Tracey Stewart, author of the new book, in conversation with The Bark
Tracey Stewart has had a constellation of careers (some simultaneously): animal advocate, creator/editor-in-chief of the digital parenting magazine Moomah, writer for Huffington Post, vet tech, graphic designer. She and husband Jon—yes, that Jon Stewart—live in New Jersey with their two children, four dogs, two horses, two pigs, three rabbits, two guinea pigs, two hamsters, one parrot and two fish. As she notes, “all rescues, except for the children.” With the forthcoming publication of Do Unto Animals (Artisan), beautifully illustrated by Lisel Ashlock, she’s now added author to her portfolio.
In your book, you mention that raising children, at least during their younger years, is a lot like your work in the vet field. Are there other similarities that make raising your human family a little easier?
Nothing prepares you for raising a human family. That first day you wake up with a baby, you just have to keep running to stay ahead. When I was pregnant, people would say, “Don’t worry, you’ll know what to do once the baby arrives.” That’s a bunch of hooey! You’ve got to educate yourself and change your technique as your child develops.
I believe this is true of “parenting” an animal as well. My family is constantly trying to learn how to do better for our animals. We’re always looking for ways to enrich their lives and take the best care of them that we can. Every day, we learn something new. It’s a family passion.
Shelter-based projects are one of the ways you and your family express that passion. How can children—and adults, for that matter—become active in this type of volunteerism?
Sometimes, the best way is to start with the closest shelter that shares your values. The easier it is to get there, the more likely you are to visit. We were lucky that our local shelter had aligned itself with a humane education program that invited children in for activities and education.
Even if your local shelter doesn’t offer something specific, be creative. Most shelters are hard at work taking care of their animals. They can use all the generosity you have to give. Offer whatever skills you have to help. Come up with your own idea and reach out. It’s really wonderful to have a personal relationship with a shelter.
And you don’t have to wait for a program to exist. When we’ve been on vacation, my daughter has gone to local shelters and offered to read to their animals.
How do you explain to young children that not all animals in shelters will be rehomed?
Honesty is always the best approach. The older the child, the more details I’m comfortable sharing. I usually know how much or how little information to give each child. Not that I haven’t made the mistake of answering big life questions with more information than my kids want. At that point, they give me a puzzled look and interrupt me with, “Okay, Mommy, is that it?”
As with any topic that is frustrating and sad, I find it helps to look at the positive and to focus on what we can actually do to help. Helping animals has shown my kids the strength of their voices and actions.
You point out that “an animal’s presence in a shelter often says a lot more about the person who surrendered them than about the animal.” Unfortunately, people seem to equate shelters with behavior problems. How do you counteract that perception?
I think we need to tell people to take a moment to ponder the many failings of members of the human race, and then imagine the gold that must get left at shelters every day. Having spent so much time in shelters, I can personally attest to the fact that fantastic animals are just waiting to be given a chance with a reasonable and kind human being. Shelter animals with the most daunting behavioral issues, such as extreme fear or aggression, are usually euthanized, especially if there is a history of biting. Sadly, however, animals with absolutely no serious behavioral problems are euthanized as well, due to lack of space and resources and because no one came to take a look at them.
You also mention virtual adoption. How does that work?
Virtual adoption is a way to help shelter animals without bringing them into your house. Let’s face it, we can only bring so many animals home before we have to worry about accusations of hoarding. Even if your home is already full, you have allergies or a hectic work schedule, you travel or any other of a host of obstacles, there is still so much you can do to help animals find their forever homes. When our family reached maximum capacity, my kids chose a shelter dog or cat to champion. They’d make posters, decorate cages with lovely messages, and make videos and buttons. They’d drop off enrichment toys for their surrogate animal to play with. Social media offers endless opportunities to get the word out as well.
Why is fostering a pet such a good idea for the whole family?
I know that my kids feel really proud when we’re part of finding an animal a loving home. And my husband is relieved when we’re successful because it means we won’t be adding another member to the household. For me, it’s therapy. I lean toward generalized anxiety and am always worried about one thing or the other, except when I’m fostering an animal. There is something soothing and peaceful about taking care of and creating peace for an animal who has been through so much. I’m able to put all my petty concerns aside and just be.
Tell us more about your wildlife rehab center as well as your sanctuary to rescue farm animals.
Our “wildlife rehab center” is nothing official. Mostly, we make sure our home is well prepared to help an animal until we can get it to a licensed wildlife rehabber. (People can sometimes unintentionally harm an animal when they don’t know what they’re doing.) We have all the emergency numbers at the ready. We also make sure that we don’t unintentionally harm the wildlife in the back yard with harmful chemicals. We give a loud holler before we let the dogs into the yard, and we provide lots of food and shelter. My car is always equipped with a container with air holes, dog treats, a leash and protective gloves.
The animal sanctuary is on its way to becoming official, but doing it right requires time. Last year, I took a course at the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y. Their national shelter director, Susie Coston, taught it and it was a real eye-opener. I remember thinking that by the end of the conference, some of the attendees would have been discouraged from starting their own sanctuary.
Doing right by animals is no small task, and many well-meaning people get in over their heads. Then people and animals suffer. If you’re thinking of starting a sanctuary yourself, I would encourage taking this class. If you still think you’re capable of doing a great job when you complete it, then march on. If you don’t, give your passion to the animals at an already-existing sanctuary.
Sanctuaries need to be able to provide quality individual care to their rescues. They need to educate, educate and then educate some more. We are so out of touch with the animals we call food. We need to meet them.
The number of animals a sanctuary can save will never be enough. In the U.S., about 25 million land animals are killed for food daily.
What role do your husband and kids play in all this?
Fortunately for me, my entire family has an intense love for animals. I get away with a lot because Jon is such a softie. He has his own projects, but enjoys mine immensely. He’ll sometimes pretend to be exasperated when I tell him things like, “Honey, there are five goats sleeping in our garage tonight. The rescue will—I hope—come for them in the morning,” but I know he loves it. (Right, honey?? Right?!) My kids are essential in all of this craziness. They have feeding, enrichment and training duties. They are constantly teaching me new things about animals.
Among other things, you comment on dog tail- and ear-cropping and cat declawing. In other countries, these practices are thought to be inhumane and oftentimes are illegal. Why are we still doing it here?
My understanding is that one of the reasons this practice still goes on in the U.S. is due to some no-good politics. Other folks speak to that more articulately than I can, but what I do know is dogs’ ears and tails are important to their ability to communicate, and that declawing cats is painful and deforming. Lots of people think that because it’s been done for so long, it must be all right. It’s not!
You also take on the demonization of the Pit Bull. You’ve lived with Pit Bulls; why do you think they’ve gotten such a “bad rap”?
Myths abound. Lazy reporting and a desire to grab people’s attention with sensationalized stories have been implicit in the destruction and abuse of too many innocent creatures.
The reality is that Pit Bulls are smart, loyal and strong, qualities that unfortunately attracted the attention of unsavory types in the ’80s and ’90s. Criminals exploited Pit Bulls’ natural tendencies for the purpose of profit. Because they are usually so devoted to their owners, Pit Bulls could be trusted not to bite them while concurrently obeying their commands to fight.
Pit Bulls are being overbred, are not being spayed or neutered, and are treated as disposable. Couple that with the backlash against them and you can understand why our shelters are filled with Pit Bulls. It is estimated that 2,800 Pit Bulls are euthanized in the U.S. every day.
If BSL laws are in place to protect the communities, communities should be up in arms about the money being wasted. These laws don’t make communities safer. Education does! Pit Bulls do not bite more than other breeds. However, the media often labels dogs who have bitten people as Pit Bulls; their mantra is, “If it bit, it must be a Pit.”
Breed doesn’t appear among the factors relevant to dog-bite fatalities. According to a study done by the CDC, of the 256 dog-bite fatalities between 2000 and 2009, 84 percent were intact males, 76 percent were kept as guard or yard dogs rather than family pets, and 28 percent involved owners with a history of reported pet abuse. History, not breed, determines a dog's behavior. Humans, not dogs, are the variable.
By and large, dogs are at the mercy of human decisions, and when humans make poor decisions, dogs suffer and communities become less safe. Let’s put money now being spent on enforcing BSL laws toward educating communities about dog behavior and safety rather than blaming dogs—put it behind teaching people the importance of spay and neuter, dog behavior, and positive training methods.
Acts of animal cruelty are linked to violence against people. Communities would be safer if animal cruelty cases were enforced.
On a less weighty note, as an avid DIYer, I really love the simple projects you include in the book. But why did you include them?
The thing I like about hand-made projects is that they force people to drop everything else and ponder for a bit. And, if you want to engage people and keep them motivated to keep doing for others, you have to make it fun! DIY projects are a great way to get kids involved. Sitting together working on these projects provides time for conversation, and taking these projects to the animals is incredibly satisfying.
When their efforts feed their souls, people are less likely to burn out and more likely to continue helping. Animals do that for me. Whether it’s animals or something else, I would encourage readers to take some time to figure out what really makes them feel great about helping.
Your book’s theme of bettering the lives of animals should be popular with readers of all ages. What do you hope to achieve?
If nothing else, I hope Do Unto Animals inspires people to do just a little more. If we all did a little more, a lot of good could come from it. Lives are busy and tons of things are going wrong in the world. It can be overwhelming and depressing, but it helps to feel like you’re pushing back with positive action. What’s wonderful about animals is that they’re all around us. Opportunities to make a difference abound.
I’d love to inspire all animal lovers to constantly learn and seek out new information. Don’t take information at face value. Do your homework. Raise questions. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Learning about suffering and wrongdoing isn’t as devastating to your soul when you’re working on the solution. The more I learn, the better I do, and each day I’m doing better than the last.
What’s next for the Stewart family?
I know Jon is looking forward to going to the carwash (he loves that!), stopping by his favorite smoothie place, being with our kids a glorious amount of time and keeping an eye on me. I’m guessing that I’m not going to be able to get away with sneaking so many animals into the house once he’s not at the show every day.
This interview has been edited.
I was thrilled to read Twig Mowatt’s “Creating Animal Ambassadors.” I am the president of Juntos, a nonprofit on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico.
The organization is committed to promoting humane treatment of all animals on the island by strengthening the human/animal bond through educational awareness and community outreach. We have succeeded in bringing a privately funded humane education teacher into the public school system.
It is comforting and affirming to know that there are other islands in the Caribbean who are committed to educating children in the humane treatment of animals as a way to bring lasting change and improvement for those animals.
To learn more about Juntos visit juntosvieques.org
and all species too
As proclaimed in the New York Times, Pope Francis is definitely a pope for all species. Like we noted in the past the pope has not only shown compassion and concern for animals but has suggested, underscoring what a previous pontiff had declared, that there is a place in heavens for animals. I’m sure we can all agree that what would a heaven be without dogs. But to see the joyfulness that this spiritual leader greats, acknowledges and blesses dogs is its own blessing. His visit to the White House would of course include a meet and greet with the ebullient pair Bo and Sunny, canine members of the Obama family.
It’s also important to note that in Laudato Si’, his encyclical on the environment that he warned that, “We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism.” Certainly a strong position on animal right’s! Laudato Si’, translated in English is either as “Be Praised” or “Praised Be,” and is a quotation from a popular prayer of St. Francis of Assisi written in 1224 praising God for the creation of the different creatures and aspects of the Earth. “Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun,” St. Francis wrote in the third stanza of the prayer. He then continued, expressing praise to God for “Sister Moon,” “Brothers Wind and Air,” “Sister Water,” “Brother Fire,” and “Mother Earth.”
As noted by Nicholas Kristof:
Charles Camosy, a Catholic theologian at Fordham University who has written a book about the theology of animal protection, says that Francis’ carefully reviewed encyclical this year constitutes the first authoritative Catholic statements that animals enjoy eternal life.
It was so fitting that this pope took the name of the patron saint of animals, St. Francis of Assisi, and has followed him with humane and enlightened positions. It is wonderful to see him visit our country, spreading his inspiring messages wherever he goes.
News: Guest Posts
As embers fell and flames grew, the question of “what to take” often came down to a four-legged bundle. But the Valley Fire in California’s rural Lake County left many with just minutes to escape as it sped through parched brush in record time.
“The community had to leave so fast that hundreds of animals were left behind,” says Bill Davidson, director of Lake County Animal Care and Control.
Countless dogs that managed to stay with their people soon joined cats, goats, horses and more in evacuation centers crammed with cots and crates. One local shelter had to face its own tough choices; whether to euthanize existing animals to make way for the incoming. (Luckily, these two groups stepped in).
In South Lake County, where the 73,700-acre blaze began, among the worst in California’s history, the roads out are windy and narrow, through rock-strewn mountains and forests, with yawning drops at every bend. In 2011, a group of horse owners along with Davidson formed the Lake Evacuation and Animal Protection team (LEAP) to help prepare for the inevitable, catastrophic fire.
The volunteer group has trained to enter the fire area and either impound or shelter in place. The vast majority of city and county animal control agencies lack the training, equipment, or support from local fire agencies to do the work, Davidson says.
In recent days, some people ventured back into smoldering fire zones, escorted by sheriff’s deputies and CHP officers for a 15-minute check on the animals they’d left behind. Some would find their homes; others would not.
“Everyone is calling to have us check on their animals,” says Davidson. “The list is endless.” With the enormity of the crisis, he called in the ASPCA. Everyone wants to help, he says, but LEAP only uses those with fire training and personal protection equipment. The fire zone, where animals still wander, is filled with dangers. “Many things are actively burning, trees are falling, power lines are down, and fire crews are running around to trouble spots.” On Sunday, the ASPCA arrived with a 30-foot trailer. The four field rescuers and three shelter helpers are expected to stay through Sunday.
“We brief each morning and then they are gone for most of the day, not returning to well after midnight so far,” Davidson says.
The field rescue is uplifting at times, heartbreaking at others.
“As long as the property was spared, most dogs have done well,” he says. “Our goal has been to shelter in place as many as possible, providing food and water for the absent owner, then moving on to the next address.” If they survived the initial blast, most are far more comfortable and easily managed staying at home.
But over 1,000 structures were likely destroyed, “pretty much a total loss, including anything left inside,” he says. “The injured animals have been trickling in, all being sent for medical attention.”
How many dogs are missing? Davidson is sure there are hundreds that escaped yards or were set loose by their owners. “Social media has been full of pictures of animals set free by their owners before leaving. We have impounded about a dozen dogs just wandering around as we check on addresses.”
Lake County’s animal shelter now brims with almost 200 animals whose lives were upturned by fire…again.
In August, the county was struck by another roaring inferno; the Rocky fire, nearly as large but in a less populated area. Less than two weeks later the Jerusalem fire ignited. Help arrived from Chico-based North Valley Animal Disaster Group, but the run of disasters has left shelters reeling. And with some 600 homes lost, many people and pets are homeless.
“We survived the Rocky and Jerusalem fires, but it pretty much depleted our resources, both physically and mentally,” Davidson says.
“Then this came.”
Dog's Life: Humane
The first week of September saw a heartwarming example of positive political action when California lawmakers of all persuasions voted to make shelter animals the new official state pet. In both the Assembly and the Senate, the votes were all ayes, no nays.
ACR-56, introduced by Assemblymember Eric Linder (R-Corona), is numbers-driven bill. As it points out, there are currently around 8,000,000 abandoned pets living in animal shelters in the United States, and of these, 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 are euthanized every year.
Like shelters everywhere, those in California stretch to help the animals who come into their care, and it's a big, big job. It's hoped that greater public awareness will get more dogs and cats (and the occasional rabbit, guinea pig or chicken) out of shelter care and into forever homes.
Though the numbers are daunting, keep this in mind: every single adoption makes a difference. The dogs and cats who find new homes also find new lives. For them, it's a 100 percent win.
When the juggernaut that was Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, it taught the nation some hard lessons about the need to provide disaster assistance for both people and their companion animals. When told by emergency personnel that they couldn’t bring their four-legged family members with them, many chose to stay behind rather than abandon the dogs and cats who trusted them.
In the days and weeks that followed, groups and individuals from across the country converged on the Gulf Coast for what’s been called the largest animal rescue operation in history. The following year, Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which directed FEMA to take the essential needs of individuals with household pets and service animals, and of the animals themselves, into account.
Ten years on, the phrase “Not without my dog” has been taken seriously, and the depth of emotion that binds us to our animal companions continues to inspire.BREED EXEMPLAR
Sally. Among the first group of dogs evacuated from New Orleans by the Marin Humane Society, Sally landed at San Francisco International Airport on September 11, 2005, and within hours, was charming the local media right out of its collective socks. A few days later, she was photographed for her debut as Bark’s Winter 2005 cover dog. According to her person, Sheri Cardo, 11-year-old, Sally continues to spread her Pit Bull love far and wide.AIDE-DE-CAMP
Katrina. While Bill Daugaard was leading a rescue team in New Orleans’ Eighth Ward in September 2005, he watched the liberation of a dog (above) who had been locked in a house for 22 days. Something about her spoke to him, but before he could put his name in to foster her, she was on her way to Los Angeles. Long story short, he found her, adopted her, named her Katrina and took her home to Seattle.ADOPTION HELPER
Boots. The Golden/Chow mix with the badly burned feet was rescued from St. Bernard Parish by a group of EAMTs from the Arizona Humane Society and transported to AHS’s Second Chance Animal Hospital in Phoenix for treatment. Shortly thereafter, his foster home became his forever home. For the past two years, Boots (above) has been returning the favor by volunteering as AHS’s kitten nanny, helping five- to eight-week-old felines acclimate to dogs (and thus become more adoptable).SQUADRON MASCOT
Katrina. Each time a helicopter from the 301st Rescue Squadron landed on the 1-10 overpass in New Orleans to take on stranded hurricane victims, an intrepid little Beagle would rush toward the craft and station herself nearby. On the last run, Pilot Mike Brasher (above) and his crew realized that she was alone, and took her with them. Brasher adopted her, and she became his squadron’s mascot. Now 15, she lives the good life in Fla.
Dog's Life: Humane
Humane educator Karen Menczer works at the grassroots to help Africa’s dogs
Skimming Uganda’s morning newspaper in April 2001 over my almost burnt toast and black coffee, I was struck by a story—or maybe by the picture. An American woman living in Kampala, working on conservation projects, was inspiring big changes at the Uganda Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (USPCA), setting up spay days and community education programs and helping to build a new animal care center in an impoverished neighborhood. She has serious challenges ahead, I thought to myself. Most likely just another do-gooder whose idealistic dreams soon will be shattered against the rocky shores of reality.
Later that night, in the quiet of my room, I was reminded again of the story. My window was open, and through it came a sound common to many East African cities: the barking of dogs. Their vocalizations pierced the night, moving in waves, getting closer, moving away, sometimes wailing or high-pitched, sometimes yippy, sometimes singsong, like the cries of wild animals. I never thought much about these urban dogs and their lives, even though I had spent many nights lying awake listening to their howls.
In much of rural Africa, dogs are highly regarded—I have often come across a herder or a hunter cradling his dog’s head in his lap, gently petting her or scratching her ears, and I know a man in rural Tanzania, a market trader, who carries his crippled dog around with him everywhere he goes. But life in the cities is different for dogs. That closeness, that warmth of relationship, often is lost in the urban hustle.
Face to Face
Daily, with the permission of his owners, Karen took Simba for a walk so he could get out of the small wooden box to which he was confined when he was not guarding his owner’s shop from midnight to 6 AM. Walking a dog is an unusual sight in most African cities, and Kampala is no exception. The pair first elicited stares, then curiosity overcame shyness. Before long, Karen and Simba had plenty of company on their walks. Karen used Simba as a humane-education dog, showing people how to approach him and pet him. Then she began taking pictures of Simba with his new friends and giving out the pictures as souvenirs. Children were especially curious about Simba, and Karen requested and received permission to bring the dog to schools to help educate children about animals.
The Simba pictures really grabbed me. There was Simba with friendly Ugandans in Kampala’s rough suburbs—muddy roads, piles of garbage, places with mostly no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Karen had captured the children and their parents in their homes and yards, goofing off for the camera and having a ball with Simba.
But it was not all rosy success stories.
Key to Change
Rather than give in to anger, Karen’s response was to use Sammy’s murder as a community education opportunity. With the help of a friend—a large, powerful, eloquent Ugandan man who commanded respect through dignity—she rounded up the children and their parents, and he spoke to them in Luganda, their own language, to affirm the ideals of sanctity of life and talk against cruelty to animals. He cajoled, he shamed, he encouraged and he enlightened. Karen is certain that this community meeting changed the attitudes of the children present, and that they will carry the lessons learned that day into adulthood. Single actions can make a difference.
As we sifted through the Simba pictures, Karen told me more stories about how most dogs in East African cities live. Unlike in the villages—where dogs are kept for hunting, for herding and as companions, and where crime is rare—life in the city has changed the relationship between humans and their dogs. People in the cities have dogs for guarding. Dogs are “trained” to guard by being confined to a small wooden box, which is rarely big enough for them to stand up or turn around in, for about 18 hours a day. Sometimes, multiple dogs will share one box. The dogs can see nothing outside the box; their world is the lifeless space of those few square feet. Only one person is allowed to feed the dog; everyone else is the enemy. Tough behavior is encouraged by feeding the dog hot chilies, beating on his box, prodding him with sticks to make him angry, perhaps even starving him to make him alert and always on the prowl for food—a sure recipe for a mean and mistrustful canine.
The Uganda SPCA is trying to educate people about more humane methods of keeping and training dogs, while providing free spay/neuter and other veterinary care for animals in need. In Kampala, Karen discovered that many people thought vets treated only livestock, not cats and dogs. Moreover, most were not aware of the use of anesthesia for animal surgery, or even that surgery could be done on animals. As a USPCA field supervisor, Karen helped develop many of these USPCA services. Her management style also encouraged a sense of collegiality as she worked with local professional staff and training volunteers, some of whom have gone on to spread the word and work for change in Ugandans’ perceptions of animals. For example, Katia Ruiz Allard, one of the founders of USPCA, continues the work, ably aided by Berna Nakanwagi, the USPCA vet, and Ibra Nakasero, the volunteer humane officer; Nakanwagi and Nakasero are both Ugandans who care about dogs and are trying to improve the lot of Uganda’s animals.
In a developing country rife with pressing social issues, Karen also encountered some of the other challenges of being a grassroots animal welfare activist: negotiating with Muslim leaders in a village before setting up a spay day; learning that when you instruct someone to put their dog “inside” for a day or two after she has been spayed, “inside” might mean inside the chicken coop; and dealing with a shelter manager who is selling dogs and pocketing the proceeds. One of the pleasures: discovering that it is often the poorest people who treat their dogs with the greatest respect and care.
Leaving Uganda in 2002, Karen moved on to other aid projects—first to Gaborone, Botswana, and later, in 2004, to Accra, Ghana, where she served on the boards of the national SPCAs. There was no shortage of enthusiastic local volunteers in either country, but each had a different perception of dogs. In Botswana, a prosperous diamond-exporting nation, dogs are kept in open yards primarily as guards, and pedigreed animals are increasingly common as local attitudes toward improved care and feeding have shifted. In Ghana, dogs simply are not very popular. While it is uncommon in both countries to see dogs running around on the streets, when Karen walked dogs in Gaborone people would sometimes approach her with curiosity, even pet the dog, but in Accra, people showed no interest, or sometimes even shooed her away. They explained that since dogs are unable to speak, they cannot have feelings; and besides, they are dirty. And there were rumors about some tribes even eating dogs.
Yet, in this environment, the Ghana Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (GSPCA) sprang up as a result of the efforts of two Ghanaians, David Nyoagbe and Roland Azantilow. They had been WSPA Kindness Club leaders in school, and decided that they wanted to improve the lot of dogs throughout Ghana. After consultation with WSPA, they registered as a nongovernmental charity. Karen arrived within their first year of operation and before long became a board member and treasurer. She immediately started helping to raise the visibility of the organization by working with the vendors in the market where puppies were sold.
A car drives up, the passengers stay in the car, the vendors run up with a puppy in each hand (and sometimes one under the arm) and push the puppies through the open window into the client’s face. The haggling starts, and when it’s done, for about $3, the car’s occupants drive off with a malnourished puppy. GSPCA worked with the vendors to improve their care of the dogs as well as moderate their rather aggressive marketing methods. They held a course on dog care, and all graduates received a certificate. (The vendors’ marketing skills still need a little work, however.)
“It’s easy to misinterpret. You learn to ask questions, listen, ask more questions, listen a lot more, and ask any possible question you can come up with so you can get the whole picture.
“It’s all about the pet owners trying to figure you out, and you trying to figure them out, and along the way, you make little improvements for the animal, slowly, slowly (as we say in Uganda). After a year or two, you realize you’ve made an impact.
“Working with animals in Africa is all about working with people. It’s that way in the U.S. also, but in Africa it is even more: You become an auntie to all the families you are working with. There are expectations of you as an auntie, you get invited to weddings and funerals, you have to make a contribution to all the big family events. If a member of the family is sick, you will be asked to assist; the families expect you to come into the house, be a guest, join them for tea. When you start working with African families to help them improve the lives of their pets, you take on all the responsibilities of being one of the family.”
And what about Simba, the dog Karen took out of his crate and walked each day—the dog she used for animal education? Karen had always been bothered that Simba’s only moments of freedom and happiness were on their walks together. So, one day, very early in the morning, she lured him into her truck and drove him straight to the home of a loving family who would care for him, feed him and take him for the daily walks he loved. A couple of days later, she was on the plane leaving Uganda, moving on to the next adventure and the next country that needed an energetic “junkyard warrior.”
Karen Menczer can be contacted at email@example.com or through her foundation, animal-kind.org.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Abby, the Pit Bull, gets a home and Jan gets a best friend
The beautiful brindle and white dog leapt joyfully in the surf, racing and playing with a large group of dogs. Abby’s striking blue eyes mirrored the sky and her sleek, shiny coat glistened in the salt water. She came back periodically to check in with Jan, her adopter, and the two of them had a playful exchange before Abby raced back into the ocean. Abby spends most of her Mondays at the off-leash beach now and the rest of the week cuddling at home, playing, walking with Jan or snoozing on her cushy bed.
It wasn’t always this way for Abby. She was found in an abandoned house, skin and bone and nursing ten puppies. When a Good Samaritan took them to the shelter, her luck changed for the better. She and the pups were treated for fleas, ticks and worms and I took them home to foster. After a few months of good care the pups were adopted and the search began for the perfect home for Abby.
I have fostered hundreds of dogs and Abby is as nice a dog as you could ever find. Mellow but playful, gentle and sweet, and wonderful with dogs, cats, kids, strangers etc. Truly a prize. Someone must have loved her once and I wondered how she fell on hard times. The fact that Abby is was what could loosely be described as a Pit Bull made it more challenging to find a home.
I had been communicating with Jan for a while because she was looking for a dog to adopt. Her Boston Terrier had died a few years previously and she was ready for a new companion. She wanted to adopt a dog in need and had been looking at shelter dogs for a while. She looked at Boston’s and visited with an adorable fluffy little mix breed but nothing was quite the right match. She never planned to adopt a Pit Bull and her husband Mickey didn’t like the idea at all initially. I’ll let Jan tell the story in her own words:
“Convincing Mickey was HARD! And to be honest it was because she was a Pit Bull. I felt like a five year old trying to convince dad that she was the perfect dog. I knew in my heart of hearts, I JUST KNEW! I didn't have a tantrum but I was close. I was nervous to do this, but I told him to come out when I came to first meet her. When we got to your house all I wanted was for her to win Mickey over. I came out knowing she was meant to be ours, I trusted my gut. When we got in the car to drive home I had to walk around the subject of Abby and slowly let it sink in with him. By the next morning he was sold!
Our life has changed in unimaginable ways since we adopted her. WE are both happier souls with her in our home. She is an amazing companion. I feel like I have a new best friend. She makes me giggle and brings out my playful/silly side. And I love seeing Mickey with her. He loves her so much and the sweetest side ever comes out with her. A side I have never seen. It is fun to “parent” someone who is “ours” together too. And I have healed some past pain around parenting with a partner because of Abby. The way that has happened is that when she has needed care/feeding/walking/comfort/middle of the night anything/etc he has been there right by my side. I NEVER had that from my ex-husband with my daughters. This is a gift to be able to heal the past.
And then connecting with so many other women, you included, at the beach on Mondays and also on Facebook is so cool.”
One last thing is the pride I feel when I tell people that we adopted her and tell them her story. I feel so happy that we did that and it has made me such an advocate for adoption. The two times a day walks have also been great! It's a great way to see the neighborhood and she loves it too. Forces me to get out and exercise!"
I find it wonderful that Jan adopted the dog that was right for her situation and didn’t let breed prejudices get in the way of finding the perfect companion. I would love for our readers to share how they ended up with a dog that was a breed they never thought they would have.
News: Guest Posts
The call initially came in of loose dogs at a rural address. I pulled up half an hour later and was surprised to find a large number of dogs barking at me from behind a secure fence. They looked like maybe beagle, corgi, fox terrier type mixes and my rough count was about 10-15 dogs. None of them matched the description of the stray dogs and the fence seemed secure but there were other issues here.
I knocked on the door and a man answered who seemed pale and weak. He apologized for his condition and explained that he was undergoing treatment for a serious illness. He had started out with just a couple of dogs and they had puppies. More litters were born and he just didn’t know what to do with them and was too sick to really spend much time on it. The dogs looked healthy and had a spacious yard, food, water and shelter but this rampant breeding just couldn’t continue.
After further questioning I found a variety of challenges including finances and his health. After consulting with shelter staff it was agreed that he would sign over several dogs a week until he was down to his legal limit of four. We would also spay and neuter the remaining dogs for him at very low cost. We would even pick them up and drop them off after surgery as he was too sick to drive. On that day he signed over 4 darling puppies of about 8 weeks of age. As I carried the puppies to my truck I smiled at how cute they were. They would be easy to rehome.
I was surprised to see one of the puppies still in the kennels the following week. He was adorable little morsel of white and black spots with a waggy tail and a happy smile. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t up for adoption yet. His siblings had been adopted immediately. A quick check of his records showed a major heart murmur. A 6/6 is as bad as it gets. He would have a greatly shortened life span and could die suddenly at any time or go into heart failure at an early age. It was a huge dilemma. Who wants to adopt a puppy that could die before his first birthday?
The puppy saw a cardiology specialist who thought that surgery could potentially increase his lifespan significantly but at great cost and it couldn’t even be done until he was more mature. What to do? How do you find someone willing to take on such a monumental uncertainty and expense?
The decision was made to put the puppy, who was later named Max, up for adoption with full disclosure and see what happened. I took Max out to the play yard whenever I could and I could feel his heart though his chest wall when I carried him. It wasn’t anything resembling a heartbeat, more of a strange fluttering movement. It made me sad but when I looked into his big brown eyes and smiling mouth I was reminded of what is so great about dogs. Dogs live in the moment. Max doesn’t care about what may or may not happen in the future. He’s full of love and joy and all he cares about is that I’m rubbing his tummy or tossing a toy for him. There’s so much to be learned from dogs.
I loved spending time with Max but I kept thinking “he’s gonna break someone’s heart.” But the more I thought about it, the more I was reminded that they all break our hearts. And they’re worth it, for however long or short we have them.
I was thrilled a few days later to hear that Max had been adopted and his adopters are absolutely willing to do surgery or whatever is needed to give him the best life possible. I called his adopter, Laurie, and thanked her for adopting him. I asked her why she chose to take on such a difficult project and she had the perfect answer. She said, “Because he needs love just like everyone else.”
News: Guest Posts
A Belgian Malinois named Jagger plays the title role in the recently released movie, Max. As the story goes, the canine character Max has served in Afghanistan, and is returned to the United States after his Marine handler/partner is killed in action. Max, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, becomes part of a coming of age story for the killed Marine’s younger brother.
Max is pegged to be a summer blockbuster, although the reviews I’ve read have been mixed. Regardless of its popularity Max will undoubtedly create an, “I must have a Belgian Malinois phenomenon.” Any time Hollywood unleashes a new dog movie, a “breed du jour” is created. This phenomenon appears to be an ingrained cultural dynamic, no different than other fads gleaned from the movies such as clothing fashions, hairstyles and even baby names.
Three researchers from the University of Bristol, the City University of New York, and Western Carolina University recently conducted a study titled, “Dog Movie Stars and Dog Breed Popularity: A Case Study in Media Influence on Choice.” They looked at 87 movies released between 1927 and 2004, all of which featured dogs. By evaluating American Kennel Club (AKC) registration trends, the researchers confirmed that movies do indeed have a lasting impact on breed popularity, in some cases, for up to ten years.
The duration and intensity of the rise in breed popularity was shown to correlate with the movie’s success, particularly during its opening weekend. The researchers found that the top ten movies were associated with changes in AKC registration trends such that approximately 800,000 more dogs were registered in the ten years after movie release than would have been expected from pre-release trends. Lassie Come Home was associated with a 40 percent increase in Collie registrations during the two years following its release in 1943. The Shaggy Dog, released in 1959, produced a 100-fold increase in Old English Sheepdog registrations.
Concerns within the Belgian Malinois community
In response to the release of Max, Judy Hagen, President of the American Belgian Malinois Club (ABMC) stated, “We are very concerned that the public will see this movie and recognize the intelligence, athleticism and beauty of the Belgian Malinois, but not realize that the dogs currently being featured in movies and television are the result of years of intense training. Living with a Malinois requires a commitment to daily training and exercise. Without this they will find their own activities that will make your life a nightmare of dangerous and destructive behaviors.”
Another ABMC member, Melinda Wichmann stated, “Dedicated Malinois owners joke that Malinois are not just a dog, they’re a lifestyle. Unless you are ready to be a firm leader 24/7/365, Malinois will assume that you are an idiot and that they are in charge.”
The Belgian Malinois rescue community is already bracing for the predicted influx of dogs. Taylor Updike Haywood, Midwest Coordinator for American Belgian Malinois Rescue, reported, “It’s already starting here. People are calling and asking to adopt the Air Jordan of dogs.” It so happens that a movie trailer for Max uses the phrase “Air Jordan of dogs” to describe the breed.
The likely increase in the number of Malinois relinquished to rescue organizations is a valid concern. An impulse purchase of a Malinois without consideration of the breed’s temperament and all that is necessary to successfully train and care for one is bound to produce an unhappy ending. Additionally, unethical breeders taking advantage of the movie-generated demand for Malinois will produce pups without consideration paid to creating good health and temperaments. Yet one more ingredient in a recipe for disaster.
Max and me
I confess to having mixed feelings about seeing Max. I would love to watch it because three of the scenes in this movie were filmed in my very own backyard, DuPont State Recreational Forest. As tempting as this is, there will be no Max for me. I will resist for the following reasons:
Purchasing a particular breed of dog based on a reaction to a movie is ill advised. Such an impulse adoption foregoes the important research and preparation necessary to ensure that the dog breed will be a good fit. Think about it, how likely will a Belgian Malinois, the canine king of police and military work, be a suitable pet for the average family?
I encourage you to share this article with the Max moviegoers you know. Together, we can discourage as many of them as possible from thinking they need a Belgian Malinois of their very own.
Of all of the dog movies you’ve seen, which one is your favorite?
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