The holidays are upon us once again.
Now don’t get me wrong; I love the holiday season for many reasons. For one thing, the true goodness in people often comes out this time of year. And for another, I’m a sentimental sap; soon after Thanksgiving, I love digging out the holiday ornaments from my childhood, hanging up my companion animals’ stockings and dressing up my dog in his holiday bandanna. And I enjoy watching my loved ones open my gifts to them, and seeing their eyes light up if I happen to luck out and get them something they really need or want.
But with the joy of the season comes some difficulties that we animal advocates often face when we go "over the river and through the woods" to spend the holidays with our loved ones. For example: watching your sister sashay into the room in her mink fur coat. Or, watching her dogs shiver outside in the cold. Having dinner with your aunt, who is contributing to companion animal overpopulation by letting her cat have another litter of kittens. Debating whether or not to visit your family at all because they won’t allow you to bring your beloved dog.
Some of us also find that our dietary choices become front and center this time of year. You find yourself wondering if you can endure yet another snide remark about vegans from your brother. You ponder if that pink stuff mixed in with your sister-in-law’s green beans could really be bacon. (Who knew that a perfectly good vegetable could be so perfectly ruined?) Or my personal favorite, the question asked every year by far too many well-meaning but clueless relatives: "You’re a vegetarian but you eat turkey, right?"
And worst of all - thinking about all of the billions of animals worldwide who continue to suffer in some way or other, as you sit with your loved ones in a warm, comfortable home.
Okay, hopefully I haven’t thoroughly depressed you. Because this year, I think I’m going to approach things a little differently. In a recent meeting, ALDF staff learned about the phrase, "You get more of what you focus on." This simply means that if you focus on the negative, that’s what you’ll get, and if you focus on the positive, you’ll have more uplifting, positive experiences. It sounds awfully new agey and "woo-woo," I know. But many of us can attest to the success of following this simple rule of human experience. And it doesn’t mean that we should ignore animal cruelty and abuse, just that we should focus our energy on finding solutions.
So this holiday season, I choose to see the good in people and to find common ground where I can, instead of division. For example, I have a relative who is not a vegetarian but who wishes that farm animals would be treated humanely before ending up on her plate. When I see her this Thanksgiving weekend, I will be sure to have a conversation with her about something she’ll be very interested in, the California Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, for which some of us California citizens are currently gathering signatures. If passed into law, this state bill would outlaw three of the most horrendous cruelties of the factory farming industry: veal calf crates, pig gestation crates and chicken battery cages (see http://www.humanecalifornia.org for more info).
This Thanksgiving week, I am also focusing on the friends and family in my life for whom I am grateful. This includes our beloved dog, Connor, who presented quite a challenge during his initial "difficult behavior" years. Every time we see Connor sitting politely (if bouncily) by our side, we are also grateful for his dog behaviorist (or as we affectionately call her, "Connor’s doggie shrink") who has enabled him to coexist peacefully with us and fit perfectly into our family.
And on a national level, how about the fact that ALDF won the Woodley hoarding case, and that the dogs, who suffered at the hands of Barbara and Robert Woodley for so long, are now officially able to be adopted by their amazing foster parents! Or the case of Maggie the elephant, who was recently transported from a cold Alaska zoo to bask in the bright California sunshine at a wildlife sanctuary. Or the fact that Adam, the kitten in Sonoma County, CA who was deliberately set on fire several months ago, is now done with his skin graft surgeries and is living the life of a normal, playful kitten. He’s been adopted by his caring veterinary nurse and has a happy life ahead of him. Watch Adam's video:
These are just some happy endings for animals; there are many more I haven’t mentioned. And there is, of course, still much more to be done. But I say, somebody pop the champagne! Because now that we’re nearing the end of 2007, animal advocates everywhere have much to celebrate.
We need to take a moment to focus on these victories, and use them to shore up our strength as we get ready for the challenges ahead.
Every year at this time of year I go through the same conversation with my parents. They ask what I want for Christmas and I say, "Oh don’t buy me anything." I mean, I’m 43 years old! Train sets and Legos are just not that exciting anymore. And clothes? Well, let’s just say my parents, being in their 60s and 70s have different taste.
My main concern is that I don’t need things. It’s amazing how even a relative minimalist like myself can accumulate things. I often look in my closet and think, "What is all this stuff?" And, of course, my parents are living on fixed incomes and so it’s kind of silly for them to be spending their limited funds on stuff I don’t need.
But, the reality is, try as I might, they are going to get me something -- because they love me and, well, because that’s what you do for the holidays.
My solution? Well, everyone who cares about me knows that my passion is animals. It’s always been that way. So, as you can imagine, I’ve gotten my share of animal-themed merchandise through the years – please, no more stuffed wolves! But now, given the work that needs to be done on so many fronts to protect animals, I ask my family and loved ones to make a donation to ALDF – or any animal protection group that they feel is effective – in my name.
That way they feel good about getting me something they know I will be truly grateful for. I feel great because they honored my passion and gave me something really meaningful. And, best of all, the animals are a direct beneficiary of my parents’ love for me and of the spirit of holiday giving.
That’s what it’s all about.
Gigi, our family toy poodle, and I were inseparable growing up. She was in my family nearly a year before I was born, so she was a constant in my life until her death when I was 14. Her name was the first word I ever spoke and she was by my side when I took my first steps. When I was 6, I rode my sister’s hand-me-down bike – a hot pink cruiser with a banana seat and a plastic, daisy-laden basket on the front handlebars. It was sa-weet! Gigi sat in the basket as we rode endlessly around the neighborhood together. (Not something I would necessarily recommend for a 6-year-old today, but thankfully, I never crashed while Gigi was my passenger.) When she wasn’t acting as my bicycle co-pilot, we were playing in the yard together making mud pies or I was dressing her up in doll clothes. She was my pal and I delight in the memories of our countless fun times together.
It is memories like those I have of Gigi that make it even more difficult to hear about cases like the one ALDF filed last week against Janie Conyers of Raleigh, North Carolina. Conyers was keeping over 100 dogs, mostly toy poodles like Gigi, in deplorable conditions at her house. The details are enough to make you cry. As I looked at the pictures of their little faces and read the details of the case, I couldn’t help but feel immense sadness. These beautiful dogs deserve so much better. They deserve to have families who love them and who will share the adventures of life with them.
Animal hoarding, the act of keeping far more animals than one can care for and denying the suffering of the animals, is an extreme form of animal cruelty and oftentimes goes unnoticed and unreported. The sometimes hundreds of dog or cat victims of hoarders typically suffer horribly and, unlike most other forms of companion animal cruelty, their misery can go on for years. I encourage you to learn more about animal hoarding and how to spot an animal hoarder. Read ALDF’s animal hoarding fact sheet. Dogs deserve families, not filthy cages.
My mother called a couple of weeks ago to let me know that their dog would have a new Halloween costume in 2007. After several stints as Count Dracula ("he loves wearing the cape!" she insists), King will be hitting the dog park this year dressed as a spider. I can’t help but wonder what his wolf ancestors would make of all this. It seems a little ridiculous, and well, undignified. But I remind myself that King, as far as we know, had a rough life on the street before arriving at the shelter where my mom was volunteering. Despite that, my parents brought home that day the gentlest, most loving animal ever to break into the Franzetta candy-stash. Who am I to say this old dog shouldn’t enjoy their excessive affections--and sport Halloween finery to rival his neighborhood doggie friends--for the second, easier part of his life?
Since I’m not really feeling the "girl-who-just-got-her-face-clawed-off" theme for my own Halloween disguise, I opt not to dress my two cats--the squishy white and tabby Seamus and his even-huskier tuxedo brother, Theo. The year that Roy (of Siegfried & Roy) was injured by his white tiger Montecore during a routine performance of the duo’s Las Vegas act, I decided to tell everyone that Seamus was passing as the Mirage’s man-eater for the day. Joining in on the captive-mammal theme, Theo looked every-bit the pint-sized Shamu.
I look forward to showing up at the ALDF office on Halloween morning each year to see how my officemates’ animals will be decked out. Some wear modest bandanas or those bopping-antenna things on their heads. Setting the bar high will be, as always, Joyce’s dog Edgar. I’m not sure how he’ll outdo the many-layered irony of last year’s "hot dog" costume. But considering that Edgar spent the first years of his life living in a wooden crate--I wouldn’t deny him an inch of organza.
I’m still amazed when I think about it—my daughter, Maggie, falling madly in love with a cat. People assume that she’s a clone of me, possessing all of my passions and interests. But, she is her own person, with her own set of interests and joys.
Of course, Maggie was raised with dogs and cats. There are the dogs and cats who have lived with our family over the years; they were there before she was born and their status as revered family members was taught to her from the start. And, then, there were the temporary visitors-- dogs I found running loose on the street and cats who somehow landed on our doorstep. We would take them in, try to find their original homes, get them medical care, and find a new home, if needed. Maggie accepted all of this gracefully and was always respectful and loving, but it was “her nutty Mom’s thing,” not hers.
Yet, that changed in the blink of an eye. A very tiny blue eye, that is. On a Tuesday afternoon with a deadline looming, I answered my office phone and heard Maggie’s voice, trembling with excitement and nervousness.
“Mom, a man in front of the grocery store was giving away kittens and I took one.” What? Had she learned nothing from me in 16 years?
“He’s really tiny, Mom.”
I moaned, thinking that we might be dealing with a newborn.
“How tiny, Maggz? Describe him to me in inches.”
“Are his eyes open?”
“Yes.” (Whew; he’s not a newborn).
“Are they blue?”
“Yes.” “What do I feed him?”
“Go to the pet food store, get some canned kitten formula and some kitten food.” “Mom?”
“I love him and I want to keep him.”
“Maggie, see if he will eat the food. I’m on a deadline; we’ll talk about with this when I get home.”
Deadline met, I drove home to find Maggie standing in the kitchen cuddling a scrawny, undersized five week old orange tabby kitten. She looked at me with imploring eyes. “Can I keep him? I named him Marley.” She had never gotten so attached to an animal before and I was curious—what was so special about this little guy? He was cute, sure, but all kittens are cute. And, I really didn’t need another animal to care for. You’ll notice that I said “I,” because in our household, guess who gets stuck with the feeding, the cleaning, the trips to the vet? And, with two dogs and three cats already, my dance card is full.
Then, my tough soccer playing teenager did something even more unusual—she cried and begged me to let her keep Marley. I was taken aback; this was serious. I made her promise that she would take responsibility for feeding him and cleaning his litter and, with a sigh and a smile, I welcomed the newest member of our family.
And, each day, I watch in awe, as Maggie walks into the house and Marley runs as fast as he can to greet her. She picks him up and holds him close to her chest. She kisses his head and he licks her nose. His purr is so loud that I can hear it from across the room. She tells him how much she loves him and that she missed him while she was at school. And, when she finally does stop holding him, he follows her all around the house.
They were meant for each other, those two, in ways that are unspoken and wondrous. I know the feelings she is feeling; I have felt them myself. Theirs is a strong and powerful bond that will last for a lifetime and hurt like hell when it’s over. They have discovered that magical place where two souls connect.