Auction of Classic Painting Benefits Dogs
The painting depicts a boy and his dog in a style that has become known as American Regionalism. It is signed “Benton” for Thomas Hart Benton, the movement’s greatest practitioner, best known for his murals embracing the populist idealism of pre-war America. On this painting’s reverse side is inscribed “For T.P.’s birthday/11 years old/From Dad.” The subjects are the artist’s son T.P. and Jake, the family dog.
Last evening (November 18) the painting was one of more than 500 works from the A. Alfred Taubman collection auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York. T.P. and Jake was painted in 1938 and was estimated to fetch between $1.5M and $2.5M. After a flurry of bidding, it sold for $3,130,000. It was accompanied by the following notes in the auction catalog that included touching words by the artist describing the deep bond shared by his young son and his dog. Appropriately, the sale of this painting benefited the Sam Simon Charitable Giving Foundation, dedicated to saving the lives of dogs.
The present work depicts the artist’s son T.P. Benton and his beloved dog, Jake. T.P. was eight years old when his mother, Rita, found Jake on a farm west of Kansas City, Missouri. The Bentons adopted him as their family pet and he became particularly devoted to T.P. When Jake died in 1946 Thomas Hart Benton wrote an obituary for the dog, which appeared in the Vineyard Gazette and The Kansas City Times. In one passage Benton recalls an event which illustrates Jake’s special affection for T.P.:
“After three years had passed Rita took T.P. to Italy to visit her mother. This was a sad time for Jake. Up to now he’s given me little attention. Rita fed him and T.P. played with him. Of what use I might be he had little need to consider. I was just there, good enough to shake hands with occasionally but not important. Now, however, he clung to me and I took him with me on a long roundabout tour of the South which ended, after seven weeks, at the docks in New York were we met the boat returning his real master and mistress.”
“There was a high rail fence between the passageway for debarking passengers and the people who had come to meet them. I stood by this fence trying to catch a glimpse of Rita and T.P. in the crowd of voyagers. But Jake beat me to it. The chain leash in my hand twisted suddenly and before I knew it Jake’s full grown seventy pounds of muscle and tawny hair was soaring over the fence.”
“No one who saw the meeting of the boy and dog could ever forget it. The travelers and those who met them stood aside to watch the play of Jake’s ecstasy. They forgot their own emotions in this more intense one of a devoted animal. His yaps of joy sailed up over the arching girders to the high roofs of the dock and came back to pierce your heart. This was the high point of life and those who saw recognized it.” (The Kansas City Times, p. vi).
Dog's Life: Humane
“I could never set foot in one of those places. They’re so sad. I’d want to bring all the dogs home.” When I tell people I work for Humane Society Silicon Valley, I hear this a lot, the “it’s-so-sad” card. This is usually followed by a tale of horror about a local city shelter or, worse yet, how they cry whenever they see that Sarah McLachlan ad on TV.
The Sarah McLachlan ad doesn’t make me cry, it makes me mad. Because it’s only a half-truth.
Terrible things do happen to animals. But presenting shelters as barred and caged places where these sad victims of abuse are jailed is not only untrue, it damages the animals it purportedly sets out to help. Who would want to set foot in one of “those places”? And what sort of sad, damaged beast would you be bringing into your home? Best just to send a check, buy from a breeder and leave the animals to their own devices in there. After all, you sent the check.
When I was 19 years old, I was stricken with late-stage lymphatic cancer. During my two years of treatment, I walked around yellow from jaundice, doughy from steroids and squeaky bald, a baseball cap covering my head. To see a picture of me taken while I was being treated for cancer and assume that it tells you something about who I am all the time is patently ridiculous. It doesn’t tell you that I have a wicked sense of humor and a foul mouth or that I’m a book addict and an unabashed dog geek who sings along to Lionel Richie on the radio.
It just tells you that I was a victim— a damaged, benighted creature, a walking after-school special.
Yet, time and time again, these pictures of animals on the worst days of their lives are served up to the public as what they can expect to find at their local shelter. No one ever questions that they’re taken out of context. Instead, we’re presented with this idea that there are regular pets and there are “shelter pets” and the two categories are drastically different. And we wonder why more of America hasn’t embraced adoption as their first choice for their new pet.
Real truth? There’s no such thing as a shelter pet. There’s just a regular pet who happens to be at a shelter. The fact is, most animals in shelters are there because their owners’ lives have changed and not because of anything they’ve done. Most animals don’t come in abused or neglected. They come in from homes like yours and mine, and they behave like your pet and my pet. Shelter is a noun, not an adjective.
The ones that were abused or neglected? What happened to them doesn’t define who they are. Yes, I could post a picture of a smiling poodle and tell you that he’s a victim of domestic violence and the scar on his back is from where he was burned with chemicals. I’d rather tell you that he greets everyone with a wagging tail and loves kids and fetch because that’s the dog you’d be living with. Not the scar, but the living, breathing animal.
Those of us who work in our marketing department have hard-and-fast rules about what images we present. We won’t show beaten-up animals. We won’t show bars and cages (not that we have many of them—we have condos and suites instead). What we will show you is our truth: hopeful, normal pets who are at the launch pad of brand-new lives.
We know those shelters exist, the ones with the bars and cages. But we’re not one of them. We’re working to change the face of shelters and find new ways for those in our industry to think and do things differently. To be the happy places where happy animals come from, even on the worst day of their lives. To create a space where pets going through a transition can meet people who can’t wait to love them.
After all, our pets deserve only the best.
Dog's Life: Humane
Focusing on dogs and empathy helps children learn.
Mikey hated school and everything about it. A firstgrader in a small town in Kentucky, Mikey already had a reputation as a handful. He disrupted, interrupted, erupted and was generally frustrated and isolated. He didn’t speak at grade level and resisted gestures of friendship.
Mikey’s school had recently implemented the Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum, a Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) program that uses the affinity between children and dogs to teach kids the skills they need to develop emotional intelligence: empathy, resilience, self-awareness, cooperation and decision-making. All of the curriculum’s lessons build on children’s intense connections to canines, specifically shelter dogs, to illustrate the nuances of body language, the power of unconditional love, and the myriad similarities between dogs and people, as well as between people and people.
One day, after a Mutt-i-grees lesson called “Finding Feelings,” Mikey walked up to his teacher and said, “He broke my feelings.” Surprised, the teacher asked Mikey what he meant, and Mikey cautiously explained that another boy had taken his toy truck. Together, Mikey and his teacher approached the boy, who apologized and returned the truck. For both the child and the adult, this was a breakthrough.
“We’d just covered the lesson about recognizing feelings, putting them into words and having the confidence to talk about those feelings,” she says. “And that’s just what Mikey did. He found his feelings, named them and asked for help. It worked!” Together, Mikey and his teacher “fixed” his broken feelings. From then on, Mikey found a way to fit in with his schoolmates and feel calmer and more self-confident.
Small Moments and Oxytocin
Key to this phenomenon is oxytocin, “the hormone of love.” Research shows that even thinking about dogs lowers cortisol levels in our brains and ups the oxytocin. Cortisol is related to stress and the fight-or-flight response and is often associated with anxiety, depression and impulsive behavior. It also shuts down learning.
Oxytocin, which is exclusive to mammals, is released in mega-doses during childbirth and lactation, but is present in human beings of both genders all the time. Unlike cortisol, higher levels of oxytocin seem to increase trust and reduce fear; facilitate bonding (both maternal and social); and promote feelings of contentment, generosity and empathy. As for dogs, experts say that what’s good for the human is good for the Mutt-i-gree. The human-dog bond is just that, a bond, and both partners enjoy a boost of calming oxytocin with each pat, cuddle and shared glance.
The Mutt-i-grees Lineage
North Shore Animal League America has been a pioneer in the no-kill shelter movement since its founding in 1944, and Yale’s 21C is a highly respected innovator in American education, famous for introducing the country’s first nationwide community-school model to address the needs of working families for quality child care and early childhood education.
So, when it came to creating the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, the major players were in place. Matia Finn- Stevenson, PhD, a renowned educator and director of 21C, is married to NSALA president John Stevenson, and the couple has always shared a passion for rescuing shelter dogs. The Pet Saver Foundation, NSALA’s developmental arm, and the Cesar Millan Foundation provided the curriculum’s initial funding.
In just five years, the curriculum has grown to include eight carefully researched and structured binders for PreK–Grade 3, Grades 4–6, Grades 7–8 and Grades 9–12, as well as “Mutt-igrees in the Library,” “Paws Down, Tails Up, Physical Fitness” and “The Animal Shelter Guide to the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum.” There’s also a version called “Cats Are Mutt-i-grees 2,” because, well, they are! All lessons and activities focus on five fundamental SEL concepts: Achieving Awareness, Finding Feelings, Encouraging Empathy, Cultivating Cooperation, and Dealing with Decisions. What distinguishes this curriculum from other SEL programs is that all lessons and activities use shelter pets to illustrate and reinforce these concepts.
Miguel A. Cardona, EdD, is the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in the Meriden Public Schools, Meriden, Conn. This past fall, his school system introduced the curriculum in its kindergarten classes. “This is much more than a dog-in-the-classroom program,” he says. “I don’t want to downplay dogs in the classroom, but that’s not what this curriculum is about. Most kids have an instinctive, positive emotional connection to animals. This program recognizes that connection and meets the kids where they are. It then adds complexity and structure to develop the interpersonal and emotional skills kids need for academic achievement. Skills like empathy, self-regulation and impulse control are crucial for student success. In fact, I would argue that Mutt-i-grees helps provide a social and emotional bridge that takes kids where they need to be to become successful students.”
“The focus on the human-animal bond inherent in the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum is a powerful learning tool,” says Finn-Stevenson. “Although it’s especially valuable for children who are at risk and those with developmental and educational problems, all children love and benefit from it. The kids think it’s just plain fun. But from our perspective, we see them developing empathy and learning about themselves, animals and each other—learning to care.”
Finn-Stevenson says the curriculum’s methodology synthesizes concepts from the fields of Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) and resilience research to teach valuable skills that foster both social and emotional competence and academic success. She also says that it’s one of the few SEL programs available that works on a continuum from preschool through high school.
But perhaps the most striking aspect of the program is its versatility. The curriculum now has applications for libraries, animal shelters, special education programs, after-school programs, at-risk youth, anti-bullying, physical education and families.
“We knew that children would respond favorably to stories and activities about shelter pets,” says Finn-Stevenson, “but we were—and continue to be— amazed at the interest the program is generating among teachers, counselors, parents and other family members.”
And a Dog Shall Lead Them
Shell Bank adopted the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum in 2014. That fall, NSALA’s Mutt-i-grees Team visited the school with several dogs and puppies to conduct an interactive assembly. By day’s end, Denise Atwood, who teaches English language arts at Shell Bank, had fallen in love with a mellow black-and-white Mutt-i-gree who’d recently come from a high-kill shelter in Tennessee. Atwood named her Shelby, and together, she and Principal Teri Ahearn made Shelby the school’s canine counselor and goodwill ambassador. Every day, Shelby contributes to a calm classroom atmosphere, making the school day more fun and productive for faculty and students while doing her utmost to combat any misconceptions students may have about dogs.
Shelby isn’t the curriculum’s only campus Mutt-i-gree. In fact, at least 16 former shelter dogs (and one cat) are now members of the nationwide Mutti- grees Canine Corps. Finn-Stevenson is quick to point out, however, that real dogs are not essential to the program’s success, especially with young children. The curriculum uses plush puppy hand puppets, books, art activities, games and other means to bring the essence of dog into the classroom. Thanks no doubt to the oxytocin phenomenon, the puppets are so popular that young learners often compete to see who can take one home for the weekend.
“I’ve worked hands-on in animal welfare for more than 35 years,” says Joanne Yohannan, senior vice president of operations at NSALA. “The internship is crucial to the curriculum, because it gives students a chance to experience firsthand what an animal shelter is all about, especially now, when people are proud of their rescue pets, of doing the right thing and adopting. I want these kids to feel that pride and to know that today is an exciting time to be a member of the shelter community.”
St. Martin de Porres Academy (SMDP), in New Haven, Conn., implemented the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum in 2010. Located just a few blocks from Yale’s campus, SMDP is a progressive, independent Catholic school that provides tuition-free, extended-day classes for underserved students from low-income families. Admission is open to all regardless of race, religion, color or ethnicity. Now in its 11th year, SMDP enrolls about 60 students in grades five to eight. School days are 10 hours long, and the school year runs a full 11 months. In addition, SMDP makes a 12-year commitment to all students and their families, pledging academic, personal and financial support from fifth grade through college.
For the past five summers, incoming fifth-graders from SMDP have traveled the 80 miles from New Haven to Port Washington to spend five days as Mutti- grees Interns. The week begins with shelter intake and moves on to medical care, grooming, socialization and marketing. On their final day as interns, the students see for themselves what it’s all about as they help lucky Mutt-igrees get adopted from one of NSALA’s mobile adoption units.
SMDP President Allison Rivera, who adopted a Beagle mix named Penny in 2011, has seen the effects of the program on her students. “I’ve watched the transformative power that an intense focus on empathy can have and how it can extend to all living things,” she says.
Rivera notes that for many of these inner-city children, the internship offers a rare opportunity for positive contact with nature. “These kids are so removed from the natural world,” she says. “They really haven’t any experience with it. They’re terrified of insects, everything. That’s just one reason that going to North Shore is always an eye-opener. It gives them a chance to see and relate to animals, which means relating to nature.”
One of this year’s interns, Alexzander London, 10, has a dog at home named Oscar. “At North Shore, we learned not to judge a book by its cover when we learned about Pit Bulls,” he says. “We also learned about how important it is to train a dog well. When you treat them well, there’s always good inside a dog.”
“Love Is a Four-Legged Word”
In 2012, several town leaders who were also dog lovers decided to change the pound into a true shelter and upgrade Selma’s humane services. In January 2014, Second Chance Animal Shelter of Selma held its grand opening in a small but highly visible location just a few blocks from Selma High School. Second Chance is a nonprofit run entirely by volunteers with support from the town and local businesses. Its motto? “Love Is a Four-Legged Word.”
The shelter’s volunteer executive director is a 26-year-old dog trainer named Sarah Chambless, the sort of young woman whose enthusiasm and passion lead her to try things that surprise even her. She’d previously volunteered at the troubled pound, where she learned what a shelter should not be, and where she’d adopted her German Shepherd, Belle, now a certified therapy dog.
Shortly after Second Chance opened, high school principal Mark Babiarz, himself a dog lover, received a grant for an after-school program that required a curriculum. He immediately thought of Second Chance and called Chambless to see if she could use some high school volunteers. She said, “Yes!” Then he mentioned the curriculum.
“I had no idea how to make a curriculum,” she recalls. “So I went online and found the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, and it’s awesome! I use it with my volunteers and when I go into classrooms with Belle. We talk about empathy, and I always point out to the kids how Belle’s presence improves the energy in the room. Then we go to the shelter to work with the dogs. The students have chores, of course, but they also monitor playgroups and help me make sure that every dog gets outdoor time.”
Because her fledgling shelter faces a lot of challenges, she’s forged partnerships with local no-kill groups to move dogs out of Second Chance to safer ground. Adoption is slow, but many more owners now know where to find their lost pets. That, she says, is a step in the right direction.
“The only way to fix a problem is to change the mindset of people,” says Chambless, “and changing young minds is easier than changing the minds of a lot of old-school farmers. This is a rural community, really set in its ways. But education can make the difference. This curriculum opens a door that leads to change.”
For Principal Babiarz, that fortuitous phone call to Chambless signaled a turning point for Selma. “Building a community’s capacity to empathize and care for animals can only make that community a better place for everyone,” he says.
Power to the Mutt-i-Grees
One high school English teacher presented her students with the concept of “reputation,” and asked them to consider its thematic links to Michael Vick and Othello. The result was a collection of provocative essays about Othello, Casio, Vick and Pit Bulls.
A social studies teacher asked students to examine interspecies communication in relation to the anthropological development of the canine-human relationship. The students learned how ancient, rich and deep this bond really is—and, how to write a solid research paper.
Students, in turn, have seized upon Mutt-i-grees as a way to stretch their talents and play a role in the world outside the classroom. They volunteer and fundraise for local shelters, form clubs to spread the word about spay/neuter and adoption, organize adoption events, create anti-cruelty campaigns, and educate their families and community leaders about the importance of compassion and responsible pet care. Empowered by their Mutt-i-grees experience, kids are becoming informed spokespersons and leaders in the effort to create a better world for animals.
And they’re having fun doing it. Last summer, students in the Clinton, Ark., school district spent time at M.U.T.T.S. Camp. (The acronym, created by the campers, stands for Motivated Understanding Thoughtful Teenage Students.) They visited shelters, cleaned kennels and litter boxes, bathed and walked dogs, socialized felines, made friends, and learned lessons they’ll never forget. In July, more than 50 of those students worked with high school faculty and staff to stage a twoact Mutt-i-grees Musical Extravaganza: The Dog Days of Summer 2015. Numbers included such canine classics as “Hound Dog,” “Who Let the Dogs Out?” and even “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat.”
“The curriculum is effective because it’s inspiring,” says Finn-Stevenson. “Both teachers and students are inspired to take the curriculum and make it their own. Really, Mutt-i-grees is much more than a school curriculum. It becomes part of the community and extends far beyond the schoolroom.”
Psychotherapist Deborah La Fond, LMFT, first encountered the curriculum in a school setting, where she directed a special education program for children with emotional disturbances. Today, she’s in private practice in San Jose, Calif., specializing in children and teens, and the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum has traveled with her.
A self-described “dog person,” La Fond says that shelter dogs in particular help kids access feelings and experiences that are often threatening and scary. “They identify,” she says. “They see innocent dogs in shelters being ‘punished’ for no reason. They recognize abuse, neglect and abandonment as things they’ve experienced—and they’re able to tap much more quickly and deeply into those emotions and talk about them. Shelter dogs can really lighten the emotional load for these kids, especially teens who get sucked into that edgy adolescent funk.”
She says that emotional resilience, which is at the heart of the curriculum, is crucial to helping everyone navigate life’s transitions and traumas. “There are times,” she says, “when we’re talking about shelter dogs and—bang!—the lights go on, and a child suddenly brings up the death of a pet or a grandparent. Connections get made. It’s amazing.”
Little Mikey in Kentucky would definitely agree: Finding and fixing broken feelings is undeniably amazing. And that, in essence, is the curriculum’s power: its ability to offer kids like Mikey a multitude of ways to become calm and resilient through skills they acquire simply because they love and relate to animals.
As for the Mutt-i-grees, it’s all good. Adoptions are up in communities where the curriculum is part of the culture, “… shelter dogs in particular help kids access feelings and experiences that are often threatening and scary. They identify …” 90 Bark Winter 2015 and educators from Connecticut to California are discovering that shelter animals have a lot to teach all of us about empathy, dignity, connection and the possibility of a more humane future. That’s a lot for a school curriculum to carry. But if you consider who’s really in charge—the Mutt-i-grees—it’s not so surprising after all.
Dog's Life: Humane
People and dogs saved by compassion and one another.
Down a small lane in what feels like the middle of nowhere is Posadówek, a tiny village in the west of Poland. With its fields, aging Soviet-era buildings and single road, it could easily be mistaken for just another rural outpost. But in reality, life-changing activities for both people and dogs are taking place here.
Those who live in the Posadówek community are part of the social co-operative Wielka Pomoc, which translates as “Great Help.” The co-op’s main focus is to provide a shelter and rehoming center for local homeless dogs as well as a reintegration center for some of Poland’s most socially excluded people. It is part of a nationwide movement of similar social co-ops that have been set up to help the “life-wrecked,” people who have become enmeshed in problems such as homelessness, substance addiction or crime.
The movement was founded by the Barka Foundation for Mutual Help, a local NGO (non-governmental organization), as a solution for the many who suffered in the Polish society that emerged after the end of communism in 1989.
The underlying idea is to help people reconnect with healthy ways of life by having occupations and places to live, which gives them a sense of purpose and security. In Posadówek, co-op members look after dogs, work that is turning out to be both productive and healing.
Hieronim, 36, had immigrated to Ireland, living in Dublin and supporting himself by doing manual labor until an accident made it impossible for him to work. He then developed a heavy drinking problem and ended up living on the streets. Eventually, he was found by Barka, which in 2012 helped him return to Poland and arranged therapy for him; since then, he hasn’t had a drink. Now the leader of the Posadówek co-op, Hieronim created the community’s dog shelter, which is financially self-sustaining and uses a local eco-friendly fuel.
Dogs are usually brought to the co-op by local authorities (barking erupts in the kennels when the council’s dog warden comes in). They are quarantined until they receive a medical check-up; once they’re cleared, they are moved to the main shelter. “First we feed the dogs, because they are always skinny and unhealthy, and then we clean and vaccinate them, then we give them a tracking chip,” Hieronim says.
People come to the shelter to adopt; in 2014, 128 dogs were rehomed. Hieronim feels that its size is a plus. “It’s a small dog shelter, so people feel happier adopting with us.” He mentions that a much bigger, state-run dog shelter in nearby Poznan houses more than 600 dogs, yet doesn’t rehome as many as Posadówek.
Hieronim has had training in veterinary practices, and the co-op employs an outside veterinarian. Tomasz, another co-op member who plays a large part in tending to the dogs, has also received training in advanced dog care. Very much a hands-on carer, Tomasz has positive relationships with many of the dogs, developed during his daily work of thoroughly cleaning their kennels and bringing their food. He also takes time to get to know each dog individually.
Joanna is Tomasz’s partner, the co-op’s cook and the community’s only woman. She once had a well-paid job, but an aggressive, alcoholic husband made life chaotic. When she left him, she came to the co-op, where, she says, life is simpler and harder, but where she is much happier.
Joanna has strong bonds with some of the dogs, particularly a Rottweiler who was brought to the shelter because he was so aggressive. “Sometimes an owner chooses the dog, and sometimes the dog chooses the owner,” she says as she puts her hands through the cage and strokes the Rottweiler. She describes the dog’s unfortunate past, and the relationship they now have.
There is clearly a feeling of solidarity between the dogs and the co-op’s members, all whom have been through bad times but now support each other through their individual recoveries and reconnections to regular lives.
Hieronim talks about why he founded the Posadówek co-op, why it is important and why he is passionate about helping animals: “It is a good feeling for the people who [have lived] on the streets; they have empathy for the dogs. They’re animals, we are human, but it’s the same—if you don’t have a home, it’s the same bad feeling. My idea is that homeless people understand how the dogs feel. If the people work with and for the dogs, they start living better lives themselves.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The training app iClicker (iOS) is easy and free, and it’s particularly handy if you can’t find your clicker, or want to do a quickie lesson while out at the park. The noise-box feature also works as a “say cheez” prompt for photo ops. (App Store)
WoofTrax’s Walk for a Dog app (iOS, Android) makes fundraising easy and healthy for you both of you. When you and your dog start out on your walk, press “Start Walking for —” for a prompt to choose an organization. (More than 4,000 organizations are registered; if your favorite rescue or shelter isn’t in their network, you can request that it be added.) After your walk is finished, hit “stop” and the walk is credited to the org. The app also tracks walk distance, duration and route, making this a good way to record your rambles. Just think of the miles pro dog walkers can rack up!
Dog's Life: Humane
Volunteer First-Responders To the Rescue
You’re strolling along a forest trail with your favorite trail companion, your big chocolate Lab. She’s 12, slowing down, but still loves getting outside, taking in the smells and sounds that excite her brain and bring a spring to her arthritic step. Walking a few feet ahead, she sets an easy pace, nose to the ground.
Suddenly, a clap of thunder startles you both. Spooked, she runs, terrified. You hear her crashing through shrubs and branches as you frantically call her to come … then there’s silence. Following her path as best you can, carefully parting the undergrowth to see where you’re stepping, you halt, nearly falling down a long steep bank covered in trees, shrubs and rock outcroppings. Far below, you see your dog’s brown coat and bright collar; she’s on her side near a stream at the bottom of the gully. Frantically shouting her name, you watch, terrified, as she lifts her head and looks at you with fear in her eyes.
Now what? Can you reach her without hurting yourself? And if you do, how will you manage to get her aging and probably injured 80-pound body back up to the trail by yourself?
If you’re lucky, you have your cell phone (and reception) and live in an area that has an animal rescue team, ready to respond to exactly this type of emergency. One such group is headquartered in Enumclaw, Wash., 40 miles south of Seattle.
Filling a Need
Washington State Animal Response Team (WASART) is an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization that mobilizes when companion animals and livestock are in a crisis situation—a dog slides down a ravine and can’t get back up, a horse gets stuck in a bog, or a wildfire threatens a community and their animals need emergency sheltering. WASART responds to emergencies and disasters throughout the state when called upon by an animal owner or law enforcement, often working in coordination with search-and-rescue teams. The group focuses on animal rescues, leaving the searching and human rescues to other responders.
WASART rescues a wide range of pets and domestic animals—dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters and other small companion mammals—as well as farm animals such as chickens, ducks, cattle, pigs, llamas, alpacas, goats, sheep, cows and horses. They aren’t trained to rescue wildlife or exotics, such as snakes and birds.
The organization was founded by two women who volunteered with Northwest Horseback Search and Rescue. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and other areas along the Gulf Coast in 2005, Gretchen McCallum and Greta Cook watched, horrified, as people refused rescue because they couldn’t bring their pets; of those who declined to evacuate ahead of the storm, roughly one-third did so because of their unwillingness to leave their pets behind.
McCallum and Cook were determined that such a scenario would never happen in Washington, and created WASART in early 2007 with a few other volunteers, focusing on disaster sheltering and rescues of horses and livestock. Their first deployment involved a mare who had been down in a muddy pasture for two days.
Soon, they expanded to include a group of volunteers who had helped with the post-Katrina cleanup, including current WASART president Bill Daugaard, who brings his Katrina-rescued dog—whom he named for the hurricane—with him to the organization’s board meetings. With this infusion of talent and expertise, rescuing companion animals was added to the group’s mission, making good use of down time between disaster deployments.
According to Michaela Eaves, WASART’s Public Information Officer, most of their rescues are dogs and horses, in a nearly equal split. There are more canine rescues in the summer months, when dogs go along on hikes and other outdoor expeditions, and more horse rescues in the cold winter months, when older horses go down in stalls or fields.
WASART gets called to a rescue in one of two ways: 75 percent of the time, an owner calls 911, and the local sheriff or animal control officer asks WASART to help. The rest of the time, an owner calls WASART directly. (Occasionally a vet or someone who knows a WASART team member will call on behalf of an owner.) WASART doesn’t self-deploy. “It’s a matter of trust,” explains Eaves. “If we’re not asked to assist but show up anyway, we’ll never get called by those first responders again.”
Rescue, Simple and Complicated
Western Washington, where WASART most frequently works, is a place of steep hills and jagged mountains covered in dense forests, crisscrossed with rugged trails and rich in streams, lakes and waterfalls, all within easy driving distance of major urban areas. These temptations create the perfect storm for the most common scenarios WASART gets called to: urban dogs unfamiliar with this environment who have fallen over a cliff or slid down a ravine, whose pads are burned and/or cut from walking on hot boulder fields, or who are simply old or out of shape and unable to return to the trailhead under their own power. WASART teams are trained not only in handling various types of animals, but in the technical aspects of traversing difficult terrain, often utilizing ropes to rappel over cliffs and down steep embankments.
This year, during a June hot spell, WASART received a call to assist Summit to Sound Search and Rescue in packing out an injured dog on a trail near Mt. Baker, close to the Canadian border. Arriving at the trailhead at 9 pm, the team hiked five miles in the dark, arriving at the location around 1 am to discover that there were two dogs, Alaskan Malamutes Bow and Arrow, with their guardian. The dogs’ pads were burned and raw, and they couldn’t walk.
The WASART team put panty liners on the dogs’ feet for padding and blood absorption and covered them with surgical gloves (to prevent fur from sticking), then wrapped each injured foot in vet wrap. Now able to walk, Bow and Arrow, their guardian, and the rescue team slowly hiked the five miles out, taking time to rest and re-bandage. They arrived back at the trailhead at 5:40 am.
If dogs aren’t able to walk out on their own, the team will carry them out in a backpack (for small dogs); wrapped in a soft canvas litter; or strapped onto a Stokes litter, a metal wire or plastic stretcher with multiple attachment points so it can be carried by hand, attached to cables and hoisted up into a helicopter, or pulled behind a horse or skier. The Stokes litter can also be broken down into parts that fit into a backpack or horse pack.
Some rescues require a bit of ingenuity. Two years ago, a black Lab was stuck about 30 feet down a culvert that angled roughly 35 degrees. Rescuers couldn’t see her, although they could hear her whining. The culvert ran under a steep mountain road; at the other end was a 50-foot drop-off. One responder affixed a GoPro camera and a flashlight to the end of a flexible plumber’s snake, then sent it down the pipe while watching the video on an app on his smart phone. Seeing that the dog kept slipping on the pipe’s slick surface and couldn’t climb back up, the rescuers tied several lengths of ripped sheets to a rope and sent it down, giving the Lab enough traction to self-rescue. Without the GoPro, they wouldn’t have known how to save her.
Other rescues require brute strength, patience and determination. “Bossy” the cow became stuck in a muddy ravine in January 2015, a soggy season of rain and cold in western Washington. WASART deployed over two rainy days, assisted by a local vet who assessed Bossy’s condition and sedated her for everyone’s safety. A group from Back Country Horsemen of Washington came out and cleared brush on the ravine’s bank so that Bossy—after being loaded onto a glide (a flexible sled-like piece of equipment)—could be hoisted up the slope to safety.
When devastating wildfires hit communities in the Okanogan area of eastern Washington in July 2014, WASART deployed to help shelter displaced animals. Some WASART volunteers became overwhelmed as they spoke with residents who had lost everything. “The victims needed to talk to someone,” Eaves remembers, “but WASART volunteers aren’t trained for it. That doesn’t catch up to you for two or three weeks, when you don’t know why you’re suddenly yelling at your dog.” (WASART’s core training includes learning about compassion fatigue and how to take care of oneself in rescue situations; volunteer traumatology counselors provide psychological first aid to responders after difficult events.) A happier memory for Eaves includes local kids who set up a lemonade stand with handmade signs to raise money for “burned animals” and sent WASART their photo with a donation check.
WASART and similar animal-response teams operate on shoestring budgets, relying on volunteers who already have some personal equipment (helmets, gloves, harnesses) along with technical expertise and time to share. Volunteers are asked to pay for their training: Core, Field Response (animal handling), Transport and Emergency Sheltering. Other required certifications—FEMA and CPR—can be obtained from the government or Red Cross.
Technical Response Team members need additional specialized rope and climbing training. One of WASART’s major equipment expenses is, in fact, ropes, particularly technical climbing ropes, which must be replaced frequently because they degrade with use and washing. If ropes are used to hoist a heavy animal, they’re immediately replaced for safety reasons.
Currently, WASART has roughly 130 volunteers at various levels of training. Perhaps 50 of those have sufficient education and certification to go into the field. It’s tough, demanding work, with a high turnover rate, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. The generosity of these dedicated volunteers, as well as those who make financial donations, means that WASART never has to charge for rescues, and that animal owners needn’t hesitate before calling for help.
“This week we had two callouts for horses, with sad endings,” Eaves shared with me, trying to describe what drives her to pursue this work, especially since not every rescue ends happily. “As the vet was euthanizing one of the horses, I realized one of the things that makes this rewarding isn’t just that we are able to help immediately, to solve the problem and pack up and go home. What we do is more of a sprint in comparison to the more traditional foster-and-adopt rescues, which are more like a marathon. For the most part, we are there because the owners love their animals. At the second callout, all these people were standing in the field with their hearts in their eyes because they loved their horse. It’s no different for dogs, when you see the owners waiting anxiously for their buddy to be safe again. There is a lot out in the animal world to be sad about, but to see the care people have for their animals makes the hard stuff easier.”
While we all hope our companion animals will never need to be rescued, it’s heartening to know groups like WASART—with its compassionate, dedicated volunteers—exist, just in case they do.
Tracey Stewart, author of the new book, in conversation with The Bark
Tracey Stewart has had a constellation of careers (some simultaneously): animal advocate, creator/editor-in-chief of the digital parenting magazine Moomah, writer for Huffington Post, vet tech, graphic designer. She and husband Jon—yes, that Jon Stewart—live in New Jersey with their two children, four dogs, two horses, two pigs, three rabbits, two guinea pigs, two hamsters, one parrot and two fish. As she notes, “all rescues, except for the children.” With the forthcoming publication of Do Unto Animals (Artisan), beautifully illustrated by Lisel Ashlock, she’s now added author to her portfolio.
In your book, you mention that raising children, at least during their younger years, is a lot like your work in the vet field. Are there other similarities that make raising your human family a little easier?
Nothing prepares you for raising a human family. That first day you wake up with a baby, you just have to keep running to stay ahead. When I was pregnant, people would say, “Don’t worry, you’ll know what to do once the baby arrives.” That’s a bunch of hooey! You’ve got to educate yourself and change your technique as your child develops.
I believe this is true of “parenting” an animal as well. My family is constantly trying to learn how to do better for our animals. We’re always looking for ways to enrich their lives and take the best care of them that we can. Every day, we learn something new. It’s a family passion.
Shelter-based projects are one of the ways you and your family express that passion. How can children—and adults, for that matter—become active in this type of volunteerism?
Sometimes, the best way is to start with the closest shelter that shares your values. The easier it is to get there, the more likely you are to visit. We were lucky that our local shelter had aligned itself with a humane education program that invited children in for activities and education.
Even if your local shelter doesn’t offer something specific, be creative. Most shelters are hard at work taking care of their animals. They can use all the generosity you have to give. Offer whatever skills you have to help. Come up with your own idea and reach out. It’s really wonderful to have a personal relationship with a shelter.
And you don’t have to wait for a program to exist. When we’ve been on vacation, my daughter has gone to local shelters and offered to read to their animals.
How do you explain to young children that not all animals in shelters will be rehomed?
Honesty is always the best approach. The older the child, the more details I’m comfortable sharing. I usually know how much or how little information to give each child. Not that I haven’t made the mistake of answering big life questions with more information than my kids want. At that point, they give me a puzzled look and interrupt me with, “Okay, Mommy, is that it?”
As with any topic that is frustrating and sad, I find it helps to look at the positive and to focus on what we can actually do to help. Helping animals has shown my kids the strength of their voices and actions.
You point out that “an animal’s presence in a shelter often says a lot more about the person who surrendered them than about the animal.” Unfortunately, people seem to equate shelters with behavior problems. How do you counteract that perception?
I think we need to tell people to take a moment to ponder the many failings of members of the human race, and then imagine the gold that must get left at shelters every day. Having spent so much time in shelters, I can personally attest to the fact that fantastic animals are just waiting to be given a chance with a reasonable and kind human being. Shelter animals with the most daunting behavioral issues, such as extreme fear or aggression, are usually euthanized, especially if there is a history of biting. Sadly, however, animals with absolutely no serious behavioral problems are euthanized as well, due to lack of space and resources and because no one came to take a look at them.
You also mention virtual adoption. How does that work?
Virtual adoption is a way to help shelter animals without bringing them into your house. Let’s face it, we can only bring so many animals home before we have to worry about accusations of hoarding. Even if your home is already full, you have allergies or a hectic work schedule, you travel or any other of a host of obstacles, there is still so much you can do to help animals find their forever homes. When our family reached maximum capacity, my kids chose a shelter dog or cat to champion. They’d make posters, decorate cages with lovely messages, and make videos and buttons. They’d drop off enrichment toys for their surrogate animal to play with. Social media offers endless opportunities to get the word out as well.
Why is fostering a pet such a good idea for the whole family?
I know that my kids feel really proud when we’re part of finding an animal a loving home. And my husband is relieved when we’re successful because it means we won’t be adding another member to the household. For me, it’s therapy. I lean toward generalized anxiety and am always worried about one thing or the other, except when I’m fostering an animal. There is something soothing and peaceful about taking care of and creating peace for an animal who has been through so much. I’m able to put all my petty concerns aside and just be.
Tell us more about your wildlife rehab center as well as your sanctuary to rescue farm animals.
Our “wildlife rehab center” is nothing official. Mostly, we make sure our home is well prepared to help an animal until we can get it to a licensed wildlife rehabber. (People can sometimes unintentionally harm an animal when they don’t know what they’re doing.) We have all the emergency numbers at the ready. We also make sure that we don’t unintentionally harm the wildlife in the back yard with harmful chemicals. We give a loud holler before we let the dogs into the yard, and we provide lots of food and shelter. My car is always equipped with a container with air holes, dog treats, a leash and protective gloves.
The animal sanctuary is on its way to becoming official, but doing it right requires time. Last year, I took a course at the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y. Their national shelter director, Susie Coston, taught it and it was a real eye-opener. I remember thinking that by the end of the conference, some of the attendees would have been discouraged from starting their own sanctuary.
Doing right by animals is no small task, and many well-meaning people get in over their heads. Then people and animals suffer. If you’re thinking of starting a sanctuary yourself, I would encourage taking this class. If you still think you’re capable of doing a great job when you complete it, then march on. If you don’t, give your passion to the animals at an already-existing sanctuary.
Sanctuaries need to be able to provide quality individual care to their rescues. They need to educate, educate and then educate some more. We are so out of touch with the animals we call food. We need to meet them.
The number of animals a sanctuary can save will never be enough. In the U.S., about 25 million land animals are killed for food daily.
What role do your husband and kids play in all this?
Fortunately for me, my entire family has an intense love for animals. I get away with a lot because Jon is such a softie. He has his own projects, but enjoys mine immensely. He’ll sometimes pretend to be exasperated when I tell him things like, “Honey, there are five goats sleeping in our garage tonight. The rescue will—I hope—come for them in the morning,” but I know he loves it. (Right, honey?? Right?!) My kids are essential in all of this craziness. They have feeding, enrichment and training duties. They are constantly teaching me new things about animals.
Among other things, you comment on dog tail- and ear-cropping and cat declawing. In other countries, these practices are thought to be inhumane and oftentimes are illegal. Why are we still doing it here?
My understanding is that one of the reasons this practice still goes on in the U.S. is due to some no-good politics. Other folks speak to that more articulately than I can, but what I do know is dogs’ ears and tails are important to their ability to communicate, and that declawing cats is painful and deforming. Lots of people think that because it’s been done for so long, it must be all right. It’s not!
You also take on the demonization of the Pit Bull. You’ve lived with Pit Bulls; why do you think they’ve gotten such a “bad rap”?
Myths abound. Lazy reporting and a desire to grab people’s attention with sensationalized stories have been implicit in the destruction and abuse of too many innocent creatures.
The reality is that Pit Bulls are smart, loyal and strong, qualities that unfortunately attracted the attention of unsavory types in the ’80s and ’90s. Criminals exploited Pit Bulls’ natural tendencies for the purpose of profit. Because they are usually so devoted to their owners, Pit Bulls could be trusted not to bite them while concurrently obeying their commands to fight.
Pit Bulls are being overbred, are not being spayed or neutered, and are treated as disposable. Couple that with the backlash against them and you can understand why our shelters are filled with Pit Bulls. It is estimated that 2,800 Pit Bulls are euthanized in the U.S. every day.
If BSL laws are in place to protect the communities, communities should be up in arms about the money being wasted. These laws don’t make communities safer. Education does! Pit Bulls do not bite more than other breeds. However, the media often labels dogs who have bitten people as Pit Bulls; their mantra is, “If it bit, it must be a Pit.”
Breed doesn’t appear among the factors relevant to dog-bite fatalities. According to a study done by the CDC, of the 256 dog-bite fatalities between 2000 and 2009, 84 percent were intact males, 76 percent were kept as guard or yard dogs rather than family pets, and 28 percent involved owners with a history of reported pet abuse. History, not breed, determines a dog's behavior. Humans, not dogs, are the variable.
By and large, dogs are at the mercy of human decisions, and when humans make poor decisions, dogs suffer and communities become less safe. Let’s put money now being spent on enforcing BSL laws toward educating communities about dog behavior and safety rather than blaming dogs—put it behind teaching people the importance of spay and neuter, dog behavior, and positive training methods.
Acts of animal cruelty are linked to violence against people. Communities would be safer if animal cruelty cases were enforced.
On a less weighty note, as an avid DIYer, I really love the simple projects you include in the book. But why did you include them?
The thing I like about hand-made projects is that they force people to drop everything else and ponder for a bit. And, if you want to engage people and keep them motivated to keep doing for others, you have to make it fun! DIY projects are a great way to get kids involved. Sitting together working on these projects provides time for conversation, and taking these projects to the animals is incredibly satisfying.
When their efforts feed their souls, people are less likely to burn out and more likely to continue helping. Animals do that for me. Whether it’s animals or something else, I would encourage readers to take some time to figure out what really makes them feel great about helping.
Your book’s theme of bettering the lives of animals should be popular with readers of all ages. What do you hope to achieve?
If nothing else, I hope Do Unto Animals inspires people to do just a little more. If we all did a little more, a lot of good could come from it. Lives are busy and tons of things are going wrong in the world. It can be overwhelming and depressing, but it helps to feel like you’re pushing back with positive action. What’s wonderful about animals is that they’re all around us. Opportunities to make a difference abound.
I’d love to inspire all animal lovers to constantly learn and seek out new information. Don’t take information at face value. Do your homework. Raise questions. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Learning about suffering and wrongdoing isn’t as devastating to your soul when you’re working on the solution. The more I learn, the better I do, and each day I’m doing better than the last.
What’s next for the Stewart family?
I know Jon is looking forward to going to the carwash (he loves that!), stopping by his favorite smoothie place, being with our kids a glorious amount of time and keeping an eye on me. I’m guessing that I’m not going to be able to get away with sneaking so many animals into the house once he’s not at the show every day.
This interview has been edited.
I was thrilled to read Twig Mowatt’s “Creating Animal Ambassadors.” I am the president of Juntos, a nonprofit on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico.
The organization is committed to promoting humane treatment of all animals on the island by strengthening the human/animal bond through educational awareness and community outreach. We have succeeded in bringing a privately funded humane education teacher into the public school system.
It is comforting and affirming to know that there are other islands in the Caribbean who are committed to educating children in the humane treatment of animals as a way to bring lasting change and improvement for those animals.
To learn more about Juntos visit juntosvieques.org
and all species too
As proclaimed in the New York Times, Pope Francis is definitely a pope for all species. Like we noted in the past the pope has not only shown compassion and concern for animals but has suggested, underscoring what a previous pontiff had declared, that there is a place in heavens for animals. I’m sure we can all agree that what would a heaven be without dogs. But to see the joyfulness that this spiritual leader greats, acknowledges and blesses dogs is its own blessing. His visit to the White House would of course include a meet and greet with the ebullient pair Bo and Sunny, canine members of the Obama family.
It’s also important to note that in Laudato Si’, his encyclical on the environment that he warned that, “We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism.” Certainly a strong position on animal right’s! Laudato Si’, translated in English is either as “Be Praised” or “Praised Be,” and is a quotation from a popular prayer of St. Francis of Assisi written in 1224 praising God for the creation of the different creatures and aspects of the Earth. “Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun,” St. Francis wrote in the third stanza of the prayer. He then continued, expressing praise to God for “Sister Moon,” “Brothers Wind and Air,” “Sister Water,” “Brother Fire,” and “Mother Earth.”
As noted by Nicholas Kristof:
Charles Camosy, a Catholic theologian at Fordham University who has written a book about the theology of animal protection, says that Francis’ carefully reviewed encyclical this year constitutes the first authoritative Catholic statements that animals enjoy eternal life.
It was so fitting that this pope took the name of the patron saint of animals, St. Francis of Assisi, and has followed him with humane and enlightened positions. It is wonderful to see him visit our country, spreading his inspiring messages wherever he goes.
News: Guest Posts
As embers fell and flames grew, the question of “what to take” often came down to a four-legged bundle. But the Valley Fire in California’s rural Lake County left many with just minutes to escape as it sped through parched brush in record time.
“The community had to leave so fast that hundreds of animals were left behind,” says Bill Davidson, director of Lake County Animal Care and Control.
Countless dogs that managed to stay with their people soon joined cats, goats, horses and more in evacuation centers crammed with cots and crates. One local shelter had to face its own tough choices; whether to euthanize existing animals to make way for the incoming. (Luckily, these two groups stepped in).
In South Lake County, where the 73,700-acre blaze began, among the worst in California’s history, the roads out are windy and narrow, through rock-strewn mountains and forests, with yawning drops at every bend. In 2011, a group of horse owners along with Davidson formed the Lake Evacuation and Animal Protection team (LEAP) to help prepare for the inevitable, catastrophic fire.
The volunteer group has trained to enter the fire area and either impound or shelter in place. The vast majority of city and county animal control agencies lack the training, equipment, or support from local fire agencies to do the work, Davidson says.
In recent days, some people ventured back into smoldering fire zones, escorted by sheriff’s deputies and CHP officers for a 15-minute check on the animals they’d left behind. Some would find their homes; others would not.
“Everyone is calling to have us check on their animals,” says Davidson. “The list is endless.” With the enormity of the crisis, he called in the ASPCA. Everyone wants to help, he says, but LEAP only uses those with fire training and personal protection equipment. The fire zone, where animals still wander, is filled with dangers. “Many things are actively burning, trees are falling, power lines are down, and fire crews are running around to trouble spots.” On Sunday, the ASPCA arrived with a 30-foot trailer. The four field rescuers and three shelter helpers are expected to stay through Sunday.
“We brief each morning and then they are gone for most of the day, not returning to well after midnight so far,” Davidson says.
The field rescue is uplifting at times, heartbreaking at others.
“As long as the property was spared, most dogs have done well,” he says. “Our goal has been to shelter in place as many as possible, providing food and water for the absent owner, then moving on to the next address.” If they survived the initial blast, most are far more comfortable and easily managed staying at home.
But over 1,000 structures were likely destroyed, “pretty much a total loss, including anything left inside,” he says. “The injured animals have been trickling in, all being sent for medical attention.”
How many dogs are missing? Davidson is sure there are hundreds that escaped yards or were set loose by their owners. “Social media has been full of pictures of animals set free by their owners before leaving. We have impounded about a dozen dogs just wandering around as we check on addresses.”
Lake County’s animal shelter now brims with almost 200 animals whose lives were upturned by fire…again.
In August, the county was struck by another roaring inferno; the Rocky fire, nearly as large but in a less populated area. Less than two weeks later the Jerusalem fire ignited. Help arrived from Chico-based North Valley Animal Disaster Group, but the run of disasters has left shelters reeling. And with some 600 homes lost, many people and pets are homeless.
“We survived the Rocky and Jerusalem fires, but it pretty much depleted our resources, both physically and mentally,” Davidson says.
“Then this came.”
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