Dog's Life: Humane
Life on the Run—and on the Chain
A special report on Fern Levitt's powerful documentary SLED DOGS is scheduled to air Friday, November 3 on ABC's Nightline.
A documentary like Sled Dogs is long overdue, and internationally acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Fern Levitt has proven herself to be the perfect person to direct such an eye-opening exposé. Passionate about the subject of the inhumane treatment of dogs in commercial sled-dog operations and long-distance endurance races, such as the 1,000-mile Iditarod, she takes up their cause in this film. Her mission to unchain the dogs and shut down the industry is a noble one. Once you see this film—which we highly recommend you do—your attention will surely be sparked as well. We spoke with her recently about what brought her to make it, the image and the reality behind the sled-dog industry (both commercial tours and racing), and what effects she hopes Sled Dogs will have.
Bark: Your film’s been compared to Blackfish and The Cove. How do you feel about that?
Fern Levitt: That is a huge compliment. I have been a documentary filmmaker for 20 years and until this film, my work has been about people who fought for the rights of others, against tyranny and for change, including the Little Rock Nine and Václav Havel. They have had a huge influence on me. As a filmmaker, I have been influenced by the stories that have been told and by people whom I have filmed.
BK: What inspired you to take on this project?
FL: After a 2010 dogsledding experience, I went behind the scenes and saw that the dogs were kept in inhumane conditions. We saw 300 to 400 dogs in a field, all chained and with plastic barrels as their shelters. It was getting to be spring and you could see the feces and mud. We adopted one of the dogs; his name was Slater and he had been chained for nine years. He was going to be killed because he was coming to the end of what one of the staff members said was his “useful” life. He was in horrific condition. I knew that as a filmmaker, I had the power to make a change. There was no way I was turning away from this.
After Blackfish came out, I saw the power and impact that film had on the public and on SeaWorld, and felt people would respond in the same way to sled dogs. We had the opportunity to save these dogs, which has always been my goal. Not just to make a film but to save these dogs and to find homes for them.
BK: What were your biggest challenges?
FL: There were many challenges just as an animal lover—to see these dogs chained like that. And, you know, dogs are so expressive. You know when they are happy or sad. I saw the desperation in their eyes, and when they were petted, they clung on whatever way they could. They were so desperate for human touch, and it broke my heart. The only way I could cope was to promise that I would do everything in my power to free them.
It was difficult too with the people involved, like the musher, Patrick, whom I filmed training for and running his first Iditarod. I really like him a lot and kept hoping he would recognize what’s going on and turn away from this. I challenged him and asked him many questions, but when it came down to it, he was determined to do what he was going to do. He put his need to finish the race higher than the needs of his dogs, who were dehydrated, exhausted and very depressed.
I felt that way about Gena, the kennel owner, as well. In the end, she was going to see herself portrayed in a light that isn’t positive, but what she’s doing isn’t positive. I had a hard time with that; I talked about it to my rabbi, and he asked me to think about the greater good. The greater good was saving these dogs, because what was going on behind the scenes is cruel and immoral. But it was a struggle.
BK: The film is well balanced, given the kind of story you could have told. Though it’s clear where your sympathies lie, you present different points of view.
FL: I did that very purposefully. With Patrick, I wanted people to see themselves as Patrick. Until I rescued Slater, I was like Patrick. I said I was an animal lover but I took my kids to the zoo, I went dolphin swimming, rode elephants in Africa. I didn’t think about the animals’ welfare, I thought about my fun. I even saw the elephant being chained after our ride. But I did what I wanted to do: I wanted to ride an elephant, I wanted to touch a dolphin and so I put my needs ahead of theirs. I had to take a good look at myself and realize that I was as selfish as everyone else and had no business calling myself an animal lover. In Patrick, I was hoping that everyone could see themselves and would begin to question themselves too. What does it say about us that we use animals for our enjoyment and don’t think of their welfare? I hoped that people would reflect on that.
BK: How did you approach the issue of balance?
FL: I knew I had to balance the film because it’s very hard to watch an animal being abused—I can’t watch that myself. We wanted people to watch it and listen to the narrative, but if it were too heavy duty, they wouldn’t.
We are influenced by the narrative that others give us. I’m a journalist, I’m supposed to be asking questions, but I fell for the narrative too. I wanted to go dogsledding and bought the story that happy dogs are pulling the sled, they love what they do, they’re canine athletes and so on. So I wanted to show both sides in order to demonstrate that the narratives are just all BS. Maybe Patrick and Gena honestly believe that these dogs are somehow different and can be treated differently. But that’s the false narrative I’ve heard too many times.
BK: There’s a similarity in the stories promulgated about Greyhounds and sled dogs. Some say that Greyhounds aren’t like other dogs too.
FL: I had to challenge that with the truth. I had to change the lie that somehow these dogs are different from other dogs. That’s why I put that scene in at the end of the film showing rescued sled dogs with their people and families—they are just dogs clearly loving their new freedoms.
One thing I feel cautiously optimistic about is that people are recognizing that animals are sentient beings, and have emotions and feelings. People are speaking out for the rights of animals. The attitude has changed. Dogs are so loved, with good reason, so I hope that if people understand the truth of the industry, there will be calls for change.
BK: Can commercial dogsledding be done ethically?
FL: Eden Ethical Dogsledding is a small tour operation owned by a brother and sister in Vermont. Their dogs all live at home, they are never chained, it’s not profitbased. But generally, people are greedy and profit comes out on top every time, so I’d say no, it can’t be done ethically.
It’s not that I’m against dogsledding, but I am against doing it on a commercial basis. Look at what happened to the Iditarod. It started out as a tribute to the original 1925 serum run to Nome, but each year it becomes larger, more corrupt and more horrific. Whenever we use animals for entertainment and profit, nine times out of 10, their welfare is compromised. People ask me if I want to close down the industry and the answer is, yes, I do.
BK: What is the key to doing that? Is it up to the consumer, as with what happened with SeaWorld, or can it be done legislatively?
FL: Governments won’t do anything. When more than 100 sled dogs were slaughtered in my country, you saw what the government did. [Editor’s note: The government conducted a study and found that killing the dogs wasn’t wrong; it was the way they were killed that was the problem.] It is up to us. That’s what happened with SeaWorld. Because of Blackfish, people stopped going, and they were forced to make changes. Wells Fargo Bank and State Farm Insurance withdrew their support from the Iditarod, and that was due to a combination of seeing the film and pressure from PETA. These companies don’t want to be associated with animal abuse.
BK: Did you get feedback from veterinarians?
FL: When I finished the film, I sat down with a group of vets and showed it to them. They were horrified that the dogs were allowed to get into the conditions they saw. They were dehydrated, they were lame, their tails were tucked between their legs, their eyes were sunken. The consensus of the 40 vets was that these were sick dogs. A third of these dogs are dropped out of the race because of bleeding ulcers, even though they’re given medication to prevent them. Bleeding ulcers are a result of an animal being severely stressed.
Plus, science tells us that chaining is cruel and inhumane. Dogs are pack animals and putting them on chains deprives them of living that way. The head vet of the Iditarod said, “Well, you know, they can run around on their chains, jump onto their houses.” I couldn’t believe he said that. Apparently even vets sell their soul.
BK: How did you present the film to the people you wanted to appear in it—not just the activists, but people like Patrick and Gena?
FL: You keep hearing that these dogs aren’t pet dogs, they are sled dogs. You hear it from the mayor of Snowmass, you hear it from the new owners of Krabloonik [a Snowmass commercial sled-dog operation], you hear it from Patrick, from Gena, and I think they really believe it. So when I told Patrick that I wanted to film a first-time musher running the Iditarod with first-time dogs, he thought that was great. It wasn’t difficult at all to involve him.
BK: You filmed some heartbreaking moments at Gena’s kennel—chaining a puppy, finding a dead dog. How they did they come about?
FL: A musher told me that puppies cry when they’re put on the chain for the first time—they cry for days. How can you do that? But you see how Gena did it. And she had no idea that the other dog was dead—I found him. Through my research, I learned that many dogs freeze to death or die of heat stroke in the summer. It was a particularly cold night before we filmed there, and I just had a feeling. As the guys were filming, I walked around and found the frozen dog. She told us that his brother had died the same way the previous year.
BK: What can people do? What’s the call to action?
FL: First, people should not support or give business to commercial dog sledding. Second, they should not support the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest [Canada’s 1,000-mile sled-dog event]. Third, they need to talk about it, spread the word. These dogs spend their lives at the end of a short chain and are easily discarded when they are no longer useful. That’s the reality of the industry—it’s not the happydogs- pulling-the-sled fable. People need to sign petitions, spread the word on social media, go to sleddogsfilm.com, read about it and tell their friends. If anyone is going dogsledding, tell them the truth about what’s going on. We need help convincing other sponsors to drop out. (That’s what happened to the circus; people stopped supporting the circus after 140 years.)
We can really do this—we can right these wrongs and bring these dogs home. But we need support. We need people to break their chains and find homes for them. That would be my dream. I live for that day.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Q&A with Judith Jones
Judith Jones 1924 - 2017
Editor's Note: This following interview was published a couple of years ago, but today we just heard about the death of Judith Jones who died from complications from Alzheimer's disease. She was 93 years old. Her obituary in The Washington Post details her amazing accomplishments, including that as a young editor living in Paris, she was responsible for rescuing Anne Frank's The Diary of Young Girl from the publisher's reject pile. We were honored to have the opportunity to interview her about the publication of her last work, the charming Love Me, Feed Me. Her belief was that food is transformative, for both us and our precious dogs. We agree wholeheartedly.
We chatted with Judith Jones, a renowned cookbook editor who worked with the greats—Julia Child, Jacques Pépin and Marion Cunningham, among others. Now in her 90s, she has written a delightful book, Love Me, Feed Me (Knopf), about cooking for herself and her little dog Mabon.
This sensible book reminded us of food writers like Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher: recipes plus a pinch of life itself.
After I got my compliments on the book out of the way, I asked her why cooking for her dog was important to her.
Judith Jones: There are insecure people who are a little nervous about cooking; they think, “Oh, I don’t have the precise enough measurements,” or something like that. I want people to relax and have fun, like when I’m having a steak dinner and put aside a third of it for my little friend. For me, it’s part the camaraderie I share with him. Mabon loves his meals, and he’s having what I’m having. I follow the basic one-third meat protein, one-third vegetables and one-third grain [ratio] for his meals.
CK: How about the little spot of wine you add to some of the dishes?
JJ: The wine usually boils away and is there for the flavor. Sometimes, if it is easy [to do], I hold back and don’t give him any, but if it is a big braise or a stew, I add the wine and it just burns off. Mabon has never objected. Nor does he get boozy.
He’s really incredibly healthy, and he definitely makes choices. The world is now made up of kale lovers and kale haters—I’m so sick of kale … I don’t think it’s one of the most graceful and delicate of our vegetable offerings. The first time I gave it to Mabon, I put little clumps [of it] in his dish; he pulled them out one by one, put them on the kitchen floor and walked away. So eloquent—he didn’t need words.
CK: Has Mabon turned tail on other things besides kale?
JJ: He hasn’t given up on kale, but I haven’t forced it. He loves broccoli, so it isn’t just a big prejudice that covers everything green.
CK: I loved your roasted-vegetable recipe; it seems so simple to prepare.
JJ: Mabon loves the roasted vegetables. It is easy, and roasting changes the flavor slightly because it sweetens the vegetables. The natural sweetness comes to the surface—that’s what causes them to brown.
CK: What are your hopes for the book?
JJ: I don’t want to force people to do things, because then they wouldn’t have any pleasure it in. But I think we have become a little bit rigid about our own diet. They want us to do cookbooks called “food is medicine.” It’s not medicine—it’s so much more, almost transforming. It’s sensually delicious, and you love to taste it. If it needs tweaking, maybe you add a drop of lemon juice or bit more salt. I think that I really want to bring pleasure to cooking for your dog, whether you’re alone or with a family.
CK: I think the book is also perfect for children, a great way to get them involved in that level of dog care.
JJ: Exactly. Dogs are part of your family and you should know what you’re feeding everyone in your family. It shouldn’t come from China; treats from China have killed dogs. My vet agrees that I couldn’t be doing anything better for Mabon. She risks something by saying that, as some vets would disagree with her.
And don’t you love that quote by MFK Fisher? “I wouldn’t feed my dog or cat anything I wouldn’t feed myself.” That’s all there is to it.
Judith Jones is the author of The Book of New New England Cookery and The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food. In 2006, she was awarded the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.
Dog's Life: Humane
Laura Schenone’s new book, The Dogs of Avalon, is a quite departure from her two previous works, both of which focused on food. (Her first, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, won the James Beard Foundation Book Award for culinary writing.) When she adopted an ex-racing Greyhound-mix from Ireland, all that changed. Bark editor-in-chief Claudia Kawczynska talks with her about the humane activists she profiles.
Bark: Why did you write this book, which is basically about the recent history of the Greyhound rescue movement?
Laura Schenone: When my oldest son was around 10, he really wanted a dog, but I had been putting him off because I didn’t want the trouble. Then I happened to meet a woman who was bringing Greyhounds over from Ireland and finding them homes in the U.S. because, as she explained, no one wanted them there. It seemed very strange to me, and I wasn’t interested.
But she got my attention when she sent me an email about a dog named Lily who needed a home. Lily had been found in terrible condition on the side of the road in Cork and brought to a sanctuary. The email came with photos chronicling her recovery from a bloody mess to the most beautiful dog in the world. I was captivated, and agreed to adopt her.
Later, I had the chance to meet Marion Fitzgibbon, former head of the Irish SPCA and one of the people responsible for Lily’s recovery. Marion told me about her decades rescuing animals and her fight against the Greyhound racing industry. When she said, “Every living being has the right to live and die with dignity,” I was quite taken aback. I’d never considered this. In many ways, the book is my effort to understand whether or not such an idea could possibly be true.
BK: What did you find most surprising about the movement’s Irish leaders?
LS: How brave they are. Marion and the women of Limerick Animal Welfare received calls on an emergency hotline that sent them to dangerous places to investigate reports of abuse. They found themselves in housing projects where there was frequent gunfire, and they went into camps of Irish itinerant people known as Travellers. I was also surprised by how big their concerns were. There is a stereotype of animal-rescue people being interested in helping animals to the exclusion of humans, but this wasn’t the case at all. Marion was clear that animals were her priority because they are at the bottom of society, but she saw people as a responsibility, too, and she demonstrated this in some very surprising ways.
BK: What did you find the most difficult to write about?
LS: The suffering of animals was very difficult for me. I had not been aware. But I really believe that if we look away from abuse, we continue the cycle. I coped by focusing on the compassion of people who were trying to make a difference, and also some of the comic foibles I found along the way.
The other difficult topic was the complexity of rural versus urban culture. I met dogmen who had very traditional values and believed, without reservation, that they were doing nothing wrong by breeding and racing dogs. A lot of these guys had grown up in racing and learned from their fathers, so there were deep emotional connections to the whole business. Many dogmen and women treat their animals well. I wanted to be fair and give them their due as human beings, but still be true to the reporting, which revealed enormous and needless animal suffering.
BK: Avalon sounds like an ideal sanctuary. Can you tell us more about Johanna Wothke and her Pro Animale organization, which helped fund and develop Avalon?
LS: Back in the 1980s, Johanna Wothke was an ordinary schoolteacher and mother of two young children living in a small village in Bavaria. She began taking stray animals into her home, and raised funds for their care by writing a little newsletter that described her work. Over the years, she got such tremendous support that she was able to expand and start sanctuaries all over Europe. Her daughter Natascha now runs Pro Animale with her. Today, they have 30 sanctuaries that give safe haven to abused and abandoned horses, cows, sheep, cats and dogs. These places are in beautiful settings and highly enriched; the level of care is extraordinary. Each sanctuary is a utopian paradise for animals. When Johanna learned about the plight of the Irish Greyhound, she called Marion to ask if she needed help. She is a very unusual person, greatly influenced by her father’s persecution under the Nazis. Marion calls her a miracle worker.
BK: How did Ireland became the leading breeder of Greyhounds and why/how does the government support this industry (including the race tracks)?
LS: Greyhounds have been in Ireland and England since the Celts brought their ancestors thousands of years ago. Because of the agricultural nature of Ireland, with its farms and open spaces, it became the leading Greyhound breeder. In the 1950s, the government got in the business and invested huge amounts of taxpayer money to subsidize it and create jobs. This continues today, even though there have been many reports and exposés about corruption, misguided financial decisions, dog abuse and doping. Somehow, the Irish parliament manages to protect the industry and make it untouchable even when it’s losing money. Most critics say that this is because so many high-ranking politicians own racing Greyhounds themselves and are personally and emotionally involved in the industry.
BK: What changes can you attribute to Marion’s work?
LS: When Marion became involved in the 1990s, she was a lone voice. Now, there are many more advocates, and several Greyhound adoption groups in Ireland now find the dogs homes in Europe. Because of this, the Irish Greyhound Board cannot ignore welfare issues, and has made greater investments in adoption. And that’s great. I do believe that the government will eventually have to give up its addiction to Greyhound racing if for no other reason than it simply does not make financial sense.
BK: It seems that the U.S. is ahead of Ireland in making these improvements in the lives of racing Greyhounds. Is that true?
LS: Yes. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, tens of thousands of dogs who couldn’t run anymore were put down in the United States, England and Ireland each year. People didn’t think that Greyhounds were suitable pets. They were considered high-strung and possibly dangerous. But then some people—largely women—in England and the U.S. began to change that, diverting the dogs from death into family homes. As more Greyhounds showed up on leashes in parks and on streets, people began to understand the dogs better and see them differently. Greyhounds have a natural prey drive, but otherwise, they are docile and sweet creatures and make great pets. This still hasn’t happened in Ireland for many reasons, some of which are related to the fact that Ireland didn’t escape British colonialism until 1922.
BK: What’s your goal for the book—what would you like readers to pay special attention to or help with?
LS: I hope the book will surprise people and make them think in new ways about how much animals contribute to our lives and the planet. I would be happy to know that people are inspired by the Greyhound advocates in my book and take some kind of action to build a more compassionate world. I include the web addresses of the organizations I wrote about so that my readers could learn more if they want to help.
BK: Since finishing this book, do you have any news (ideally, good) to share with us?
LS: More Greyhound tracks have closed down in both the U.S. and England, and even in Ireland, one track has been shut down. Overall, the world is moving toward a dramatically improved understanding of animals. I have complete faith that people like Marion Fitzgibbon will continue to carry us forward.
On May 12, The Bark had the pleasure of hosting author W. Bruce Cameron for a special Q&A on Facebook. Cameron is a #1 New York Times and #1 USA Today bestselling author with several books to his credit, including A Dog’s Purpose and A Dog’s Journey. His newest book, A Dog’s Way Home (Forge Books), was released in early May, and Cameron shared his thoughts on his new work as well as on one of his favorite subjects: dogs.
Bark: Tell us about A Dog’s Way Home …
W. Bruce Cameron: A Dog’s Way Home is a story of utter devotion, of a bond between a person and a dog, a bond so powerful that the dog will do literally anything to be with her human family. Bella is a rescue and Lucas, a young man, is her whole world. When Bella is banned from the city in which they are living (she is a Pit mix) and relocated hundreds of miles away, she decides a mistake has been made and sets off on a multi-year trek through the Rocky Mountain wilderness to find Lucas.
Bark: Is it fair to say it’s a little different than your previous books?
W. Bruce Cameron: I’m told that A Dog’s Way Home is rapidly turning into a reader favorite. I think it has to do with the lack of fantastical elements! In the “A Dog’s Purpose” series, there is the reincarnating dog; in Emory’s Gift, there is a bear who may or may not be real. In the “Repo” series, a man has the voice of a ghost in his head. But A Dog’s Way Home is a very realistic story about a dog separated from her people who needs to find her way back to them. Could happen—in fact, DOES happen—all the time.
Bark: For us dog people, the fear of being separated from our dogs is always at the back of our minds, isn’t it?
W. Bruce Cameron: I once had a dog—her name was Chinook—who was lost for seven days. She hopped the fence in a thunderstorm. She was eventually found by a farmer, who called in response to my newspaper ad. She was 50 MILES away.
Bark: What inspired you to write about this particular subject? Do you have a special interest in breed-ban laws and the work canines do with veterans? Is there a story behind the canine character being a Pit Bull?
W. Bruce Cameron: My dog Tucker gave me most of the ideas, or at least, that’s what he’s been telling people. I’m not a political agitator, but I just don’t believe Americans want their government telling them what kind of dogs they can own, especially when the law is about how dogs look, not how they behave. It is as ludicrous as arresting someone because he looks like a criminal.
I am proud of and grateful to our men and women in uniform—they have made great sacrifices for our country. Some have had experiences that left them with injuries, not all of which are physical. Dogs can be wonderful in helping veterans cope with and recover from trauma.
I have met many Pit Bulls and Pit mixes and generally find them to be among the most gentle and loving of breeds—though, let’s face it, the majority of dogs are gentle, loving and devoted.
Bark: Your books often involve a journey, sometimes of the heart, sometimes a physical journey. In A Dog’s Way Home, a 400-mile trek is at the center of the story. Can you talk about the role journeys play in your storytelling?
W. Bruce Cameron: My novels look at characters who evolve over time and distance. In this new book, Bella is an entirely different animal at the end of the trek than she was when she started out.
Bark: What message do you want people to take from your “A Dog’s Purpose” series?
W. Bruce Cameron: I guess it’s that dogs need us and we need them. That the ones we rescue, rescue us. That without us, they are lost creatures and they need our love, our help and our kindness.
News: Guest Posts
The more I read about how dogs have been very helpful for answering all sorts of questions in the field of conservation biology, the more interested I got in learning more about this exciting and growing field. Thus, I was extremely happy that Pete Coppolillio, the Executive Director of Working Dogs for Conservation, was able to take the time to answer a few questions about just what these amazing beings—the dogs and the humans—do. Their banner reads: We train the world's best conservation detection dogs & put them to work protecting wildlife and wild places. We do it to save the world. They do it for the love of a ball.
They also note:
Our work with canine programs in Africa prevents poaching and reduces illegal trafficking in ivory and rhino horn.
Partnerships with 50 conservation groups have taken us to
Thousands of high-energy dogs are stuck
How and why did you get interested in this project?
I was doing “traditional” or what you might call mainstream conservation, and we wanted to use dogs to learn about African wild dogs, because at that time, handling them was not allowed in Tanzania. As I continued working, I kept running into species that were either too difficult to capture, or situations where we were unwilling to capture them because it was too dangerous or too expensive. After being in the field a few times with dogs I got very enthusiastic about the possibilities they offer, and started pestering the founders of the organization with questions like, “Have you ever thought about using dogs to track or stop aquatic invasive species?” or, “What about disease? You think they could tell the scats of a diseased animal from a healthy one?” All those questions and a little bit of enthusiasm earned me a spot on the Board of Directors, and then when the organization got big enough to have someone direct traffic and chase money full-time, so I said I would love to be the Executive Director… and here I am. The photo above is of Ngaio Richards and Lily taking a break from Cross River Gorilla surveys to meet with school children in Cameroon.
What are the benefits for conservation?
There are so many really significant ways that dogs can push conservation forward. One of the earliest benefits we saw, and one of the most obvious, is simply how sensitive and effective they are at finding rare species. Some nice work was done in the northeastern US and they demonstrated that, at very low densities—in that case just one individual animal in particular a landscape—dogs were 39 times more efficient detecting that animal than camera traps or hair snares.
We have also demonstrated that dogs can do things that simply weren’t possible before. For example, they can detect the microscopic larvae of zebra and quagga mussels. No matter how hard we look visually, we can't see them so that's a game changer for stopping the spread of those two invasive species, which cost us billions and billions of dollars every year. Another surprising benefit of having the dogs working on stopping invasive species was how quickly they work. It can take a human inspector over an hour to do a thorough job looking for mussels hitchhiking on a boat from contaminated waters, but a dog can inspect that same boat in about three and a half minutes. That's a big deal because many states’ check stations are voluntary, and if there's more than one or two boats in line people will simply keep driving by, or the officers themselves will wave them on so that they don't delay them. The photo above is Alice Whitelaw, during Diesel's training in Montana. Diesel now works with the Alberta Ministry of Environment to keep exotic zebra and quagga mussels out of Alberta's lakes and streams.
Source: With permission of Pete Coppolillio
The final thing I'll mention is our dogs’ impacts for anti-poaching and anti-trafficking. In some areas, Africa has lost around 60 percent of its elephants in the last 10 years. Our dogs not only make it virtually impossible to smuggle significant quantities ivory in a vehicle or container, but they can also intervene and prevent elephants from being killed in the first place. One of our dogs, Ruger, who is a lab shepherd mix rescued from the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana, detected and his handlers seized 13 guns in his first two months in the field. On the face of it, that's an enormous impact, but when you take into consideration that a single gun is often shared by seven, eight, or even more than 10 different poachers, Ruger becomes a one dog force for conservation in Zambia.
Are there any downsides?
I think one of the most important things we've learned—and that's the collective “we” of the organization and the whole conservation detection dog field—is that there are times and places where dogs are the best option, and there are others where the traditional methods still make a lot more sense. Collecting scat and detecting species non-invasively is really valuable and important, but it's very difficult to get mortality data, and by that I mean to figure out what's killing a species, without being able to follow individual animals, and that generally means having to capture and collar them. It's also a little bit uncomfortable when we consider that these dogs are in the middle of very serious and high-level law enforcement. Unfortunately, the people who traffic wildlife are also the same nasty characters who traffic in narcotics, guns and even humans, so this work is not without risks to the people who do it and the dogs to help them. Africa in particular, is also a hard place to be a dog. Trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, can be really serious for dogs and we have had to figure out ways to protect them from it.
What do you say to people who feel that you're using dogs against their will? Do you think this is so?
When I watch a working dog in the field, I wish that for just a few seconds I could lose myself in my work or my passions as completely as a dog does. I think anybody who sees that happen recognizes that these are very lucky dogs who truly love what they're doing. The days of coercive and dominance-based “training” are really over for serious dog trainers. Positive or reward based training is simply much more effective, and of course it's more ethical, so I can say without a doubt that all of our dogs not only want to work; they love to work. Our dogs also live with their handlers. That’s preferable from a technical standpoint because they really know each other well, so the handler can see when a dog struggles or is even just having a bad day, but it’s also nice because the dogs and handlers are partners for their whole lives, not just for their work.
Are there any other organizations that are doing similar work?
Yes, a little over 20 years, ago Megan Parker, one of our founders, started a collaboration with a woman named Barb Davenport, who is the lead trainer for the Washington Department of Corrections, and Sam Wasser, who is a conservation biologist at the University of Washington. Meg and three other women who are all biologists started our organization, Working Dogs for Conservation, and Sam and Barb have started their own organizations as well, and these three are the oldest and most established organizations in the country and the world. We have each grown to occupy slightly different niches now, but we all do similar work. Nowadays, there are lots of conservation detection dogs working in this country, and Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and increasingly in Asia and Africa. In 10 years time I believe that every university, every state wildlife agency, and just about anyone doing serious wildlife work will have or use dog teams. They will be as common as camera traps and radio collars for wildlife research, management, and conservation.
Why do you think it took so long for people to recognize how dogs can help us along and not suffer by doing it?
It's a great question. We've spent decades trying to figure out what wild carnivores are doing, as they run around the landscape leaving little messages for each other in the form of scat, or urine, or scrapes, and it took us until the mid 90s to look down at our own dogs and realize they could read the messages themselves, and even more importantly, they’re keen to tell us about it. It's hard to imagine, given that we've lived with these guys for 30 or 40,000 years, but maybe that's why we've taken them for granted.
What have other conservation biologists said about your project?
People love to see what dogs can do, and when we talk with biologists or land or wildlife managers the conversation almost always leads to new ideas and new ways that dogs can help. It's great fun. Dogs are also a great tool for outreach because people love to see what they can do. We often work on projects where biologists have been studying or working to protect an animal for years or sometimes even decades, and they laugh because the first time a dog comes to help them do their work, the press is there, and they want to hear about the project. This is also a pretty good job to have when you go to cocktail parties. A friend of mine recently introduced me as her friend “the environmental conversationalist”, which isn't far from the truth these days, I suppose.
What projects are planned for the future?
This is an exciting time for us. We've grown a lot, and we've moved from being a service provider who sits back and waits for people to ask for our help, to a real driver in our field. We are now able to try new things, develop new methods, and work in places and focus on issues that we think are important for conservation and the health and wellbeing of wildlife. We're going to continue to grow in two important ways. First, we're shifting towards building capacity. That's just a fancy way of saying that we're going to teach others how to do this work, rather than try to do it all ourselves. We believe that conservation dogs need to stop the illicit wildlife trade by being as ubiquitous and effective as narcotic detection dogs. That's a huge, daunting undertaking. Think of all the borders, airports, post offices, shipping terminals, rail stations, and everywhere else that dogs would need to be. By creating model programs and sharing how we do the work we do, we hope to make it as risky to trade and wildlife as it is to traffic drugs.
The second, and maybe even more exciting, growth area for us is through innovation. Every new laboratory technique opens a door for us, by increasing what we can learn from scat. Just last year some of our collaborators made it possible to detect pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, and heavy metals in mink and otter scats, so we’ve combined these techniques with dogs’ ability to find those scats, to create a new way to monitor the health of aquatic ecosystems. We also started another related program looking at the ways in which poisons, specifically rodenticides, move through terrestrial food webs. The results can be a little bit alarming, because we find contaminants and poisons in places we thought were pristine, but the information is invaluable in documenting the problem and figuring out how to prevent it.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with readers?
No matter how much I do this work, I continue to be amazed at how effective the dogs are, and how tirelessly and enthusiastically they do their work. We really are only limited by the crazy things we can dream up and ask the dogs to do. As more people know about us and see the possibilities that dogs offer, they support our work, either financially, through donations and grants, or by collaborating with or hiring us to try new things and expand the possibilities. It's really amazing how many different issues or problems are limited by what we can detect, so it's great fun and really gratifying to have a bunch of partners who run around with the world’s best chemical sensors on the front of their faces!
Many thanks, Pete. I really appreciate your taking the time to answer these questions. This is fascinating work and I look forward to learning more about your future projects and successes. I imagine there are a lot of dogs who would love working with you. You can contact Working Dogs for Conservation here.
Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017.
This story was originally published by psychologytoday.com. Reprinted with permission.
Kim Kavin’s provocative and probing new book, The Dog Merchants, takes a hard look at the “business” models behind how we get our dogs and the fur flies in many directions. We talk with her about some of her insights.
Bark: Why do you think people chose the dogs they have? Do you think that mixed-breeds are changing breed favoritism?
Kim Kavin: That’s a question it took me a whole book to try to answer. To sum up briefly, I think our choices about the dogs we bring home result from a combination of history, tradition, religion, culture, politics, gender, societal obligations and personal responsibility—all the stuff of humanity’s greatest world wars.
I think most of us feel in our hearts that we love dogs and are doing the right thing, whether we choose purebreds or mutts. And I think that most of us—on both sides—have never considered the enormous business interests and marketing efforts that are at play, all of which feed into our beliefs as well.
BK: You aren’t a big fan of televised dog events like Westminster, why not? What do you suggest as an alternative?
KK: To be clear about Westminster, I’ve never said the breeders who participate are necessarily doing anything wrong with their own dogs. What I’ve written is that when you take a show like Westminster and put it on millions of televisions and computer screens around the world, it stops being about the people and dogs in the ring and starts becoming about the resulting mass-market demand, which cannot possibly ever be filled by the types of breeders in that show ring. By their own estimate, they are merely 20 percent of the supply chain. When you turn a dog show into a mass-media event, it becomes the biggest marketing asset for all of the worst offenders, no matter how good the intentions of the people in the show ring.
The alternative I suggest in The Dog Merchants is that we evolve the concept of televised dog shows into a format that is more in keeping with our morals, media impact, and breeding and shelter realities today.
I’ve seen the attempts Fox has made, and cheer them. I think they’re a good start, and I give Fox and those producers like Michael Levitt who care deeply about dogs a great deal of credit for trying to be the first to break down that wall. They’ve made at least a small hole in it.
What I’d like to see is the entire wall smashed to smithereens. I think we need to get even more top-notch, highly talented people involved who are truly dedicated to animal welfare, people on the level of Simon Cowell of American Idol and Ricky Gervais. We need to use what they know about producing those big-time, international broadcasts to create a new format for dog shows that the general public will actually switch channels away from the Westminster-style shows to watch.
We need American Idol meets X-Games meets the Oscars, not just another version of a rescue-dog telethon, to really move the massmarketing needle.
Tell me dog lovers wouldn’t change the channel to watch. Tell me it wouldn’t show, inside of five minutes, just how antiquated the big beautypageant productions like Westminster have become. Tell me it wouldn’t change the way people think about dogs, and about what’s important when deciding to bring one into their families.
BK: What advice do you offer to people who are considering adopting a rescue dog but still wonder if it may be safer to buy a dog from a breeder?
KK: I think we all need to be far more conscious consumers, whether we’re buying from breeders or from rescuers. There are responsible and irresponsible people dealing in dogs on both sides, and it’s up to us all to put the latter out of business.
My book offers a litany of openended questions that people can ask to try to determine the true nature of any breeder or rescuer, and dogmerchants.com—if we all come together as dog lovers to post ratings and reviews—will go a long way toward helping us crowdsource the answers we need.
Here’s my ultimate advice: Stop being on the side of the breeders. Stop being on the side of the rescuers. Let’s get together on the side of all the dogs.
Wellness: Health Care
Though in many ways, our dogs communicate with us all the time, when it comes to their pain, we have to figure it out on our own. Here to help with that daunting task is Michael Petty, DVM, author of the newly released Dr. Petty’s Pain Relief for Dogs in a Q&A with Bark editor Claudia Kawczynska.
What are the most common ways dog guardians can recognize that their dogs are in pain, beyond obvious signs like limping or decreased appetite?
The answer to this is complicated and I probably can’t do it justice here. However, if people start to see their dog as lazy, not socially interacting, reluctant to do the things they liked in the past—really, any behavioral change—then pain should be on the list of possible problems. Dogs rarely quit doing the things they like to do because they’re old, they quit doing them because there’s something wrong. And that usually means disease, commonly something painful like degenerative joint disease.
You note in your book that “there is no one-size-fits-all approach to pain treatment.” You also mention something called a “pain examination.” What does that entail, and is it something that’s perhaps best handled by a specialist?
A pain exam can take many forms. My approach depends in part on the history given to me by the dog’s caregiver, the breed, prior medical conditions and watching the dog walk into the exam room, just to name a few.
Every pain exam should consist of a complete physical exam; an observation of the dog’s gait when possible; a basic neurological exam (many neurological issues can mimic pain); and a hands-on palpation of the dog’s joints, muscles and bones. Based on the fi ndings, X-rays are often indicated, as well as blood work and urinalysis in anticipation of possible pharmaceutical interventions and procedures requiring sedation or anesthesia.
No one specialty “owns” pain. Anesthesiologists are well trained to handle acute pain, but not chronic. Neurologists are trained in matters like intervertebral disc disease, but not osteoarthritis. The list goes on. My fi rst choice would be to seek out someone with a pain certifi cation—a Certified Veterinary Pain Practitioner—from the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management (ivapm.org). This certification takes several years to earn, and program graduates are experts in the fi eld of pain management.
Do most vets understand the importance of neuropathic pain (essentially, a misfire between the sensory/nervous system and a region of the body)? And how is it best diagnosed?
Most of the veterinarians I talk to, outside of those belonging to pain-aware organizations such as the IVAPM, do not have a firm understanding of neuropathic pain. In human medicine, diagnosing neuropathic pain is difficult; it requires both a verbal description of what the pain feels like and verbal responses to certain tests. Without these tools, most of the time, our diagnosis is, at best, an educated guess. However, patient response to therapy for neuropathic pain is one indication that a veterinarian is on the right track.
You note that aspirin is dangerous for dogs. Are there any over-the-counter medications that can be given to a dog who has sustained an injury, to ease pain and infl ammation before taking the dog to a vet?
No. No OTC medications are licensed for use in dogs. Ice and stabilizing injured limbs are about the best you can do.
You support the importance of omega-3 fatty acids as part of a dog’s diet because they work to help decrease the production of pain-causing prostaglandins. Why is a fish-based source of omega-3 fatty acids preferred, and do foods such as canned salmon and water-packed sardines and tuna contain enough of it? How do we determine the correct amount?
Fish-based sources are best because of bioavailability. Sources like flax seed are okay for people but useless for dogs, as they cannot convert flax to omega-3s. If you are feeding a food that has salmon or sardines as an ingredient, then you don’t have to worry about the amount, as it takes very little of these foods to provide enough omega-3s.
You call out a few botanicals, like ashwagandha, boswellia serrata and turmeric, for their benefits in pain relief and/or in reducing infl ammation. Do you prescribe these in your practice?
Yes. The problem is finding a reliable source of herbs, as they are not monitored by the FDA like pharmaceuticals are. One good option is a product called Dasuquin Advanced, from Nutramax; it has many important pain-modifying ingredients, including several herbs.
The veterinary attitude toward acupuncture seems to have changed a lot. In your experience, which conditions respond best to acupuncture? And how do you know which dogs are good candidates for this treatment? (I had a dog who would shake out the needles!)
Talking about acupuncture is one of my favorite things to do. I cannot imagine practicing without it, especially in my geriatric population, which is more sensitive to the effects of many drugs. I think attitudes have improved—in both veterinarians and dog owners—as more and more research is being published on the benefi ts of acupuncture; also, people hear about someone’s dog being helped by it. In addition, it has the support of the National Institute of Health for the treatment of pain.
For many dogs, the proof of being a good candidate is obvious in their response to treatment. Within one to three treatments, we can usually see an improvement in pain scores and observations. If we don’t, then sometimes the decision is made to stop treatment. I have had a few clients return and say they didn’t realize how much it was helping until it was stopped.
Many people experience what you did with your own dog. Some dogs are needle-phobic and resent even one needle going in. Some dogs are just afraid of being at the veterinary clinic and won’t sit still. I sometimes give these patients a mild sedative to get over this hump. A reduction in anxiety for several treatments often means that they eventually accept acupuncture without continued use of the sedative.
Finally, dewclaws. You make the point that a dog’s dewclaw, the equivalent of a human thumb, plays important functions in both the mechanics of the front foot and in joint stability, and that ligaments and tendons connect it to surrounding tissues. Yet you also observe that some breeders routinely remove it. How can this horrible practice be changed? Do any vet groups take a position on this?
Both the AVMA and the American Animal Hospital Association discourage any surgery done for cosmetic reasons, but they only name ear-cropping and tail-docking. Unfortunately, I don’t think this has had much of an impact, as very few breeders belong to either organization. I cannot speak for every state’s practice act, but most (if not all) specify that surgery must be performed by a veterinarian. Every instance where a breeder chooses to perform surgery crosses that line, and they are breaking the law. I feel that the best way to address this issue is through kennel clubs, such as the AKC. If the AKC were to say, “No dog born after such-and-such date who has had cosmetic surgery, including dewclaw removal, ear-cropping or tail-docking, can be shown in AKC sanctioned shows,” the practice would grind to a halt.
Culture: Science & History
Robert Weintraub talks about Judy, a remarkable dog
We recently talked with Robert Weintraub, author of No Better Friend, our favorite book of 2015. This remarkable story about Judy, the only canine POW of World War II, has won the praise of many critics, and was selected, too, by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan as one of last year’s best. This inspiring (and harrowing) story reminds us just how inimitable our bond is with dogs.
Q: No Better Friend is certainly an apt title for a book about an amazing dog and the intense bonds she shared with the people in her life. What made you decide on this title?
A: Well, in all honesty, the marketing department at Little, Brown went through a whole host of options before we settled on this. But No Better Friend, I thought, captured Judy’s incredible loyalty and unique comradeship with the servicemen, both before and during her imprisonment. She took the saw, “man’s best friend,” to a whole new level.
Q: What inspired you to write about this subject—not just Judy, but also, WWII POWs and the Pacific theater?
A: Once I discovered Judy’s story, I knew I would have to capture the larger picture of her fellow prisoners, Frank Williams in particular. That led me to the fall of Singapore and the mad dash to Sumatra amid total Japanese domination in the South China Sea. Had Judy been in France, of course, I would have told that story, so in a sense, she took me to the Pacific. But despite their intense deprivations, the POWs of Sumatra have been largely ignored by history, so I was rather glad to be able to shine a light on a subsection of WWII that was more shadowy than others.
Q: You come from a sports journalism background—is there anything from that perspective that especially drew you to Judy’s story?
A: Certainly the qualities that draw people (including me) to sports—performance under duress, teamwork, strength of character—were fully on display in this story. The POWs, including (and especially) Judy, got one another through the worst possible times. They shared food despite not having enough for themselves. They put themselves in harm’s way to prevent fellow prisoners from taking beatings from the guards. They nursed one another through terrible disease and suffering. Judy and her fellow POWs rose above the nadir of humanity to display the best qualities humans have to offer. Obviously, the stakes were far higher than in any sporting contest, but the characteristics were similar, just writ large.
Q: It’s difficult to read about this period in history—about a war waged against a country that practiced extreme mistreatment of captives, unhindered by the Geneva convention. It makes stories about survivors like Judy and Frank Williams even more startling, and the details of what they, and many others, went through as POWs that much harder to digest. That must have been very challenging as you researched the topic.
A: I considered myself something of a buff on military history, WWII in particular, even before I began the research, but nothing prepares you for firsthand accounts of the brutality and shocking inhumanity of the camps. The legacy of the German concentration camps somewhat obscures the horrors in the Japanese camps, at least to the average person, so I thought it was important not to shy away from the terror tactics and sadistic barbarity practiced by the Japanese (and their Korean lackeys). In the course of writing, I found that any temptation I had to ease up on the worst of the offenses was offset by admiration for the POWs and Judy’s ability to withstand them. So my perspective tilted; I actually wanted to highlight the atrocities, for they presented Judy and her friend’s courage and endurance in greater relief.
Q: I tagged more pages in this book than in most that I review. Judy demonstrated so many instances of valor, intelligence, loyalty and, at times, cunning. Which ones stand out for you?
A: Yes, Judy made the exceptional look almost routine. Before she was even taken prisoner, she had several amazing episodes. At one point she took to guiding a small band of shipwreck survivors across the Sumatran interior in a quest for escape, through a deep rainforest thick with insects, mud and predators. Judy was actually slashed by a crocodile during this long march, but kept to her station as ranger, leading the group to (perceived) safety on the opposite coast.
There was the time when she was being transported by Japanese prison ship and the boat was sunk by a torpedo. She narrowly escaped, and once in the water, went about saving the lives of flailing shipmates instead of worrying for her own safety. In the camps, she repeatedly threw herself at guards in order to distract them from beating up fellow prisoners. One time she was shot and slightly wounded while thrusting herself between attacker and prey. Judy obviously put herself in grave danger during these episodes. But she continued to stand up for her fellow POWs right until liberation. Hers was truly a story not just of survival, but also of spirited resistance.
Q: What do you think made Judy so exceptional? As I read this book, I looked at my dogs and wondered what they would have done in the same circumstances. Do you have a dog?
A: We have young children, so we are waiting until they are a bit older before we get a dog of our own. But I grew up with a very loyal, very spirited Golden Retriever. Although he wasn’t nearly as intelligent as Judy, I like to think that he would have displayed the same courage and stamina. I don’t know that it’s possible to compare an average domestic canine with Judy, however. While she wasn’t a trained military dog, she was a mascot on a navy ship from a very young age, and was baptized to the sights and sounds (and smells!) of war, as well as death and destruction. Even before that, as a very young pup, she escaped from her kennel and survived on the streets of Shanghai for months before being brought home again. Clearly, this was a dog with something special inside her; an essential piece of her welcomed action and adventure, and when she faced the worst, she rose above it.
Q: What do you think it is about dogs that draws people like Frank Williams to the realization that, as you write, “His love for her was noble”?
A: Clearly, we recognized dogs’ special kinship with us at some point in their transition from wild animal to domesticated friend. In Frank’s case specifically, I was putting his love and loyalty to Judy in the context of his experience during the war. He was captured early on without putting up much of a fight (he was a radar technician in the Royal Air Force). After years of awful treatment in the camps, he had every reason to give up and let death take him, as so many other prisoners did. But Judy’s battling example shook him from his lethargy, and instilled in him the seed to fight on, survive each day, and put faith in a better time ahead. In exchange, he shared every bit of devotion he had with Judy, even risking his life to procure official POW status for her. In the worst situation imaginable, even worse than the war itself, Frank found the nobility that had eluded him while he was a free man. That was thanks to a dog—a special dog, true. But the qualities all dogs bring out in people is what makes our relationship with them so remarkable.
Q: I understand that a young readers’ version will be out soon. How did you recast the story to make it appropriate for that age group without diminishing its essence?
A: That version will be out on May 3, thank you for mentioning that! It was a difficult task to rework the narrative for younger readers, in part because I had never done it before, and in part because of the material. I had to walk a fine line between highlighting the inhumanity of the camps, which made Judy and Frank’s bond so special, without overplaying the brutality. I also found it necessary to trim much of the surrounding historical material in order to concentrate on the story at the heart of the book, the relationship between Judy and Frank. Not to worry, however; a series of sidebars provides historical context while not diverting the main narrative.
Q: What do you hope younger readers learn from your book?
A: I hope kids everywhere, including Asia (there is a Chinese edition), learn that love, loyalty and friendship are unconquerable, no matter how horrifying the surrounding conditions. And that while humans are forever finding ways to treat one another badly, the special relationships we have with dogs can transcend the often-shaky relationships we have with each other.
For more see our review of No Better Friend, plus an excerpt from the book.
Irresistibly amusing portraits of wet dogs
On our cover is Coffee Bean, whose portrait was taken by Sophie Gamand, a photographer who sees dogs differently. For an example of Gamand’s unique viewpoint, consider her series Flower Power: Pit Bulls of the Revolution. Her pictures of smiling, solemn and saucy Pit Bulls, their heads adorned with colorful crowns of flowers, suggest that we reconsider what we think we know about these sturdy dogs. An award-winning French photographer who has become well known as an animal advocate in her adopted hometown of New York City, Gamand will be celebrating the release of her first book, Wet Dog, this fall. Recently, she shared some of her observations and experiences with us.
BARK: Are dog-rescue groups active in France?
Gamand: Absolutely. Abandonment is somewhat less of an issue there than it is in the U.S., though. I once calculated that the ratio in France is about one dog per 660 inhabitants will be abandoned each year, whereas in the U.S., it’s one dog per 82 inhabitants. Thanks to my Wet Dog book, I was able to help the SPA (Société Protectrice des Animaux), the largest and oldest animal welfare and rescue organization in France. They fell in love with my wet dog photos and asked if they could use them for their nationwide adoption campaign this October. I was so proud to be able to help animals in my home country! (I even photographed wet cats for them, which was quite an experience!) The campaign ran in France, in the Paris subway stations and in SPA’s 60 shelters. I was told by their team that their adoption event was hugely successful, thanks in part to the campaign, which touched thousands and thousands of hearts.
In Wet Dog, you write that one of first things that happens to a dog at a shelter is a bath, and that marks the beginning of the dog’s new life. Is this why you decided to do the wonderful Wet Dog book?
My “Wet Dog” series was born out of a happy accident. I was at a groomer’s, working on a personal project about grooming and the hair-cutting process. Then the groomer started bathing the dogs, and I could not take my eyes off them! I’m not sure why I felt that intense connection with wet dogs. They make me laugh, but most importantly, they make me feel guilt, compassion and immense empathy.
Suddenly it hit me. That was exactly how I felt when bathing rescue dogs. It was interesting to explore those memories and feelings, and to realize how important bathing had been for me and for my relationship to rescues. I really believe that for the dogs, the bath is an initiation process, almost a form of baptism. They enter a new life, the abuse and the neglect and the suffering they experienced are washed away, and they become new. It’s a poignant and beautiful moment to share with a rescue.
You have volunteered a great deal of time taking portraits of shelter dogs. How important do you feel it is that their personalities are captured through good photography—does it make them more adoptable?
It is absolutely essential! Good photography helps in so many ways: It gives more exposure to the dogs on social media, and by extension, it gives more exposure to the shelters as well. It also brings more adopters to the shelters and creates more connections between people and shelter dogs.
I want my photos to be amazing, beautiful, exciting, fun, touching. I want people to see beyond the “shelter dog” aspect. I want them to witness the personality and uniqueness of these dogs. The photos, like the baths, are also a rite of passage. I want to give the dogs their dignity back. My photographs have been responsible for many direct and indirect adoptions— for people falling in love with a particular dog, or feeling more confident about getting a shelter dog. The photos remind us that these dogs could be our best friends. Their happy faces are so inviting.
How did you come to work with the Sato Project, and why do you say it was life-changing for you?
I met Chrissy Beckles, the project’s founder, in 2011. At the time, I was looking into volunteering with a shelter or a rescue group, but found many closed doors. Chrissy welcomed me and let me do my thing. Over the course of two years, I traveled extensively with her, documenting her work in Puerto Rico—specifically on Dead Dog Beach, an infamous dumping ground.
The work I did with the Sato Project profoundly changed me, personally, professionally and artistically. The first time I stepped foot on the island, Chrissy and I picked up a dying dog. He was beautiful and heartbreaking and in such a horrible shape. He died in Chrissy’s arms, and I was there with my camera, taking the photos and videos that would help Chrissy spread the message about her important work.
I called the dog Angel, and I captured his last breath with my camera. I still remember the way he looked at me; for a split second, I thought he was smiling, and then he expired. He was loved so much during the last few seconds of his life. This horrible experience bonded me with Chrissy and her organization in ways I can’t explain. It also bonded me with rescues and shelter dogs across the world. In many ways, we created dogs, and we are responsible for them. Teaching compassion toward all beings is such an important part of our humanity.
What do you hope people come away with from your Wet Dog book?
Wet Dog is meant to be a fun book. I want to celebrate the unique relationship we have with our dogs. I also hope to use it to spread simple messages, such as #AdoptDontShop, which is dear to my heart. People need to stop buying puppies in stores or off the Internet. One out of three of these puppies will end up in a shelter within their first year.
I also want to encourage people to look at shelters and help in small ways. For example, did you know that shelters are always in dire need of gently used towels and linens? It’s a great way to help, and to make shelter dogs’ lives a little more comfortable while they wait for their forever homes. Bathe your doggie, then wash the towels and donate them to your local shelter! Wet dogs uniting for shelter dogs: I like that idea.
JD Souther is a card-carrying member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, inducted in 2013. Instrumental in shaping the sound that became known as country-rock in the 1970s, he has also contributed to the American songbook by penning such classics as “Best of My Love” and “Heartache Tonight” (both for the Eagles) and “Faithless Love” recorded by Linda Ronstadt.
Never one to rest on his laurels, the singer-songwriter continues to compose memorable songs from his Nashville home. As a performer, he recently toured in support of a new album, Tenderness (Sony), and can be seen in the recurring role of producer Watty White on television’s Nashville.
Despite his busy schedule, there’s nothing Souther would rather do than hang out with his dogs. The Bark caught up recently with John David and talked … you guessed it … dogs.
What is it that you like about dogs?
I like everything about dogs. I love their society, their immediacy, their ability to make anything an adventure. Dogs don’t miss an opportunity to have fun, to find out, to live. I also love the way they feel and smell. If I have to go to a party at the house of someone I don’t know, I look for the dog, or dogs. That’s where you’ll find me: hanging out with the dogs. No dogs, and I usually leave early.
Tell us about your dogs.
I have two loonies we affectionately call the Bruise Brothers, named thus for their incredible rough-and-tumble play, though they are, in fact, 50-pound lap dogs and would abandon their
When we brought them home from the two angels who had found them by the roadside in terrible shape and nursed them back to health, I had a beautiful Irish wife and a six-year-old girl. We built this farmhouse so that the girls would want to be here and not someplace else. It worked very well, but that meant that as the Bruise Bros grew, they were gently coerced to suffer every whim of an imaginative young female community, including but not limited to: shoes, hats, tee shirts, ties, capes, dresses, jewelry, sunglasses and sometimes various combinations of halters and leads that were only necessary for the little girls’ rich imaginations of them as horses.
For all this girlish invasion of their masculine nature, the brothers were as delighted as could be for the attention, and ne’er a growl was ever heard.
It was announced that the Eagles are being honored by the Kennedy Center next year — as a major contributor to their songbook … congratulations. Were there any dogs hanging out with you folks in those early days of Southern California music making?
The honor is well deserved, congratulations to the guys. They certainly have added considerable wealth to the repertoire. The fact is, we were all almost on the move all the time in those early days. The only dogs in our little gang of musicians I can recall with any clarity are two. One was a small white dog that Glenn (Frey) and Janie, his first wife, had named Teeny Turner. She sounded bigger and who could blame her.
Also, Linda (Ronstandt) had two magnificent Huskies or something like them, when she lived in Brentwood. I was fond of one named Molly who voiced her objections to Linda leaving town by eating the couches, a form of protest with which I was to become later familiar on my dogs Murphy and Babe’s first day alone in the house, where they reduced a couch, daybed and several expensive cushions to a carpet of feathers and fluff. I opened the door to a first floor of shredded bedding and found two black dogs resting comfortably, one with feathers still clinging to his snout looking as innocent as possible. Smiling.
Have you ever written dog-centered songs, or lyrics?
I’ve written three songs about dogs, one for each of the Hollywood Hills dogs and one for the Tennessee Brown Hounds. Their place in my musical process is the same as it is in my life: a reminder to (a) not take myself too seriously and (b) pay attention!
How about dog stories—have any good ones to share?
Here’s one that may give you a sense of the humor and boldness that I find irresistible in canines.
As we were building the Dog Ranch, I leased a beautiful Robert Byrd house on Hollywood Boulevard just west of Laurel Canyon so I could be on-site [in nearby Nichols Canyon] every day during construction. The back yard was small, so most days, the black dogs came to work with me. We were, after all, building our dream house.
On the few days when they were left behind and outside, escaping from the yard behind the Byrd house became a game, and a fairly regular source of amusement for Babe. I kept adding fencing and difficulty, including, finally, a spiky pile of lawn chairs at the only conceivable escape route. Alas, she seemed to rise to every challenge, which included (eventually): pulling the lawn chairs down and scattering them, pulling the fence over, scrambling up a near-vertical dirt hillside, jumping on to the second story of the house, down to the first-story roof, then down to the top of the carport, and finally onto the top of whichever vehicle was closest before landing on the lawn.
I often came home to find Murphy, who was not quite tall enough to run the obstacle course, barking hysterically from behind the garden gate and Babe sitting serenely on the front porch, waiting for dinner. Smiling.
We hear that you’re a good friend to Best Friends Animal Society; how did you get involved?
I met Francis and Silva Battista in the late ’80s just as Babe was convincing me to slow down a bit and enjoy my lucky life. I loved what they were doing at Best Friends. Then I went up for a visit and met most of the founders and staff, wondrous folk who I am hoping will someday swap me a nifty little retirement perch in one of the most beautiful places on earth for considerable publishing interest and some
We’ve taken dogs to the Sanctuary together, I loaned them an SUV/ambulance one year in their early days, played a show recently for the donors at Discovery Weekend, give what I can, talk about them every chance I get
They have been salvation for thousands of animals, a fair number of them human, and are methodically helping to create no-kill cities wherever possible. When we would lose one, we used to say (to console ourselves), “Well, maybe you can’t save them all.” Wrong! Now our logo proudly challenges everyone: “Save Them All!” The entire community at Best Friends Animal Society is a model of selfless stewardship and joy. Why wouldn’t
Do you think there’s a reason so many musicians have special connections with dogs?
Maybe musicians, painters, writers, all artists need more time away from conversation and the clanging immediacy of modern life. I think people need quite a bit of it for sanity. Dogs—in fact, most animals I have met—are content to simply live. Just be here. One of my most treasured animal friends is a horse I’ve known for 20 years, but don’t ride. We just … I don’t know. We just hang out.
Children? Animals? They’re our very best things, I think.
We are animals, after all, and when we discriminate against any one, we are diminished.
What do you do these days when you hang out with dogs?
Nothing. Anything. Whatever they want to do usually turns out to be a good idea for all of us. Thanks for asking me to be in your wonderful magazine, which I own all the way back to your big format first issue!
Copyright © 1997-2017 The Bark, Inc. Dog Is My Co-Pilot® is a registered trademark of The Bark, Inc