28 June 2011

Toni's report: How I Spent my Summer Vacation

How I Spent my Summer Vacation

This summer I went to Michigan with my mom, my dad, 
my two human sisters and one of their husbands. 
We had a lot of adventures, but my favorite things included:

Visiting farmer's markets—especially the one where I got to play dress-up. I don't actually like asparagus, but I liked pretending to be one.

Going to the beach every day. I love the beach—I love chasing seagulls and finding driftwood in the waves and I especially love all of the crazy new smells!
Visiting my friends Bob and Butch at the farm they live on. They introduced me to this guy—his head is even bigger than mine!

I hope I get to go on a summer vacation again next year!

The End.

15 June 2011

Who will teach them?

We all stand against the inhumane treatment of animals. That's easy—it doesn't take much more than a drop of compassion to understand what's wrong with deliberate animal cruelty. 

We also lament the inadequate care provided by those who may be battling mental health issues or who simply may not know any better. This is a harder conversation, I think. For as much as we do stand against what happens to animals in these situations, the perpetrators may not be able to do a better job than they are doing. In the case of hoarders, the law must intervene when mental health affects the lives of animals who cannot help themselves. But what about those who don't know any better? What about the people who don't look at a bucket full of dirty rain water and think, "I wouldn't drink that; neither should my dog." Or the people who think, "Well, dogs come from wolves and wolves can take care of themselves, so I'm sure my dog who got out of my yard in Chicago is doing just fine. If he doesn't come home, I'll just get another one." Or the people whose approach is, "My dog is being bad on purpose. She chewed my shoes to get back at me, so I'll give her a beating so she'll know she was bad." If these are the lessons that parents teach their children by example or by direct conversation, then where will these children learn otherwise? And what will happen to the animals they bring home when they become adults themselves?

I was fortunate enough to volunteer as part of a program aimed at teaching sixth graders about humane animal treatment, most specifically that dog fighting is not only inhumane, it is also a felony in all 50 states. We had interactive learning games that centered around the damage that dog fighting does not just to the animals, but to the families and communities involved. This is where I learned that it is possible to have pets, to love your pets and to still have to be taught that your pets have feelings: love, fear, concern, happiness, anger, joy. No one had taught these children that their pets had feelings, so the wagging tails, lolling tongues, play bows, curled lips and so on meant nothing beyond the actions. Once we got across the lesson that animals have feelings, the other conversations seemed to mean more to the students—and hopefully made a lasting impression.

This year I was asked to put together an ad hoc program for freshman in a Chicago public high school. The sessions, maybe four or five of them, would be voluntary after school events that would last about an hour. I assumed that the conversations would have a heavy dog fighting focus, given the demographic and age of the students. I made a rough outline, planning to start with animal cruelty facts and figures; move on to dog fighting; bring Téa in to demonstrate a what a well behaved pit bull is like and use that session to talk about dog care. After that, the students were to put together a project, which I thought maybe they would present back to me as a wrap-up so I could figure out which points I made well and which I should pound a little more if we decided to do the program again.

So the first day I went in my stats:
  • 6-8 million animals go into animal shelters each year just in the US. Of these, half are placed in homes and the other half are killed.
  • We do not use the word euthanized...can anyone give me a definition for euthanasia? We do not use the word euthanized in this case because we are not talking about the animals that are sick, suffering or have been abused to the point that they are miserable. We're talking about 3-4 million animals that could have lived a happy life in a home, if only there were enough homes for them.
  • Over 70 percent of people who abuse animals also abuse people in their lives, usually women, children and the elderly. What does this tell you about people who abuse animals?
  • All 50 states have laws against dog fighting and 46 states have felony provisions against animal cruelty in general. In Illinois specifically, it is a felony simply to watch a dog fight...even if you're trying hard not to watch because it makes you uncomfortable. If you're there, you're responsible.
I could have gone on for hours (possibly days) along these lines. There are plenty of shocking facts out there just waiting to be shared. Luckily, I do sometimes remember to check in with my audience to ensure they're still along for the ride. So the teacher for the class collected questions for me after I left that day. Here is what I learned (and should have known already): Just because no one has taught you what is right, doesn't mean that you don't wish you knew what the right thing is.

I didn't get questions about dog fighting, or laws, or punishments and fines. I got a lot of questions about animal welfare and what constitutes animal cruelty:
  • How many dogs have been abused in the past year? I think a lot of people would like to know the answer to this question. The truth is, it’s impossible to know. So many animals live and die each day in horrible, inhumane conditions that we never even know about. This can be because no one knows the animal is there. It could be because the people around the animal don’t understand that what’s happening to the animal is abuse. It could be that someone knows the animal is abused, but doesn’t know what to do about it or is afraid to get involved. So we just don't know.
  • Why do people have dogs if they do cruel things to them? That’s a very good question. Sometimes people don’t know any better. Sometimes people don’t have a good handle on their anger or maybe they’re just plain lazy. I think often it is because people don’t understand dogs. They don’t think about it as a living creature that has thoughts and needs and feelings. When we can empathize with an animal, it becomes very easy to do the right things for it.
  • Who are the most common people to hurt a dog? Anyone can be cruel to a dog. Anyone at all.
  • How often are dogs abused? Dogs are abused every single day. And dogs that are abused are probably abused every single day. That is no way to go through life.
But I got even more questions about animal care and training:
  • Is it unhealthy to give dogs food that we would eat during the day? Can dogs eat all human food? 
  • What should you feed dogs? What food should you give the dogs? What food should we avoid giving them?
  • If you give your dog a beer, is that animal cruelty?
  • How can you take care of a dog? (Of course, how does a person even begin to answer a question like that in such a small amount of time? I tried to keep it simple and memorable: There are only four things that our dogs need from us: 1) Proper food and shelter, including shelter from the elements and from having to take care of themselves; 2) Discipline;  3) Exercise; 4) Affection.)
  • How do I adopt a dog?
  • How do I teach a dog to stop being hyper? 
  • Why might a dog turn on a person?
  • How do I teach my dog tricks?
  • Why is my dog afraid of storms?
  • What do I do if my dog gets lost?
  • How much water does a dog need?
And on and on and on. Two students in particular will stay with me for a long time. The first, Vincent, was a huge, tall, quiet boy. His grandmother had a small dog who hated everyone, but seemed to taking a shine to Vincent. His grandmother told him that if he learned to work with the dog, he could have it. I brought him pages and pages of handouts and stayed late nearly every week to talk to him about how to help the dog feel more comfortable and find out how he was doing with the dog. We also talked about his neighbor's dog who had a broken leg that was never set—he wanted to know what to tell him neighbor to do so the dog would be more comfortable. The second boy waited patiently each week until I had finished with Vincent. He would inch over as I was packing up my papers talk to me about how to handle his dog when his dog showed aggression on walks (this was a new issue for him, as his dog had previously been well behaved on walks). We talked about leash aggression and I brought handouts for him as well. I learned that his father was the only other family member who cared about the dog or was comfortable around it, so we talked about how he and his father could work together with the dog to properly socialize, train and manage the dog and its issues. These boys loved the dogs in their lives, they just had no idea how to go about caring for or interacting with the dogs. And no one in their world had the resources to help them.

I have a lot of ideas for next year's program. We'll still start with animal cruelty and neglect facts as I did this year, but from there I think we'll focus on the fun side of the animal issue: how to care for our dogs, how to understand our dogs, how to give our dogs what they need, how to allow our dogs to be our friends and our family rather than our pets. It's time to give these kids the information they need to change the cycle.

This photo has nothing to do with this story. It's just gratuitous pit bull cuteness.

24 May 2011

Spring, please forgive us

I don't know what we've done here in Chicago to offend Spring so, but clearly we have. Otherwise, it would not keep blowing off the plans we had together for gardening, biking, hiking and all of the other activities that kept our hopes alive during the dead of winter. This year, Spring keeps standing us up. We wait and wait, margarita mix and blender ready to go on the kitchen counter, sunscreen stationed hopefully near the back door, sunglasses polished and perched on our heads. But Spring has been a no-show...or worse, a "gotta run, I have an early meeting" kind of date.

However, it looks like Spring is finally ready to forgive us. Phew! Whatever it was, I hope we don't do it again. I never get these silly pit bull grins on rainy days when we're stuck inside.

"I'm never going inside again."

"Pass the sunscreen, please."

20 May 2011

My hiatus

I haven't had a chance to post in a while, though I have lots of things to post about, because I was focused on planning and hosting a silent auction for one of our favorite rescue groups, Project Rescue Chicago

I'm happy to say it was even more successful than we had hoped, thanks in large part to a lot of really amazing people who contributed their time, talent and sweat. You can read the full overview and connect to a few sneak peek photos on PRC's Canine Chronicles.

26 April 2011

The strange conversations we have - Part IV

T2 and I were out in the yard this weekend as I tried to get a leg up on our garden before the flowering weeds (known as wildflowers to some) begin their treacherous assault on the flowers and herbs I actually like. We did not own our house last spring, so this is our first opportunity to make some sense of what's there, what gets to stay (nice flowers that don't irritate my allergies, herbs, rose bushes) and what must be relocated to the trash bin before it has a chance to turn on us (about 75 percent of what's growing there).

I was up to my elbows in dirt and phlox while T2 worked on their tans on the deck. We have a bit of privacy from the street, so people on the sidewalk, though they have a clear view of the deck, cannot see me as I work in some parts of the garden. Because if they could have seen me, the woman walking by with her husband, two small children and a set of grandparents would have had more sense and manners (I hope) than to say, "Oohhh, look at them. They look mean." 

Now, I imagine that at some point in my life it would not have ever occurred to me that anyone could say anything disparaging about the people or animals I love so dearly. At some point. But I have pit bulls now and I am always ready with a polite response when misguided, ill-mannered people say horrible things to my face about the clearly loved-and-cared-for dogs at the end of the leashes in my hand. So of course, I knew this woman was talking about my sweet girls and I knew it didn't occur to her that they would never be left out in the yard unattended (who worries about their vicious dogs being stolen, right?).

Up I popped like a marionette. I felt ridiculous even as I was doing it. I could not stop myself and yet in my head I thought, "Well, that's it. You've become that woman. There's no turning back now."

"Nope," I said, as if I were already a part of their conversation. "Not mean at all. In fact, they go to daycare each week to play with other dogs and they're great with children. Actually, they're the most affectionate, well-behaved dogs we've ever had." I could see the grandparents smirking a little, though I am not sure if it was at me for being a crazy dog lady or at the woman for being called out in her remarks.

"Oh. Um. Are they pit bulls?" 

"Yes they are. Really stellar family pets when given the opportunity to live in a loving home. No different than people."

"We have a friend who has a pit bull. It's a really nice dog."

"Right. So you know what I mean, then. Have a good day."

That's what I said, because that's how I have chosen to handle people's rude behavior toward my girls—with a chipper voice, a big smile and a firmly positive message.

In my heart, though, the conversation goes more like this:

"Oohhh, look at them. They look mean." 

"Huh. Your kids look stupid. I guess we're even."