“Never, never, never give up.” ~ Winston Churchill
What an emotional day: After 19 months of protesting, petitioning, lobbying, social media activism, and the relentless efforts of so many people, it was formally announced by Dog Tales today, July 25th, 2017, that 18 of the Chatham 21 dogs will finally and truly be saved and sent to an animal rescue in Florida, as well as the 11 puppies born while the 21 dogs were held by the OSPCA and 7 additional dogs seized in connection to the case.
For those of you who may not know the full story behind the hashtag that gained worldwide momentum this year, #savethe21, the following is a brief review:
Back in October of 2015, the OSPCA (Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), along with the Chatham-Kent Police Services, seized 31 dogs, from a location called “Dirty White Boy Kennels”, that they immediately labelled “pit bull” type dogs, along with multiple items associated with dog fighting. Several arrests were made in connection to this seizure and countless court appearances for both the criminal case (involving the perpetrators) and the OSPCA’s application (filed in February 2016, to euthanize 21 of the dogs) followed over the course of the following year. Yes, you read that right: The OSPCA, the very agency whose mandate is to protect animals from cruelty, who were responsible for removing these dogs from a horrific situation, submitted an application to the Chatham Court, asking to have 21 of these dogs euthanized, citing that they were not fit for rehabilitation (you can read a more detailed account of this case on my blog here and here).
That application led to over a year of persistent protests from a group of very dedicated supporters, some of whom I am now proud to call my friends, who wanted the OSPCA to retract their application and allow one of the intervenors in the case to give the dogs a second chance.
This case was further complicated because the dogs that were seized were labelled as “pit bull type dogs” by the OSPCA, which are illegal dogs in Ontario where Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) laws apply. The OSPCA stated that they could not, in good conscience, release the dogs to any rescue or rehabilitation centre in the province because of the ban. That would have been understandable, in light of the ban, however, several dog rescues, behaviourists and sanctuaries from out of the province, including in the US, offered to help these dogs, covering all costs. These offers were completely ignored by the OSPCA. Within Ontario, the motions to intervene in this case were filed by Bullies in Need (who, once it became apparent the Crown was unwavering in their position, had to excuse themselves from the court proceedings in order to continue to allocate their limited funds towards the dogs they rescue), Animal Justice, and Dog Tales, Canada’s largest, privately-funded animal shelter that specializes in the care and rehabilitation of abused and neglected animals from around the world. All three intervenors had requested individual assessments of the dogs by a third party (the only external assessment of the dogs was done by the APSCA) which fell on deaf ears for far too long. Dog Tales had also said from the start that they would allow the OSPCA to remain as involved as they wanted, and that they were in a financial position to offer to cover all costs for these dogs, pertaining to this case, thus relieving the OSPCA and subsequently Ontario tax payers. So why it took 19 months for the OSPCA to finally change their minds and allow Dog Tales to do just that is as heart-breaking as it is infuriating.
I have personally followed this case closely from the start. I feel very strongly that these dogs deserve a second chance. While I know that not all dogs who are victims of cruelty can be rehabilitated, I do know that they all deserve that chance. No dog should be punished by death for having suffered horrific cruelty at human hands, hence my own protest sign at every event: Victims Should Not Have to Fight for their Lives. I have written several blog posts and articles about the Chatham case, I have given radio interviews and speeches about it, I have worked with my local MPP to request intervention from higher levels of government, I lost countless nights of sleep worrying about the fate of these dogs and suffered from compassion fatigue on more than one occasion, and I have been part of a large network of protestors in support of giving these 21 dogs a second chance. And for the last four months, I have been left completely in the dark. I have had no updates, no hints, not a sliver of information from anyone previously in the know on this case … until last week.
Thanks to social media, thousands of advocates and people interested in animal welfare took an interest in this case, including several guardians of the Vicktory Dogs in the U.S. One of which, Jacqueline Johnson (the late Ray), went as far as to write an Open Letter to the Judge in the case, in March of 2016, that was shared far and wide through social media.
In December of 2016, the court ruled that the intervenor status was denied for both Dog Tales and Animal Justice. It was at that point that many activists began to lose hope. I cannot count how many times I heard: “you know they’re already dead, right?” To which I would reply: “no, I do not know that, nor can I believe that.”
After Dog Tales launched their January 2017 savethe21.com website, celebrities such as Canadian icon Don Cherry, who spoke about the case in his segment during the NHL All Star game, Paris Hilton, Richard Branson and Natalie Imbruglia (to name a few) joined the protests in support of giving these dogs another chance. Countless “Save the 21” petitions circulated around the globe and thousands of letters/calls/e-mails were directed to the OSPCA. The savethe21 website included calls to action, such as a form letter to send to the OSPCA (and even a response to their automated response!) and one to the MPP responsible for oversight of the OSPCA, and it had a section called “The Movement” where the public could post their own hash-tagged #SaveThe21 photo and feel more connected to this public outcry (my own photo is pictured here). I firmly believe that it was this public interest in the case that contributed to the ultimate change-of-heart from the OSPCA, allowing a second assessment of the dogs (by canine behavior specialist Jim Crosby) and ultimately permitting the dogs to be sent to the U.S. to work with world-renowned canine behaviour modification specialist Amiee Sadler (Founder and CEO of Dogs Playing for Life, located in Florida) for rehabilitation, who has reportedly assumed ownership of the dogs. Sadler has made arrangements for full-time staff to care for these dogs for the next six months.
There had been a publication ban on details in this case since the start, but after the last published court date for the OSPCA application, in March of this year, the case seemed to go cold. I had become known as an “expert” on the case, having followed it so closely and reporting on it via my blog, and having attended so many of the protests in person, including several outside the Chatham courthouse where I met Chatham-Kent-Essex MPP Rick Nicholson, Dog Tales founder Rob Scheinberg, Dog Tales media director Clare Forndran, and the lawyer for Dog Tales on this case, John Nunziata. I had a few people who were “insiders” on this case from whom I obtained information when none seemed available. But after March, it almost seemed as if we were all supposed to forget about these dogs (fat chance!) as no further information was available, nothing further was published, the social media campaign seemed to die down, and those of us who had been so committed for so long were left feeling abandoned. Little did we know that a great deal of action was taking place behind the scenes, thanks to Dog Tales’ unwavering commitment to saving these dogs.
Then suddenly, mid-July, I received an invitation to a “surprise announcement” at Dog Tales sanctuary on July 25th. The invitation hinted that it was good news and I knew in my heart it could only be concerning one thing: The Chatham 21 dogs.
This morning, Dog Tales hosted a media conference where the details became public about the true rescue of these dogs: 18 of the original 21 dogs were going to finally be given their second chance at life and were going to the animal rescue facility “Dogs Playing for Life” in north Florida. In addition, the 11 puppies and another 7 dogs seized in this case were also going to be travelling to Florida so that they can finally learn how to live their lives as dogs and for rehabilitation, as needed. In total, Dog Tales had successfully saved 36 dogs! The Chatham court had ordered the 3 accused of running the dogfighting ring to surrender ownership of the banned dogs to the OSPCA, who were then ordered by the court to send the dogs to the Florida facility. The OSPCA, who had applied to kill these dogs, finally had a change of heart and I credit, in large part, the media campaign from Dog Tales for that change. That also means that every single person who posted their hash-tagged photo, every person who signed a petition and attended a protest, every person who kept these dogs in the public eye made a positive difference to their lives and contributed to the outcome that was announced today. Dog Tales has recognized these contributions also. To say I am overwhelmed with joy would be an understatement.
It is because I have been so heavily invested in this case that I cannot help but hold a heavy heart today, despite the wonderful news that 36 dogs will finally be saved. We also learned today that three more dogs died during the 19-month waiting period in this case: One dog was killed by another dog, while in OSPCA custody, another dog was euthanized by the OSPCA but they have yet to say why, and the third dog, who was named Tommy, had to be euthanized because of what Dog Tales’ press release referred to as “human-focused reactivity”. All 3 of these dogs lost their lives unnecessarily, because of the abuse they suffered at the hands of their abusers. And while I am elated that 18 of the abused dogs are being given a second chance, my heart still hurts that several of the dogs will never get that chance. We cannot forget that and accountability needs to be met accordingly, most especially for the agonizing wait time in this case. It was also reported today that the majority of the 18 dogs are reportedly on twice-daily doses of mood stabilizing medications, something that I hope can quickly be remedied once they are transferred to their new homes in Florida.
There are still hundreds of charges pending against the accused in the criminal case, which goes to trial in 2018, but thankfully the fate of the dogs no longer hangs in the balance. I shudder to think what would have happened to all of these dogs had Dog Tales not remained so engaged in this fight to save these dogs, and kept the faith that they could be saved.
On a more personal note, once I arrived at the Dog Tales reception event tonight, I had the opportunity to speak privately to Rob (Scheinberg), founder of the dreamlike facility that is Dog Tales – an animal sanctuary that is unlike any other, that he founded and runs with his wife, Danielle. Rob and I had met a couple of times before, at the protests outside the Chatham courthouse, where I was immediately struck by the fact that, despite wearing a fine suit, he got down on his knees to fuss with the dogs who attended the protests (pictured here with Sugar Ray). That was my first indication that his heart was truly in this for the dogs. At Dog Tales, we spoke about what inspires us, which led to a mutual understanding about the power that one dog can have in the course of our lives. Rob told me about his own “pit bull” type dog that he had for 17 years, long before BSL came into effect, named Mamba, and that Mamba provided him with the inspiration he needed to maintain his faith in the eventual freedom for these dogs, reminding him of the potential that each and every one of these dogs had. Rob and his wife strongly oppose BSL and are committed to seeing it end in Ontario, although he and I both agreed that freedom for a dog is more about what kind of life you provide for your dog than being restricted by where you live. I talked with him about my own experiences with Bella and how we try to never let her feel the anxiety and paranoia that we have to feel, living under BSL.
I admire the fact that Rob is personally driving these rescued dogs to Florida. The first half of the dogs will travel with him the last week of July and the second half will go at the end of August, after they have all been spayed and neutered, something they had been denied until now. He told me about his time with the 18 remaining dogs: He smiled as he recounted playing with them, receiving their sloppy kisses and told me how he even gave some of the dogs treats from his own mouth! That is certainly not the picture of “dangerous dogs” that the OSPCA painted throughout this case. That is such a testament to the resilient and forgiving nature of these dogs, and it is not the first time we have heard stories like that after dogs have endured unimaginable horror at human hands. Rob said that for him, that was all the thanks he needed, knowing that the dogs were grateful to be alive. All of the gratitude he has received from people is secondary. Rob informed me that representatives from Dog Tales will be visiting these dogs each month and that they have already received offers from film crews, wanting to document the dogs’ journey. I look forward to being kept in touch with these dogs, all of whom have a place in my heart. Dog Tales is funding the rehabilitation, veterinary care, feeding and transportation for these dogs.
I have also personally been in touch with Jennifer Deane who is the President/Executive Director and Founder of Pit Sisters (she is also the Regional Director for the Miami Coalition Against BSL), a rescue organization based in Florida who rehabilitate harder to adopt “pit bull” type dogs. Pit Sisters are looking forward to working with 6 of the 11 puppies born while the 21 original dogs were held by the OSPCA and 4 of the 7 (adult) dogs that were seized in connection to the case. These additional 7 dogs were not part of the euthanasia application but were connected to same the dogfighting ring. Jennifer’s rescue will receive these dogs in early August and the dogs will then begin rehabilitation and their first real exposure to living a dog’s life. I can assure everyone that Jennifer is genuinely looking forward to bestowing plenty of love on all of these dogs!
In a speech to those of us in attendance at the Dog Tales reception tonight, Rob emphasized the importance of all groups interested in animal welfare working together to end BSL. As I said in my last Blog post, referring to the Global Day to End BSL protest events, until we stop fighting amongst each other, we cannot possibly fight effectively against BSL. Rob reminded us all that the dogs are what matter the most and that we need to put our differences, and, in some cases, egos, aside in order to fully be the voice for those who have none.
I certainly hope that the politicians who are keeping BSL in place in Ontario are paying attention to this ground-breaking case, because it highlights the effects that BSL unjustly places upon innocent dogs. While BSL is not entirely to blame for the delays in this case, it certainly played a part. These Chatham dogs, like the Vicktory Dogs in the U.S., will help to show the world that dogs deserve a second chance after being forced to endure cruelty. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that most, if not all, of these Chatham dogs will eventually go on to become loving family members in forever homes, perhaps even therapy dogs, further proving that neither the breed nor the circumstances make the dog. Hope and love made these dogs, at last.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead