Friday, August 27, 2010

Oklahoma style justice - the Newkirk dogs

The man who put Nelly on a chain and then forgot to feed her and 105+ other dogs pleaded guilty to five counts of animal cruelty and was sentenced to 90 days in jail this week. That's just about one day behind bars for every dog that died.

To refresh, this was the December 2008 case in rural Kay County, Oklahoma where dogs were chained and penned in all kinds of extreme weather without shelter, with green buckets of (frozen) water and barely enough food to stay alive ... The yard that was discovered by two hunters that became the headache for a county that has no animal shelter.

Jerry Southern - the dogs' owner - didn't get to this farm too often. He lived over in Kansas, where he was forbidden to own dogs due to his evil deeds in that state. So he set up shop over the border in a rented property, and staked out dozens of dogs on car axels. Feeding those long distance responsibilities was something he did in his spare time, which wasn't often enough, based on the number of dried up dog remains found at the site. Dead dogs in the (empty) house, dead dogs decomposing in dog crates, dead dogs on their chains. (Photo: warning) Nice guy, Mr. Southern. The dogs were staked near each other just outside of grabbing reach, so you can just imagine how little they liked their neighbor dogs when that rare handful of food came around. Mr. Southern - who claimed to be a misunderstood dog breeder - was up to no good. Unfortunately the sheriffs in that county were caught off guard and not able to gather the evidence that would've nailed him for the felony we all know he was involved with. Below: The scene on the farm after nearly three weeks of food and care, provided by local volunteers.

Southern was originally charged with 96 counts of animal cruelty - one for each dog that a veterinarian deemed a starvation case. Twenty months later, those 96 counts of cruelty were whittled down to a mere five after Southern offered a hefty 10K as a form of "restitution." That amount is set to be distributed to a local shelter and rescue groups including BR, after the courts get a big chunk of the payment, that is. We're told that buying the get out of jail free card was his defense attorney's idea. The DA accepted the plea agreement, apparently worried that pushing for a stronger jail sentence would anger the known-to-be-lenient judge and cause Southern to get off with a deferred sentence. When you're prosecuting an animal abuse case in Oklahoma, you take what you can get - especially while jails are bursting full.

It's hard to know how to feel about all this. We're still a little numb from our memories of taking his dogs off their rusty chain rigs one by one in the screaming wind and carrying them inside a horse trailer to be euthanized. That's not something you forget. Everyone in this team of frozen rescuers (members of BR, the wonderful MABBR and OAA) held it together as well as you can expect in the situation, knowing that twenty some dogs were getting miracle second chances. When one of us lost it during this terrible task, we'd go off to have a moment alone and someone else on the team would take over with the death march to the trailer. Right: This dog died long before the rescue team arrived.

Kay County assistant district attorney Tara Portillo told me that 90 days in jail was one of the stiffest sentences an Oklahoma judge has ever given an animal abuser, and after scouring I see that she's not exaggerating. Miss Portillo took the case because she's an animal lover and wanted to see justice served, although she reminded me (not that she needed to) that when it comes down to it, not many are ready to see pit bulls in the same light as other dogs. In her words, "Who the f-k cares about pit bulls?" Well, she does and so do we. But the world does have some questionable priorities. She told me that Peta - who tried hard to convince authorities to kill all the dogs - sent her a bouquet of red roses for taking the case. The public donated dog food and donations in small mountains and volunteers poured out to help. Meanwhile, horrible crimes against children in Portillo's district barely land on the public's sympathy radar.

Donyale Hoye and I went out there that December to offer an alternative to auto-death for all dogs. This county had never really dealt with anything like this, so the Oklahoma Alliance for Animals took custody of all the dogs to ensure that they wouldn't end up back in the hands of the perpetrator (as we're told has happened in other cases) and then, bolstered by the good press that came out of the Vick case, shifted ownership over to us. It took some doing to convince them that, despite impassioned phone calls from random strangers, pit bull rescuers are not all crazy people, and yes, we meant it when we said we would do what we could to get as many as possible into responsible hands. Easier said than done. The weather forced impossibly fast decisions and we all still have regrets about the dogs we couldn't bring home. The sheriffs were great to work with but they were under a deadline, not only with the weather, but with the dog owner who was putting together bail so he could get out of jail, and yes, back to the farm where we were working.
Left: Simon from MABBR, is still one of the biggest hearts I've met in rescue work. He worked non-stop to help the dogs and broke down crying under the pressure of selecting the handful that could be saved within this tiny window of time.

The sheriffs counted hours in their squad car from the driveway of the farm, with guns ready just in case trouble showed up. They got out a few times - once to offer me a wool hat in the freezing wind, and again to bag up the bodies of freshly euthanized dogs and take them to the dump. I stopped them before they bagged up this boy (below). Stunningly beautiful - he was scared to death on his chain and didn't want to be touched. Death allowed me to stroke his still-warm body, so I did that and whispered to him as if he was sleeping contently, stretched out on the ground, finally relaxed after months of hunching over, cold and hungry. The sheriffs stood back and let me pay these final respects, holding their heads down like you do at a funeral. Good bye buddy. So very very sorry what our kind did to you and your family.

We weren't terribly upset to learn that Mr. Southern had to be moved to solitary confinement during his short stay in jail while we were at the farm. It seems that after hours, he was getting pummeled by some of the inmates who were helping sheriffs feed and care for his dying dogs - a real live cowboy's version of justice.

So, a good pummeling, 90 days in jail, 15 years probation and a plea bargain that included a cash settlement. Is "restitution" money the new way of letting animal abusers walk away from their crimes? And if so, is a lighter sentence a fair exchange? ... and finally, where is their money coming from? (God help me - what if it's blood money?)

Despite our deep gratitude to the authorities for powering through this case and setting a new precedent in this state, one part of me wishes that the DA hadn't accepted the money, especially once I heard her answer to my question, "Did Mr. Southern ever show any remorse about his dogs?" Oklahomans don't mince any words. She responded, "He doesn't give a shit."

Above: Two dogs that made it out alive: Turtle on the left and Tully, in front.

Encouraging News in Alabama

In other news, a pit bull that had been beaten and set on fire attended the parole hearing of the man who abused him. The Alabama state parole board denied parole for Juan Daniels, who is serving a 9.5 year sentence for torturing the dog, name Louis Vuitton. The AP reported that "more than 60 law enforcement officers, animal rights advocates and other supporters of Louis crowded into the hearing. Montgomery County District Attorney Ellen Brooks asked parole board members to make Daniels serve his entire sentence because of his cruelty to the dog and the nine disciplinary actions taken against him in prison." Thank you, good people. Louis has healed from his injuries and was adopted as a family pet.

Hat tips to KC Dog Blog for the heads up on Southern's sentence.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

On the job

SB 250 -- Again

For whatever reason, California SB 250 -- the mandatory spay/neuter bill -- is no longer inactive. In fact, the Concerned Dog Owners of California report that an assembly vote could be as early as today.

After years of hosting shot fairs, and in particular, Celebrate Your Pit Bull events, it is painfully clear that what works is community outreach and education. Low-income dog owners do not have access to affordable resources, including vet care, nor do they know where to look. A mandatory spay/neuter law isn't going to make them all of a sudden get their animals altered. And if their dog/cat gets confiscated and lands in the shelter, will they have enough money to pay the fines and the surgery costs to reclaim him? After speaking with numbers of San Francisco pit bull owners about whether they know their city mandates that their dogs get neutered, the owners just respond that they just keep their dogs hidden rather than take them out during the day.

Educating people about responsible pet ownership can't happen through quick-fix legislation and most certainly can't happen overnight. Research has shown that mandatory spay/neuter laws sound great in theory, but are ineffective in practice. And, despite that, there are so many things wrong with the language in this bill that have the potential for negative unintended consequences.

Please, take a minute to call your Assemblymember today and voice your opposition.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Jim Gorant: 'The Lost Dogs' - our Review

You've probably heard about Jim Gorant's new book 'The Lost Dogs,' based on his exploration of the Vick case. We had the good fortune to read an early copy and are very happy to report that it's a gem of a book that deserves a place on every dog owner's bookshelf. Some have asked if BADRAP was featured in the book, and the answer is Yes - along with a fascinating line-up of characters who you may not have heard of but who played a significant role in ensuring that an infamous abuser was brought to justice and his war-torn victims were not forgotten.

Tim disappeared and read the book in nearly one sitting, earning one of the meanest sunburns I've ever seen on him. Here's his review ...
Jim Gorant did it again. We were so pleased with his December 2008 article in Sports Illustrated – The Good News Out of The Bad Newz Kennels – because of it’s unbiased, unsensationalized, and honest portrayal of the dogs. Having dealt with too many writers that don’t have time for research because they “have a story to print,” I’m so very pleased to report that Jim Gorant’s book The Lost Dogs is exceptionally informative, and not just about the dogs and their present status, but about the players – those who worked so very hard to make sure the case was prosecuted, and those who tried to make it otherwise. The book scared me at points when it became apparent how extremely close this case was to never happening, as a certain politico just wanted the whole thing to disappear and wasn’t happy about “ underprivileged...icon being dragged down.” I enjoyed the introduction as much as the rest of the book, again because of research - into the history of dogs in general and their relationship to people. Jim points out what *is so different about dogs when compared to all the other animals we share this planet with.

He covers what was not talked about in the disappointing 60 Minutes interview where hall of famer running back Jim Brown soft-balled questions to Vick, and yet Gorant never makes any judgment against the X-Falcon. Though this book is factual, several chapters are weaved together to create cliff-hangers with haunting resolve.

This is a book for those who want to know more details about the case, for those who want to know about the present status of the dogs, and for those who want to learn more about Vick’s true role in Bad Newz Kennels as some still believe he merely bankrolled the operation.

The story of The Lost Dogs sheds light on the true nature of the American Pit Bull Terrier and the best of our own nature as humans when we come together to help victims of disaster, even when they're manmade.
- Tim Racer

We want to thank Jim for making the dogs important with this story, and for surprising us with his open mind, his sentimental heart and his fresh perspective. May the world be open to the many lessons these dogs have tried to bring us. Below: Halle during evaluations at the Hanover Pound.

The Lost Dogs Amazon link and facebook page.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

voluntary spay/neuter efforts. they still work best

In this slideshow, the nuts and bolts of building safe, humane communities through dog owner support efforts. In other words ...

How to help people make good decisions for their pets (like, voluntary spay/neuter surgeries) without being a hateful, discriminating asshole (as in, breed specific mandatory spay/neuter measures).

August Shots Fair SLIDESHOW

Above: This shots fair client arrived three hours early to ensure that her tiny puppy would get the resources offered to pit bull owners in her struggling East Oakland neighborhood. Contra Costa and Santa Clara Counties want to punish her for owning this dog, and are looking into breed specific measures (mandatory spay/neuter) to do that. We see things differently. To decrease euthanasia rates and curb irresponsible ownership, we need proactive, cost effective solutions that embrace the human-animal bond rather than tear it down.

With many thanks to the American Bar Association (ABA) and the American Dog Breeders Association (ADBA) for sending members to help us with the 'Celebrate Your Pit Bull" event last Saturday.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Good News Monday - the Reunion

It was a crazy busy weekend in our corners with a Shots Fair in East Oakland, packed Pit Ed classes, and several celebrated out of towners who came to help us do some work and - finally - to be reunited with a few special dog friends that they haven't seen in years.

Many hands made for lighter work at the Shots Fair: We were joined by members of the American Dog Breeders Association (ADBA), the American Bar Association (ABA), Kara Gilmore from the National Canine Research Council, Ledy Vankavage from Best Friends, and Rebecca Huss, who served as the Guardian Special Master of the Vick dogs. A true gathering of the tribes.

This particular event was especially important in light of the recent BSL scare in the bay area, so we'll devote a separate post to that news once we've all had a chance to chill out and download our pix. But for now, here's a couple of happy photos from the tail end of our long weekend.

It gave us all such a boost to work alongside so many diehards and finally, to kick back at the barn and toast the dogs with one of Tim's margarita creations. Yum.

Left: Rebecca Huss is reunited with Jonny Justice. They haven't seen each other since he was housed in a Virginia shelter. Jonny seemed more impressed with the cheese tray than the auspicious occasion, but we respect that he has his priorities worked out.

Above: A group shot with seven dogs and their people, including two ladies who helped make history for the dogs. The famous Vick dog defender is wearing her equally famous hat in the photo, and to the left, the don't-take-no-prisoners Ledy Vankavage. (Double click to see bigger) We love you, ladies. Thank you for everything.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

a call for good news

Sometimes dog work brings on dark days that are hard to shake. There are so many things to keep a tough skin about that it's easy to get caught off guard. This past week has been particularly difficult, even with our best teflon....

A few dogs that we were trying hard to save from a horrible animal cruelty case died anyway (the perpetrators are still committing cruelty - long story; more later) ... the local media pounced on a tragedy here at home and in doing so, condemned family pets in formula headlines, rolling out back room talk about BSL ... and our very own local shelter dug a deep moat around itself following public criticism - effectively preventing rescues from designing safe passage to dogs at risk. It's been a kick in the ass with way too many WTF moments and my busy head has been spinning a little too dizzy.

We're used to making our own good news to fend off the bad, but this week I needed a little help, so I outreached to our facebook friends with a request for their best happys. Within an hour, nearly 230 people voiced snippets of good news from all around the country. It was actually overwhelming .. Bam! Bam! Bam! .. news bits came pouring in so fast it was hard to take them all in. Some of it was a repeat of popular headlines: For example, lots of people were loving the story of the pit bulls who saved a chihuahua from the coyote....

... but by far, the most heartwarming bits of news were the smaller stories that don't make the news or large org blogs or websites. Like Laura Pieper who announced that her pit bull was just approved to give blood - saving the lives of other dogs, Jessica Najdek who was celebrating the return of her lost pit bull and her appreciation for the Alameda Shelter that treated her and her dog so well, Katie Bell who just put an obedience title on her dog, Darbi Blencowe whose rescue just finished heartworm treatment and found her forever home, Dena Ely whose rescued pit mix started signaling when her blood pressure drops and brings her close to black-outs, Bijou Galletti, who helped fight off a BSL threat in Long Island...and on and on. Get yourself a coffee and look up "I need some good news" thread on our facebook page.

I'm so grateful for all the response and optimism that poured in. And I'm becoming convinced that the enormous collective of individuals who extend so much compassion and activism towards making things right for the dogs is as powerful, if not more powerful, than any of the work the larger organizations do. The power of intention and all that. Individuals don't bring politics or policies to their work like organizations can do...They don't worry about budgets or promotion or answering 100 emails a day. In fact, they're free to put the most amount of attention and focus on any given situation or dog without being hindered. Pure focus.

Since optimism needs regular feedings (I know mine does), I'm going to declare Wednesdays 'Good News Hump Days' on our facebook page and collect the week's happys for everyone. Then, I'm going to pull out 1-3 of those individual, rarely heard stories and expand on them with more details here on the blog every Monday morning. So please contribute - or just watch, if that suits you. Whatever you do, keep making the magic that was so very apparent in yesterday's facebook thread.

You are the change the dogs have been waiting for.