Sunday, March 20, 2011

when librarians judge books by their covers

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.

Parade Magazine. The Lost Dog's author Jim Gorant caught wind of the story and wrote a follow up to his original article on the former Vick dogs. The Parade Magazine Article came with a great quote from Cris:
“Some may see it as a loss to the children of the community. But I don't,” says Cohen. “A library is a source of information and learning. If the person in charge is participating in discrimination, children should not be anywhere near that facility. There is too much hate in this world already, children do not need to learn it at the library.”

Despite the disappointment, all's well and good in Jonny's world. He's got some promising new teaching opportunities ahead of him ... You just can't keep a good dog down.

But there's still the issue of the library that got away with breed profiling. is a project that highlights injustices around the world, and they launched a petition aimed at encouraging the Burlingame Library to consider reinstating the Reading to Dogs program. Nearly 2000 signatures poured in within 24 hours, many with impassioned comments from parents, teachers, librarians and animal welfare professionals.

Please add your name to this petition to urge the Burlingame Public Library to reinstate the reading program without unfair (illegal) breed biases. It took a gargantuen effort to save Jonny from an NFL dog fighter and a system that would have him destroyed, now it will take ongoing efforts to ensure that he and others like him are accepted by an humane, compassionate and educated society. Petition

EDIT - One of our favorite comments from the petition ....

As a teen services librarian and advocate, I have found it imperative and crucial to let the teens decide for themselves what is in their own best interest. When important decisions come up regarding the teens services department, I address the teens, take a vote and let them speak for themselves. I think that is what is needed here. Let the children take a vote and speak for themselves. Do they want Jonny and the Paws for Tales program to continue, or not? Before I heard about wonderful Jonny, I had been following the wonderful Grant the APBT who spends his days in the childrens dept of an Iowa library. He is very well loved by the children and the community. I am sure that if Grant was barred from the library in Iowa, the children would be terribly disappointed. (Grant's Facebook Page) Why deny the children of Burlingame a simple pleasure that was to their benefit? - Jodi Mitchell


J.M. said...

This Library and Librarian should be embarrassed.
What kind of message is this giving to Children?
Apparently they sanction discrimination based on Looks or Breed/Race.
No wonder the World`s in such a mess.
The children need to be kept away from this Librarian not pit bulls.

Anonymous said...

I sogned too. Sounds like the librarian is cutting her nose off to spite her face. Why would you shut down a program that encourages kids to read? Simply amazing.

Jennie Bailey said...

Libraries are places of learning. If the head librarian is unwilling to learn herself, she should be fired. It's a public library. She shouldn't be allowed to cancel an entire program that benefits children because she's mad that she got called on breaking the law. I'm signing the petition.

Also, not happy with a team that didn't defend one of its members. You have to be brave enough to stand up for what is right.

J.M. said...

Staying with the theme of Libraries and banning.

Council bans pit bull book

Someone who lives there should request The Lost Dogs or Pit Bull Placebo

Anonymous said...

We're in the year 2011, right? Amazing....

I would like to announce that I have BANNED ignorance in my home or on my property. The goofy Librarian that banned pit bulls and the Council that banned a pit bull book -- sorry, not allowed.

I have to start somewhere and that seemed as good a place as any. No pit bull haters allowed...nope, none of ya. You'll just have to go somewhere else with your hatin' ways.

Anyone curious about pit bulls is always welcome to meet the resident pit bull and learn about the breed -- hands on. Be prepared to get a lotta pit bull kisses (they're known for being a very kissy breed).

Funny how the librarian and council are public servants...Public - time to make some changes.


Chelsea and Wilson said...

this is rather sad to read, currently I'm taking a library technician course and the first thing they share with the students is that no worker at a library should judge a patron, library workers should be open and willing to always learn and share with the community. That fact that this librarian has acted like this is rather disgusting.

I just want to share with you that not all librarian and library employees are not like that, most of them are very welcoming and I know more than a few that love pit bulls and are always willing to let others know how friendly they are!

who wouda thunk it?? said...

some people just dont like animals. they are missing the best part of life so they can live in sterile condos and sit on white sofas and cream colored carpet. They are welcome to it, but they have NO RIGHT to inflict their tiny tolerance on the rest of the community, especially children

Donna said...

Thanks Chelsea and Wilson.

We love librarians for everything they represent, including a thirst for knowledge and dedication to sharing information with others ... Which is why this situation was so screamingly wrong.

Thanks for being one of the good guys!

Anonymous said...

Sound like this librarian is just plain ignorant. Johnny is a trained therapy dog regardless of his breed. I wonder if Ms. Harding allows all the children in the library or only some select few?

“Misunderstanding arising from ignorance, ignorance breeds fear, and fear remains the greatest enemy of peace.” Lester B. Pearson

Dianne said...

I just spent the day with my mother and we enjoyed Chaim Potik's play "The Chosen." During World War II, a young Hasidic Jew experiences the joy of learning at a public library. He decides that instead of becoming a rabbi, he wants to be a psychologist.

I'll bet Pat Harding would have kicked him out for his appearance, long earlocks, his prayer shawl dangling from beneath his black caftan jacket. Tsk tsk.

Anonymous said...

Awww Johnny!! Hes such a good ambassador for his breed too!!! Its a shame that some people won't even give it a chance. Don't worry Johnny another better opportunity will come your way soon. And if the library changes their mind, Im sure you will go in there with your charm shining!!!

Nelson Abdullah said...

I had the same experience with breed discrimination with the Puppy Tails program at our local library in Independence, Kentucky. Only difference was I own a Rottweiler who was trained as a service dog and a woman who works with therapy dogs invited us to attend the reading program at the library.

I have owned six Rottweilers in the last 15 years. Five of them have been rescued. All of them are lovable and enjoy meeting children and other dogs. But when we walked into the library the staff began to have doubts about Axl's size and breed. Axl was 8 years old when this happened and he is the most gentle dog I've ever met. I wrote a story about our experience on my blog Living With Rottweilers:

Nelson Abdullah

Anonymous said...

Way to judge a book by it's cover! How incredibly sad that a place for learning is also creating a place for ignorance. Jonny is amazing and normally I would say they don't deserve him but unfortunately the kids do deserve his help and they don't have a say.

Unknown said...

My Greyhound Bernie is a 'victim' of breed stereotyping by many individuals we come in contact with. Many people ask me on walks why I'm not running with him, or how big my yard is since he has to run all day.

Unfortunately, I know the stereotyping is even worse with Pit Bulls - for no good reason.

This librarian is awful.

I signed the petition!!!

Heather Cherry said...

Un. Befreakinglievable.

But good for you, Cris.

ForPetsSake said...

Petition signed.

Sensible said...

Calling the librarian a racist is going to backfire on pit bulls and their owners. If it was the kids that were the main focus, then no one would have been threatened with lawsuits and no program would have to be stopped. But that is not the case, and people are saying look at these pit bull people who only care about their dogs. No one has to like the librarian's decision, but let's all be adults and deal with it and let the kids benefit from the reading program. Sometimes pit bull advocacy goes too far and makes far more enemies than friends. We can't bully people into liking pit bulls, and we can't educate them by calling them racists and ignorant. It's the dogs that will suffer in the end from our actions as well as the actions of others.

Unknown said...

I wrote a post about this on my blog to spread the word. Keep fighting the good fight! Hats off to you!

TNjan said...

How about eliminating the humans and keep the dogs.

Hilarie said...

wow....I thought I was getting pretty immune to this kind of breed stuff but I almost choked on my coffee reading this -so we were signed up to participate in that program at PHS as well as soon as she finished her CGC and now......sigh -hearts and minds, hearts and minds...

Lindsay said...

Breaks my heart. I know Johnny is such a sweet dog, and he and the other dogs in the program were trained to do this kind of therapy work. It's not like they're some random dogs off the street or some random dogs with no training.

It's too bad, because the kids and the dogs and the handlers all benefited from the reading program.