What exactly does pet rescue look like….
As most of you know my husband and I re-located to Kentucky this past summer. We moved to a small town just outside of Lexington. Lexington is the horse capital of the world. You can go for a lovely ride in just about any direction from our home and see amazing horse farms…where the horse barns are nicer than most folks homes (sure nicer than mine). One would think that the guiding principle in the region in regards to the care of horses would permeate the culture and translate in to a high standard of care for all animals…but it doesn’t….not even close.
Bret and I come from a cushy suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota…we are used to seeing dogs living in the home, with safe fenced yards to play in and living generally healthy and fulfilled lifestyles. We had country clubs for dogs..with pools, massage treatments, bed time stories and fresh baked dog cookies. We have been shocked at what we see here for dogs. You really can’t turn down a street here without seeing a dog living outside chained to a tree or staked to the ground. I want to be clear…these dogs are not out on potty breaks…they live on chains…exposed to the elements 24/7. Often they are on very short and very heavy chains. Sometimes it seems as if there is an ongoing contest to see who can have the biggest, heaviest chain on their dog. There are obvious problems with chaining like neck damage, lack of access to shelter, water and food. Often their chains end up flipping over their bowls (if they have them) or they get twisted up and can’t reach their bowls or shelter (if they have them). Dogs who live chained can very easily become anti-social making their plight so much worse and making them a public safety risk. While pit bulls are most often what you see on a chain here it spans the spectrum even to tiny Chihuahuas living staked to the ground outside. What makes it worse is that in very few counties in Kentucky are their laws to protect these dogs and if there are laws there is very little appetite by the authorities to enforce them even if rescue advocates make a huge stink.
This is a photo of Turnip. Turnip became our first foster dog this summer. When I see this picture of him living on that chain; starved and nearly froze to death I am embarrassed to be a human. Turnip is a sweet, gentle and frail little creature and he lived four years of hell like this…he barely survived and frankly I don’t know how he did…what a little fighter. Unfortunately, this is a common picture of how dogs live in Kentucky.
One of the first things I did when I moved here is look up some of the rescue groups in our area to see how we could get involved…at the time not realizing how big a problem chaining was here. I found that there were groups throughout the state focused on easing the suffering of chained dogs. They do things like directly ask owners to surrender…pursue action by the authorities if the dog is in distress and take custody of the dog. My initial attitude was pretty black and white…without question take these dogs away from anyone who would chain them outside. But often, there is no ability to get these dogs away from their humans and even if you can get them away from their humans what do you do next? Where exactly do you go with a dog who has lived outside on a chain for years…who is going to step up to the plate and bring them in to their home? It sounds obvious and easy…but it is not.
One of the groups we got involved with (S.O.A.R.) does a lot of very hard leg work keeping tabs on chained dogs. They respond to reports they get from the public regarding dogs living chained outside. They knock on doors and ask for owner surrender of these dogs. If they can’t get the surrender or legal confiscation, which often they can’t, they do the next best thing…which is help the dog where it is at…they bring straw to keep them warm and even build fenced areas (for free) in their yards if the owners will allow it. I have to admit that I had a hard time with this at first. Why should anyone who treats their dog like this get free stuff?… especially a free fence…just “take the dog away” I thought….I was honestly not sure this was something I could support. It seemed better to work at owner surrender and legal confiscation (stealth confiscation if necessary) rather than leave these animals with someone who would chain them. But the longer I live here and the more I see…the more overwhelming the issue of chained dogs gets and the more I see that in many cases all you can do is help these dogs where they are at…and in some cases it really is the best possible outcome for the dog.
If there is one thing that meeting Turnip has made me think long and hard about it is the meaning of compassion. It is easy for me to have compassion for Turnip and every day it seems to grow but I deserve no badge for that; compassion for Turnip is easy and obvious. But if I want to live my life as a compassionate person I have to be compassionate to everyone…even someone who would chain their dog. I have found that is it very possible to do just that.
Several weeks ago my husband and I helped build a fence for two chained dogs (it was my husband’s second fence build). The two dogs we went to help, Buddy and Bear, have lived their lives on heavy chains for 12 years. I didn’t know what to expect when I went to meet these dogs and their human. I was very surprised. Both dogs were incredibly social and very interested in what these strange people were doing in their yard. The dog’s human was incredibly grateful for what we were doing. He was living on a rented farm and S.O.A.R. had to pursue the landlords permission to build a fenced yard for these dogs. S.O.A.R. basically had carte blanche to build whatever they wanted for these dogs. It was 25 degrees the first day we went to set the fence posts (which could never be done without male volunteers). It was cold, damp, and hard work but it was a complete BLAST! We were working for the better part of two days building this fence; the dogs were watching and waiting with anticipation and their human was grateful and I believe as excited as the dogs. I know little to nothing about Buddy and Bear’s human but my take away was that while I couldn’t see eye to eye with him on how these two dogs were living, he loved his dogs (he also had several small dogs that lived in the house with him). It was clear he did not have the financial or physical ability or even the will to put up a fenced yard for the dogs…so S.O.A.R. did it for him. Once I was involved in making this situation better for Buddy and Bear I honestly no longer cared what the human’s circumstances were…it was about the dogs and everyone involved was walking away better off from this fence build. There were no losers here…no resentments, only positive change for two sweet creatures and their human who ALL deserve compassion.
Leading up to the fence build I posted S.O.A.R.‘s pleas for volunteers on my Facebook Page. I followed some of the commentary on Facebook that others posted in response to a plea for volunteers to build this fence. Some of the rhetoric struck a familiar tone…”take the dogs away”, “why give someone like this a free fence”, “this person should be in jail”…and on and on. I have to admit I had similar thoughts before I went to the build. But reality sets in when you see these dogs and their human face to face. I realized that not only is not my place to pass judgment on Bear and Buddy’s human (I should be far more worried about pulling the log out of my own eye)…but the reality was that judgment, anger, opinion, rhetoric…none of those things would help Bear and Buddy…but a fenced yard sure as heck did…and that is what they got. Do you want to see pure joy? Be present when two dogs who have lived twelve years on chains get cut loose in to their own dog yard for the first time (with new dog houses taboot)….trust me when I tell you there is nothing like it. PURE JOY!
So if you want to know what faces of compassion look like…they are pictured below…a group of people…who didn’t know each other but all responded to a call for help…to show up with tools and energy to help build a fence for a couple of dogs and their human…neither of which any of them had ever met. What an amazing day this was!
I certainly don’t have the answers to solving the issue of so many dogs living on chains. But I do know where part of the answer lies…stronger laws to protect dogs from living in distress (laws passed by the politicians who are accountable to us), the public’s will to pressure the authorities to enforce the laws and protect these dogs…but also outreach and dialogue…slowly changing the cultural perception of how dogs deserve to live. It is easy to pass judgment on how someone is treating their dog…it is much harder to have the guts to knock on their door and ask if you can help…but that is the only way to start the conversation and get a better outcome for the dogs. I have a tremendous amount of respect for groups like S.O.A.R. who have the passion and the guts to speak out and change the lives of so many chained dogs. The one thing I know for sure is that meeting Bear and Buddy and their human expanded my heart and my capacity to have compassion and I am grateful for that. My husband and I will be helping with more fence builds in the future!