Friday, January 29, 2010

Second Chances

One of my favorite radio shows is "This American Life" broadcast locally on Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR 90.7). "This American Life" tells stories of Americana in small segments. Each week they have a theme and profile true stories within that theme through interviews and authors reciting essays.

Showtime has picked up This American Life as a television series and because I've enjoyed the program so much over the radio, I've started to rent the DVDs. This is how I learned about Second Chance.

Second Chance is a bull. More specifically he is the cloned bull of one family's beloved pet now deceased. The original bull, Chance, was tame enough that he was allowed to wander their property without fences or tethers. Chance was used in several Hollywood movies and TV shows. David Letterman rode him on his show. Children played with him.

As Chance became geriatric and his family faced his inevitable demise they heard about cloning studies being done at Texas A&M University and lobbied hard to have the university clone their beloved Chance. Despite the fact that the University doesn't clone pets they eventually caved and allowed it to be done as they needed a geriatric animal to clone as part of their research.

This story reminds me very much of something I experience listening to pet owners after they've lost a beloved pet and come to HAWS. Going through the grief and loss of their family member and love for animals people frequently come by HAWS to find a new pet. Many times grieving pet owners are looking for an animal that resembles the pet that they lost. They cling to the hope that because the animal looks the same that it will behave the same.

The very sad ending to the segment on "This American Life" is that Second Chance wasn't anything like the original Chance. Second Chance severely gored his owner - not once, but twice. Second Chance may have looked like his predecessor and even had the exact same genetic material, but it didn't mean he was the same -- not by a long shot.

Each human being is an individual with our own personalities. Even identical twins are their own person. We have to realize this is true of our pets as well. As unfortunate as it is, most of the animals we've chosen to keep as pets will not live as long as we want them to.

But each of us can have a second chance, and we all can give another living being a second chance. While we cannot replace a beloved pet by getting one that looks and behaves the exact same, we can learn to love an animal for their own individual personalities and traits. And by adopting an animal you can give them an opportunity to have a forever family that they might not otherwise have.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Another Rascal Post

One of the things that amazed me the most about Rascal is his work with my students from Lad Lake. The Lad Lake boys have been working twice a week training dogs at HAWS since first semester started in September. They had been working with Rascal almost from the beginning.

HAWS has a copy of the DVD "Take a Bow Wow Wow" and "Bow Wow Take 2" that one of it's producer's, Virginia Broitman donated to HAWS for use in our work with at-risk kids. The boys watched the videos and used a lot of it when they were teaching Rascal his various tricks such as spin, take a bow and rollover. One day they asked if they could teach Rascal to open and close cabinet doors. I was suprised that they wanted to teach something somewhat compicated, but we set about doing it.

At the time the boys started this project they had been working with Rascal for quite some time. Rascal was clicker-wise, and the boys fairly experienced in their training skills. I still didn't anticipate how quickly Rascal learned how to open and close cabinet doors. Even better was the teamwork that the boys displayed as they worked through this training problem.

Luckily I got it on video -- enjoy!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Rascal Went Home!

Something I hear on a regular basis from people who don't work at HAWS is "I could never work in a shelter". While it can be sad and heartbreaking to deal with the issues we see daily in an animal shelter, seeing animals go to new homes with good families makes it all worth our while. Earlier this week our entire staff was overjoyed when Rascal finally went home after living here for 5 months.

Rascal was brought to HAWS on August 5, 2009 because his owners couldn't have him at their new place. As a Pit Bull his breed automatically made him a difficult placement. Not only are people leery about adopting them due to their bad reputations, HAWS also has additional restrictions on them. Many insurance companies will not provide home owners or renters insurance to families with pits as pets, and so one of our requirements is proof of insurance. We also do a little more scrutiny on potential adopters since we want to make sure our adopted dogs actually end up as beloved members of the family -- rather then fighting other dogs.

Unfortunately Pit Bulls get a bad rap. Yes -- they are large powerful dogs, but then so are Labrador Retrievers and Malamutes. Yes, they can cause damage when they bite, but then so can Border Collies and Dalmatians. Pit Bulls are one of the breeds that lead the lists for bite statistics, but those statistics are misleading.

Are Pit Bulls more dangerous because they make the list, or do they make the list because there are many more of them in the USA than there are, as an example, Old English Sheepdogs? It's difficult to know. The AKC lists the top 10 breeds in the USA each year, but Pit Bulls are not an AKC breed and so wouldn't be listed since they can't be registered. As a matter of fact, Pit Bulls aren't really a breed, but more of a type and include the American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers and their mixes.

One of HAWS functions is as a bite case facility -- we quarantine animals who have bitten a human breaking skin to ensure that the animal does not have rabies. Many times we have at least one or more dogs in our kennels with "bite case" signs on their cages. Very rarely are those bite case dogs Pit Bulls (we see many other breeds such as German Shepherds, Cocker Spaniels, Jack Russel Terriers, Border Collies, Poodles, etc). On the other hand it's not uncommon for anywhere from 25%-50% of our adoptable dogs to be Pit Bulls or mixes thereof.

Pit Bulls were bred to be tough dogs who could physically with stand the damage incurred by fighting other dogs. But they were also bred to be extremely tolerant of human interaction -- with aggression towards humans being bred out of them. Historically Pit Bulls have been highlighted in a positive manner. Sergeant Stubby is the most decorated dog in US military history for his work in WWI. Petey in the Little Rascals movie was a Pit Bull, as was Tige from the Buster Brown advertisements. Helen Keller had a Pit Bull as a pet, and Laura Ingalls Wilder's dog, Jack the brindle Bulldog is believed to have been a Pit Bull.

Pit Bulls are not a breed for everyone. They do have strong powerful jaws and they physically are strong animals. They should be well socialized as puppies, and go through training so that they have good manners. HAWS only places dogs we feel will be safe members of the community -- and that includes Pit Bulls who go through the same behavior evaluation that our other adoptable dogs go through.

Luckily Rascal passed our behavior evaluation. Boys from our Lad Lake program worked with him twice a week to instill some training and help him with his mental exercise. And our wonderful dog walkers made sure that he got out every day, sometimes three times a day, for exercise and attention. We would have preferred that Rascal find a home in less time than five months. However he is a great dog and we're happy we could give him a chance. We wish Rascal and his new family many years of love and happiness.