Friday, July 15, 2016

But What Can I Do?

With all the horrible events taking place around us every day, we can easily become overwhelmed and overcome by apathy towards problems that seem to be beyond our control. It may be true that there is often little we can do to change the most immediate, direct behaviors that lead to tragic events. But, as you've likely heard many times before - the world is an interconnected web that encompasses all. None of us lives in an isolated vacuum. Our thoughts, actions, and choices DO have an impact - sometimes directly and often more indirectly - on the tragic events that surround us. 

When you ask yourself, "What can I do?", don't stop without an answer. This is your opportunity to do some soul searching and truly find what you CAN do.

Here are just a few things that most of us CAN do to promote a more peaceful world:

Make a commitment to practice attitudes and behaviors that promote peace: tolerance, humility, kindness, forgiveness,...  Meditation and prayer provide a powerful vehicle for instilling this practice in us.

Ask yourself if your peaceful goals are reflected to others through all your actions. A few behaviors most of us can improve upon to better reflect our better natures include:

  • restricting unkind and bitter commentary in social media and elsewhere (this doesn't mean that we cannot disagree - just that comments be respectful and constructive.) 
  • peaceful resolution of our personal conflicts and points of disagreement 
  • choosing consumption practices that favor conscience and responsibility over convenience and impulse
  • avoiding blaming others for ineffective problem solving while forgetting our own roles and limitations in addressing problems 
  • practicing love and forgiveness with ourselves first and then also with others 

Remember that EVERYTHING we do has an impact on the whole. So if you want to know what you CAN DO - simply remember the advice of Gandhi and "Be the change that you wish to see in the world."

Friday, July 8, 2016

Do we have a pit bull problem?

The problems associated with the group of dogs loosely identified as of the pit bull type have become one of the greatest concerns faced by those concerned with dog welfare and by those whose concern is focused on human safety from dog bites and severe attacks.  In the article recently published by BarkPost (, Kellie Stevens offers a familiar defense of the pit bull "breed" (a term that defies clear definition) stating that "Thankfully, more and more people are getting on board with the fight for Pit Bulls’ rights." 

Such articles beam with positive examples of pit bull type dogs throughout history and currently. These examples are lovely and heartwarming. But what’s notably absent from such articles is an honest look at the tragic plight of pit bulls in today’s culture and any real discussion of possible solutions for addressing that problem.  

As usual, I bring an uncommon perspective (a perspective I’m told is often at odds with socially acceptable thought among animal advocates) because I believe we benefit from considering issues beyond black and white / popular and unpopular portrayals. With pit bulls - as this article begins - this love or hate polarization is especially pronounced.

Among the current 12 rescued dogs that reside in my home, one is a very clear pit bull, Myrtle. I learned much of the history related in Steven’s article when I researched pit bulls prior to adopting Myrtle from a county shelter where she was slated for euthanasia because she was going crazy. (Pit bulls can be highly sensitive and many do not handle intensive kenneling well!) I adore Myrtle - she is incredibly sensitive. loyal, and yes - neurotic (i.e. she has intense fears that don't quell). I'm also well aware of her destructive potential and I will not understate that. Despite the fact that she's had a wonderful and safe life here with us for the past 8 years, I am always highly selective and cautious in introducing her to new people and new animals.

Interestingly, the statistics cited in the BarkPost article regarding dog attacks in the U.S. were from 1965 to 2001. They chose not to look at the stats from 2001 - 2015 which illustrate the heavy rise in pit bull attacks and fatalities. This point is not made to vilify pit bulls but to inject some validity and balance into the discussion. One may choose his or her own preferred sources of factual information (I've cited some common ones below) but I urge you to know and consider the source and its likely biases. 
While I don’t advocate the mis-characterization of pit bulls, neither do I think it’s fair to deny the valid concerns of those who know, first hand, the potential dangers of pit bulls and the statistics that document the frequency with which such incidents are occurring. 

I'll focus my attention on information from the AVMA which is as balanced a view as one is likely to find on this topic: 

In reading the AVMA article, one should notice a frequently cited factor in the high rates of pit bull attacks - that of the high prevalence of pit bull dogs in our communities and especially in those communities that are most likely to misuse and abuse them.
  • "If you consider only the much smaller number of cases that resulted in very severe injuries or fatalities, pit bull-type dogs are more frequently identified. However this may relate to the popularity of the breed in the victim's community,"
  • "any estimate of breed-based risk must take into account the prevalence of the breed in the population at the time and place of serious biting events."
  • "It should also be considered that the incidence of pit bull-type dogs' involvement in severe and fatal attacks may represent high prevalence in neighborhoods that present high risk to the young children"
One need only look at the prevalence of pit bulls in our local shelters to understand that our society is clearly faced with an excess number of poorly cared-for pit bulls – poorly care-for (neglected, abused, abandoned, unsocialized, ….) being the type most likely to cause harm to another. It would stand to reason that if we truly want to reduce the incidence of attacks from whatever potentially dangerous dogs are popular at a given time (be it pit bulls, or rottweilers, or shepherds, or dobermans...) we would choose to regulate the proliferation and ownership of these dogs in the society. That is NOT saying that we would seize dogs that are loved and cared for.  But in choosing to permit the irresponsible breeding and proliferation of dogs that are: 1) horribly abused and misused, 2) make up a huge portion of shelter killings and long-term holdings (not to mention consumption of tax dollars), and 3) responsible for high rates of bites and fatal attacks to people and other animals, don’t we, in fact, accept the status quo?

But moving on beyond what one believes about the value of reducing the prevalence of dangerous and abused dogs, the one clear statement made by the AVMA about the effective approach to reducing dog bite tragedies is the "active enforcement of dog control ordinances" ("Strategies known to result in decreased bite incidents include active enforcement of dog control ordinances, and these may include ordinances relating to breed.")

The sad reality is that this one recognized preventive measure is at best minimally applied in many, if not most, communities in Virginia. To my knowledge, there is no tracking of the enforcement of dog control ordinances nor any reports or attention offered to provide an effective look at this across the state.  If fact, I learned recently that it’s common in many Virginia localities for county sheriffs to essentially forbid their AC officers  (either implicitly or explicitly) from enforcing animal control laws because the laws are often unpopular and residents held accountable to the law might retaliate by voting against the sheriff in subsequent elections!   This despite the fact that law enforcement is considered by the AVMA to be the only effective strategy for decreasing bite incidents. 

My own efforts (through the use of FOIA) to identify animal law enforcement among selected counties in Central Virginia are reported here:   (part of a larger survey with stats from 2010)

Anyone familiar with dog keeping habits in rural central Virginia knows that violation of our dog laws (weak as they are!) is incredibly commonplace, and yet the stats for law enforcement are miniscule!  But when was the last time you heard any real discussion on this issue?  Why are we not thinking and talking about this???

Am I grateful to live in a state that will not seize my dog simply because of her breed? - Absolutely! 
Am I satisfied with the status quo that allows unregulated breeding and selling of the dogs most likely to cause harm to humans and other animals and to be severely abused themselves? – No!  
Am I satisfied with the lack of animal control law enforcement to address irresponsible ownership and decrease dog bite incidents? – No! 

If we really want to serve the best interests of pit bulls and of human safety then we must honestly  address the serious problems of unregulated pit bull proliferation and ownership in our society.  I may not have the answers to the pit bull problem but I’m willing to acknowledge that we have a pit bull problem and that we need to openly engage in a search for solutions without banning each other from the discussion table - because if we don’t, we’ll all - pit bull advocates, pit bull opponents, and most of all pit bulls - will continue to suffer tragically.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

My Plans for Changing the World

Leo Tolstoy once said “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”   Indeed, who would truly disagree that change starts with one’s self.  It’s just that it’s easy to forget or to shortchange that part of the equation – especially when change is difficult – which, of course, it always is!

So I got to thinking about how I want to live in a humane world – a world characterized by compassion and respect for all life.   So putting first things first, I realized that in order to pursue a humane world, I must first be willing to change (more than) a few things in myself.

Sure, I love and protect my family and friends.  I lend a helping hand to others when I can. I keep pets that I adore and I stop to help turtles get across the road.  I’m usually polite and friendly with my neighbors and colleagues. I drive an “energy-efficient” car and I recycle my household waste. Like most, I shun images and stories of abuse.   Isn’t this enough to live humanely?

Well - Yes and No.

But maybe first I should consider why it is that I or anyone might strive to live humanely.  Humane is defined as being “marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals.” (Merriam Webster) Most of us care about people and animals – at least a little bit. In fact, without delving too far beyond our current scope, we might at least acknowledge that a look at the most widely practiced religions will consistently reveal an emphasis on compassion, a term defined as “the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it.” (Princeton Wordnet Lexicon database)

Many consider compassion to rank among the very highest of human qualities. In fact, as the features once thought to set humans “above” the other animals continue to be overturned upon our closer inspection of other animals, our capacity for compassion may well be a principle defining hallmark of being fully human. 

But in our complex world, living humanely and compassionately doesn’t come easily nor passively.  We depend upon inexpensive clothing and material goods often produced by young people working in slave-like conditions in other countries. We buy pets produced by breeding stock so ill-kept we cannot bear to witness it.  We consume record amounts of animal products produced under the most horrific conditions our world has ever seen.  The waste we produce and discard threatens the health and sustainability of our environment in drastic measures that far exceed our awareness and our willingness to acknowledge. And we readily unleash our resulting pent up frustrations through a mask of social media and politics that allows us to bully and belittle those whose opinions we don’t want to hear.

Well – this list could go on but you can see, it’s really not easy to be humane in our culture. 

Humane living is the practice of living with conscious awareness and attention to how our choices affect the wellbeing of people, animals, and environment.  Such a practice requires a conscious commitment and dedication.  As Jane Goodall, the prominent primatologist and humane education advocate, once said: “The most important thing is to actually think about what you do. To become aware and actually think about the effect of what you do on the environment and on society. That's key, and that underlies everything else."

Our efforts to live humanely are challenged on so many levels. We have limited knowledge of the consequences of our choices.  Big institutionalized systems hide abuses and use the immense power of marketing to influence our choices and lure us into an insatiable wanting for their goods.  We naturally resist the discomfort of change. We pursue power and prestige and compete for resources – even when resources are plentiful. Information overload wears down our physical and mental ability to attend to critical detail.  And we find ourselves simply being swept up in a culture of comfort at the top of the “resource chain.” 

One might easily throw up one’s hands and declare a life of humane compassion to be beyond our reach.  Indeed, our tendency is to deny and to “normalize” the disturbing impact of our behaviors on the lives of others.  (see How People Come to Accept Violence Against Animals as Normal) Of course, life has “always been full of hardship and suffering – it’s really not our responsibility.”

While it may not be “my responsibility”, the simple fact remains that the complex process of human activity, when driven by greed and thoughtlessness, introduces enormous suffering into the world.  And it is equally true that we, as humans, hold the power to ameliorate and end most of this “man-made” suffering – if and as we choose to do so.   

 If I hope to make a difference I must remember the greatness of our power.  That power lies, first, in our capacity, beyond all other creatures, to thoughtfully and critically choose our actions and behaviors; secondly, in our ability to share ideas and speak freely – to be influenced by and to influence those around us and; and thirdly, in our consumer power – the power to influence and change institutionalized processes through our purchasing and consumption choices.

So lest I rest passively in my general good nature while the broader impact of my humanity is wreaking havoc on the life of planet earth, I will actively engage the practice of humane living.  I will seek to learn about the impact of my choices on those near and far, human and non-human. I will invite the guidance and teaching of others willing to share. I will gently acknowledge my failures but I will not let them stop me. And I will joyously celebrate each success that moves me and us toward a more humane world.

A question posed by environmentalist and artist, Chris Jordan, aptly captures the challenge before us.  He asks, “Do we have the courage to face the difficulties of our time and to feel deeply enough that it transforms us and our future?”   I will strive to have the courage and the will to change the world through my choices and I invite you to join me.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The question of PAIN in animals answered – and what this means for neglected animals

I recently had my attention drawn to an article about pain in animals that was published in the Tufts Veterinary Medicine publication for Winter 2013. The quote that drew my attention:
“As recently as a decade ago, most veterinarians assumed that animals didn’t feel pain, or at least experienced it differently than humans. Now all evidence points to the contrary. Research has shown that animals and humans have similar neural pathways for the development, conduction and modulation of pain, making it pretty likely that our pets experience pain in much same the way we do.”
This issue is so frequently debated and misunderstood that I felt the need to underscore this recent finding from a respected veterinary school.  Especially considering that here in rural Central Virginia, it’s often likely that the majority of pets are kept entirely outdoors and often with NO veterinary care at all.  Dogs typically live and die at the end of a chain or, if running loose, hit by a car or killed by other animals.  The concept of considering the pain suffered by these animals  that are left to the ravages of neglect, disease, injury, and often starvation with no attention or intervention is profound and certainly, if seriously considered by most minimally compassionate humans, would be cause for taking some action to prevent the prevalence of such needless suffering.  And yet – that action is rarely taken.
I don’t have the answer to why attention at the local level is so rarely brought to bear on the inhumanity with which we keep our companion animals (not to mention those not considered companion animals.)  Having tried on many occasions to bring that attention into focus in my own local community and among the local animal advocates, I have experienced not only the apathy but even surprisingly opposition from local advocates who don’t want “to go there.”  To “go there” means to address the sometimes stinging realities that dictate the cultural attitudes and neglect of animals in a community that has not yet reached a level of compassion and honesty that supports humane and responsible care of animals.

While many will ooh and ahh over a rescued dog or cat, there are few that will honestly address the source of the problem – taking concerns to the municipal leadership, pushing for the enactment of necessary local ordinances, organizing or attending informed discussions on the issues. 
No I don’t have answers to the dilemma but I do know that as long as we decline to address the roots of the problem, we will continue to battle the symptoms of the problem – broken animals, needless misery, an endless flow of rescued animals in need of our time, money, and care.   Think about your own answers to this challenge and feel free to share your thoughts and knowledge about how we can bring attention to the prevention of animal neglect.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The ongoing battle for the human soul...

If you don't believe that evil exists and is in force daily in our midst, try following the dog articles reviewed by Penny Eims at ( for a week or so. 

And if you don't believe there are true angels that routinely deliver from evil and rescue those in the most abject distress, try following the dog articles reviewed by Penny Eims at ( 

Our nation's tragic challenge with the animals in our midst brings us as as sharply in touch with the battle of good and evil as many of us will ever see. The striking reality is that it is all played out daily and often with little to no notice or recognition. It is a battle crying out and offering us the opportunity to take notice, to engage in the battle, to fight the evil and let the good reign victorious. 

Who needs entertainment when real life is begging us to join in.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Learning to Think Outside the Shelter

Be honest.  How many times have you either silently or openly lashed out at pet owners who seem to thoughtlessly give up their pets to a pound?  Of course, it is the endless relinquishment of these pets to the pounds that results in the high euthanasia rates of shelters throughout the Central Virginia region.  Non-profit rescues are currently able to rescue only a fraction of the animals from our region's pounds.  You might think, if only we could stop people from giving up their pets. Well, if we put our collective minds, hearts, and resources to the task of helping people learn and be able to properly care for their pets, we just might be able to do so!

This blog post from the ASPCA is on target with the current goals and focus of the PAWS Safe, Responsible, Humane Communities Initiative in recognizing that we must find ways to help those who acquire animals but find themselves unable to manage them effectively.  Our tools are those of education - on every front possible, and providing access to the knowledge and resources that can help pet owners resolve problems and become effective guardians of their animals.

If you would like to join us as we work to create and offer avenues of support for community education and assistance for compassionate and responsible pet care, please contact us. Help us start the transformation of all our communities in Central Virginia into Safe, Responsible, Humane Communities.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Helping your community: Where to start?

If you are one of the many people who care about animals in our communities and the importance of building safe, responsible, humane communities then you may be wondering how you can help your community move forward.  Anyone and everyone can help our communities become safe, responsible, and humane and your participation is critical!

Step one is to learn what you can about basic factors affecting the management of companion animals (i.e. pets) in your community.  Animal management takes place primarily at the local level. That means that your community’s animal control officers, county or city administration, and/or sheriff’s office are crucial to the administration of effective animal management.  The state provides guidance and a foundation of applicable laws but otherwise provides relatively little oversight of local practices.  Your community administrative agencies are the ones that define the nature of animal management in your community. If it is good - thank them.  If it is not so good, ask for their attention and assistance.

The Companion Animal Survey Report provides a fairly thorough review of the key factors that affect companion animal management and helps to create a stable framework for understanding the challenges and the opportunities. It also provides some detailed information about the specific practices and nature of each of the fifteen counties surveyed.  It is designed to be easy to read and access and to give a broad overview of relevant issues.

The landscape of companion animal management:
One important thing you will learn is that the practice and promotion of humane management of companion animals can be a somewhat contested process. Old customs and attitudes towards animals may oppose the practice of humane management.  For this reason, some communities will avoid openly addressing barriers to humane animal management. In all honesty, such avoidance is not only needless but is in fact, counter to effective government and to the administration of justice and public safety. However, it’s always important to know well any issue that needs to be addressed, to communicate respectfully and clearly with community officials, and to be persistent!

Most of the non-profit activity around companion animal management is seen in efforts to re-home shelter cats and dogs and to reduce the rates of euthanasia for unwanted animals.  If you are one of the volunteers that support these valuable services – THANK YOU!  However, not everyone that cares about animals is prepared to work with fostered animals or shelters.  In fact, the focus of the Safe, Responsible, Humane Communities Initiative begins with preventing the need for animal sheltering.  With an emphasis on enabling our communities to provide education, effective animal law enforcement, and access to pet care resources we strive to reach and teach pet owners to help them provide good care for their pets and, in so doing, keep these pets out of the shelters, off the streets, and away from neglect and abuse.

Your awareness and your voice in support of Safe, Responsible, Humane Communities is the foundation that will help us achieve this goal!  The easiest way to sum up our process is that we seek to encourage all community members to become learners and teachers about effective companion animal management and humane education. The principles are simple and effective and their application can transform the nature of animal welfare in any community that cares to do so.

Below are some tips for getting started.  Start wherever you are and build your skills and knowledge. You may be very surprised at how much you learn and what ways you find that you can make a difference!
  • Be the example you want to see in others.  Have your pets licensed, provided with identification – collar, tag, and microchip, spayed or neutered, and provided with appropriate veterinary care. Learn how to care for them properly and respect their needs: for security, for companionship, for quality nutrition, for exercise and housing, and most of all for your patience and love.
  • Become acquainted with and follow the laws that pertain to responsible animal ownership at the state level as well as the community level.   Knowing these laws – even just a few of the key ones such as those addressed in our survey – will give you the foundation you need to support and build your community’s progress in animal welfare.
  • Know the resources available to your community. There are many non-profit assistance organizations and animal welfare services around the Central Virginia region these days.
  • Hold the expectation that your community will honestly enforce the laws that pertain to and protect animals.  Voice this expectation at every opportunity and encourage others to do the same.
  • Get to know your supervisor or council representative.  You can request a meeting with him or her or talk with them at public board or council meetings. These representatives are there to serve your interests in the community.  Share your knowledge and concerns with your representative along with some proposals for feasible solutions. If you can, consider offering your help to work with community agents to address the issues. 
  • Ask questions and require answers.  Give yourself permission to learn all you can about policies and procedures in your community’s management of animals.  Public awareness and sound guidance are the keys to bringing about the best behavior and practices in any community.
  • Keep issues alive by TALKING about them!  Share concerns and information about animal issues in your community with others: friends, family, neighbors.  Don’t let your concerns be swept under the rug – out of sight and out of mind. 
  • Put it in Writing.  Do you like to write? Identify specific issues in need of change in your community – for instance a need for a ban on dogs-running-at-large or to increase enforcement of licensing laws because too many dogs are found stray with no tags.  In the wake of a specific occurrence or public disturbance ask your local paper to run a story.  Once an issue is in the papers you can also build on it with well-written, timely letters to the editor.  If you really like to write, consider proposing a series of public information articles on responsible pet care topics that you could write for your local newspaper.
  • Enlist friends to work with you! Engaging in your community is much more fun as well as more effective when you can voice your interests in concert with others who share those interests.  A growing chorus of knowledgeable and respectful voices making a reasonable request is difficult to avoid.  Your leaders need to hear your persistent sincerity and that others share your concerns. 
I'm happy to offer you suggestions, direct you to information, or provide other assistance I can to help you in your efforts.  The critical point is that you find ways to make your knowledge and expectations known to your community members and leaders and that you be respectful, reasonably well-informed, and honest.  You can contact me: Alice Leigh at or 540-967-0999.  Your thoughts and additions below are welcomed!