bedroom. There’s even a television that the puppies can listen to between her lunch-time visits.

She’s had a few pups like my foster Mac, dogs who, for whatever reason, stuck out and made her want to adopt. But she found the strength to let them all go after the rescue cleared the adopters via its application process and an in-home visit.

“The first few times I fostered, I cried when they left,” she says. “I wanted to keep the second one that I fostered, and the rescue lady told me to be strong. She said the first or second ones are the hardest. It felt like I was losing a child. But the people who adopted those first ones live nearby, and I got to meet the families, and we still stay in touch. The only thing that made it easier is that if I kept the dog, then that would be the end of fostering. I want to have my home open because there are more dogs who need me.”

My first five foster dogs for Lulu’s Rescue  came and went so quickly, I barely got to know them. They were puppies, and puppies are usually adopted the fastest; some of my fosters stayed less than two days. I’d been nothing more than a way station on their journey, a place for them to be safe until their families could collect them. I thought they were cute, but we didn’t even come close to bonding.

Mac, though, stayed for six weeks. His sloppy kisses and wagging tail became a part of my daily routine, and my own dog’s playtime, too. A month and a half is a long time to steel your heart against a dog who wants nothing more than for you to love him back — especially a dog who lives with you through Christmas and gets his very own presents under the tree.

On the day the rescue told me they had a great application for Mac, I, like Price, felt as though I was about to lose a child. I thought about saying no and officially becoming a “failed foster,” an all-too-common label for folks who tried but just could not say goodbye.

It’s happened more than once to Charlene Jackson of Coming Home Rescue in Rockaway, N.J. She’s had at least 300 foster dogs during the past 15 years, when she’s not busy at her job as an IT professional with Novartis. Her own pack helps with the fostering: Biscuit, a two-year-old Greyhound/Pit Bull mix; Emme, a five-year-old Australian Shepherd/Pit Bull mix; Sam-I-Am, a six-year-old Australian Cattle Dog; and Molly, an 18-year-old Golden Retriever.

“We call her Queen Molly. She came to me full of milk, so we think she was a thrown-out kennel bitch,” Jackson says. “To this day, she will investigate the puppies and sniff their ears to make sure they’re all right. I find that fostering is good for my own dogs. They learn to be sociable, and they learn to share. They open their hearts, too.” Dogs, like people, can become bonded to fosters — especially the ones who end up staying a while. “Time can make it hard, when they just become they’re happy, or it’s a special case and you start to feel like a protective mama bear,” Jackson says. “I’ve seen lots of fosters fail the first or second time. They often keep the first foster dog. Then with the second foster, they cry as they say goodbye. But then they get an email about how well that dog is doing, and they start to understand that this is a cycle. There’s another one waiting. You don’t have to cry for long. He’s in a crate waiting for you.”

For me, it makes things easier to think of that cycle as a pipeline, a pipeline that comes to a clogged stop if the foster person adopts the dog. Keeping that pipeline open is the only way that I could even conceive of saying goodbye to a dog as great as Mac. I kept telling myself that there was another dog just like him scheduled to die in a shelter tomorrow, and that I had to let Mac go, to make room.

The application arrived just before New Year’s. It was from a family about an hour away with a black Labrador who needed a playmate. The husband was willing to drive up to meet Mac even before the application was approved. He brought one of his three sons and their dog, Thomas, who played in my yard with Mac like old pals. The man apologized for his wife’s absence; if their application was chosen, he said, she’d quit her seasonal job early so she could be home to give Mac a proper first few weeks of settling in.

On the day Mac went home with them, I wept. My dog Blue wandered around the house in a daze, too. Mac, though, walked happily out my front door on his leash, his tail in a fullon wag. In my driveway, the family opened the door to their car and Mac jumped right in. He wanted to go for that ride. He didn’t even look back.

I’ve had 13 more foster puppies since then, each one just as deserving of happiness as Mac. Mine wasn’t the ideal home for every one of them — the poopers and chewers … well, I was happy to wish them good luck in life — but a few here and there have touched my heart deeply. For that reason, I’m glad I let Mac go. One of the greatest rewards of fostering is knowing that you’re not only helping one dog, but also the next one in line.

Another great reward is that they never forget you. A couple of weeks ago, I did a reading at a bookstore about a half-hour from my home. My dog Blue was with me, sitting quietly and politely as always. As the reading ended, Blue started tugging and tugging on his leash, trying desperately to get into the crowd. I looked up and saw a gorgeous adult Labrador with his tail wagging wildly, right there in the middle of the bookstore. Within five seconds, Blue was in a full-on play bow.

I looked at the man holding the Lab’s leash, confused about why another dog was inside. The man grinned and said, “You don’t remember him, do you.”

Mac had gotten bigger. And somehow even more gorgeous. His whole family had come to thank me for saving their dog’s life. More than a few people waiting for me to sign their books stopped, stared and wiped away tears.

I wonder if any of them are thinking about fostering now, too.

News: Guest Posts
Southern Dog Rescues

J. Courtney Sullivan writes a lot of great things in her New York Times op-ed “Adopt a Dog With a Southern Drawl.” In fact, she covers a lot of the same ground that I detailed in my award-winning 2012 book Little Boy Blue: A Puppy’s Rescue from Death Row and His Owner’s Journey for Truth. Like Sullivan’s beloved pooch Landon, my boy Blue, too, was an adorable puppy with mere hours to live in a Southern facility before a rescue group scooped him up and transported him to the safety of my adoptive home in New Jersey. I traced Blue’s path to very spot where he once was caged a few steps from a gas chamber, and I know the sense of relief all too well that Sullivan describes—and that is felt daily by the many thousands of us who have opened our hearts and homes to these wonderful dogs.

There is, however, one word in Sullivan’s op-ed with which I must take issue. She writes: “Three years ago, at 8 weeks old, he was hours from being euthanized in an animal control facility in Tennessee.” The word euthanized is inaccurate, and its pervasive use in news coverage only shades the reality of what is happening daily with easy-to-adopt dogs and puppies like Landon and Blue.

Euthanize means to end a life as a means of ending incurable pain or suffering. Giving a dog a lethal injection when he’s 16 years old and stricken with bone cancer may qualify as euthanasia, but killing a friendly, healthy puppy like Landon or Blue most certainly does not. The reason South-to-North rescue transports have exploded in number since about 2008 is that what’s going on in some animal control facilities is pure and simple killing for convenience. Calling this killing euthanasia is an act of ignorance. Euthanasia is a polite word for a horrific reality when it comes to what is happening to these dogs and puppies.

I can’t speak for Landon, but in Blue’s case, the taxpayer-funded facility (please don’t call it a shelter) where he was dumped had a year-after-year kill rate of about 95 percent—an adoption rate of just 5 or 6 percent each year—unless private rescue groups were able to intervene. More than 500 communities across America are now showing every day that the reverse of those figures is possible, that homes can be found for more than 90 percent of the dogs who enter such facilities. Having sky-high kill rates has nothing to do with euthanasia. It also, in some cases, has nothing to do with a lack of resources other than human will. In Blue’s case, as his expiration date approached, he was sitting in a $562,954 kennel addition less than a decade old.

So while I congratulate Sullivan on her op-ed and agree with its content, and while I praise the New York Times for running it to raise awareness, I would ask that all of us writing about this situation strike the word euthanasia from our vocabulary. How we tell this story affects the way readers understand it, and sugar-coating reality doesn’t do anybody any good, especially the dogs still in the cages who will never experience the wonderful lives that Langdon and Blue enjoy.

Learn more about “Little Boy Blue” at www.little-boy-blue.info.