Maple Apple Cranberry Sauce with Pickles on the side

‘Tis the season for baking and cooking with dog fur and cat hair, at least in this house. We haven’t formally introduced her on this blog yet, but we have a new kitten in the house. Her name is Pickles and she likes to sit in the sink. She also likes to stand with her head directly under the running faucet and watch the water go down the drain. I whipped up a batch of my favorite apple cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving last Thursday, and she was super helpful with the food prep. Cranberries and cat hair: So tasty.

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A face for winter

Well, until I can get my act together, along with some words on the page, I better keep throwing up some photos to keep this blog’s pulse going.

This is Casey, available for adoption at the Humane Society of Huron Valley in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She maintains a strict daily beauty regimen that involves a generous application of black eyeliner and carefully curled ears,  followed by a honey and brown sugar body scrub. All that beauty tends to steal the show from other dogs and she’s not very fond of sharing the bathroom mirror in the morning, so this adolescent lady would love to be the only dog in the home.

Tell your doctor you don’t need those blood pressure meds anymore. Because rubbing these velvety bunny ears between your fingertips is all you’ll need to soothe that stressed out soul.

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A face for Fall

Been a little hectic around here lately. Once again, neglecting the writing. So here’s a quick pic to fill the void and usher in the fall weather. It’s been cold, colorful and fabulous in Michigan this last week. Great dog walking weather.

This is Max. A beautiful boy currently undergoing heartworm treatment at the Humane Society of Huron Valley–sure to knock the socks off of anyone he makes eye contact with.

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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