Do Unto Animals: Ways to Improve the Lives of All Animals

Tracey Stewart, author of the new book, in conversation with The Bark
By Claudia Kawczynska, October 2015

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.

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.

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