A few weeks ago, when a crew from PBS was making plans to come into town to film the former Vick dogs, they asked if they could see Jonny Justice working as a reading assistant dog in the Peninsula Humane Society's 'PAWS for Tales' reading to dogs program. They'd heard great things about the work he's been doing with encouraging kids to read out loud and wanted to film this for their viewers.
No problem, we said. Jonny's adopter Cris Cohen had been planning to participate in the Burlingame Public Library's annual read-a-thon, so all it would take would be getting the green light from the librarian. It seemed easy. What library wouldn't want to have their cutting edge reading program highlighted on a PBS special?
"The dog is a fun and furry reading companion who is not judgmental," said Kathy von Mayrhauser, Burlingame Library children services manager. "Children, by reading to dogs, it boosts their confidence in reading."Oops - spoke too soon. With only three days left 'til the event, Cris was told he had to stay home because of his dog's breed. The same library that promoted him in this optimistic newspaper article had a change of heart when another handler brought her trained pit bull to the library to work. At the end of the session, this handler was told she was not welcome back. Her dog's behavior had been top notch - after all, the program dogs are trained to the nines. But for unknown reasons, head librarian Pat Harding chose to enact a ban of pit bull type dogs from the library reading program.
We debated whether the PBS film crew shouldn't just get footage of Cris and Jonny being turned away at the door of the event for their show on how the Vick dogs were doing. Ever the rebel, that was my secret wish anyway. But Cris wisely opted for the diplomatic approach and tried his best to find ways to educate the librarian rather than push the issue. Maybe if she just met Jonny? So, Cris was bumped from the read-a-thon roster and the PAWS for Tales team went to the celebrated event without Jonny and their other pit bull teammate.
After several weeks of failed attempts and ignored invitations to meet, it became clear that Harding's mind was made up. Feeling discouraged, Cris regretfully resigned in protest from the reading team that had once highlighted Jonny's work on everything from bookmarks to the cover of the associated shelter's annual report.
On top of being a downright ugly move, blocking Jonny and the other pit bull was technically illegal. California code prohibits cities from enacting policies that restrict dogs based on breed. Burlingame's city attorney Gus Guinan agreed, expressed his regrets and communicated the error to the head librarian.
Harding's response to this news was to can the entire Paws to Tales reading program rather than allow dogs with blocky heads and short fur to get close to the kids. No dogs of any breed type would be allowed in the library to help kids with their reading. (Below: Photo of Jonny at work thanks to the Unexpected Pit Bull Calendar.)
We watched Cris struggle with his decision to leave his team and know that walking away was hard on him because the last thing Cris is is a quitter. He told us, "I had a really tough time with this because doing therapy work is for the benefit of people. I guess it really came down to the first rule of therapy work. Protect your animal."
Protecting our dogs from breed prejudice - especially when that prejudice is illegal - takes a front seat to just about anyone who owns a pit bull. It has to, especially when children are subjected to messages of intolerance by educators. And while Cris could have chosen to stay onboard and visit the other venues where all breeds were welcomed, supporting a program that was not willing to speak out against an injustice was just too big a pill to swallow.