Lisa McCormick

Lisa McCormick is an award-winning investigative reporter whose stories have appeared in Dogs for Kids magazine, The Kansas City Star, and the national consumer news website, ConsumerAffairs.com; she has written 12 nonfiction children's books.

News: Guest Posts
Speech v. Cruelty
SCOTUS rejects law banning animal cruelty videos

The Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday to strike down a law banning the sale of graphic animal cruelty videos has won the support of First Amendment advocates and the ire of animal protection groups.

  Supreme Court justices, by an 8-1 vote, ruled the federal law was “substantially overbroad, and therefore invalid under the First Amendment.”   The head of an organization that defends the First Amendment applauded Tuesday’s ruling, saying, “Speech is protected whether it’s popular or unpopular, harmful or unharmful.”   But the president of the Humane Society of the United States, who emphasized his organization is a “devoted defender of the First Amendment,” said no one should be able to profit from “malicious, illegal, and violent acts.”   Tuesday’s high court ruling also threw out the conviction of a Virginia man sentenced to three years in prison under the law for selling dogfighting videos. Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Virginia, appealed his conviction, saying it violated his right of free speech. The U.S Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia tossed out Stevens’ conviction and ruled the 1999 law was unconstitutional.   The Department of Justice later appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.   The 11-year-old law at the center of this debate—the Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act—banned the interstate sale of videos depicting illegal and extreme acts of animal cruelty, including dog fighting and “crush videos.” Those are “sexual gratification” videos in which puppies, kittens, and other small animals are crushed, smothered, and pierced to death—often by women wearing high-heeled shoes.
Read the complete story in Consumer Affairs.


News: Guest Posts
Grieving Together
An Okla. couple is creating a memorial to pets poisoned by melamine

[Editor’s note: It’s been two years since melamine-tainted pet food destroyed the lives of countless dogs and cats and their people. Yesterday, Bark contributor Lisa Wade McCormick reported for Consumer Affairs.com on how one Oklahoma couple has decided to remember the pets they lost.]

  A grieving pet owner is creating a memorial to honor the thousands of dogs and cats that died or became seriously ill during the 2007 melamine-tainted pet food recall.   The Oklahoma woman and her husband, who lost six pets in the recall that “nuked” their lives, have donated five acres of land near Keystone Lake in Tulsa for the sanctuary they’ve named Vindication.    The memorial is scheduled to open on June 12, 2010.   “The animals that were lost or are still suffering need to be counted and acknowledged,” says the woman, who wants to remain anonymous. “I want people to feel like their animals did matter. This memorial is to honor the bond between animals and humans.”   Creating the memorial is also the donor’s way of helping pet owners deal with heartbreaking loss of their beloved dogs and cats.   Such a loss can shatter someone’s life, she says. It devastated hers.   She and her husband lost two dogs and four cats because of melamine-tainted food.   “By March 17, one day after Menu announced its recall, I had three dead animals and three who were dying slowly,” the woman says. “I have cleaned vomit and bloody urine and know what happens when pets die of catastrophic kidney failure. And I can’t tell you how it hurts me to open my door and walk into an empty house.   “But this (memorial) isn’t about my loss,” she adds. “It’s about the thousands and thousands of pet owners out who are being stabbed in the backs. There is no justice or mercy for them or their pets. And there are no safer pet foods out there. I’m doing this as one grieving pet family to the rest of those out there. And I honestly feel this will help their hearts’ heal.”   The donor plans to transform the five acres of Oklahoma’s ancient Cross Timbers -- covered with 500-year-old oak trees -- into a memorial garden that will feature cascading pathways lined with flowers, park benches, and handmade stones. Each stone will bear the name of a dog or cat that died or is still sick because of the contaminated pet food, the donor says.   “I will make all the stones at no cost to pet owners,” she told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I expect I will be overwhelmed, but I felt compelled to do this for the pet people. It’s time somebody did something right for them.”   Read Lisa Wade McCormick’s complete report for ConsumerAffairs.com.


News: Guest Posts
Jury Rules Against Hartz
Beloved bulldog died 35 hours after flea drops were applied

[Editor’s note: We’ve blogged a bit about adverse reactions in dogs due to spot-on pesticide treatments and flea collars (see links below). Yesterday, Bark contributor Lisa Wade McCormick reported for ConsumerAffairs.com on what may be the first successful small claims case involving topical flea treatments. A portion of her story is reprinted here.]

A 72-year-old dog owner has won what may be a landmark decision against the country’s leading maker of pet care products and fueled the ongoing debate over the safety of topical flea and tick treatments.

A Texas jury awarded Frank Bowers $4,440.75 in the small claims court action he filed against Hartz Mountain Corporation. In this David-versus-Goliath court battle—believed to be the first small claims court action of its kind—Bowers alleged that Hartz Ultra Guard Pro Flea and Tick Drops caused the death of his beloved Olde English Bulldog, Diesel.

The six-member jury deliberated less than 30 minutes before reaching a unanimous decision in favor of Bowers, who was widely considered the underdog in the case.

“When the bailiff walked in the courtroom and said we have a unanimous decision, I nearly passed out,” said Bowers, who represented himself in the court action. “The jury said ‘we find Mr. Bowers’ integrity outweighed what was presented by (Hartz) attorney. He lost an animal of value and all costs he’s out are awarded to him.’”

“I just literally went numb,” Bowers added. “I caught up with three jurors in the hallway after the hearing. All I said to them was: ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’ And they just said: ‘we did our job.’”

Hartz told ConsumerAffairs.com that it believed the case was “without merit,” but did not appeal because of the time and cost involved.

Sense of justice

For Bowers, the jury’s decision brings closure and a sense of justice to an emotional issue that started at 8:30 p.m. on August 7, 2008. On that warm summer night in Texas, Bowers applied Hartz Ultra Guard Pro Flea and Tick Drops to the 14-month-old, 68-pound, Diesel.

“I nipped off the top of the tube and put it on his back,” Bowers recalled. “I precisely used it as directed – nothing more, nothing less than directed.” By early the next morning Diesel had become gravelly ill.

“I went to my garage to work and I smelled this odor from excretion,” Bowers said. “Diesel was laying on the floor. He was shaking and having spasms of some kind. And he was passing a horrible odor of diarrhea.” Bowers called his daughter, who told him to immediately take the ailing dog to the vet.

Diesel’s health continued its rapid decline during the ride to his vet’s office, Bowers said.

“He continued to have bowel movements on the way. When we got to the vet’s office, he couldn’t walk. They got one of those stainless steel tables and took him back to an exam room.”

The veterinarian asked Bowers a battery of questions about Diesel, including one that caught him off guard.

“The vet asked me if I’d put any flea treatment on him,” Bowers said. “And I said: ‘yes, last night.’ I told him what it was and went back to the store to get a tube to show him.”

The vet, he said, took one look at the Hartz Ultra Guard Pro Flea and Tick Drops and shook his head. “He said: ‘Oh, my God. He’s going to have kidney failure.’”

By 4 o’clock the next morning, Diesel’s kidneys had shut down.

“He was in total renal failure,” Bowers said. “The vet wanted permission to euthanize him. I said you know what’s best and I don’t want any animal to suffer. “I picked Diesel up around 7 a.m. and took him out in the country and buried him on my daughter’s 10 acres.”

This painful chapter in Bowers’ life happened in less than 35 hours—from the night he applied the flea and tick drops to the morning of Diesel’s death.

Read Lisa Wade McCormick’s complete report.

News: Guest Posts
SAR Dogs in Haiti: Update
Border Collie finds three girls buried alive in rubble
[Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, JoAnna Lou blogged about the amazing work of search-and-rescue dogs and handlers in Haiti. Today, Lisa Wade McCormick followed up with a story about how one dog rescued a few young earthquake victims in a story she wrote for ConsumerAffairs.com—a portion of which is reprinted here.]   Amid the sorrow and despair in the aftermath of Tuesday’s deadly earthquake in Haiti comes news of survival: One of the United States’ top canine disaster search-and-rescue teams on Friday found three girls trapped alive in the rubble of a four-story building.   A Border Collie named Hunter—specially-trained by the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) to locate people buried alive—discovered the young survivors under four feet of concrete and debris. The girls had been trapped nearly 70 hours—since the powerful earthquake devastated the tiny island country.   Hunter and his handler, Los Angles firefighter Bill Monahan, located the girls while searching a large bowl-shaped area near Haiti’s crumpled Presidential Palace. “After crisscrossing the area, Hunter pinpointed the survivors’ scent under four feet of broken concrete and did his ‘bark alert’ to let Bill know where the victims were,” the SDF said in statement. “Bill spoke with the survivors, then passed them bottles of water tied to the end of a stick. As they reached for the water one of the girls said, ‘thank you.’”   Monahan and Hunter are one of six SDF teams deployed with the California Task Force 2 to find victims buried in earthquake’s rubble.   The 72 members of the task force, who have 70,000 pounds of heavy machinery and other rescue equipment, are searching around the clock to find survivors of the cataclysmic earthquake that many fear will claim tens of thousands of lives.   “The teams are working in 12-hour shifts so they have time to rest and recuperate,” said Captain Jayd Swendseid of the California Task Force. “The team is putting in long and exhausting days. Roads are closed and there is a lot of debris that is making transportation difficult, but the team is managing to get to buildings and make rescues. Morale is good and supplies are sufficient so far.”   Valuable Tools The six “live-scent” dogs on the teams are arguably the most valuable tools rescue workers have in a disaster of this magnitude. These elite canines can climb and run across the piles of concrete and other debris in the streets of Port-Au-Prince and determine within three minutes if there are survivors buried below, the SDF said.   Besides Monahan and Hunter, the other SDF canine teams working in Haiti with the California Task Force 2 are: 
 • L.A. County Firefighter Gary Durian and his Golden Retriever, Baxter; 

 • L.A. County Firefighter Ron Horetski and his Lab, Pearl; 
 • L.A. County Firefighter Jasmine Segura and her Lab, Cadillac; 
 • L.A. Country Firefighter Jason Vasquez and his German Shepherd, Maverick; 

 • California civilian Ron Weckbacher and his border collie, Dawson.   Weckbacher is the training group’s leader. He and Dawson have participated in other search-and-rescue operations, including the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Hurricane Katrina.   Another SDF canine disaster search and rescue team is also on the ground in Haiti. Julie Padelford-Jansen with Miami’s Fire and Rescue Department--and her dog, Dakota--are working with Florida Task Force 1 in the rescue efforts. The SDF also has other canine teams on standby--ready to deploy to Haiti when needed.   “This moment is what SDF Search Teams train for--week in and week out--throughout their careers together,” said SDF founder, Wilma Melville. “When one SDF team succeeds, all of our teams succeed.   “Our thoughts are with our teams in Haiti, who continue to comb the rubble into the night,” she added. “Their perseverance, skill, and strength in the face of extreme challenges make us all proud, and give us hope.”  

The SDF, headquartered in Ojai, California, is the only organization in the country that works exclusively with rescued dogs and trains them to rescue people buried alive. Most of SDF’s 69 canine search teams are certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). That is the highest achievement for search and rescue teams and means they can respond to any disaster.

Read Lisa Wade McCormick's complete story. 

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Rescue, Doubled
How the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation saves lives

Cody was an uncontrollable puppy nobody wanted. But now, the spirited Golden Retriever is one of the most highly trained search dogs in the country. This is his amazing tale, the story of a rescued dog who is rescuing people. The nine-year-old Golden who nearly lost his life in a Wisconsin animal shelter is now part of an elite group of emergency workers specially trained to respond to disasters and find people buried alive. Cody’s tale, however, would undoubtedly have had a different and tragic ending if an organization called the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF), in Ventura County, Calif., hadn’t stepped in and taught him how to use his boundless energy to save lives.

“He is the luckiest dog in the world,” says handler Linda D’Orsi, a captain with the Chula Vista, Calif., fire department. “It could have been the end for him in the shelter in Wisconsin.” Cody lived with six different families before his first birthday. Each brought him back to the shelter because he had too much energy—they couldn’t control him. “He was a throwaway dog,” D’Orsi says. “He probably would have been put to sleep if someone hadn’t seen his potential.”

That someone was Dawn Christenson, a volunteer with Golden Retriever Rescue of Wisconsin (GRROW). She understood that Cody’s endless energy and strong play drive made him an excellent candidate for search-and-rescue work. “Cody was not your average Golden,” she says. “He was a Golden who needed a job.” But where would this feisty dog find one? The answer to that question was provided by SDF, which works exclusively with rescued dogs and trains them to find people who are lost or buried alive. Christenson contacted the organization about Cody, and her call saved his life. “The day after Dawn’s call, Cody was on a plane heading to the foundation’s training facility in Gilroy, Calif.,” explains D’Orsi.

Today, Cody and D’Orsi are one of 236 canine search-and-rescue teams in the country with advanced certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This certification, the pinnacle achievement for canine search teams, means that Cody and D’Orsi can respond to any disaster. Not a bad feat for a dog nobody wanted.

Tales like Cody’s aren’t unusual in SDF’s 14-year history. Since retired schoolteacher Wilma Melville founded the organization in 1996, she and her staff have worked with scores of dogs from shelters and breed rescue groups, turning them into highly trained search dogs. They’re dogs like Andy, another spirited Golden Retriever rescued by the same group that saved Cody. This energetic canine is trained to rescue people buried in the rubble of collapsed buildings—fitting and bittersweet, because Andy is named in honor of 25-year-old Andrea Haberman, a young woman killed during the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

“What a tremendous honor it is for us to have Andy the dog named in honor of our Andrea,” says Andrea’s dad, Gordon Haberman of West Bend, Wis. “It’s one of the few positive things that I can point to out of this whole tragedy.” Haberman discovered the vital role search dogs play during disasters when he and his family scoured hospitals in New York City “hoping against hope” that Andrea was alive.

“We were standing outside St. Vincent’s Hospital,” he recalls. “It was eerily quiet; there were no injured coming in. All of a sudden, we heard sirens coming up the street. Our heads snapped, hoping it was someone coming out of the Trade Center.” The sirens, however, came from a truck carrying some of the dogs who had been searching for survivors at Ground Zero.

“Some of the dogs were injured,” Haberman says. “Many had burns on the pads of their feet. These dogs had searched tirelessly and without regard for their own safety.”

Haberman later made a donation to SDF, which helped cover the training costs for Andy and his handler, firefighter Russell Tao of the Chino Valley, Calif., Independent Fire District. “We’re very proud of Russ, Andy, the Search Dog Foundation and the good work they do,” Haberman says. “It’s important work. We know our Andrea would be intensely proud of this.”

Tao, who has worked as Andy’s partner since 2005, says Andrea’s memory is etched in his heart. “I hope Andy and I can do something really good one day to carry on Andrea’s legacy,” he says. “I feel a lot of responsibility as a handler, because if we search someplace and say nobody is there, then we’re not leaving anybody behind. On top of that, there’s the memory of this great young woman. And she and her family are always with us.”

Tao called the Habermans when he and Andy were deployed to hurricanes Gustav and Ike. “I told them we’re heading to the hurricanes and hopefully we’d be out there helping people.”

That same desire to help people—particularly those injured during a disaster or terrorist attack—was the motivating force behind Melville’s decision to establish the SDF. Her inspiration came when she and her dog Murphy responded to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla.

“That bombing opened my eyes to the national need for certified canine search teams,” Melville says. “When that happened, there were only 15 of these teams in the nation.” Melville decided to fill the void. “I knew how to train a dog—I had a relationship with a trainer, and I knew if I put my mind to it, we could come up with a faster, better and more cost-effective way to do this.”

Back then, Melville says, it took a dog and handler about three to four years to become FEMA-certified. Her organization has slashed that time in half. Now, she says, “It takes six to eight months to train the dogs. The dogs are then assigned to their handlers, and it takes them about a year to get ready for the FEMA test. There’s no other organization that does what we do the way we do it. We give highly trained dogs to firefighters at no cost at all to them or their departments, and we stay with them throughout their careers.”

The foundation doesn’t receive government funds to cover the more than $10,000 required to train each team and provide lifetime care for the dog. As a nonprofit organization, the SDF pays those costs with donations from individuals and foundations. “We’ve actually been the leader in this field, and instrumental in greatly increasing the number of canine search teams out there,” Melville says.

The organization now has 69 search teams. The FEMA certification standard that many have is what sets these canine teams apart from others trained in water, avalanche, cadaver or wilderness search. And unlike other canines in public service, disaster search dogs must attain this certification to do their jobs.

FEMA Type One Advanced Certification is the highest level of urban search certification recognized in the U.S. To pass the advanced FEMA certification test, a dog must search two piles of rubble and find four to six victims. The dogs have only 20 minutes to complete this mission, and the testers try to distract them. For example, they may put food, live chickens or even cats in the piles of rubble. If the dogs become distracted, they fail the test.

“Our mission is to strengthen the disaster response in America,” Melville says. “It’s not that we do it all. We are one piece of the disaster network.” In recent years, SDF’s teams have deployed as first responders to urban emergencies across the board—including such crises as earthquakes, mudslides, hurricanes, building collapses, missing children, derailed trains and, of course, the 9/11 attacks.

“I’m proud of having come up with this organization,” Melville says. “I never started this by saying I’m going to change the way of doing disaster searches in this country. But people have watched our successful methods and emulated many of them.”

Melville isn’t resting on her laurels, though. The 75-year-old grandmother plans to open a national training center in California for handlers and dogs; SDF has secured 125 acres for the estimated $16 million facility. She also wants to expand SDF’s Bark Force, a group of volunteers who comb animal shelters for potential dogs. “If we can find the characteristics we’re looking for in a rescued dog, then we’re relieving the pet overpopulation problem. And we’re giving these high-energy dogs—who are difficult for most families to adopt—a job.”

Firefighters like D’Orsi and Tao applaud Melville’s commitment to them, to the dogs and to helping those in need. “This is a great opportunity to do good things, and that’s what those of us in the fire service want to do,” say Tao, who’s been a handler for nine years. “Andy has definitely found his calling in life.”

So has Cody, who recently took on a new role in canine disaster training. “He’s become like a mentor dog,” D’Orsi says. “He helps with training and works with the new handlers before they get their dogs. They get to work with Cody because you can’t ruin him by making a mistake or two. He knows the system so well.” It’s a remarkable transformation for the once-unruly puppy.

“Cody still has all that energy, but it’s now directed,” D’Orsi says. “He’s become comfortable in his own fur and found his niche in life. And while we don’t wish harm on anyone, we’d love to get out there and help more people. We’re ready to go.”