Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The power of paws-itive thinking

Pongo sits graciously as he receives his Woof and Whiskers award.

A teacher who has integrated animals into her curriculum to inspire her fifth-grade class. A dog working in mental health. A pig sanctuary where the residents have no fears of being turned into tomorrow's breakfast bacon.

The animal community honors its heroes just like any other: with awards ceremonies. And last week, I attended Whatcom Humane Society's version called Woof & Whiskers, in northern Washington State. Its mandate is to recognize local individuals, businesses and animals who have gone above and beyond the paw of duty to help animals.

This was the 7th annual. Every year I'm inspired meeting people out there who gathered their own creative momentum to make life better for the animals.

"This is my favorite event," WHS executive director Penny Cistaro told the crowd, which included veterinarians, shelter workers, rescue groups, and other animal lovers. "It's wonderful to be surrounded by like-minded people."

And animals.

As inevitably happens when an animal arrives on the scene, Pongo was the star of the show. The Delta Society-certified dog won the animals are kind to people award. He's done his share of work to be proud of: he's served for children as a reading dog, and visited patients in hospitals and nursing homes.

Then there's his most challenging work to date -- crisis response. The four-year-old is a first responder for people who have survived a traumatic event. Pongo arrives on the scene to provide his special brand of canine care and comfort.

The official designation he uses is FMHS -- Furry Mental Health Specialist.

His first trip was to a university in Illinois, where six people were shot dead. Locally, he helped the Red Cross with a shooting in Algiers last fall, and attended to a second grade class in Lynden. He comforted the children because a classmate had died.

Pongo's calm and competent demeanor kindles peace in the minds of his patients.

"You go home and look at your own dog and say, ‘Why can't you be more like Pongo?'" joked WHS outreach director Laura Clark. "This dog has a work schedule that rivals most CEOs'."

The humans who picked up awards included politicians, veterinarians and journalists.

Government leaders are recognized each year, and this time it was the city of Ferndale that received kudos for putting more teeth into local animal laws and ordinances. Mayor Gary Jensen accepted the public service award.

And a schoolteacher known for integrating humane education into her curriculum arrived with a small parade in tow -- her entire fifth-grade class! Each child proudly stepped up to the microphone in turn and gave an acceptance speech for the kids are kind to animals award as Kendall Elementary schoolteacher Judy Davis stood by beaming.

Veterinary clinics always figure prominently, such as Village Veterinary Hospital, which won for treating neglected exotic birds who were rescued from a hoarding house. Steps taken to curb overpopulation were also recognized, such as Mountain Veterinary Hospital for providing free spay-neuter surgeries to clients who commit to a vaccination series. And the WeSnip program, for giving low-cost spay-neuter surgeries to more than 1,300 animals in Whatcom and Skagit counties.

A place called Pigs Peace Sanctuary was the winner that intrigued me the most. Two hundred pigs hanging out on a 34-acre sanctuary in Stanwood featuring ponds and walking trails.

The media award went to a cub reporter from the Bellingham Herald named Isabelle Dills. She's been chasing animal stories for the paper, something most mainstream media can't be bothered to do. Congratulations, Isabelle! Keep up the great work on the fuzz beat.

Oh, and I got one, too. I was honored and touched to receive the act of kindness award, for writing stories about shelter workers and other front-lines animal rescuers. The stories discuss compassion fatigue, euthanasia, and other challenges rescuers face.

Penny presented the award to me with a speech that brought tears to my eyes. The tender moment was bittersweet because it's Penny's last Woof and Whiskers -- she's taken a job in California, and will be leaving town in a couple of weeks. It was Penny who first opened my eyes eight years ago to the reality faced by open-admission shelters when I brought a feral cat in to her to be spayed. I can't imagine this place without her. We'll miss her terribly, but our loss will be a gain to the animals of Sacramento.

I'm not satisfied I've got the full scoop, so I'm going to keep following these stories of animal lovers in action. Next week, I'm headed to Kendall School to see the humane education program. And I'm going to get over to the pig sanctuary soon, too. From what I'm hearing, it's a paradise for pigs like no other.

Pongo, unchanged by stardom, ponders his acceptance speech.

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