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
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

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