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Culture: Reviews
Book Review: No Better Friend
One Man, One Dog, and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in WWII

There’s no denying it: war is hell. In No Better Friend by Robert Weintraub, we once again are confronted by the god-awful truth behind that expression. But we also learn about the true nature of grit, resiliency, courage and, in this case, the strength of the bond between man and dog.

This inspirational story revolves around an English Pointer born in 1936 in Shanghai, who became a mascot on one of the many English gunboats that patrolled the Yangtze River. At first called Shudi, Chinese for peaceful, she became Judy, and was adopted by the crew of the Royal Navy’s HMS Gnat.

Although the crew hoped that Judy would be a good hunting companion, it quickly became clear that her talents didn’t lie in that direction. But she was able to put her alertness, intelligence and intense drive to use by barking alarms at sewer ships (“cess boats”) and river pirates—even defending against onboard invaders. After 1937 and the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, she ratcheted up her early-warning system, signaling when fighter planes were approaching.

How she became the war’s only official canine POW is a long story, and one best left for readers to discover for themselves. Suffice it to say that Judy, who was, as Weintraub describes, “a fiercely loyal dog, with a keen sense for who was friend and who was foe,” performed many memorable feats (see excerpt).

After Singapore fell to the Japanese, she dug up a life-saving fresh water source for those who were marooned on a barren atoll, and led soldiers (including Frank Williams, who became her chief caregiver and companion) on a dangerous march across Sumatra. Once she and the soldiers had been captured and interned in a Japanese POW camp, she found rodents, snakes and other creatures to help feed herself and her fellow captives. For four horrible years, she and the other prisoners were kept under barbaric conditions. Judy had numerous near-misses with guards who wanted to kill (and eat) her; it’s amazing that anyone, much less a dog, survived such treatment.

Williams and hundreds of other prisoners (all of whom were slowly starving to death) were forced to build a railroad by hand. As Weintraub noted, “Judy’s mere presence on the railway rallied men who had been pushed beyond the brink.” One prisoner penned a quatrain to memorialize the men’s feelings for this heroine dog, and his words summed up their sentiment perfectly: “They would stagger to their workplace/Though they really ought to die/And would mutter in their beards/If that bitch can, so can I.”

Weintraub’s compelling, well-researched book does justice to the remarkable Judy and the men whose stories he tells so effectively and poignantly. Theirs is truly one of the great sagas of WWII and I highly recommend it to everyone. (A younger readers’ version is due out soon—keep an eye out for it.)

For more see our conversation with the author, Robert Weintraub and an excerpt from the book.

Culture: Reviews
How to Foster Dogs

Luckily, mor e and more people are interested in fostering dogs these days. It is a great way to assist the shelter/rescue community and be part of helping homeless dogs receive the care and attention they might require to help them find forever homes.

How to Foster Dogs by training expert and certified behaviorist Pat Miller will be a boon to both potential fosterers and humane/rescue agencies. An invaluable reference and guidebook, it’s written in an accessible, clear style, and addresses practical topics, such as the best ways to introduce the new dog to your own dog, preparing for specialneeds situations, and working with fearful dogs; it also provides many insightful management tips (including how best to handle the heartbreak of letting your foster dog go to a new family). The sound advice offered by Miller is not limited to foster dogs, but can be applied to all dogs, making this a good recommendation for every dog lover.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: The Shepherd’s Life

“Shepherd Wanted” ads in UK farming magazines often specify “Must be experienced. Must have two dogs.”

At the gather (when shepherds come together to bring everyone’s flocks out of the crags), James Rebanks writes, “The best men and dogs are sent to the hardest places,” and “Each of us is responsible for not letting any sheep break past us, easy with a good dog, impossible without one. Farming the fells is only possible because of the bond between men and sheepdogs.”

Rebanks was a fairly typical farm kid who loved working with his father and grandfather on their farm in England’s Lake District but for whom school was a boring waste of time. He quit when he was 15.

By chance he picked up W.H. Hudson’s 1910 classic, A Shepherd’s Life, expecting the usual silly misapprehension of the farmer’s “simple life.” But Hudson’s book was about land and work and men the dropout recognized. It was a book about him. Rebanks immersed himself in books, went back to school (finally to Oxford) and today, his farming is subsidized by his UNESCO salary.

The Shepherds Life is far from simple. It’s sheep and foxes and crows and roe deer and miserable weather and Rebanks’ children waiting to open their presents on Christmas morning, waiting until every last one of the animals has been fed. It is a beautiful, unsentimental life, and very, very hard.

“First rule of shepherding: it’s not about you, it’s about the sheep and the land. Second rule: you can’t win sometimes. Third rule: shut up, and go and do the work.”

Like his grandfather, James Rebanks loves the landscape but “his relationship with it was more like a long, tough marriage than a fleeting holiday love affair.”

The farm belongs to his children, too, and they are expected to help. One morning, Rebanks talks his daughter Bea through birthing a lamb. “She is small, just six years old, and the lamb coming (judging by its feet) is on the large side. But she grabs a lamb toe in each fist and pulls … She nearly stops when it resists her pressure at its hips, but she knows enough to pull it farther and get it out now so it can breathe quickly. She slops it down in front of the mother, whose tongue is already manic in its determination to lick it down. My daughter laughs because the ewe licks her bloody hands as she sets the lamb down.”

His grandfather’s dog, Ben, had been trained to “catch a single ewe on command without hurting it, holding the fleece without nipping the skin … But Ben was cheeky; he knew he couldn’t be caught by the old man, so he would taunt my grandfather by bouncing in front of him as they went to do some work, and my grandfather would shout blue murder at him.”

After the old man had a stroke, they brought Ben to see him. “He was so happy to see his beloved sheepdog that he cried.”

The Shepherd’s Life isn’t really a book about dogs. It’s about a world the dogs make possible.

It’s the best book I’ve read this year.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Breaking Creed and Silent Creed

Oh, the pleasure of reading far into the night. Just one more chapter, or maybe two … next thing you know, it’s three in the morning. How did that happen? For me, suspense novels with compelling main characters written by someone with serious plotting skills are the usual culprits.

Case in point: Alex Kava’s new series featuring Ryder Creed, a man of few words and many, many dogs. Creed is a “dogman,” a former marine K9 handler with tours in Afghanistan on his resume. He and his military dog, Rufus, went ahead of the soldiers to sniff out buried IEDs. Along with Rufus, he brought some of the darkness of that far-away war home with him in his head.

When we meet Creed in the first book (Breaking Creed), he’s on a helicopter with his best multitask search dog, Grace. And here’s the first clue to what makes Ryder Creed different: Grace is a 16-pound Jack Russell, a highly focused and amazingly resilient dynamo whom Creed rescued and trained. In fact, while German Shepherds and Labs are on “staff,” most of Creed’s K9 CrimeScents kennels are filled with what could be called “non-standard” scent dogs; several are mixes, and most are rescues.

Rescue is the underlying theme of these books. Creed was rescued from his post-war drunk and belligerent self, and in turn, takes in and trains abandoned dogs in scent-detection work. Like Creed, some of the dogs have a few rough edges, but also like him, they do their jobs every single time.

Florida is Creed’s home base, and the cases covered in these two books—drug- and people smuggling in the first, shady activities by a top-secret government research unit in the second—both involve the FBI in the person of scarily composed profiler Maggie O’Dell, the lead character in Kava’s other highly regarded series.

A flawed, fierce protagonist whose first and absolute loyalty is to his dogs, plus compelling story lines: a slam-dunk recipe for late-night reading!

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Rescuing Oricito

As an eight-week puppy, Oricito is abandoned on the streets of Valdivia, Chile, where he falls in with veteran strays Rico and Valiente. Together, they survive the daily onslaught of threats, but disagree on their dreams for the future. Oricito wants a home with a loving owner, but the others aren’t so sure such a thing exists.

However, at a local animal shelter, a 12-year-old girl, wise beyond her years, has lessons for the small pack. In Rescuing Oricito: The Almost True Story of a South American Street Dog (Archway Publishing), indigenous mythology of animal shape-shifting, Chilean culture and canine heroics intertwine as author Marty Kingsbury takes us beyond fleas and ticks into the heart of a stray mutt whose story is the story of abandoned dogs everywhere.

Beautifully illustrated by Chilean artist Tatiana Messina, Rescuing Oricito is aimed at middle-school readers, but will resonate with dog lovers of all ages. A poet and playwright in Cambridge, Mass., Kingsbury based her book on the imagined lives of her own rescued Puerto Rican street dogs.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: 101 Doggy Dilemmas

UK trainer Tony Cruse’s book is a good guide to a better understanding of dogs. Addressing behavioral questions such as, “Why does my dog get on the chair the minute I get off it?” Cruse presents the reasons in a charming and straightforward manner, with a nod to the dog’s point of view. In this case, he points out that it doesn’t mean a dog is trying to dominate; more likely, it’s that we’ve warmed the comfy chair and it “clearly is a good place” to be. He also offers training tips such as offering the dog a well-stuffed Kong in another spot in the house, away from the chair. So, if you’ve ever wondered just why your dog does what she does, this delightful read is for you.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Rescue Road
One Man, Thirty Thousand Dogs, and a Million Miles on the Last Hope Highway

Have you ever wondered what the great migration of southern dogs to new forever homes in the north is all about? Or who’s behind the long-distance transports, how they’re orchestrated or why they’re needed? And, importantly, who to thank? You’ll get answers to these questions, and so much more, in the inspiring and riveting new book, Rescue Road.

This is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn about some of the heroes on the front lines of animal rescue—what inspires them and how, miraculously, they pull it all together. The author, a journalist, was at the winning end of the long line of helping hands that brought his family Albie, a dog from Labs4rescue. Inspired by the process, he decided to look into this south/north rescue movement by focusing on Greg Mahle, long-haul transporter and owner of Rescue Road Trips, who chauffeured Albie up from Louisiana. Mahle is also responsible for uniting 30,000 other dogs with their new families, in what he likes to call their “Gotcha Day.”

Zheutlin first profiled Mahle for Parade magazine, but for the book, he accompanied the driver on a 4,200-mile road trip, during which they transported more than 80 dogs. The expedition starts out in Mahle’s hometown of Zanesville, Ohio, winds down to the Gulf Coast, then back up to the northeast. Along the way, we learn about the amazing rescuers, shelter staff and vets who coordinate with Mahle to get their dogs into his big rig safe and sound as he tries to meet a grueling, precisely timed schedule.

We also meet kind-hearted volunteers in towns like Birmingham, Ala., and Allentown, Pa., where, twice a month, dozens come out to greet the dogs and the transporters. They walk and play with the rescues, clean out crates, and bring both the humans and the dogs goodies to eat. Mahle calls them the “Angels,” and we agree that it’s an apt description. As Mahle modestly notes, “We are all cogs in the wheel of rescue; everyone has a part to play.”

This revelatory and joyous story is sometimes heart-wrenching, particularly when the scale of the challenges and unmet needs of the dogs who are left behind are considered. But it has a vital message, one we hope will inspire many readers to join in however they can to help our nation’s unwanted dogs no matter what part of the country they are from.

Culture: Reviews
Film Review: White God
An illuminating exploration of humanity through animals.

If your live in North America, it’s possible you’ve noticed a rising tide recently of news coverage and public dialog related to ethnic discrimination and racially motivated violence. The high visibility of #BlackLivesMatter, #ICantBreathe and other solidarity-based social media phenomena in recent months is just one manifestation of an uncomfortable, mounting social awareness among sheltered denizens of the U.S. and its surrounding territories that systematic oppression, abuse of power, and covert white supremacy are still alive and well. In Eastern Europe, many of these issues have become depressingly old-hat— particularly in Hungary, where nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation have recently given way to a resurgence of white nationalist cries for enforced ethnic purity.

Enter White God, a new film by acclaimed Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, which opened in the U.S. in March. The movie tells the story of a group of rowdy canines confined to an overcrowded public shelter in Budapest who break free of their chains and storm the streets of the city, waging bloody retaliation against their human oppressors. White God draws upon Eastern Europe’s painfully recent history of government tyranny and exploitation under Communism, as well as its subsequent slide into radical ultra-con- servatism, to construct a fast-paced, emotionally devastating parable about the fearsome power of a dehumanized underclass.

The film’s perspective shifts between that of the four-legged rebel leader, Hagen, and his adolescent human sympathizer, Lili. While Hagen endures starvation, abuse and confinement, Lili roams the streets searching for her lost pet, whose agonies are the result of a cruel, impulsive abandonment by Lilli’s embittered father. The real culprit, though, is a “mutt tax” levied against all non-purebreds, which is so ridiculously high that Lili’s father refuses to pay it.

“During the last eight years, Hungary has become more and more extreme,” Mundruczó laments. Indeed, the country’s third most popular political party, according to recent polls, is Jobbik, a rhetorically aggressive Hungarian nationalist group, which lists the permanent expulsion of Jews and Romanis from Eastern Europe among its highest priorities. “In my eyes, the economic crisis [has led to] a huge moral crisis,” Mundruczó says. “The society has become motivated by lots of fear, and those fears are not really very helpful for minorities, and refugees, and those elements. So racism and chauvinism are very much on the rise as we are facing those questions and problems.”

Proton Cinema

White God’s title is a nod to American director Sam Fuller’s similarly themed 1982 film White Dog—which Mundruczó saw after his own movie had already been completed, but whose philosophical underpinnings he enthusiastically embraced. Mundruczó’s greatest inspiration, though, comes from South African author J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, in which a shamed college professor retreats to the countryside and takes on a position at a small veterinary clinic, which he discovers exists primarily to euthanize unwanted street dogs. Like White God, Coetzee’s novel traces the subterranean networks that link the mass extermination of neglected South African strays, and the looming specters of ethnic cleansing and mounting political extremism that have plagued the region.

The film also draws parallels between social attitudes condoning the routine abuse and extermination of domesticated animals, and the embedded institutional prejudices which allow racism and other forms of structural inequality to persist. “That first time in the dog park,” Mundruczó recalls, “I said, ‘Such a shame!’ I just looked around, and I watched the dogs’ eyes behind the fences, and I said, ‘I really would like to talk about that … I don’t want to live in a world where dogs have no rights.’ So of course this is about human rights and animal rights.”

The “mutt tax” and subsequent confinement, starvation, abuse and ultimately, extermination of mixed-breed animals in White God, in one sense, is an obvious metaphor—socially marginalized people are often crassly compared to animals to justify their mistreatment, and the concept of ethnic “purity” is the bread and butter of any toxic nationalist movement.

More to the point, though, it was very nearly a reality in Hungary. Though it was ultimately struck down, a proposed law in Budapest, very similar to the one in the film, would have effectively consigned almost all of the city’s mixedbreed dogs to kill shelters. What White God leaves out is that a similar tax, though slightly less prohibitive, would have been applied to “foreign” purebreds as well. Basically, the only dogs not subject to taxation would have been purebred dogs of a breed historically traceable to Hungary, a bizarre and chilling stipulation considering Hungary’s recent groundswell of politi cized racial antipathy.

Naturally, the genocidal extermination of “impure” housepets, and actual, human genocide can’t be compared in terms of moral equivalency. What’s disturbing in this scenario is the deeper pathos it suggests—the extreme devaluation of individual lives for the sake of an abstract ideal. It’s hard to imagine a more poignant symbol of the human wreckage caused by the quest for ethnic purity than the execution of thousands of beloved pet dogs as an enforced gesture of national solidarity. There is a singularly grotesque vulgarity in extending such notions of national purity to creatures who aren’t even cap- able of having political consciousness.

Mundruczó sees these parallels in terms of treachery and moral failure. “Dogs are universal,” He says, “Dogs are ‘human.’ Dogs are part of the human family. That’s the way it was for thousands and thousands of years, and then we betrayed them. And then they have, of course, anger. So they symbolize that anger for any minority who is kicked out of our family.”

It’s hard to come away from such a film without fully considering the relationship between human and animal cruelty, even outside the context of blatantly sinister totalitarianism. Even in more progressive parts of the world, most people think nothing of euthanizing domesticated animals for the sake of population control, public health, etc., and an eerily similar rationale tends to pervade public dialog regarding violence against human citizens. “Protecting the public welfare” can become a justification for just about any form of large-scale civil abuse, so long as a public majority is scared or hostile enough to allow it.

Mundruczó’s goal is to strip away the particularities of these threads of suffering and unify them into a single narrative that anyone can immediately identify with. “[Dogs] love humans more than humans themselves,” he observes, “and of course in this way, you can follow a story much more easily.”

This article was originally published on Guff.com © 2015 by Devon Ashby, reprinted with permission.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Strays By Jennifer Caloyeras

There’s been much talk about the age-bending popularity of Young Adult books, and with Strays, a novel by Jennifer Caloyeras, one can readily understand why. This is the story of Iris, a bright but troubled 16-year-old who has trouble coping after the death of her mom. She immerses herself in science and TV nature shows, but she doesn’t know how to fix her problems: an inability to become attached or ask for help. She holds it all in, resulting in temper “management” issues. A childish threat written in a diary and discovered by a teacher leads to a judge ordering Iris to work in a canine rehab program. She is paired with Roman, a three-legged Pit Bull rescued from a fighting ring; this program is his last hope of finding a new home. Iris steadily works through her fear of dogs, and moves beyond her grief. She also has an epiphany about empathy and the necessity of understanding others—her father, friends and, yes, dogs—through their own histories. This is a scintillating book about a journey of self-discovery that should inspire readers of all ages.

Culture: Reviews
George the Dog, John the Artist: A Rescue Story

Every day, books about a dog saving a life or teaching a lesson land on our desk. Rarely, however, are points made more poignantly and convincingly than in this new memoir, George the Dog, John the Artist: A Rescue Story.

This inspiring story by former petty thief and once-homeless John Dolan—who today is an internationally respected artist—is really about George, the stray Staffordshire Terrier who started him on his remarkable journey of self-discovery and redemption.

Dolan narrates their story, which is quite unlike others in this genre. In a very down-to-earth, vérité voice, he recalls his early east London life and how years of neglect and poverty led to more than 30 prison incarcerations (some of which were intentional, a way to get inside during the cold winter months).

As a child, Dolan had a knack for drawing, a talent that he resurrected once he became responsible for George’s welfare and keeping himself outside of prison for the dog’s sake. They were living near Shoreditch High Street in London, a district that had become hip and arty. At first, Dolan and George got along by hanging out on the street and begging; the well-trained, friendly dog was a big draw. But as Dolan describes it, “I was always thinking about how I was going to get off the street and make an honest living for myself and George. Seeing all the art around Shoreditch, I began to wonder whether I could make a few quid out of drawing something myself.”

He started with meticulous renderings of local buildings, some of which he did thousands of times until he got them right. His self-confidence steadily grew, and the man with the pad and pencil and his dog became neighborhood fixtures. His first commission came from a woman who asked him to draw George.

As he readily admits, “George was the reason I could call myself an artist.” That drawing was the first piece that he felt he ever fully completed. The woman was thrilled with it, and after that, he started drawing George regularly. His art sold, opening up a whole new life for the two of them. In September 2013, he had his first solo show, “George the Dog, John the Artist,” which was a sell-out. This entertaining, inspiring story is unique in the annals of dog-saves-man tales and definitely merits your attention. 

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