ahhh, the life of a diplomatic princess . . .

Archive for the category “Pets”

Virginia Voters, Keep Up the Momentum!

I’ll be happy when this blog can go back to its regularly scheduled programming of writing about the places we visit, raising kids overseas, and the occasional political rant but, until that can happen, this is the track we are on.

Virginia Senate Bill 1381 has conquered one more hurdle, this time in passing the House Agricultural Committee. It was close, 12-10, but it happened. Friday is go time, that’s when the bill is before the House. I am urging Virginia voters to contact their delegates and ask them to support SB 1381, briefly tell them why this bill is so important. If you’re not sure who your delegate is you can go here. And I’m asking folks to go further by contacting all members of the House of Delegates and do the same, you may not be one of their constituents but you are still a Virginia voter, you can find the list here.

I know that we can sometimes wonder if appealing to our representatives makes a difference, but it’s what we’ve got, and if we all do it then we’ve got a powerful weapon, one we need to use. If we do nothing then we’ve let the lobbyist working on behalf of PETA win, we’ve let the status quo of killing adoptable animals win. So let’s move forward, folks, and fight for the animals who cannot fight for themselves. We’re in mile 11 now, and we never give up on a run.

An Urgent List for Virginia Voters

Virginia’s SB 1381 passed the House Agriculture Subcommittee yesterday afternoon, but just barely–4 Y-3 N. On Wednesday it will go before the full Agriculture committee, if it passes there it will go before the full House on Friday. To remind, SB 1381 “Clarifies that the purpose of a private animal shelter is to find permanent adoptive homes and facilitate other lifesaving outcomes for animals,” it closes a loophole that needs to be closed. If this bill passes any private facility that calls itself a “shelter” will not be able to kill the majority of the animals it takes in, it will instead have to re-home them.

I am urging Virginia voters to act. We know that PETA has hired a lobbyist to work towards defeating this bill, we can’t let that happen. I’m posting an Action Alert from No Kill Hampton Roads, please act on it as soon as you can, we’re down to the wire here.


SB 1381 passed the House Agriculture Subcommittee yesterday. Vote was 4-3. It will be before the full House Ag committee tomorrow, Wednesday morning. So, please contact your delegate and House Ag committee members today.

1. Contact your Delegate and urge them to support SB 1381 and request support for this bill from fellow delegates on the House Ag committee.

2. Contact each House Ag committee member and urge support for SB 1381.
(FYI Delegates Poindexter, Knight, James & Keam voted in support of this bill yesterday in the Ag subcommittee and the no votes were from Morefield, Orrock & Marshall)

The House Ag committee has 22 members and for your convenience their email addresses are listed below and also a suggestion of what to say:

Dear Delegate:
As a Virginia, I urge you to support SB 1381. This bill clarifies the language for what constitutes a private shelter in Virginia. It includes that a “private animal shelter” means a facility operated for the purpose of finding permanent adoptive homes and facilitating other lifesaving outcomes for animals. Surely this is something we all want our private shelters in Virginia to strive for, the best outcome for each and every companion animal.
Thank you.

Why Would PeTA Hire a Lobbyist to Defeat a Bill Intended to Help Animals?

In Virginia tomorrow Senate Bill 1381, which has already passed the Senate, will go in front of the House. This bill “clarifies the purpose of a private animal shelter is to find permanent and adoptive homes and facilitate other lifesaving outcomes for animals.” If SB 1381 passes it would mean that PeTA, which states that it has a shelter (and, therefore, has to meet the legal guidelines for animal shelters), would have to shift from killing the majority of animals it takes in to finding adoptive homes for them instead. The way it would most impact PeTA is clearly stated in this article by Arin Greenwood at the Huffington Post:

“The current wording of the definition has been interpreted to create a loophole under which the PETA facility in Norfolk operates as a private animal shelter but without the purpose of finding permanent adoptive homes for animals,” Tabitha Frizzell Hanes, of the Richmond SPCA, writes on the shelter’s blog. “Over the past decade, as save rates at private shelters across Virginia have risen and euthanasia rates have fallen, the PETA facility euthanizes the animals it takes in at a rate of about 90 percent.

“It is out of step with the progress being made for our state’s homeless animals for a private shelter to operate not with the purpose of finding animals adoptive homes but almost entirely to take their lives.”

The purpose of an animal shelter is rescue, killing the vast majority of animals that come into a shelter is not part of rescue. Apparently, PeTA wants so badly for this bill to fail that it hired a lobbyist whose aim is to make sure that the bill fails, as outlined in this latest piece on the Huffington Post by Douglas Anthony Cooper. Quoting Mr. Cooper,

The bill seemed certain to pass in the House, as the Senate approved it 33-5. That certainty has evaporated with the revelation that PETA has hired a famous lobbyist to urge Virginia Delegates to vote nay. VPAP (The Virginia Public Access Project) has reported that Stephen D. Haner has been retained by PETA to lobby politicians in the area of “all matters related to the operation of private animal shelters in the Commonwealth of Virginia.” (VPAP is a non-partisan institution aimed at keeping Virginia voters informed.)

Why would PeTA want so badly for this bill to fail that it hired a lobbyist in order to fight the bill’s chances of passing? PeTA stated that, in 2014, it provided “free euthanasia services for 2,454 dogs, cats, and other animals in just one area of the United States.” While many shelters offer a humane euthanasia service, I cannot imagine that the numbers of animals euthanized under this service at any given shelter are anywhere near what PeTA says it does. The implication of “free euthanasia services” means the owner of a dog, cat, or other companion animal brings their animal to PeTA for humane euthanasia because the animal is suffering, due to age or illness. My understanding is that this bill would not impact that activity, and my feeling is that they are fighting this bill so hard because animals suffering due to age or illness whose owners are asking for humane euthanasia is not the true explanation for PeTA’s outrageously high kill rate. The reason for the high kill rate is that animals who PeTA has surrendered to it for the purposes of adoption are never (or extremely rarely) placed up for adoption, rather they are killed. If this bill passes, PeTA would no longer legally be able to do that and things would get very tricky for the organization.

Apparently, Revenge is a Dish Best Served #IceCold

This afternoon I did a skype interview with WVEC News Now in Hampton Roads, Virginia about the truth I’ve been telling regarding People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and how the vast majority of companion animals who are turned over to them for adoption (or, sometimes, stolen) are killed, usually the same day, sometimes within minutes. Most importantly, how PeTA, when taking these animals in, never intends to put them up for adoption, despite the fact that is what is told to the owners in order to convince them to surrender the animal. And how, at least during the time when I worked there, the logs where the use of phenobarbital was recorded were doctored in order to allow animals to be killed off the books.

PeTA’s response is that I’m a “disgruntled employee” who has created a “hateful fantasy” in order to enact revenge. I watched the story with my family, when we heard the response from PeTA my kids burst out laughing, they’re now teasing me that my new nickname is “disgruntled.” Why? Because it’s an absolutely ridiculous and laughable response. At the time of my firing my husband was a television journalist and anchor, we knew half the reporters and photographers in town. If I’d wanted revenge I would have done it then, and done it in a very grand way. It took me fifteen years to come up with this “hateful fantasy” for the purposes of revenge? I know I’m not the brightest bulb in the bunch but I’m not that dim. So I tweeted this:


I am so grateful that this is all finally being revealed, and that people have my back, and that people are paying attention. The practice of killing healthy, adoptable, or easily rehabilitated animals, without ever placing them up for adoption was wrong then. I believe this is still happening at PeTA. It’s got to stop.

You can watch the interview here:

My Response to the Haters

Shill, hack, only doing it for attention, only doing it for money, naive, liar, full of shit, crackpot, coward, reeking of dishonesty, on and on. These are the fun-filled comments that are coming my way. Thankfully, the positive ones still outweigh them.

I was messaging with one of my best friends this morning and I told her that I was being accused of doing this for money, which is funny because I’ve been offered money for the publication of my blog in a journal, I replied that he should feel free to use the blog but that I don’t want the money. My friend responded with “Remember, they can’t discredit your words, all they have left is to try to discredit you.” This will be my mantra (thank you, R, I love you!).

Everyone who knows me knows my reasons for speaking the truth about my experiences at PeTA. And they know why it’s taken me this long to do it. I am not trying to “take PeTA down,” as has been the accusation. PeTA has done groundbreaking, revolutionary work in animal rights and none of what I’m saying is meant to detract from that. But I think it’s important to know that’s not the full story. And I think it’s important for the full story to be out there for a lot of reasons.

I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how I wanted to respond to the people slinging these accusations at me. I’m sure they’re hoping that they will insult me into submission and I’ll go slinking off to the sidelines licking my wounds. That won’t happen, and not because I’m itching for a fight (I’m really, really not, this whole thing is time consuming and energy draining) but because I stand by what I’ve written.

I look at this kind of like a long run (those of you who know me knew this was coming sooner or later). The first few miles are tough, intimidating, or just tiresome. Then you get two or three miles in and you’re cruising along, pumped up, feeling like you can conquer the world. At around the eight mile mark you start to feel tired, your muscles ache, you just want to stop because eight miles is enough, right? At the ten mile mark you refuse to quit, because you’ve given it so much already and you cannot back down now, you have to see it through. We’re at the ten mile mark, and I never give up on a run.


The Legacy of Black Boy

Sometimes the most frightening things can turn into the most meaningful. Writing my blog about PeTA, was a painful and difficult thing, publishing it was scary. It was scary because I know what I’m potentially up against by speaking the truth about PeTA, I lived it. But I knew telling the truth had to be done and, once I wrote it, I wanted it read far and wide. I did a little research and found the work that Douglas Anthony Cooper has been doing to expose PeTA, I felt he was the one I needed to contact. My hope was that he would read my blog and know the best way to get the truth out so I sent him a Facebook message with a link. Over the course of many hours we communicated and I told him more about my experiences, it felt good to share these things, cleansing. Keeping them locked tight, shared only to those I most trusted, was like having a darkness living inside of me, some nasty companion I hated and couldn’t get rid of. I don’t consider myself to be absolved, but I’m on my way.

Mr. Cooper published a piece  on the Huffington Post about my experiences at PeTA. I’m nervous about it, for the same reasons I was scared before, but I’m also very grateful to him for telling my story. I want to honor the dog who saved me, I want Black Boy’s legacy to be one not only of setting me back on my path and helping me find absolution and self-forgiveness, but helping me make a difference in the lives of animals.

This morning I was reading my Twitter feed and I saw Black Boy’s name everywhere, it brought tears to my eyes. This is a dog who meant so little to the person who was supposed to love and care for him that she left him outside in a snowstorm to freeze to death while she sat in her house next door, safe and warm. But he mattered to me, I had come to love him, and if I could go back to that night and change what I did I would do it in a heartbeat, but I can’t. All I can do now is move forward and make sure that Black Boy’s legacy is one of redemption and change.

Rescued by Black Boy: how a neglected dog set me back on my path, away from PETA

There was a time when I was a True Believer and a very good little soldier, I did what I was told to do, when I was told to do it. I didn’t question orders and if I did it was never to the face of the one giving them. Then, one stormy and snowy evening, I stopped by an abandoned house to check on a dog I’d been feeding and caring for. I pulled up in front of the home and saw him huddled on the open porch, under cover as much as his short chain would allow, his thick fur encrusted in ice. In that moment I made the decision to unchain him and usher him into my van and, unlike past days when he’d been slightly timid and unwilling to trust me completely, he followed me. I rubbed him with towels to dry his soaked fur, wrapped him in blankets to warm him, fed him dog treats, stroked his head. What followed is one of the great regrets of my life, one I can barely bring myself to write about. Back in a warehouse later that night I held his big head in my lap and whispered soothing mantras in his ear while a colleague of mine injected him with the chemical that would take his life, and he quietly slipped away. I don’t regret taking him, he would probably have frozen to death if I’d left him there. I regret being a good soldier, I regret following orders, I regret not listening to my heart, I regret not fighting for Black Boy. That was his name, this dog who’d been kept on a chain for his entire life in the yard of an abandoned house, never given affection, fed barely enough to sustain him. He’d been bought by the son of the woman who lived next door to the abandoned house for “protection.” She was terrified of him, she threw his food at him because she wouldn’t go near him. At first glance he was intimidating — a big black German Shepard mix who’d only known life on a chain and who was, understandably, protective of his space. But something about him had captured me. I spent time with him, a lot of time, and this is how he came to trust me enough to let me whisk him away on the night that ended up with him dead and me broken.

As a field worker for People for the Ethical Treatment of animals one of my duties was to visit various houses and check on dogs who were kept outside, mostly chained, many without shelter. Some were stuck in the yard for “protection.” Some were dogs who had started as cute puppies, needing training that never came, and ended with them chained to a metal stake in a plot of dirt. These dogs led lives of solitude and neglect, often severe neglect. Laws, and enforcement of those laws, were so lacking that very little could be done to help them. If I and my colleagues didn’t feed them, they often didn’t eat. If we didn’t give them houses then they slept in the dirt — exposed to the sun, rain, and snow. If we didn’t put straw in those houses they went without bedding. Often, without us, they went without any kind of companionship but, despite it all, these dogs were social sparks of light, wanting only to love and be loved. The situation was most dire in Portsmouth, Virginia, specifically a neighborhood called Fairwood Homes.

Fairwood Homes was a development full of tiny, decrepit homes that lacked central heat. The houses were originally intended to be temporary but someone had seen dollar signs and purchased the development to turn it into low-income housing. Fairwood Homes became a place full of people who had nowhere else to go. I spent a lot of time there, and the surrounding neighborhoods, getting to know people, educating them on the benefits of spaying and neutering, vaccinating, proper nutrition, and the importance of socialization for dogs. But I had very few resources and not a lot of support from PETA to focus on education, my focus was supposed to be on triage. My time was spread thin as, in addition to working in Portsmouth, I had to answer calls from all over the Hampton Roads area — to help with feral cats, investigate animal cruelty and neglect, answer calls about dog fighting, and provide transportation for our spay/neuter program from homes to local vets and back again. I worked from early in the morning until well past dark, I neglected my marriage and myself but I felt I was doing important work, and I was good at it. My first performance review earned me a raise and accolades from Ingrid Newkirk, the president of PETA and my direct supervisor. I was blind to the already developing cracks in my own seams.

In the beginning, I wanted to adopt out the majority of animals I brought in, and sometimes I neglected to report when I picked up an animal; in doing so I could bring them to a local shelter because the alternative was euthanasia at PETA. I was not yet a True Believer. Even after I became a True Believer there were certain animals, animals I knew I could easily place, for whom I requested an adoption green light. A few times I was successful in my requests, but I had to fight hard for each adoption and, increasingly, I encountered great resistance. I heard phrases like “a waste of resources” and “not adoptable,” my desire to save each animal was belittled as naive and trivial, I was told that I was missing the bigger picture. I remember one day bringing a tiny white dog into Ingrid’s office to tell her I wanted to adopt her out, not euthanize her. She rolled her eyes and asked why that dog was any more worthy than any of the countless other animals in shelters waiting for a home. I told her she was an adoptable dog — small, social, sweet, could be placed with very little trouble. After sarcastically berating me, with a smile on her face, she turned to a man in her office and asked what he thought, he said she was very cute. She sighed and said something along the lines of “fine, do what you want.” So I found her a home. The perspective I brought to PETA was that of an animal shelter worker. I’d been taught that, as an animal advocate and rescuer, I was duty bound to believe very few animals were beyond hope. While we needed to balance our limited resources, animals who came to us at least deserved a chance. This was not the philosophy I encountered at PETA, at least not from the leadership.

I was treading water in Fairwood Homes and other areas where I worked. More and more I was euthanizing all the animals I brought in, and I could never bring in enough animals, or work enough hours, to please Ingrid. I worked mainly on my own because there were only a few field workers in total and the need was overwhelming. Some of the work was dangerous, especially for a woman alone. I have been surrounded by groups of young men who accused me of stealing their pit bulls (I hadn’t), chased in my van through a swamp by hunters because I was documenting the conditions under which their hunting dogs were kept, chased by packs of feral dogs, pinned against a wall by a man who threatened me. I asked Ingrid for a phone that worked properly (my mobile phone was ancient and worked sporadically), and to be allowed to carry mace. She refused both requests. Eric was becoming increasingly concerned about my safety, I reassured him that I was fine, believing my own bravado. Physically I was fine, emotionally my cracks were spreading.

An equally overworked and emotionally frustrated colleague and I decided we would ask Ingrid if we could open a small shelter near Fairwood Homes, it would operate not only as a shelter but also a place we could vaccinate animals and educate the people in the neighborhood, it would give us a central base. Because, let me be clear, there was no shelter at PETA when I was there. What was referred to as the “shelter” was a large, empty storage closet across from our office. The only other holding facility we had was in the warehouse, where the animals were euthanized. And when I did use the room across from my office as a holding area for animals Ingrid would ask why I hadn’t already euthanized them, one time nailing me to the wall because the litter of puppies I’d placed in there for a night had pooped everywhere. I was told to euthanize the puppies immediately. Needless to say, Ingrid refused our request for a shelter — waste of resources, not the aim of the program, animals beyond hope, same old same old. I saw the opening of a shelter as a chance to make a real difference in an area where the animals so desperately needed help. And a lot of the people there were good folks, but they were treating animals the way they’d been raised to treat them, they didn’t know a different kind of life for a dog. They needed education and assistance, and the children needed to see empathy, compassion, and responsibility or nothing was going to change. I was gutted. I was also exhausted from the constant uphill battle I was fighting, I was tired of euthanizing animals I wanted to save, I was rapidly burning out.

And on that night, sitting on the cold warehouse floor, holding Black Boy and sobbing into his wet fur I broke, completely cracked open. I realized I had strayed far from my own belief system, and if I continued to walk the road I was on I would become a fanatic out of necessity, because it had to be done in order to survive the life I was living. I sobbed for Black Boy, for the life he could have had if I hadn’t lost my way. I was right to steal him, I was wrong to be complicit in his death, and, to this day, a part of me hates myself for that.

I began keeping sane work hours, which didn’t go unnoticed by Ingrid. I became a bit of a rogue in the field, no longer following protocol, bringing in fewer animals, skipping calls I felt were only excuses for me to berate someone. One day I took part in a meeting about the “allocation of resources” for our program. Ingrid announced that, in order to cut costs, we would no longer be paying to have male pit bulls neutered, we would only pay to have females spayed. She asked for feedback, which I knew she did not really want but I spoke up anyway. I told her that neutering was a necessity, without it the male dogs would be vulnerable to being used as fighting dogs. She maintained we didn’t have the funds for it. I told her that we had to find the funds, we didn’t have a choice. No, the decision was made and we would no longer pay for neutering. I took a deep breathe, looked at my friend and colleague who was seated across the table from me who had fixed me with a “don’t do it” stare. I took a deep breath, and told Ingrid that if we discontinued the neutering program in the particular area where my focus was then we would be as guilty of perpetuating the cruelty of dog fighting as those who were fighting the dogs, and that the suffering and death of each dog lost to a fight would be on our hands. The meeting ended.

A few weeks later I was given a letter of dismissal from the woman who had started out as my assistant but had since become my supervisor, her promotion happened around the time I’d stopped being such a good little soldier. Not cut out for a job in animal rescue, best of luck, effective immediately. I was told to clean out my desk and leave. I was upset, not because I’d been fired because I’d seen that as inevitable, and I was grateful for it. I was upset because, contrary to the excuse they’d invented in order to fire me, I was good at my job, what I was no longer good at was following orders that I knew were immoral. While I was packing my desk two men came into my office to “escort” me out of the building. As I picked up my box of belongings one of them wrapped his fingers around my arm, the subtle threat of force was not lost on me. I responded to his grasp with “don’t you fucking touch me” while shooting him with the same glare that had saved me from gang members and hunters. I left PETA that day, still broken, full of regret, burned out, but solid in the belief that I was back on my path and I needed to make amends.

It has taken me years to write about my experiences at PETA, the closest I ever came was this blog, where I addressed some of what I’m writing about now but in far less detail. Part of me needs this catharsis, but what made me finally decide to write about this was the bill that just passed in the Virginia Senate and is on its way to the House. Yesterday was the first I’d heard of the bill but I’m glad I did because I think it’s a necessary one. The bill would prevent PETA from killing the majority of the animals it brings in, which would be a very good thing because, unless things have changed drastically at PETA since my time there, and I doubt they have, they are responsible for the deaths of far more animals than they are disclosing, and they have no problem lying about numbers. And, while I’m hopeful that this bill would make a difference, I am also skeptical at how effective it would be because I know from first hand experience that the PETA leadership has no problem lying. I was told regularly to not enter animals into the log, or to euthanize off site in order to prevent animals from even entering the building. I was told regularly to greatly overestimate the weight of animals whose euthanasia we recorded in order to account for what would have otherwise been missing “blue juice” (the chemical used to euthanize), because that allowed us to euthanize animals off the books. I was told regularly to say whatever I had to say in order to get people to surrender animals to me, lying was not only acceptable, it was encouraged. I am not a PETA hater, I agree with many of the things they fight for, even if I think their methods often detract from their objectives. My own feeling is that PETA should be completely barred from taking animals into its facility, and from legally obtaining the drugs needed to euthanize —  that is the only way to minimize the killing. I believe they should be allowed to continue to work in the field, out in the open, but that anything behind closed doors is dangerous.

My intention in writing this is not to be vindictive, or to lash out, or to absolve myself from responsibility. I was an adult when I worked there, I made the decision to follow orders, nobody forced me into it. I eventually allowed myself to buy into what I was being sold — the belief that the numbers were so overwhelming that euthanasia was the only option for the vast majority of animals we brought in, the belief that the animals were too broken to be helped, and the belief that it was okay to lie and create stories in order to get the work done. It wasn’t okay, the ends did not justify the means, the ends weren’t even the ends we should have been working towards. As strange as it feels to believe it, because I worked constantly, the philosophy that I operated under at PETA, the philosophy that I believe they still operate under, was lazy, and it betrayed the animals we were supposed to be helping.

I know that euthanasia, at this point, is a necessary evil but the solution that PETA has decided upon, the killing of the vast majority of the animals it takes in, not to mention the killing of animals whose existence is never recorded, is not the answer. And I really would encourage anyone who is wanting to donate to animals to look at organizations other than PETA. There are so many who are doing remarkable, peaceful work, and they do it with a much smaller budget. PETA, at least in the way it involves itself with companion animals locally, is not what it seems and my belief is that it never will be. I maintain what I wrote in my previous blog about PETA; working with animals who have been neglected, abused, betrayed, given up on, isn’t about bailing water out of a sinking ship, it’s about finding solutions, educating, building relationships, and fighting for animals. It’s about saving animals, first and foremost, and that is not done by killing the vast majority that you take in. The work of animal rescue, while exhausting and emotionally difficult, is a privilege. It is a privilege to work on behalf of the voiceless, on behalf of animals who want nothing more that to be a part of a family, to be near us, to spend their days with us, to give us unconditional love. Contrary to what PETA maintains, the majority of animals it takes in are not beyond hope, in my experience many would be considered highly adoptable by a shelter. The “better off dead” line is one that is dragged out in order to excuse what they do — and it’s a lie.

This is the most difficult blog entry I’ve ever written, even in this moment I’m not sure I’ll press the publish button. And I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to forgive myself for allowing myself for straying so far from the things that I know are right. So I guess I’m kind of looking at this as another way to make amends, especially to Black Boy who, in a very real way, saved me. I’d spent many hours over the course of months with him, it took a long time for him to trust me because he’d only ever known cruelty and neglect. In the end what I did is something unforgivable, I allowed myself to walk a path that I knew in my heart was wrong, I should have fought harder for him, I shouldn’t have followed orders and protocol and all the other shit I’d swallowed hook line and sinker. And all the shit I willingly drank down, and what it led me to do, is something I’ll never be able to cleanse myself of. That’s just a fact. But I hope by writing this, and by writing the truth about what I experienced at PETA, at least some people will open their eyes to what really happens behind its closed doors.

Speaking Out About PETA–and Why No Animal is Beyond Help

Our home is full of animals who have been cast offs at one time or another. Each one of them has ended up with us because they were abandoned, neglected, sometimes abused, and each one has had, through no fault of their own, at least one human turn their backs on them. A pathetic reflection on some people but their loss is our gain, and, though I wish very much our four-legged babes hadn’t had to trot through hell to get to us, our animals help make our house a home, they ground us, they are an integral part of our family and our traveling roots.

Before we had kids I worked with the animals who were cast offs, first at the Humane Society in Missoula, Montana as an animal caretaker and adoption counselor, then at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, (PETA) where I was a field worker investigating abuse cases, promoting our spay neuter program, teaching people how to properly care for their animals, and, among other things, euthanizing animals. In both those places I saw the best and worst of humanity. I worked with people who were passionate about animal welfare and passionate about furthering the humane treatment of animals. I encountered people who were abusive, who thought nothing of beating or abandoning an animal. When I felt overwhelmed by the brutality I had to remind myself of my goal–it wasn’t to hate people but to help animals. In my interview with the director of the Humane Society one thing she said to me really stood out: part of our job is to help these animals regain their self-respect because they’ve often been treated so badly that they are beaten down, but they can be brought back to a place where they trust and love again. It’s such a gift to be able to help an animal rediscover that there is kindness and love, and that they deserve those things.

Which is why when I read a recent article about PETA in the New York Times I went on such a rant that even my husband, used to my fire-filled venting sessions, was a bit taken back. Especially because it went on for a looooong time, poor guy. I lasted about eight months at PETA before I could no longer fall in line, which was fine because I was pretty much burned out with trying to do that. I was treading on thin ice for my last month or so, no longer buying into what I thought of as the triage mentality with which my department was supposed to operate– we were just stopping the bleeding temporarily rather than preventing it and I was desperate to turn that around. I asked if we could open a small shelter in the area where I did most of my work, that way I could spend less time in my van, we could do spaying and neutering right there, I could more easily integrate into the neighborhood and get to know people, and we could actually adopt out animals instead of euthanizing them. I was also really wanting to start a comprehensive foster program so animals could be in homes rather than in a shelter and so animals who needed more socializing or physical care could be given another chance instead of euthanized. I was met with absolute resistance, it was never going to happen.

I should have guessed it was going to go down that way since I had to fight hard for each animal I adopted out or brought to a local shelter. Every time I said “This animal is perfectly adoptable, I want to find a home for him/her” I was met with a stare from the President, Ingrid Newkirk, that conveyed complete disdain and clearly was meant to communicate that I was completely naive and foolish. I suspect the final cut to my short-lived time at PETA happened in a meeting where we were discussing paying for the spaying and neutering of pitbulls. Ingrid wanted to stop paying to neuter pittbulls, continuing only to spay, in order to save money. Again, I felt this was such a triage mentality, especially for an organization with a lot of resources. I reminded her that overpopulation, while a big part of the battle, was not the entire battle. I reminded her that an intact male is vulnerable to being used in fighting, which creates such a cycle of brutality and violence for children that the fight we ultimately were fighting–changing the way people thought about animals–was very much harmed by not tackling the whole problem. When she gave me that look of hers I continued to talk, to the point where a friend of mine who was also at the meeting was looking at me with a wild eyed “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?” look. Shortly after that I was fired, told, essentially, that I wasn’t good at my job and should look into another line of work. This, of course, was hot on the heels of an excellent review and a raise just a few months prior to my being told I was a disaster in the field. I was pretty upset because, even though I was burned out and happy to leave, I was pissed off that I’d gotten fired for voicing my opinion and that lies had been invented to cover up that fact. I remember talking to my dad, someone who has volunteered for and worked with and for, many non-profits. He told me a downside of an organization like PETA, one that is driven not just by a mission but by one strong leader, is that they often become a cult of personality and if you don’t fall in line you are tossed out of the cult because there will always be people clamoring to work for them, who will fall in line–no point in dealing with troublemakers no matter how good they are at their jobs.

On to my present day rant, started by this article, “PETA Finds Itself on Receiving End of Others’ Anger,” in the New York Times. It’s primarily about the number of euthanasias that PETA does, which I only want to address by saying it’s WAY, WAY too many and not nearly enough is done as an alternative to them. I believe, ultimately, that stems from this idea:

For their part, officials at PETA, which has its headquarters and only shelter here in Norfolk, say the animals it rescues are in such bad shape from mistreatment and neglect that they are often better off dead than living in misery on the streets or with abusive owners.

“It’s nice for people who’ve never worked in a shelter to have this idealistic view that every animal can be saved,” said Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA’s vice president for cruelty investigations. “They don’t see what awful physical and emotional pain these poor dogs and cats suffer.”

And my response to that is to call absolute bullshit. Yes, many of the animals I took in were in rough shape emotionally and physically and, yes, it is a drain on resources to take an animal like that and rehabilitate them to the point where they can be adoptable but it is entirely possible, especially with a good network of foster homes (see above, my request to start working on a foster network that was roundly refused). And a fair number of the animals, I’d say the majority, I took in were absolutely adoptable–immediately, without hesitation.

I used to work in a shelter, and I’m a realist, I completely understand that, while working towards a no-kill nation is absolutely the right and possible thing to do, we aren’t there yet in most parts of the country and, until we get there, animals will continue to be euthanised because of a lack of resources and a lack of homes. As completely crappy as that is I get it. But PETA asserting that the adoptability of the animals they take in is the reason they don’t adopt out most of their animals is false. Period. I know, I used to feed people the same BS line when I worked there. Part of me believed it because I had, in a short time, become quite jaded but, eventually, I realized that I was wrong, that PETA was wrong, that they were doing it wrong–that’s when I burned out on the mission and I became so conflicted about continuing work that I believed in, in many ways, but I also wanted to put an end to the things that I could no longer comply with. I’m not writing any of this to jump on the “PETA is evil” wagon because, for the most part, I don’t believe that. I believe in their aims and their mission, not all parts and not always the way they go about it, but the work they’ve done with exposing cruelty on factory farms, in the fur industry, in science labs that use animals, in circuses, to name a few, has been groundbreaking and absolutely vital. But their work with companion animals–no. My belief in the larger good of PETA is the reason it has taken me 13 years to speak out about this but I cannot, in good conscience, keep quiet when the assertion is made that so many animals are too broken to be saved.

Others are working hard to get the message out that animals who end up in shelters are not damaged, or beyond saving, or broken …

… and PETA, in an article in the New York Times, states that the animals it takes in are usually too damaged, beyond saving, too broken. What. The. Ever. Loving. Fuck? THAT is putting the organization over the well being of animals, THAT is upholding stereotypes about shelter animals, THAT is utter bullshit.

Meet our dog Firu …



When he lived on the streets, he was mowed down by a car that was going so fast it broke his femur in half and dislocated his hip. Was he not worth saving? Thank heaven the person who found him shattered on the side of the road thought that he was worth saving, and thank heaven the shelter here, which operates (in stark contrast to PETA) on a shoestring budget, where she brought him thought so too. The one thing they weren’t sure of was if he would make it because he was in such bad shape, but they believed in doing everything in their capability to help him. Firu underwent an operation that not only saved his life but his leg and now we call him our 3 1/2 legged baby because he often treats his injured leg a bit gingerly but, really, he just knows that he gets sympathy from his limp.Yes, he was damaged emotionally and physically but he was far beyond hopeless and you don’t just throw animals away, even if you tell yourself that you’re doing it in the name of mercy.

Meet Squiggles …


Squiggles was discovered in a garbage bin with his brother and sister, someone had tied them all up into a plastic bag and dumped them when they were about a week old. They were filthy, our vet said they’d likely been in the bag for at least a day or two judging by the amount of waste in the bag. They were full of parasites, external and internal, and the other boy was very near death. Our vet kept the very sick kitten, who died later that day, and we fostered the other two kittens, named Squiggles and Cookie by our daughter. Cookie also later died, her parasites weren’t treated in time, but with a lot of intensive work Squiggles pulled through and is now a member of our family. His full name is Sir Lord Wesley Squiggleton the Third, we believe he deserves to be treated like royalty. Was he not worth saving? Were his siblings not worth fighting for?

I understand having to make choices, I understand knowing that you can spend a ton of money to save one dog or you can care for ten for a month, and those choices blow. But those choices are not why PETA makes the decisions that drive their animal companion program. I believe what drives their decisions is the belief that too many humans are inherently bad and undeserving of animals, that overpopulation is too overwhelming, and that you must euthanize and euthanize in order to combat it. But there are a whole lot of good people who want to make animals part of their family, and euthanasia should only be the very last option, it shouldn’t be a matter of course, it shouldn’t be the first, often only, choice.

Working with animals who have been neglected, abused, abandoned isn’t about bailing water out of a sinking ship, it’s about patching up the holes, rebuilding, preventing what caused the crisis in the first place. And what really bites at me is the folks at PETA must know this, either that or they are so completely jaded that they’ve given up on humanity entirely and, in turn, have given up on the animals we have a duty to care for. And that is a sad state of affairs for an animal rights organization.

PS. As an aside, I’m not interested in bashing PETA, or in communicating with people who do. There’s a difference between flat out bashing and pointing out problems, I hope I’ve made it clear that I believe there are big problems within PETA but they also do a whole lot of good so, really, it should just be about shining a light on the problems and hoping the people who have the power start to make changes.

A Hodge Podge of Cherished Memories

There are some people you come across in your life that seem larger than life, my hubby’s step-father was one of those people; a story-teller, an artist, a soldier, a builder, a world traveler, a husband, a father, a grandpop, a friend. Friday morning we learned of his passing, the time since then has been for shock, coping, crying, and, most of all, recalling the remarkable life that he led. I’ve spent a lot of time in chin-up mode, steering the children towards focusing on life instead of death but also, over and over, telling them that their grief is natural and, whatever course it takes, valid and personal. Hubby left for Baltimore to be with his mom and the rest of our family the day that we learned of Bill’s death. He needed to be with his mom as much as she needed him there and, since I could not love her more if she were my own mother, I was grateful for his going. I wish very much the children and I could have joined him, not being able to grieve with family and friends feels wrong, but not much we can do about that, we make the best of it. So I figured writing would help me sort things out a bit, we’ll see. I’m not the right person to paint a list of his accomplishments, or give a run-down of his life, but I want to put into writing some of my favorite memories of Bill.

Bill always greeted with hugs, kisses, smiles and a big “how ya doin’?!” He was one of those people I could not help but smile around, one of those people I always learned something from when I sat down and talked with him. He was famous for his shaggy dog stories and, in contrast to some other tellers of shaggy dog stories (I’m not naming names) his were masterful. Plus, he cold make his thumb “disappear,” which never ceased to fascinate the children. He had a toy parrot named Polly who, when you pressed its belly, said rude and vulgar things and made the children giggle at the naughtiness of it all, which made Bill burst into laughter. He always had something interesting and special to show the kids–a huge model city that took up an entire room, toy antique cars, a trinket he picked up on one of his travels–if grandpop was around, things were fun.

In the downstairs “powder room,” as he called it, of 2309 (the official title of the house he and my mother-in-law lived in) he painted a stunning four wall mural of the Fall of Icarus. “What I decided to do, after getting a pour of vodka and about 17 tubes of Prussian Blue …” is how he described the birth of the mural, it’s all very Bill. When the house was sold losing that room was, in the minds of many, an incredible loss. Luckily, Bill and my hubby’s brother documented the room and its creation:

One gorgeous Summer day Bill took my children into the backyard of 2309 and built a teepee from nothing but wooden sticks, rope, and a big tarp. It was pretty much the coolest teepee ever, sturdy, meticulously designed. When Liam, our oldest, asked if he could play with Bill’s hatchet in the teepee Bill, ever the indulgent grandfather, stopped and considered the request, mom and grandma Betsy quickly shouted out “NO!” in unison. Bill, shrugged and said something along the lines of “mom and grandmom have spoken, kid, sorry.”

On a cold, winter afternoon Bill brought Liam into the basement, where he had his studio, to build a birdhouse for us to hang in one of our trees once the Spring came. They were down there for hours, hammering and chatting, and I only panicked a little when I heard the electric saw start to whir.

The backyard of 2309 was also a place for making things go “BOOM!” Bill and our oldest would lovingly carry out cannons that Bill built (yes, built), along with an enormous supply of caps. I would watch them out there, placing the caps in the cannons, bracing myself when Bill shouted “FIRE IN THE HOLE!” and Liam repeated “FIRE IN THE HOLE!” BOOM! Followed by huge peals of laughter from Bill and Liam. Grandmom Betsy would smile and shake her head and I would giggle, feeling delight at the sheer joy my child was experiencing.

One of Bill’s cannons, in the process of being built

Right before we moved to Ireland we learned that we’d failed to cross a “t” with the paperwork for our cats, we had to start the incredibly arduous import process over from scratch, which resulted in a three month time gap between when we left for Ireland and when the cats could join us. Bill and Betsy welcomed our cats into their home. They had a cat door for their own cat, which proved a challenge since ours weren’t allowed out. But Bill, ever the engineer, built an enormous floor to ceiling wall that closed off an entire floor (with access for someone with thumbs) so our cats wouldn’t have to be confined to a room. We had one cat, however, who was an escape artist. No matter what Bill tweaked about the enclosure Arthur always got through, Bill started referring lovingly to him as “that son-of-a-bitch,”. Eventually, the cat door was barricaded and Arthur was set free to roam the house. I remember Bill saying to me “Say! Did you know that son-of-a-bitch likes Scotch?” No, Bill, I didn’t know that but it doesn’t surprise me.

One Spring Bill and Betsy came to visit us in Ireland. That was the Spring Bill became a local in our village, it took him about two days before he was accepted into the folds of the tribe at the village pub. The men would sit and talk for hours, I’m not quite sure about what but I’m positive, with Bill, diagrams lovingly drawn on napkins were involved. On his way home from the local he would stop off at the bakery, picking up various yummy treats for us–pies, cupcakes, muffins, he was thoughtful like that and delighted in seeing the children so happy. During that visit Bill also taught our children “perspective” in drawings. He sat with them, every morning, with his special artist pencil, patiently teaching them perspective. It was a lesson that stuck like glue and I don’t think there was a visit since then when the kids didn’t draw something for grandpop that used perspective. They would rush up to him, drawing in hand, and say “Look, Grandpa Bill! I used perspective!” He would take the drawing, look it over and say “Heeeey, kid, that’s pretty good!!”

Each time we visited Bill and Betsy we always went to Sabatino’s restaurant in Little Italy, sometimes for special occasions and sometimes just because. Bill ordered the Bookmaker’s salad every time, sharing it with Betsy. He would laugh at the children making funny faces at themselves in the mirrors of the restaurant, play peek-a-boo with them when they crawled under the table, and, when they got too rowdy, say something along the lines of “I think you’d better stop cause it looks to me like your mom might blow a gasket, kid.” He also never let the bottom of my wine glass show and always asked me, “how’s the food, kid?” Divine, as usual, Bill.

There are a lot more memories, and we will delight in them together, or with ourselves in the quiet, in the days and years to come. There will be more tears, disbelief, aching from the loss, but the nice thing about someone who was larger than life is that it’s very easy to keep them alive in your heart. Every memory I have of Bill, over the 17 years I knew him, is in technicolor–vivid, sharp, alive. Grief is a roller coaster, spinning, turning sharply, bouncing you when you least expect it. I figure I’ll hold on tight and let it take me where I am meant to go, hanging on to the fact that each slam, each twirl, each scream is only felt so strongly because of love. This morning, our daughter turned to me and said, “Momma, do you think Grandpa Bill is heaven’s artist now?” Yes, baby, I think he is. God speed, Bill, and thank you for a life well, and fully, lived.


Guinea: A Bittersweet Posting (Which, Upon Reflection, Had More Sweet than Bitter)

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It’s funny how things that happened years ago, things you think have been sorted and tucked away, can sneak up on you and feel fresh. The other night my husband and I were talking about Guinea, our first post or, as we call it, our baptism by fire. We were reminiscing about the 2007 civil unrest, which led to embassy families and “non-essential” (I truly hate that term) personnel being evacuated.

Whenever I think of the evacuation I’m always surprised by how vivid the memories are, like a movie playing in my mind. I was in the living room with my family when my husband’s mobile rang, I saw the look on his face as he listened to the person on the other end and I knew that the children and I would be leaving. The possibility of a mandatory evacuation had been looming for weeks so it didn’t come as a surprise when the order arrived. I went straight to packing, no time for tears since we only had 12 hours before we needed to be ready to go. The morning we left I put our cats in the family room and locked them behind the panic doors that protected our upstairs, tears flowing, fearing I would never see them again despite the repeated promises my husband had given me that he would not let anything happen to them (a promise kept, once Air France started flying again he had them on the first flight out). I remember sitting by the front door with our three children–then ages six, four, and four  months–thinking of all the ways our lives were about to change, thinking about being separated from my husband, about our sudden and unexpected immersion back into American culture.

While sitting there I thought of a conversation I’d had with Victoria, our housekeeper, just a few weeks before. We’d been talking about the civil unrest, the gunfire, the rock throwing, the future of the country and its people. Something she’d said was looping through my mind as I waited for our caravan– “you and the children can always leave, I cannot.” By her nature Victoria is a positive, joyful person, she’s also realistic and practical; her statement wasn’t an indictment of us, it was just fact. I’d told her that I didn’t want to leave, I felt my place at that time was in Guinea and as long as the children were safe we would stay. Ultimately, of course, that decision was not mine to make.

I looked out the window as a white SUV pulled up in front of our house, “wheels up, kids, let’s go.” The men whose job it was to see us safely to the airport came to our door and helped with the luggage, joked with the children to relax them, told us it would be okay. My most vivid memory is of the people in our neighborhood, the children our children played with, the elders in their colorful boubous, the women with buckets on their heads, the men with radios held to their ears–all stopped in the street to watch us drive slowly away and I felt like a traitor, a deserter. I wanted to roll my window down and tell them it wasn’t my choice, my choice would have been to stay. My choice would have been to wake up tomorrow to the sounds of their chatter as everyone drew water from our well, to be able to watch the boys play soccer with my children, to be able to reach out to the babies and rub their cheeks as I walked past. But I couldn’t tell them any of that, I could only bow my head to avoid their stares–they weren’t angry or hostile stares, just sad to see the Americans leaving. We drove slowly through the empty streets, silently taking in the burned out cars and tires, the shuttered stores, the utter lack of vitality and bustle that were the trademark of Conakry. We arrived at the airport, hoping my husband who was helping to evacuate Americans would make it to the airport in time to say goodbye. We were boarding the plane when I heard him call out to us so, in the end, we had our minute on the tarmac for hugs. We left knowing we’d likely never be back, never have the chance to say goodbye to the people we’d come to care for.

My feelings about Guinea are torn because life there was difficult and more than once I found myself wishing we could just leave. I don’t put the struggles we had on par with those of the majority of people in Guinea, nowhere near it. But life there for us was often emotionally isolating, nutritionally challenging, structurally frustrating, and the health scares were things I don’t like to dwell on. Still, when it came time to leave, I didn’t want to because my home, at least for a little longer, was there. I felt like I was deserting people I’d come to deeply respect, deserting people who had helped make my days brighter, who had reached out to comfort us in a time of grief, who had turned to us in times of need, people who lived their lives with deep dignity and grace, people who, through no fault of their own, lived in a country that had flipped upside down a long time ago and had never been able to right itself. I’m not the kind of person who leaves during tough times and I didn’t like feeling like a fair weather friend.

Despite not wanting to leave when we did, and my love for the people, I swore to my husband I would never look back on the country with the kind of fondness that he does. Miss a place without a park for the children to play in? No way. Miss a place with one stoplight that didn’t work, that, to my knowledge, had never worked? Not happening. Miss a place where hospitals were places you went to die, where what should be a 15 minute drive could take hours, where the list of parasites you could catch outweighed Ulysses? Never.

Still, the Guinean people, and the refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia who had found safety from the wars in their countries, were a saving grace for me. I looked to people like Sekou, our gardener who had escaped the war in Sierra Leone, with admiration for his strength and kindness even in the face of horror. The poverty, history of violent rulers, endemic government corruption, adversity, disease, lack of infrastructure, daily struggle just to get basic needs met–all of it could have been more than enough to crush the spirit of a people ten times over but that hadn’t happened in Guinea. When I remember the sounds of our neighborhood I don’t hear gunfire or yelling, I hear children giggling, women chatting, roosters crowing. I hear French and a handful of tribal languages I never understood but loved to listen to. I think of days like the one where I was driving through Conakry at the end of the dry season and the skies opened up for the first time in months, all the rain that had been waiting at the flood gates breaking free. Ordinarily you’d expect people to run for shelter in a sudden downpour but that’s not what happened. Instead, children danced in quickly forming pools, young men reached their arms out and turned their faces to the sky, women with huge smiles walked arm in arm. Maybe you can chalk it up to practicality–rain means things turn green and grow, means searching for water gets a bit easier, means less dust and dirt to sweep. Except, in the reactions to the storm, I saw the spirit of the people, and the ease with which they handled so much of life. I turned to our driver, Ousman, and saw him smiling, sharing in the delight. At that moment, despite how isolated I often felt in Guinea, I felt part of a joy that I can’t quite articulate but that still, years later, brings a smile to my face.

I do now find myself looking back on it with fondness, not in a romanticized, rose-colored glasses kind of way but in a way that recognizes the hardships but chooses to focus on the joys–the sounds of djembe drums calling to each other, Victoria’s ready smile, Seakou’s playful admonition to a 2-year old Aisleen who was fond of wearing only rain boots (“you are not an African girl, Aisleen, you must wear clothes!”), Ousman’s ultimately pointless attempts to teach me French (he was determined but I was hopeless!), the market women’s good-natured giggles when I stepped in ankle deep muck in my sandals, the time we bought dozens of soccer balls and drove through the city so our kids could toss them to children playing with flat ones, on and on and on. I’m sure I’m not alone in having had a bittersweet post that, upon distance and reflection, had more sweet than I’d thought. Someday I’d like to go back for a visit just to let Guinea know that I did not willingly desert, and that I am forever grateful for the joy and perspective it gave me.

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