Wellness: Healthy Living
My local shelter, the Ulster County SPCA in Kingston, N.Y., is highly regarded and much loved by the community. The vibe at UCSPCA is a good one, and some of the credit for that can go to Liz Wassal, the shelter’s Animal Reiki practitioner and teacher. For those not familiar with it, Reiki is a healing technique based on the principle that the practitioner can channel energy into the patient and activate the natural healing processes of the patient’s body, thus restoring physical and emotional well-being. (I should point out here that that the word “reiki” is a Japanese term that means “universal life force energy.” When capitalized, Reiki refers to the energy healing system founded by Mikao Usui. So, I ask all the English majors and copy editors who are reading this to be prepared for deliberately inconsistent capitalization.)
A pleasant, knowledgeable woman with an MA in psychology and a BFA in classical animation, Wassal—a Reiki Master Teacher—began volunteering at UCSPCA in 2007. Initially, she offered Reiki to the shelter’s animals informally. Even though she was low-key about it, other shelter workers quickly began to notice that an energetic shift had taken place. The animals were calmer and were healing more swiftly from injuries and surgeries. They seemed happier, too.
Eventually, Wassal was approached by board members and asked if she would teach them Reiki. Soon, staff members began requesting Reiki training as well. Currently, most of the department heads—the cat manager, the dog kennel manager, clinicians—are certified Reiki practitioners. Wassal, who is also an ordained priest, animal communicator and a chocolatier, now serves as the shelter’s official Animal Reiki teacher and offers ongoing courses in Animal Reiki to staff and volunteers. Her courses follow the principles established by Kathleen Prasad, founder of the Shelter Animal Reiki Association (SARA).
Lee Harrington: How would you describe Reiki?
Liz Wassal: Reiki is the energy of the universe. We all have it. Reiki is also called ki, chi, prana. These are all synonyms for the same subtle, transcendent spiritual energy.
LH: How do you initiate an Animal Reiki session?
LW: Well, the first thing the Reiki practitioner does before beginning a healing session is to secure consent. Obviously, a human patient would simply sign a consent form and/or give verbal permission, whereas communication with the animal recipient is non-verbal. I’ll either intuit the answer—the consent—or the animal will give clear signs that he’s willing to accept the reiki—sometimes simply by coming toward me or backing away. After securing the animal’s permission, I create a healing space by asking the reiki to flow. Intention leads the energy on. Instantly, the reiki fills the room, a building, a neighborhood or wherever it’s directed. Reiki energy has its own intelligence and knows exactly where to go. The animals also know exactly what they need.
LH: When I’ve received a Reiki healing, it looks as though the practitioner is just sitting there meditating.
LW: In fact, that’s pretty close to what it is. A Reiki session is non-invasive and passive. It’s not hands-on.
LH: Describe a typical Animal Reiki session.
LW: There really isn’t a “typical” Animal Reiki session, because we turn everything over to the animal. The animals are always in charge. They decide how long the session goes, or where they want to be or whether they want to receive the reiki energy at all.
LH: What do you mean by “where they want to be”? Are they confined to a particular area during a Reiki session and asked to stay still?
LW: Again, it’s up to the animals. They get to choose where they want to be within the perimeters of the kennel or treatment room. I often I sit with the dogs in their kennels or cages (with permission, of course). The dog is free to move around the room or, if he so chooses, can cuddle on my lap and place his head in my hands. Or he may position himself 10 feet away from me, or—if he’s not comfortable with me being so close—he can be in another room.
LH: The Reiki practitioner does not need to be able to reach the dog, or even see him, to offer the healing?
LW: Nope. The reiki energy knows where to go and what to do. In my private practice, I often do healings from a distance. At the shelter, if I’m working with a particularly fearful or agitated dog, I’ll stand on the other side of the kennel wall where he can’t see me in order not to trigger anything by being visibly present.
LH: What are some of the benefits of Reiki for animals?
LW: The benefits of Reiki and other energy healing systems are numerous. Reiki can help relieve pain and reduce stress and stress symptoms such as sleeplessness, restlessness, pacing, barking, panting and so forth. Reiki is a supportive system. It’s an energy that helps keep things balanced.
LH: And having a balanced system means that the body is better able to heal itself.
LW: Yes. We’ll often do Reiki on the animals right before, during or after procedures to help facilitate the natural healing process. Or, if an animal is crashing from stress or needs to be calm before a procedure, we’ll offer Reiki off the cuff.
LH: Can you give an example of a Reiki healing session having an immediate impact on a dog?
LW: I remember working with one of the Hurricane Sandy dogs who was brought to us from a shelter in, I think, Long Island. This young dog was so utterly terrified in the isolation area that he was urinating all over himself. He was too stressed to stay still–pacing, barking, shaking. But after 10 minutes of Reiki, he simply lay down. He accepted the energy despite his stress. A few minutes later, he fell asleep, even though other animals near him were barking.
LH: That’s impressive, especially given how challenging it can be to relax or sleep in such loud and high-stress environments.
LW: Indeed. These dogs have to put up with a lot. But Reiki does help them sleep. I’ve seen them stop barking quite suddenly and slump into sleep, their noses pressed against the kennel doors.
LH: Have you ever had a dog decline a Reiki session? And if so, did you know why?
LW: Yes. It’s hard to say why. It may be that they are very agitated and reactive and simply cannot settle down if I’m visible to them. But I always respect the animal’s wishes. If a dog is not interested in Reiki that day, no problem. I will not use treats to try to persuade an animal to accept [a healing session]. Nor will I use a dominant approach if the animal is unable or unwilling.
LH: It sounds like a nice way to establish trust.
LW: These shelter animals are in situations in which very little is under their control. So I don’t push them. Often the animals will remember this—remember me as the person who listened to them. Thus, the animals will be more willing to accept my presence, and Reiki, the next time we meet.
LH: You are also an animal communicator. Does that serve your Reiki practice, or vice versa?
LW: Animal communication is not part of Reiki, but it is an overlapping discipline that is helpful. For example, as I said earlier, it’s easy for me to intuit whether an animal is willing to accept Reiki or not.
LH: Are you officially on board at UCSPCA as an animal communicator, or is that under the radar?
LW: I’m not official, but people know I have this skill. So staff people often ask me behavioral questions, such as “What does this dog need?” Or, “Why’s he so stressed?” Or, “What can we do for him?”
LH: I could tell when I first stepped into UCSPCA that the animals knew they had a voice and were being listened to. I didn’t have the words for it at the time—it was just something I sensed. A vibration of sanity and balance and hope.
LW: The rescue community is in dire need of this type of attention. Animals come to shelters as mysteries. Unless we are able to open ourselves up to their needs, we won’t be able to truly communicate with them. And if we can’t communicate with them properly, we can’t help them to our fullest extent.
LH: When you communicate with dogs, is there a typical question you get? I know they’re all individuals with individual needs, but—
LW: The most common question I get from dogs is, Why is no one listening to me? Animals are frustrated because no one gets it, no one is speaking to them and no one is hearing them. Also, a lot of the shelter dogs ask, What did I do wrong? Why am I here?
LH: Poor sweeties. But I’m thankful they have people like you to help them. Do you offer them advice, so to speak?
LW: Well, I do whisper to the animals: Remember who you are. Don’t forget, you are more than this. A lot of religions and spiritual traditions offer similar reminders, along the lines of “Remember the light you carry.” Animals, because they are more evolved than we are spiritually, don’t usually need that reminder the same way humans do. But in such an extreme environment [at a shelter], what’s the harm in reminding them of the part of them that travels forever and will always be at peace inside of them? Remember who you are.
LH: Getting back to Animal Reiki—how hard is it to learn and to practice?
LW: It’s very easy, simple and straightforward. You can learn the basics of Reiki in a short time, and you can walk out of your Reiki 1 class empowered to offer Reiki to anyone in your circle of family, friends and most definitely your pets. My teacher, Kathleen Prasad, who founded SARA, is extraordinary. Her mission is to enable as many teachers as possible to set up Reiki programs at their own shelters, and it’s catching on, one volunteer, one shelter at a time.
LH: The more people who practice Reiki at shelters, the more uplifting those shelters will become, and more animals will be helped and adopted. UCSPCA is lucky to have you.
LW: The staff at UCSPCA is extraordinary. That shelter attracts such devoted, conscientious and open-minded people. Thank goodness the animals are in such good hands. These people are the steadiest presences in the animals’ lives while they’re with us. We’re all lucky.
Author Lee Harrington used to avoid visiting her local animal shelter because she feared the experience would be depressing, and because her own dog kept her plenty busy. But when the loss of her beloved dog led her to the place she feared most, she discovered that not only was the animal shelter not depressing, it was absolutely uplifting. Find out why, and how, in this interview by the author of popular Bark columns “Rex and the City” and “The Chloe Chronicles.”
Dog's Life: Humane
Creating community in neighborhood parks
Successful dog trainers know that a little showmanship engages students, but Jeff Jenkins may be the only one whose resumé boasts being a Ringling Brothers clown. This experience no doubt explains his ability to effortlessly turn the occasional training fail into an entertaining how-to that brings together people of all ages and backgrounds to laugh and learn.
When he isn’t teaching free Pit Bull training classes in underprivileged Chicago neighborhoods, Jenkins inspires audiences as co-founder and ringmaster of Midnight Circus in the Parks, whose mission is to create community, raise funds and rebuild parks. In 2016, it celebrated 10 years of “bringing circus to the people.”
Two of its biggest stars are Jenkins’ own rescue Pit Bulls, Junebug and Rosie Rae. They literally jump through hoops, entertaining and educating Chicago communities under the “Little Big Top.” Together with his wife, MC co-founder and performer Julie Greenberg, Jenkins and a talented cast that also includes aerialists, contortionists, clowns and musicians have raised more than $850,000 for local park improvements.
“At every show, something surprises me,” says Jenkins. “The challenging thing about being in the tent is that the audience is right there, just six inches away. When a kid in the front row is chomping on popcorn and spills some in the ring, on more than one occasion my dog jumped through the hoop and got a piece of popcorn!”
Jenkins first met Junebug when he was teaching obedience classes as part of HSUS’s “End Dogfighting” campaign. A young boy brought his Pit Bull puppy to class in Englewood, a struggling neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. It was clear that despite the boy’s love for her, she was not being well treated. Jenkins offered to provide the dog with a home in exchange for the boy becoming his class training assistant.
When Midnight Circus performed in Englewood for the first time in 2014, it was an extraordinary homecoming for the little tan-and-white Bully. She showed Englewood residents that their dogs could be well trained and well socialized like her. Jenkins observed that if kids see a polite dog in person at their local park, it makes a stronger impression than seeing one on TV or YouTube.
The dogs perform for crowds of all sizes, some as large as 20,000 during Chicago Bulls half-time shows. One would assume that the dogs would be most distracted by the huge crowds, but Jenkins says that smaller groups found in school classrooms, youth correctional facilities and the Midnight Circus prove more challenging.
On one occasion, a fellow dog trainer and family friend proved to be the distraction to Lola, their first circus dog. “We started the routine when I see her start to air scent, ‘I know that smell, that’s Jim!’ Lola scans the audience, locks in, then jumps over three rows of people to get in his lap! He catches her, she’s licking him and licking him, and the audience is totally losing it!”
Jenkins also recalls another more shocking performance incident, one that involved a large group of children. They were having a great time … until the Pit Bulls came out. “Thirty kids were whooping and hollering, and then literally ran out of the tent.” He says it’s not unusual for a few children to be scared; the dogs they know are rarely trained or socialized. But he had never seen so many frightened children. “It was a teaching moment. I repeated the tricks, took my time without any pressure. After the show, I found some of those kids, told them, ‘She’s really friendly, but she’ll slobber when you give her a treat.’ That made them laugh.”
The humor in the dogs’ routine is powerfully persuasive for people who negatively stereotype Pit Bulls. Jenkins will pretend to chase a naughty dog as she runs along the perimeter of the ring. A favorite trick involves the dog jumping through increasingly smaller hoops, which she somehow squeezes through every time. He also gets the crowd excited when they jump rope together.
Unlike Junebug, Rosie Rae, whom Jenkins and his family adopted from Chicago Animal Care and Control, wasn’t always so keen on trick training. (They had visited the facility just to “take a look,” Jenkins says.)
“One hula hoop was okay. I brought the rope out, started jumping and Rosie took off. I had my work cut out for me. I had to go really slow. I knew if I pushed too hard, she’d do it in training, but not at a show. The key is having fun, having the time of their life.”
After working for Ringling Brothers for many years, Jenkins’ jump to HSUS—which had filed repeated lawsuits against the company—caused some conflict among a few members of his big-top circus family. Jenkins, however, found he was straddling two worlds that weren’t as far apart in their goals as each might think.
“Whether you work in a circus or in animal welfare,” he reflects, “both are conduits to community, reaching people to inspire and educate. Animals are an important way to reach out to those with different opinions, different cultures. We reach out to folks who don’t have resources and opportunities. If you help the people, you help the dogs.”
The Midnight Circus will be performing in various Chicago-area parks through mid-October. See the schedule and buy tickets online.
Dog's Life: Humane
These greyhounds get a ticket home.
School’s out for the year, but for the dogs in the all-volunteer Prison Greyhounds foster program, classes are still in session. At the Putnamville Correctional Facility near Greencastle, Ind., two-man inmate handler teams work with retired racing Greyhounds to prepare them for life on the outside.
Specially selected inmates are coached by Prison Greyhounds volunteers; once trained, the men teach the dogs house manners, how to walk on a leash and basic commands. After the dogs are adopted, Prison Greyhounds stays in touch, working with the adopters to ensure a smooth transition, and will rehome a dog in the event a placement doesn’t go as planned.
Inmates selected for this work are nonviolent offenders who, in the process of developing the dogs’ social skills, learn to work as part of a team and be responsible for the success of their canine students. Like the dogs, the men benefit from the experience, as does the larger inmate population.
For example, take Thor, track name, LK’s Hemsworth. The 85-pound tuxedo boy is three years old and described as “confident and friendly.” For Thor and all the dogs it takes in, Prison Greyhounds underwrites the cost of supplies— food, bedding, leashes—as well as vet care, and finds families for the dogs after they graduate from the program. It also provides non-institutional foster homes for dogs who have been retired as a result of racetrack injuries—most commonly, broken legs—and encourages the adoption of dogs with these “repaired fractures.”
Prison Greyhounds’ dogs come from Daytona Beach Kennel Club racetrack in Florida via the nonprofit Greyhound Pet Adoptions of Daytona Beach (GPA Daytona), which is responsible for the full cost of transporting the dogs to non-racing states. This long-distance delivery of Greyhounds from Florida to a better life is pricey: shipping costs for a full load of 28 dogs is $2,100, or $75 per dog. To offset it, Prison Greyhounds has joined GPA Daytona in a campaign they call “A Ticket Home.” Donations are tax-deductible and help dogs on their journey to better lives as someone’s companion.
Prison Greyhounds, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is funded entirely by donations; no taxpayer money is involved and the program is provided free to the Putnamville Correctional Facility. See available dogs and make a contribution to the organization and to A Ticket Home at prisongreyhounds.org.
Dog's Life: Humane
Six Golden Rules for a Successful Rescue Start-up
It often begins with a whispered, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had our own rescue?” At least, that’s how it began for us.
We were a handful of volunteers at a high-kill shelter. Like so many volunteers at so many shelters across the country, we rejoiced when dogs got adopted and were flattened when they were euthanized for no apparent reason. We knew there had to be a better way. But could we figure out what it was? One day, we decided it was worth a try, and took the plunge.
That was in 2014. It began with a few people with a shared idea who sat around a table and talked about it for more than four hours. It wasn’t especially glamorous, but it was exciting and empowering and, at times, contentious. Get a group of people in a room discussing a topic as passionate and based on what my friends and I learned by establishing and running DogsHome rescue three years ago, here are our six Golden Rules for starting your own rescue.
Golden Rule #1: Decide how you want to be different.
You want to save dogs. The good news: so do the shelters and rescues in your area. The bad news: so do the shelters and rescues in your area. Of course, it’s not really bad news, but it does make it harder for the new kid on the block (that’s you) to stand out. So you have to ask yourself what you’re going to do that’s different.
For example, you might decide to focus on rescuing senior dogs, dogs with medical issues or a particular breed. At our rescue, we knew that above all, we wanted to make sure every decision we made answered one question: Is this in the dog’s best interest? If it is, we do it. If it isn’t, we don’t. In many ways, that’s made our lives both simple (we always know what course of action to take) and difficult (the best course of action often requires much more time and energy). But we stand by it. However, this isn’t just about you.
Golden Rule #2: Ask your community how they want you to be different.
You’re going to need support, both helping hands and dollars, so make sure that when you decide the ways in which you’re going to be different, there will be something that resonates with your potential supporters.
In our case (and I can’t recommend this enough), we debuted our plan at a gathering at the home of one of our board members. We told everyone we invited to come with their ideas because we wanted to hear what they wanted from a rescue. To a person, everyone wanted better customer service. When they call or email, they want someone to get back to them. When they adopt or foster a dog, they don’t want to feel as though they’ve fallen into a black hole. They said they needed a place to turn with questions, problems and concerns.
We put this directly into our mission statement: we provide our dogs with lifetime support. In other words, we’re always there for our fosters and adopters. And while it means we sometimes get phone calls at 6 am or midnight, we’ve lived up to that!
Golden Rule #3: Think with your head, not your heart.
This is a tough one. How do you put logic ahead of compassion when it comes to saving lives? I can only tell you that it’s important to keep your heart in check or you’ll quickly find yourselves overwhelmed, both functionally and financially.
You can’t help a dog if you don’t have the resources to help him. And I know (oh, I know!) there is nothing more heartbreaking and frustrating than realizing you can’t take a dog because … you just can’t. You don’t have a foster home available for him, you don’t have the money to provide for his expensive vet care or you simply won’t be able to give the dog quality of life. Set up yourself and the dogs for success. Get your proverbial ducks in a row before going forward.
Golden Rule #4: Be prepared.
“Getting your ducks in a row” means taking care of the boring stuff, like liability insurance and nonprofit certification, should you go that route. It means finding good, committed fosters (assuming you don’t have a shelter facility available) so that when you want to rescue a dog, there’s a place ready and waiting for him. It also means having funds available for dogs who come to you with urgent medical needs.
Involve people who are experienced in different areas. Find someone who has expertise in fundraising, another who’s good at publicity, someone who can evaluate and possibly train your dogs. And it never hurts to have an attorney on call.
At DogsHome, two of us decided to get our professional training certifications, and we also each enrolled in year-long online programs we knew would help us with the running of the organization. I got my certificate in lifesaving-centered animal shelter management, and the other team member got a certificate in nonprofit management.
Golden Rule #5: Find people who are committed.
It will be impossible to get your rescue off the ground without good, highly committed, like-minded people. This includes everyone from board members to volunteers who put up flyers around town. But nowhere is it more essential than with those who foster. Unless you have a facility available to you, you’re going to have to rely on fosters to provide homes for your dogs. However, not all fosters are created equal. Some come with experience, others don’t. Some are home most of the time, others aren’t. Some can physically handle strong dogs … well, you get the idea.
Keep in mind that even fosters who come with the best of resumés may have only shared their home with dogs that operated on autopilot. What if their new foster dog is suddenly guarding his food bowl or lunging in a not-so-friendly way toward the neighbor’s dog?
Let’s start at the beginning. First, you have to find fosters, and that’s no easy task. I’ve often said if someone offered DogsHome $10,000 or three new foster homes, I wouldn’t even have to think about it. Foster homes win, hands down. To attract fosters, you need to get out in the community and beyond. Our info table loaded with foster brochures makes the rounds pretty much every weekend at pet supply stores, farmers’ markets and fairs. We use social media to let everyone know we need fosters, and we’ve held open houses aimed at attracting new fosters. Remember to let your fosters do the talking. No one can explain the rewards of saving dogs lives by providing them with a home better than someone who’s actually doing it.
Let’s go back to the foster with the dog who’s guarding his food bowl. This is where Golden Rule #4 comes into play. Make sure you have access to a trainer or behaviorist. They’ll need to work with the dog, but more importantly, they’ll need to work with the foster so that person can work with the dog. Whether this foster stays with your rescue (or even sticks with the dog until he’s adopted) may depend a lot on how supportive, tactful and patient you are in working through this. You can count on them making mistakes and getting frustrated. Just take a breath and be there for them. And yes, that may mean you’ll be getting texts at all hours of the day and night.
Bottom line: Take your time finding good fosters. Put together a thorough foster application, talk to them at length on the phone and visit them in their home. Trust your gut about how committed they are, because the last thing you need is a call in the middle of the night with a demand to “Get this dog out of here, now!”
Golden Rule #6: Keep your eraser handy.
When you first start out, your team will have a lot of ideas about how your rescue is going to function. Putting ideas in writing is a great way to get started, but once you get into the day-to-day, you’ll probably find that some of them don’t work, aren’t relevant or just aren’t what you want to do anymore.
When we first created DogsHome, we all agreed that we wanted to raise enough funds to eventually buy or rent a facility. This way, we reasoned, we’d be able to help a greater number of dogs. But as we got into the daily, hands-on operation of saving dogs, we realized that, with all the personal attention and TLC they got in their foster homes, our dogs were thriving in a way they probably wouldn’t in a facility. I mean, when it comes to knowing a dog, does anything really beat letting that dog sleep on the bed with you?
Having a dog live in a home provides us with valuable information for potential adopters, things it would be impossible to know if the dog lived in a shelter environment. Does he chew the furniture? Suffer anxiety when left alone? Greet visitors nicely? Guard his food? Bark excessively? Get along with the cat? And, if we have dogs living in a facility, how will we make sure they’re getting enough exercise, socialization and stimulation, let alone food and bathroom breaks? Then there’s the high cost of buying or renting a building, money we could be spending on veterinary care if we didn’t have the overhead of a physical structure.
So, our original goal of getting a facility has gradually faded. Finding fosters is hard work, to say the least, and no, we can’t save as many dogs as we might if we had a building. But the dogs we’re rescuing get quality of life and we’re able to meet their veterinary needs (our biggest expense) without worrying about going in the red.
The Big Surprise
I had a pretty good idea about what was required to build and run a nonprofit rescue organization from the ground up. I knew there would be a lot of scrambling, frantic phone calls, homing and re-homing and possibly re-homing dogs (yes, it happens). I knew there would be veterinary emergencies (who knew a dog could/would find his 20-pound bag of dog food and eat all of it when left alone for the first time?). I knew I’d evaluate dogs based on what I was seeing at the moment, only to have them present entirely different behaviors once they’re in a home. I knew running a rescue would frequently put me on mental, physical and emotional overload. I knew there would be days and nights when I’d cringe when my phone rang because I couldn’t handle any more bad news. I was prepared for all that.
What I wasn’t prepared for was that the majority of the time I devote to DogsHome is actually spent running the organization rather than working with dogs or even doing anything dog-related. Among those non-dog tasks: all the written communication (daily Facebook posts, twice-monthly newsletters, brochures, flyers, ads, promotions, signs, appeal letters); licenses, insurance policies and permits; creating a website; arranging adoption events; running board meetings; fundraising; designing and ordering t-shirts and car magnets. And the list goes on.
In the midst of all that administrative busy-ness, there are those actual moments when you race to a shelter to save a dog and you’re able to take him on that glorious freedom ride to his new life. Knowing everything I know now, would I decide to create and run a rescue all over again?
In a heartbeat.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Amazing activists who are fighting to save Greyhounds worldwide.
Set against Ireland’s green and rocky beauty and its harsh economic realities, The Dogs of Avalon is the story of a determined group of women who fight for the well being of ex-racing Greyhounds. Marion Fitzgibbon helped to found the County Galway sanctuary she named Avalon, is a model of compassion in action, and author Laura Schenone journeyed to Ireland to learn more about her work and what motivates her to do it.
The next day, Marion picked me up in the rain. On the way out of town, as we sat at a traffic light, I saw a monstrosity by the side of the road, an ugly conglomeration of cement and steel which was evidently a huge construction project abandoned before it was even halfway built. I asked Marion about it.
“Isn’t it terrible? It was going to be a shopping mall, but they ran out of money.”
It felt unnerving to look in and see the unfinished floors and concrete walls, steel beams reaching up to nowhere, as though the workers had dropped their tools and fled due to some catastrophe. In fact, this is exactly what happened, though instead of the volcanic ash of Pompeii or the huge waves of a typhoon, it was an economic disaster. This was just one of many incomplete real estate projects left behind from the boom years of the Celtic Tiger. With hundreds of years of poverty behind them, the Irish had been rich oh so briefly—and now they were poor again.
It receded behind us as Marion continued north. In Ireland, it never takes long to get from city to countryside, and soon we were surrounded by green, leafy trees on a road that ran alongside the Shannon, the longest river in Ireland.
After more than an hour, we turned west and crossed into County Galway. That’s when the terrain changed, as though we’d entered another dimension. The bright green landscape was gone, and suddenly the car was climbing a rugged small hill that led to an open plain of brown untilled fields on one side and a bog on the other. The sky hung low and grey, and the vista was gloomy yet beautiful, with brown moor grass and rushes dotted with yellow wildflowers and heather.
In the distance, the hills rose up into the Slieve Aughty Mountains. Patches of dark earth lay in small heaps of broken rectangles left behind by local turf cutters. I remarked on the untillable soil and Marion said, “To hell or Connacht,” with an ironic laugh. We were in the rocky, harsh part of Ireland’s west, the place to which Cromwell banished the Catholics after he stole the fertile land in the 1600s and gave it to English Protestants.
“I remember when Beverly and I first came here and found this land,” Marion said, changing the subject. “It really shook my foundations when she left. I thought we’d be saving dogs together until we dropped.”
We turned down a dirt road that led to a large wrought-iron gate flanked by a wall of round, smooth stones, beautifully placed by hand.
A sign hung in front, bearing the word “Avalon” inscribed in Celtic-style letters.
“Whenever I come here, I feel happy because I know Avalon will be here after I am gone. Kilfinane, I cannot be sure. Maybe they’ll turn it all into condos someday after I’m dead. Or maybe they will knock it down. I don’t know. But Avalon will always be here.”
Marion had been one of Avalon’s directors from the start. And though she felt responsible for helping bring Avalon into existence, it was very clear that Avalon was Johanna Wothke’s project. It was part of Pro Animale. Marion didn’t have to tell me what she was thinking: How could it be that she and Johanna had both been doing this for thirty years, and now Johanna had more than thirty sanctuaries while Marion couldn’t even complete one?
We drove up the road, passing through a stand of trees, and then beyond to open meadows and rolling fields for grazing and running. We had arrived at an animal heaven. The long necks of horses came into view, bent over to graze. Sheep stood in distant, misty fields. The most dominant presence was of Greyhounds, dozens of them, barking aggressively. In their paddocks, they came leaping toward us and jumped up, forepaws to the fences, pink bellies and fangs showing, ears up, barking so forcefully that I felt afraid and checked the height of the fence.
The entry road led to the main building, covered in climbing roses and vines. Inside, every wall was hung with art—paintings, woodcuts, and sketches of animals. The floors gleamed with stone tile.
There were a few humans here, mostly Polish men, walking horses between fields. An Irishwoman named Noreen was in charge. She’d studied animal science and spent her life on farms before coming here. She sat us down at the kitchen table and made tea. She and Marion began to talk about Johanna’s high standards, how everything had to be just so.
In 1996, a year after Johanna Wothke, Rosie, and Marion first met about their Greyhound adventure, Wothke invited Marion to Germany to see some of her sanctuaries. Marion and Johanna were similar in age and had started their animal work at around the same time, by bringing dogs into their homes.
On that trip, Marion learned that Johanna had started with no great financial means—she’d been a schoolteacher. Early on, she’d had the idea to write a newsletter—first, for her friends and acquaintances —to let people know about her work, and also to appeal for donations. She continued to write these newsletters a few times a year, and her subscribers and supporters grew. In time, some donors left bequests to Pro Animale, which allowed her to build several sanctuaries in Germany. When the Soviet bloc fell, she bought cheap land in Poland and, later, in Russia, Austria, and Turkey. She kept a notebook for each sanctuary and spoke several languages, which helped. She ran these sanctuaries down to the last Deutschmark. Each one was designed the same way, with art on the walls, gardens and tiled floors. She was not a social being, but a workaholic. From what Marion observed, she slept only four hours a night.
They drove across Austria and down into Italy. Johanna had just acquired about ten acres of prime land in Assisi. At sunset, they reached a secluded valley. There was a broken-down mill and an orchard. A stream ran through the middle of the property, and at the center stood a farmhouse with thick walls and Gothic windows with deep ledges where you could sit and look out at the green valley. To Marion it was all incredible.
Johanna was about to open yet another sanctuary right there in the shadow of St. Francis, on this spectacular piece of land. She had raised her money by writing stories about the suffering of animals. People had responded. Germany was a wealthy country. Marion pushed away any feelings of envy.
The Assisi property came with a flock of sheep, which were still in their winter coats. While she was there, neighbors arrived with shears and got to work. They also brought a big feast and set out tables and napkins. Everyone sat under the stars, with lanterns hung from the trees. The magical experience imprinted on Marion an entirely new vision of what was possible.
At Avalon, the dogs lived in small social groups, and had large grassy fields to run in, contained by eight-foot-tall fences because there would always be those extra-talented Greyhounds who could jump a six-foot fence. Inside the main building, each pack had its own large room, much like a den. Wothke passionately opposed putting any dog alone in a cage or a pen.
I was peering into one of those rooms now. It seemed like a revolutionary design. Rather than four walls and a floor, the layout was a system of steppedup ledges wrapped around the room, except that each ledge was three or four feet deep and covered in earth-colored tile. If you stood in the middle of the floor, you were encircled by dogs, each in its own soft bedding on the ledges stacked halfway up the walls. Above the ledges, the walls were painted a soft yellow, and a hand-stenciled frieze of Greyhounds circled the room near the ceiling. It was more like a home than a dog kennel.
I stepped inside with Noreen as my escort. She was a strong-boned woman of middle age who inspired confidence, and yet, when the door closed the behind me, a wave of fear rose in my chest. Noreen stood in the corner and watched.
“I have to be very careful about introducing any new dog to a pack,” she said. “If one attacks another, then they all will. And they’ll kill a dog very quickly, you know.”
Six dogs circled round and began jumping on me. One managed to put its paws on my shoulders. The others nearly knocked me off my feet. They were exuberantly curious about me, sniffing my body and licking my hands. There was a wildness to them. They had never been tamed and had astonishing strength. As a pack, they were unified and powerful—and slightly terrifying. I sat down on a ledge, thinking it might calm them down, but this only gave them more access. Noses in my ears. A mouth around my hand. Tongues licking my cheeks, noses sniffing. One took my pocketbook and carried it to its bed. Across the room, three dogs remained in their spaces on the ledge—not interested. But the six around me could not have been more intrigued. My heart pounded fast.
Shortly after I came home from Ireland, I had a dream that Lily got out of the house and ran away. The last time I’d seen her was at a neighbor’s maple tree, and from there she’d vanished. I kept returning to that tree, looking for her, but she was never there. When I finally realized that she was gone and not coming back, I was overcome with the most excruciating grief—the kind of grief you live in fear of.
It was bottomless.
The next day, I was still rattled and felt a shadow over my brain. I told a friend about the dream.
“You do realize that you were dreaming about Gabriel,” she said. “Don’t you?”
Excerpt from The Dogs of Avalon: The Race to Save Animals in Peril by Laura Schenone. Copyright © 2017 by Laura Schenone. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Dog's Life: Travel
A look inside Sunrise Springs Spa Resort’s Puppy Enrichment Center.
According to philosopher Bernard Williams, “There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.” Imagine having four or five of them jockeying for attention, slipping and sliding as they try to gain favor. “Pet me!” “Give me treats!” “Play with me!”
But these young and slightly clumsy little chocolate, black and yellow English Labs aren’t here at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort’s Puppy Enrichment Center just to get their licks in. They’re here being trained to be service dogs for people with mobility impairments; traumatic brain injuries; combat injuries; autism spectrum, seizure, and emotional and anxiety disorders; developmental disabilities; and diabetes.
As part of their training, the dogs are taught to be patient as well as comfortable with being handled and spoken to by many different people in a variety of environments. When they’re older and ready to work, they will truly make a difference in their partners’ lives, helping them become more independent, self-reliant and confident.
This tranquil northern New Mexico resort is able to offer its guests opportunities to interact with the adorable Labs as part of its collaboration with Assistance Dogs of the West (ADW). Founded in 1995 in Santa Fe, ADW now has the largest assistance dog studenttraining program in the world.
The facility at Sunrise Springs is the brainchild of ADW’s founder, Jill Felice, and Sunrise’s Andy Scott. The two longtime friends decided that guests could benefit from contact with these healthy, welltempered dogs and observing their development and training firsthand. The puppies add another level to the spa experience, as do the Silkie chickens, also on the premises and available for guest interaction; the chickens are known for their calm temperament and fluff, which adds an additional layer of relaxation to this wellness oasis. (Marie Claire magazineis calls Sunrise Springs “the perfect escape for the animal lover.”)
The puppies are born at the resort, and staff trainers—professionals, student trainers ranging in age from eight to 18, and veterans with ADW’s Warrior Canine Connection—prepare the dogs to be mission-ready when they’re placed with their human partners. They teach the dogs 90 commands, including how to open doors; climb stairs one at a time; and “under,” which means to put their bellies on the ground under a chair or table when their person sits.
The dogs are also taught to step over Styrofoam tubes to learn agility, fetch rubber balls from a baby pool to learn retrieval skills and even to use a ramp. The trainers take them into public places to further refine the commands. All this helps the puppies become better problem solvers, smarter about handling the critical situations in which their future partners will require assistance.
The puppies’ spacious pen is set up in a large room, and guests are encouraged to interact with the dogs during visiting hours, known at the resort as Open Puppy Studio. In addition, there’s an adjacent playroom well stocked with toys, and a large pen out back. The puppies and their trainers are also free to roam the resort’s many acres of gardens, paths, walking trails and undeveloped land.
Guests are asked to remove their shoes and wash their hands before entering the center. Once they’re inside, Britte Holman, who runs the center and is the first supervisor of this new program, encourages them to engage with the puppies, and answers any questions they might have. She also reminds them that if they wave a ball at a puppy, they must toss it, because the dogs need to know how to follow through. When it comes to assistance dogs, this is especially critical, since when they’re on the job, their people will be relying on them to respond promptly and accurately to commands. This type of training is extremely demanding, as errors can have serious consequences for both dog and person.
Clickers are used to train the puppies, and the reward after a click is food. Other rewards include toys, pats and verbal praise. The clickers are also used to shape and reinforce critical behaviors. The trainers do not use the word “no,” and choke chain collars are never employed.
The dogs help to choose their human partners and are placed with them at two years of age. Some of ADW’s dogs are with their people for life; others work in facilities, such as children’s advocacy centers or with district attorney’s offices, spending their lives with their handlers in homes carefully screened by the organization before placement.
Like all of ADW’s training programs, the focus at the Puppy Enrichment Center is on the dogs’ mental, physical and emotional well being, all of which are important to the eventual heartfelt relationships they will forge with their people. They are truly four-legged solutions to human challenges. Come see for yourself.
On May 12, The Bark had the pleasure of hosting author W. Bruce Cameron for a special Q&A on Facebook. Cameron is a #1 New York Times and #1 USA Today bestselling author with several books to his credit, including A Dog’s Purpose and A Dog’s Journey. His newest book, A Dog’s Way Home (Forge Books), was released in early May, and Cameron shared his thoughts on his new work as well as on one of his favorite subjects: dogs.
Bark: Tell us about A Dog’s Way Home …
W. Bruce Cameron: A Dog’s Way Home is a story of utter devotion, of a bond between a person and a dog, a bond so powerful that the dog will do literally anything to be with her human family. Bella is a rescue and Lucas, a young man, is her whole world. When Bella is banned from the city in which they are living (she is a Pit mix) and relocated hundreds of miles away, she decides a mistake has been made and sets off on a multi-year trek through the Rocky Mountain wilderness to find Lucas.
Bark: Is it fair to say it’s a little different than your previous books?
W. Bruce Cameron: I’m told that A Dog’s Way Home is rapidly turning into a reader favorite. I think it has to do with the lack of fantastical elements! In the “A Dog’s Purpose” series, there is the reincarnating dog; in Emory’s Gift, there is a bear who may or may not be real. In the “Repo” series, a man has the voice of a ghost in his head. But A Dog’s Way Home is a very realistic story about a dog separated from her people who needs to find her way back to them. Could happen—in fact, DOES happen—all the time.
Bark: For us dog people, the fear of being separated from our dogs is always at the back of our minds, isn’t it?
W. Bruce Cameron: I once had a dog—her name was Chinook—who was lost for seven days. She hopped the fence in a thunderstorm. She was eventually found by a farmer, who called in response to my newspaper ad. She was 50 MILES away.
Bark: What inspired you to write about this particular subject? Do you have a special interest in breed-ban laws and the work canines do with veterans? Is there a story behind the canine character being a Pit Bull?
W. Bruce Cameron: My dog Tucker gave me most of the ideas, or at least, that’s what he’s been telling people. I’m not a political agitator, but I just don’t believe Americans want their government telling them what kind of dogs they can own, especially when the law is about how dogs look, not how they behave. It is as ludicrous as arresting someone because he looks like a criminal.
I am proud of and grateful to our men and women in uniform—they have made great sacrifices for our country. Some have had experiences that left them with injuries, not all of which are physical. Dogs can be wonderful in helping veterans cope with and recover from trauma.
I have met many Pit Bulls and Pit mixes and generally find them to be among the most gentle and loving of breeds—though, let’s face it, the majority of dogs are gentle, loving and devoted.
Bark: Your books often involve a journey, sometimes of the heart, sometimes a physical journey. In A Dog’s Way Home, a 400-mile trek is at the center of the story. Can you talk about the role journeys play in your storytelling?
W. Bruce Cameron: My novels look at characters who evolve over time and distance. In this new book, Bella is an entirely different animal at the end of the trek than she was when she started out.
Bark: What message do you want people to take from your “A Dog’s Purpose” series?
W. Bruce Cameron: I guess it’s that dogs need us and we need them. That the ones we rescue, rescue us. That without us, they are lost creatures and they need our love, our help and our kindness.
Dog's Life: Humane
Bark has long admired Amy Sutherland’s commitment to animals, as well as her smart and engaging writing style. In her new book, Rescuing Penny Jane, both are on display as she tackles the issue of homeless—or, as she says, human-less—dogs, and gives readers an insider’s view of the many challenges shelters face and how they respond to them. Bark editor Claudia Kawczynska recently caught up with Sutherland for a quick one-on-one.
Bark: What advice would you give people who want to volunteer at a shelter or foster a dog?
Amy Sutherland: I have found volunteering and fostering each to be enormously rewarding, but I’ve also found that you need to have (or develop) a thick skin. As a foster, it can be wrenching to send a dog to another home, even though that was your goal. And as a volunteer, some of the dogs’ stories or conditions can be heartbreaking. If you volunteer in a shelter that euthanizes dogs for medical, behavioral or other reasons, you will also have to contend with that. The dogs—helping them—keep me going.
I’d also suggest exploring various shelters and rescues, private nonprofits and municipals in your area to find one that makes the most sense for you. Some might be more flexible about how often you need to volunteer, for example. Keep in mind that municipal shelters often are the most in need of volunteers.
Dog's Life: Humane
Pennsylvania animal haven celebrates its 50th anniversary.
What do you call an organization that for 50 years has addressed the medical, behavioral and emotional needs of homeless animals? You call it an inspiring success.
In 1967, Lesley Sinclair left her job as an interior designer in New York City, bought a five-acre chicken farm in New Jersey and turned it into a nonprofit, no-kill sanctuary for homeless dogs and cats. Fifty years later, the Animal Care Sanctuary (ACS)—which since 1980 has occupied more than 130 acres of Pennsylvania countryside in East Smithfield and, more recently, Wellsboro—is still in the caring business. Roughly 500 dogs and cats, all of whom are monitored, microchipped, vaccinated, and spayed or neutered by the sanctuary’s resident vet team, are usually in residence. It has a vigorous adoption program, placing 90 percent of the animals it takes in. For those who aren’t adopted, ACS provides a forever home.
ACS’s no-kill policy was practically unheard-of in the 1960s sheltering world, and Sinclair’s pioneering adherence to it is just one of reasons for the “inspiring” label. Another is its long engagement in out-of-the-box thinking as a way to address the challenges that routinely arise in this type of work. ACS stands out in its embrace of innovative approaches to facilitating animal well being.
One example can be found in its alternative-housing program, which pairs dogs most in need of behavioral help with college-level pre-vet or animal science interns in onsite housing. Within this carefully monitored environment, dogs undergo individually tailored behavior-modification training regimes. To date, the program has a 100 percent success rate, with 24 of its 24 dogs now in new homes.
The organization’s support of shelter medicine also exemplifies its innovative thinking. ACS draws from a deep academic pool, one that includes Cornell, Purdue, Michigan State and Emory Colleges of Veterinary Medicine.
The sanctuary has the benefit of students’ time and attention and the students get a hands-on perspective on shelter medicine, learning the intricacies and demands of caring for the group as opposed to caring for a single animal in private practice. Janet M. Scarlett, DVM, MPH, PhD, professor emerita of epidemiology and founder of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, has been instrumental in making recommendations and providing guidance as ACS develops its robust veterinary team and intern program. The sanctuary puts equal effort into community outreach: The two clinics it supports provide the only low-cost wellness and spay/ neuter services in their respective counties. It educates the public on humane issues. And it vigorously advocates for anti-cruelty laws. Fifty years in the no-kill arena is an enviable achievement, and Bark salutes the Animal Care Sanctuary for all the good it’s done, and continues to do, for the most vulnerable members of the companion-animal world as well as the cause of humane treatment of animals everywhere.We spoke to Executive Director Joan Smith-Reese about the changes and stresses that have come about in the last 50 years.
Bark: Whom do we have to thank for the Animal Care Sanctuary (ACS)?
Joan Smith-Reese: Lesley Sinclair founded ACS in 1967 in Toms River, N.J. She was from England, came to the U.S. during the war, was an interior designer in NYC and had a home in Toms River, on the Jersey Shore. She discovered that when beach residents returned home at the end of the summer, they often left their pets behind. She began rescuing those dogs and cats, and the rest is history.
She quit her job, bought a five-acre chicken farm and began the nonprofit ACS. From day one—long before any of the national organizations were focusing on spay/neuter—every animal was altered.
In 1980, after years of fighting New Jersey zoning regulations, she purchased 132 acres in East Smithfield, Pa., which is our current home. We recently added 64 acres at our Wellsboro site, one hour west of East Smithfield. We are so fortunate today to have so much land.
B: Fifty years ago, no-kill was still a pretty novel concept among mainstream sheltering groups. Why was it adopted by ACS?
JSR: That was the marvel of our founder. She believed every life was precious, and while the hope is always for a forever home, if not, we are the animal’s family. This is one of the reasons quality of life is such an important issue at ACS.
B: What kind of stresses, if any, does no kill put on a shelter/sanctuary? How does ACS address them?
JSR: Because there are still so many high-kill shelters in America, people who want to surrender do seek us out. We try to find ways for people keep their dogs and cats. If the issues are behavioral, we offer our services to help put together a plan and work with the owners (although, often, that’s not an option). If economics are the reason, we have a program called Project Home, which provides food, medical care and security deposits if landlords will allow a dog or cat; funding for this program comes from the United Way. The waiting list for owner surrenders is always our first priority, but we also help pull dogs from high-kill shelters, or shelters that want to be no-kill and, with our help, are moving in that direction.
B: What kind of changes has ACS seen and implemented over the past 50 years?
JSR: One really important change has been the advancement of shelter medicine through standards developed by the American Association of Shelter Veterinarians in 2010. The pioneer in beginning this curriculum is Janet May Scarlett, DVM, Cornell professor emerita in epidemiology, who created and taught the first shelter medicine course in the country at Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine and serves on the ACS Professional Advisory Committee.
We are also fortunate to have a director of veterinary medicine on staff to coordinate and oversee the vet team that cares for both our sanctuary animals and our two subsidized community clinics.
Another change is the use of behaviorists. ACS is privileged to have two, and their contribution is enormous. Dogs undergo an initial assessment on admission, and then a care plan is developed and modified as needed. Dogs are assigned to the canine care team, and they work on any issues using only positive reinforcement. We do a great deal of enrichment, including animal reiki, music therapy, aromatherapy, long walks in the woods, play groups, swimming, puzzle toys and so forth.
A big change now in the works is the way the kennels are designed. In the 1980s, the center aisle layout—dogs across from and next to each other, divided by chain link fencing—was state of the art. Today, we are in the midst of a capital campaign to change all of that. Our plans are to gut and rebuild our existing kennel so the dogs don’t face one another and have solid walls between them, natural lighting and noise abatement, among other things. It’s a $2.8 million project.
B: ACS has some interesting programs. How did they come about? What’s the process for evaluating and putting a new program into action?
JSR: We are fortunate to have talented staff who think outside the box, so new ideas come quickly. In order to be methodical, we start by presenting a concept at our leadership team meetings. Then, we decide which experts to bring in to help us evaluate our ideas.
A good example is our alternative housing program. We have pre-vet students who live with us for a semester and in the summer, we have far more applicants than we can take, so we needed a way to both whittle down the list as well as help our dogs. So one of our screening tools is “Would you be agreeable to living with one of our behaviorally challenged dogs, understand and accept training from the behaviorist, work with the dog and also collect data, and provide weekly reports?” We met with our Professional Advisory Committee for input and structure, then implemented this program. The interns who participate provide us feedback on what works and what could be improved. We have adopted 24 out of 24 dogs in the program, and the interns were the key.
Dog's Life: Humane
SOI DOG FOUNDATION, established on the island of Phuket, Thailand, in 2003 by British retirees John and Gill Dalley, is the largest animal welfare organization in Southeast Asia specializing in the treatment and care of street dogs and cats. Annually, the organization treats tens of thousands of sick and injured animals, and sterilizes and vaccinates around 30,000 dogs and cats.
In addition to the care and treatment of street animals, Soi Dog Foundation is fighting to end the dog meat trade in Asia. Having successfully closed the trade in Thailand, where up to 500,000 dogs a year were being trafficked for their meat and skin, their focus has now shifted to Vietnam and South Korea, where five million and up to three million dogs, respectively, are consumed annually. Soi Dog is confident that within five years, the consumption of dog meat in these countries will be outlawed.
Dogs rescued from this grim business are sent to Soi Dog’s Canadian and U.S. partners. The foundation is responsible for all health checks well before the dogs are flown to North America. Once the dogs have their health books in order and export and import licenses have been granted, they’re free to fly.
This initiative was originally developed by Cristy Baker, Soi Dog Foundation’s international partner rescue manager, and a friend in the U.S. At the time, Baker was charged with finding adopters for more than 1,500 Thai dogs. Because a dog-by-dog approach was extremely time-consuming, Baker partnered with U.S. rescue centers, each of which took between five and 10 dogs, and put them up for adoption locally.
In Phuket, Soi Dog houses around 600 dogs and 120 cats, and manages to get around 600 animals adopted to forever homes every year, mainly in North America and Europe. The Phuket operation also supports a community outreach program aimed at empowering those who feed street dogs and cats to provide better care for the animals they look after. Both programs will be expanded to Bangkok when time and resources become available.
Every month, the foundation provides food and medical equipment to more than 50 dog-and-cat rescue centers across Thailand, and is also seeking partner rescue organizations in other Southeast Asian countries.
Soi Dog runs a humane animal welfare Schools Education program to foster compassion toward all animals. Changing the thoughts and behavior of the adults of tomorrow toward animals is seen as the primary path to ending the suffering of animals in Thailand and beyond.
Soi Dog Foundation receives no government funding, relying entirely on individual donations to do its work. More than 92 percent of all donations directly support its animal welfare programs.
Editor’s Note: As we went to press, we learned that 58-year-old Gill Dalley, Soi Dog Foundation co-founder, had died after a short battle with cancer.
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