breed discrimination · Dog Safety

The Facts

Dear Mayor Degeeter, members of Parma City Council, Clerk of Council Ramser, Director of Public Safety Weinreich and Law Director Dobeck;

As of Monday, three council meetings are in the books for our initiative to repeal Parma’s 30+ year “pit bull” ban. Six full weeks since the official start of this cause; who knows how many more we’ll have to attend until the law gets replaced with a strengthened ordinance that actually does the job it’s supposed to do – protect the citizens from potentially dangerous dogs and reckless dog owners, including those labeled “pit bull”. One thing is for certain, it will in due time, but it’s going to take many, many more weeks before it does. We’re prepared to do that. We just haven’t done a good enough job thus far articulating why you should care enough to make this a priority. Or, at very least, instill enough doubt about the effectiveness of your current dangerous dog ordinance. It’ll happen eventually. I’m confident that a common sense approach will prevail with a little persistence.

After the first council meeting we attended as a group, I decided I would write an email to all of you after each meeting. The first in this series was to be completely transparent, and briefly outline the steps of our plans. Basically, to give you the playbook, so you aren’t caught off guard. That’s incredibly fair to me. It was firm, but professional. We are going to conduct this effort with professionalism, and make sure we’re respectful in our interactions with all of you. That’s a promise. If someone in our group isn’t being respectful, please notify me and we will correct it. This can be an extremely personal and emotional issue for many of us – on all sides of the debate, really. The biggest challenge is effective communication, which works both ways.

I take pride in the committed group of dog-lovers we have. We are normal everyday people, that could be your neighbor, family member, or friend. That’s the goal, I think, to be able to discuss these important things like this as friends. When you respect someone – like you would a friend, you’re more willing to sit down and listen to legitimate concerns, even if you may have a set stance or opinion. To add, the duty of an elected public official is to remain unbiased and neutral, and when information is presented that may contradict current laws, ears and eyes should be open to this new(er) science and data. To be a critical thinker in solving these social issues.

So, I’d like to begin by reiterating, we do want to work with you. We would much rather our interactions be memorable ones for all the right reasons. We are sincere. We don’t want anyone to be harmed by dogs. We just want all dogs and their owners judged fairly, as individuals. We have the intellect, dedication and resources to modernize and strengthen your existing dangerous and vicious dog ordinance to make it more inclusive, and when enforced properly, has the ability to identify potentially dangerous dogs who pose a threat before they have an opportunity to escalate in their behavior.

The second email sent in this series was about my personal story – “The Why” I am personally invested in seeing this through. I typically don’t discuss my personal life when interacting with public officials who I am trying to enlighten, but I did think it was necessary at this early stage. So you understand the deeper meaning of why this matters to so many people out there, who have well behaved family dogs of all different looks and personalities. I started an organization last year called WOOFobia, after I began to feel more like myself again. The organization’s mission is to celebrate and secure the human-canine bond, using the arts to deliver a powerful statement. The concept began when I realized how crucial my dogs were in my own survival. The physical, mental and emotional benefits we get by sharing our lives with dogs.

After that second meeting, I was incredibly touched by the unexpected kind gesture of Councilman Casselberry, who caught up and pulled me aside in the parking lot to tell me he was glad I didn’t go through with the plans I detailed in that email where I contemplated suicide during an extremely rough period where I battled with severe depression and anxiety of few years ago. I told him, this is why this subject is important to me – and, when residents of your city asked for help because we were able to be effective in other communities, I had to give what I can. So many others feel the same way as me. The human-canine bond is that crucial of a relationship. The fact is, if not for my dog Preston, I wouldn’t be here today being a thorn in your side. We learned that evening that Councilman Casselberry recently lost a couple family members in a short period of time, and I feel we had a good human moment in that parking lot – even if he and I may not currently see eye to eye in this discussion, we were able to empathize with each other. One human connecting with another.

Three nights ago, at the third council meeting we attended (Monday, Oct. 15), I received back my first lengthy public records request, which contained all communications regarding the ban from 2014 to present. In it, I was able to read the messages Mayor Degeeter and City Council has received from a few people who represent a national “dog bite victims group”. Now is the time to reiterate our statement again – we do not wish anybody (human or other animal) to be harmed by any dog, regardless of perceived type or breed. That’s the difference in our messaging – we want to encompass all dogs and single-out reckless dog owners, they only want to single-out some by generalized looks. Our number one objective is enhancing public safety with dogs. It’s sad, and somewhat disappointing, that time has to be spent advocating against these laws, when that time could be better spent actually implementing programs that do make a difference in the community – another goal of WOOFobia. As mentioned in the first email, whenever anybody is harmed by a dog, we fail as a society…and the most vulnerable victims are usually children and the elderly. This is not a “pit bull” (even used in the most vaguest sense) specific problem.

So, you’ve seen the same few sensationalized things from this group of people they always do. You’ve seen the gross photos of disfigured children. I can produce some, too, if it would help. Only thing is, I won’t include the “breed” or type, because of the irrelevance, and because we don’t feel throwing other reported types of dogs under the bus is productive in the name of public safety. You’d see the same similar outcomes, though. Yes, it is true the size of the dog will determine the potential damage that can be done. Comparing a Chihuahua bite to a medium-large sized dog (which “pit bull” dogs are often described as) bite is not at all an accurate comparison to even entertain. The reality is, the human species is incredibly fragile. The average human can be taken out by a medium-sized dog. But, it rarely happens. If it weren’t for fear (oftentimes, irrational fear), that side wouldn’t have a single case to influence you with. It worked much better in the 80’s, but has become increasingly unpopular as a method for a city to protect the public’s safety, because of all the overwhelming modern day science about this debate. These laws are being shot down and repealed at a much higher frequency than they are being implemented (proposed and passed). The current ones in this country are eventually all going to be replaced in favor of a common sense approach that incorporates all dogs based on actual behavior, so the focus isn’t on subjective physical traits of how some look. It’s just not that popular anymore.

Besides the use of those photos, the predictability continues with that group. They share a thousand news articles about “pit bull” attacks on people and pets. We did a request on the records of the breed identification training for your animal control officer. In the returned request were five pages pertaining to her training, including three separate certificates of course completion by the National Animal Control Association – an organization that is publicly against breed specific legislation. The other two pages are – the National Animal Control Association training guide cover and the chapter (Chapter 5) page in the guide dealing with “Identification of Dogs”. In this chapter, one of the contents is “The Challenges of Breed Identification”. I’ve asked for the additional pages to show what specifically was in this training, but so far from here, it looks like this request only further validates one our concerns in enforcement. So, if the NACA expresses cause for concern on focusing attention on breed or type because of the issues with visual identification, how accurate do you feel news reporting is based on public opinion determining breed? I discussed my own three dogs in a previous email, and how each looks different and each has their own individual personalities. This is true for all dogs. The two things all three had in common, was someone somewhere labeled them “pit bull” in the shelter system, and all three were subject of being killed simply because of it.

Another common thing I’ve seen is the amount of very old cases this group presents in an attempt to support their claims. A rebuttal of my original email one of these people had, was an Ohio Supreme Court case heard in 1990-91 (State v. Anderson), which occurred when Ohio had statewide BSL. Of course the law would be upheld as constitutional – the state declared “pit bull” dogs as inherently vicious and restricted ownership! The original statewide law was passed in mid 1987, and subsequently repealed 25 years later in the 129th General Assembly with the passage of Ohio HB14 in May 2012.

The same above reasoning holds true for the rest of the examples she gave:

  • State v. Robinson (1989) – Ohio had statewide BSL…
  • Singer v. Cincinnati (1990) – Not only did Ohio have statewide BSL, the city of Cincinnati took additional action – a ban. They repealed their ban in 2012.
  • State v. Smith (2008) – Still had statewide BSL…
  • Tarquinio v. Lakewood (2011) – Not only did Ohio still have statewide BSL, the city of Lakewood had a ban that was implemented in 2008, which was repealed earlier this year, as you know (2018).
  • Tellings v. Toledo (2008) – Not only did Ohio have statewide BSL, the city of Toledo had additional heavier restrictions. Their local law was repealed in 2010.

Since then, a new precedent has been created in the 5th Appellate Court of Appeals – Russ v. Reynoldburg (2017). When the state repealed its law declaring all “pit bull” dogs as vicious, this decision stated local municipalities are in conflict with the state law, thus are unconstitutional. What this means to you is, if Parma’s law should go to court, you will lose. I have cc’ed the attorney, Phil Calabrese, who represented this case, to this email in the event you may have any questions for him. He’s a very nice guy, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind responding if there are inquiries.

I have watched all the coverage done by the local news since our efforts kicked off. Two of you were interviewed – Mayor Degeeter and Director of Public Safety Weinreich, repeating the same method we should take if we want to get this change done – a petition to take to the people of Parma. Now, you and I both know why you are recommending this method. For Parma – a suburb of 80,000 residents, a petition would require a ton of signatures of registered voters, and an awful lot of time going door to door. You also know how terribly wrong things can go going the petition route – verifying signatures and deceiving verbiage on the ballot once the petition is approved. Even supporters of this change can be confused by the wording. But, we are actively organizing the petition as we speak, ensuring we get the proper and official protocol down before we take to the streets, in an effort to show we are going to do everything asked, but we still feel the you should do the right thing before our efforts increase in the beginning of 2019. At the moment, we are only organizing at the City Council meetings, so our voices are heard. We have even bigger plans being staged for after the New Year.

There’s been a couple things stated in the news that have made me question. Mayor Degeeter has said of the 30+ year ban: “From our administration standpointm we think it’s working, it’s been in place since I was in high school.” In this same news article, the city also stated Parma has forced out seven “pit bull” dogs in 2016, and another nine in 2017 (no stats were given for 2018). How? How is this law working if you have 16 dogs labeled “pit bull” in two recent years kicked out of the city thirty years after the ban was implemented. You clearly have a ton of dogs already living fine in your city that could be targeted as “pit bulls”, and “asked” to leave simply because a neighbor may have complained. To any person with a little common sense, this is absurd to think the law is working this far into its implementation, don’t you think? Wouldn’t be a better use of all our time if animal control spent their time on calls of dogs that behaviorally pose a threat to the citizens?

How well do you think you know your constituents? If you believe that the majority of them would vote to keep the law in the place, I feel you don’t really know them at all. Sure, there are going to be some who buy into the fear-based propaganda, but, the general public knows a lot more than we used to about this topic. In this political state of the times, when more and more people are becoming aware and being active on social justice issues, I’d place a wager that the vast majority of your residents do not want this – especially once presented with the current accurate data.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out a couple other things I noticed in the records request so far. As I stated in the first email sent out, this law that spread like wildfire in the 1980’s began as a tool to use to legally harass lower income families and people of color. I gave a couple brief examples in that email. Parma has been scrutinized for questionable character in the past regarding race relations and classism. That chatter happens about your city. Statistically, it is not an inclusive and welcoming community, populated by 88% white. Now, I am not calling any of you a racist or classist, but there are residents who I would. One of those examples was in the records request, where a woman used these racist and classist undertones. I am not going to repeat what was said, but I am shocked, amazed and disgusted that in 2018 we have to explain inclusion is a good thing, and there is no place in this country for stereotyping and generalizing dogs or the human family members that share their home with them.

Last, it makes me sad that since the onset of this initiative I’ve observed some of you actively engaging in inviting people (some of whom are out-of-staters) to attend council meetings who share this short-sighted belief to combat our advocacy. Even in those earlier interactions, I feel most of you would have never given us an equal opportunity to present our case. Public officials – elected ones, especially, must remain open-minded and neutral. We are firm in our position, because we know there is literally no logical or rational reason for this law, short of fear and perceptions. We’ve been called out at least once, as being disrespectful and name-calling, which I don’t those accusations lightly, for the simple fact that they haven’t occurred. Perhaps this person was being defensive, but it’s not helpful, and frankly you have left us no choice but to be firm. If you have any input here, I would appreciate it. We know that the only way this is going to get done is if we have cooperation from the government, which means you, or the people we hope to help campaign for to get elected in the upcoming elections.

We want to be the people you go to for questions you cannot answer. We want to be the ones who provide the resources and solutions needed to make Parma a welcoming and inclusive place for everyone. Activism doesn’t end once a breed neutral law is implemented. It continues on. These are the facts. We hope each of you will consider sitting down face to face and discuss this further with us. We need to work together to solve this. My apologies, again, for another lengthy email….there is just to much to say at this stage. I will try my best to shorten them up in the future.

Sincerely,

Jeff Theman
WOOFobia, Executive Director

breed discrimination · Human-Canine Bond

The Why

Dear Mayor Degeeter, members of Parma City Council, Clerk of Council Ramser, Director of Public Safety Weinreich and Law Director Dobeck;
Hello, again, everyone. It’s been a couple weeks since my last email, and I wanted to send out another before Monday evening’s council meeting. In my previous email, the goal was to be forthcoming and completely transparent about our intentions, and how we are going to implement them. I feel we can be firm in our position, while still being professional. Also, to reiterate, some of us spearheading this initiative may not live in Parma, but many, many, many residents have indeed contacted us after we successfully worked with Lakewood City Council to craft a much stronger dangerous/vicious dog ordnance, and asked for our help to replicate what we did there in Parma. Additionally, many of us also have family and friends who are Parma residents, as well as places of business we spend our money at, so this impacts us, even if we aren’t residents. 
It’s a shame we only get 3 minutes, twice per month, to formally speak to Council, because for something so seemingly simple, I do admit this is a multi-layered, complex issue with numerous nuances in it. So, I am left writing these lengthy emails, hoping those public officials it’s addressed to will fully read and comprehend the material that took precious time spent on. We care about public safety, just as much as we care about equal opportunity for dogs and humans. We can and do care about both. As a matter of fact, we have the same exact goals you who sit on Parma City Council have – except our version includes every dog and human, regardless what their physical traits may be. We focus solely on the behavior to decipher who may or may not be a threat to public safety. Behavior, behavior, behavior. Focusing on fear is failure.
Through my experiences, I have always believed to stick to the facts and the science when interacting with public officials about this law. To leave the emotion at the door. Let common sense prevail. It will indeed do so eventually. But, I do find it appropriate to speak on a personal level for this specific email. I’ve told you about what we’re going to do, and I detailed how we’re going to do it, but I haven’t explained the why…specifically why I am personally involved. And, I believe that is extremely important for you to know. I do want to apologize in advance, it will be another very long one, but worth the time. I promise this will be the last one of these book-like emails. 
In my last email, I barely gave much about myself, so I wanted to expand on that a bit. As I stated, I do not consider myself a “pit bull” advocate. If I have any bias, it’s because I am a lifelong dog-lover. But, that’s where the line starts and ends. As an Ohio resident “born and bred”, I grew up with our statewide BSL and never even knew we had it. My family and I didn’t have dogs that would ever visually fit the targeted description (however subjective and vague it may be), so we were just as ignorant and unaware as most Ohioans about the issue. 
Of course, we’ve seen the horrible news headlines in the 80’s and 90’s about “these” dogs terrorizing neighborhoods in low-income urbanized areas, so even as a family of dog-lovers, we were at least partially influenced by what we seen in the media. And, our opinions about “these” dogs reflected that. It wasn’t until many years later when I stayed with an out of town friend who had a dog named Kena. The entire week I was visiting, every night she slept cuddled up in guest bed with me. She was an absolute doll, and was my first real experience interacting with a dog labeled as a “pit bull”. To this day, I think about her, and the door she unlatched open. 
I have always been a creative person, and in 2005 i began writing my first screenplay based on a period in my life. Once completed about two years later, I attempted to turn this script into an independent feature film, but couldn’t keep a cast and crew together long enough to start production. I then turned my attention to something I could control from start to finish – a documentary film. Having no film experience, and no formal schooling, I began researching animal abuse in February 2007, attempting to scale down a subject matter to base the project on. I spent weeks, upon weeks, upon weeks, reading every article, watching every video, about every reprehensible act humans have done to mistreat animals. Just when I was about to decide to move forward with a film about the broken shelter system, an NFL star quarterback – Michael Vick, was suspected of dog-fighting crimes in April of that same year. 
His face and the ongoing developing story was plastered all over ESPN and other media outlets for days. I took it as a sign, and officially began my documentary about dog-fighting, with a emphasis on the victims…the dogs. 
One year later, in April 2008, I reached out to the only “pit bull” rescue (at the time) here in Cleveland, Ohio – For The Love Of Pits, wanting to learn more about “these” dogs. My exposure was still limited. I arranged a day with the owner, Shana Klein, to come to her home and spend some time with her and some of the adoptable dogs in her rescue. When I walked inside, I was immediately greeted at the front door by 5 or 6 deliriously happy puppies leaping over the short child gate meant to block them in the kitchen. Tails wagged, puppy tongues were flying just about everywhere…as a dog-lover, it was pure bliss. 
 
We eventually moved our conversation into the kitchen, which is where I met him – Preston. The dog who changed everything. Even though the puppies were much younger, they were still a bit taller than Preston, therefore he wasn’t able to leap over the child gate and meet me at the door with them. He moved up to my feet, sat down, and looked up at me with these big brown eyes I can never forget. I knew instantly there was something special about this little black dog. I decided to squat down and say hello, and that’s where I noticed several scars slashed on his arms. Before I could even turn around to ask, Shana said (paraphrasing): “That’s Preston. He’s our dog who was formerly used for fighting”. This was the first dog I ever met, who allegedly came from this background, but I don’t remember feeling fearful. Just sad. 
After a little while longer, we eventually moved our conversation again, this time out on the deck in the backyard. All the dogs of course followed us out, and Preston again sat at my feet when I found a chair to sit in. I motioned for him to come up, and he obliged. Once on my lap, he took a few turns attempting to find his spot, then plopped his back right into the crevice between my arm and body, with his head resting on my shoulder. I turned to Shana and said: “Did you train him to do that?!” Without giving her enough time to even answer, I blurted out – “I’m going to adopt this dog!”
 
It was never my intention to find a dog. Never mind a dog like Preston. I wasn’t even in the market for a dog. I was living in Lakewood for a couple years, enjoying my complete independence – one of the only periods where a dog was not present daily. But, I did start to settle down the previous year. stayed home much more often, and the thought of having Preston with me just felt right. It felt like it was supposed to happen. My apartment didn’t allow dogs (of any type), so i started to look for rentals that would allow a pet. I wanted to stay in Lakewood. I enjoyed the community, and its progressive values (the perception, anyway). Plus, everywhere you looked people were walking their dogs. That was important to me. 
 
But, that did not last; a couple weeks later in May 2008, Lakewood City Councilman Brian Powers proposed a ban of “pit bull” dogs. I began attending all the council meetings with my camera rolling – the thought being some of this material could be included in my anti-dog fighting film. But, as it became more and more clear, if I was to bring Preston home, that home would have to be in a city outside of Lakewood. In July, the ordinance passed, and I turned my attention and changed the topic of my film to breed discrimination, titling it – “Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent” (GTPI). A couple months later, I moved to Eaton Township in Lorain County. It took me nearly 6 months, but on October 4, 2008, Preston was officially a Theman.
From there, Preston and I went everywhere together. I walked him every day in the metroparks – rain, sleet, shine or snow. He was there when my grandfather was dying in 2009, and wanted home hospice. Let me tell you, it’s an eerie feeling knowing someone you love is dying in the next room over. When it was my turn to stay the night, Preston comforted me. When I discovered I had a human soulmate on this earth, Preston celebrated with me. When it didn’t work out, he, again, was constantly there for me. Through this, I added two more dogs (both labeled “pit bull” in the shelter system), Era in 2011, and Fergie in 2012, but the relationship I have with Preston is and always will be different. He’s my canine soulmate – my souldog. 
 
We originally released GTPI by premiering the film here in Cleveland on April 28, 2013. From there, it went on to have some success; screened 20-some times in cities around the country, including two film festivals (2013 St. Louis International Film Festival, 2014 Kansas City Film Fest), among other achievements  When I set out to do this project, I decided to I had to start on a blank slate, forget anything I thought I knew and let the story organically develop in front of me. I only sought out credible experts, which means I had to reach out to a lot of people to be able to sift through who is who, and also made sure to interview notable people who stood on both sides of the debate, to make it as unbiased as humanly possible. And I felt we mostly accomplished that task. 
 
There was a time in my life, especially early on in my research (2008-2011) where I questioned to myself whether or not I was doing the right thing. If i was seeing the issue clearly. Or if I was letting “my bias” get the better of me, and compromise the integrity of the film. I think it’s impossible for someone to not be at least somewhat affected by news reports of interactions with dogs gone wrong. I believe I had to go through those self doubts, to get to where I am today. It truly made me leave no stone unturned in my studies, so my work can never be branded as “pit bull” propaganda. If anyone says it is, they clearly never watched it. 
 
By mid-2014, I started noticing I felt off. I spent a considerable amount of time in advocacy and rescue, and didn’t like the way things were being done. Accountability and transparency are high on my list – both then and now. And, I felt we were our own worst enemy in this cause – the wolf in sheep’s clothing. I felt like we can be honest and still be right. And, I looked around at all the unnecessary suffering – to dogs, to people, to other animals, and it seriously affected me. I knew we could do better. During this time, I even contacted several of those same people (the “dog bite victims group” and other pro-BSL folks) who stood on the polar opposite side of me, attempting to understand why they do what they do. Those messages were either left unanswered, or the conversation I did have with one was mostly spent trying to defend my honest intentions in engaging dialogue. Oh well, I did try.
 
My mental health began to slowly deteriorate; I was in the infancy stage of true debilitating depression – like nothing I ever experienced before. I had no sleeping pattern. I’d get a couple hours of sleep, then wake up in a panic and sweat. Then, on November 2, 2014, I woke up about 4am, closed the door to my home office, and began to write what was to be my final blog entry titled – Save Me, And I’ll Save You. The plan was to publish it, then blow my head clean off. I purchased that gun for protection after being violently assaulted in 2010. It never occurred to me that I would need protection from myself. 
 
Near completion of the blog, I stopped to take a break, took the gun out of the closet it was kept in, set it on my computer desk and stared at it. I don’t remember what was going through my head, but I do remember a feeling of relief that it was all about to end. The pain I was in was finally going to be gone. At about 9am, I wrote the last sentence, and hit the publish button, and just as I was about to get the nerve to pick it up and pull the trigger, Preston nudges the door open with his nose. He looked at me with those big brown eyes again, like he did the day I met him, and whoosh it all came back to me – the reason I am still here. I sat there and just wept. 
 
Things didn’t get any easier, though. The next two years were challenging not only mentally but physically, as well.  I had a nagging neck, shoulder and back pain initially caused by spasms, that increased after a bad auto accident in June 2015, where I was diagnosed with post concussion syndrome several months later. I was on three different pharmaceuticals, that were constantly interchanged trying to find the right dosages and kinds. They all just made me feel numb, and I didn’t like living that kind of life. I thought about suicide a lot. Basically every day, multiple times per day. I can honestly say, if it weren’t for my dogs – Preston, specifically, on numerous other occasions, I wouldn’t be here writing this email to you today. 
 
When I started to feel better, and more like myself again, I realized something that I would have never thought about had I not had to suffer and endure what I went through – the power of the human-canine bond. This is something that has been studied a lot – the physical, mental, and emotional benefits we, humans, get from companionship with dogs. We definitely are the ones who benefit most from this relationship. Do you know when it stopped mattering what my dogs look like, who they were labeled as, or any other generalization that is assigned to them? It was then, at those moments of life and death. Preston and my girls aren’t the exception to the rule. They are the rule. This is the reason last year I started my non-profit (filing still pending), WOOFobia, which was set up to celebrate and secure the human-canine bond, using the arts to be the vehicle of change.
Through my years and years of being involved, there’s been one story that I have not been able to forget, and likely never will. In 2012, a struggling soap opera actor, Nick Santino, committed suicide after being pressured by a condo policy to remove his beloved dog, Rocco, from the building. Feeling as if he had no other choice, Mr. Santino put him to sleep, and that guilt weighed on him as he then took his own life:
 
Yes, it is true dogs are dogs, and it is important to protect the safety of the citizens from potential threats by dogs. But, dogs are also family, and well behaved family dogs, regardless of their physical traits, should be able to live anywhere their family members live without the threat of an archaic, draconian, ineffective, and subjective law to interfere and be a threat of its own to the well being of a family. I get messaged – publicly and privately, all the time from people with stories about their dogs being the only reason they even get up in the morning. Dogs give us purpose to continue when we don’t even want to. This is why we do this. When residents reach out to us asking for help, I know the feeling of being defeated. Of not knowing where to turn. Feeling at any moment our lives can be different. I know the feeling of uncertainty. And, I know the feeling I have when I am comforted by my dogs, and how it all go away. 
 
This is why we’re in it for the long haul, and won’t accept anything short of a full repeal of breed specific legislation in Parma, Ohio. 
Sincerely,
Jeff Theman
WOOFobia, Executive Director
breed discrimination

A Letter To Parma, Ohio

Dear Mayor Degeeter, members of Parma City Council, Clerk of Council Ramser, Director of Public Safety Weinreich and Law Director Dobeck;
 
I want to first take a moment to express my sincerest gratitude in how Monday’s council meeting was conducted. I truly expected the experience to be similar to what I have seen in the past with other cities, where elected officials spent the majority of time with their heads down looking at mobile devices, rather than what the speaker had to say. I scanned the room several times – speaker after speaker, regardless of which “side” they stood on, you maintained eye contact and gave nothing but 100% of your attention to them. That deserves to be recognized and praised. I felt you do care what each person had to say, even if we may not see eye-to-eye on this very important and multi-layered issue. This is what I mean when I talk about fairness. 
 
The following is very long, but definitely worth reading in its entirety. 
 
I prepared a speech to give, and last minute decided mine could wait, but felt it still necessary to give a brief statement for our cause and intentions instead. For the first one of these meetings, I wanted to ensure the Parma residents who felt comfortable enough to speak were given the opportunity, since you’ve stated you want to hear from your own constituents and not outsiders. I’m sure you will hear me publicly speak much more with credible facts from the wealth of knowledge I have been able to accumulate through speaking with and interviewing the real experts for my documentary film – Guilty Til Proven Innocent, in animal behavior (which encompasses all animals, but primarily canines – both wild and domesticated), as well as psychologists to discuss fear (or irrational fear), those with legal backgrounds to discuss the legality or constitutionality – or in this case. the lack thereof, of breed specific legislation (BSL), as well as respected professionals in animal welfare
First, I do want to give you a brief background of myself. I was born in Parma, Ohio at Parma General Hospital (now University Hospitals). Regardless what the media may use in a title or what some individuals who advocate for singling-out dogs on the basis of “breed” or type, I am not a “Pit Bull” advocate. I am a dog-lover, who has shared my home with a bit of everything, starting with toy poodles as a child. As I stated in Monday’s council meeting, there will be people who claim I have a bias which automaticaly disqualifies me as being an expert because I share my home with dogs that people in shelters labeled as “pit bull”. But, let’s think logically here – why on earth would I have dogs in my home if they were “ticking time bombs” like some people and a couple of organizations (who reached out to you) attempt to describe “these” dogs as. It doesn’t make any sense. The dogs in my home, as well as most dogs in households today (regardless of what they are identified as), are simply amazing – in spite of what humans put dogs in situations where they should fail. They compromise the most in this human-canine relationship.  
 
I don’t just sit here thinking of ways to repeal BSL, without looking at ways to enhance public safety, as well, despite what our detractors say. The fact is, even if you were to remove the “breed” language from your current dangerous dog ordinance, your law is still ineffective and outdated.  And there are many accounts of selective enforcement by Animal Control of your ordinance, too. So, our goal is to replace the current law the way it is written, and modernize it to make it stronger with a focus on the actual behavior of dogs, where truly dangerous dogs who pose a threat can be identified quicker, and reckless owners punished – regardless of what type of dog they may have. And, there are so many dogs already in your city that could be visually identified as “pit bull”. That’s also where the problem starts in this debate. If you ask 10 people what a “pit bull” is, you’d likely get about 10 different responses. It’s absolutely absurd. 
 
If I were to give an example, I currently have three shelter dogs, who all came to me at different times (Preston in 2008, Era in 2011, and Fergie in 2012), with different backgrounds and personalities, who all visually look physically different (color, build, size, etc), yet share one common denominator – all were labeled as “pit bull” dogs in the shelter system, and all were subject of being killed simply because of it. But, they are not cookie cutter robots manufactured on an assembly line. They are living, breathing beings, who have their individual strengths and challenges, as any individual does. I challenge you to browse on area shelters and rescues websites, and see all the dogs labeled “pit bull” or “pit bull mix”; there is no consistency whatsoever. 
 
In the neighborhood where I live, for three years I have kept mostly quiet about a group of neighbors who get together and let their dogs run off-leash in the park nearby. After the third or fourth time of these dogs running onto my property while I was out with my leashed dog, I finally got tired of compromising the safety of my dogs and myself, and called my council person to formally issue my concern. Enforcing leash laws is the single greatest way to limit incidents from happening out in the public. Most people have very limited knowledge, if any, about dog behavior. That’s the unfortunate common thing among dog owners in general. Education should be the number one priority a community has to make their city safer with dogs. 
 
Which brings me to this…I won’t go into too much detail now, because there’s a time and place for me to expand further, but I mentioned in a previous email to be very careful with whom you align with because it can backfire. One of the three pro-BSL speakers from Monday evening is a well known associate of an organization who fronts as a dog bite victims group. They do zero educational programs. Nothing for the proper way children should interact with dogs. All their focus is on these laws and attempting to cherry pick which opinions are “fact” and which are “fiction”. The unfortunate thing that we do both agree on about incidents involving dogs is, children and the elderly are the most vulnerable and oftentimes the victims of serious dog bites. This is where we fail as a society. 
 
Over the course of my research, I have kept screenshots and such of members from this group literally laughing when someone is attacked by their dog labeled as a “pit bull”. This is a dog bite victims group? Please. If I have an agenda because I share my home with dogs that fit their subjective profile, I have no idea what they would be considered as. Besides, we want to strengthen your law, so reckless dog owners of any type of dog are dealt with swiftly and appropriately, preferably before a major incident can escalate. But, like i said, I will refrain from discussing them at the moment, there is a time and place where I will. They are just too easy to refute. 
 
In an effort to remain completely transparent, I am going to list exactly what our plans are to repeal Parma’s law – in no particular order, using the model we used in Lakewood: 
  • First, as you know, we are going to assemble and repeatedly attend council meetings. There will be representation from the dog-loving community (both residents and non-residents of Parma alike) in attendance if not every meeting, nearly every one. Some crowds will be smaller than what we had Monday…and some may be larger. But, we will be there.
  • We are also actively doing public records requests, and will be reviewing them with a fine comb to uncover the many mistakes Parma has made. I say this without even seeing the requests we submitted for yet (and the subsequent ones that will follow), but I know they are there, because they always are in enforcement of this law, especially selectively enforced. The city is under a microscope moving forward. 
  • We prefer not to go the petition route – like Public Safety Director Weinreich stated we should in his interview, but we are already strategizing for that, too. In 2018, repealing this law is a no-brainer. It may have been a popular thing in the 80’s and into the 90’s, but as we move forward, we see just how ineffective it is. Look no further than the countless cities who have repealed over the last 5-10 years – most with long standing bans who finally admit they failed at the very thing they were publicly meant to do. 
  • We are compiling the list of when Parma elected officials terms are up. Last year in Lakewood, there were two existing council members who were public about their intentions of repealing the law, but they didn’t have the support from the other five. When election time came around, we inquired with the three candidates running for the At Large positions against the incumbents, to learn where they stood on this issue. And when we discovered they supported the removal, we did actively encourage residents to vote responsibly in making Lakewood an inclusive community where all well-behaved dogs and families could exist without the threat of being taken away or forced out for nothing more than the way a dog’s physical appearance is. Let me be clear – The two candidates who won their seats over the incumbents, did so because the community voted for their campaign, which included the repeal of BSL, but also other important issues collectively are what ultimately won them their seats. Fresh faces with fresh ideas are important in politics today. This was key in the repeal, but the community voted for them because of what they represented as a whole. We will support candidates who oppose BSL in the upcoming elections. With the sample size we have thus far, we know for a fact your community, in general, does not agree with your collective stance, and we will ensure candidates who run align with the community’s interests. Additionally, you are losing good families by having this law, as many others have approached us saying they have no choice but to look outside Parma for their next home. 
  • After we review the public records requests, and discover people who were unlawfully mistreated by this archaic law, we will be actively filing lawsuits, where the city will have to defend their law in the courts. The good news for us is, the courts have already set a precedent on this issue here in Ohio. We hope it doesn’t come to this, because we’d prefer to work WITH you all in crafting a dangerous dog ordinance that encompasses all dogs, but we will if we have to. 
  • We will be doing other creative initiatives to continue to shine a spotlight on this issue in your city, gathering more supporters in the process. I won’t list those things here, but there will be more events in the near future that show just how wrong this law is. This is how advocacy works. We will continue to do things professionally, but we do have a very firm stance on this issue – no more BSL. Too many of your constituents have reached out to us for help, which is the only reason we are involved. The people who are reaching out to you, who made a point to tell you outsiders are behind this initiative may be true in the respect that we are organizing for those who live in Parma and who don’t have the understanding that we do. But, I’d be negligent if I didn’t point out – those same people criticizing us for being outsiders, are outsiders themselves – some don’t even live in this state, let alone northeast Ohio. 
I want close by discussing two more items that are extremely important in this debate. Through my extensive research, there is a component of racism and classism, and I’m not talking about the dogs at all. In the 80’s when these laws spread like wildfire, law enforcement and humane organizations used this law as a tool to legally harass “suspicious” dog owners. Since legislation cannot be created to target protected classes of people, law makers were able to disguise their law – dog owners, as a group, are not a protected class. There is ample evidence of this very thing at work in many of my public records requests made, as well as remarks made by a former member of the Ohio Senate, who was responsible for the statewide BSL Ohio held from 1987-2012 when it was finally repealed. I am not here to make claims that anybody on Parma City Council currently, or in the past since this law has been in the books, is a racist or a classist, but knowing how the law began, that alone should warrant the repeal of this archaic, draconian and discriminatory law. You can read more here from a guest blog entry I wrote:
 
Last, there is one more major issue with the law. What happens to those Parma dog owners who have service dogs that fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), who may have dogs that would be labeled generically or genetically as “pit bull”? The ADA has made this very clear – you cannot. 
 
Thank you for your time. There will be more to come in the near future that dismantles the “validity” of this law. If any of you would like to speak offline, know that our conversation will stay in confidence. But, we are serious when we say – in 2018 this ends now in Parma. 
 
Sincerely,
Jeff Theman
WOOFobia, Executive Director
Related Links:
Sept. 17, 2018
Sept. 18, 2018
Sept. 20, 2018
breed discrimination · Dog Safety · Human-Canine Bond

Opinions Are Not Facts; Editorial Boards Are Not Experts

RE: “Pit Bull” Bans Are Still Justified

Dear Denver Post Editorial Board,

What exactly is the job function of an Editorial Board? Is it to express opinions based on well researched facts? Or, is it to continue sensationalizing a tired, nonsensical storyline in the name of clicks? We want to know.

And, what qualifications must one possess to be on such a privileged committee designated to be the official voice of the news organization, who are handed over the task to make strong, compelling arguments about complex issues and affect the mindsets of their audience? We’d also like to know.

On Monday, January 29, 2018, the Denver Post Editorial Board released an opinion piece titled “Pit Bull Bans Are Still Justified“, due to a nearby community, Castle Rock, considering a repeal of their 26 year old ban on “pit bull” dogs.

The article begins by casually sympathizing with those residents who live throughout the Denver Metropolitan area, affected by laws called Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), which target certain types or breeds of dog – in this case, “pit bull” dogs, by restricting or prohibiting ownership within a municipalities jurisdiction, causing hardships for responsible families with good family dogs who have done nothing wrong.

By the time we get to the third paragraph, your position is quite clear in response to the repeal initiative in Castle Rock – “we must revisit why these breed-specific bans are justifiable rules in urban areas.

Not only have the leading experts weighed in repeatedly against this type of ideology on numerous occasions, it’s become an increasingly unpopular opinion to have, as well. The reality is, there is no justifiable or rational reason in favor of Breed Specific Legislation. None. Nada. Zero. Zilch…none that wouldn’t apply to community safety with all dogs of all shapes, sizes, types and looks…that is, if we’re talking about actual undesirable behavior by an animal. But, oftentimes, the dogs are not even what this is all about…

By the fourth paragraph, you proudly pat yourselves on the back for actively supporting a proven failed concept, and applauded Aurora voters in 2014 for upholding their ban while it was on the ballot. It’s no wonder several communities in Denver metro still enforce BSL and attempts to repeal such legislation have fallen short, since the region’s largest news source – YOU, the Denver Post, have the mistaken point of view you publicly share, which starts at the top of the organization. You helped create this irrational fear.

There’s been a number of studies performed about the mass media’s power to shape public perception, especially about controversial topics. With attention spans seemingly getting shorter, and the advancements in technology with how ours news is delivered in bits, pieces and soundbites, it’s the primary way people get their information. But, the general public, for the most part, are impressionable to what they see and hear on the news, and you take full advantage of that with incomplete and careless journalism and editorials, ensuring we don’t take huge strides forward in public safety matters with dogs. It always starts with education, not legislation.

We must revisit why these breed-specific bans are justifiable rules in urban areas.
– Denver Post Editorial Board, 01/29/2018

During the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the term “Fake News” was introduced into our everyday vocabularies, and used back and forth by supporters of both political parties, in an effort to downplay the significance or credibility of the information (or propaganda) the opposition shares. That election, as well as the subsequent following year, the political climate is unlike anything we’ve seen before in American politics. And, in many ways, there was this side war being waged against many of these news outlets, deservingly so.

We remind dog advocates and those who fight this political war targeting certain breeds, historically one of our biggest challenges has been media bias, where attention on “pit bull” dogs (for example) outweighed similar stories with other types of dogs. We put together an example of this very bias several years ago on our former blog project: DogsByte.Org

We can sympathize with the demanding job a journalist has. They are required to find interesting stories to report on that appeal to their demographic, and aren’t given the proper time necessary to thoroughly investigate and decipher what is factual and what is not. But, that should no longer be an excuse, especially as highly publicized this ongoing debate has been for several decades, and how quickly its evolved and flipped in recent years. We know better now. And we have the majority of scientific proof to back it.

Along the way, the media has helped move the needle incrementally in the right direction, but some still hang on to outdated and poorly researched propaganda, and that has handicapped those more skeptical and unwilling to entertain the overwhelming amount of modern day science that exists today. Part of it is due to what the media has shown, which psychologists say, fuels that irrational fear, and can impact the way people view certain dogs, even if they never personally met one that they were aware of. The public’s perception and acceptance of “pit bull” dogs have done a near 180, but instead of channeling the available time and resources into more education programs that could potentially prevent an unfortunate mishap happening by any dog, those efforts have to be made proving archaic policies and legislation such as BSL wrong and reckless, and the primary perpetuator of this is your profession.

You actually state a scientific fact in paragraph five, which completely contradicts much of the rest of the editorial. Yes, behavior of an individual animal – which includes humans, is heavily influenced by their environment. And, all individuals will respond to said environment in their own individual ways. The question that probably should have been asked –  Is it nature, or is it nurture? And the answer to that – It’s both! Across the board.

Immediately following some common sense, you revert back to unsubstantiated claims that border myth in paragraph six, while also acknowledging one of the many reasons Breed Specific Legislation is severely flawed by defining your definition of what constitutes a “pit bull”. Literally, ask ten people, and you’ll likely get around ten different answers of what a “pit bull” is to them.

Breed identification has always been the number one issue pertaining to the real life individual dogs affected by these draconian laws. They’re incredibly subjective, as they are usually first identified through visual identification, by someone who is not qualified to make those determinations or is not a breed expert of any kind. Animal control officers and other law enforcement aren’t trained in breed identification, because it’s simply not relevant to the actual job function of keeping their community’s safe. Nor do they possess a special power that tells them the genetic ancestry of a dog by looking at him or her. No magic crystal balls to predict how an individual dog will behave in the future, either.

The primary problem with the two studies in paragraphs seven and eight are breed identification! Without getting too in-depth about the meaning of the term “breed”, we will pretend we are all talking about the same thing when we play this game and we will conform to your definition for this purpose; The generic term, as you state, “pit bulls”, are American Staffordshire Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers. So, we admittedly aren’t talking about just one breed then, are we? Those are three separate breeds, recognized by different kennel clubs. If we agree on that, each deserves to be looked at individually, and not lumped together with a generic (your word, not ours) label of “pit bull”. And then, what about mixes? Where do they fit in this charade? Where is the cutoff in a mixed-breed dog, where the “pit bull” percentage doesn’t matter? What dogs are we talking about that are inherently guilty of birth?

One of the most glaring problems with breed labeling is, many households obtain dogs through shelter or rescue organizations, where there are no papers or documented lineage of the dog from a reputable breeder, and the dogs arrive with completely unknown histories. The person(s) doing the identifying is usually someone on the shelter staff, the rescue, and/or the adopter.

There has been studies done about the reliability, or lack thereof, with visual identification. One such study was done by Maddie’s Fund, where animal industry professionals guessed the predominant breed(s) from images of shelter dogs DNA tested at a miserable success rate of 27%. These are people who are in the animal field as their profession, and that’s their combined accuracy. What do you think yours would be?:

Maddie’s Fund Breed Identification Study.

Paragraph nine – more baseless claims with no scientific facts to back it up. Please show us what you have.

Paragraph ten – We actually want to thank you for bringing up the infamous CDC study, because – as you mention to begin the paragraph, they have verbiage at the conclusion which explains exactly why their position on breed specific regulations are a waste of time and resources – reverting back to the difficulties of breed identification, and the rarity of fatal attacks by all dogs. Additionally, the CDC stopped tracking data years ago pertaining to breed/type involved in dog attacks and Dog Bite-Related Fatalities (DBRFs), because of its irrelevance in the equation. Our time would be more wisely spent, dissecting the environmental factors to see if there are the same consistencies usually present in investigations where dogs have behaved badly (family dog-vs-resident dog, for example). Dogs generally do not attack out-of-the blue. There is always a reason, even if it cannot be explained in a “rational” way to human beings.

CDC Study: Conclusion

Your eleventh paragraph, you lean towards logic and common sense once again, by discussing the realities of dog related incidents, and the rarity of those fatal ones. If you think about it, this is pretty remarkable, considering how many people and dogs there are on this planet, living in close proximity to each other, and more times than not – Nothing. Ever. Happens.

We push dogs into situations where they are routinely forced in uncomfortable settings and they attempt to tell us with their body language (tongue flicks, yawns, position of ears and tails, etc), but nothing happens. Dogs deserve a lot of credit, more than we give them. Dogs are extremely resilient, and do more than their fair share of compromising in this relationship. And it’s time we start acknowledging that fact, so we can move this conversation to productive grounds that truly have a level playing field for all – dog and human. We can have equality and safety. One doesn’t cancel out the other.

Now repeat after us – There is no logical, rational and/or justifiable reason for BSL.

—————

Links:
Media Bias – https://dogsbyte.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/media-bias-study/

breed discrimination · Dog Safety

Part 2: When Things Go Wrong

If you are reading this, be sure to first read Part 1 – The Worst Part Of Dog Advocacy, to get a bit more of the backstory, and to understand why we feel it’s necessary to do this follow-up in the first place.

To begin, this is an update to the previously reported tragic fatal attack of a 22 year old Virginia woman, Bethany Lynn Stephens, by her own two dogs last week. When the story first broke, we were 60-40 that at least one of her two dogs committed the crime. But, this national story had massive holes that needed filled before we were willing to go along with that narrative…possibly bigger than many other fatal attacks by dogs in recent memory. I’m sure the viral nature of the story helped incentivize the need to make a push for and examine this further, but it also probably affected readers in profoundly negative ways – both dog lovers and non-dog lovers alike, more than most because of the way the vague events were told to us by Sheriff Agnew. It had all the ingredients of a Hollywood horror film, like Stephen King’s Cujo.

How could her own dogs do such a thing? Especially when Bethany’s friends publicly came to the dogs defense about the bond they shared, stating how she raised them both as puppies. This would go against all we’re told about the loyal nature of our companion dogs and can be viewed as traitorish behavior by the only species worthy of being called “Man(kind)s Best Friend”. For this reason, and many others, here are our final thoughts on the Bethany Lynn Stephens case.

Our organization focuses strictly on the Human-Canine Bond, regardless of what type or breed of dog he or she may be. In our eyes, the conversation isn’t as simple as, there are good dogs and there are bad dogs, either. Because that can also have unintended consequences that reinforce and compound unnecessary stereotypes – such as, there are inherently dangerous breeds/types of dog, and others that won’t ever hurt a fly. Both are inaccurate statements, and that type of rhetoric gives the public a false sense of security. All dogs – like any animal in the kingdom, which includes humans, their behavior most often is dictated by their environment. Is it nature or nurture? It is both! So, naturally, we took exception with some of the out-of-line remarks made by Goochland County Sheriff, James Agnew, whose opinions about the dogs in question perpetuate and also create new stereotypes. In some ways, it felt intentional.

Judging solely by the comments made, our initial post was well-received and shared quite a bit on social media. It was almost unanimously praised for our position to question the circumstances further of what took place on that night, with the exception of one respected voice in the dog welfare community, who gave some well-intentioned criticism and thought we were being unfair to this law enforcement department. Her primary concern was that we (as dog advocates), must not be so defensive and reactive when it comes to defending dogs in Dog Bite-Related Fatality (DBRF) news. Dogs have, do and will continue to behave badly at times, or in ways we simply don’t understand. While we do agree, we also believe we must turn these unfortunate incidents into opportunities to learn why a dog who was raised as a puppy could do the unthinkable, and not just chalk this up as, “We can’t stop them all from happening…”. Every one of these can give us new insight that may help prevent others in the future, when we are able to apply research, while simultaneously being able to secure and celebrate the natural bond dogs have with us.

In Sheriff Agnew’s initial comments about the dogs, he immediately described them as 125lb “pit bulls”, but later corrected that published report saying collectively they weighed in that range, and the specific breeds of the animals are unknown. He also stated the possibility of them being “bred for fighting”, without any proof to make such claims. But, for this sake, we are not going to discuss what constitutes a “pit bull” dog…we will save that complex conversation for another day when more time can be appropriately spent on it. Debating that is, oftentimes, a very touchy subject to get into, and usually results in proponents as well as detractors of the “breed” or type of dog, arguing about the validity of their definition over the half dozen others floated around. The purpose here is to focus strictly on this case and this case alone, with the facts that we know or are being told.

After receiving heavy scrutiny, Agnew released additional graphic details initially withheld to spare the public some of the gruesome first person accounts of the severity of Bethany’s death that he and the other officers witnessed. This was done in an effort to put to rest the notion that an investigation wasn’t performed or still ongoing. There, he told the public the two dogs have already been euthanized, and explained when they arrived at the scene the dogs were found still attacking and consuming her body.

As other behavior professionals have repeatedly stated, we may never know exactly what happened. But, as one expert said best, this incident didn’t just happen out-of-the-blue, and the two dogs definitely didn’t pre-plan this by giving a wink to the other as if to signal – “now is the time to attack her“. Behavior is on a continuum – it either grows or it dissipates, depending on a threat level or how the animal feels. With these specific dogs, there were most likely a series of changes and other variables that occurred in their life through time before this became the inevitable outcome or even a remote possibility.

Since, there has been reports about the living conditions and environment drastically changing. To preface those changes, the two dogs were 2.5 years old – right smack in the middle of the average maturation for dogs, when their adult behavior becomes more apparent. While this alone probably didn’t contribute, it should be noted that the dogs previously may not have exhibited any form of noticable or obvious aggression, because they were still growing and analyzing their world around them. Possibly more noteworthy, is they were moved as family dogs living with her in her home, to on her father’s property, where they were kept outside and allegedly not given their proper diets (and possibly starving). An even greater in-depth analysis by some behavior industry professionals shed more light in this Washington Post article, rationally discussing the what-might’ve-beens in this case, applying science and their research to back up their claims. This was indeed, the perfect storm of everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

Hidden in all this, is a discussion that seems necessary about why we expect dogs to be better mannered and behave better than us, humans. Proof of this argument can be found in the countless stories where mothers and fathers kill their own child – their own flesh and blood. Or, the homicides and pre-mediated murders that occur in the U.S. every single year. We force dogs in some of the worst situations where incidences should be expected, and most often don’t ever happen. Dogs are extremely resilient and do more than their fare share of compromising in this relationship. It’s about time that we pay this forward to them, by understanding our dogs limits better, and putting them in positions set up to succeed, so we continue securing and celebrating their vital positions as parts of our families.

Dog Safety

The Worst Part Of Dog Advocacy

Unfortunately, the worst part of dog advocacy is the fact that sometimes things can and do go wrong, and a human sustains severe and, at times, fatal injuries due to dogs. This puts us in a unique and very sensitive position, as we do not want to diminish the impact dog bite victims and their families go through, but still have to present the valid reasons why this important relationship of man(kind) and dog outweigh any of the negative risks associated with them, so to not disrupt the laundry list of benefits the Human-Canine Bond offers physically, mentally and emotionally to so many.

With an estimated 325 million people and 89 million dogs in the United States, the vast majority of dog bites don’t require any medical attention whatsoever. Even rarer – on average between 25-35 deaths by dogs occur annually. In 2014, 40 deaths nationally were caused by injuries inflicted by dogs – the highest number of fatalities in years. The most common demographic affected negatively are children, the elderly and postal/parcel delivery workers. The sad reality is, there will always be incidents involving dogs. But, the takeaway should be, we can do better to protect the public safety by analyzing these unfortunate incidents with a fine-tooth comb, while also enjoying the companionship of our canine best friends.

Just a few days ago, on Friday, December 15, 2017, a repeating headline appeared in hundreds upon hundreds of news media outlets across the country and around the world – a 22 year old Virginia woman was attacked and killed by her own two dogs. The commonalities to most of these articles we’ve read are – the victim, Bethany Lynn Stephens, was walking her dogs in a rural, wooded area outside of Richmond, Virginia, and had been missing for a day or two, before her father went out and searched for her. When he discovered her body, the two very large brindle dogs – described as “pit bulls”, were “aggressively guarding her”, and had several gruesome wounds. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

In most of these articles, the headline included the dogs were “pit bulls”, identified by Goochland County Sheriff, James Agnew, and were estimated to be around 125 pounds each, followed by, “although the specific breeds of the animals are unknown“.

Several dog advocates, including us, have pointed out in comment sections and social media posts, what appeared to be some inconsistencies, raising questions about this quick open and shut case by investigators, for lack of information pertaining to the unconscionable act allegedly performed by her own two dogs.

First, we should point out that these can be extremely complex situations to find some clarity, due to no alive eye witnesses (as of yet, at least)…we are oftentimes left with nothing but to speculate based on facts and science. We have seen some comments – especially from anti-dog groups, saying this was a predatory attack, and the aggressive dogs were guarding “their kill”. But, dogs typically do not attack their owners “out of the blue”, and this specific case can probably best be summed up that the dogs were most likely protecting their human. Even friends of Bethany have come forward to defend her dogs and her bond with them, believing they were not responsible, and admitting she recently has received death threats. But, Sheriff Agnew is shutting out the idea of homicide, due to no strangulation marks and the fatal wounds being consistent with a dog mauling in the preliminary report by the medical examiner’s office. And, for the record, the body was found Thursday evening, and these remarks by the Sheriff’s office were made less than 24 hours later. Not much time to conduct a full and thorough investigation, before making such bold, conclusive statements like this.

Did they perform bite tests to ensure the impressions matched the ones on her? And, how could an autopsy have been completed in that short of time to determine and basically conclude her cause of death?

Sheriff Agnew had initially chimed in about the themselves, saying he believes they were bred for fighting. On what grounds, and with what proof? Is he also a breed and dog behavior expert? We’d like to see his credentials that allow him to make these baseless declarations. From these comments and some of the shoddy detective work by law enforcement thus far, it makes this whole case seem so suspect and anything but closed. Two cases immediately come to mind from our hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, for reason to have additional doubt, that changes the way we see the case when the facts are present…even if the end result is the same culprit – the dog:

On September 2, 1992, Angela Kaplan was bitten over 100 times by her husband, Jeffrey Mann’s “pit bull” dog, Mack, which ultimately killed her. It was deemed an open and shut case, until Cleveland detective, Michaelene Taliano, grew suspicious when she observed some inconsistencies. Besides the manner in which she was attacked – where her wounds were found, she became wary of Mann’s story as well and whether or not he was telling the whole truth. The two apparently were verbally fighting, and that’s when Mack attacked “unprovoked”. A few months later, it was proved that Mann trained Mack to attack on-cue using commands in a foreign language. Through discussions several years ago with Det. Taliano, Mack initially defied Mann’s demands, but reluctantly followed through with the orders to attack. Because of that, Jeffrey Mann was arrested and charged with murder, and is paying for his crime.

And, finally, in February of 2010, Carolyn Baker was found in her driveway with severe bite wounds on her shoulder made by her Rottweiler dog, Zeus. Zeus was labeled aggressive, taken into custody and put into quarantine. Carolyn’s kids emphatically stated, Zeus did not kill their mom, and wanted him back. After Zeus was killed, the autopsy came back with the evidence proving he was actually a hero who was attempting to pull his human to safety after she collapsed from a heart attack. But, they killed him, even after her family begged them not to. A hero is dead. In a day, a family lost their mother/wife and the only other thing that mattered to her.

There has been more than 60 pieces of evidence collected in the death of Bethany Lynn Stephens. Sheriff Agnew concluded that the dogs are at the Goochland County Animal Control, and set to be euthanized. Earlier today, a more rational article in the Richmond Times Dispatch about the incident was made public, with interviews from dog behavior professionals, attempting to get some clarity on the events that lead to this unfortunate death. But all they can really do is use their knowledge of the field and speculate. Regardless of what the ultimate final findings are – whether the dogs are found to be the killers he claims them to be, or scapegoats in the name of laziness, we feel each and every case deserves better detective work, and decisive remarks should only be released to the media and public once all the known facts become scientifically apparent.

We are requesting public records for this case, and hope others will also demand a better investigation as well. If Bethany were alive, I’m sure she would want the truth to be the deciding factor on their lives in this tragic incident. And with this, if one or both of the dogs turn out to be the culprit, perhaps we can learn better from these tragedies, to educate the public about safety with dogs.

Goochland County:
Goochland County Sheriff’s Office/James Agnew – http://www.goochlandsheriff.org; or send a message via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pg/goochlandsheriff/about/
The Goochland County Animal Control department – tclough@goochlandva.us

Human-Canine Bond · You Had Me At WOOF

You Had Me At WOOF: Adam Orebaugh

12 years ago today we brought you home. I remember it like yesterday.  Even though, at the time, we more likely would have said, “We don’t really need a dog right now.” Boy, did you ever prove us wrong. Looking back, it is profound to think just how much you helped shape me and Mom into the people we are today.

You were goofy and always could make us laugh. Whenever it would rain you would come in and run from the bed to the sofa, back and forth and dramatically thrash around drying your face off. More humorous was that you’d do this after a bath, even if we hadn’t gotten your face wet. You’d use our pillows as your personal napkin. Raw eggs, canned tripe, raw-whatever you hated having a messy face and would always run away as soon as you were done. We’d find you jamming your face in-between the pillows of our bed as you grunted. Most people would get mad about this. We just laughed and invested in an extraordinary number of extra pillowcases.

Just as your clairvoyance would have you hiding behind the toilets long before the first rumble of thunder, without falter you had a knack for leaning into a person who needed a listener, or licking away the tears from someone needing comfort. No matter how much self-doubt or self-loathing someone was experiencing, you had this amazing ability to remind us, “Hey we got this.”

You were an amazing caregiver. Whether it was nursing someone back from the flu (dubbed ‘Nurse Hailey’) or helping grieve a family loss. I remember when we would visit Grandma while she was sick you would always carefully crawl into her bed and curl up next to her. Eventually the cancer took Grandma from us. Like clockwork, you velcro’d yourself to Mom for weeks.

Just as you comforted in times of need, you also celebrated the good times.  You would always give some joyous barks at mealtime while we were filling bowls. However, in hindsight, you might have also been telling your brothers to step down before you had to hand out beat downs. You always met us at the door with some happy barks of ‘Welcome home.’ And you always passed by us with a ‘Hey friend’ tail wag. Occasionally, that tail wag meant, ‘Hey friend, the cheeseburger you left on the table a few minutes ago was delicious. Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.”

We’ve never shared an official dialect, though we’ve spoken to each other in profound ways over the years.

I remember the day you let us know it was time. The hardest phone call of my life was to your doctor the day before we said goodbye. I hung up the phone and immediately started sobbing, and, though you could hardly muster the energy to climb over to me, you did and licked away my tears one last time, as if to say, “It’s ok.”

This morning I awoke to a reminder that it was ‘Hailey Day’ on my phone. It’s not like I needed a reminder. I had already bought some treats and stuffed animals for your brothers, and, even though you are not here with us, we will still take some time to celebrate what an amazing teacher and companion you have been to all of us. I know wherever you are, you’ve found an amazing sunbeam to curl up in, and though we terribly miss the sound of your foot steps, the warmth of your snuggles, and the the smell of the scruff of your neck, we are doing ok.

Thank you friend, for the amazing memories. I love you. I miss you. Happy Adoption Day.

breed discrimination · Human-Canine Bond

You’re Cordially Invited

Dear Mayor Mike Summers, Lakewood City Council, Law Director Kevin Butler, residents and members of the media,

On Friday, October 20, 2017, we will be holding a “Lakewood Community Dog Safety Forum” event, presenting an advanced (rough cut) screening of “Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent” (GTPI) at the Lakewood Public Library (westside suburb of Cleveland, Ohio) in the auditorium, open to the public FREE of charge, prior to the official release in the near future. Seating capacity is limited to the first 100 (first come, first serve), with doors opening at 6pm and the film starting promptly by 6:30pm. We expect the room will fill up fast, so please plan on arriving early.

The documentary – produced by our video production and media company, River Fire Films (a separate entity), was originally released in 2013, touring 20-some times (which included two film festivals) partnering with area dog rescue, welfare and advocacy organizations around the United States, to help arm those championing for dog ownership equality by providing a factual representation of the breed specific legislation (BSL) issue. We dubbed that rendition – the “Rescue Version”.

Although that film went on to have some success and make an impact, we felt it could have been even bigger and better. And, even though there has been much progress made in this social and moral cause – especially nationally in the States, where the recent trends to reverse and repeal these archaic laws are spreading like wild fire, reminiscent to the reactionary way they began in the 80’s and 90’s, the topic continues to pop up, which is why we decided to revisit the idea of doing a reboot with a more strategic plan to finally put an end to breed discrimination globally.

We gave it a complete facelift by re-editing the film, moving chapters around, adding more special effects, more original composed music, and additional footage – including recent coverage of efforts happening here in Lakewood to repeal what never should have passed in the first place.

Those of you who were on Lakewood’s City Council when the law passed in 2008, may remember me. I’m the guy who attended each and every one of those council meetings with my camera gear, recording every word you spoke. At the time, I wasn’t as knowledgeable about the issue as I am today. In a lot of ways, i was no more informed as you. I counted on the many who provided expert testimony against the legislation, which is packaged as a public safety measurement. Back then, I didn’t know enough to refute that. But, today, I can with ease.

In reviewing the archived video footage (which was also included in the film), the June 10, 2008 council meeting former councilman and current Law Director, Kevin Butler, made a comment about his position to support the legislation in the name of public safety that has alway stayed with me:

“You have to understand from our perspective, when we receive complaints about the perception of public safety declining, it can be that there are those who see pit bulls, and while they don’t tell the owners that they’re scared of that dog and they don’t call the animal control officer, they do instantly make a decision that the safety in their city is declining.

So, I think this is a somewhat targeted response to that – I’m not suggesting it’s the right one as it’s written. But, what I’m saying is, when you say there’s no problem because that pit bull hasn’t bitten someone, or hasn’t acted dangerously, I don’t think that’s necessarily accurate.

I think there’s a lot of folks out there, who see a dog, and make that decision. Frankly, there are a lot of folks out there who see a certain type of person, and make that decision. And that may not be fair…what I’m suggesting though is that, we are doing everything we can not only to actually create safety, but also to create the perception of safety.”

When we were building the storyboard for the original version of GTPI, we attempted to do a film as unbiased as humanly possible, which forced us to forget anything we thought we knew about dogs and dog behavior, and start from the very beginning. I say this as an admitted lifelong dog-lover, who currently shares his home with three dogs labeled “Pit Bull” in the shelter system. It may make me biased, since I willingly chose them, but, that, however, doesn’t automatically make me unable to see or think clearly about this complex issue.

Even still, we were incredibly neutral in our process – to let the viewer decide when presented with the verifiable facts. We gave both sides of this debate an equal and fair chance to provide their reasoning – for or against, and sought out only the most qualified experts to speak on behalf of the dogs. The only problem is, there legitimately is not a rational reason in favor of breed bans and restrictions. if it wasn’t for a couple sources who publish incomplete, misleading and inaccurate data, the pro-BSL camp wouldn’t exist…, and of course, the “perception” of public safety factor that former Councilman Butler alluded to, which perhaps existed more back then than now. Even still, perception isn’t based on reality or facts at all – just a warm, fuzzy feeling thinking they did something productive for the community elected to protect.

Over the last few months – mostly due to a dog named Charlie (#ImWithCharlie movement), the momentum has been building again with support all over the country, requesting Mayor Summers and Lakewood City Council finally fix this once and for all. Some of you may have noticed me back in the audience again with my camera, documenting what is transpiring. I’ve written several professional emails over the years to Council, and most have gone unanswered. One of the only responses I have received since I left the city in 2008, was a few years ago, and they just wanted to confirm that I am no longer a resident.

I am encouraged by two current council members – Sam O’Leary and Dan O’Malley, who have publicly spoken on the matter opposing the ban. This was brave of them to do, knowing Mayor Summers and the rest of Council has been against a repeal. One day in the very near future, I hope those words turn into more involvement and action, but at the moment I am just grateful they stuck their necks out with their opposition.

I am encouraged at the thought of new council members potentially being voted in to serve Lakewood residents in the upcoming local election, to replace some of the incumbents who stand firm against any challenge of their ban.

I am also extremely encouraged at the unity and grassroots community programs being thought of and constructed to tackle the public safety concern. Any city should feel so lucky to have passionate people who put safety and equality above all in their community. We don’t need to compromise one for the other. These two things can be of equal importance.

But, back to our upcoming screening event…

By now, you can probably see one or more reasons why we chose Lakewood to be the first city to hold a screening of our re-released film (rough cut). Our hope is we encourage more dialogue by current members of Council and the Mayor, even if we disagree. At least we’re talking.

This is your official invitation to our “Lakewood Community Dog Safety Forum” event. Once the film concludes, we will hold a brief Q&A, where discussions about the film, the law, and how to make our communities truly safer for all families, including our four-legged companions.

In the end, I think we can all agree Lakewood’s ban will be repealed one day. Whether it happens today, next year, or in another nine is up to you who currently represent and serve Lakewood. But, you can be heroes right now. It’s time.

#EndBSL

Sincerely,

Jeff Theman
River Fire Films, LLC
Director, Producer

WOOFobia
Executive Director, Founder

breed discrimination · Human-Canine Bond

You Know.

Preston at the corner of W117th and Detroit Avenue where Cleveland borders Lakewood, Ohio.

Mayor Summers and current members of Lakewood City Council:

We know. You know we know.

Tuesday, September 5, many current and former Lakewood, Ohio residents, who probably last saw the inside of city hall in 2008, came back again with several passionate new dog advocates seeking justice. Many stood together in the back of the auditorium of council chambers and held signs in peaceful protest as we awaited the fate of Charlie – one of the newest family dogs affected by your archaic law.

Over 9 years ago, many of us who were present Tuesday, sat in that same auditorium listening to your predecessors cherry pick their “facts” about dogs and dog behavior – specifically “pit bull” dogs. Over the course of 2-3 months, Council repeatedly cited primarily two online resources for their “proof” of these dogs being different – Colleen Lynn’s DogsBite.org and Merritt Clifton’s annual “study” – Dog Attack Deaths and Maimings .., both of which have been proven unreliable, inaccurate, incredibly biased, and torn to shreds over and over again.

The proposal to enact a ban of “pit bull and canary” dogs in Lakewood by former Councilman, Brian Powers, was supposedly started, according to Powers, for a couple reasons; the state of Ohio’s (at the time) existing restriction on “pit bull” dogs that passed in 1987 (and repealed in 2012) explaining the duty the city has to enforce the statewide law without getting additional funding, as well as an unfortunate serious incident involving a drunk man, who went to an after-hours party at the home of someone he did not know, feeding meat to the owner’s dog at 3:30 in the morning. The owner suggested the man, who admitted to drinking all night long, had been teasing the dog before he got bit.

There have been other additional excuses for the proposal of the law back then, but these are the two most repeated during that period.

In an effort to remain transparent, I admit to having some personal motivation in this subject matter. The previous year (2007), I began a documentary film about dog-fighting, with a focus on the victims – the dogs, after NFL star quarterback, Michael Vick, was suspected of the crime. I stumbled upon these laws called breed specific legislation (BSL) by accident. If you spend enough time Googling “pit bull dogs” and “dog-fighting”, it won’t take you long before you do. Additionally, I am also guilty of being a lifelong dog-lover, who has shared my home with a variety of different dogs during my life, but none would have been considered a “pit bull”. So, now that my own bias is out there, let me just say, that doesn’t change the facts about this issue.

Just a couple weeks prior to the first council meeting where BSL was introduced, I visited the home of the founder of the only pit bull rescue in Cleveland – For the Love of Pits, for research on this film. And, again, by accident discovered my soulmate in the form of a dog. The moment our eyes met, I knew instantly Preston was my soul dog. On that day, I made my intentions known that I was going to adopt this dog…until Lakewood threw an unexpected wrench in those plans.

I started showing up and recording all of the meetings. I spoke at the very first one, telling council about my film, and threatened to leave the city I called home if they should move forward and pass their ban. In my few minutes of allotted time allowed to speak, I also told them what I loved about Lakewood. Besides the nightlife, I told them how when I drive through town, all I see are human beings walking their dogs. That’s why I chose Lakewood!

Publicly, the city prided itself on being progressive and open-minded, but I soon found out much of that was built on a lie and described best as – beauty is only skin deep.

After that first meeting, Council was caught in the middle of a Fox 8 I-Team News investigation for questionable practices relating to Lakewood animal control visiting residents who spoke and claimed to own one of these dogs, to ensure they were compliant with state law (i.e. liability insurance, containment requirements, etc.). My footage of council members squirming after being called out by a husband-wife attorney duo in the third council meeting was used in this news segment.

After this, the direction of the film abruptly changed to breed discrimination, and Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent was born.

Meeting after meeting, expert testimony after expert testimony, Council chose to disregard verifiable scientific facts, choosing sensationalism and irrational fear to pass the ban in July 2008, with a grandfather clause to save face as a “compromise”. Owners of “pit bull” dogs were given a chance to keep them by registering their dogs annually, and maintain compliance with the other outlined stipulations.

Back then, Lakewood was able to call your dog a “pit bull”, and there was no real way to fight the designation. One of the first residents I met and interviewed was Jeannine and Jason, owners of Macey. If you were able to present a case that the visual identification done by ACOs was invalid, you were able to have your dog’s name removed off the registered “pit bull” list. After obtaining a letter from their vet, completing DNA tests that showed Macey was 51% English Bulldog and 49% Labrador (aka – no “pit bull” of any kind), and hiring an attorney, they finally received that elusive hearing date in 2011, after waiting three long years without due process. They subsequently won their case, and Macey was no longer a “pit bull” by Lakewood’s standards. She passed away on April 22, 2016, after a fight with lymphoma.

2009 marked the first full year of the ban being in effect. Any “pit bull” dogs who were not registered before the December deadline, were officially illegal. Two incidents of such cases were most memorable:

  • white boxer named, Otis, who got out of the house while his owner was sleeping. A horrific video surfaced of the dog warden tasing Otis not once, but twice, then using the catch pole, dragging him on his back before lifting him up into the van by only his neck. The dog community was appalled. A deal was made with the owner that would give Otis back, but only if he was removed from the city and never returned.
  • The harassment of a 20-year military veteran, Leonard Shelton, who served in both Iraq wars, and suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Besides companionship, Leonard used his dog, Roscoe, to help with his PTSD. He ended up moving, then suing Lakewood, and later settled out of court.

Through the years, several members of that administration moved on. Former Mayor Ed Fitzgerald was elected to the top seat in Cuyahoga County – County Executive, then ran an unsuccessful campaign to be Ohio’s next Governor. There were always rumblings through the grapevine about Fitzgerald being the bird chirping in Councilman Powers ear to propose the ban. Brian was given his At-Large seat due to an open spot on Council, in an election year. As the old saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity, because Powers went on to win his seat in that election after his name and face was plastered all over the news for several months bringing him name recognition at the ballot box. He later became Council President, before leaving local politics altogether at the end of 2013.

If there’s one thing I can say positive about him, he did accept and follow through with an interview for my film in 2009. Towards the end of the interview, I asked him: if Ohio repealed it’s law, would Lakewood then propose legislation to repeal their ban, since the statewide law was such a big factor?

He replied:
“Absolutely. If the state of Ohio changed the law – the breed specific legislation that covers the entire state right now, we cannot pass breed neutral legislation undoing that. If the state law changed, I’m very confident that we would explore changing the Lakewood law.”

A few weeks after the state law officially repealed in May 2012, I emailed Councilman Powers asking when we can begin discussions on Lakewood’s repeal. You see, I’m a man of my word, and when another man looks me in the eyes and tells me he’s going to do something, call me naive, but I expect him to follow through with that.

His reply was “not sure that any members of City Council would be supportive of changing our current law. Things have stabilized here and the law seems to be working fine. But I’ll keep an open mind if anyone proposes a change.”

What?! Working fine? No, it wasn’t.

This response did anger me a bit, to be blatantly lied to by a public official on camera…an example of the exact reason nobody trusts politicians nowadays. From there, I just wanted to Hold Politicians Accountable Again!

I took Mr. Powers advice and immediately forwarded that email to the rest of Council requesting to open dialogue about a repeal. Not one responded. I was under the impression public officials, are at the very least ethically obligated to respond to all inquiries from the public, including those who now reside outside their city. A couple weeks went by, I sent another, but this time I received a couple snarkier responses in return, including one who only wanted to confirm that I am no longer a Lakewood resident.

Most on Council from 2008 have left office, but some have found a way to stick around. Councilman Tom Bullock, who is up for re-election at the end of this year (2017) is the last remaining member still serving on council. Councilman Michael Summers was appointed by Council in 2011 to take over as Mayor once Fitzgerald left to run the County government. Last, Councilman Kevin Butler became Lakewood’s Law Director. Some of the most influential members in Lakewood’s current legislative branch of government, are from a previous regime with a checkered past regarding this law.

After Lakewood passed their ban, I took my videocamera to Avon Lake, and sat in on a year’s worth of council meetings beginning in 2009. Their Council eventually decided against moving forward with additional measurements towards “pit bull” dog ownership.

For the next several years, whenever there was a city, especially in my NE Ohio region, where this topic was on their agenda, I made every attempt to educate those public officials of the harms this law creates, with some success. I oftentimes point to my experiences with Lakewood. My reason for stating this is, I’ve literally heard every argument possible in favor of breed specific legislation, and not one actually does anything to solve the root problem of maintaining public safety, which is the stated goal.

In late 2015, Shaker Heights, Ohio – another suburb in the Cleveland area, proposed a ban. The Mayor of “The Heights” used Lakewood’s success as an example in his opening remarks to council and the public the day of the vote. Through a public records request, I discovered extensive one-on-one discussions by a Shaker Heights councilwoman and the founder of DogsBite.org, Colleen Lynn, attempting to get advice on how to respond to facts that go against their plan to enact a ban – the same “resource” that Lakewood council used to support their quest. It was eventually voted down 5-2 in January 2016.

This is for Macey.  This is for Otis the boxer. This is for Roscoe. This is for Charlie. This is for all families and their dogs who were unfairly labeled in Lakewood as dangerous because someone identified them as a “pit bull” – whether said dog actually was or not. And this is definitely for my dog, Preston. I had to delay the adoption for 6 months while searching for a new city to live who would accept him as an individual. Now estimated to be 12 years old and closer to the end than to the beginning, I want those 6 months back, Lakewood City Council.

Peaceful protestors who stood in back during a Lakewood City Council meeting in support of the dog, Charlie.

So, here we are full circle. Another family and their dog being negatively impacted by your law. Just yesterday, the results from the hearing came back, saying Charlie, short of a lawsuit, must leave the city within 30 days. Back in 2008, I liked to give the benefit of the doubt, because there was a very real (irrational) fear among the public and often a misconception about these dogs. Many of us in animal welfare have also made mistakes about this issue. But over the last 9 years, there’s been an overwhelming abundance of data showing the failure of these laws. There’s just no more excuses for being misinformed. I don’t know if it’s pride or what.

But, you know. We know you know.

You Had Me At WOOF

You Had Me At WOOF: Jeff Theman

I turned 40 years old yesterday – July 28, 2017. There was a time, just a couple years ago, where I didn’t think I’d survive and get to see this somewhat irrelevant milestone.

Preston at Edgewater Park in Cleveland, Ohio on 7/28/2017

Since 2008, there’s two days each year I take off from work – July 28th and October 4th. Every. Year. And, both involve me and my soulmate/souldog, Preston.

On July 6, 2006, Preston and two other dogs were confiscated from a home in Akron, Ohio – about 30 minutes south of Cleveland, where the owners allegedly used them for dogfighting purposes. I say allegedly because the owners were never charged with the animal cruelty crime, but instead on only illegal drug charges. From there the three “pit bull” dogs were brought to an area humane society where they were kept as evidence while the case moved forward. This was pre-Michael Vick, so the outrage around the country towards animal fighting “sports” wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. And in Ohio, where we had a statewide restriction (BSL) of “pit bull” dog ownership since 1987, these dogs taken from situations like this were typically systematically killed without much, if any, publicity at all.

After Preston was brought to the shelter, he was visited by a woman, Shana Klein, who owned a rescue – For The Love Of Pits, specifically for “pit bull” dogs in the northeast Ohio area, and began to walk him around the confines of their property. Along the way, because of the stance back then about dogs who came from this type of environment, the other two dogs brought in were killed, but Preston’s life was spared, temporarily at least, mostly due to being a shelter favorite.

On a Friday afternoon, the shelter gave a courtesy call to Shana, to notify her that Preston would be put to sleep at 4pm that day. She then hung up, and scurried to find a foster home where he can go. Luckily, she found a safe, temporary place, before being moved in with her, until I met him (in April 2008) and was able to officially adopt him on Saturday, October 4, 2008.

The entire encounter could be considered accidental – a coincidence of sorts, due to the only reason I was visiting the rescue to begin with, was for research on my documentary film, “Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent“, about Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) in Ohio, that labeled all “pit bull” dogs inherently vicious at birth. I knew there was something special about this dog, as I never felt the way I did about an animal when our eyes first locked. Within 15 minutes of meeting him, I had already made my intentions known that I was going to adopt this dog.

Soon after, the suburb of Cleveland I was living in – Lakewood, Ohio, proposed and passed a ban of pit bull dogs within their city limits, claiming the state law as being the primary reason for the legislation, which delayed my ability to adopt Preston. It took me nearly six months, and a new residence, which wasn’t easy, due to landlords perceptions of his alleged “breed”, but with perseverance, I was finally able to welcome him home.

One of the first photos I took of Preston after adoption in 10/2008

We began on a journey together, where we both took the time to understand and trust each other, which only helped to solidify our natural bond, while my editor and I went to work and finished the documentary. There were some lows during this time, such as my grandpa passing away in 2009, and the loss of the human version of the love of my life, but there were many highs as well, such as the 20-some screenings GTPI was screened at around the United States, and other recognition for our accomplishments because of it.

Then, towards the middle of 2014, I noticed I didn’t feel right, and things went south in a hurry. I was in the infancy stages of severe anxiety and crippling depression, mostly due to being outspoken about some of the problems I recognized in the field I had immersed myself in, as well as all the unnecessary pain and suffering – to both human and animal, I saw on a daily basis, which made me react in uncharacteristic ways. My mental health, as well as my reputation within the community I built a name in, was crashing and burning simultaneously together. Without getting into specifics, my personal life suffered greatly, too.

Image by: Greg Murray Photography © gmurrayphoto.com

I remember going to sleep nightly with all three of my dogs, holding Preston close to me with his head resting alongside mine on the pillow, and repeatedly telling him “I love you so much”, over and over and over again, until I drifted asleep. It became so bad that on the early morning of November 2, 2014, I closed the door to my home office and wrote what was to be my final blog entry titled “Save Me, and I’ll Save You“, with the intention of making it public, and then blowing my head clean off with my S&W 9mm. Weird, because I purchased that handgun for my and my dogs safety, but I never thought I’d have to protect myself from myself.

At the moment I decided to proceed, Preston nudged the door open with his nose. I took one look into those beautiful brown eyes of his, and wept. Preston prevented me from carrying out an action I had no way to take back.

Image by: Greg Murray Photography © gmurrayphoto.com

The following spring, I got into a serious auto accident, and suffered a concussion – the third of my life, from slamming into the cement highway guardrail on a pouring rain morning commute to the office. This manifested itself into post concussion syndrome a month or so later, which lasted for nearly a year. During this, I visited all three of Cleveland’s main hospitals seeking their help and expertise. They all prescribed several pharmaceuticals, which made my suicidal thoughts resurface again. I had no quality of life – I went to work, took my meds to ease the pain, went home after the 8 hour day, let out and fed the dogs, and was in bed by 7 that night…every night, most nights without dinner. I felt like a shell of myself, like a robot…numb to everything. I knew, this was not living.

On a January 2016 morning, I made the decision that if I am going to survive, I will need to do it myself. All by myself…but, with the help of my dogs, obviously. I threw away the prescriptions, and began venturing out in the cold with my camera and a dog (mainly Preston), photographing the urban decay of Cleveland. There’s something beautiful about rust and graffiti-laced, dilapidated vacant buildings, and the way they appear in the dead of winter. Bringing one of my dogs with me served two purposes. They still needed to be walked, and it gave me a companion to be a pair of eyes for me while I get lost in the moment framing my next shot.

A scene captured at Euclid Beach in Cleveland, Ohio in 02/2016

Art and expressing my creative self was one of the things that was missing prior to, and by reintroducing it back into my life, it was the therapy that temporarily took away the pain I was in. My dogs – specifically Preston, were the only reason that kept me from “pulling the trigger” – both figuratively and literally speaking. Which bought me time to get myself better – mentally and physically, again.

Since, I still have some bad days, but they’re not as often as before. Each day my well-being gets a little better. Because of those experiences, I am now armed with a new sense of what’s important, and the message it has with the creation of this start up non-profit (filing still pending) organization I founded, WOOFobia, because I noticed a growing need for more advocacy work which includes both dog and their human counterpart. Especially with the spike in cases of mental illness, and trend of them being brushed aside where nobody wants to talk about it, which leads to more suffering of all at the hands of it.

Back on July 28, 2006, I was at my local Honda dealership buying a brand new car for a birthday present to myself, at the exact same time Preston’s life was scheduled to expire. When the rescue stepped up and fate saved him from his demise, it happened on my birthday. His new life started the day we celebrate mine. Some things are just supposed to happen, like celebrating the human-canine bond with your best friend, hero and soulmate (or souldog), as we do every July 28th and October 4th, since we crashed into each other’s lives.

It brings up the age old question – who rescued whom?

— Jeff Theman
WOOFobia, Executive Director
River Fire Films, LLC, Filmmaker/Director/Producer

— To submit your “You Had Me At WOOF” story, click HERE! —