Dog's Life: Humane
Q&A with documentary’s director Rebecca Ormond
On July 18, Gateway Guardians, a documentary about a handful of scrappy volunteers feeding and rescuing stray dogs in a blighted East St. Louis neighborhood, premieres. Filmed almost entirely by flipcam-wielding rescue and foster volunteers and Webster University film students, the documentary provides a moving, dog’s-eye-view of street packs and loners and their unorthodox saviors. We spoke with the film’s director, professor and independent filmmaker, Rebecca Ormond during the final days of editing to learn how this story reached the screen.► See details about the premiere and future screenings below. ► Look for our story about Gateway Pet Guardians in the September issue of Bark. ► Watch video trailer on page 2. TheBark.com: How did you sign on for the documentary? Rebecca Ormond: I am a film professor at Webster University and also an independent filmmaker. [The film’s producers Amie Simmons, Gateway Pet Guardians’ president, and Jamie Case, executive director] approached me not to make the film but to recommend cameras. In talking with them it was pretty clear that they really didn’t know what was involved so I thought it would be a really neat combination, since I’d volunteered [for about five years] with them anyway, to volunteer my services. My role was basically to handle all the technical stuff and just figure out how to use cinematic language to say what they wanted to say. [Another Webster University professor, Steve Schenkel, composed the score.] How did you make the documentary? We had a very loose plan. We bought these little high-definition flipcams. PJ Hightower [GPG’s founder and lead rescuer, who has been feeding the strays since 1995 and hasn’t missed a day since 2001] wore one and whoever rode with her carried one, and I gave them some basic instruction in how to film and not get in the way. The whole idea was to get a lot of footage with the animals the way they really act with PJ. The way we wouldn’t be able to get with a film crew. The basic idea was to see these animals the way she sees them, which is very personal. She has names for all of them. It’s like she has 200 pets. So the goal was to be as unobtrusive as possible. As fosters came forward, we would then hand a camera to the foster, and follow that dog through the foster system into their forever home. For almost a year, they would run these cameras. They’d turn in over six hours of footage to me a week. We just kept trimming it down, trimming it down, trimming it down. Very early on we followed Ghandi’s quote that you can tell a society by how it treats its animals as a really rough working guide. Beyond the foster folks and the volunteers is there anyone else in the film? In the longer film, there are people from East St. Louis—both who live there and who work there. My favorite person of all is a wonderful woman, Ethel May Taylor. She tells the story of her dog Tyler, who she was feeding as a stray, and PJ rescued and had neutered and then returned to Ethel. She talks about the joy that Tyler brings to her life. How were your students involved? We never sent them out on the streets of East St. Louis. We brought people from East St. Louis and the organization to my house to film. They filmed the interviews. They also logged footage. It was an enormous amount of logging, 10 solid months of six hours a pop with six different cameras running constantly. I would tell them… we want, at most, to log 10 percent of what comes in, so it’s your job to search through all six hours and decide what hour or even maybe what 10 minutes gets put in the log that I’ll eventually start editing. What did your students think of the group and making the documentary? Everybody is moved by the footage. Liz Pekunka (a graduating senior, film logger and second assistant editor) kept saying if I weren’t a student, I’d absolutely foster a dog now. From a technical perspective, this kind of shooting is quite novel right now because these little cameras are using a codec called H.264. It’s really amazing. We bought the pink cameras that went on sale on Mother’s Day for $99. They are just pinhole cameras; you can’t focus them or anything, which was important for the rescue workers because they’d just point and shoot. But these tiny cameras, the size of cell phones could hold six hours of high-definition 720p, 60 frames per second video. The quality is phenomenal. For my students this was one of the big things because filmmaking is so expensive … and here are these little cell phones generating a pretty amazing image. Sounds like a great thing for such a lean organization. Would they have been able to make the film otherwise? No. It was great because it was cheap and it was also great because it was so easy for them to do. The whole philosophy was if we go in there with a crew we’re not going to be able to get what happens. Only when PJ stands there by herself can she get this. After all your experience volunteering and fostering with Gateway Pet Guardians, did you learn anything new in putting the film together? Probably the thing that surprised me most is how much we were able to see in these packs of dogs the individual personalities of the dogs and how well PJ knew them. Even though I knew she had a really strong rapport with all the dogs it was shocking to see because she had the camera right on her hip. In the footage, the dog comes right up and bumps noses into the camera, and these are the stray, feral dogs that everyone’s afraid of. I can’t imagine that people aren’t going to be all over this film. As the director and someone who has been on it 16 hours a day for the past 6 weeks, I’m a little bleary. I don’t know. It might be great and it might be terrible. I can’t say. I heard a dog in the background. Is that a Gateway rescue? No. She is a rescue but I had her before I met PJ. I met PJ through her oddly enough. I had just bought my house and I was walking my dog. My dog was about a year old and she’s skittish with people she doesn’t know. So as PJ approached I started my whole spiel that I do with everybody, ‘She’s not aggressive, she won’t bite, but she’s probably going to hide behind me, she’s slow to warm up.’ PJ pulled one of her biscuits out of her pockets, and my dog took it out of her hand. When you started as a Gateway volunteer, did you ever think to yourself, this would make a great film? No, really I didn’t. The funny thing is, I’m not a documentary filmmaker. I’ve made a few and I’ve worked on a lot. But I’m principally a narrative filmmaker. It was one of those things where I’m the only filmmaker they knew.
Author of Marcus of Umbria
We talk with Justine van der Leun about her new book Marcus of Umbria—a Bark Summer Reads pick. Deciding to leave the big city and a good magazine job, she packs it all in to live in a very small Italian village and a chance at love. What she finds instead, and where she finds it, makes for charming storytelling.
Bark: What compelled you to leave your NY city life and venture out to a (very) small village in Italy? And why that particular village?
Justine van der Leun: For love, of course! Or perhaps lust is more accurate. I had gone to Collelungo, on vacation, and while I was there, I fell helplessly for a local gardener named Emanuele. The stereotype of the seductive Italian exists for a reason. After just three weeks, I wanted to live with him in his tiny, rural town. I was working with a businessman on a memoir about Italian wine, so it was convenient for me to settle there. I returned to New York, sublet out my place, and booked a one-way ticket back.
B: What was the one thing that surprised you the most about the villagers’ attitudes towards animals? Had you expected that?
J: Collelungo was an ancient farming culture and the people had endured centuries of dire poverty. Though this generation is relatively comfortable, the people of Collelungo, like most farming cultures, have an old-world approach to animals. For them, animals are a means of survival. They raise everything by hand—the opposite of factory farming. Because of this, farm animals like sheep, cows, and pigs roam free on untouched land. On the other hand, horses were for casual sport, and the training techniques were, to say the least, not progressive; and cats were feral and expected to fend for themselves. Dogs were caged out back and used to hunt. The idea of having a dog inside disgusted people. In Collelungo, there was little concept of an animal’s emotional life; the mere idea was absurd to them. But even in that society, there were exceptions: People who adored their dogs; who spoiled their horses; who fed and coddled kittens.
B: Marcus is a English Pointer, a dog with an “intense” connection to everything around her, how did she redefine or refocus your own connection to nature?
J: Marcus changed everything. I’ve been watching her stalk and chase birds and bunnies and squirrels for four years now, and it never gets old. Before I met Marcus, I had no relationship with the outside world. I grew up in rural Connecticut, surrounded by natural beauty, but all I wanted was to read indoors and move to New York City. But once I found Marcus in Italy, I began to walk in the woods, to look at the trees, to climb hills and ride horses. At first, I did it to see her joy, but soon I was able to feel my own joy. Now, even though we’re back in the states, I am nearly unrecognizable to myself: I run with Marcus in the morning, hike with her through parks and forests, take long strolls down the beach. We just spent a day canoeing on the Delaware Water Gap. I see nature from her perspective, as something right and necessary.
B: Since you rehabilitated a dog who was kept (if you can call it that) just for sport and had little human contact outside of the hunt, what affect did this have on you? Did it change how you viewed the human/dog bond? Did it alter your view of different cultures and how they treated their animals?
J: I rehabilitated Marcus with the help of a very generous behavioral therapist named Nikki Wood, whom I called crying when I returned to the States. I was at a loss for how to live with Marcus, who, because she lacked socialization and had been mistreated, trembled and ran whenever she saw a stranger or heard a loud noise. Nikki sensed that Marcus and I had a special connection and agreed to work with us as long as I would put in the effort. Did I ever! Training Marcus for nearly two years, I got a crash course in dog-human interaction. We think we know about our dogs, but we’re really so uninformed. I read all of Patricia McConnell’s books and really delved into the brain and heart of the dog, which was fascinating. I still have much to learn, but my new, more intricate understanding of her has really bonded us. I’ve seen such tremendous improvement in Marcus, who has overcome most of her fears. She will never be that super-confident dog with a great puppyhood, but she can now accomplish nearly anything. She’s more resilient than I could have imagined.
B: You weren’t expecting to meet up with the dog-of-your-heart when you went to Italy. If Marcus hadn’t come along, how differently do you think your experience there would have been? Would you have come home sooner or later? Do you think you could have settled there permanently?
J: I would have been home in two months, and that would have been a shame. I was wildly lonely and unfocused at first, living in such a remote foreign place. My relationship with Emanuele wouldn’t have been strong enough to keep me there. But when I found Marcus, I couldn’t leave her. Her existence also made me wonder what other surprises lay in store for me—and there were many! Marcus acted as my unwitting anchor and my little spotted tour guide. Because of her, I had the most illuminating year of my life so far.
Culture: Readers Write
Finalist in The Bark’s 1st Annual Short Story/Fiction Contest talks furry muses
A fictional haven called Dog Island is the setting for Don Katnik’s story, “The Stepping-Off Place” (Bark, Summer 2010), which was one of three finalists in our first-ever fiction contest. A wildlife biologist, Katnik shares his 200-year-old home in Maine with his wife Misty and dogs Copper “The Rocket” and Jedzia Dax. Katnik, 44, took a break from writing, home-improvement projects and dancing (ballroom with Misty, free-style with the Jedzia and Copper) to answer a few questions about Dog Island and fictional canines.TheBark.com: How did you get the idea for Dog Island? Don Katnik: So often now places advertised as “dog friendly” are really just “dog tolerant.” It is becoming harder to find places where they are truly welcome. Dog Island was inspired by a real island (pictured in the photo) near us that is one of the few places our dogs can be off-leash. Sadly, there are plans to put a marina there, which will ruin it for the dogs. I wish I could buy it and make it a real Dog Island, but I can’t so I wrote a story about the idea instead. Have dogs shown up in any of your other stories? Yes, usually as characters with roles rather than just props for the humans. In a novel I’m working on, Edge (based on a real-life search and rescue dog) plays a pivotal part in solving a quadruple homicide. One of the first stories I ever wrote was about an elderly man who crashes into a steep, forested ravine. He lingers for three days, then succumbs to his injuries and isn’t found until his canine companion—who refused to leave while his old friend was still alive—goes back up to the road alone. It’s called “Temporary Road” and is based on something that really happened in northeastern Washington. Have you had your fiction published before? Yes, but I fear short fiction is a dying art. What sort of dogs are Jedzia and Copper? Spoiled! Jedzia is a Shepherd-Boxer-something mix. She came from an animal shelter in Washington State. Copper is a Golden Retriever, but a little guy. We got him from a rescue organization in Massachussetts. Do you have a favorite dog character in a novel, story, movie or painting? I love the dog in Andrew Wyeth’s “Master Bedroom” painting (and was even inspired to have a local artist do a knock-off sketch substituting Jedzia on the bed). It’s a pretty fair representation of how she spends much of her time! Who is your favorite writer? Have to go with Stephen King. I love how he captures life’s little truisms, like in The Body: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, did you?” Simple words, but profound in making you recognize one of the biggest differences between being a grown up versus a kid. Have you ever entered a fiction contest before? A few, but they were literary contests more interested in prose than plot. I didn’t do well.
Culture: Readers Write
Winner of The Bark’s 1st Annual Short Story/Fiction Contest
A brindle-furred Pit Bull is one point of a complex, mid-life love triangle in Bim Angst’s contest-winning story “Village Dogs” (The Bark, April/May 2010). In the piece, a man and a woman stutter-step toward one another, in large part, through their feelings about the dog. The result is an authentic and poignant look at how people—often aided by their canine co-pilots—come together. On the eve of her debut in The Bark, Angst, who lives in Saint Clair, Penn., and teaches at Penn State Schuykill, answered a few questions about writing, dogs and writing about dogs.TheBark.com: Where did “Village Dogs” begin—with the relationship or with the dog? Bim Angst: Actually it started with a place and a gesture—a walk along a river with my dog and a friend who pointed something out. An image stuck in my head and felt rich with possibilities. I tend to think visually first. Then I have to work and re-work words to match and then build on what I see in my head. There are many revisions until something feels right, but usually the initial image is clear and constant—as it was for “Village Dogs.” It sounds like the character of Anya Graceen is based on your dog Graciella, has she shown up in other stories?What about your other dogs? Why write about dogs? Grahtzi is a particularly pleasant and expressive dog, and because she’s mostly Pit Bull and yet very sweet-tempered, she attracts attention. It helps that she’s pretty comical too. Grahtzi really does get “petting drunk” and falls over when her butt is scratched. Everybody smiles when she does that! How could I not use that? My other dogs—the two yellow boys currently with me and beloved earlier dogs, too—show up often in my stories. I hope they become characters in their own right, but since most of my fiction is realistic, they remain, I hope, real dogs doing real dog things. I write about dogs because they are so much with me. My senior boy, Beau, has quite literally spent more time with me than any other creature on earth—and that includes my children. The dogs are with me almost every moment I’m not out working or riding my bike. How could I not write about dogs? Dogs are naturally engaging, and they’re such lovely counterpoints to the weaknesses and foibles of human characters. Do you have a favorite dog character in a novel, story, or movie? Rich Bass’ Colter springs to mind pretty quickly. And one of my easy pleasures is looking at the Smiling Dogs pages in The Bark. Who is your favorite writer? My son, Charlie Manis, is the best writer I read frequently. I feel honored when he lets me read his work in progress. He’s a tremendously talented writer, very sensitive to language, gesture, context, nuance. He’s also the hardest working writer I’ve ever met. I’m working very hard in a friendly family competition to beat him to book publication! Have you ever entered a fiction contest before? I’m 54 years old now and have been writing seriously since the age of 15, when I got my first job writing newspaper features (although I wrote radio ad copy before that). Yes, I’ve sent stories to many contests—and poems and essays. Rejection is part of writing; one can’t take it personally or let repeated rejection lead to despair. Send it out, forget it, and keep writing. It’s very rare in a writing career, in a writing life, to have a story as warmly received as “Village Dogs” has been at The Bark.
Q&A with Karsten Heuer
On a sunny June day in 1998, a man and his dog took the first steps on a walk that would, by the time they finished it, cover 2,200 miles through some of North America’s most thinly populated landscape. Following the path of the grizzly, they and their team tested a dream against reality. In Walking the Big Wild, Karsten Heuer and Webster, his Border Collie, shared a grand—and sometimes terrifying—adventure.
Bark: You mention in the book that Webster was your “model for resolve.” Aside from bears, bugs, and burrs, what sorts hazards did he contend with? Did you find that you’d anticipated and prepared for most of them, or did you have to improvise as you traveled?
Karsten Heuer: The rivers in northern British Columbia were tough. No trails meant no bridges, and the water tumbling through the rapids was usually glacial melt. But Webster swam them with great courage. He got tangled up with a porcupine one day (which wasn’t pretty), and his paws got sore during a particularly rough section of sharp limestone (we protected his feet with makeshift booties until the going got softer), but other than that, he was self-sustaining. Oh, except for the time I felt sorry for him shivering in a cold rainstorm (sleet was more like it). I cut a piece of red nylon into a temporary raincoat for him. It worked but he looked ridiculous and he knew it. A sheepish sheepdog. And then sure enough, a few corners later, we ran into a pack of wolves! Talk about having your wild ancestors look down their noses at you. He was pretty embarrassed.
Bark: Had you and Webster done any sort of endurance hiking together before you started your walk to the Yukon?
KH: No, but once you added up all the things his co-owner (whom I’ve always shared him with) and I had put him through, I knew if he hadn’t abandoned me by then, he never would: being tipped out of a canoe and swimming whitewater rapids … strapped to my chest as we rappelled down a 1,500-foot cliff. The list goes on.
Bark: Did this trek affect your relationship with Webster?
KH: Well, 2,200 miles is a long way to travel with companion. We had our trying moments (Webster loved the goose-down sleeping bag and was reluctant to give it up if he got in the tent first). We were very close before leaving, but the trip certainly deepened that bond. We shared some pretty special moments and some pretty scary ones as well—everything from swimming rivers and staving off a charging bear to just drinking in the view from a mountaintop while he lay looking in the same direction with his chin on my knee. And although I probably didn’t show him much he wouldn’t have otherwise seen, he certainly pointed out a lot of things to me. When he froze in that I-see-a-cat crouch, there was always something looking back at us through the trees: a moose, a deer, even a couple of bears.
Bark: Is it possible to make any overall observations about the behavior of a domestic dog (or at least, about a Border Collie) in the wilderness?
KH: I’m always cautious answering these sorts of questions because, as we all know, no two dogs are alike. Having said that, I think it’s extremely important to have a very well-trained dog if you’re thinking of having them off-leash in wild areas. Otherwise they can do a lot of damage (disturbing or even killing ground-nesting birds, for example), or get you into problems (like chasing a bear and then having that bear turn and chase your dog right back to you). When Webster wasn’t on the leash he was always on a heel.
Bark: The encounters with wolves were particularly interesting. At the time, did you have an emotional, or a purely pragmatic, response?
KH: That’s the wonderful thing about meeting wild animals: it’s ALWAYS emotional. We can’t help it; those emotions are hardwired into us from our days of roaming the savannah and interacting with animals every waking moment of every day. It wasn’t that long ago that we were living in caves, chasing after and running from wild animals in great acts of survival. And come to think of it, it wasn’t that long ago that all the Websters of the world branched off from wolves. I’m convinced this is why we love—even need—to have pets. They reintroduce what was such a big part of our behavioral history into our everyday, modern lives.
Bark: As you made your way north, to what degree were you surprised by what you found—literally—on the ground, as opposed to what you saw on maps?
KH: Well, as you know, the intent of the 2,200-mile-long walk was to assess the plausibility of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), which proposes to connect existing reserves along the Rockies with wildlife corridors. I was literally trying to look at the proposal from the perspective of a wolf or grizzly bear or any of the other wide-ranging animals it’s meant to benefit. So I left with questions like: How pristine or developed are these proposed corridors? How many barriers already exist (busy highways, urban development, clearcut areas, open pit mines, etc)? How much restoration would be required?
To be perfectly honest, I was skeptical about what I would find. I expected bad news. But fortunately, by the end, I was more hopeful for the proposed reserve network than when I left. I used fresh grizzly bear sign—their tracks, scat, rub trees and, in some cases the animals themselves—as a measure of the wildness of the areas I was walking through. I assumed if there was recent sign of grizzlies, the area was intact. Well, the walk took 188 days to complete and by the time I tallied up my notes, I realized I’d seen fresh signs of grizz 160 days. That’s 85 percent of the time!
Bark: And how did the trek change your internal landscape (or did it)?
KH: It gave me hope for wildness in this part of North America, and it gave me confidence in myself. There were a lot of doubts at the beginning, and the scope of the trip was overwhelming, but bit by bit, day by day, I covered 2,200 very mountainous miles, hundreds of which without the benefit of trails.
Bark: In the ’70s, one of the iconic aphorisms of the woman’s movement was “the personal is political.” Could it also be appropriate to environmental issues?
KH: I like to think so. Again, this trip proved very empowering on a personal level. And not just in terms of increasing my confidence. By the end I had proved to myself that one person (and his dog) can make a difference. Very few people had heard about Y2Y or the principles behind it before we left. We reached millions of people during the trip—thousands directly via presentations in communities, and the masses through National Geographic, Backpacker Magazine, NBC, ABC, NPR and hundreds of other media outlets during the trip. And if you’ve read the book, you’ll know we stirred up a good dose of opposition from industry interests too!
Bark: Humans seem to have a tendency to either demonize or romanticize what some call “charismatic megafauna” and others call “sexy beasts”—bears, wolves, mountain lions. What kind of impact do you think that has on the way we react to them, and the energy we put into protecting/supporting them and their habitat requirements?
KH: All the animals you list are powerful symbols that remind us we aren’t in control of everything—that we could, hypothetically, be killed and eaten. It’s a humbling sensation to be standing in front of a bear that’s popping its jaws and thrashing the ground and you have no idea what it’s going to do next. You feel helpless. Some people demonize them because of that threat. But I think having that threat in our lives is a good thing. We should celebrate it. It brings humility and balance to a modern society that is pretty devoid of both those qualities.
Bark: In one of your journal entries, you said “fear engages.” Has that sense stayed with you, or have you been back long enough for it to have faded?
KH: Fear does engage. It dusts off the senses that have been buried—that we’ve had to turn off—in our cities, towns and on our billboard-lined highways. We can’t possibly be perceptive anymore—if we absorbed every sight, smell and sound in our ad-induced, white-noise culture, we’d be overwhelmed all the time. So we quickly learn to shut off our wild senses.
I’ve tried to retain that “sharp” frame of mind—call it “wildness” if you want—as much as possible since being back. I do it by making sure I have plenty of quiet time in places where I can just sit and absorb every detail around me. It’s usually somewhere in nature, anything from remote wilderness to an overgrown vacant lot in a city neighborhood. Anywhere you can watch butterflies drift in an afternoon breeze.
Bark: What’s the current status of Y2Y?
KH: The 180 conservation groups, scientists, professors and others that make up the Y2Y network have been busy over the past few years mapping the 1.5-million-square-mile region in three layers: terrestrial, aquatic and avian habitats (land, water and birds). Then they superimposed all three layers, and the areas that came out the “darkest” (where overlap was greatest) became the priorities for conservation for the next 5 years.
Tools such as private land conservation easements, highway crossing structures, road removal and public land designation as wildlife movement/conservation areas are now being employed to make this a reality. Piece by piece, the puzzle is getting put together. I only hope it happens soon enough. There are a lot of human activities that threaten to cut off many of the corridors, and those threats are only intensifying each day we continue down this crazy economic path, whose ideology mimics the cancer cell (infinite growth).
Bark: Y2Y is a very big and “out of the box” vision. Are you hopeful that vast and entrenched bureaucracies of all stripes can work together to do what needs to be done?
KH: One thing that I see time and time again is how inspired people get when they hear about Y2Y. Just think: we can choose to keep all the native mammals in this vast sweep of mountains that were here when Lewis and Clark made their legendary expedition across the US. How many places in the world have that kind of opportunity?
I think when people—no matter their position in a bureaucracy or government—realize that what we’re talking about is keeping what already exists and not restoring a massive area, they get comfortable with the idea. And when they realize it isn’t a huge national park proposal but, instead, a way for wildlife and human communities to coexist into the future, they warm up to it even more. Who doesn’t want wildlife?
The challenge is to embrace that four-letter word we humans love to shy away from: P-L-A-N. Without good planning, we’re going to lose every existing wildlife corridor. Death by a thousand cuts is how it will happen. A highway gets widened. A gas station gets built. A mill opens up and the loggers go into the woods in all directions. I’m not saying we can’t develop. What I’m saying is we need to develop with a roadmap of how we’re going to do it AND keep wildlife. Otherwise we won’t.
For the whole story, read Walking the Big Wild: From Yellowstone to the Yukon on the Grizzly Bear’s Trail by Karsten Heuer, published by The Mountaineers Books, Seattle, WA.
Originally published as “Incredible Journey.”
Extended Q&A with Geralyn Pezanoski, Director & Producer
Katrina was one of the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history. It not only displaced thousands of people, it also left thousands of dogs and cats homeless. Too many to be cared for locally, many of these companion animals were transported across the nation to be fostered—and often, adopted—by others. As time passed and their original guardians tried to reclaim them, the stage was set for emotional confrontations between the people who had been forced to leave their beloved pets behind and the people who had taken them in. Mine records some of these dramatic and often heart-wrenching stories.
Co-founder of Smush Media, Geralyn Pezanoski makes her feature directorial debut with Mine. In the midst of getting ready for the film’s January premiere, the woman behind the camera took time to talk to us about this important new documentary.
Bark: What inspired you to create Mine?
B: Tell us about Nola; did she play a part in your decision to make the film?
B: How did you deal with the emotions this subject evokes?
B: Which film moment do you feel speaks most to its theme?
B: What message would you like viewers to take away from your film?
Mine can be seen in selected theaters, or rented/purchased through iTunes. Find out more at mine-the-movie.blogspot.com and watch a video clip here.
Dog's Life: Humane
Finding fulfillment, saving lives
Attraction is often a mystery to the unaffected. Take Amy Weeden and her daughter Shelby. Earlier this year, they met and fell in love with an 11-year-old, one-eyed, blind and nearly deaf Chihuahua with a back end shriveled up from lack of use. Her name was Estella. She could barely stand, let alone go outside to potty. She had chronic renal failure. She ate little and only when fed by hand. She would not have lasted long in a shelter; she certainly would not have been easy to find a home for. The Weedens, however, were not deterred by Estella's condition. They had three other senior rescue dogs at home—a pair of graying Dachshunds named Otto and Kisses, and El Capitan, another Chihuahua roughly the same age as Estella—and knew what was possible with love and patient care.
It was a one-in-a-million match.
The Weedens had found Estella through a search on Petfinder.com and traveled 100 miles to meet the tan charmer in the Lafayette, Calif., living room of the Goldlist family. As part of a school community-service project, Jay and Maureen and daughters Ashley, Haley and Shayla were fostering Estella and Estella's seven-year-old son Pip for Muttville, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to senior dog rescue.
Unlike their Great Expectations namesakes, our Pip and Estella both found happiness. Nowadays, Estella takes regular two-mile strolls. She is playful and well nourished, and her kidney problem is under control. She snores at night. Pip, for his part, is now a permanent member of the Goldlist household. After he ran away from an adopter twice, presumably to find his way back to the Goldlists, the family decided resistance was futile. And they still foster; their current Muttville charge is another elderly Chihuahua, an amiable gentleman named Clyde.
This Dickensian happy ending would have been implausible if the people involved had subscribed to the prevailing notion about fostering: It is too painful. In this respect, fostering animals is a lot like mountain climbing. Everyone agrees it is a noble pursuit—just not something to consider doing oneself. Surely it takes extraordinary courage and strength of character? Yes, opening your home and your heart to a dog only to part with him again weeks or months later can be emotionally bruising. But the willingness of foster volunteers to love and let go brings about an awful lot of good. Without foster homes, Muttville and thousands of similar organizations could not function.
In fact, some in the rescue world see fostering as the way to a future where shelters are largely redundant. Eileen Bouressa is the executive director of Animal Compassion Network (ACN), an animal welfare organization in western North Carolina that has adopted out over 10,000 animals since its inception in 1997. ACN's rescue activities are built around a network of foster volunteers.
"Fostering keeps animals out of shelters where communicable diseases can be common, especially for stressed pets," Bouressa says. "And housing dogs in private homes makes for happy, well-adjusted animals who make an easier transition into an adoptive home than they would coming straight out of a facility."
ACN has two types of foster homes, Emergency Fosters and Public Partners. The first are ACN volunteers who take in animals pulled from shelters and other desperate situations (death of an owner, abuse) until a new home can be found. The Public Partner Program is for people who need to re-home their own pet or a stray they have rescued so they can avoid surrendering the dog to a shelter. ACN pays for spay/neuter, testing, vaccinations, microchipping, deworming, flea and heartworm prevention, and food and supplies, and offers help to find a new home.
"We have room for 70 dogs in the network," says Bouressa. "Of those, 20 are Emergency Fosters, the rest Public Partners. Though in a crisis situation, we remove the limits from our Emergency Foster Program. We took in 113 cats and dogs after Hurricane Katrina, and they all became Emergency Fosters in addition to the 40 already in the program."
ACN also runs a foster-to-adopt program. Some people, Bouressa explains, badly want a pet, yet find it hard to actually take the plunge. Others lose a beloved dog and feel they are betraying him or her by adopting again so soon. But when given the opportunity to temporarily foster the dog who has caught their eye, almost all jump at the chance. Frequently, the foster turns into an adoption.
Critics say foster-to-adopt programs turn dogs into returnable goods. Bouressa strongly disagrees. "It is a way to save more animals. Adopters get to know the dog and avoid the surprises that often lead to returns. If it isn't the right fit, we simply adopt the dog into another home and the foster-to-adopt volunteer can try another dog. Many continue to foster after they adopt because they see the difference they can make."
The program has also proven to be the answer when one family member wants to adopt and another family member is unsure. This is what happened with Amber and Katie Beane. They had a full house already, to be sure: two daughters (a teenager and a baby), four cats and two dogs. A third dog, Buddy, the youngest of the pack, had recently died. When the family stopped by Pet Harmony, ACN's store for rescued pets, to buy some supplies, bringing home another dog was not on Amber Beane's agenda.
"We saw this shy, sweet, Walker Coonhound mix, around six months old. And Katie said, 'We need another dog!' Amber laughs. "I just rolled my eyes. I thought it was the last thing we needed." But the dog, Miles, did strike her as too shy for his own good. So Amber consented to foster him long enough to give him a chance to come out of his shell, to become more adoptable. It worked. Within days, Miles was prancing around the Beane property as though he owned it, opening doors by himself, cozying up to the cats, and entertaining his dignified elders—13-year-old Samantha, a Border Collie mix, and 11-year-old Bella, a Springer Spaniel/Lab mix. A week into the foster, Amber could no longer remember why she had thought Miles ought to be someone else's dog.
Bouressa understands why people cite heartbreak as a reason not to foster. She has fostered more than 100 animals herself and knows firsthand the feeling that no one could ever provide for the pet as well as she could. "People become foster volunteers out of compassion for abused and abandoned animals. The same compassion, however, often derails the situation. For me, the only way to give up a pet is to meet and interview the adopters. Then—and this is what I urge everyone to do—I think about the next dog I can save. My role is to be a temporary safe haven."
It is this willingness to nurture, however briefly, that saves thousands of dogs like Estella, Pip and Miles—so that they can love and be loved for life. Animal rescue professionals dearly hope more people will embrace that outlook. After all, we do dogs a serious disservice if we love them so much we cannot bear to help save them.
Thinking in pictures provides insight into the world of animals
Temple Grandin’s professional resume is impressive: BS, MS and PhD degrees; dozens of awards and professional papers; author, editor and subject of books and videos; and currently associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Dr. Grandin is also autistic, which she credits for her ability to understand how animals see, think and feel. We talk with her about her riveting book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (co-written with Catherine Johnson, PhD).
Claudia Kawczynska: You liken animals to autistic savants. How are animals similar to autistic people?
Temple Grandin: First of all, autistic people don’t think in language, we think in pictures. During my thinking process I have no words in my head at all, just pictures. So if you say the word “teapot,” I start to see teapots, like a teapot slide show of teapots. Animals don’t think in language; they are visual thinkers too. When you think in pictures, it has to be specific in order to form concepts.
Like when I was a little kid—in order to figure out that a dog was different from a cat, I used to sort animals out by size: horses are big, dogs came up to my waist and cats were smaller. But then our next-door neighbors bought a Dachshund—now, there was a dog the same size as a cat! What I figured out was that all dogs—no matter how big or small—had the same nose. I picked out a visual feature that every single dog has that none of the cats had.
People with autism also have tremendous memory and tend to think in details. You probably have seen the Rain Man kind of memory, where people with autism can memorize big parts of a phone book [and] can memorize maps and do number calculations. So let’s look at some of the things that animals do that would be savant-like—let’s take bird migration. Look at Canada geese or other migrating birds. They just have to be shown the route once by the other birds, and they remember the rest. There is no person that could do that.
CK: You point out another difference: Animals don’t have defense mechanisms, such as denial.
TG: It is the same with autistic people—one of the things that blows my mind about normal humans is [their capacity for] denial. When I see that something isn’t going to work, I say so, but when I do, I am accused of being negative! I also think that animals don’t have an unconscious and thus don’t have defense mechanisms. You never see a dog act as if a dangerous situation is safe.
CK: What does it mean to be detail-oriented rather than a generalist?
TG: Visual thinkers of any species, animal or human, are detailed-oriented. They see everything and they react to everything. The big difference between animals and people is that animals and autistic people don’t see their ideas of things, they see the actual things themselves. We see the details that make up the world—normal people blur all those details together into their general concept of the world.
Animals will have place-specific fears. I knew a dog that was hit by a car, and you would think that he would be afraid of cars after that. No, he was afraid of that one spot in the road where he got hit. Because that is what he was looking at the time he was hit. [It was as though] he saw a picture of that spot and would think, “Unh-unh, I’m not going there.”
CK: Do animals have consciousness?
TG: Of course animals have consciousness. The reason that researchers might not think they do is that they can’t imagine thinking without language. But I remember when I was in college, I read that the caveman could not have invented tools without language. I kept saying that is a bunch of BS, because when I design things, I do not use language. I test run equipment in my mind; I can see it in my mind.
CK: You take a rather firm stance on single-trait breeding, citing “rapist roosters” and “needle-nose Collies” as examples of the unintended consequences of this kind of breeding.
TG: I started out in farm animals, and I saw this a lot in farm animals. I saw horrible problems. Like in the pigs who were bred for rapid growth and leanness—they got pigs that were so nervous they were about to jump out of their skin, pigs who had heart attacks and fell over. I don’t think that they thought that breeding for any single trait would result in such hypercrazy pigs.
With domestic animals, we are the main engine of evolution. We’re constantly changing the body of an animal, but we are also changing them emotionally, too. Physical and emotional traits are linked in unexpected ways. If you overselect for a single trait, you are going to wreck your animal. I don’t care what the trait is.
Purebred dogs are bred mainly for appearance, to meet a standard that is heavily tilted toward physical criteria, not emotional or behavioral. One of the reasons that I think mutts are more emotionally stable is that no one is practicing single-trait selective breeding with them. I think that any time you selectively breed for one trait, eventually you wind up with neurological problems; in dogs, it’s likely to be aggression.
CK: Could you talk a little about both the part of the brain that Dr. Jaak Panksepp calls the SEEKING circuit and oxytocin, the so-called love hormone?
TG: Researchers used to think that the reason drugs like cocaine feel good and are addictive is that they raise dopamine levels, the main neurotransmitter associated with the SEEKING circuit. But researchers see things differently now—instead of dopamine being a pleasure chemical, they now think that what is being stimulated is the SEEKING system in the brain—not any pleasure center.
What feel good and what are stimulated are curiosity/interest/anticipation circuits. Just like when a dog is about to be fed—that dinnertime wag-and-smile, one of the happiest moments of a dog’s day. This part of the brain starts firing when the animal sees a sign that food might be nearby, but stops firing when the animal actually sees the food—this helps the animal search for food, but eating the food is something else! It’s the search—the seeking—itself that feels good.
Oxytocin in females and vasopressin in males are hormones related to estrogen and testosterone. [The levels of] both shoot up in brains during sex, and oxytocin levels rise right before a female gives birth. They aren’t just “sex” hormones, they are “love” hormones, too. Oxytocin is important to all social activities, and is essential to social memory—it’s the hormone that lets animals remember each other; it is also the maternal hormone. I think that dogs have fairly high oxytocin levels—they are highly social animals. A dog’s oxytocin level rises when his owner pets him and, in turn, petting a dog raises a human’s oxytocin levels, too. I don’t think anyone has researched it yet, but I think that dogs make humans into nicer people and better parents.
CK: The battle is still raging over the issue of animals and cognition. What is your position on that?
TG: I like the way Marion Stamp Dawkins [a researcher at Oxford] defines thinking in animals. She says that true cognition happens when an animal solves a problem under novel conditions. While no one has ever seen a dog make a tool, dogs can definitely problem-solve in novel situations. There are so many cases of this in guide dogs and search-and-rescue dogs.
And then there are Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s breakthrough studies with Alex [the African Grey parrot], which should make researchers think twice. She added the defining touch to social modeling theory. Basically, it was how she taught Alex. Two people sat in front of the parrot, and one of them would have a cheese puff and would say to the other, “You want the puff?” and the other would say, “I want the puff.” The first person would then give it to him. They did this right in front of the parrot. Back and forth. So then one day, the parrot said “puff” and was given the puff. He finds out that language relates to the object. Then he sees the action.
The moral of Dr. Pepperberg’s story, and the reason she finally succeeded where others had failed, was that she was the first person to consider that maybe it was the researchers’ fault that birds weren’t learning anything, not the birds’. She went beyond classical behaviorism and operant conditioning; she tried a different branch of behaviorism called social modeling theory. It is the way real people and real animals learn in the real world.
Just think of wolves. How could they learn to hunt if they didn’t observe it? The ultimate goal is to get food, but how to find the food? You have to first learn that it is food. They don’t know that the prey is food. Hunting is a predatory instinct, but you have to learn what you eat, and you learn that from Mother. You learn from observation.
Dog's Life: Humane
Academia and humane interests converge at University of Denver
Frank Ascione, PhD, is the first professor to serve as the new American Humane Endowed Chair and executive director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver (DU). This position is significant because it is a collaboration between a major academic institution and a major animal welfare agency—the American Humane Association—made possible through donor and university support. And it’s rare in that it is not in a veterinary school, a psychology department or a child-development program, but rather, in a graduate school of social work, where PhDs as well as clinicians are trained. During our interview, I was delighted, but not surprised, to learn that Dr. Ascione combines rigorous scientific inquiry with a passion for people and animals, which makes for the best sort of caring: the informed kind. He is a positive, energetic person with a lot of gratitude to go around. One of his first comments during our interview was, “I have high enthusiasm for this change in my career and great appreciation for those who made it possible.” He is sincerely interested in learning about domestic violence, animal cruelty and the links between them so that he can use that information to develop effective prevention and intervention programs. Expect more great work from Professor Ascione and his collaborators in the near future.
Bark: Why did you decide to accept the offer to occupy the new endowed chair?
Frank Ascione: I didn’t want to leave Utah at the time the position first opened, but I spent half a semester at DU and they effectively romanced me. It’s a great place with so much respect for students and for scholarly activity. The university is vibrant and Denver is a fantastic city. The faculty, students and staff at DU were so affirming of my work.
B: What are your primary goals in your new position?
FA: I’m a child psychologist by training, but I am moving to a graduate school of social work. My interests are in animal abuse, child abuse, domestic violence and elder abuse, and those all involve social work. I expect to have a great deal in common with my new colleagues. The potential is there for an amazing amount of collaboration, and my goal is to foster collaboration between those interested in animal welfare and groups working with and studying family violence, child abuse and elders.
B: What initially made you investigate the links between domestic violence, child abuse and animal abuse?
FA: I was developing an assessment instrument for measuring abuse by children to animals or positive interactions with animals. When I began to interview children who abuse animals, about 5 percent in the community reported abusing animals and about 10 to 15 percent of kids with mental health issues reported it, so it was not a common behavior. I decided to look at areas where there was a higher frequency of violence. I interviewed women in domestic violence shelters and found that 54 percent of women in shelters reported that their abusers hurt or killed one or more of their pets. In a control group with no violence in the home, 5 percent of the partners hurt or killed a pet.
B: How do you label yourself professionally? Professor? Author? Social Worker?
FA: I’m a child psychologist, though I’m not a clinician. I’ve never conducted therapy nor am I trained or qualified to do so. I realized mid-career that my profession had ignored the role of animals in the lives of children. I worked on the role of animals in children’s lives, then into issues of who abuses.
B: What ways have you seen academia change in recent years in terms of attitudes towards the practical issues of interest to you?
FA: One of the hopes I’ve had in my work is I want to focus on the kind of research that has some socially valuable component to it. There’s a term, “urgent knowing,” which means that there is a need in society and not enough information about it. For example, there was this idea that people in situations of domestic violence delay leaving because they are afraid to leave their pets behind, but until you put a number on it, information that was needed to deal with it or to pass legislation about it was not available.
B: What countries do you consider role models for the sort of programs you’d like to see established in this country?
FA: Both the UK and Australia are a bit ahead of us with animal welfare programs and respect for the human-animal bond. The UK, which originated these programs, has one national animal protection agency (the RSPCA), so they have a commonality of laws across the whole country. We have 50 different laws.
B: Are you generally encouraged or discouraged with the state of the human-animal bond?
FA: I am encouraged partly because we have programs developing where this is being taken seriously academically and we’re also seeing people seriously evaluating programs in which people are engaged. There are many programs that incorporate interactions with animals, but they are not routinely being evaluated. It is essential that we sift good from bad, and we need studies of what’s working and what’s not so we can focus on the most effective programs.
B: How has the economic recession affected the relationship between people and their pets?
FA: I’m not an economist, but I’m aware of the issues. Foreclosures lead to pet abandonment in increased numbers. Financial trouble means that we tend to see more problems with child abuse and domestic violence. In the aftermath of disasters, we do see an increase in violence.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Interview with Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim on the state of canine nutrition
Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, is one of America’s best-known critics of food safety and nutrition. The author of Food Politics and What to Eat as well as a popular columnist and blogger, she is the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. In 2007, she and her partner, Malden Nesheim, PhD, professor and provost emeritus of Cornell University—both of whom are Bark contributing editors—turned their attention to the pet food industry. The result is Nestle’s book, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, the story of the melamine pet food recalls, and the book they wrote together, Feed Your Pet Right, due out next year. Christie Keith recently spoke with Nestle and Nesheim to find out what they’ve learned about pet food during the last two years, as well as what they see as the relationship between pet and human food safety and nutrition.
BARK: Marion, you’ve frequently said that everyone, whether they have pets or not, should care about pet food because “there is only one food supply.” I think that’s counterintuitive for some people. Could you elaborate?
Marion Nestle: Pets eat the same foods we do—they may eat different parts, but the sources are the same. The pet food recalls were a perfect example of what’s gone wrong with our food system. They made it obvious that food for pets and food for people are inseparable. Taking it a step further, the pet food recalls made the discovery of melamine in Chinese infant formula completely predictable.
BARK: At the time of the recalls, we talked about how few manufacturers (of both pet and human foods) realized that many of their ingredients were coming from a single source, and that many consumers were surprised to find out so many foods were made by the same company (Menu). Did that surprise you, too?
Nestle: We were stunned. We had no idea that a company we had never heard of made 95 brands of pet foods for most of the major companies. And the fact that all those brands—from Ol’ Roy to Iams—were made at one plant? What a revelation. But look how it prepared us for this year’s peanut butter recall, which is the same situation all over again: One company makes an ingredient that goes into thousands of products. The companies making these products have no clue where their peanut butter comes from because they get it from a broker. That’s our food system.
BARK: I was surprised to hear that you’ve come to believe commercial foods are not as bad as you thought they were going to be—that most animals “do fine” on commercial diets. And yet, the American Veterinary Dental Society says 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats show signs of oral disease by the age of three. It’s estimated that something like one in five adult dogs (double that for senior dogs) has arthritis, and there’s a high rate of obesity in dogs and cats. So I wonder if it’s really defensible to say that most dogs in America “do fine.”
Malden Nesheim: One problem is that we don’t have anything to compare to what’s happening now. We found data on the average age of dogs coming to veterinary practices; generally speaking, they are getting older. But what does that mean? Does that mean the dogs are living longer, or that more people are taking animals to veterinarians? We just don’t know.
Nestle: And it’s not for lack of trying. We tried really, really hard to find the kind of statistical information we needed to make a good judgment about trends in pet health, but we couldn’t. We have no idea whether oral disease is getting better or worse and couldn’t even find out whether dogs are living shorter or longer lives now. The data simply don’t exist. And we are dismayed by this.
BARK: So if that’s the case, and we can’t really say with authority that most animals “do fine” on their commercial diet, what advice would you give people trying to decide if the food they’re feeding their dogs is one on which they are thriving?
Nestle: When we say “thrive,” we mean “happy and healthy.” If the animal isn’t thriving on one food or recipe, people should switch to another. If a dog doesn’t like a food, try another one. If a dog develops minor skin or digestive problems, try another food (major problems need veterinary advice along with dietary changes).
BARK: Are the high-end commercial foods—many of which didn’t exist until relatively recently—genuinely superior to lower priced, more mass-marketed products, in objective terms?
Nesheim: We looked for the evidence of such superiority, and of course, couldn’t find much. We were only able to find one published study in which veterinarians compared one commercial diet to another. We’d like to see comparative studies, but who’d fund them? Pet food companies only publish studies that put their products in a good light. All complete-and-balanced products have to meet the same nutritional standards. Only the ingredients vary. Do these make a difference? Maybe, but again, we can’t find the science.
We know dog owners who swear their animals flourish on every kind of diet you can think of, from the cheapest kibble to home-cooked. We think values are at stake here. People have lots of options for feeding their dogs and can choose diets that fit their value systems, lifestyles and pocketbooks. They can do what feels right for them. As long as they are meeting the dog’s nutritional needs—and not underfeeding or overfeeding—the dogs should be okay.
One other thing. We’d like pet food labels to say that the foods were tested in animal feeding studies, as opposed to just meeting the AAFCO profiles. We hear lots of criticisms about feeding studies, that they’re not long enough or don’t use enough animals. But I still feel more comfortable when a food I’m using has been fed to an animal that did okay on it.
Nestle: The testing issue bothered us a lot. Most pet foods aren’t tested on animals to see if they really do meet nutritional needs.
BARK: So, though you say all the foods meet nutritional needs, isn’t it more accurate to say the ones that were tested in feeding trials met the needs of the animals in the feeding trials, according to the parameters of the trials?
Nestle: Yes. The untested pet foods are supposed to have the same nutritional value as the ones actually fed to pets, but we think this is an inferior way of evaluation. We think all complete-and-balanced foods should be tested—we want more testing, not less, and we think the tests should be done under the highest possible standards. In reviewing the literature—how can we put this politely—we were concerned about the quality of a lot of pet food research. We think the scientific standards should be as high as possible. But no government agency funds pet food research; it’s mostly done by pet food companies with a vested interest in the outcome. And pet food companies won’t risk funding studies that might show no difference between one brand and another.
BARK: Do you have ethical concerns about using animals in feeding trials?
Nestle: We worried a lot about this question and consulted several animal ethicists. We were reassured when they all agreed that research is okay to do when it respects the animals. Whenever possible, they’d like feeding studies to be conducted in the dogs’ homes. But the dogs should always be treated well, allowed to move around and played with regularly. They want the studies to be relatively noninvasive and cause no harm. The dogs should be adopted into good homes. Beyond that, the experiments need to be top-quality science, carefully designed and closely monitored. Mal visited one pet food research facility that met these conditions. We assume that was why the company let him see it. Most others wouldn’t let us get near their facilities.
In Feed Your Pet Right, we go into the research issues, we hope entertainingly. We also discuss the nutrition training of veterinarians, which we view as a problem because so much of it is funded by pet-food companies. We think dogs, cats and their owners deserve better.
BARK: Both of you have recommended that pet owners contact pet food manufacturers to get information about how their product is made and what it contains. But as so many of us learned during the recalls, manufacturers don’t always know where each ingredient comes from. People who did call were put on hold, hung up on or given incorrect information—innocently or not—as well as given partial information or “official corporate statements” that didn’t answer their questions. Add to that the fact pet food labels aren’t comprehensible to most people. So how do we make a decision about commercial foods?
Nestle: It’s not easy. But we saw plenty of companies—Castor & Pollux and Natural Balance, for example—going to a lot of trouble to make what they were doing transparent, have their products tested, source their ingredients and post this information on their websites. All pet food companies need to be hearing from pet owners who care about these issues.
BARK: It sounds like you consider consumer contacts as a form of training for the pet food companies rather than something that will result in useful information for the pet owner.
Nestle: Yes. The question is whether you believe what the companies say. What else can you do? No government agency is checking. The FDA is up to its ears in contaminated peanut butter and pistachios, and pet food is way down on its priority list. We need some public uproar. The FDA only does what Congress tells it to. Pet owners need to be in close touch with their congressional representatives.
BARK: Given the high percentage of people who have pets—including, presumably, congressional representatives—it’s interesting that so many people don’t seem to understand what an enormous consumer issue this is.
Nestle: That’s because it’s “just pets.” We hear that all the time when we talk about what we’re writing. Even my friends say, “I haven’t read Pet Food Politics. Why would I read a book about pet food?” or “Why are you wasting your time writing about dogs and cats?” I didn’t think it was a waste of time at all. What affects the pet food supply affects the human food supply, and vice versa. And people are very emotionally involved with their pets. We see this as a big plus.
BARK: And it’s a multibillion-dollar industry.
Nestle: Forty-three billion dollars a year, and pet food itself is $17 billion.
BARK: Can you give our readers a taste of what to expect when Feed Your Pet Right comes out next year?
Nestle: Mostly we tried to satisfy our curiosity. We wanted to know what ancestral wolves and cats ate and how they differed from modern dogs and cats. We wondered what pets ate before commercial pet food existed, so we went back to the earliest written records we could find. When did the pet food industry start? What did it look like in the past and what does it look like now? How is it regulated? What kinds of foods are on the market? How do you read their labels? What are different kinds of diets—commercial, home-cooked, raw, kosher, vegetarian—and how do they work? We also wanted to find out about related issues, like how veterinarians learn about nutrition and how ethicists view feeding experiments on dogs and cats. Our concluding chapter has recommendations for the FDA, manufacturers, veterinarians and pet owners about what they all need to be doing to improve the situation.
BARK: You’re typically very even-handed in your discussion of these issues. How do you think the different stakeholders—pet owners, veterinarians, pet food companies—are going to react to the book?
Nestle: We suspect that what you call our even-handedness will catch us in the middle on lots of issues. Although we ended up believing that dogs can be fed successfully in many different ways, we have plenty of critical things to say about the industry and veterinary nutrition training.
BARK: How so?
Nestle: We think veterinarians need to be taught more about nutrition, and by experts who don’t work for pet food companies. Mal surveyed veterinary schools to find out whether they were worried about the conflicts of interest caused by pet food company involvement. Most weren’t. They should be. The veterinary school at Cornell is covered with posters from pet food companies.
Nesheim: Right. And our students get free pet food from pet food companies.
Nestle: The entire system works just like drug company involvement in medical schools. Pet food companies provide free food and swag to students, write the major nutrition textbooks, and sponsor students and professors. And veterinary practices sell pet food. We think all this creates conflicts of interest that deserve some critical attention.
Plenty of evidence supports the idea that drug companies influence prescription practices. Why would pet food be any different? Veterinarians don’t have to know anything about nutrition because pet foods are “complete and balanced.” All they have to say is “Buy this brand.” That’s why Feed Your Pet Right isn’t so much about what to feed dogs or cats as it is about how to think about how to feed them. It’s a mixture of What to Eat and Food Politics for pets.
Nesheim: We also talk about how the veterinary profession thinks cooking for your pet is the worst thing in the world to do. After the melamine recalls, a veterinary group put out a statement saying that people should be careful about cooking for their own pets, because after all, pet food companies hire PhD nutritionists to do this. [Laughter]
Nestle: We laughed when we read Hills’ book about clinical nutrition for pets. It’s a really good book, but the chapter on pet feeding goes on and on about how it’s too dangerous to cook for pets. But then it gives completely simple, generic recipes for complete-and-balanced diets for dogs and cats. The recipes are so easy that anyone could follow them.
BARK: Would you make food for your pets?
Nestle: Oh, probably not. I hardly ever make food for myself.
Nesheim: I grew up on a farm and we fed our pets from the table. We didn’t buy pet food—we fed our pets pretty much what we ate.
BARK: How’d they do on that kind of diet?
Nesheim: They did just fine. We had very healthy, well-adjusted animals. We talk about this quite a bit in our book. How you decide to feed your pet depends a lot on your own value system. You can accommodate the nutritional needs of your pet in a variety of ways—commercial foods, home cooking, raw foods, or some combination. What you do depends on the amount of time you’re willing to spend, your value system and the kind of a life you want your pets to have. Fortunately, there are lots of good choices.
Copyright © 1997-2016 The Bark, Inc. Dog Is My Co-Pilot® is a registered trademark of The Bark, Inc