A hostile act

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Joan Didion has always been one of my favorite writers because I’ve always so easily found myself in much of what she’s written. The following quote being a good example of that:

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.

Most writers don’t sit down knowing what they’re going to write. They write to figure it out.  And in doing so hope to achieve some kind of forward momentum, however small. Each attempt at writing is a step on the path of discovery and clarity.

But there is also another reason I am a fan of Didion’s. Because of one specific idea she wrote in a New York Times Book Review in 1976. She writes,

In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

I’m pretty sure that truer words have never been put to paper. And I’m pretty sure that what I wrote earlier this week demonstrated this idea in a truly epic fashion.

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There are many ways to gauge the quality of a piece of writing. By how many people read it. By how many people were moved by it. By how many people were angered by it. By its originality or clarity.

But perhaps the simplest way to measure the quality of a piece of writing is by how the writer feels after writing it. And when I apply that barometer to the blog post I wrote earlier this week, I can confidently say that it’s probably the worst piece of writing I’ve produced to date.

I certainly stand by what I wrote, but the fact remains that I regret writing it. And I have regretted it since the second I clicked “Publish.” For lack of a better description, I’ve felt like I needed a shower ever since I wrote it. Publishing it should have provided me with a sense of release, a sense of purpose and a sense of closure, at least for that small moment in time. But it did not. Which means I may have needed to write it, but it should never have been shared publicly.

Because the fact of the matter is that we do desperately need more critical literacy in the field of animal welfare. We need to find ways to create critical consumers of information who produce and process information for what it is, rather than blindly clicking Like or Share or Commenting, and tossing up a Facebook post based on emotion and ego. I’m as guilty of this as anybody. We’ve all made these mistakes, and we continue to make them.

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But my post did two things, neither of which I am likely to live down anytime soon: 1) It caused additional grief in a space where there was already plenty of grief to be had, and 2) It wasted a golden opportunity to add something productive to the conversation, and to really dig into how we might help our field develop some of those critical reading and thinking skills.

I could have done justice to the issue of language and how we frame particular ideas for others using any number of other appropriate texts. The recent Esquire article on pit bulls, for example, would have been a great one to use since it may actually be one of the more counterproductive texts ever written on pit bulls.

But instead, I chose to tackle the issue using the most radioactive example of text I could find, because I was angry. I chose to fight fire with fire and managed to burn down half the neighborhood in doing so.

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One person who read what I wrote actually made the comment that they “kept reading and reading trying to find the spot where I would say which camp I was in” and that they were disappointed that I never did. That is perhaps another major indicator of what a poor piece of writing this really was: That one of my readers so profoundly failed to understand what it was that I wrote.

The definition of a bad reader is someone who reads through a text, never actually comprehending anything in it or the piece as a whole, because they’re too busy looking for information in that writing to reaffirm their own beliefs. I used to do that as a reader. And once I stopped doing it, a whole new world of nuance, complexity and discovery unfolded before me. A world that allowed me to embrace the gray, and stop boiling everything down to black and white.

It was really unfortunate the way BAD RAP chose to frame that post last week, and I can’t say I’m interested in following them on this new path they’re on. But the way I chose to respond to it this week was even more unfortunate. And no matter how many times I click my heels and hug my dog, there’s no going back on such a monumentally unfortunate decision.

What I wrote was, as Didion puts it, a hostile act. And all I can do at this point is keep writing, and hope that I find a way to be smarter and more productive in doing so.

Posted in Advocacy, Animal Welfare, Teaching and learning, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Reading between the lines

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I create and analyze text for a living. Meaning that language is my trade. I use it to shape the kind of world in which I want to live, I use my knowledge of it to be a critical consumer and producer of information, and I spend time teaching others to do the same.

The words we read, write and speak have power and consequences. It’s often the reason we do or don’t go to war, vote for one person versus another and transform injustices into social movements. It can also often be the reason we do or don’t get along with others, whether they be our friends, family, authority figures or folks we’ve never met. Language can mean the difference between getting arrested and going to prison or not, getting a job or not, getting into college or not, getting access to lifesaving health services or not, having your dog confiscated and euthanized or not. Language matters.

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When I use the word “text” above, I don’t mean it in the traditional sense that most people use it. (Of course “traditional sense” is up for debate as well now that “texting” is officially a verb–but no matter).

A text can be any kind of artifact that uses language, symbols or imagery to communicate a particular idea. In the traditional sense, a text might be a book or a magazine article. A text can also be an official document like the Declaration of Independence or a legal contract. It can be a religious text like the Quran or Bhagavad Gita. A text might use language in print, or it may not. A child’s drawing with misspelled yet purposefully used words is a text. The following are all examples of “texts” that can be “read” and analyzed:

  • an email
  • a map
  • a newspaper article
  • an informational poster
  • a course syllabus
  • a magazine ad
  • a tv commercial
  • an art installation
  • a recipe for dog treats
  • a transcript of a text message exchange
  • song lyrics
  • a radio interview
  • a political t-shirt or bumper sticker
  • a recording of a 9-1-1 call (let’s say, George Zimmerman’s for example)
  • IKEA assembly instructions (a text that often leaves us disliking the Swedes)
  • a tattoo or series of tattoos
  • a Twitter feed
  • a Facebook post

These are all “texts” that can be studied and evaluated for content, context, meaning and purpose.

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One of my favorite examples of learning to critically analyze texts is the Media Awareness lesson included as part of the Girls on the Run program curriculum. In this lesson, focused on helping girls in grades 3-5 become informed consumers of advertising, the girls are given a series of common magazine ads promoting different products ranging from food or drink choices to clothing and skin care products. And then they’re encouraged to ask the following types of questions:

  • Who created this ad and why?
  • What is the purpose of this particular ad?
  • What is it trying to get me to do?
  • Who is the target audience for this ad?
  • What is the main message being communicated in this ad?
  • What other messages are also being communicated by this ad?
  • What information is missing in this ad?
  • Are any sources cited to support this ad’s claims?
  • Does this ad ultimately contribute something positive in relation to my health and well-being?

Too much for a 3rd grader? Not even close. Today’s grade school students are often savvier readers and more nuanced thinkers than most of us were in high school, or are now for that matter.

Taken from Global perspectives on literature and literacy, http://sese-ecce-educ376.blogspot.com/

Taken from Global perspectives on literature and literacy, http://sese-ecce-educ376.blogspot.com/

Being a critical reader is important. And in a world increasingly driven by social media and the bite-sized yet power-packed texts it produces, stopping to think first and asking these kind of questions before reacting is key.

Critical Literacy for Pit Bull Advocates

Which brings me to a text that I stopped to think about and carefully evaluate when it first appeared, because it seemed so remarkably out of character for the group that produced it. The following is a blog post that appeared on BAD RAP’s Facebook page last week, and that has since morphed into something akin to a scene from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

Here is the original post:

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If I approach this Facebook post as a text of its own, and ask myself some of the above questions in relation to meaning and purpose, here’s what I see as a critical reader:

Who wrote this post and why?

The first sentence of this post suggests that BAD RAP’s leadership was engaged in a frustrating and depressing interaction of some kind, and felt the need to take it into the public forum rather than keeping it private to the parties involved.

Simply put, like a lot of folks in animal welfare, they were having a particularly tough day and needed to vent to someone about it, with the hope that it would make them feel better. That is the only reason to ever craft a sentence starting with, “Yesterday was a tough day for us and, to be honest, we didn’t have the heart to put on a happy face . . .” This suggests a strong need for sympathy and support.

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What is the purpose of this particular post?

The purpose behind this post is a tough one, because what it says is not what it does. In the entire history of Facebook, I don’t think anyone has ever used the phrase, “we aren’t interested in nasty debate” unless they have consciously decided to write or share something that will cause just that.

And following that phrasing with “we’re just expressing sadness” is also purposeful language. It’s purpose: To paint the author in the role of sensitive victim (and “advocates for the underdog”) in that debate, while establishing the other folks in the debate as those who are doing things to make them sad.

As a critical reader, I see the purpose of this post as the following:

To take an incredibly nuanced, and complex subject like shelter euthanasia and boil it down to a simplified either/or discussion in which BAD RAP is the victim and everybody else who doesn’t agree 100% with everything they say are the perpetrators. In this case, the dog killers.

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What is this text trying to get me to do?

This text is trying to get me to pick “a side” where there really is no side to be had. But it’s also doing something more insidious than that. This post is trying to get me, as the reader, to engage in a particular dialogue that the authors are unwilling to do on their own. If they had been willing, they would have fully vetted this discussion via one of their blog posts or written an article for a local or major publication happy to share their story. But they went the Facebook route instead.

Here’s what was written:

We aren’t interested in nasty debate; we’re just expressing our sadness today (which will likely lead to debate, which we’ll likely have to moderate – dog help us).

And here’s what might as well have been written:

Creating this kind of false dichotomy between prongs and harnesses and engaging in this kind of oversimplified debate about a complex problem is technically above us, since, after all, we’re a professional non-profit organization who should be spending our time engaging in all the great work we normally do and setting a better example for others. So would you mind launching that nasty, ill-informed debate for us, so that we still look like the good guys?

One aspect of this post that left me most frustrated as a reader was its unapologetic lack of information about a particular situation that could not be properly evaluated by anyone without all of the facts.

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What information is missing in this post?

Basically, everything that matters. Professionals in animal welfare, BAD RAP included, know all too well that most shelters are frighteningly underresourced and are an easy target for the public and other welfare groups when it comes to euthanizing animals. And because of that, it’s typically considered poor form to air a shelter’s dirty laundry or share too many details about specific situations with a less informed public that doesn’t have all the facts.

But if you are going to make the incredibly dicey, controversy-fraught decision to share one of those stories and get on a public forum and say that a shelter is euthanizing a healthy, adoptable animal unnecessarily, you would think that it would be important to share all of the available information so that the public you’re sharing it with could assess the situation for themselves in an informed manner.

However no such details were offered here, except for one: The preferred tool of choice, “a front clip harness.” That’s the equivalent of showing up at a murder trial and pouring a bucket of the victim’s blood all over the defendant in front of the jury, and then claiming that the prosecution rests minus all the facts, details and evidence. Let’s just bait this hook and see what bites . . . knowing full well what will.

They did later try to offer some elaboration and additional details amidst the frenzy of comments that followed. But by that time the ship had sailed and details just didn’t matter any more. You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube.

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It also seems likely that we’re not being given the whole story because of their choice to say that the shelter “admitted that intense fear of public criticism for using a prong collar on even the best candidates for prongs has pushed them to choose euthanasia instead.”

Forgive me, but what else are you not telling us? Because the reality is that a Behavior department who lets fear of public criticism be the deciding factor in whether or not a dog dies is no behavior department at all. And therein lies the real issue: Most shelters in this country do not have the human or monetary resources needed to create and staff an actual department devoted to animal behavior, capable of making informed, thoughtful, expert decisions about behavior modification and euthanasia candidates. Now there’s a topic that’s worth digging into.

Because most folks well-versed in animal behavior and training know that prong collars do NOT save lives. Front-clip harnesses do NOT save lives. Clickers and treats do NOT save lives. . . . Professional knowledge of and ongoing education in animal behavior science and dog training, and the support and funding to implement it in the shelter environment, saves lives.

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Are there any sources cited to support this post’s claims?

To add some legitimacy to their post, they pulled a quote from an Australian based website called “Team Dog.” The quote itself is a very effective choice in supporting their argument.

But when you click on the link and visit the actual page (which most Facebook readers will not bother to do), you find yourself on an anonymous website with almost no substantive content of any kind, no original content to speak of (everything on it is generic and can be found in hundreds of other sources) and there is absolutely no information about WHO the person(s) is that authors the site. How can I possibly attribute any kind of credibility to a website that is not transparent about who is producing its content and where they got that content?

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Does this post ultimately contribute something positive to the conversation on “pit bull” rescue and welfare?

500+ vitriol-laced comments that have gotten us nowhere new and two or three subsequent related posts later (not to mention the countless hours that BAD RAP has obviously spent moderating this atomic bomb of a conversation), I would have to say no. This post resulted in a net negative for pit bull advocacy.

I follow and support BAD RAP as an organization and have done so for many years. And the two primary reasons that I have done so are 1) They focus on quality of life and care, not quantity of dogs rescued–which is why you see so many fabulous posts with happy, healthy dogs romping on their property and successfully progressing towards adoption, and 2) They focus on sharing positive, productive messages in the public forum (such as any one of their many wonderful outreach and community-focused posts) and do not bait the trolls at the extreme ends of the endless number of hotly charged topics in animal welfare.

At least, that’s what they used to do. They seem to be on a new course now: One that no longer champions the welfare of the pit bull, but rather that of the straw man.

 

For a follow-up to this post, please read: A hostile act

Posted in Advocacy, Animal behavior and training, Animal Welfare, Teaching and learning, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 32 Comments

A decade later with Charlie Murphy

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Last month marked a couple noteworthy anniversaries for our household. It was 10 years ago last July that we first packed up our lives (and our cat) in Venice, California and drove 2300 miles across country to begin anew in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And a few weeks after that, we found ourselves standing outside a Petco signing “Planned Pethood” adoption papers for a potbellied puppy, now the elder member of our tail-wagging household.

HPIM0490Here are some fun, fab and totally random facts about our old man, Charlie Murphy:

  • He was the runt of his litter, and the last to be adopted.
  • He is named after Charlie Murphy, Eddie Murphy’s brother, made infamous through the Rick James skits on the Chappelle Show.
  • His nickname is “Koko” because when he was a puppy he had gorilla eyes and lived with a cat
  • He is obsessed with tennis balls
  • He is obsessed with tennis balls
  • He is obsessed with tennis balls
  • He’s driven across country twice, from Michigan to Southern California and then back to Michigan again.
  • He loves to sit in the snow.
  • He’s had three ACL surgeries.
  • He’s the smallest and weakest of our four dogs and his only recourse when another dog steals his shit is to hump them.

IMG_3385Charlie’s adoption papers from the rescue group said “Springer Spaniel mix.” Several years later, our handy dandy DNA test told us that he is the quintessential mutt:

  • 25% Labrador Retriever
  • 25% German Shepherd
  • 25% Beagle
  • 25% American Eskimo Dog

How’s that for a breed mix?!

Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 10.00.46 PMOf course, none of that really matters. Because all you need to know is . . . he’s obsessed with tennis balls.

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Things I LOVE about Charlie Murphy:

  • He loves to go for car rides
  • He’s the perfect size: 40 lbs.
  • He has floppy velvet ears
  • He does the most amazing head tilt when you say “car” or “ball” or “walk”
  • He’s a go anywhere, do anything with anyone dog (parks, busy streets, snowstorms, off leash, on leash, friends, family, any other dog–he goes with the flow)
  • As long as he has a tennis ball, and you occasionally throw it for him, he appears content
  • He randomly turns into a playful pup just when you think he’s getting crusty and old
  • He loves to do zoomies in the basement while I workout and stretch
  • The white around his muzzle makes it look like he’s been munching on powdered donuts

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More Farm Pics II 010Things I DO NOT LOVE about Charlie Murphy:

  • He is not food motivated
  • He screams like a wild banshee when you take another dog somewhere instead of him
  • He is not a fan of giving things up when you ask him to “leave it” or “drop it”
  • He shits 3-4 different times on a walk, requiring you to bring multiple poop bags with you
  • He sheds like a mother f!@#$%
  • He has selective hearing
  • He does not look where’s he’s going when you throw his tennis ball
  • He is obsessed with tennis balls

Come and get my stickCharlie is an everywoman’s dog. We frequently like to joke with him, “If only we’d stopped after you, Charlie.” I’m sure the three of us (me, my husband and Charlie) would be happily tooling around the country in an RV, hiking in national parks, stopping wherever we felt like it and throwing those goddamned dirty tennis balls from Yosemite to the Florida Keys without a care in the world.

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Colorado-Utah Border Rest-stop

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Posted in Animal Histories, Fun Stuff, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Peach Therapy in session

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Moving to a new home in a new town last month and effectively unraveling many of our daily routines and rituals has taken a bit of a toll on our four-dog family. Peaches, in particular.

A lot of her longtime fear-based behaviors (barking like Charles Manson just arrived when we walk in the door, and not wanting to go in her crate) have bubbled back up, leaving her stressed and anxious in certain contexts at home. And now I find myself obsessively reading fearful dog blog posts in between bouts of guilt over not doing more for her and moments when I’m ready to auction her off on her Facebook page to the highest bidder.

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Luckily I always have one tool in the behavior box that I can reach for when the Peach is in need of some therapy: People. Get her around people.

I’m a person who likes to recharge and refocus by myself, not around others. But my dog is the opposite. Peaches needs lots of fun, positive interaction with people in order to get her groove back. Most stressed, anxious and fearful dogs I know need a break from people–at least from strangers–in order to reenter their comfort zone. But pretty much since the day I brought her home, Peaches has needed people in order to find that comfort–all people, lots of people, new people . . . not just her people.

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Coincidentally one of my good friends and a long-time teaching colleague invited us back to visit with this year’s summer school students in the Mitchell-Scarlett Teaching & Learning Collaborative this week. Two years ago, we spent a couple of days visiting with students in this program and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had with Peaches.

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The program and our visits there aren’t about dogs or animals or “pit bulls” or therapy dog work. They’re about literacy and learning. And sometimes what you need in a learning environment is an opportunity to engage with your subject matter in a novel context with new “collaborators.”

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Most of these students are non-native speakers of English and get the opportunity to spend time outside with a friendly, nonjudgemental dog who thinks they hung the moon while they practice reading their presentations in English. And in turn, Peaches and I get the opportunity to regroup as a team outside of our home, away from other indoor environments that she might find stressful, while enjoying the company of some incredible young people eager to interact with her. Win win.

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The first year we participated in this program, we listened to presentations on rescued birds of prey that the students had learned about at the Leslie Science and Nature Center here in Ann Arbor. And this year we learned about local fair trade businesses and some of the products that the students researched. Which was great for Peaches, because she always thought “fair trade” was about her begrudgingly giving me a sit or a down in exchange for some cheese.

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Posted in Advocacy, Teaching and learning, Therapy Dogs or dogs in need of therapy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The problem with your “pit bull” shirt

Peach is so conflicted about wearing her Michigan hoodie considering how  badly they (along with many other schools) have dropped the ball when it comes to addressing sexual assault on campus.

Peach is so conflicted about wearing her Michigan hoodie considering how badly they (along with many other schools) have dropped the ball when it comes to addressing sexual assault on campus.

We live in an intense, politically correct, emotionally charged world. Where anything you sell, buy, wear, consume, do (or don’t do), say, support or smoke is sure to be painstakingly dissected by some Preachy McPreacherson who’s more than happy to take your fun, feel-good personal statement and walk all over it in their poopy preacher shoes.

And that’s probably what this post is gonna feel like too. But hear me out.

I’d like to talk about t-shirts. Specifically, pit bull rescue t-shirts and the messages they convey.

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When is a t-shirt not just a t-shirt?

In the last week, I’ve seen the following crowdfunding shirt and variations of it pop up in my Facebook newsfeed at least five or six times, oftentimes hilariously right next to a post from pages like A Mighty Girl or Miss Representation.

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What it says: Some girls play with dolls. Real girls rescue pitbulls!!!

What it does: Legitimizes the idea that there are girls out there who aren’t “real girls.”

Excessive use of exclamation points aside, I have a REAL problem with this shirt. Because it further engenders the insidious and absurd notion that some girls/women (or boys/men) lack legitimacy in some way. Which is a pretty ironic message to send when you spend most of your time fighting for the “rights” of dog owners who happen to have a certain kind of dog.

But that irony isn’t what ultimately bugs me. Because the dog rescue community is one seriously ironic space and I’ve grown rather numb to it. What gets me about shirts like this is that they represent messages that are profoundly damaging to women, and yet the rescue community largely comprises women. So what gives?

Peach says, "How exactly does disparaging women and girls help your advocacy and rescue efforts?"

Peach says, “How exactly does disparaging women and girls help your advocacy and rescue efforts?”

The reality is that, at least in the United States, we’ve become so comfortable with appropriating the phrase “Real Man” or “Real Woman” to suit our own purposes, we’ve lost sight of the REAL problem with using that kind of language to begin with.

Who you callin’ a “bitch”?

Which brings me to another shirt. One that has succeeded in completely reinforcing my belief that so many pit bull rescue groups out there are every bit as harmful to pit bull welfare as breed discrimination and abusive owners are. For the record, you will never see me donate to, volunteer for or support any group clueless enough to be promoting this kind of language and merchandise. I don’t care how many dogs they’ve “saved” or fences they’ve built or how many free bags of food they distributed last year.

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The best part about these shirts is that they’re available in women’s and toddlers’ sizes too. Awesome. Because every 5-year old should have their own “Dog Fighters are Bitches” tee to wear to their first day of kindergarten. Thanks, Cafe Press.

With this shirt, it is both the irony and the flagrant offense towards women that completely crack me up. Literally, you are saying Dog Fighters are Female Dogs, which is supposed to be a put down? Wait, I’m so confused.

Figuratively, you’re insulting dog fighters by comparing them to women using the quintessential female slur. Why not Dog Fighters are Assholes? Or Dog Fighters are Dickheads? Or Dog Fighters are Pea Brains? Or Neanderthal Simpletons? Or Ohio State Fans?

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Because apparently nothing is more insulting to men, particularly those who fight dogs, than being compared to a woman.

But here’s the thing: Dog fighters aren’t the ones buying your clever or cutesy, pro-pit bull t-shirts and they don’t give a shit about what you have to say about them or how they choose to spend their time. But guess who is buying (or not buying) your shirts? Women. Particularly those of us who have the luxury of spending money on frivolous dog t-shirts. And as shocking as it might be to hear, we’re not big fans of lazy, unoriginal marketing that reinforces bullshit gender stereotypes. In fact, that’s why a lot of us got involved with dog rescue, pit bulls and animal welfare in the first place.

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I’ve got piles of dog t-shirts in my closet. Some of them I purchased, some of them were given to me. Some of them are so old and grungy I only wear them to bed or to the gym. Some of them are ones that I was far more excited about when I bought them than I am now, but I still wear them because, hey, why get rid of a perfectly good t-shirt? Mostly, I prefer the ones that combine drinking and dogs.

What I don’t have are shirts that disparage others for the sake of my cause. Especially when we’re already having to work so hard to convince our fellow human beings that us and our dogs are just like them and their dogs (or lack of dogs).

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Every time you design, sell, share or buy one of these t-shirts putting others down, stating that “if my pit bull doesn’t like you, I probably won’t either,” or defining what is or isn’t a “real man” or “real woman,” or calling someone a bitch, you are making the job of pit bull advocacy more difficult.

Using that language and wearing those shirts doesn’t make you a real man or real woman or real advocate. What it makes you is a real problem, for all of us.

Posted in Advocacy, Animal Welfare, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

The Lover, the Terrorist and a Pit Bull’s Soulmate

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This post is neither here nor there. It simply needed to be written. I think I’ve been deliberately not writing it, desperately hoping that if I just waited a little longer, the outcome would be different. More Disney, than reality.  And although I’m a cynic and relish a a bubble being burst every now and then, I’m also a romantic and could have used a prerequisite happy ending this month.

Five weeks ago, our cat disappeared. And it’s safe to say he’s not coming back. More specifically, it’s safe to say he’s dead.

And as heartwarming as it is to hear encouragement from the eternal optimists who say, “I’m not giving up hope,” and “you never know, animals wander away for all kinds of reasons and end up coming back,” I know better. Because I know my cat, and I know the context in which he disappeared. His name was Mose (aka Kitty Mose or Mose Kitty) and he was a ridiculously bitchin’ cat.

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The myth of the “Lost Cat”

For those who don’t share their lives with cats, and are more accustomed to dogs getting loose, getting lost and being found; cats are a little different, particularly when they’re indoor-outdoor cats, which ours was.

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Cats don’t get lost. They roam. They wander. They hunt. They get hunted. They get stolen. They get poisoned by Audubon Society fanatics. They pass away. They go missing. But they don’t get lost.

Which is why it’s so bizarre to report your cat missing and have it labeled as “Lost Cat.” He ain’t lost, folks. And I didn’t lose him. Something happened to him. And after over three years of roaming our property, using the dog door as he pleases, sleeping in our beds, snoozing in our laps, stealing roast chicken off our counters, cuddling with our dogs, slaughtering wooded creatures in our 3-season room and manipulating me into letting him in’n’out and in’n’out at all hours of the day and night, he’s not going to suddenly forget which way is home.

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I should mention here that I have zero interest in delving into the debate over indoor-only vs. indoor/outdoor cats. I’m aware of all the pros and cons, and I don’t believe that one is healthier or better or safer or more humane than the other. And I certainly don’t believe that all would be well right now “if only I’d kept him inside.” I’ve lived with cats my whole life and you never really know what might spell the end of one cat versus another.

All you can do is make decisions based on the individual animal in question and based on the context in which they will be living and provide them the highest quality of care within your power. And yes, our cat was neutered, microchipped, fully vaccinated and given monthly preventatives.

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Our last cat–the original Kitty–we’d had for nine years, eight of which he spent as an indoor-outdoor cat roaming the canals of Venice, California; the tree-laden suburbs of Ann Arbor; the alleyways off Manchester Blvd near LAX; and the lush greenery of Chelsea, Michigan. And ya know what took him down in the end? Congenital heart failure. He died in our home, in the middle of the night, right in front of me on our kitchen floor, after receiving a clean bill of health from the vet just a couple of months before. That’s life.

The Original "Kitty"

The Original “Kitty”

Living with small tigers

It’s funny to think about that cat in light of this situation because our first Kitty did disappear for a time when he was younger. We didn’t start letting him go outdoors until he was around a year old, and a few months after that he took off for 8 days. My husband was devastated and assumed he was gone. But based on his age, how recently he started going outdoors and my experience with cats growing up, I expected he’d be back. And he was. Popped right back in through the dog door in the middle of the night, whining for food, and unscathed. That’s how cats roll. And that’s why I love having them in my life.

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Cats inhabit that elusive and wistful space between the domestic and the wild that is likely what propels so many of us humans into the desert on “vision quests” or into the wilderness to live “off the grid” in hopes of escaping the comfort and conformity offered by four walls, a working washer and dryer and a nearby Starbucks. Or at the very least, maybe that’s why so many of us occasionally get drunk or high and go running naked through the streets. Sometimes it’s a real bummer to be so hopelessly domesticated.

As Temple Grandin often likes to remind us, today’s “housecat is a lot closer to a wild cat than a dog is to a wolf.”

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Cats and dogs living together

Kitty Mose came into our lives two months after our previous cat passed away. I went to the humane society specifically looking for an adult cat who might be less likely to be adopted, and who would thrive (NOT just survive) living in a home with four active dogs.

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While most of the other cats at the shelter remained wary and aloof when I approached, this scrawny black cat with cruddy eyes and patchy tail lolled about in his cage, pressing his head against the bars and reaching his paws out to grab whatever walked by, chattering up a storm as though engaged in conversation. We took him into the visitation room where he immediately climbed all over us, lounged in our laps, purred up a storm and trotted off to the window periodically to watch with keen interest as rowdy shelter dogs bounded down the hallway. At which point we said, “Yeah, we’ll take this one.”

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Since I’d only had the experience of introducing dogs into a home with a cat, and not the other way around, I assumed I’d have to spend several days letting Mose get comfortable in his own room in the house and then gradually introduce him to each of the dogs. Yeah, that was totally unnecessary. After saying hello to each of the dogs individually through a dog gate, he promptly hopped the gate, galloped around the house unconcerned with the four canines following him and parked himself in the corner of the couch, where shortly after he was butt-to-butt with Buster, our youngest dog.

Mose and Buster frequently went to the vet for check-ups together, where Mose happily played with Buster's tail while waiting for the doctor.

Mose and Buster frequently went to the vet for check-ups together, where Mose happily played with Buster’s tail while waiting for the doctor.

Lover, Terrorist and Pit Bull Soulmate

Most of our friends and family are familiar with the many faces of Mose Kitty. There was the Lover, who routinely sought out any warm body in the house–human or dog–and made himself as comfortable as possible, whether it was comfortable for you or not.

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We often found him lounging with the two other black animals in the house, and used those opportunities to accuse him of racism.

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There was also the Terrorist, who made a habit of dragging his prey in through the dog door and using our 3-season room as a kill room and chamber of death. If you’ve ever watched episodes of Dexter, the only things missing in our episodes were the knives, plastic drop cloths and a killer who cleaned up his own mess afterwords. I’ve always loved the idea of maintaining a small rabbit sanctuary on our property. Mose squelched that silly fantasy years ago.

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And then there was Peaches’ Soulmate. Okay, so there were two reasons we decided to adopt a new cat: 1) We love having a cat around, and 2) We have a little female “pit bull” with a Glenn Close style cat obsession. And Mose was the lucky beau who fit that bill for Peaches. Peaches was madly in love with our last cat too, but Mose was a considerably more willing participant in her feline-focused inclinations.

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Cruel Twist of Fate

After Mose failed to reappear after a few days, I reported him missing with the microchip company, the local humane societies and nearby vet offices and pet stores. I also handed out detailed color posters to all our neighbors with bordering and nearby properties and to our mail carrier (who, bless her heart, keeps leaving hand written messages with our mail, asking about him and mentioning other neighbors who have black cats). I combed our 10-acre property repeatedly for several weeks and got permission to wander around neighboring properties as well.

Three weeks after he disappeared, I got a call from a woman living four miles away from us (with several lakes and major recreation areas in between) who said she’d seen my poster at the pet store and had a little black cat who’d been hanging around her house for the last two weeks. I called her back, ignored her mention of him running away every time she tried to say hello to him (Mose would never do that), and drove to her home at NASCAR speed, absolutely convinced that I was about to be reunited with my cat.

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After 30 minutes of wandering around a stranger’s home and property, desperately calling Mose and tapping a can of wet food (either of which would have sent him running towards me from hundreds of yards away), I went back inside, wondering if this was my cat they’d seen. Sure enough, once I stayed inside and quiet for a couple of minutes, a little black cat who looked almost identical to him crept around the front walkway. I looked through the window, said his name and called him, and the cat looked right at me and bolted. No way on Earth that was our cat. In the brief moment I saw him, it was also obvious that the coat was a couple of shades lighter than his and the eyes were a touch different. That didn’t stop me from waiting for another 15 minutes in the hopes of seeing him one more time just to be sure.

I profusely thanked the woman for calling me and for caring, left her some wet food for the other cat, got back in my car, pulled out of her driveway, and sobbed uncontrollably as I drove back home.

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No Closure

I grew up with lots of pets, lots of cats, all of whom have long since died either naturally or because they met an early death from cancer, cars, cat fights or coyotes. So it’s hard to figure out why the loss of this particular cat has affected me as much as it has. And I think it has to do with control, and with closure.

When a pet dies or is euthanized, however painful or gut-wrenching the experience may be, you at least get some sense of closure through your knowledge of that animal’s death. There is, on the other hand, something profoundly unsettling about not knowing what happened to one of your animals, and having to accept the fact that you’ll probably never know. I am a worrier and a control freak. And I’ve found this experience of not knowing to be remarkably unbearable.

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Given where we lived and his long history of successfully navigating our property for years, never leaving for more than several hours at a time, it’s hard to imagine he would suddenly fall victim to a coyote or willingly choose another home over ours.

Which leaves two likely outcomes: 1) He met his end while out and about either naturally or through a fatal bout with another cat or wild animal, or 2) there was human intervention. And by human intervention I mean he was either wounded or killed by someone out of spite or for sport; or some clueless, bleeding-heart loony toon forced him indoors and now has him in their home because they saw a poor little kitty who they didn’t think should be outside . . . never mind their obligation to take him to the vet to scan for a microchip or check with the humane society first.

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Heartworm in Cats

Mose was one of two Heartworm-positive cats at the shelter when we went in to adopt. I was familiar with heartworm in dogs, but had no idea what it meant for cats. As it turns out, heartworm in cats is not necessarily the health catastrophe and death sentence that it is in dogs. But it’s also incurable in cats, so the only way to beat it is for the worm to die and for the cat to survive that event. You can have them surgically removed, but that’s a pretty risky move itself.

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At the time of adoption, the shelter told me he would have a shorter lifespan and that I couldn’t give him heartworm preventatives, neither of which is entirely accurate, although can be the case in certain scenarios. I consulted with a cardiologist who specialized in heartworm in cats and who showed me the one or two adult worms that showed up on the echocardiogram. I asked him a ton of questions and here’s the gist of what he told me:

  • Living with heartworm is most likely not affecting his physical comfort or quality of life.
  • You do not have to keep a heartworm-positive cat calm and indoors. Their activity level will not affect what happens with the worms.
  • The life span of a heartworm in a cat is 3-4 years (much less than the 5-7 years in dogs), mostly because cats are a far less hospitable host for them.
  • The danger of heartworms in cats is when the worm finally dies. It will pass through the lungs, which are incredibly sensitive in cats and most likely cause its immune system to attack itself. At which point every cat’s reaction is different. Some survive, or can survive if brought to a vet during an attack, while some don’t make it.
  • Keeping him indoors only or letting him going outside is not going to impact what happens with the heartworm one way or the other.
  • And since there did not appear to be any baby worms present, just an adult (maybe two), it was okay to put him on preventatives to keep him from contracting additional worms.

In an attempt to gain some minute peace of mind, and since this is around the time when one of those heartworms would have died, I’ve chosen to believe that he did in fact pass a worm while roaming around somewhere and didn’t survive the experience. I don’t know for sure if that’s what happened, but it’s what I’m choosing to believe.

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The Magic of Mose

Once we brought Mose home and I realized that, 1) all he wanted to do was go run around outside with the dogs and hunt critters, and 2) that he might not live more than another 3-4 years, I decided there was no way I was going to force him to be an indoor cat. And even now, I’m glad I made that decision.

Most people were never sure how to pronounce Mose’s name, and thought it was weird. For the record, Mose (sounds like “hose”) is named after Dwight’s weird and rarely seen cousin, Mose who lives on his beet farm with him in the tv show, The Office. My husband and I are pretty big television addicts and have a habit of naming animals after characters in comedy series. Our oldest dog, Charlie Murphy, got his name from the Rick James bits on the Chappelle Show.

IMG_0642Mose purred, played and napped while undergoing vet examinations. He preferred to drink water from drinking glasses placed around the kitchen counter. He was obsessive about roast chicken, and frequently stormed the kitchen to steal it while I was trying to stuff it in Kongs for the dogs. He ate twice as much food as our previous cat and yet was 3-4 lbs. smaller. He clawed the shit out of our couch corners, and I totally didn’t care.

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He’d lick his butt on clean placemats I’d just put on the kitchen table. He loved to attack the dogs from underneath the couch. He’d go for walks on our back property with us, running and exploring with the dogs along the way. He’d come running from whatever corner of the yard he happened to be in when he heard you call him. He left multiple dead chipmunks in our home, and knew exactly which window to go sit under and cry when he wanted in, depending on what time of the day or night it was.

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And he had this incredible habit of climbing onto your chest, nuzzling your face and purring right before you were ready to get up from the chair you were sitting in. I think it’s gonna be a while before we adopt another cat. Because he really was something else.

 

p.s. For those friends and family who know that we moved recently and are wondering if the two events are connected, they are not. Mose disappeared more than a week before we had moved or changed a single thing in our home or routine. We’d only just decided to move the day before he went missing.

Posted in Animal Histories, Animal Welfare, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

An Unexamined April

April was a bit of a blur. So I thought I’d dig through my photos and figure out what I’ve been doing for the last month that so profoundly curbed my writing activity.

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Oreo Cookie Ava, actively seeking a sponsor in Ball-a-holics Anonymous.

The polar vortex comes to a slow and stubborn end

Nearly 100 inches of snow and countless sub-zero and single digit days later, our grand Michigan winter has finally come to a close. But not without a few last gasps for air.

Here’s what it looked like on April 14:

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And here’s April 15:

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And here, thankfully, is April 29:

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A return to playdates

I chose to hibernate this winter with the help of lots of books, booze, pizza and Walking Dead reruns. Thus my dogs were forced to do the same. So now that the ice age is over, we’ve jumped back into our playdate group with pizazz.

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Peaches assumes her favorite play position

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Buster and Bolt have a stick munching contest

Peaches meets Scarlett, the crazy Corgi puppy

Peaches meets Scarlett, the crazy Corgi puppy

Buster reunites with his brindle bosom buddy, Ivan

Buster reunites with his brindle bosom buddy, Ivan

And Peach encounters Hugo the Giant, part lion, part Muppet

And Peach encounters Hugo the Giant, part lion, part Muppet

A return to professional development

As much as I hate to admit it, all the cool dog geek stuff in the midwest seems to happen in Ohio. So I’m frequently forced to cross the border for professional development opportunities. Earlier this month, the vet tech program at UC Blue Ash in Cincinnati hosted Sophia Yin for a Low-Stress Handling workshop, which included all of the great foundational operant and classical conditioning info I’ve heard her present before, along with a bunch of new video cases featuring a range of cat and dog handling techniques.

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And apparently Ian Dunbar will be visiting the Buckeye state in June as well, so back down south I’ll go.

A return to volunteering

In the past month, I’ve logged somewhere in the ballpark of 45 shelter volunteering hours across two different shelters. At one shelter, I’ve had the pleasure of walking and working with 50+ different dogs, and at the other all I’ve been permitted to do so far is laundry, TNR trap cleaning and a few dishes, and the soonest I’ll be allowed to attend dog walker training and interact with dogs there will be mid-June. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of experiences, to say the least.

Too much to summarize from those many hours, so here are a few random highlights:

Big shepherd puppy, Maxx was the largest dog I’ve ever handled. He was a cuddly beast who came into the shelter, was adopted a day later, returned a few days later and then immediately adopted again. Here’s hoping this last home works out and that he’s happy and healthy and able to hear his owner with those big ass ears.

Big Maxx

Beauty here was isolated, not to mention nameless, for weeks at the shelter with her large litter of puppies. Once the pups were old enough for adoption, all were adopted in one day at a Puppy Shower event, leaving yet-to-be-named Beauty behind. I took her out for a walk and managed to snap this photo of her, which was subsequently posted on the shelter’s Facebook page with a “Let’s find mom a new home before Mother’s Day message.” 87 Facebook shares and a day later and she was adopted. Happy Mother’s Day, Beauty.

Mama Beauty. Was isolated in the shelter for weeks with an enormous litter of puppies, all of whom were adopted in one day at an event, leaving her behind. We posted this photo with a "Find Mom a home before Mother's Day" plea and 90+ shares and a day later, she was adopted.

Big girl, Isis is my big, brindle love at the shelter right now. She’s getting overlooked a lot and it’s a real shame because she’s an incredible dog. She has a MONSTER wiggle butt and an equally big smile. She’s also a dog who is now manageable and easy to walk for other volunteers after getting her fitted with a front-clip harness. Imagine that.

Lovely lady Isis. She's definitely a gal that's taking longer to get adopted, which is a shame because she is an affectionate wiggle butt desperate for some attention. Love this girl.

Lovely Lady Isis

Oh Clyde. I must have been harboring some preconceived notion about hounds, because for some reason I didn’t think I’d love Clyde as much as I do. I only met him yesterday and I’m sure he’ll be gone by next week, but what a lovely, lanky gentleman. His flippy-floppy ears and sad hound dog howl are just too much for words.

Clyde. I guess I've been harboring some preconceive notion about hounds, because I didn't expect to love Clyde as much as I do after taking just a 25 minute walk with him. He's a lovable puppy with a sad, hounddog howl and I expect he'll be snatched up rather quickly.

Handsome hound dog puppy, Clyde

And of course. . . . Miss Ava, STILL at the shelter. Waiting for that perfect person who’d be happy to find a stunning, high-drive dog who may be a bit aloof, but totally makes up for it in other ways.

Ava says, "This way to ADOPT me!"

Ava says, “This way to ADOPT me!”

Thanks to a few Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons and some generous harness donations from dog training friends, I’ve also become a bit of a harness-fitting, organizational lunatic in between dog walking shifts.

After hanging up this handy dandy, cheapo door organizer, we now have a place to label and organize harnesses and toys specific to individual dogs, complete with a demo puppy and some fitting guidelines posted on the wall. I love cheap, simple solutions.

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I also dug up a handful of self-adhesive wall hooks to replace the old, cluttered leash stand in the hallway.

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And a return to fostering

The last time I fostered dogs was in late 2010. That very long hiatus was in part due to a rather discouraging experience with an old rescue group, and also the inevitable result of not wanting to impose further on the successful 1 cat + four dogs dynamic we’ve had going here for a while. Until this week . . .

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Tasha is a young, female Rottie who’s midway through heartworm treatment and having a hell of a time staying calm in the kennels. She can’t be in the outdoor runs next to other dogs because of the energy level, which means she’s stuck in a small indoor run all day with just a couple brief bathroom breaks. So to our house she shall go . . . but just for a couple weeks. Stay tuned.

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A one-year anniversary

And last but not least, I would be remiss in not recognizing the May 1st anniversary of a rather special injury that had me walking ZERO dogs for many weeks this time last year. Happy to say that other than some very minor nerve damage and scar tissue build up, this baby is equally ready for a day of leash handling or my next “bar fight.”

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My sister-in-law refers to this as my Harry Potter scar. Sounds good to me.

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May 1, 2014

Posted in Animal behavior and training, Animal Welfare, Fun Stuff, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments