|MF: Mike Fry |
BN: Beth Nelson
SC: Stacey Coleman
MF: We’re being joined by Stacey Coleman, who is the Executive Director of the Animal Farm Foundation. They do a lot of work advocating for some dogs that I would argue are some of the most vilified beings in our society.
BN: And at-risk dogs in our shelters.
MF: I say it’s especially tragic, because the dogs we’re referring to are Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, which some people would refer to as “pit bulls” …
BN: Or mixes thereof.
MF: Those breeds have historically been so important to the history of our society. They were the RCA logo dogs. There’s Spanky and the Gang. Buster Brown shoes. They were America’s family dogs. The fact that the Animal Farm Foundation is stepping up to advocate for them at this time is especially important, and we love talking to Stacey. Welcome back to Animal Wise Radio, Stacey.
SC: Thank you so much for having me back.
BN: Stacey, one of the reasons that we asked you back is that Mike called me a couple weeks ago and said, “Oh my gosh, we’ve got a lot of pitties that are sitting in St. Paul Animal Control. We’ve got to help move more of them out and into Animal Ark.” We’ve just got a lot of them in our community, as many large cities do. We need to continue to tell people the story about what we now like to call these ‘super dogs.’ What’s great about it? How do we continue to bring voice to reframing the story around these dogs?
You guys have been champions for a long time and I think one of the best resources out there today with your innovative ways of trying to tell that story. Could you maybe tell folks again a little bit about who you are as an organization?
SC: Sure. Our mission statement is to secure equal treatment and opportunity for “pit bull” dogs. We always put “pit bull” in quotes, because we don’t have any interest in arguing about what is or isn’t a “pit bull.” There seems to be a lot of opinions about that. We all know it isn’t a breed of dog, but nobody can really agree exactly what a “pit bull” is or isn’t – and we don’t care. All we care about is that no dog and no dog owner should be discriminated against because of the label placed on their dog.
At the same time, we do advocacy and internships all across the country. We have people that come to visit us to learn. People come to us thinking they’re going to learn how to train or handle “pit bull” dogs, and they get there and realize, “You know what folks? It’s just a dog. Nothing special about it. It’s just a dog.”
MF: I think that absolutely is so true. They’re dogs, and they’re sweet and they’re loving, but they have a mystique, a presence to them. They tend to be muscular. They’ve got big heads. For people who don’t know them who are simply judging them by their appearance, I can kind of understand why they would go to that place.
MF: I’m just curious – and I want to get into talking about this more in the next segment. We probably don’t have time to flush this out in a lot of detail in the first segment, but in the years I’ve been working in rescue, it seems to me that we’ve made a lot of progress collectively in terms of helping to change the conversation around pit bulls and the so-called “pit bull” type dogs.
As a result of that, more and more people are owning pit bulls, and the flip side of that is that means when I go to Animal Control now, a large percentage of the dogs there are these breeds. I think that while we’re making some progress in one area, it’s adding to the challenge in another area. I’m curious if you’re observing the same thing.
SC: What we observe is a little bit different, because we travel all over the country. What you call “pit bulls” in your city is probably different than what they call “pit bulls” here in New York, or what they call “pit bulls” in Florida. There seems to be a difference in what expectations are from visual appearance of the dogs, yet so many dogs share the same label, but not necessarily the same physical characteristics. Like you had said that the dogs tend to be muscular, but that is not necessarily our experience. We take dogs from all across the country that come to us labeled “pit bull” and they’ve lithe and lean, and not particularly muscular at all.
It varies from region to region, and I think that that might be why people are feeling like there are so many “pit bull dogs” in their shelters is that that is what their mixed breed dog tends to look like right now, is they have a lot of dogs that share that same sort of physical characteristics.
BN: Rewind 20 or 25 years, and it may have been the shepherd mix.
SC: Absolutely. I remember when I first started volunteering at my animal control in Indianapolis, and everything on the adoption floor was labeled a shep-cross.
BN: Here we are …
MF: Twenty-five years later … everything old is new again.
SC: Right. What we can't afford to do is repeat the cycle of discrimination that we’ve done before, and that’s what we’re trying so hard at Animal Farm Foundation to prevent.
MF: That’s an interesting place for us to take a break. If people want more information, give a quick plug to your website, then we’ll take a break and come back with more of the conversation.
SC: It’s www.animalfarmfoundation.org.
MF: We’ll be back with more with Stacey Coleman.
MF: We’re speaking with Stacey Coleman, who is the Executive Director of the Animal Farm Foundation who does a lot of work advocating for so-called “pit bulls.” Exactly what is a “pit bull?” It seems that there’s a lot of disagreement about that. I think most people would say an American Staffordshire Terrier is a “pit bull” or a Staffordshire Bull Terrier is a “pit bull.”
BN: For most of us, that’s splitting hairs, though, and as Stacey said in the first segment, we’re not interesting in really arguing about that, because it’s a circular argument.
MF: It’s pointless.
BN: When people come to learn more about the pitties from the American Farm Foundation, they find out, “Gee, they’re just dogs!”
MF: They are!
BN: Really, Stacey, I think that cuts to the core of what you guys are really trying to help people understand, both in sheltering and potential families that wish to adopt a dog that these are just dogs, and they can be really great dogs.
MF: I’m curious, when I look at what we’ve done as a culture in terms of our perception of these so-called “pit bull” dogs, it seems to me that we have just created so much cultural mythology around them that in fact the public perception of what a pit bull is and what they actually are so different. It’s like we live in a fantasy world about them.
I’m just curious, when I look at that we’ve gone down that path with so many different breeds of dogs – we got into that in the first segment. At one point, German Shepherds were the “bad dog”, Doberman Pinchers were the “bad dog” for a while, then the Rottweilers were the “bad dogs” – even when they made the movie “Cujo” there was a reason they picked a St. Bernard, because the lifesaving dog was a Saint Bernard, but for a period of time, they filled the bad dog mystique in our culture. If you go back a couple hundred years, there was even a point when the American Spitz – the little teeny fluffy dogs were the “bad dogs” because people believed that they carried rabies more prominently than other dogs. It seems like we’ve done this over and over and over. I’m curious if in your work you can come up with any explanation for why we do that?
SC: Lazy thinking? I don’t really know. It is interesting. You’re absolutely correct that we have allowed this mythology to circulate around the dogs. But what we need to remember and what is absolutely true and what we’re seeing changing the course for this particular group of dogs is that society doesn’t have to accept that. We are the ones that fuel the mythology. We are the ones that repeat it. What we need to do is just stop and look at dogs as individuals.
I really do think things are looking up for “pit bull” dogs I hope that the way we’re approaching it, and that we’ve all learned our lesson from this. What’s different about “pit bull” dogs than other dogs throughout history is the 24/7 news cycle and the Internet, and what somebody says about a dog just in passing now lives forever on the Internet. You can watch a video clip of it. You can Google stories about it and find all kinds of stories about “pit bull” dogs, good or bad. That is a new challenge that we have, but we’re overcoming it with this group of dogs.
MF: I do think it’s a challenge, but it also gives us an opportunity that we can use that information to share the good news, and we can get the good news out there more rapidly if it’s used effectively. That gets me to your Majority Project. Can you talk a little about that and what you’re doing?
SC: I would love to talk about this project. This is perhaps one of the most favorite things that we’ve ever done at Animal Farm Foundation. We realized last year when we were looking up statistics at www.vetstreet.com who gets the statistics from veterinarian offices, Banfield, who is the largest chain of vet clinics (they’re in the PetSmart stores) they both reported an increase in pit bull dogs being seen as clients in their veterinary clinics. What that is telling us is that the popularity of these dogs as family pets is going up.
These are dogs who are living with people who care about them, who make them part of their family, who take them to the vet to make sure that they stay healthy, and we realized that we needed to stop coming from a place of being defensive, of saying, “Oh no, they are good dogs, my dog is a good dog,” and start coming in from the positive and saying, “These are really popular dogs, and the majority of these dogs live beautifully, remarkably mundane lives in homes as pets.”
We started the Majority Project to highlight that. What we do, you’ll notice in the photos if you go to our Tumbler page, which is www.iamthemajority.tumbler.com, you’ll see all the photos have dogs and people in them or dogs and other dogs. We even have somebody who sent in a photo of a cat and a dog. What they do is they put up a sign that says, “I am a ____” (fill in the blank). You can be whatever you want to – a volunteer, fireman, a policeman, a mother, we’ve got a tree hugger, we’ve got all kinds of people sending in their photos that say, “I am a _____. I am a pit bull dog owner, and I am the majority.”
What we’re doing with this is we’re changing the way that society, that animal advocates, that animal shelters, that lawmakers, that law enforcement officers view pit bull dogs and the people who own them. We really hope that this is going to help people better articulate what they already know in their own communities, too.
MF: There’s a phenomenon. I know you’re just so much more eloquent and mature than I am – when I think of this issue, I really get kind of stuck in the ‘how did we get to this place that we’re in?’
BN: It’s an inherent problem he has, Stacey.
MF: I like to try to figure it out. When I do that, people might get angry with me for saying this, but I think that in part what happened with our pit bull dogs, not only are we expressing our extreme ignorance and bias of the dogs, other sorts of cultural biases and stereotypes get into it, too. We start to perceive them as “the gangsta dog” and all the racial bigotry that goes with any thinking around that comes with it.
Showing that pit bulls are owned by an incredibly diverse group of people – they’re not just inner city dogs, they’re not just owned by African Americans or Hispanics – they own them too, and many of those people are just wonderful pet owners. Showing the full depth and breadth of who owns and loves these dogs is important, because that’s what destroys the stereotype.
SC: Correct. That’s why we do this project. We have people contact us who perceive themselves as fitting into the stereotype that is discriminated against as assuming that this group of people owns the dogs. We say, “You’re missing the point, then. Do you love your dog? Is your dog part of your family?” They say, “Yes.” We say, “Then that is what the Majority is.”
SC: We’re not talking about what a particular dog owner looks like – we’re talking about the relationship between the dog and the owner, and that is the Majority.
BN: Oh! I just got chills, Stacey, because really …
MF: That’s the holy grail right there.
BN: That is. When we quit always looking at those things that so obviously look different or make us different and we start to focus on what is at the core of who we are as people and as people who can love and love other beings and one another, all that other stuff just goes away.
SC: It sure does, and Mike, I’d like to challenge you to think like a dog for a minute on this. I know your inquisitive nature wants you go to back and figure out how we got here – but think about your dogs for a minutes. Does a dog dwell in the past? Probably not.
MF: They don’t.
SC: No. Start with today and go forward.
MF: They just say, “Here we are. Now let’s do something.”
SC: Exactly! And that something is fight discrimination from today forward.
BN: I would like you to talk about some of the other ‘somethings’ that you have put together as an organization. I would say the Animal Farm Foundation is a great resource for advocates, shelters around the country, people who are trying to reframe this conversation around the pitties – you just have a treasure trove of stuff out there, and I would like you to brag about it for a couple of minutes, if you would, Stacey.
SC: Thank you. I would love that opportunity. If you visit our website at www.animalfarmfoundation.org, one of the things that you’ll notice is that it’s rare to find a photo of just a dog. Maybe in the adoption photos for the dogs that we have available at our shelter you might find just a single dog in a photo, but what we really have done is made an effort to always put dogs with people or dogs with other dogs, or dogs with cats or with children or with elderly people – all kinds of situations so that we can help reframe the way people think.
We talk about dogs and the “pit bull” problem as if the dog itself is the issue, but it isn’t. Their behavior is no different than any other dog. They don’t need any special handling. They don’t wear superhero capes. You don’t need superhero cape to have one. None of that is really true. They’re just dogs.
What we have done is tried very hard to take the focus off the dog and put the focus on the positive of the relationship that dog has with their people and the existence of that dog within a community. When we start taking the heat off of the dog and the focus off of the dog and start putting it on how that dog relates to the community and to the people who love the dog, it becomes so much easier to overcome stereotypes and discrimination.
BN: Even when I’ve looked out at your website, Stacey, I’m looking under the Adopt header on your home page, and right at the top you have a tab for the available dogs, and an adoption application is right there as well, but you have a sheet that talks about caring for your new dog and frequently asked questions about the pit bull type dogs from families. You’re just really trying to give people access to those commonly held question that might pop up, and this is where I think, what an opportunity for shelter workers across the country who feel somewhat overwhelmed at times with the number of these dogs that might come through their adoption floor to start to reframe their conversations and reframe their thinking about it, too.
I know that we’ve had some recent interactions with people who felt they need to relinquish their dog, and as you start to channel the conversation to all the things that you can do because you’re already in a relationship with this animal, and you give people tools or ways to deal with certain things, it can be such a better outcome. You have things about looking for places to live with your pittie, or do I need special insurance? These are questions I know I hear.
SC: Right – and we hope that we can answer these questions. You’re absolutely correct about them. I’m glad that that is the impression that you had from the website. It means maybe we’re getting it right. We try to have conversation starters for people who work with dogs or own “pit bull” dogs, because we know how hard that can be. Inside your head, you know what the right answer is. Inside your heart, you know what the right feelings are, but you’re not quite sure how to articulate that to the people around you. We try to give you the information and a jumping off point for that so that you can have those conversations that change minds.
We just released a new poster that you’ll find on our website that is for shelters to use in their adoption kennels to help their adopters understand that it’s the shelter software system that requires them to put a breed label on a dog, but that breed label is really only a guess, and it doesn’t tell you very much about the dog, and it encourages people to again look at individual qualities and forget the breed label that the computer system requires.
We have had great response to this, because shelter workers have said, “I’ve always wanted to tell this to our adopters, but I’ve never been able to start that conversation. I didn’t know how to do it.” We hope that this information is going to give them a good place to jump off. We’ll take the heat. We’ll say the tough stuff and say that breed label probably doesn’t tell you much about the dog, and then the adoption counselor and the adoption crew can take it from there and sell the dog as an individual.
BN: I’d like to add one thing to that. I’m looking at that page, I believe – Language and Labels is the section I’m looking at – there’s a very handsome dog looking at me – and you have these materials available to view and print as individual pages. They can be downloaded as an e-book. You’re just really trying to get that information out there, and we thank you for that. We want people who are working in sheltering or community advocacy to check out www.animalfarmfoundation.org. You can also support them with your dollars if you can't support them in another way.
MF: Thanks so much for joining us, Stacey. As always, it was just a real pleasure.
SC: Thank you so much.
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