Wider Change

Humane Social Change: How it happens, who gets it done, what gets in the way.

The protests went on every weekend for a year and a half.  That’s 78 weekends, give or take. And that’s what it took for Henry Spira’s first campaign to get results. It shut down sadistic experiments being performed on cats at the Natural History Museum in New York City.

After that, he took on cruel cosmetics testing.

Bit by bit, he made a difference. Year after year, he kept going. Across the decades, he won some major battles, both in animal rights and human rights.

And that, I’m reminding myself, is what activism takes.

It’s just timely that a friend sent out word today that the documentary One Man’s Way: A Peter Singer Documentary Honoring Animal Rights Activist Henry Spira is available on YouTube.

It’s worth a watch. Tune your eye, particularly, for the ordinariness of this person who accomplished extraordinary things. Was it simply because he wouldn’t give up? That’s part of it. There is, of course, something different about activists, and the experts are still trying to pinpoint exactly what it is. But whatever it is, Mr. Spira embodied it and inspired others to do the same. The documentary was originally produced in 1996 and Spira passed away in 1998. But, even at more than ten years old, the film remains timeless and inspiring and even refreshing. It’s a just-in-time cool refreshment for this crispy-fried activist.

Something’s emerging over the past few years. Websites and campaigns are using hard data to make the case for animal protection. I wonder if it will work.

A decade ago the trend was toward science that demonstrated animal intelligence and sentience. It’s compelling, but perhaps it’s too inconvenient or uncomfortable? People would have to change too many behaviors if they really acknowledged the degree to which animals are physically and mentally and emotionally like us. So, for the most part, people continue to resist changes in how they use and treat animals.

I observed one fairly significant and hard-won change over the past few months within the Unitarian-Universalist faith. I’m a member, and I’ve been keenly tuned to the conversation as national delegates considered passing a Statement of Conscience on ethical eating. One of the greatest debates, according to my outside observations, was over whether the association would go so far as to tell people they should be vegetarians or make them change their diets.

This may be a bit off topic, but I’m always struck by that juvenile oppositional defiance that emerges when adults talk about adopting change. They regress to age eight. They stomp their feet and cross their arms over their chests and poke out their bottom lips. You can’t make me. You’re not the boss of me. So, I sigh, and then I wonder what will break through the wall of don’t-tell-me-what-to-do. Because, see, nobody can make anyone do anything, I suppose. We can tell people that dropping trash on the ground creates litter, and litter is bad, and if you get caught littering then we might even be able to fine you, but if you think you must drop your trash on the ground, little Timmy, then I suppose that’s you choice. Still, there are consequences for your choice, and we can ask you to see the consequences.

So, essentially, that’s the approach the Unitarian-Universalists had to take in writing their Statement of Conscience on food choice and social justice. They had to say this:

Minimally processed plant-based diets are healthier diets. Some of us believe that it is ethical only to eat plants while others of us believe that it is ethical to eat both plants and animals. We do not call here for a single dietary approach. We encourage a knowledgeable choice of food based on understanding the demands of feeding a growing world population, the health effects of particular foods, and the consequences of production, worker treatment, and transportation methods. We commit to applying this knowledge to both personal and public actions…” [Emphasis is mine.]

So, it strikes me that they had to walk this fine line, inserting “We don’t call her for a single dietary approach” to appease the arm-crossers. And, knowing this is an obsessively democratic and diverse and respectful organization, I’m sure they wanted everyone’s position honored. But they still make a powerful statement that plant-based diets are healthiest, and while some people think it’s ethical to also eat animals, they have an obligation to make their decision based on knowledge. (Trash on the ground creates litter, so be aware that you are creating litter when you drop your trash, and litter is bad.) It doesn’t get much simpler than that.


There’s nothing simple about this. Because “knowledge” is tricky stuff.

A carnivorous friend once told me her meat-based diet is actually more humane, because more animals die in the harvesting of grains and vegetables. It’s not the only time I’ve heard this argument. But, first of all, there’s a vast moral difference between collateral, accidental deaths and intentional knife-to-the-throat killing. And, second, the numbers of small creatures who lose their lives to plows and wheat threshers don’t add up to the billions of animals intentionally killed for their flesh. Another statistics-based animal welfare project demonstrates the difference in numbers. According to the website Animal Visuals,  251 animals must die to produce a million calories of chicken meat, while 2.55 animals die for a million calories of vegetables and 1.65 die for the same quantity of grains.

What passes for “knowledge” doesn’t necessarily have any relation to the data; Congress proves it every day. Activists have to keep the data coming, though. It may reach people. Still, I’m certain we’ll continue to wade through a sea of convenient “knowledge”. After all, litter biodegrades and actually improves the environment, you know. I read that somewhere. So I can drop trash wherever I want. What doesn’t break down gets transported to outer space and re-purposed for satellite dishes. Seriously.

On my way to work this morning, I listened to a radio discussion about helping people escape prostitution. A two-year-old program in Portland has fallen short of its goals. Organizers wanted 60 percent of their participants to graduate, but the current success rate is closer to ten percent.

The host asked two of the panel participants – a counselor in the program and a former prostitute who successfully completed the program – about the challenges of getting people to change their behaviors. Even if they want to change, few will be successful.

So, the host asked, what makes people want to change? How do you make someone want to change?

The answer, basically, is to help people focus on the reasons they want to change. In the case of sex workers, maybe they’re tired of being afraid and want to feel safe at night. Maybe they want a “normal” job. Maybe they want to have their kids live with them again, or to repair family relationships, or to finally have a fixed address.

Even with strong motivators like these, the actual rate of change is dismal. And, as one listener wisely pointed out, this ten-percent success rate isn’t unlike the rates of other mental-health and addiction programs. Behavior is hard to change, and not just for people with severe addiction. The monkey on your back doesn’t have to be heroin; just think about success rates for stopping everything from overeating to nail-biting. “Change is hard” is a worn-out cliche’ for good reasons: we say it a lot, and it’s absolutely true.

And here’s why I’m thinking about these questions right now:


This little guy is back on his chain, one year after he got a fenced yard.


This sad old man is chained again, more than a year after he got his fenced yard. Also, his people cannot seem to remember to give him clean drinking water. In eight visits, we’ve never found clean, accessible water for this guy.



And this guy is chained to his front porch, almost two years after he got a fenced yard. Back then, his humans so wanted a fence that they crazy-called me until I said yes. They wanted to stop chaining their dog. When we built their fence, they bought us donuts; they gave us a donation; they pinched my cheek like grandparents do to five-year-olds and they said “You’re just so good!” But a few months later they partially dismantled the new fence and put the dog back on a chain.

And the question we all ask when we work with people in this capacity is why? Why is it so hard for people to change, and what can we do to make them get with the program?

First, I’ll say these three re-chained dogs represent less than ten percent of the dogs on my caseload. Thirty others remain chain-free. So that’s a ten-percent failure rate, a 90-percent success rate. Not too bad, in the big picture. But for the individual dog? The dog who got a taste of freedom and then returned to a tethered, lonely existence? He gets the raw end of this deal. So, of course, these failures aren’t necessarily permanent failures: we’ll keep knocking on these doors and working these cases. We owe it to these dogs.

But in the process of working the cases, I just wonder what can stand in as a motivator. Even when people have strong personal motivators like better health or more money or what have you – even then it’s hard to change. But whether their dog is on a chain or free in the fenced yard, maybe it just doesn’t make much difference to these families. So then what?

Well, here’s the thing the panelists didn’t mention today on the talk show, but what shows up repeatedly in the social sciences and especially in the area of inspiring people to embrace social change by adopting new personal habits: people change when it gets too uncomfortable not to change. In each of these three dogs’ cases, I know the families chained them because someone in a uniform came along and told them they’d be in legal trouble if they didn’t prevent the dog from roaming the neighborhood. With the dog on the chain, they’ll see me knocking on the door, but I don’t have a uniform or a badge. In our county, and in most places, there’s nobody in uniform to come tell them they’ll be in legal trouble for leaving the dog chained up. More and more, I’m convinced we need tethering ordinances. In the hard-to-cure cases, people will change when it’s illegal to not change.

It’s been a rough week. I spent a couple of days worried over a neglected dog. I spent another couple of days waiting for calls back from deputies. And in the end, there was a bit of a showdown – one a friend dubbed “the animal activist versus the child molester.”

The child molester came out looking like the morally upright citizen.

The animal activist ended up with egg on her face. Okay: I ended up with egg on my face. A vegan with egg on her face.

It happened like this:

A volunteer called this week to tell me one of the dogs in our caseload had lost the use of his legs. He’s 13 years old. The family told the volunteer on the phone that the dog was out in the yard, lying down, and they were giving him food and water by hand. They would not agree to euthanize him. They would not allow the vet to visit. They would not give any more details for fear of incriminating themselves.

By the time I heard about this, it had been a week. The dog was in day seven, non-ambulatory. The sheriff’s office said they couldn’t do anything. And so the battle began.

I called three members of the sheriff’s department. I left messages asking for an explanation as to why they couldn’t at least check on the poor dog. I got no answers. And then I called an attorney who does lots of advocacy in animal abuse cases. He started leaving messages too.

The tone escalated. The attorney was talking lawsuits and harsh media exposure. I was talking civil disobedience.

I needed the cops out there, because there was no way – I mean NO way – that dog could be okay. I just knew too much about the family.

The family is a mess. Friends from their church have long taken responsibility for providing the family with everything from food for all of their animals to school supplies and clothes for their five children. The 120-pound dog was so poorly cared for that the friends spent years trying to convince the family to give him up. When they heard about our program to unchain dogs, they contacted me for help. At least maybe they could get the dog off his chain.

The dog had spent ten years on a chain. TEN! Chained to his dog house alongside the driveway, because when he was six months old, he and his littermate broke out of their 4×8 dog run and ran in the street. The littermate got hit and killed. The remaining dog got chained up. And there he stayed. He’d have been there for his entire life if his family had gotten their way.

They would not allow him a fenced yard, thought it was a ridiculous idea to give him the whole yard. They wanted me to simply repair his 4×8 kennel, which had long since been devoured by brambles. I refused to take the dog off a chain and put him in a cage. This impasse lasted for two weeks. By the time we arrived to build what amounted to a large dog run, I’d already grown to despise the family for the total lack of compassion they showed their elderly dog. My disgust felt even more justified when I learned the man of the house is a convicted child molester. A father of five and a felonious perv.

I wanted to finish the fence, unchain the poor dog, and walk away, wash my hands of the entire despicable lot.

But that wouldn’t be possible, because the dog had a congenital condition of his eyelids. His eyelashes grew to the inside, rubbing constantly on his eyeballs. There was green goop in his eyes. Always. For years. The family did nothing.

After some arm-twisting by their church friends, the family reluctantly agreed to let the dog see a vet, at no cost to them. And when they were told the painful condition and the chronic infection were easily treatable, they hesitated and hesitated. More arm-twisting, lots of arguing, and they finally agreed – at no cost to them - to let the poor dog get some relief  from the misery that had accompanied him through his entire life.

Those were the good months, probably the best of the old dog’s life. He was off the chain, his eyes didn’t hurt, and he didn’t have a chronic infection. Maybe then we could wash our hands of Pervy Pete and his creepy, heartless clan.

But, no. About a month ago a friend checked up on the dog and found him emaciated. He’d lost 40 pounds. From 120 pounds to 80 in a few months. And, no, the family didn’t do anything.

Again, arm-twisting, cajoling, and eventually a vet checkup – again at no cost to them. That’s when we learned the stately old yellow lab was nearing the end of his life. The vet recommended hospice care at a rescue group that could keep him indoors and provide medical monitoring. The family agreed. And then refused. And then agreed. And ultimately refused. He would stay in his small dog run with the brambles, and he’d stay there until he died.

So when we found out the dog had been down on the ground for a week, we all had jagged rocks in our guts. Bad, bad, bad situation. For any dog, but most especially for this dog, in this yard, with these people.

In comes my civil disobedience idea. If I wasn’t going to get any response from the cops, I decided to bring a friend along and get onto the property. The idea was to take pictures, check out the dog’s condition, and if it was bad enough, to leave just long enough to email the photos to the police and the media, and then return to the property, plant myself in a lawn chair, and refuse to leave until the cops arrived.

So, of course, the wife tried to stop us when we arrived, even though she knew nothing of my big hell-raising plans. She said she didn’t want visitors. I pretended to be making a semi-annual care-package delivery, and said I had a duty to prove to our donors and volunteers that I’d checked up on every last dog they’d invested their time and money in. She agreed to take me to the dog, but, she said, “I don’t want any trouble about his condition.” I braced myself for the worst and I readied my camera.



He was skinny, sure. The bony landmarks of his skull are protruding, even. But he was lying in soft grass, in the shade, next to a bowl of clean water. He was alert and thumping his tail. He devoured dog biscuits and some bacon-flavored treats. Honestly, he’d probably never had it this well. We thanked the family for their time, left with everyone in a pleasant mood, and drove away.

We never would have thought it possible with this clan, but they actually had risen to the occasion. They were making the most of their 13-year-old dog’s final days. My friend and I decided there was no point in continuing to pester the cops. No more calls needed: there was no law being broken, at least not blatantly.

But about an hour later, our series of earlier calls finally reached the front lines. A deputy knocked on the family’s door. The family flipped out. For obvious reasons, they keep their distance from men in uniform. The deputy looked at the dog. He said things were fine. Then he called me. He warned me about trespassing. He told me, in essence, that I’m a zealot and a pain in the ass. And he stuck up for the family – the child molester and the doggie neglecters and all.

And there wasn’t much point in my saying, “I know, I know, I know. I was there. The dog is okay. But I have to tell you about the history with this family.” No go. He doesn’t deal in history. There’s no crime right now. End of story. “I know, I know, I know,” I said. “I’m sorry you had to go out there. You must think I’m a complete kook. There was a whole chain of events, yada yada yada.”

Keep talking, crazy animal lady. Deputy isn’t listening. The deputy told the family they will be in trouble if the dog’s condition deteriorates much more and they fail to let the vet euthanize him, but for now they’re doing fine and they don’t have to let that dog lady back on their property again.

And so I’m eggy in the face. And yet, I realize, I can’t exactly call it a loss. The dog spent his final years off the chain. He spent his final year and a half with clear and pain-free eyes. And now in his final days, for reasons we can only guess, his indifferent family is sitting at his side and lavishing him with caring.






Years ago, I worked with a cruelty investigator who had child welfare workers on speed dial.  When he found evidence of animal abuse or neglect, he’d next find out if there were children in the household. If there were, he’d call a social worker. He knew what many of us suspect and what research repeatedly proves: people who abuse animals will also abuse people. A recent paper out of the University of South Carolina reviews the volumes of literature that find a link between violence to animals and violence to humans, especially among people who start abusing animals at a young age. It’s important research, because if our society learns to take these connections more seriously, we might intervene and stop the most troubled criminals before they have human blood on their hands.

I had some experience with one of these tragedies about 15 years ago when a good friend’s brother-in-law was arrested for murder. He’d shot someone four times in the back at close range. In several conversations during his trial and eventual conviction, family members told me stomach-churning, spine-chilling stories of his decades-long history of killing and dismembering animals. They knew he was deeply disturbed, but they let it be a family secret, because he only killed animals, after all.

It’s hard to fathom. I wonder how many worried, whispered, late-night conversations they had about what was an ”acceptable” level of depravity, or how torture can be called by some other name.  It might be unfair to criticize the family: of course there’s no instruction manual on how to behave when a son starts to reveal he’s a sociopath. But dozens of people decided his taste for animal torture was not terribly serious, and so intervention came too late. Imagine the unspeakable suffering that might have been prevented if he’d been reported and dealt with when he was 15.

Of course, that’s an extreme case, and most of the published research also looks at these extreme criminal cases. But these days there are different kinds of cases on my mind. They’re the long-term, low-grade neglect cases that seem to plague multiple generations of families. They’re very common. And if it’s difficult for people to know what to do about outright sadistic violence, imagine how hard it is to get people to intervene when a family’s dog never has drinking water or shelter. But – just like the violence connection – the human/animal neglect connection is strong. I don’t know what the research says, or even if there is much. But if you’re in the field and knocking on these families’ doors, you don’t need to look for the research. The correlation is undeniable.

A few months back, I visited a family who had asked for help with their dog, but when I arrived they wouldn’t even show me the dog. (I arrived unannounced; it’s my M.O., for just these reasons.) They also wouldn’t let the kids even peek out the door at me, and the house smelled like a landfill. When one pale, skinny boy did venture out the front door to see who was visiting, the parents lashed out so violently I called the police. A social worker called me a few days later to say they’d confirmed abuse and neglect and the family is now in the system. I still don’t know how the dog is, but the kids are getting help.

Time and again, I meet families who can’t seem to remember to give the animals food and water, or who can’t abide by minimum care laws even after I’ve read them the law and left a printed copy. And, yes, they all have children.


Here’s what I found Saturday at a house I’ve visited a half-dozen times in as many months. It always looks like this. Those buckets are supposed to hold the water for the animals. There are a few kids in the house, but I’m not allowed to see them. The parents say the kids are always sick. There’s a pile of rotting trash next to the front door, probably five feet high. What would you expect to learn about this family’s child-care skills if you could get full access to the kids and the house?

And there’s this little guy, chained to a tree and so wrapped up in his cord he can’t reach his food or water. There was no dog house. He was there 24 hours a day because he’s a puppy who pees in the house. In three visits to the house, I explained to the adults that the dog must have water and shelter. They just nodded vacantly, uninterested and waiting for me to leave them alone. Finally, I convinced the family to let me take the dog, and the three-year-old boy cried as I disappeared with his puppy. I worried about more than the child’s grief; I worried about him being raised by people who can’t get off the couch to give food and water to a small creature in their care.

The dog is safe and happy now, playing with other puppies at a sanctuary where he’ll never lack the basic necessities, and we got him out of there while he’s still a sweet and highly adoptable little guy. His future looks bright. But the problem remains: what’s to stop that familly from getting another dog? How are the kids going to fare? And how do we learn to take this seriously?

I wish we lived in a society where animal neglect was seen as a serious issue in itself, but law enforcement virtually never takes action on this kind of dog neglect (though it is against the law, at least in Oregon). Obviously, though, it’s never just about the dog, and I do think we’re a society that sees child neglect as a serious issue. The challenge now is just to connect the dots, to help people realize that if a family can’t remember to fill a water bucket for a hot and panting dog, the kids can’t be in great shape either.

by Michael Mullady, Wall Street Journal

I think, in general, cat ladies don’t win too many battles. But today they can put a giant “X” in the win column. And this isn’t just a victory for cat ladies, but for countless animal charities and nonprofit organizations. It means their volunteers can deduct expenses for any work they do to further the mission of an IRS-approved charity. That applies to organizations as large as the Humane Society of the United States and as small as the local dog-rescue group. Same goes for other charitable and religious organizations. And they can all thank a cat rescuer named Jan.

Jan Van Dusen went to US Tax Court to fight the IRS. And she won.

Van Dusen takes care of  70 stray cats at her home in Oakland, California. She volunteers for a cat rescue organization that takes strays and ferals off the streets, sterilizes them, and finds them new homes. According to the Wall Street Journal, on her 2004 tax return, she claimed $12,068 in expenses – everything from cat food and veterinary care to cleaning supplies and a portion of her utility bills. The IRS balked. But she fought back. And as she fought, charities waited and watched.

The court decided in Van Dusen’s favor. The IRS still has 90 days to appeal, but let’s hope they don’t. Because this is an important win and a much-needed clarification of the notoriously convoluted tax rules. HSUS and other charities are pledging to educate their volunteers once the dust settles and the legal minds can advise those of us who glaze over at talk of complicated financial reporting and tax regulations.

Stay tuned for details, because they’re sure to come. But in the meantime, save your receipts. If your volunteer-related expenses amount to over $250 a year, you’ve got a valid deduction.

Volunteering is costly, especially if you really throw yourself into a cause. Coincidentally, I learned this morning that my insurance company is going to try to find another party responsible for the emergency-room expenses related to my dog bite in December. But even if you don’t end up in the ER, you’ve no doubt incurred expenses, whether you have to buy extra paper and toner, stock up on treats for the foster dog, replace a chewed leash, gas up the car to transport animals, or crank up the thermostat for a litter of sick kittens. Save your receipts. And whenever you can, get the charity to acknowledge your expense.

Consider the ever-popular new phenomenon of house parties. If you buy wine and finger foods so friends can come over and listen to a conference call or webcast from the national office, claim those expenses. Just make sure you save the invitation or the organization’s thank-you letter. And you are, of course, tracking your mileage, right? I’m a lousy record-keeper, but I’ve finally convinced myself to keep a little notebook in my front console. Last year I put more volunteer-related miles on my car than personal or work-related miles.  It adds up.

The decision is new, and of course everyone will hold their breath to see if there’s an IRS appeal. A quick search of HSUS and other websites today didn’t find any formal announcements, but those will come. Meanwhile, start to squirrel away those receipts. I sure will. I’m kicking myself, actually, when I think of the money I’ve spent on dog coats and toys and treats and food for foster dogs, t-shirts and tools for volunteer jobs, and even replacing everything from ruined leashes to ripped pants. Oh: and there was the foster dog Steve who ate my digital camera! Sheesh. Don’t get me started. Just save your receipts, and stay tuned for more advice as soon as all the legal types review this court ruling and translate it for the rest of us.

I know a woman who sits with the condemned and comforts them in their final hours. She’ll cook a chicken breast and visit with them while they savor it. She’ll take a long walk with them or play their favorite game. And then she talks sweetly and reassures them as they take their last breath. She is an angel of mercy, and she is a volunteer dog-walker at the local animal shelter.

Nobody asked her to do this. Shelter euthanasia is usually carried out unceremoniously. Not callously, but matter-of-factly. At least that’s how it was when I worked there, and probably most shelter workers still try to take it in stride, with as little sentimentality as possible, as if it’s another workday routine like washing food bowls and scooping dog poop. It’s necessary for their own survival. When you work around death every day you develop ways of shielding yourself as much as possible.

Not so with this angel. She doesn’t shield herself. By the time a dog is euthanized she’s often invested weeks or even months – walking him, training him, promoting him on her blog -  trying to get him adopted. Most do get adopted, thankfully. When they don’t, it’s because there’s a health problem, a behavioral issue, some post-traumatic fallout from whatever circumstances landed the dog in a shelter in the first place. Then the woman who’d hoped to give them a new life resigns herself to giving the only thing she can: a gentle goodbye.

I don’t think I could do it.

Normally I roll my eyes a little bit when people say that. There’s a little tsk-tsk under my breath. People are wimpy, I tell myself. And that’s true, in a way.

I heard a talk by Dr. Robert Roop, a scholar on the subject of compassion fatigue, who acknowledges how often animal activists hear people say they just can’t get involved because it’s too hard. He agrees that most people couldn’t do animal rescue work. “Damn right,” he says, “Damned good people do damned hard work, because they have the heart.” People like to be protected from the hard stuff, but activists are cut from a different cloth; they’re willing to get involved when others only avert their eyes.

Perfect example: the volunteers with Compassion Project. They enter a Manhattan shelter in the evening, where they spend all night with dogs who will die in the morning. The dogs get playtime, a favorite toy, a special meal, a long walk – whatever makes them happy in their final hours. In a fair world, – a better shelter system, a more humane community – the dogs wouldn’t have to die for lack of adoptive homes. But if they’re going to die, we owe it to them to make sure they leave this life having known joy, play, affection.

From Tails Magazine http://www.tailsinc.com/2011/05/local-hero-more-than-just-compassion/#more-4068

The Compassion Project does important work, and if we owe it to the dogs, then somebody’s gotta do it. But I still don’t think I could do it.

Maybe I’m being wimpy like the people who shy away from virtually everything that’s sad and shameful and unfair. It is, after all, unbearably hard. But there’s another reason I’d have a really hard time sitting with condemned dogs. One of my friends had to do it recently, and I think I’d feel the way she felt: angry.

My friend does outreach to families with chained and neglected dogs. Like me, she tries to build fences to unchain the dogs, and then educate the family about appropriate dog care. Most of the time it helps a lot. But sometimes the families just aren’t up to the task. In one of my friend’s cases, the dog had spent years locked in a small, dank kennel covered in tarp and plywood, getting nothing more than an unreliable supply of water and cheap kibble.  After months of patient persistence, my friend convinced the family to let the dog find a new home. We all celebrated.

The celebration turned to worry when even a professional trainer couldn’t manage the dog. Years of neglect, fear and isolation had traumatized him. There was no safe place to keep him. Having exhausted all options, my friend loved on him, gave him his special treats, and said goodbye.

Her anger turned to the family, and justifiably so. They sure didn’t care. They sure wouldn’t spend any sleepless nights grieving the dog’s death, doubting the decision, wondering if there could have been one more magic trick to try so the dog could be spared. In fact, they probably don’t even know the dog is dead. Essentially, they suffered no real consequences for what they’d done.

That’s why I couldn’t do this: the rescuer becomes a proxy, taking on the grief, the worry, the guilt that rightfully belong to the people who caused the problem. Meanwhile, the people who caused the problem can pretend the dog went to the shelter and lived happily ever after. Even worse, they’re free to get another dog and start the cycle again. It is such a serious injustice that I wouldn’t know how to contain my outrage day after day, year after year, suffering the consequences and watching dogs pay the ultimate price for people who couldn’t care less.

So this is something I ponder a lot: how to show irresponsible guardians the consequences for their actions. Every social change movement somehow has to convey the problem, show people the cost, and even exact a price that forces people to change. That’s how we got tougher drunk-driving penalties. That’s why recycling is usually free and trash disposal is more expensive. That’s the reason my dog license fee is half price because my dog is spayed. Communities decide which behaviors to punish and which ones to reward.

The author and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tells of one innovative punishment in the war against human trafficking. Instead of punishing prostitutes – who usually got there through abuse, coercion, or desperation – some courts are going after the johns. Guys who buy sex like to think they’re commiting a victimless crime. Now, some of them are forced to attend a sort of diversion program where former prostitutes tell of the violence and intimidation that controlled them. The program makes johns confront the consequences of their wrongdoing, the suffering they caused, or the injustice they supported.

We have a long way to go, even in holding people accountable for the harm they’ve inflicted on other humans. Animals likely will be last on the list. Until then, I grieve for the animals who die for people’s irresponsibility or indifference. But now, just as much as that, I grieve for the angels of mercy who take someone else’s burden and do what the rest of us can’t bear to do.


Dogs and humans have lived together for thousands of years, proximity that’s yielded a great deal of understanding – on the part of the dogs. Dogs as young as six weeks old can read a person’s body language, sense their mood, and identify what object they’re looking or pointing at. Dogs are excellent at reading humans. Humans, in return, know more about the finalists on American Idol than about the dogs who share their lives.

I blame it on equal parts laziness and bad advice, but how we got here is less important than where it’s led us. Sheba, in the photo above, represents millions of dogs who bear the consequences of our ignorance. Her story is so common I could have told it even before I talked to her family, but talking to them confirmed she’s one of the countless statistics. They got her as a puppy and brought her in the house and adored her. But when she got to be somewhere between nine months and a year old they decided she was uncontrollable. Hyper. Jumps on people. Destroys things. Just not a good dog. They chained her up in the back yard, where they probably expected her to spend the rest of her natural life.

Fortunately, Sheba isn’t on a chain anymore. But she is alone in the back yard. It’s a disgraceful epidemic: millions of dogs go to new homes with people who haven’t the slightest clue how to raise them. When the dogs become challenging, they’re banished to lonely back yards, chains, kennels. Millions end up in shelters. Dogs die because people don’t understand how to teach them. 

Even when people have learned a bit about dog training, it’s often based on bad advice. In fact, all of the good dog books published in the last couple of years will tell you the ugly truth about some of the fundamental theories behind traditional dog training: they’re based on bogus research. Much of the initial behavioral studies were on capitive wolves. The animals fought because they were forced to live with unfamiliar wolves, but scientists concluded wolves are violent animals who spend their lives fighting for dominance. More modern, better designed research has shown that wild wolves rarely fight with each other and their family structures are generally cooperative, not ruled by a fierce alpha dog as we’ve all been led to believe.

So, what we’ve thought about wolves is all wrong. But, as behaviorist and author John Bradshaw says, dogs aren’t wolves. Nor are they humans with fur. 

Bradshaw’s new book, Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, debunks centuries of bad training advice. The debunking starts with the dominance myth. Dogs aren’t fighting for dominance over us, and it’s both inhumane and unnecessary for humans to try to prove their dominance over dogs.

The idea that we should never let a dog walk in front of us through a door: bunk. The dog is rushing through the door because he’s excited, not because he wants to be the master of the universe.

The idea that destructive dogs are trying to punish us or retaliate for something they don’t like: nonsense. They’re either fearful or bored out of their minds.

Bradshaw’s book could save countless lives. At the very least, his interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross should be required listening for everyone who wants to have a dog.

Another well-known trainer, Victoria Stilwell, has taken aim at the dominance myth as well. When I met her at a talk she gave, she said mainstream trainers would have us believe dogs are positioning themselves for total world domination. The idea that humans must rule or be ruled has led to inhumane training,  frightened dogs, and overflowing shelters.

If humans would simply get over the dominance myth, they’d probably save countless dogs from misery or death. But myths die hard. I still know trainers who pin dogs to the ground as a form of dominance and punishment.

Fortunately, I know even more trainers who are embracing positive training. I know one top-tier trainer who wants to start a nonprofit organization that does outreach work with at-risk families. If people learned the basics of good dog managmeent before they ruined their dogs, fewer of them would be surrendered or spend their lives in solitary confinement in a far corner of the yard. I’ve even talked to a trainer who simply wants people to learn to teach their dog to walk well on a leash. A dog who’s easy to walk is a dog who will get to spend more time with his family.

Time with humans, as Bradshaw and Stilwell have both said, is a dog’s most precious resource. In fact, Bradshaw says most domestic dogs actually prefer human attention over the attention of other dogs. So imagine the suffering of the lonely dogs like Sheba, chained in a forgotten muddy corner of the yard, isolated from family except for the two minutes a day it takes for someone to refill the food and water buckets.

Human thinking may start to evolve, thanks to conscientious trainers. But getting humans to change their behavior is always a tall order. In the end, it will come down to one basic realization: training isn’t about forcing the dog to do what you want, but about learning how to communicate with your dog. In truth, good dog trainers are actually educators; they teach people.

As Bradshaw told Terry Gross, “You have to train people to understand dogs. We have to take the responsibility. Dogs are very smart, but it’s the humans who are the smart ones in the relationship, and we need to take responsibility for that.”


Every year, 4.7 million Americans get bitten by dogs. I checked the number a couple of times, because it’s hard to believe. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the US Postal Service release the numbers as part of Bite Prevention Week, which is this week. 5,669 postal employees got bitten last year. That’s a painfully high number, but tiny in comparison to the number among the general public. It bears repeating: 4.7 million bites. 800,000 of them need medical attention.

On December 27, just as 2010 was coming to a close, I became one of that year’s statistics. Those are my pants in the picture.

I’d gone to talk to a family with multiple dog-control violations. After five years of tickets, fines, warnings – violations that had already cost two dogs their lives – a judge ordered the family to get a securely fenced yard or permanently surrender their two remaining dogs. They couldn’t afford a fence, so the dogs were chained in the back yard. I went to measure the property so we could build a free fence and save the dogs.

When I arrived, the Chihuahua mix named Chiquita growled and lunged at the end of her chain. The Dog Control officer told me Chiquita had a history of biting, so I stayed outside her reach. But the big pitbull mix named Payaso had no bite history: he was quiet and timid.  He crawled on his belly and hid behind his dog house, tail tucked under, ears and head held flat in a defensive posture. He was perhaps the most fearful dog I’d ever seen.

That happens when dogs are chained. A chained dog can’t run from something that scares him, so he becomes a fearful dog. He also can’t get to something that interests him, so he might become a mean dog. Trainers call it drive-building: continually seeing something they can’t reach – whether humans, cars, dogs – taunts the dogs so when they finally have a chance to reach one of those things they’re frenzied and uncontrollable.

I kept my voice and body language subdued as I photographed and measured the property. I wanted to be as calm and non-threatening as possible around these obviously fearful dogs. Then, inexplicably, Payaso’s human unclipped his collar and let him loose. I started to tell him to restrain the dog again, but I saw Payaso’s body language had instantly relaxed. He trotted playfully in circles, lifting his leg and marking several spots around the yard.

It seemed like a positive change, until it very suddenly wasn’t. When I raised my arm to point my camera at Chiquita, Payaso trotted in a wide loop, hopped in the air, and made a glancing nip at my raised forearm. It pinched hard, but he continued trotting, tail high, prancing around his yard. I mistook the nip for inappropriate play or attention-getting.

“No, no, no,” I said calmly. I lowered my arm and turned my back to the dog, signaling that he’d get no attention by jumping at me. Payaso turned his attention to sniffing a nearby wood pile. His human seemed unconcerned. Taking my cues from the two of them, I decided I could raise my arm and try the picture again. 

Payaso swung around again, leaping into the air and grabbing my arm more forcefully. This time he didn’t let go, and I struggled to stay on my feet while his weight bore down on me and my feet slid around on the muddy ground. In a flash, he released my arm and latched onto my calf, clamping down and shaking ferociously. I finally lost my footing, and as I fell Payaso latched onto the seat of my pants and clamped down again. He was thrashing his head side to side when I screamed NO and he instantly released me. He went back to prancing the yard, again looking deceptively relaxed and playful. His human stood dumbfouded a few feet away.

“What should I do?” he asked.

“Catch your dog! He’s trying to %$#@ kill me!” I said.

Of course, Payaso was having the most fun he’d had in months. He didn’t want to be caught, and his hapless human had removed his collar so there was nothing to grab. He eventually caught the dog so I could safely leave and drive myself to the urgent care center.

It was at the hospital that it occurred to me I’d become a statistic. I didn’t want the statistics to be what they were, especially when the hospital staff asked me the dog’s breed. What is Payaso’s mix, I thought? Can I say he’s part lab or just identify him generally as a terrier mix? But he was already registered with an identified breed: Pitbull.

From my perspective – and I do now have some close-up perspective – there’s only one thing that’s truly pertinent when a pitbull bites: generations of selective breeding have specifically shaped their bite behaviors and patterns. They use those Frisbee-sized jaws to clamp/hold or clamp/shake, so a pitbull bite often causes fewer skin punctures and tears than bites from other breeds. With bite injuries in three places, I only needed four sutures. The real damage was what the ER doctor warned me about and what proved to be painfully true: the clamping and shaking cause deep, extensive muscle bruising.

It’s like getting slammed in a door. A very big, strong door. During an earthquake.

But, of course, that’s not what everyone thinks of when a pitbull bites. They think about the breed statistics, the breed’s reputation, the breed-specific legislation popping up around the country. So December 27 was a sad day for me, not just because it would be weeks before I could comfortably sit and months before I could jog or even make quick movements with my calf or gluteal muscles. It was sad to see yet another reported dog bite added to the millions. It was even sadder to see another mark against Payaso’s breed.

But, aside from the nature of the crush injuries it delivered, this dog attack had nothing to do with the dog’s breed. It had everything to do with the irresponsible humans who spent five years neglecting and mistreating four different dogs, violating pages of laws and creating a public menace. Human errors had cost the lives of two dogs and now left Chiquita and Payaso’s lives in a precarious balance.

Imagine if drivers who recklessly hurt or killed someone were ordered to have their cars crushed, but they were free to get another car and drive it wherever they pleased. That’s essentially what our laws do with dog-bite cases. The dog is labeled dangerous; the dog dies. The person who created the dangerous dog is free to get another dog or two or six.

When I checked my options in Chiquita and Payaso’s case, I found myself caught in a crazy-making continuous loop. I wanted to spare the dogs and hold the family accountable. But no matter what question I asked, I got the same answer.

- Can the family be made to pay my medical bills? Maybe. But a judge would have to hear the case in dog court, and she’d order the dogs surrendered first. If they’re surrendered, they’ll be killed.

- Can the dogs be surrendered to a rescue group or a trainer? No. They’re dangerous. They’ll be killed.

- But the people created the dangerous dogs. Can’t they be barred from getting more dogs? It’s unlikely. That’s reserved for severe abuse/neglect cases, like large-scale animal collectors. These are dangerous dogs. They’ll be surrendered and killed.

 - So the judge wouldn’t even consider a decision that doesn’t include killing the dogs? Like ordering the family to take obedience training and quit ruining their dogs? You can propose any number of solutions, and the judge might consider them, but the first step will be surrendering the dogs. And if they’re surrendered we’ll kill them.

I’m happy to say the legal system offered one viable option: staying totally out of the legal system. I declined a court hearing and our dedicated, compassionate volunteers built a secure, roomy fenced yard for Chiquita and Payaso. The family signed an agreement that allows us to monitor them. It’s a lot more than any court could do.

Like many previously chained dogs, these two went from ferocious and fearful to friendly and playful when we turned them loose in their yard. Payaso didn’t even care when I raised the camera in front of him.

It’s heartening to see previously neurotic dogs get a second chance. But even more importantly, this arrangement held the humans accountable instead of scapegoating the dogs. We need more of that.

While we’re treating dog bites as a public safety issue – which it surely is – we need to remember it’s also a social justice issue. While any dog is capable of biting when placed in a frightening or threatening position, the majority of bites come out of irresponsible human behavior.

This isn’t news to veterinarians and trainers and shelter workers and dog rescuers – the people who try to clean up the messes left by irresponsible dog-rearing. A blog post from Total Dog Magazine lists the various and alarmingly common mistakes: improper feeding and care, lack of socialization, tethering, inappropriate punishment, lack of training.

A tiny, exceedingly rare number of dogs are just born mean. Most of them get that way because people ruined them. And these are costly mistakes: 4.7 million bites, 800,000 ER visits, thousands of surgeries to repair scarred faces and torn tendons, and countless dogs sacrificed to atone for their humans’ sins. It’s time to put the blame on the other end of the leash.

Just when I’d finished writing the blog post about our random choices of which animals get welcomed into our circle of compassion and which get left out, I had a meeting with a long-time acquaintance of mine. I never could have suspected how much the meeting and the post would relate to each other.

The acquaintance is a prosecutor who handles animal-abuse cases. I went to talk about how we can get rescue groups and shelters into better working relationships with police and prosecutors. She gave me some great answers to those questions, but I took away much more.

The first thing I took away was a clearer view of the transformative work a prosecutor can do. As long as I’ve known her, I never really appreciated the feistiness she brings to her work. For instance, she’s celebrating a recent change in sentencing guidelines that bring a person’s criminal history into account. It used to be you could be a complete sociopath with murder convictions and a long list of human crimes, but if you tortured an animal you’d get a few months in jail. Now, she says, it’s different. A judge considers the full weight of a person’s background when handing down a sentence.

Laws, I think, trail a step or two behind our cultural tipping points. It’s a fascinating phenomenon I studied in school and explored in my thesis on how social justice movements gradually change our attitudes and behaviors. Once activists convince enough of the public that an old idea needs to change, the public is willing to pass laws that enforce the new ethics. In effect, those laws compel the laggards to get with the program.

So here we are in a society where most people think abusing animals is wrong. For the slow learners who just haven’t caught on, we have criminal and civil consequences. It wasn’t always like this, of course. Until quite recently, the public had a much higher tolerance for animal abuse.

But a prosecutor, like an activist, sometimes has to lament that our laws haven’t quite come as far as we’d like. There are cases she wishes she could prosecute, but can’t. And sometimes, like an activist, she can take a bold step forward and see if the law will support her. She told of a man who was taking video of his neighbor, trying to document other criminal activity. The camera captured the neighbor repeatedly hitting his dog on the head. The dog, fortunately, wasn’t injured. It’s an iffy case, but the DA’s office is prosecuting it anyway. It’s one they could easily lose, she says. Are we ready to criminally punish this kind of animal abuse – something we’d prosecute as assault or abuse if it was committed on a human? 

Time will tell on that one. But there’s another case that won’t be going anywhere. A cable-TV installer reported going to a household where there were animal entrails in bins outside the house. Other bits of gore lay on the ground, and there was blood on the side of the house. When he asked the young children what it was, he thought he heard them say “cats.” Investigators found out the word wasn’t “cat” but “calf,” which the family slaughtered for a birthday party in their suburban yard.

The law won’t protect a calf the way it will a cat. We rolled our eyes at the incongruity. She’s not a radical like I am, so she’ll never advocate for criminalizing the slaughter of a calf. But the suburban backyard children’s party where a baby animal is killed and dismembered? There’s something wrong with that. She’s not afraid to say it, even if the law says otherwise.

The sign on her desk – as poignant as it is cheeky – is a perfect motto for everyone who challenges what others aren’t ready to confront. “Always speak the truth and leave immediately.”