Monday, December 31, 2012

Looking back, looking ahead.

In 2012, Plenty of Pit Bulls helped more than three dozen dogs, mostly as a result of collaborations between that loose collection of volunteers called POPB and a variety of different organizations.  We worked with private rescue groups including the Alachua County Humane Society, Helping Hands Pet Rescue, Marion County Humane Society, Phoenix Animal Rescue, Pit Sisters, Puppy Hill Farm, and Second Chance Farms.  Our initial  -- and continuing -- goal was not to replace these organizations but rather to help them expand their resources so that they could save more dogs.  To this end, we contribute pull fees and veterinary costs as well as connecting rescues with foster homes, transporters, and other volunteers.

Opie went from a cruelty case straight to the arms of his loving foster mom.

We continue to have a close relationship with Alachua County Animal Services, where most of our dogs come from.  The dedication of the shelter staff, especially Dwinnie Slade and Susan Clontz, saves countless animals every month.  They go above and beyond the call of duty to get animals to safety.  We also rely on shelter staff for recommendations about animals’ temperaments – they have never steered us wrong.  Noah (called Berrin at the shelter) received several reprieves from the euthanasia list because Dwinnie knew he was special.  He is an absolutely wonderful dog and we are thrilled that he is alive and enjoying life because we could put together the resources to help him.
Noah was all smiles as he left the shelter.

We also helped dogs from Gilchrist and Levy counties, in collaboration with volunteers and  veterinary professionals who have asked for our help.  And in turn, we were able to send a heartworm positive dog from Gainesville to be treated at the Marion County Humane Society in Ocala.  (That was Lilly, a perfect little dog who was adopted before she could come back to Gainesville!)
Lilly took to the creature comforts immediately.

Of the dozen dogs we took in directly as Plenty of Pit Bulls, eight were heartworm positive and most of the rest had other medical issues, ranging from Ella’s puncture wounds to Satchel’s eye condition.  Several of these dogs have finished treatment and been adopted, while others will continue to need treatment in the new year.

 Roxy came from the same cruelty case as Opie
Both were treated for heartworm at Shelter Medicine.

We ran up a huge debt to the amazing veterinary team at UF’s shelter medicine program.  The debt is psychological, not financial – we paid all the bills, thanks to generous donations and pledges from people in Gainesville and beyond.  Rescue groups put hundreds of dollars into every dog even without additional costs for conditions like heartworm or demodex.  There are pull fees, monthly flea and heartworm treatments, food, microchipping, and supplies like crates, collars and leashes, and unexpected veterinary costs that often arise during the time a dog is in foster care.  (Ella, for example, had a very expensive secondary bacterial infection after her original wounds were treated.)
Lucky Ella had a professional photographer for her foster mom.

We are amazed at how much we can accomplish when we connect people who want to help dogs.  When two young male pit bull mix dogs (Mr Big and Mr Little) at ACAS tested positive for demodex mange, we helped arrange a collaboration with Phoenix Animal Rescue in Gainesville, who took them into their adoption program, and Pit Sisters in Jacksonville, who provided the medicine to treat the demodex.  (Pit Sisters later did the same for another dog who went to the Alachua County Humane Society.)
Mr Big and Mr Little, later Champ and Chase, heading out.

We built relationships with several local dog trainers, who helped teach some of our volunteers and dogs.  Training and behavior work is crucial to making dogs more adoptable and increasing retention in their adopted homes – and it also makes them easier to place and keep in foster homes.  Training is also fun for dogs and handlers alike, adding to the bond and the enjoyment that make it all worthwhile.

Relationships -- between people and between people and dogs -- make everything we do possible.  Building trust and communication helps a lot of dogs, including Bonnie, who was found by a Levy County volunteer and adopted to friends of a Gainesville volunteer, after being vetted thanks to Phoenix Animal Rescue.
Bonnie got a family of her own for Christmas!

Relationships of mutual trust also make it possible for us to help and be helped by groups out of town -- as in the case of Bandit, whom we pulled from ACAS and then transferred to an out-of-town rescue organization.  In other cases, we have received similar favors from groups that pull from other shelters, such as Levy County.  Working together and being flexible enables us to help more dogs.
A shelter volunteer fell in love with Bandit and made it possible
for him to be rescued out of town when local groups were full.

We worked with Stubby Dog, a national pit bull advocacy organization, to feature both Ella and Sadie as rescue dogs of the week.  (Both were adopted, Ella through POPB and Sadie through Helping Hands.)

Harper sports his tutu with pride.

For 2013?  It’ll start off with a bang, as Harper, a heartworm positive dog rescued from Levy County Animal Services. appears as the new year’s first Stubby Dog rescue dog of the week.

We have applied to pull dogs from Putnam County Animal Services, a neighboring shelter which, like other rural southern counties, has a high kill rate, low adoption rate, and few private or public resources.  The dogs at Putnam are especially needy because the shelter refuses to let any dog labeled a pit bull or bulldog mix to be adopted out directly.  They can leave the shelter alive only if they are pulled by a rescue organization.  We look forward to being able to help a few of these dogs in the new year. 
Like so many of the dogs we helped rescue,
Copper left his difficult past behind.

We have a few other plans we need your help with – all in collaboration with other organizations in Gainesville and beyond.

First, we would like to recruit more committed volunteers.  We need people who can help train foster dogs and also take them on outings to socialize them and expose them to potential adopters.   We also, of course, always need foster homes – both for the dogs we pull as POPB and must keep in foster homes during their treatment and for the dogs who are transferred to rescue partners for adoption.
Sadie was scared and depressed at the shelter.
A loving foster home put a smile on her face,
and Helping Hands Rescue found her a family of her own.

Second, we would like to have some successful fundraising projects, so we are not relying so heavily on individual donations.
Sterling (formerly Jesse) had nearly starved to death by the time he was rescued.
Today he is happy, healthy, and ready for adoption from Phoenix Animal Rescue.

Third, we would like to have some community events that are fun and educational for everyone involved.  In addition to events like Pit Walks, picnics, and dog hikes we’d like to try something a bit more ambitious, like free or low-cost vaccinations in low-income areas.
To us, a "pit bull" is any dog who needs a little extra help,
including our gorgeous hound mix, gentle Jack.

For all of these projects, we need people with all sorts of skills as well as patience, a sense of humor, and persistence.  Please email if you would like to get more involved!  With your help, we can continue our mission – bringing people together to help the dogs we love.

One-eyed, heartworm positive Asha was dumped from a truck with her puppy.
The puppy was killed by a car, but Asha was rescued and is now safe, happy, and loved.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Story of Ella

In the first installment, she was a street waif, scruffy and scared and bleeding from deep puncture wounds.  Cue music from any story of a hard-luck orphan who encounters a good Samaritan at the crucial moment.  

She ended up at Alachua County Animal Services (ACAS).   Since the shelter was very full, there was no room for her to stay there while she was recovering from her wounds.  She was placed on the euthanasia list the day her three-day stray hold was up.   Shelter staff sent out an email to rescue groups, which said  “Sweet, sweet pit mix on Friday’s euth list. Gives kisses!!! Needs TLC before and after wounds heal. Interested? Let us know before 8:30 a.m. Friday.”  Her ridiculously cute underbite sealed the deal.
Ella is the only dog we have pulled without a confirmed foster home.  Something about her was special enough to make us take the risk.  We took her to Sun Kiva, an amazing rescue-friendly boarding kennel (thank you, Louise Kuttler) and came up with a plan that was not much of a plan:  we’d get her a Facebook page, call her “Cinderella,” recruit a bunch of fairy godmothers, and hope that her lost slipper would show up one day in the form of a great permanent home.

Maybe we should have named her “Blanche,” because if anyone ever relied on the kindness of strangers, it was this little dog.  Every step of the way, someone came through to get her to the next stage.
After a week at Sun Kiva, we moved her from the kennel to a temporary foster home, where we learned that she is house-trained and that she is a very picky eater.  After a few weeks there, she moved to another temporary foster family, where we learned that she adores children. 

Fortunately for us, everyone who spent time with Ella fell in love and both her temporary fosters kept her long past their initial commitments.  Ella is typical of many of the pit bulls we have pulled from the shelter – affectionate, athletic, full of energy and enthusiasm for people and life in general, which she demonstrated with a constantly wagging back end and energetic kisses.  But Ella also had a certain je ne sais quois, manifested in her characteristic head tilt. 
The story of Ella is a tale of two rescues – the good and the bad.   The bad part was that we had no plan, and this is a crazy-making and expensive way of doing rescue.  The good part was, well, Ella.  Not once did anyone involved with her rescue regret going out on a limb for this little bundle of charm.

After about a month and a half of antibiotics and temporary foster care, Ella was ready to go to a longer-term foster home and to get ready for adoption.  Once again luck was with us, and Ella became Hillary’s very first foster dog.  Hillary fosters like she’s been doing it all her life.  She took Ella to obedience class, where she learned about being with other dogs, among other things. Because of the attack she had suffered, we were afraid she would be scared of other dogs, but it turned out her barking was friendly excitement.  With a lot of work on Hillary’s part, Ella learned to sit quietly (more or less) when she met new dogs. 
Thanks to generosity of Phoenix Animal Rescue, she spent every Saturday at Petsmart, and every time she was better and better behaved.  Still, no one seemed interested in adopting her.  Ella was black, she was a pit bull, and she tended to express her enthusiasm a bit too forcefully when she came out of her crate at adoption events.  She had some interest, but nothing came through.  Still, we held out hope that our little gremlin princess would have a fairy-tale ending.

Then one day we got a message.  Could it be THE message?  It came from someone who sounded like the adopter ever rescuer dreams of.  Nanci described her life with her pit bull, Bella, who was the love of her life and had recently been diagnosed with an aggressive form of bone cancer.  Nanci’s first response was “I can never go through this again with another dog,” but then she realized that the joy Bella had brought into her life made her never want to be without a pit bull.  Fearing that Bella did not have long, she was starting to look at Petfinder, and had been struck by the pictures and descriptions of two of our available dogs – Lilly and Ella.  As luck would have it, Lilly had just been adopted (through her foster in Ocala), but Ella was still waiting.  We talked, Nanci thought, and she decided to meet Ella even though Bella was still very much with her and loving life.  Could she possibly handle two dogs?  Could Bella, who was sometimes dog-selective, adjust to life with another dog?  Would Ella create stress for Bella or perhaps add to her quality of life?

Nanci met Bella at an adoption event, liked what she saw, and we moved to the next stage: a meeting between Ella and Bella on neutral ground, a park.  That worked out pretty well, so we tried a longer walk together.  So far, so good.  Nanci decided on a trial week at her house.

Nanci did everything right.  Because Bella was fragile due to her illness, and because Bella was sometimes selective about which dogs she liked, she and Ella did not meet face to face immediately but instead got to know each other through baby gates and crates.  The fact that they had already met on neutral ground helped a lot, as well.  Soon Ella and Bella were lying nose to nose on either side of the baby gate, and Nanci let them meet face to face, leashed to make sure that play did not get too rambunctious for Bella.  It was a brilliant success – the girls had a great time play-biting, chewing, and head-wrestling.  Both dogs were extremely gentle with each other and followed all the rules. 

This was a great lesson for everyone involved: two female pit bulls, one young and goofy (that would be Ella) and one older, sick, and dog-selective, showed us that they can live together just fine, thank you very much, as long as the humans don’t do anything stupid.

So it’s official.  Ella’s ship has come in and everyone is riding off into the sunset.  The story of Ella is now the story of Ella, Bella, and Nanci.  The end.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Fault lines.

 I have been reading a lot lately about the supposed divisions between “traditional” shelters and advocates of a “no kill” approach.  The public disagreements and mutual criticisms sometimes obscure the many values that the two groups share, including most basically the belief that companion animals are valuable and people should try to make their lives better.  The conflict is not about whether or not we should help them but rather about the best ways to help them given the limitations imposed by available resources.  Traditional shelters believe that the central issue is that there are not enough homes for all the dogs and cats in the country, which means that the most important goal of animal welfare is to reduce population through spay/neuter programs.  Because, as they say, “There are not enough homes for them all,” the population of dogs and cats must be sharply reduced.  That has begun to happen, but continuing overpopulation still makes it necessary for many animals to die in shelters.  From this perspective, shelters that euthanize animals do society’s “dirty work.”

This “traditional” view sees “no kill” rescue groups and shelters as privileged precisely because of the population reduction done by other shelters.  Craig Brestrup, author of Disposable Pets (1997), quotes the director of a Midwestern shelter which kills almost 80% of its animals:  “These shelters aren’t really ‘no-kill’ shelters.  They are ‘you-kill’ shelters meaning that their clean hands and pure hearts exist at the expense of other shelters like [her shelter] which accept the animals they will not.” 

In response to this criticism, no kill advocates point out that some public shelters have managed to reduce their euthanasia rate dramatically while remaining open access.  The main difference, they say, is that shelters aspiring to kill fewer or no animals work hard to increase adoptions (and reunite strays with owners), usually because they have directors who implement several key programs.  (Low-cost spay/neuter programs remain central in the no kill paradigm as well.) 

In addition, it is important to point out that many private rescue groups take in primarily, and sometimes only, animals who have been slated for euthanasia at traditional shelters.  They do not cherry pick the most adoptable pets but rather wait for the ones who have no other options.  This is not true of every rescue group, but many – including a number of our local private rescues – consistently take in animals who have been slated for euthanasia at one of the local public shelters either because they have run out of time in the adoptable section or because they never made it to adoptables because of health or behavior issues.  In other words, they are taking the “least adoptable” animals – and they are turning around and adopting them out to good families, often very soon after rescue. 

Private rescue groups in our area have higher adoption rates than public shelters for several reasons.  First and foremost, many people prefer to adopt from no-kill groups because it is a more positive experience, both because they know that the animals left behind do not face an uncertain fate and because the adoption venue is usually more pleasant than the cement and steel of most public shelters.  In addition, private groups often advertise adoptable pets more energetically, get them out into the community, and have events on weekends when potential adopters can attend.  Further, the fact that most private rescue groups house adoptable pets in foster homes means that they have much more information about the animals’ behavior, temperament, and other factors that help adopters make good decisions.  Foster homes also socialize and train animals so that they can make the transition to permanent homes more easily. 
Using these methods, rescue groups take in countless animals that did not seem “adoptable” at the public shelter and find them loving permanent homes.  This fact counters the accusation that “no kill” is achievable only by preselecting highly desirable animals. 

This season of giving thanks is the right time to acknowledge the amazing work done by many of our local private rescue groups.  Here’s a special thank you to just a few – there are more of you out there, and we love you all. 
Second Chance Farms specializes in dogs who do not even make it to the adoptable section because of treatable medical conditions.  Typical of their dogs are these two bulldog mix pups (above), both placed on the euthanasia list because they had demodex mange.

 Many other local rescues also take in dogs who have no other chance.  Helping Hands Rescue gave a future to Lady Penny, who came to the shelter as a young puppy with a broken leg and other medical problems.  (After a long recovery, she was recently adopted!)

Rescued dogs often require enormous investments of time and money before they can move on to permanent homes.  Like other local groups, Phoenix Animal Rescue regularly takes in hard-luck cases, including Homer (above), who was so terrified in a rural shelter that he cowered and urinated every time he was approached.  Homer’s behavior was transformed as soon as he reached a loving foster home, where he enjoys a soft bed and plays with other dogs.

The Alachua County Humane Society is the largest rescue no kill group in our area and the only one with its own facility.  ACHS regularly takes in animals who have run out of time in adoptables as well as those with treatable medical conditions, like Chloe (above), a sweet adult pit bull mix who was slated for euthanasia because she is heartworm positive. 

The Humane Society and Gainesville Pet Rescue are the oldest no kill groups in our area.  Both began with the mission of taking animals from the local shelter’s euthanasia list.  In the past decade or two they have been joined by many other groups, including the ones mentioned above. The animals they save are diverse, countering both the claim that no kill groups cherry pick and also the notion that only certain kinds of dog run out of time at the shelter.  Their success at placing these animals in loving permanent homes does not prove that euthanasia is never necessary, but at the least it challenges the conventional wisdom that “there are not enough homes for them all” and that some animals are simply unadoptable.  These groups do not leave the "dirty work" to someone else -- they roll up their sleeves and make miracles happen on a daily basis.

And for this we are thankful.  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

We are plenty of pit bulls.

This guy is not just what we are about; he is who we are.

First, his story:  He was taken to the Alachua County Animal Services (ACAS) shelter a few days ago as a stray.  He was obviously in very poor condition, with virtually no body fat and severely dehydrated and anemic.  Unlike most starving young dogs, however, he did not eat when offered.  ACAS staff took him to the emergency veterinary service.  His blood work was fine, but he was still not eating.  Shelter veterinarians took radiographs that showed an abdominal mass, but their machines could not give as much detail as was needed.  He obviously needed additional diagnostics beyond the resources of the shelter.  Britni, a veterinary technician at APES, offered to foster him, but a private group was needed to pull him and arrange for his care.  Dwinnie from ACAS sent a message to the dozens of rescue organizations on her list, explaining how sweet he was and asking for help to save him. 

We are on this list, and I sent Dwinnie my usual reply: as long as there is a committed foster, we can try to help ... if no one else does.  I was thinking that surely for a case this dramatic, lots of other groups would step up.  It turned out that no one did, however, at least not on the short timeline that was needed.  Fortunately, our offer was enough for the shelter staff to pursue further diagnostics at the Shelter Medicine program at the U.F. vet school.  Jess from ACAS took him to the vet school, where ultrasounds determined that the mass was a blockage that needed immediate surgical removal.  (We don’t know for sure yet, but it’s likely he ate bones, rocks, sticks, and/or other indigestible things in his desperate efforts to stay alive.)

I spent a lot of time on the phone with Jess, with the vets at UF, and with Britni.  We needed to figure out if we could handle the cost of surgery and, especially, the follow-up care, which could be very expensive if he had complications – not unlikely given his poor condition.  Dr Natalie Isaza and Dr Brian DiGangi from shelter medicine offered to help however they could, including arranging for the surgery to be done at shelter medicine rather than the much more expensive option of the small animal hospital.  That was enough – we decided to go ahead, damning the many metaphorical torpedoes ahead. 

I picked him up from Dr DiGangi at the vet school after his diagnostics.  I’ve seen a lot of skinny dogs, but this guy made me cry.  He wagged his tail when I greeted him, and followed me out to the car, where he climbed into the back seat and enjoyed the view.  I took him to the house of my neighbor May, who also cried when she saw him.  We piled him on a bunch of beds belonging to her dog, Hazel (who was still at doggy daycare, since May had just that evening returned from several days out of town for work).  May covered him with a blanket, lay down next to him, and fed him spoonfuls of organic beef gravy.

This is not the first hard-luck case we’ve helped.  By definition, every dog who lands in the shelter and makes it to the euthanasia list is out of every bit of luck except the possibility of a last-minute miracle.  Animal rescuers specialize in last-minute miracles.  We can’t always pull it off, but it happens often enough that we keep sticking our necks out.

As soon as it became obvious that the starving pit bull was not a simple starvation case, we knew this was too big for Plenty of Pit Bulls alone.  But it turns out it’s never POPB alone  – or rather, POPB is always a combination of a lot of different individuals, institutions, and organizations, who come together to do what’s needed for a given dog.

So who is POPB?  It’s a bunch of individuals.  It’s me, foolish enough to reply to Dwinnie’s plea for help with “We can do it.”  It’s Sharon, who doesn’t tell me I am insane but says “Let’s go for it.”  It’s Blanca, who cheerfully extends her work day to take him back and forth to surgery.  It’s May, who doesn’t blink when I ask to bring (yet another) needy pit bull to her house for an overnight stay.  It’s Hillary, a professional pet photographer who immediately offers to help document his progress.  It’s Carla, who sees his picture and doesn’t say “Poor boy, I hope someone helps him.”  She says, “Tell me what he needs.”

POPB also encompasses many private rescue organizations.  This time, it’s Phoenix Animal Rescue, whose director I called once I knew this dog needed to go straight to intensive care after his surgery.  She came through, as she has done for so many dogs, ours and others.  Without the network and resources of an established organization, we could not begin to help this dog.  He is alive because Phoenix doesn’t view the choice of dogs to help as a business decision (as one person involved with local animal organizations told me).  No smart business plan in the world would take in a dog like this.  He would die while the cost-benefit ratio was still being calculated.  He needs people who commit first and work out the details later.

In this case, Phoenix was the right partner, because of their experience with other medically needy dogs and their partnership with the amazing staff at West End Animal Hospital.  However, we have collaborated with almost every private rescue in town, in one way or another: finding foster parents, providing transport, food, and pull fees, conducting home visits, and putting people in touch with the resources they need.  We also work with groups from out of the county, including Pit Sisters and Rugaz Rescue. 

Collaboration is not just a practical necessity for us but a philosophical principle.  We see rescue as a social movement that requires many different actors pursuing many different paths, using the diverse resources that each has available to us.  Our goal is to talk to everyone who can help and to expand the conversation every chance we get. 

POPB is not just our committed volunteers and rescue partners but also people beyond that circle.  It’s Britni, who met this desperately ill dog and offered on the spot to take him into her home until he is well.  It’s the vets at the shelter and at UF, who kept investigating until they knew what he needed.  Maybe most of all, it’s Jessica Lauginiger, the Animal Services officer who went above and beyond the call of duty to give a chance to a dog that most people would have written off.

So our new boy is named Jesse, in honor of the person most responsible for keeping him alive.

If he makes it through surgery today, he is going to have a long recovery ahead of him and will need ongoing support from everyone who is Plenty of Pit Bulls.  Lucky for him, that’s an infinitely expandable circle.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I am Lennox

Lennox was far from the first dog killed because of breed prejudice, but he is the most famous.

Lennox was the pit bull type dog (a Labrador cross) seized in Belfast, Northern Ireland two years ago on the basis of a ban on pit bulls. Lennox, who had no record of bad behavior, was held in appalling conditions while his family exhausted all legal appeals to save his life.  Authorities in Belfast rejected the legal arguments, the offers to take him to the U.S., and the pleas from well-known activists.  Lennox was killed on July 11, in Belfast. 

As news of his death spread, dog lovers posted pictures of their own dogs with the caption “I am Lennox.”  The principle is familiar: there but for the grace of god, or sheer luck, go I.  A few months ago, there was a similar rise in self-portraits of people wearing hoodies with the caption “I am Trayvon Martin.”

Some people asked why so much energy was spent trying to save a single dog, when so many other dogs, not to mention people and other animals, suffer and die daily.  It’s not that Lennox mattered more than them.  But he mattered just as much.  It is impossible not to empathize with Lennox’s family: we cannot help but imagine our own dogs taken away from us, held in a bare cement run and (by all accounts) treated without kindness, and then killed.

Thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of dogs die every year as a result of breed discrimination in the U.S.  Every one of them mattered -- no more, no less than Lennox.  Many of the dogs who die in shelters were strays or abandoned, but a significant number are beloved family companions – ones who got lost and were killed in a shelter before their people could find them or who were surrendered because their families could not find housing that would accept a dog who looked like theirs.

Breed discrimination kills indirectly as well, when rescue groups choose not to pull pit bull type dogs from euthanasia lists at the shelter because those dogs are deemed “less adoptable,” or because their foster families live in apartment complexes with breed bans or have insurance that does not cover certain breeds.

Miami-Dade residents have the chance to end their city’s breed ban on August 14. Decades of a pit bull ban have killed countless good dogs without making Miami one bit safer for humans.  (In fact, dog bites have declined more slowly in Miami than in similarly sized cities without breed bans.)  Ending the breed ban in our state’s largest city would be a good way to honor Lennox.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Channeling my inner Rodney King

Rodney King died recently, but his poignant question – “Can we all get along?” – lives on.

King was the African-American man whose vicious beating by Los Angeles police officers was captured on video in 1991.  His attackers were tried in 1992, but the all-white jury acquitted three and could not agree on the fourth.  The verdict sparked terrible riots in Los Angeles, leading to the deaths of 53 people.  In the midst of the violence, a distraught King went on television to plead for unity, or at least civility.

So what does this have to do with dog rescue?

Like every movement, animal rescue is divided in multiple ways.  I have been participating in social movements for a long time – since I was 14 and joined protests against the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons manufacturing plant near Denver.  (Yes, that dates me.)  Since that time I have worked for a number of groups, on a number of issues, as both paid staff and volunteer. I have also studied social movements as an academic for more than 20 years, beginning with undergraduate and graduate research on revolutionary movements in Central America.  Divisions in those movements were sometimes literally deadly.  A number of prominent leaders were assassinated by their former allies, as was Malcolm X in this country.

Fortunately, at least so far, dog rescuers do not seem inclined to go after each other in such lethal ways.  Still, our divisions can be destructive.  We spend time criticizing others who are working for the same goals – helping the dogs who need us.  To the extent that it focuses on direct service, ours is a less ideologically-driven movement than some, but it still suffers from divisions about all kinds of things, ranging from the mundane (should your dogs eat only raw food?) to the abstract (what kinds of rights do nonhuman animals have, anyway?)

Some divisions matter more than others, and they matter differently.  Lots of people have “deal breakers,” issues about which they will not or cannot compromise.  This can lead to single-issue politics, on a large scale – the citizen for whom a politician’s position on gun control, the environment, or abortion becomes the only thing that matters.  For others, a big picture view trumps any specific issue – they wish that politician had a different position on immigration, for example, but like everything else about her enough to overlook it. Personally, I like to keep my make-or-break issues few and far between, in order to keep the tent big and the conversation expansive.

Perhaps because I’m an academic, I think of these issues in relation to the split in philosophical ethics between deontological ethics (in which rules must be followed and principles adhered to regardless of the cost) and consequentialist ethics (in which the end result is much more important than the means used to achieve it).  Both of these approaches can be destructive when taken to extremes, and at least in my activist life, I prefer a pragmatic approach with multiple values and multiple approaches to achieving common goals

Against this big tent approach is the claim, as someone put it to me a while ago, that “we are more effective when we are all on the same page.”  The problem is that the people who say this often mean (sometimes without realizing it) that everyone should be on their page.  This kind of unity is domination, the subordination of alternative perspectives for the sake of a “greater good” that those in power have defined.  Again, there are parallels in other social movements, notably the ways that women have been told to put aside their own interests for the sake of other goals.

In addition to ideological issues and strategic issues, of course, we are divided by personal concerns, which can be just as compelling (or more so).  Asking people to set these aside for the greater good can be as hard – and as much of a power play – as asking someone to compromise a deeply held principle.

The problem is how to get along, as Rodney King would put it, without forcing some people to toe a line set by someone else.  How can we establish a unity that is more than skin deep but that respects diverse principles – and makes it possible for people who are personally divided to collaborate when our common goals demand it? 
Amazingly, I find myself thinking of the dense and obscure German social theorist Jurgen Habermas here.  I took a seminar on him in graduate school and spent the entire semester complaining about him (to the extent that a friend of mine thought his name was “stupid Habermas,” or, as she put it, “stupid Haagen-Dazs”).  However, Habermas left me with a take-home message about the central role of open communication in any group that aims to be democratic.  Free and open communication is impossible without proper conditions, which Habermas calls the “ideal speech situation.”  In this situation, every interested party has the opportunity to speak, be heard, and influence collective decisions.  No one is excluded from the dialogue and no one has the power to silence or overrule another.  The goal of the conversation is to reach consensus – not a final vote, because people who know they are in the majority have little motive to listen to minority points of view. 

As a graduate student, I thought Habermas was overly abstract and idealist.  I have a feeling I am opening myself to the same criticisms now.  Perhaps the most charitable way to put it is that this thinking is a work in progress.  I am struggling to figure out how we can work together despite our differences – but that means figuring out what differences matter (and how much), when we can agree to disagree and work together for a common goal, and when the differences are so deep that there is not really a common goal.  We like to say that we are all in it for the animals and that our shared goal is to save lives.  There are many paths toward that goal and many tasks needed to reach it.  Even when we disagree about which is the most important task or the best way to pursue it, it may still be possible to acknowledge that the people on another path, or another page, have something valuable to offer.

Recently I was looking for pit bull advocacy groups in the San Diego area who might help someone moving there find an apartment where she can keep her dog.  I came across one called Just a Dog Rescue, which has this quotation (from the Dalai Lama) on its home page:  “Compassion is the radicalism of our time.”  I have seen this before and find it a fascinating political statement.  Today I thought about it in terms of our disagreements and judgments.  We are all motivated by compassion toward dogs.  I often find compassion toward people harder. It is so easy to suspect not just the conclusions but the motives of people with whom we disagree.  That suspicion weakens our work together, sometimes fatally.  The victims in this case are not movement leaders, but the dogs whose fate is determined by human decisions. 

In 1975, the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton was assassinated by former comrades in that country's revolutionary movement.  Dalton’s most famous poem ends with a beautiful vision of solidarity, made more poignant by his tragic fate:

I believe the world is beautiful
and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

And that my veins don’t end in me
but in the unanimous blood
of those who struggle for life,
little things,
landscape and bread,
the poetry of everyone.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

To post or not to post

The stream of dogs in need of saving from euthanasia or abuse is overwhelming.  Daily, and even hourly, dog lovers are bombarded with heartrending stories, usually accompanied by even more heartrending pictures, and requests to help.  I have unsubscribed from a number of Facebook pages and email lists because I know I can never do anything concrete to help – the “To be destroyed” list from New York Animal Care & Control, for example.  Seeing those faces without being able to do anything constructive is a recipe for insomnia and guilt.

But what about the dogs we might be able to help – the local faces, the ones who might have more than an hour or two before being euthanized?  These come into my inbox and my Facebook stream on a daily basis, as well.  I am ambivalent about sharing even these, because often the chance of helping is still vanishingly small, and the risk of exhausting, depressing, and driving away supporters is large.


On the other hand, there’s Coco.  Coco was saved by the Internet.  Really.  First, shelter staff sent out her picture in an email to local rescue organizations – the dreaded “euth list” that usually comes out sometime in the afternoon or early evening, with instructions to reply by 8:30 the following morning if you can help one of the animals listed.  During less crowded times of year, these messages come out mainly for animals who cannot make it to the adoptable section because of treatable health or behavior conditions, such as heartworm disease or demodex (or pregnancy).  As the shelter gets more crowded in the late spring and summer, they become more frequent and start including healthy animals who have been in adoptables for a while (like Coco).  The majority of animals on the list these days are underage kittens – sometimes over a dozen a day. 

So we got the message about Coco and three other healthy dogs from adoptables.  We did not have a place to put her, and almost decided against doing anything.  But Coco is such a nice dog, and such a favorite with shelter volunteers, that we gave it a try and posted on our POPB group page.  A volunteer saw the post and began contacting her own network of friends, in Gainesville and beyond.  It turned out that a friend in her hometown was looking for a dog just like Coco and offered to foster her with the goal of adopting.  Phew.  If we hadn’t posted that picture, the volunteer would not have known that Coco was at risk, and she would not have been able to put together what we think is a match made in heaven. 

Of course, it doesn’t always work out this well.  And that is terribly upsetting for the people who know and love the dog and find out through a Facebook post that there was not a happy ending.  But if we and other rescuers do not use all the tools available, there will be many fewer happy endings.

Mr Little, now known as Chase

This is why we created two Facebook pages for Plenty of Pit Bulls.  We started with a “group,” which you have to join, where we talk about the nitty gritty details of finding foster homes, transporting, donating for neuters, and other pieces of hands-on rescue.  We later added a “fan” or “community” page, which people can “like,” where we try to keep it positive and educational, because there were a lot of people who wanted to stay connected and participate but who do not want to be kept in the loop for the other stuff.  I understand that, and I especially appreciate the fact that some people work on a daily basis with shelter dogs and cannot bear to see their faces posted with “Urgent” on them. 

I think this separation is valuable, and I wish some of the other groups that I like on Facebook would do the same thing, so I could hear about events, education and advocacy ideas, projects for shelter enrichment, and other constructive pieces of information – without seeing the faces of doomed dogs from thousands of miles away.   (Many of the national pit bull advocacy groups do not deal with “Urgents” at all, but focus on advocacy and education; many local groups are like us, however, and do a little bit of everything they can.)

Plenty of Pit Bulls does not have any adoption facilities and we try to focus on supporting existing rescue/adoption groups, rather than taking in dogs ourselves.  Our niche is to connect people and resources – to find that little extra piece that a dog needs.  We try to bring to everyone into the conversation about helping dogs – shelter staff and volunteers, private rescue groups, individual volunteers, and other community partners. 

So pulling dogs from the euth list is really not our mission.  The summer onslaught is making us break our own rules more and more often, however.  In the first week of June, we pulled Bandit (who is heartworm positive) so that he could get out of the shelter and be transferred to an out-of-area rescue organization.


Then there were a couple of cats that some pit-bull loving cat ladies wanted to help, and we pulled them.  They are available for adoption – one is being fostered by our resident cat lady and the other is at All Cats veterinary clinic.

So that seemed like enough... then Mr Big and Mr Little, two scared young pit bulls with demodex mange, made the list.  One of our favorite pit bull organizations, Pit Sisters in Jacksonville, offered to pay for the demodex treatment.   Through Facebook and through old-fashioned networking we were able to find amazing foster homes for them, so we pulled them as Plenty of Pit Bulls.  And very fortunately, Phoenix Animal Rescue offered to take the boys into their adoption program, even though they are bursting at the seams (as is just about every other rescue group, locally and beyond). 

Mr. Big

Three dogs and two cats in less than two weeks... I promised myself I would not look at the euth list again.  Just hit “delete.”  Then there was an email from the shelter with “sweet sweet sweet” in the subject line.  So I looked, and saw the most adorable underbite this side of the Mississippi.  The underbite and the gremlin face belonged to a little black dog who came into the shelter with puncture wounds, not bad, but bad enough to keep her out of adoptables.  Uh oh.  So Sharon, an equally crazy dog lady, and I came up with a plan that was not much of a plan at all – we pulled her and put her into boarding in the hope that her adorable face and wonderful personality would get her a foster home before we ran out of money. That’s Cinderella, and we pulled her on June 15, and she still really needs a foster (or foster-to-adopt) home.  She has her own Facebook page, and a lot of friends who are helping pay for her food, vet care, and spay.  (Facebook friends are also donating for the neuter surgery for Misters Big and Little.)


My husband says it is like living with John Edwards, supporting secret children living in different places.  I think he’s joking.  I haven't told him about today's addition of Coco. But I will tell her:  I'm so glad you're alive.