Thursday, July 31, 2014

Hot temps, Hot topics. The BR 2014 Rescue Jam comes to town.

We rolled out another sold out Rescue Jam last weekend in hopes that our collective mind meld would work as well as it did last year to rejuvenate and inspire. How could it not? Rescuers flew in to Oakland from as far as Australia, Canada, Maine, Michigan, and Texas to think tank together. We met for two warm summer days of networking, sharing and soul searching in our quest to keep an updated outlook at the sometimes difficult work we do. Big Fat Group Photo (Thank you, Jesse Freidin Photography)

PHOTO Album from the event.

We enjoyed a smart, thoughtful crowd and passionate speakers. One of the most popular topics this year focused on using the Harm Reduction model as an effective approach to animal welfare work. Eliza Wheeler from the Harm Reduction Coalition rocked her talk, and has dozens of new fans digging through materials from this discipline, which calls for a balanced, non-judgmental approach to providing resources in order to secure incremental and small but forward moving changes. We'll be talking more about her message in upcoming months - It's just that good, and we learned so much. Thank you, Eliza.

Maggie McDowell outlined the trends that are leading to an increase in rescue hoarding in this country. Heads up rescue world, this hot topic needs our steady attention.

Dogs In Need of Space (DINOS) brainstormer Jessica Dolce had us laughing, nodding and applauding to her cartoon inspired message of responsible dog ownership. We adore this girl and her work and are still giggling about her happy-making presentation. Do yourself a favor and go check out her stuff. Jessica also did a compassion fatigue workshop for the tired and over-committed among us. Bless you, Jessica!

Lifetime activist Nancy Tranzow from ColoRADogs helped us learn about setting the stage for political change without lobbing grenades or alienating policy makers. Well done, Nancy.

We learned about creating sound contracts from Letti de Little, enjoyed author Ken Foster's view of frogs, dogs and deer (trust me, there's a connection), watched BR's Pit Ed classes expertly smooth 18 shelter dogs through real life drills, covered tips for dealing with the media, for creating a public outreach focus and we entertained common themes in round table discussions. After watching a vaccination clinic in action, hosting org Paw Fund found quick help for an unwanted pit bull puppy and off to Oregon he went with the lovely gals from Lovers Not Fighters. Nice work, ladies.

Not to be outdone, Natalie and Jenn from Prairie Pit Bull Rescue flew home with three dogs for their adoption program; two from Berkeley Animal Care Services and one from our Rescue Barn. Thank you, rock stars!

Writer Emily Douglas kindly shared the history and thinking that went into this blog - the Romance of Rescue - and graphic, which calls for a broader approach to rescue efforts.

Right: Jonny Justice with Ken Foster. Both boys share an affinity for enjoying friends, being playful and taking naps. A great lesson for this group of over achievers.

Tired and inspired. And yes, it's time to change this work up.

Did you know? Attendees expressed concerns about the 'Save Them All' message recently launched by Best Friends Animal Society. Many reported feeling fatigued by rescue demands and expressed a strong desire to create more balance by reducing the number of dogs they rescue in favor of shifting necessary resources to important public outreach missions. Most work a forty hour week in addition to carrying the responsibilities of rescue work, and some are looking at ways to create compensation for their leadership to help sharpen their focus and increase their group's effectiveness. Most use a diverse bag of training tools including prong collars, but to avoid time-wasting Facebook debates, most told us they no longer discuss training collars or techniques on social media. Most expressed a keen interest in collaborating, staying in touch with one another and - gulp! - coming back next year for another Jam.

Left:  "I heart boundaries." Best t-shirt at the Jam, as modeled by DINOS creator Jessica Dolce.

Throughout the presentations and breaks, we were schmoozed by the barn dogs and home boys Eddie and Elliot. We stayed up too late around the campfire comparing notes, laughing, venting and finding common ground on issues that keep us connected. If this Jam is anything like last year's event, we can expect to see and speak with many of these movers and shakers in upcoming months for both work and fun, and that's got us all looking forward to more. Mission accomplished!

Special thanks to our volunteer crew for helping us pull this larger than life event off:  Tina Broder, Connor Cook, Caroline Davis, Cindy Houser, Letti de Little, Kiem Sie, Sonya Cotton, Barbara Stanczyk, Andie Herman, Lisa Guerin, Leslie Smith, Charity and Jose Jara, Katie Dahlberg. Photos: Maggie McDowell. Great work everyone!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

TIME's 'Problem' piece: What a media giant's fumble can teach us about dog bites and an industry in decline

The number of dog bite injuries spikes in summer months, so to help curb the tide, news sites, trainers, advocacy groups and humane orgs roll out a perennial offering of bite prevention info as early as May. The efforts to educate seem to be helping: Reports from public health agencies around the US tell us that the number of bite injuries reported has declined significantly, even as the dog population has risen by millions during the time period bites have been studied. (Fewer bites.)

Right: Graphic & Info Huffington Post & Sophia Yin

What happens though when you take the same worthy topic of dog bite prevention, hand it to a life style writer on a very tight deadline, give the mike to two former bite victims with a whopping vendetta against pit bulls, omit science-based data and add the odor of a messy hoax -- one that falsified claims and exploited a child victim’s very real injuries for quick cash. What do you have?

A messy, tabloid-esque piece for Internet rubber neckers?

Yes. Except in the case I’ve just outlined, the bomb that dropped came with TIME Magazine’s name on it. Their train wreck of an article – 'The Problem with Pit Bulls' -- has already been chewed on, spit out and discarded by educated minds and it’s old news at this point, but it will live on in Internet annals of history as one of TIME’s and Time writer Charlotte Alter’s biggest blunders. It’s so painfully bad, it seems to mock the nine 'Principles of Journalism.'

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
Democracy depends on citizens having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context... This “journalistic truth” is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts.

In her piece, Alter trumpeted a bold, unproven assumption - “pit bulls are bred to be violent” - and then failed to back her claim up with any credible sources or science-based data. Assigning dog bites to breed types is passé, and journalists who go there can expect a loud scolding from all corners – hobbyists and professionals alike. Loud, because the voices behind the outrage come from an impressively large group of people.

Pit Bulls: Top five most popular 'breeds'

Dogs described as pit bulls top out as one of the five most popular breeds in America according to mega-chain Bansfield Veterinary clinic's data. So when you take a cheap shot at America’s pets, you are assaulting a significant segment of the population who owns and cares for dogs, and that’s never going to go over well.

Why did Alter, a Harvard graduate whose father (Johnathan Alter) is a career journalist, screw this up so badly? I want to be kind. I don’t believe Charlotte set out to bring harm to my dog or yours with her slanderous and disproven allegation. Bottom line: Her employer is in trouble, and she needed to meet a whirlwind deadline with an emotionally charged topic that would suck web traffic straight to her edgy rant.

Web traffic = Job security 

TIME is suffering from “an economic decline that reduced its revenues by 34% and cut its operating profit by 59%." (Link) In 2013, that bad news resulted in massive layoffs for TIME writers and staffers.

Reporters are keenly aware of hot trending topics. They have to be: maintaining an edge in the media industry has become a survivalist’s game.  In the week leading to Alter’s piece, the lion’s share of Internet traffic swarmed to a sad and ultimately bizarre story in Mississippi:  After a child was bit up by her grandfather’s dogs (reported to be pit bulls), her family promoted a tale of her being booted from a KFC when squeamish patrons balked at her scars. The alleged injustice made quick headlines and spread like wildfire, pulling a quick $135K in to her family’s online fundraiser. Just days before the whole KFC slam was exposed as a hoax, Charlotte Alter took the bait and jumped into the fray by condemning blocky headed dogs as the ultimate villain.

In a Hot Hurry

Alter was aiming to strike while the KFC story was still going viral and emotions were hot. Her email to me was the first tip off:

URGENT. I’m writing a piece on whether or not pit bulls are dangerous for, and I'd like to get a comment from you and your organization. I am on a very tight deadline.

I hadn’t had my coffee yet but even so, it seemed clear from Alter’s tone that her story was already written. There was no time for constructive discussion or careful research; BADRAP’s views were needed to juxtapose quotes that had likely already been typed into place. Our job was to spit out words that would fill in the blanks on the tired “Dangerous? Not dangerous?” debate.

I wasn't impressed with the squeeze and decided not to play. Interestingly, none of the other larger animal welfare orgs wanted to play either.

Undaunted by the lack of response from dog experts and perhaps bolstered by mounting public support of the child victim, Alter went ahead and submitted one of the most poorly researched critiques of ‘pit bulls’ to ever to grace an online news site.

3. (Principles of Journalism) Its essence is a discipline of verification
Journalists rely on a professional discipline for verifying information….Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment, all signal such standards. This discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment. 

Newspaper Clippings are Not Science

Alter was unable to secure credible experts to support her allegation that pit bulls were “bred to be violent,” so based her piece on the opinion of two former dog bite victims, both of whom have been widely disregarded by animal welfare professionals for their vendetta driven stance on ‘pit bulls,’ in addition to their sole reliance on newspaper clippings as the basis of their claims. She also quoted animals rights group PETA, who has a long and committed history of embracing breed specific laws and lobbying animal shelters to bar pit bulls from adoption programs, regardless of their personalities. (Link)

Her search for answers neglected an entire body of expert opinion and contemporary research from the major animal welfare organizations. (Link) Most of these orgs deal with dogs on a daily basis and all staunchly oppose breed specific legislation as a cure-all for bites.

She failed to present any peer-reviewed evidence showing that one kind of dog is more likely to injure a human being than another kind of dog, because there IS no peer-reviewed evidence to support that claim. Had she more time, she may have found Janis Bradley’s paper, debunking the notion that a dog’s breed make-up can predict future behavior (Link), or her excellent paper outlining the preventable risk factors that lead to dog bites.

Even the White House would have had something share: The Obama Administration cited the views of the Center for Disease and Control in a public statement, condemning breed specific legislation in favor of community based bite prevention programs. (Link)

Animal welfare experts may disagree on many things, but across the board, assigning dog bites to breed types is considered unscientific and obsolete. When a child is hurt, compassionate communities want helpful information that elevates their understanding of dog behavior and bite prevention - not a tired repeat of staged debates played out for website traffic scores. Public safety should be a shared goal prioritized by all, regardless of advocates’ personal opinions of dogs, and contemporary research and scientific opinion should lead the way in the conversation.

While dog bite related fatalities (DBRF) are exceedingly rare, we can learn a lot from studying the extremes. One of the most compelling studies on DBRFs was recently published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA). The report takes the topic of bite prevention to a new level by outlining key circumstances that lead to tragedies. By recognizing the ingredients to a preventable tragedy, communities are better equipped to educate families and reduce bite risks.

The factors included in DBRFs: “No able-bodied person present to intervene (87.1 percent); the victim had no familiar relationship with dog (85.2 percent); the owner failed to neuter/spay dog (84.4 percent); the victim's compromised ability to manage interactions with dog (77.4 percent); owner kept dog as resident rather than pet (76.2 percent); owner's prior mismanagement of dog (37.5 percent); and the owner's abuse or neglect of dog (21.1 percent)." Four or more of these factors were present in 80.5 percent of the cases - and breed was not a factor.

Despite the flurry of links, research and opinion that rocketed around the Net on the heels of the “Problem” article, Alder announced in a tweet “I stand by my piece.”

OR - You Can Stand Up for Bite Prevention

Victoria Wilcher is the child bite victim at the center of this saga. Her home state of Mississippi is the poorest state in the country. Sadly, dog bite incidents tend to be more common in lower income communities like hers than they are in more affluent communities for many of the reasons pointed out in this article. We’re glad Victoria is too young to know that she was exploited twice after her attack. Once, by her family with their bogus KFC claim, and then by a news source that chose to misuse her story for its own gain.

Every day, all day, millions of Americans interact successfully with millions of dogs (an estimated 70 million). Our love affair with canines of all shapes, sizes and breed make-up is a testament to our long history together. When we don't get it right and a child suffers bite injuries, we can choose to learn from the incident and grow wiser as a community or we can fall back on the media's hunger for sensation and look for a villain.

What if reputable media voices decided to power the public’s kind sympathy for bite victims into productive discussions of dog bite prevention instead of Kentucky Fried hoaxes? Imagine the good that would result. Without mad deadlines and the pressure to feed morbid fascinations, our daily news feed might not be nearly as splashy, but we'd be happy to forego the hype in the name of reducing dog bite injuries. Wouldn’t you?


Follow Up: TIME requested a rebuttal from BADRAP to the 'Problem' piece after a country of dog lovers pounded their outrage onto message boards and emails. In a phone conversation, assistant managing editor Susanna Schrobsdorff and I chewed around the edges of the topic, but found quick consensus on one important item: When dogs injure children, expert opinion and contemporary science wins the race. On that note, I asked if we could step aside and offer our rebuttal 'spot' to National Canine Research Council, a leading authority on public policy regarding dog matters, including bites. NCRC and TIME are currently in discussion about an upcoming article, as should have been the case weeks ago. We'll link that article when it launches.

Before hanging up, I had to ask Susanna if she'd considered removing the 'Problem' piece from the Net altogether. It tarnishes TIME's credibility and reduces a once well respected news source to a tabloid-like ambulance chasing rag.  Susanna is a smart gal and seemed motivated to repair some of the damage caused by Alter's blunder, but conveyed that she could not remove the article. Why?

"TIME has never done that before." She went on to explain, "and to be honest, I'd like to keep my job."