Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Is that a cat on my sofa?

<---- Celeste's opinion on cats.

I don't want to get into the nitty-gritty details, but the general story is that a neighbor has a cat who is primarily an outdoor cat. This cat loves me and I her. My dogs smell my illicit affair with this cat every time I pet her or hold her or tell her she is the most beautiful cat in the world.

I call this cat Eco-Bella for no other reason than the name sounds appealing.

Eco-Bella has the misfortune of being owned by someone who thinks leaving a cat outdoors for four days at a time is perfectly acceptable. She is also owned by someone who clearly failed to realize that Eco-Bella is not street smart, like at all.

Case in point: Every single morning, she is sitting right in front of my door meowing pitifully. And every single morning, Mina and Celeste become Avengers of Cat-Scratched Dogs Everywhere.

Mina and Celeste are, at the very least, not screaming fools when it comes to being Avengers of Cat-Scratched Dogs Everywhere. They stare really hard at Eco-Bella and sometimes lunge, but mainly stare. Blessedly, they respond to my leave it commands and can walk within a foot of Eco-Bella without eating her.

Eco-Bella is, as I mentioned, not street smart. Or dog smart. When I open the door with my two very large (to her) dogs, she stands up, moves a few feet away and ponders what move she will make next. As Celeste decides between the Big Pounce or the Head-Butt and as Mina glares intently in a special way, Eco-Bella arches her back and hisses, then meows, then hisses. I tell her shoo! and she gives me the Huh? look. I tell her Bad Cat, Go! and she gives me the Huh? look. Only when Mina gets within a foot of her does she respond appropriately and dash off into the sunset.

This cat is very lucky both my dogs are always leashed for their potty breaks. Otherwise Eco-Bella would most likely no longer be in this world and, to be honest, this world is better off having Eco Bella in it.

Now, back to the title of this post.

This morning started out as it has for the past month since Eco-Bella's idiot owner moved in. I crack the door open, see the cat, tell the cat to shoo, cat gets closer to the door and moving snouts of my overeager dogs. I close door, turn to my dogs, and tell them they are both Very Bad and I Love them Very Much. Stay, I say, then open the door again, slide out onto the breezeway entrance, scoop cat up and place her twenty feet away. I attempt to outpace her back to the door where I grab the dogs, turn around to find cat three feet away, let the dogs out hoping their leashes don't magically break, and face the cat. Cat runs away, Mina and Celeste snort and huff and sigh at their misfortune at not eating the cat.

I forget to close door because, well, there's this whole Cat Thing I have to deal with.

I come back up steps with dogs leading the way, yelling Tally-Ho where's my fox-cat!?! Pause at top of steps, peer into breezeway entrance leading to my door, sigh in relief that cat has moved onto bigger and better things that don't involve nearly getting smooshed by my dogs.

Walk into living room and stop suddenly in confusion and outright horror at the sight in front of me.

Cat is sitting on my sofa.

Dogs have not noticed cat is sitting on my (their) sofa. But they smell the intruder and are thoroughly investigating the carpet.

And then.

Cat is sitting on my sofa and meowing.

All hell breaks loose. Mina is outraged and appalled and wondering why a cat is sitting on HER freaking sofa. Celeste mishears the meow and faces my direction wondering if the cat is outside. I am once again thankful that they are both wearing leashes.

There is no point in discussing this issue with Mina - she is quietly angry, which is the worst kind really, and she is not going to debate the pros and cons of having a cat on her sofa. She is going eat the cat and maybe the sofa too, just to emphasize the wrongness of a cat on her sofa. Celeste is more responsive due to the fact she thinks the cat is outside and she can gleefully chase and pounce and chase some more. So I do an about face, dragging a very perturbed pit bull behind me while following a really eager muttskie in front of me.

The cat has already realized the error of her ways and follows us out.

And I imagine tomorrow morning, she will still be at the door meowing pitifully.

I will remember to shut the door.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

On failing Charlie

This was going to be a post about bonding and how I met Mina, but it ended up being a post about Charlie or How I Failed A Dog and then found Mina.

Once upon a time, I fostered dogs. Pit bulls, specifically. When I was a wee-lass in high school, I met her. I was 16, she was 6 and it was True Love. She was an all white deaf pit bull named Sunny. I made both my first doggie training mistakes and successes with her and, in return, she head-butted me. I fell in love and I told myself: Self, this is the kind of dog you want in your life, you know, when you're ready.

In college, I volunteered at a local county shelter. The shelter was brimming with pit bulls. Self, here's your chance. I started out small, fostering litters of pit bull puppies. After several hellish months of torturing myself with needle sharp teeth, uncontrollable bladders, missing underwear, I said to myself: Self, you must stop with the pit bull puppies. So I did and promised never to foster another puppy until I reneged on that promise two years ago (damn you, Celeste, damn you).

I started to foster adult pit bulls. There were perks. They did not eat my ankles. They often came housetrained or at least far more eager to learn than 6-wk-old pups. I found the best part of fostering adult pit bulls was their smooshy heads. They have a bony proterbuerance at the top I affectionately call their Alien Nub (to attract aliens, of course). Their cheeks are full of something squishy and stretchy that beg to be pulled and pinched. Generally, I received kisses or bemused expressions in response to my cheeky obsession.

And then, Charlie. None of the adult pit bulls I fostered were dog aggressive. They were social butterflies who thought other dogs were sent from above or, at the very least, were worth a thorough sniff-inspection and perhaps a polite nod. Charlie would be different. He was this sleek, mush-head, bouncy, beautiful boy who I thought could be The One.

Now, I should interject with some facts about myself. Fact #1: I loved Sunny. Fact #2: I didn't do any breed research on pit bulls because Fact #3: I loved Sunny and, by extension, any dog who remotely resembled her. Arousal thresholds and dog tolerance levels were all unknown to me.

So imagine my shock and awe when Charlie took it upon himself to try and eat a German Shepherd. Then another pit bull. And finally a couple of Labradormipoodaloos. This was new to me. It was also a really bad mark for his chance at adoption. We tried bringing him to the adoption ward at the shelter and he told us, in no uncertain terms, that he was going to eat every dog on earth. Or at least all the ones in his kennel. When he severely wounded a very sweet Collie mix, staff kindly took me aside and said I had two options: Adopt Charlie or Kill Charlie.

This was not a very nice choice. I was not very terrier-savvy or dog-aggression savvy in any manner, shape or form. I was in college and didn't have the money to fund what I thought would be an expensive dog training regime. I didn't really think a training regime would change Charlie's mind about other dogs. I was a silly, naive 20-yr-old who thought she could fix the world, or at least Charlie, but when faced with the actual problem, I got scared. Truth be told, Charlie didn't need fixing, he needed someone who could manage him fairly and effectively, who could revel in his outgoing nature and understand his dislike of other dogs. And accept him.

Sad truth time - I couldn't. No. I wouldn't.

Charlie would not be adopted by anyone but me - that was the shelter staff's ultimatum. I would not adopt Charlie - I had a 15-yr-old dog living with my parents who I visited 2-3 times a month. Charlie did not like my 15-yr-old dog living with my parents who I visited 2-3 times a month. I used this as an excuse for walking this bouncy, brave, beautiful boy to the kill room at the shelter and holding him as he died.

I used to say euthanized. Humanely. With his favorite people holding him tight.

Sad truth time - I helped kill a perfectly healthy, perfectly adoptable, perfectly wonderful dog. That he hated other dogs was just an aspect, a piece of what made him whole and complete. And that I was put into a position of making a choice between life and death, while entirely unfair, should never have been a choice at all - there was Charlie and he was Good and he Trusted Me and I Failed Him.

After his death, I thought I would take a break. I would step away from fostering and wait a very long time until I welcomed another dog into my life. I needed to be prepared for all possibilities, including a dog with low-tolerance of other dogs.

And then.

Mina came into the shelter a month after Charlie died. She was pathetic and woeful and angsty. She was the complete and utter opposite of perky Charlie. Her life in that kennel was about hiding into herself, squeezing into the smallest ball, becoming tiny and insignificant. She was shy and lacked confidence, she was the complete opposite of Charlie in every way but one - she did not try to eat the 15-yr-old dog who lived with my parents I visited 2-3 times a month, or the other dogs in her kennel. She let kittens nurse off of her, even though she was spayed. She thought iguanas were pretty neat and could she please nose the bunny in the butt?

And then Mina got healthier and more confident and decided cats were for chasing, bunnies were for eating, and other dogs were for her to yell at while leashed, annoy while off leash and only really love if they did everything she wanted them to do. In short, her true personality, hidden by years of neglect and months of ill-health, suddenly decided it was time to emerge.

This time I was ready. This time there would be trainers and hard work and a 100% acceptance of who Mina is as a dog. There would be no killing her for being sassy. There would be no tough choices, wrong choices by the way. It's a double-edged sword - had I kept Charlie, I would not have Mina, yet Mina was who I needed to teach me how to keep a dog like Charlie. I don't write this for pity about Charlie or for words of anger. It's been eight years and I've never ever forgotten him. I never will.

We all make mistakes. Some are far worse than others. We can grow or shrink, become kinder or crueler. We can and will make more mistakes, bad choices. The beauty is in becoming better and bigger, in choosing to embrace failure and emerge wiser and, I think, happier (most of the times). I have Mina to remind me every single day of my failure with Charlie, of my success with her. I hope that is enough for him.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Up, up and away!

This past weekend, I went to go see Up, Disney's Pixar animation about friendship, adventure and dogs. And not just any dogs - dogs who, when affixed with a special collar, can actually talk.

Let me first say - I liked this movie. I liked the theme of respect and kindness, of friendship and honoring special bonds. I liked the portrayal of dogs (except the whole "master" bit), I think they captured so much of what attracts us bipeds to those furry quadrupeds.

But, and you knew it was coming, I couldn't help but cringe when I saw the horde of dogs managed by the "bad guy". While the "hero dog" is a goofy, eager-to-please, golden-hued retriever, every single menacing dog is black, dark, muscular. They are Rottweilers, Dobermans, Pit Bulls, Mastiffs and one English Bulldog and they are not portrayed nicely. I mean, they *kill* people, even if it is only b/c their "master" told them to. That is just not how types of dogs should be portrayed.

Even when the ending comes about and you see the dogs are nothing more than a reflection of their owner/guardian, that they aren't inherently bad, I couldn't help but feel a bit slighted.

As a pit bull guardian, I'm used to being stereotyped. People on the internet don't hesitate to call me "ghetto trash" or claim only drug-dealing felons own pit bulls. Nevermind my college degree in Animal Science, my full-time job as an education coordinator at a sanctuary, or that I don't do or deal drugs. Minor details. People in the off-line world are a mixed bag. Some love my pit bull, others cringe, some tell me they get a bad reputation, others tell me they should all be killed. There are cities and states that discriminate against me based on how one of my dogs looks.

So it is difficult for me to watch Up and not feel as if the creators have bought into the hype, that they are perpetuating stereotypes and myths that have caused the deaths of thousands of dogs.

This film would have been a lot more fun, a lot more enjoyable had the dogs been a mixed bag, had they been different colors, different sizes, different breeds (mixed breeds too) and had the "good" dog not been the stereotypical "good" dog with his blond hair and retriever'ish looks.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Because exchanging guns isn't as sexy as "pit bull"

Turns out that being a felon possessing a weapon illegally as well as some cocaine is far less awesome than a territorial dog getting shot and injured. Now maybe if the dog in question was a nondescript mixed breed, the story would have been less sensational. But the dog was a "pit bull" and thus the sexy-meter skyrocketed from an unattractive "Illegal guns traded in parking lot" to a steamy "Monstrous pit bull shot trying to eat officer's head".

Call me crazy, but I'm just far less offended by instinct driven behavior and an appropriate dog-logic to defend pack and turf than I am by people who trade guns, deal drugs and steal cars.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

On emo pit bulls

I was going to blog on SF Weekly's article on service animals, because it really annoyed me.


Yeah, that's way more fun.

Mina is 10.5 years old. She did not require any special training to achieve this look of angst. She came with it, actually. Mina is a Sensitive Soul. Sometimes she smiles. I love those times. Other times, she gives me the saddest look imaginable. I hate those times. And when she sleeps, all is well with the world.

To be honest, Mina provides a service of being herself (and letting me hug her) in exchange for praise, toys, a bed, food, and access to my shins after a shower. I think the reason people (especially disenfranchised folks) want dogs with them throughout the day has less to do with "service" and more to do with reconnecting to our earlier relationship with dogs.

You can see it on farms or in regions of the world where there are still neighborhood street dogs. The dogs go everywhere with their people. It's not a perfect system, street dogs have short lifespans and some farmers see their dogs as disposable. Still, the dogs get to express themselves fully. They are not stymied by apartment doors and leashes and all the restraints a "civilized" society places on dogs and their guardians/owners. They go with their people and are at ease in the world. There may be moments of tenseness and fear, but mostly it's a relaxed state of being, a comfortableness that many city dogs lack, including my own.

Well, maybe things will change for Mina and Celeste once the sanctuary where I work moves to a larger facility. I'll get to bring them to work and there will be large meadows and pastures for them to run wild through. Mina even gets to have a pasture named after her. She will be gloriously emotastic in her pasture, sniffing and running and being Dog. Until then, I'll just have to run her hard and make sure she gets to de-stuff all the toys she wants. It's the least I can do, really.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

On culling and confiscating

Two stories I wanted to blog a bit about.

First up, Floyd County, GA and it's killing of 16 pit bulls confiscated from an alleged dog fighting operation. Why are the dogs dead? It isn't because they are particularly vicious (the shelter placed seven in rescue groups). Floyd County doesn't have space AND Floyd County prohibits the adoption of pit bulls.

Here's what Floyd County animal care and control director has to say about the law:

The number one reason we can’t adopt them out to citizens of the county is that it s a policy not to adopt out a vicious dog.

People, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot state a certain type of dog is "vicious" and then allow for the "extradition" of said dogs to rescue organizations. That isn't logical. It is one of the many reasons BSL is irksome: Lawmakers come up with an inane law based on a red herring (phenotype) as far as viciousness is concerned, then turn around and say you can make exceptions so long as x, y and z is followed. In Floyd County's case, the exception was that pit bulls could be placed in rescue, just not adopted to the public. They missed the memo on how rescue agencies adopt to the public. Either these dogs, based on their breed (according to the county) are dangerous or they are not (and can be placed). And if they are not, then there is a significant flaw in the county's designation of a phenotype as dangerous.

The killing of adoptable, healthy animals is always tragic. Which leads me to the next story in a tangential sort of way - the mass cull of 37,000+ dogs in Hanzhong, China since May 23. I would prefer slaughter as it is a much more provocative word than "cull". The dogs were clubbed to death or buried alive - pets and strays were included, no exceptions.

This type of knee-jerk reaction, while unlikely to be seen in the same scope or degree in the United States is no different than breed bans based on alleged dangerousness. Even though there are 370,000 dogs and 90% have been vaccinated, a spike of rabies infections inspired the clubbing massacre. From March until June 9, 12 people have died and 6,000 people have been "scratched or bitten". The 6,000 number is only meaningful if any of those bites/scratches develop into rabies, which we'll only find out after the incubation period.

The truth is that Hanzhong had a good deal going - they were vaccinating dogs, going door-to-door and enforcing the vaccination. They had an unprecedented 90% compliance rate and that would have gone higher with some more vaccination programmes (including rounding up and vaccinating/neutering if feasible stray dogs). Now they are killing dogs, many who may be vaccinated already, leaving open room and space for an influx of new, unvaccinated animals. Ignoring the cruelty of the clubbings and live burials, this just isn't an effective, logical or sound way to reduce the rate of rabies and may, in fact, increase the likelihood of rabies outbreaks.

I'm a fan of public safety, really I am. BSL and dog culls do not improve public safety - they create a false sense of security while killing perfectly healthy, nice animals (and criminalizing perfectly nice, law-abiding humans). That there are people who can't see that, can't see the stupidity of such laws and actions, well that is beyond me.

Now, go and hug your companion dogs and cats and whatevers. Keep them safe and protect your rights as a dog guardian/owner and their rights to be alive and treated with respect.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On walking with a pit bull

Sometimes I think I'm walking a bear or maybe a little 40-lb alien whenever I drag Mina off on a walk. If people aren't giving me the stink eye, they're looking at Mina in sheer wonderment as if the idea of 40-lb, adorable-looking, non-eating-your-child pit bull is...shocking.

I'm always curious what people think of when they think pit bull. On more than 20 occasions, I have been told that a) Mina is not a pit bull; b) Mina is just a puppy; c) Mina is too small for a pit bull; d) Mina is too cute to be a pit bull (seriously, I've been told that); e) Mina is too friendly for a pit bull (she's actually not friendly enough!)

It must be that "pit bull" means rabid, frothing, 250-lb, old, ugly-ass dog. Maybe with two heads. And red-eyes. Also must have leg dangling from mouth.

The reality is thankfully less menacing than the myth.

I mean, I know she looks a little thugtastic in this picture with her tennis ball (that she doesn't actually chase or chew on or do much but lie next to). Not very threatening, though.

I was walking Mina and Celeste at the park with a friend. Celeste gets to be her rent-a-dog, being a dogless dog-lover at the moment (tragic!) We're approaching a mom with her two kids. As a pit bull owner/guardian, you are always on guard, judging the body language of the oncoming person. You look for the signs: whites of their eyes start to show, sometimes they just freeze in place, maybe a furtive glance across the street to see if they could make it in one leap, the jaw tightening, a general air of tenseness entering their body. I see those signs and I walk across the street - bad mojo, yo.

I didn't see those signs with the mom and kids. The mom stopped, relaxed, pulling her kids to one side and said, "Look at the dogs, kids. Those are nice dogs. That one, the pretty looking one on the left, that's a pit bull. And the dog on the right. Well, that's a...hmmm."

Okay, let me interrupt. I know Celeste is funny looking. I know she's leggy and weird and her ears don't match. Her tongue goes off in weird directions and she sometimes trips over herself. But come on! she's cute! Even if she isn't a pit bull. Plus, she's an attention whore!

So the lady has paused and her kids are looking up at her expectantly (I am too). So she finally says, "kids, that dog there is a mutt."

Mutt. I have to remember to smile. I prefer mixed breed or canine of unknown lineage. Never mutt - it doesn't roll off the tongue at all and the hard "t" sounds make it sound dirty. Mutt.

I'm a little bummed after that encounter.

As we are finishing the walk, we encounter the woman as she is about to drive off. She stops her car and rolls down her window.

"What I meant to say is that your dog is a handsome mixed breed."

That's right - handsome and all mixed up. I couldn't have said it better. Maybe she read my body language after the mutt comment or maybe she felt bad for saying Mina was nice looking and not offering a compliment to Celeste. Either way, the walk ended quite nicely.

Except for when Mina thought she could take on two Rottweilers and stared really hard at them, just willing them to look at her. Celeste thought she could take on a tree. The Rottweilers thought Mina was a silly chit and politely ignored her, which sent her into a fit of emo pit bull angst the world has never seen (she hates being ignored by dogs she wants to yell at). The tree, well, it just stood there, which really impressed Celeste.

Walking a pit bull is usually fun, if it's Mina we're talking about. And we're always talking about Mina, ergo walking a pit bull is always fun. Mina logic 101, folks.