Friday, June 22, 2012

Interview with Kim Kavin - author of Little Boy Blue

Today we're talking with Kim Kavin, author of Little Boy Blue: A Puppy's Rescue from Death Row and His Owner's Journey for Truth


FQ: First, I'd like to thank you for writing Little Boy Blue and helping shed light on the issue of kill shelters. Now on to our questions! When you first set out to find the truths behind Blue's past, did you have any inkling that you'd be writing a book?


My first indication that something was going on was in my vet’s office, when I took Blue for his first checkup after he came home. Obviously no, at that time I had no idea I’d be writing a book. I just wanted to make sure he was healthy. At first I was making phone calls and doing research just to try to figure out his medical history, which was unclear on his paperwork. The initial answers I received only raised more questions in my mind, though, and eventually those questions led me to call my literary agent, Jessica Faust at Bookends, Inc. She has a rescued dog, too, and I asked her if she’d ever heard of anything like this. We quickly realized there might be a great book in Blue’s story if I could get a publisher to let me spend some time reporting in North Carolina, where Blue is from, as well as in other locations where the overall story of rescue led me.

Blue's Original "Petfinder.com" photo taken by the rescue group


FQ: You're a travel writer by trade, and so are used to seeing many different communities. Yet, the Deep South, where you traveled to research this book, is unique. I suspect much of what you saw and encountered (poverty, attitudes) contribute to the pet overpopulation problem. Would you agree with that assessment?


There is no question that poverty is part of the problem. Where Blue is from in rural North Carolina, they have a program called the $20 Fix. You can get a voucher and have your dog spayed or neutered for just twenty bucks. Some people can’t even take advantage of that. I met the veterinarian who neutered Blue in the back of her mobile clinic, and she told me that the area where Blue is from is one of the hardest-hit economically. That’s why the mobile clinic goes there to offer the spay/neuter surgeries as part of the $20 Fix, because many residents can’t afford gas money to drive to a veterinarian. Even with service provided locally and those low-cost vouchers, the public is not responding the way that is necessary to get the problem under control. Attitudes in the rural South can also be challenging. Many, many people in Blue’s home state of North Carolina are very good to their dogs and are working hard to save the dogs like him. But this is old tobacco country, and it’s in a state with so many factory farms that a moratorium had to be placed on any more being built. Animals are often treated as livestock, not as pets or as members of the family. That goes for dogs, too. One shelter worker told me that a person brought in a dog covered in mange, fleas, and ticks, trying to “trade in” the dog for a new one instead of getting the dog medical care. Those kinds of attitudes are hard to understand if you’re from a place like my area in New Jersey, where most dogs are treated as members of the family.

FQ: When I read about your initial encounter with Ron Shaw, the Animal Control Officer for Person County, North Carolina, I thought, "Wow, that lady isn't afraid of anything." You asked really tough questions and didn't back down. During the encounter, were you a little nervous?


I was not nervous at all. Mr. Shaw agreed to speak with me only after I submitted advance questions in writing, and only after the county’s attorney approved a release form that Mr. Shaw signed agreeing to speak with me on the record. So both he and I knew exactly what I would be asking when I arrived at the shelter. He knew many weeks in advance that I wanted to see the gas chamber and the cages where Blue had been abandoned and given three days to live, without so much as a walk.

The kill rate at Mr. Shaw’s shelter is quite high—95 percent unless a rescue group steps in—and because of that, it would have been easy for any writer to paint him as a monster. The primary reason I wanted to meet him is that I knew there must be more to the story from his perspective. He welcomed me with a handshake, and he was generous with his time and information. He didn’t strike me as a monster at all, and I tried very hard not to paint him as one in the book. He seemed like a man who has spent more than a decade trying to run a professional shelter in a place where he appears to receive less community support than he needs—and where rescuing dogs has just now started to become a priority, with advocates banging down the shelter doors and demanding change. That’s a huge cultural upheaval from trying to run a shelter where nobody outside cared what happened to the dogs for years and years and years. His perspective is important for readers to understand, too. It’s not something to be afraid of. It’s something to be honest and up front about, which I was.

Blue and his best friend Quincy

FQ: You don't mince words in your book and you also don't protect anybody you encountered from the truth of what they are doing, when it comes to the welfare of dogs. The chapter where you visit Annie Turner's home comes to mind. Was it a difficult decision to include mention of these people in your book?


Every source I visited knew well in advance that I was reporting information for Little Boy Blue, so there was never any question that their quotes and information would be included. I walked around with a pen and notebook in my hand. I even handed out business cards with the book’s title on it.
In the case of Annie Turner, I ended up discovering things that I didn’t expect, things that didn’t always match the initial information I’d been given. A journalist’s job is to make sure sources are telling the truth, not just to blindly report whatever they say. I drove all over the country and looked at things with my own eyes. I listened to what the sources told me, I attempted to verify what they said, and when those two things differed, I reported what I could document as the truth. To me, that’s not a difficult decision at all. That’s my job as a journalist, even if it exposes things that some people wish would remain hidden from public view.

FQ: You talk about how some states such as Connecticut are passing bills to make it harder for rescue groups to travel North with dogs that have been rescued from kill shelters in the South. Would you tell our readers a little about what's going on?


One of the people I interviewed is Kyle Peterson, who runs PETS LLC, a professional transport service that moves rescued dogs from the South to the North. His was one of the first professional transport services in the entire country, so he has historical knowledge as well as first-hand knowledge about how these laws affect the movement of adopted dogs from state to state. Mr. Peterson explained to me that some Northern states are now starting to enact laws and restrictions about the dogs who can be brought in, as a response to the increasing number of adopters who are standing up and offering their homes to dogs like Blue. This is in part a reasonable reaction by the states, since not all rescuers are professional, and nobody wants dogs with communicable diseases being moved all around the country without documentation or care. However, the law in Connecticut has a glaring exception, one that suggests something even more noteworthy is going on. That particular law provides an explicit exemption for anyone who plans to sell a dog in a pet store—most likely, benefitting a breeder.
So the law targets rescued mutts like Blue by making it harder for them to be transported into the state to adopters, even if they’re perfectly healthy, while at the same time giving a pass to anyone who sells dogs for profit in the local pet stores. In Peterson’s opinion, the law was passed to protect the purebred puppy business. He explained it to me by saying that adoptions were becoming so popular that rescuers were starting to cut too much into breeders’ market share, so breeders and pet stores looked to state legislators for help.

These are the kinds of behind-the-scenes things that I delved into for Little Boy Blue so that readers would understand the bigger picture of what’s going on. Rescue in America today is a huge cultural movement that is continuing to gain steam. With the gas chambers, too, I found things I’d never imagined happening in state legislatures, things that benefitted big business at the expense of dogs like Blue who are just looking for a way out of the shelter and into a loving home.

Dumpling -  one of the author's current foster pups


FQ: The attempted, and failed, passage of Davie's Law in North Carolina broke my heart. This bill would have banned gas chambers statewide. Why was this bill opposed by so many groups that allege to have animals? best interest as a core principle?


I interviewed rescue advocates as well as legislators in North Carolina and other states on this question, because anti-gas chamber laws have failed in multiple states, most recently I believe in Pennsylvania. They all told me the same thing. Breeders’ organizations, farming organizations, and in some cases veterinary organizations lobby to prevent the laws from being passed. Those organizations are often the reason that gas chambers are still legal in the majority of U.S. states.

Breeders don’t want any laws about how dogs must be humanely killed because, for instance with breeders of hunting dogs, they sometimes set the young ones loose and then just let them fend for themselves in the wild if they fail to come back as initially trained. Farming organizations don’t want any laws about humane euthanasia because that mind-set could spread to the factory farms where the majority of our nation’s pork, beef, and chicken originates. Veterinary associations don’t want the laws because, in some cases, it’s the veterinarians who build and get paid to service the gas chambers at the shelters. That was, and remains, the case in the shelter where Blue was found. A veterinarian receives taxpayer dollars out of the budget to service the gas chamber regularly.

FQ: You mention never having gone into an animal shelter prior to getting Blue. I suspect this is true for many Americans. How can we encourage people to stop buying from breeders and going to shelters for their next pet?

It’s a hard thing, going into a shelter. It’s an emotionally brutal experience. There’s no two ways about that. Going into a rescue group’s facility is far easier on the soul, because at least you know the dogs are not on death row. They’re just in line waiting for the right person to walk through the door. That makes the whole experience far easier for everyone involved. To me, the greatest stride in adoption has been the creation of Petfinder.com (full disclosure: Barron’s is donating a portion of proceeds from Little Boy Blue to the Petfinder Foundation). Petfinder.com is where I found Blue as well as my previous dog. It’s a free website where rescuers upload all the photographs and bios of dogs who have been saved, and you can scroll through and see them from the comfort of your own home. Your kids don’t even have to know you’re doing it, you don’t have to stand in a shelter with them and explain why all the puppies are in cages and screaming—you just scroll down your laptop screen until you see a dog you like, and you click to apply.

Even better, many of the rescue groups uploading available puppies and dogs to Petfinder have moved those dogs into foster homes. So the dogs are out of the shelter environment, interacting with other dogs and kids, getting basic crate training and house breaking, receiving proper veterinary care and nutrition, and more. I do foster work now for Lulu’s Rescue, one of the groups that helped to save Blue, and the 14 foster pups who have left my house all had adopters who knew exactly what those dogs were like because I was able to tell them. I’d spent a few days to a few weeks caring for them the same way I care for Blue. I’d gotten to know their personalities, I’d figured out which ones were better with kids or cats or anything else the adopters wanted to know, and so on. All the adopters had to do was click on the bios that I uploaded to Petfinder.com, and they could adopt from Lulu’s Rescue with me as the foster home.

Dogs fostered as part of a rescue group’s efforts are often a great solution for anyone who doesn’t want to walk through a shelter, or who used to buy purebreds because they “wanted to know what they were getting.” Fostering eliminates both of those problems. My foster dogs met their families in my grassy back yard or in a local park. The kids love it, the dogs love it, there are usually grown-up men and women with tears of joy in their eyes—everybody wins. I still hear from most of the adopters many months after the dogs go home. They send me photos and thank me profusely, just as I once thanked the rescuers for saving Blue.

Ginger - another foster pup currently living with the author while awaiting a forever home


FQ: "Responsible breeders" will argue that they only breed the best animals and maintain top quality dogs and cats. Thus they keep breeding and many of their own animals wind up in shelters. Is there any way to slow this wave of breeding?


My family always had purebred dogs when I was growing up. I write in Little Boy Blue about my parents’ wonderful Doberman, Quincy, who is an AKC blue-ribbon champion (and one of Blue’s favorite playmates). Whenever we sit around the kitchen table, we have this very argument. They tell me that their breeder is responsible and always finds homes for the dogs, and I say stop paying the breeder and go get a dog from the shelter instead. I always point out to the backyard where Quincy and Blue are both playing beautifully, and I always mention how Blue was a steal at $400 while Quincy cost far, far more. No way, I say, is one dog “better” than the other. They are both absolutely fantastic members of our family, a point on which my entire family agrees.

This kitchen-table argument with my parents is no different than the big-picture question about dogs in America today. How is it possible that we have a billion-dollar-a-year breeder industry at the same time we are killing as many as 14,000 animals like Blue every day in our shelters? It’s just mind-boggling. It really has very little to do with the dogs. It has to do with marketing. Many, many generations of Americans have been raised to believe that purebreds are better and worth paying more for—and it’s simply not true in my opinion.

You will never see a mandatory spay/neuter law or anything like that that imposes change on the dog-breeding business. What you may see, though, is slowing demand for dogs who are bred for sale. The more people become educated and choose to adopt, the fewer people will be available to breeders as customers. As with any business, if you run out of customers, you have to shut the door and go find something else to do for a living. We have it within our power to solve this problem today. If more people adopt, at least until the killing in the shelters is stopped, then the breeders will be at least temporarily forced out of business while the problem is brought under control.

FQ: What can our readers do to help? How can they get involved?


We have a whole section at the end of Little Boy Blue that gives readers options for helping to break the cycle of dog homelessness. We wanted to make sure we weren’t just exposing the problem, but instead offering everyday solutions for readers who want to stand up and try to help.

Number one: education. I don’t care if you give your copy of Little Boy Blue to 15 or 20 people without me seeing a dime in royalties as the author. Pass the book along. Help people understand what’s happening. Change begins with education.

Number two: spay or neuter your pet. The majority of puppies in Blue’s shelter were not strays. They were from unwanted litters created after human beings failed to spay or neuter their pets. Your pet is your responsibility, and spay/neuter is part of that responsibility.

Number three: if you choose to bring a dog into your home, adopt. Never, ever buy from a breeder or from a pet store. You may feel like you’re helping that one dog in the store window, but ultimately you are voting with your pocketbook to keep those businesses going. Instead, vote with your pocketbook to help dogs like Blue get off of death row.

Number four: if you’re not ready to have a dog full-time, then consider fostering. The number of dogs that rescues can pull from the shelters is directly correlated to the number of foster homes where they can stay while homes are found. I personally have foster dogs number 15 and 16 at my feet right now. Their names are Dumpling and Ginger, and they are taking naps with Blue on the floor as I type. That means that in less than a year after learning about these problems, I have helped to save 16 extra dogs who would otherwise be dead, many of them in gas chambers. If I can do it, anybody can do it. And Blue really loves having the playmates around, too. Fostering is a wonderful way to give your own dog a live-in playmate once in a while without committing to owning a second dog.

Number five: donate. It doesn’t have to be money. It can be dog food, old towels and blankets, old collars and leashes—rescues need all of these things to get the dogs out of the shelters. Rescues also need volunteers to meet the dogs on transport days, write dog bios on Petfinder.com, walk the dogs at adoption events, solicit local business for gift cards to auction off at fund-raisers; the list goes on and on. Find a local 501(c)3 rescue group in your area that is actually saving dogs’ lives. Ask how many they’ve saved and how they do it. If they are legitimate, then become involved however you feel comfortable.

I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to help these dogs who were once destined to be killed just like my boy Blue. The puppy kisses alone, from those angels no longer on death row, are all the thanks I’ll ever need.

To learn more about Little Boy Blue: A Puppy's Rescue from Death Row and His Owner's Journey for Truth please read the review at: Feathered Quill Book Reviews.