Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Now this takes the cake!

Cat treats, anyone?

I nearly fell on the floor laughing when I saw this cake at a benefit to save the animals on Saturday night. I am giggling just looking at the photo. As if the cake wasn’t funny enough, the creative baker used an actual litter box and a scoop to top off the presentation. In a room full of animal lovers, it was a real crowd-pleaser.

The cake was part of a dessert auction for the 6th Annual Masquerade Gala held by the Whatcom Humane Society. Hosted at the Hotel Bellwether in Bellingham, Washington, the gala nets more than $100,000 to help the animals. The county’s elite turned out in finery or in costume to support the cause by bidding madly for hours on scooters, vacations, booze and art. They hooted and hollered, sometimes jumping on chairs with bidder numbers in hand to secure their shot at the winnings.

But by far the most energetic part of the event was the dessert auction. A variety of desserts donated by local bakeries were displayed on a table at the back of the banquet hall. No two are the same. A sign-up sheet is passed to each table of 10, and every person writes down what they would like to donate for dessert. A table may garner $300 or $3,000, and because the table numbers are called in order of how much is pledged, the amount given becomes a source of pride. When your number is called, the designated runner – having been debriefed on the best cakes to pick by the others sitting at the table – takes off in a mad dash for the desserts, tasked with the job of choosing the best-looking one.

I’m not sure who got the cat box treats, but as the proud guardian of nine cats who leave my house looking like a big litter box on some days, maybe it would have hit a little too close to home. Besides, the raspberry torte was delicious.

Hotel dogs are a hit with staff and guests

Fuzzy Mavis stops to welcome guests at the Fairmont.

Imagine my surprise when I spotted this Golden Retriever wandering around the grand, opulent lobby of the historical Fairmont Hotel Vancouver as I was checking out.

Concerned, I headed straight over to her. Because of her green service dog-style vest, I thought she must have wandered away from a blind person. When I inquired about her to a staff member, he laughed and told me, “No, that’s Mavis! She lives here.”

Fascinated, I abandoned my car in the valet area while I wandered the huge hotel lobby and its labyrinth of hallways tailing Mavis. She walked purposefully, stopping to greet a guest here and there, clearly at home in her unusual surroundings. It was easy to see which staff members she adored best, as she lingered longest with them. One desk clerk confided that she took Mavis home sometimes when her primary custodian was on vacation.

Bell captain Eugene Mensch says Mavis has worked at the hotel for six years. She has a sidekick, Beau, but the other on-staff dog wasn’t coming on shift until later that morning. Mensch says guests find the dogs a delight, a warm fuzzy to enjoy while staying at their home away from home.

“People love the dogs,” Mensch says.

Check out Mavis' business card -- fancy dog!

An inexperienced pet sitter can be perilous for your animal

Whatcom Humane Society staffer Katy James with Jack the Jack Russell.

I’ve rescued animals for long enough to know that when you happen upon somebody standing on the road forlornly clutching a leash at one end and no dog attached on the other, it’s time to take action.

I was on my way for an evening out when I spotted the woman, and pulled my car over to speak her. She explained that she was pet sitting a Jack Russell for a friend. While taking him for a walk, he bolted unexpectedly into the woods lining one side of the street, hot on the scent of some exciting prey.

Now I feared for the prey and the dog. A flurry of barking in the woods told me that he had found his target. Without a thought I turned from the woman and barreled ahead, crashing into the woods after him as branches snapped my face and wound around my ankles. My favorite sunglasses flew off my face and were stomped to smithereens.

I followed the barking and came upon the dog facing off against a terrified possum. Trapped and defenseless, he hissed in panic and pressed himself into the brush, trying to make himself disappear.

I dropped to the ground between the two and put my face up to the possum (Readers beware: this is not a recommended move.) He looked me eyeball to eyeball and seemed to say thanks. Turning to the dog, I pointed to the road and yelled “Go home!” in a firm tone that meant business. Reluctantly he trotted back to his people, disappointed.

I have heard many nightmarish stories of pet sitting gone awry. Well-meaning friends, family and neighbors might offer to sit for free, but cheap can be expensive. One woman I met was in tears as she told a story of sitting for her neighbor’s cat. When she went in one day to feed him, the “Thump!” she always heard as he dropped to the ground and ran for the door to greet her was replaced with dead silence.

Earlier that day, her children had come home and told her they had seen a cat dead at the side of the road near where the school bus picked them up that looked just like their neighbor’s. She hadn’t thought anything of it, assuming her charge was safe in his home. Unbeknownst to her, he had slipped out the door past her on the previous visit.

Telling her neighbor upon his return was one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do. My heart broke for her.

Consider hiring an experienced pet sitter schooled in the ways of pet escape artistry and other situations that may crop up. If hiring a professional isn’t feasible for financial or other reasons, ask someone in your life who loves animals, is responsible and is already familiar with your animal’s personality. Always go over your animal’s idiosyncrasies thoroughly with the person to whom you are entrusting his care. The well-meaning caregiver and your animal will thank you for it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wildlife pays the price when humans wipe away natural habitats

Inside a tree on my property this image appeared. It reminded me of a baby in the womb, human juxtaposed with nature.

I set out to buy a piece of rural property with a vision of building a home in the wilderness. But there was a stumbling block to my peace of mind and steadfast mission.

When county officials came out to check the state of the soil, they used augers to burrow round holes deep into the ground, three to four feet down, to determine what type of septic system was most suited to the land’s particular drainage capability.

Now, instead of planning and dreaming about my future home, I worried about a deer running free and graceful across my pristine piece of property, unwittingly heading into danger. In my mind’s eye, I watched slow motion as a willowy doe in flight was cut down by progress, stumbling and catching her foot in the hole, breaking her leg and being left to die an agonizing death.

I chastised myself for my silliness. Here I was, finally able to own my own little corner of paradise, the first real home I had ever had, and I was obsessing over an unrealized catastrophe.

A few days and several empty-handed runs to the property later, I was still worrying about the holes. Again I went back to check on them. One at a time, I peered into the dark round holes in anxious anticipation followed by a wave of relief. To my shock, when I looked into the last hole, there were two tiny brown bunnies at the bottom. They peered up at me, trapped and terrified.

Aware of the dangers of interfering with wildlife in their natural state, I raced off to a gas station to buy garden gloves. I didn’t want to taint them with my human scent in case they weren’t weaned from their mother. Sensing human danger, she might reject them.

I gently lifted the first rabbit out of the hole and set him on safe ground. He was so tiny he fit into the palm of my hand. He ran a few feet, but turned to wait while I retrieved his buddy. When I pulled out the second rabbit, he ran straight over to join his mate. The two did a bunny-hop of joy and freedom, and tore off together.

I covered the holes with trash can lids as a temporary safety solution, and promptly filled the holes up with dirt after the county officials were finished with them.

Throughout our communities, wildlife is being crowded out in favor of urban development. Displaced deer and coyotes run into traffic. Raccoons and bears annoy homeowners by digging through trash bins. Bats and mice take cover in the safety of warm houses, not realizing the upset caused by their innocent presence.

As human beings, we find it thrilling to finally own a corner of the planet. We clear the land, put up a house, and call the setting our own. But we need to remember that we weren’t the first inhabitants. While animals don’t carry a mortgage on the place, it’s their home just the same. Finding a way to co-exist with them serves us by teaching us the beauty of balance with nature.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rescuing frightened animals from disasters requires sharp handling skills

New Orleans animals took up residence in abandoned houses after the levees washed everything away.

I witnessed the effects of disaster stress with my own eyes in New Orleans while I was part of a rescue team saving animals following hurricane Katrina. A rescued dog turned on one of us when we were outside of our temporary kenneling facility walking the animals. Without much warning, he bit off part of the man’s finger.

The animals we pulled off the streets were starving. They did attack people and other animals for food. But this dog had already been with us for a few days. He wasn’t hungry. As proof, he spit out the finger.

The discombobulated feelings humans have in the event of a disaster are intensified for animals, who are unable to communicate or question what’s happening. The frightening sights and smells of once-familiar surroundings cause stress, and that can lead to fear-based aggression.

“The fence that protects them is gone,” said Diane Webber, director of disaster preparedness and shelter management for Humane Society of United States (HSUS). “They have no boundaries. The familiar scents have been wiped away.”

Anne Culver, a disaster training consultant for HSUS’ emergency services, said “a lot of pets won’t do well if they’re separated from their owners.”

Webber and Culver were speaking to a group of Pacific Northwest rescuers at Disaster Response Animal Team (DART) training in Everett, Washington last week.

Webber warned that just like their human counterparts, unskilled working dogs tend to be a liability rather than an asset in a rescue situation.

“Only use working dogs to help you if you have the handler – they may not know what they’re doing,” Webber said.

Rescuers were taught diverse animal handling techniques, from rounding up spooked horses to careful handling of fearful iguanas, who might manifest stress by shredding your arm with their razor-sharp teeth. Rescuers learned that pillowcases are invaluable for reptile handling.

Rescuers were given tips on what to wear, and what to avoid wearing. Steel-toed boots, for example, can be dangerous when rounding up animals like horses and cows weighing in at more than 1,000 pounds. If stepped on, the steel in the shoes turn into razor blades that will slice your toes right off. Hip-waders are also frowned upon when rescuing animals from floodwaters. They fill up with water until they feel like cement shoes.

Besides slides, briefings and in-the-field stories from speakers, participants broke into small workshops to troubleshoot rescuing animals from mock disasters such as an apartment fire and a mudslide. The ever-changing circumstances required groups to update scenarios as the events unfolded, while organizing themselves under FEMA’s Incident Command System structure.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sometimes my bird brain just needs a break

Bento box or bird box?

As a confirmed workaholic, others usually notice I need time off from animal rescue before I do.

That happened today. I sat eating lunch with a friend at an excellent Seattle Japanese restaurant called Red Fin when I noticed something sitting on the next table.

One woman had ordered a bento box for lunch, and was courteously leaving it closed and uneaten while she waited for her lunch-mate’s meal to be served. A bento box, a shellacked plastic box with a series of square compartments, separates rice from vegetables from seafood.

I’ve only seen them in a square shape before. This one looked like only one thing to me, and it wasn’t a food receptacle. Before I could stop myself, the words that formed my thoughts had slipped out of my mouth.

“Is that a bird coffin?” I inquired.

As an animal rescuer, I thought they had brought their dearly departed pet to lunch. The women responded by wrinkling their faces -- half in laughter, half in disgust.

Trying to explain myself only made matters worse.

“It’s the perfect size and shape, isn’t it? Maybe for a macaw, or a parrot…?”

Usually I proclaim that taking a break is for the birds. Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Cross-training is recommended for rescuers

Rescuers roam the destroyed neighborhoods of New Orleans dropping food for strays.

Advance preparation is urged for rescuers who want to travel into a disaster zone to help. That means getting on the responders’ list before disaster strikes. Rescuers at this week’s DART workshop in Everett were encouraged to attend training sessions, and lots of them.

Untrained rescuers can become a liability. If a calamity occurs, resources must be devoted to rescuing the rescuer. Some people are more concerned about saving animals than preserving their own lives. To them, Tim Perciful adds this cautionary statement: the animal’s life is also being risked when rescuers aren’t safety conscious.

“Now the focus is on saving you. Who is going to help the animal?” said Perciful, a public educator for Mountain View Fire and Rescue in King County, and owner of Learn Pet First Aid.

Besides its DART training, Humane Society of United States offers courses online or at on-site workshops in animal sheltering, animal handling, volunteer management, lobbying and compassion fatigue. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), offered through local fire departments, also offers courses applicable to animal rescuers. Online study and certification for the Incident Command System is available through the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Fees for the above courses are minimal, or in the case of FEMA, free.

Speakers at the seminar discouraged renegade rescuing. In the wake of the chaos that characterized hurricane Katrina, thousands of rescuers with varying skills levels descended uninvited on the region. Since then, many states have started requiring and enforcing certification for rescuers.

“You don’t self-deploy,” said Anne Culver, a disaster training consultant for HSUS’ emergency services. “You should be part of the system. Are you a surprise, or were you expected?”

Saturday, October 11, 2008

When disaster strikes, rescuers must be ready

Remnants of a low-lying destroyed home in New Orleans that flooded when the levees burst.

Animal rescuers without disaster kits and exit plans for their own homes won’t be any use in the field if a crisis happens in their local area. They’ll be too busy saving themselves, and their own pets and family members. That’s just one of the many lessons communicated at this week’s training for the Disaster Animal Response Team (DART) in Washington State.

The national DART, which is operated through Humane Society of United States (HSUS), has 600 active members and responds to natural disasters such as wildfires, floods and hurricanes.

Rescuers from around the Pacific Northwest travelled from as far as Vancouver Island to Portland, gathering in Everett to learn about disaster rescue for animals. The animated crowd of about 75 people included shelter workers, animal control officers, paramedics, firefighters, veterinarians, veterinary technicians, staff from animal welfare organizations, and animal-rescuing citizens. Some were already members of other disaster rescue teams, such as the Washington State Animal Response Team (WASART), which sent a large contingent led by president Gretchen McCallum.

Always be courteous and professional with emergency responding agencies, rescuers learned. Forging links with groups that can help before disaster strikes is imperative, said Diane Webber, director of disaster preparedness and shelter management for HSUS.

“Make a list of local resources – who can be called upon for help,” said Webber. “Bring all the major players on board. Don’t wait for the event. Start educating people now.”

Anne Culver, a disaster training consultant for HSUS’ emergency services, recommended harnessing the power of the people beyond the animal rescue community. For example, thrift shop managers make perfect donation managers when food, cages, leashes and bowls start flooding in from a well-meaning general public during a disaster.

“Find someone who is doing in their daily job what we need them to do,” Culver said.

Monday, October 6, 2008

An eight-year-old dreams of helping animals

Shelby the puppy is cuddled by animal rescuers in training: Molly Foster, 10 (left), and Simone Foster, 8 (right.)

Kids have an astonishing capacity to go out of their way to help animals in need. They are observant, and tend to be more intuitive about the issues facing animals than the average adult, who might allow convenience to override common sense.

Recently I found a German Shepherd puppy digging through a trash bin in Winnipeg. The adults in the neighborhood had no idea who the pup belonged to and had no interest in finding out, but two kids aged about five and seven who were visiting the city from Western Europe with their parents knew exactly where the pup lived – “in the pink house.” Sure enough, they were correct. They were determined to get the dog home safely. Their parents dug out a rope in a friend’s garage, and with the kids’ help we made a leash. A parade of helpers returned the dog to the pink house.

Simone Foster, an eight-year-old who lives in Canada near Toronto, Ontario is another child who worries about the safety of pets in her neighborhood. She’s particularly sensitive to animals she’s seen displayed in pet stores.

“I don’t like seeing them in a plain blue crate with nothing to play with,” Simone says. “Most of the animals in the pet store don’t have much room, so they look depressed.”

Simone, an avid collector of dog magazines, hopes to be an animal rescuer when she’s old enough. To support her rescue career, she plans to open a pet supply store or become a veterinarian.

This past weekend, Simone called animal control for help when she found a stray Shih Tzu running on the nearby train tracks.

“People worry about their kids going missing more than their animals going missing, so I think it’s important to have animal rescuers,” says Simone. “Losing an animal should be just like when a kid goes missing.”

Friday, October 3, 2008

A rant against puppy mills ends with a meal of humble pie

Shy Oscar, the beneficiary of my shame, gets a head butt from feral Leo.

For years I couldn’t pass by a pet store that was selling animals without strolling in. I’d start loudly commenting about puppy mills and the horrors of mass pet production. It stopped people in their tracks as they were cuddling the merchandise.

I always left before I caused too much commotion, so I don’t know if my messages really sank in or had any impact on the day’s sales.

I finally stopped the practice when I had a humbling experience in Southern California. I was at an upscale mall, and noticed the animals being displayed in front of the store. I marched over as I always did. I wasn’t long into my rant when I realized the animals were from a rescue group called Community Animal Network. The pet supply store kindly allowed the group to adopt animals from there on weekends, even giving them discounts on supplies.

I felt so bad about my behavior that I adopted one of the cats, a two-year-old fearful, long-haired tuxedo I named Oscar. He had been trapped as a skinny stray behind an apartment building. Many pounds heavier now, he’s still with me and spends his days rolling around in sunbeams.

Pet stores are learning it’s good business to let rescue groups show animals at their establishments. The rescuers and their followers – adopters, donors and admirers – love their animals, and will flock to supportive enterprises. Selling animals for profit is growing less acceptable as media images of puppy mills and other mass animal production facilities shock and disgust viewers.

It’s simply not possible to raise animals humanely and responsibly if they are destined for profitable sale at a pet store. Proper nutrition and veterinary care, such as fixing and vaccinating, don't come cheap. The economics don’t compute.

Some don’t make it out of the mill alive. Others die in the transport trucks on the way to the store, or might slip away shortly after they are purchased. Animals from pet stores might need to be rescued, too. But unless your act of purchasing is truly a rescue of an animal in trouble, know where your animals come from before buying.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Every litter produced costs lives at shelters

Pit-mix puppies from a litter of 11 are ditched at a shelter

Last week, I stopped to pet a Terrier tied to a pole outside a Toronto cafe. A man on the street slowed down to talk about the Terriers he used to breed, trying to convince me that his behavior was responsible as long as the puppies he put into the world "all found good homes."

Considering the fact that most animals won't find forever homes, his ability to track where all his dogs ended up was doubtful.

Citizens who want their family pets to experience the joy of motherhood need to understand the lesson they are really teaching to their children. It’s not the miracle of life. It’s the senseless and irresponsible perpetuation of death. Even if you find responsible homes for each animal in the ensuing litter, they will take spots from shelter animals waiting desperately for somewhere to go -- a family to love, a bed to lie at the foot of each night.

If you really want to teach your children about compassion and humanity, spay and neuter your pets.

Teaching your pup good manners adds to his appeal

Well-behaved dogs have a better chance at adoption

It’s common for animals to be dumped at the shelter at eight to ten months of age, once their novelty and cute baby animal factor has worn thin. The responsibilities of animal stewardship set in, and the promise of lifelong commitment evaporates.

Having outgrown their adorably clumsy, big-pawed stage of puppyhood, doggie teenagers are much harder to adopt than their tiny counterparts. Untrained and out of control, their young bodies not even fully grown and filled out yet, they sit hopefully in kennels waiting for few opportunities. Cats don’t fare any better.

Even if you think you don’t care if your dog is well trained, the day might come when his life may depend on his manners. Someone you know, or an animal shelter, will have to deal with the problem you created.

Do right by your dog. Train him well using reward-based training – not fear – and train him young.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A bone for the dogs behind the green door

Corinne Dowling endears herself to a dog in custody with a tasty treat. Photo courtesy of Sylvia Spiro of Vision Captured.

Most open-admission animal shelters house a population segment that the public never sees -- the custody dogs being confined by court order.

Seized as a result of cruelty or neglect cases, or dog aggression, they aren’t up for adoption. Dependent on a judge’s decree, they languish in kennels under court order without the benefit of human interaction or even the opportunity to breathe fresh air and put their paws in the grass.

A few months ago, I visited with Corinne Dowling, the founder of Give a Dog a Bone. She was a volunteer dog walker at San Francisco’s Animal Care and Control (ACC) when her interest grew piqued by “the dogs behind the green door.” Canine residents in custody might include dogs from pit bull fighting rings, those enmeshed in dog bite cases, or dogs with owners who have been hospitalized for physical or mental illness.

Destined to remain in isolation for months, even up to a year, they are bored and stressed while they wait for their cases to be resolved in the court system. Many face imminent death when their time is up.

“These are the forgotten dogs that nobody knows about,” Dowling says. “I found out they were here for incredible lengths of time with nothing. Protective custody is actually solitary confinement.”

Dowling’s heart went out to them, and with the support of ACC, she applied for a grant to start a quality of life program in 1999 called Give a Dog a Bone that can be administered from behind bars if necessary. Tug toys made of strong nylon rope, tennis balls on sticks, and a steady supply of stuffed animals and special food treats make life bearable for these dogs. Some animals receive supervised outdoor playtime. Dowling’s goal is to rebuild the dogs’ trust in human beings. Her program helps keeps the dogs socialized so they can be considered for adoption once their sentences have been served.

“We consider them victims, not perpetuators,” Dowling says. “In giving them quality of life, in loving them, through engaging their natural behaviors in a species-inappropriate environment, we are re-establishing the human-animal bond. Companionship is a fundamental part of what we do, because establishing a relationship with our dogs is the key to their road back to life as a companion animal in a good home.”

In 2007, the adoption rate for ACC’s custody dogs was 31 percent, the highest in the shelter’s history. Dowling aspires to bring her breakthrough program to animal shelters worldwide.

We all need to care about the dogs behind the green door. They have suffered at the hands of our species. Now we have an obligation to do right by them. These animals may not be seen, but as Dowling demonstrates, they shouldn’t be forgotten.