Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Words must become actions

This is not the post that I’d been planning to put up this week. Where I've been enjoyably immersed in more bits and bobs on brains to follow this up, yesterday as I was finalising a post, I got waylaid by a couple of things on Facebook that got my braincells spinning into a useless state of frustration.
This isn’t an unusual state for me when I decide to open the doors on my Facebook and Twitter Newsfeeds which are dominated by animal rescue and rights groups and campaigners. Frustration is often accompanied by it’s comfy bedfellow anger and together they either derail whatever project I’m supposed to be working on at the time, or, and this was the case yesterday, galvanise me to do something positive. 

The first was a post on Puppy Love Campaigns sharing good news on a successful, peaceful demonstration outside a large retailer in the Northwest of England that sells puppies in volume – no guesses what kind of conditions and places the puppies have been bred in – it was great to read the turnout had been good and people had decided to go to a local rescue without even stepping foot in the shop to buy a puppy after talking to the protestors outside. So far, so good. Then I went to another of my favourite campaigns, the Pup Aid site and there was a picture of a tiny pup in glass fronted cabinet, upsetting, but nothing I haven’t seen many times before. What exasperated me was the slew of comments that people made that reflect a misunderstanding of what the reality is in the UK regarding pet shops selling puppies and where puppy farmed puppies end up. 

So I swung from feeling upbeat on news of a positive demonstration, to downhearted that on the Facebook page of one of the major campaigns in the UK to end pet shop and other third party sales of puppies, a hugely successful campaign with plenty of great media interest, people were not aware that these sales are still legal. 

Now I know people are surprised that petshops can still sell puppies, I hear it said often to me, but to see it being said yesterday online so often amongst followers of a campaign dedicated to ending it, really struck me that there is so much work that still needs to be done. I posted on the page throughout the day to try to help more people see that this is exactly the issue that we, as people opposed to this activity must be getting into the minds of our legislators. It isn’t enough for people online to air their upset, to voice their outrage but not to do anything with that outrage. 

The Pup Aid campaign has had great success in gaining enough signatures on their petition for a parliamentary debate to be taking place on 4th September. This is something truly to feel positive about. Parliamentarians are the only ones with the power to bring in laws to make sales in shops illegal – something so many already think is the case. But in order for the vast efforts of the people behind the Pup Aid campaign to be rewarded by achieving changes for the dogs proper engagement in the political process by every individual who cares about this is needed. What the comments on the post yesterday revealed is a disconnect between what many think is happening and what the reality is. 

Social media is fantastic for raising awareness, for gathering support for causes and for allowing people to vent their anger when they see, for example, a picture of a puppy being sold in a pet shop. Yet, being active on social media alone is not enough. To be blunt, it doesn’t matter a jot what anyone posts on any thread about any puppy being sold in a pet shop – or any other animal welfare issue. It may make the person who airs their understandable anger feel better, feel like they’ve done something, but unless active engagement in the political process is also done by that person, it’s a pointless way to spend time. 

Actions not (just) words have to be the outcome of seeing an image of a puppy being sold in a petshop. Actions can take many forms: the protestors outside the pet shop on Sunday had a direct impact on those they came into contact with. Behaviour changed that day for at least some of those people who had been destined to step into the pet shop and support the puppy farming industry. 
Actions don’t have to be taking part in a demo. We can all do something that makes a tangible difference. Writing a few words online, whether it’s a knee-jerk rant, or carefully thought through post, makes no difference at all unless it’s followed up with action. 

Yesterday I felt frustrated that people weren’t engaging with the issues, they were doing what is so common on social media and expressing outrage. Which I understand entirely, I am outraged that puppies can still be sold legally in shops. But outrage changes nothing. I hoped that by asking people really to see what the Pup Aid and other similar campaigns is trying to achieve, not just post a few supportive, or angry words, it would bring some action from the hot air. Everyone can contact their MPs, this is what I suggested through the day that people do; this enabled me to transform my own frustrations into action. 

Every one who cares about this has a role to play and must step into that role, not just leave it to others, or assume others will do it better, or that as individuals we are powerless. At the very least, we all are represented by an MP. They alone have the power to make pet shop and third party sales of puppies – big outlets for puppy farmed puppies – illegal. They have that power because we give it to them. Every single one of us can contact our MP, write to them, email them, meet them. We have the right to influence our law makers and need to be using that influence now, the dogs can't do it for themselves.

We must do this if we are to help those in power to see why this issue matters. People who write on social media often haven’t spent time thinking about the issues they find and respond to in their newsfeeds, but they care enough to say something. The challenge is to make more people not only care, but to think and then act. Here’s a short list of actions I think we in the UK should be doing now to support the Pup Aid campaign ahead of the debate on 4th September: 

  1. Email or write to our MPs. Find your MP here. If you do not get a response within a week, politely follow up and ask what response time you can expect. Polite persistence may be necessary. 
  2. Use information from the Pup Aid website to draft a fact sheet that you can email to them highlighting the key issues. Nature Watch also have a handy document. 
  3. Look for any information that might reveal an interest in animal welfare, for example does the MP have a pet? It’s not unknown for MPs to post details on their websites such as they live with a rescue dog – use this common interest to get their engagement.
  4. It helps to build a relationship, ideally with MPs directly, but at the least, their assistants. They are more likely to listen to our concerns and hopefully engage with the debate and do what we consider the right thing if we develop relationships.
  5.  Ask for a commitment to attend the debate. It may be necessary to provide information on the issues. We need to do this to get our MPs to know why this matters to us and to millions of voters. 
Yesterday's social media experience showed me that many, many people already believe pet shop sales are illegal - we have to make our MPs get up to date with this public perception and change the law to make it so.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Miniature Schnauzer Fun Day

This Sunday we're heading to Northampton as we've kindly been invited to the Miniature Schnauzer Fun Day to talk about puppy farming and Susie-Belle. We'll all be going along to meet new and old friends and hope to spread the message in our positive way that puppy farming and bad breeding is an abomination we all need to play a part in ending.

Copies of the book will be on sale, and people are welcome to bring along their copies for signing by me and pawtographing by Susie-Belle.

Monday, 30 June 2014

The damage done by puppy farms goes beyond the obvious

By closely documenting Susie-Belle's journey to her current state of emotional well-being, I have
been able to look back in detail at the enormous progress that she has made in the 3 years that she has been free of the puppy farm. If I hadn't written our book I may well have missed or by now forgotten some of the subtle changes in her, the signs that reveal these days she is truly experiencing a peaceful inner life. For her to reach the stage where she now is, is not only a remarkable testament to her resilience, it's a veritable wonder when we know how damaging her previous life was to her brain and psychological development. 

Although I can't know for sure, it's almost certainly the case that Susie-Belle was born in the puppy farm. Her mother, like she herself would be later, was undoubtedly chronically stressed during her pregnancies. For her puppies, this together with poor nutrition, a cramped, awful environment and lack of caring, healthy human contact would have had multiple effects on how the genes of the puppies would behave. Known as epigenetics, this relatively new branch of veterinary (and human) medicine gives more disturbing insights into the terrible damage that puppy farming inflicts on those caught up in it.

The environment of a puppy farm is a stressful place for any living creature to be. For the breeding dogs like Susie-Belle and Twinkle, to stay confined for years in such a place is horrendous, any average, caring human being is capable of recognising this fact. But worse than the obvious suffering we see is the massive effect the prison-like environment has on brain chemistry; it inflicts damage at the level of genetic function. Being in a chronically stressful situation affects the brain to the extent that it causes disruption in how genes are decoded to make proteins and thus how learning and coping behaviours happen. This must surely and deeply concern anyone who claims to care for animals.

At the time of their birth, the mother's deprivation which is rife in puppy farms, has affected the brains of her puppies - this is without even talking about in-breeding and hereditary issues. Then they spend the early days and weeks with little handling, no human love, no healthy stimuli to encourage healthy brain development. Dogs that have little human contact before about 5 weeks, cannot recognise humans, or have any concept of what they are. The current problem of shipping puppies to dealers round Europe as young as a few weeks old, leads to enormous issues in this regard. Without early, caring, tactile human contact, the immature puppy brains simply do not develop to recognise humans, let alone trust or relate happily to them.

When puppies are taken from their mothers too young as they usually are in puppy farms, they are taken before they have learned to cope. This is not just a behavioural issue, it is down to brain development - or lack of. These poor puppies then get sold through the usual channels - dealers, online ads, internet sites, pet shops, at car-boots, markets, etc - and are completely unprepared to live as the companions they are supposed to be. The early damage done to their brains leads to problems such as noise reactivity, excessive barking, fearfulness in the home or outside on walks, aversion to humans, to strangers, to other dogs. Behaviourally they are compromised as soon as they take their first breath in the puppy farm.

Of course, not all dogs are as damaged as others and many, given the right home environments will be better out of the puppy farm sooner rather than later, but all dogs are damaged somehow. It's a rock and a hard place position when we think about either taking a puppy from its mother before its brain has developed sufficiently to enable it to cope, or leaving it in the impoverished, stressful environment of the puppy farm where little enrichment is likely.

In view of all this, it is even more remarkable that dogs that one day do get a chance to live in peace in normal, loving homes, are ever capable of the healing that I have lived and shared step-by-step with Susie-Belle and witnessed in others. It does however tell me why progress with Twinkle is so much slower and why when we wonder if she does indeed have a degree of brain damage, we are not that far from the truth.

As I come to understand more and more the extent of abuse, cruelty, and willful damage that is going on unchecked in puppy farms, the closer I hug Susie-Belle and the more I look at her damaged sister Twinkle and yearn for an end to this misery and my heart breaks for the countless others who will never make it to safety.

Book Review - Animal Madness

As I shared in my post yesterday, I'm currently immersed in and avidly reading some excellent works covering animal psychology, neuroscience and ethology. I've long been fascinated by these matters but my interest has deepened since bringing Twinkle into our lives. She is so complex, displaying such psychological damage from her years in the puppy farm that I owe her a serious commitment to use my own brain in efforts to understand her; this will, I hope mean I can do the best to help her mind heal.

So, when I came across a review on Brain Pickings, a website that describes itself as "a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why, bringing you things you didn’t know you were interested in — until you are"  for Laurel Braitman's book, "Animal Madness" it was on order quicker than Twinkle fleeing when a bath is in the offing.

The book has lived up to my high expectations and is one of those rarities - a scientifically rigorous read that manages to glow with genuine compassion, has a generous hint of humour throughout and encourages a re-read as soon as the last word is reached. The author holds a PhD in the history of science from prestigious MIT  - this may well account in part for why this book resonates with me so completely as history is one of my great interests.  Moving from Descartes to Darwin, through to modern thinkers and researchers, the book discusses evidence from veterinary science, psychology, pharmacology and biology. Interviews with those working in zoos, animal rehabilitation and training, neuroscientists, behaviourists, and others with expertise and experience of working with animals that are obviously, painfully psychologically damaged. Some of the historic experiments are disturbing to read and show how far our understanding of human mental health issues has moved on. What this book does so well is to make direct, academically sound correlations between what is known about the human mind and mental disturbance and what is seen and attested to daily by those living and working with animals with the same. By pulling multiple threads together, the author convincingly suggests that,

"humans and other animals are more similar than many of us might think when it comes to mental states and behaviours gone awry - experiencing churning fear, for example in situations that don't call for it, feeling unable to shake a paralyzing sadness, or being haunted by a ceaseless compulsion to wash our hands or paws".

Braitman was prompted to write her book after adopting Oliver, her Bernese Mountain dog, who experienced extreme fear, anxiety and compulsions. In her efforts to help him and to find the expertise needed, she found herself on a journey into understanding mental illness in non-human animals and what this tells us about ourselves. This is one of the great things I love about the book: it's helped me to understand how I am relating to Twinkle (and of course Susie-Belle and Renae too) and what her "emotional thunderstorms" - two words that perfectly describe her special moments and a phrase I'll be borrowing I'm sure - mean to her, and me. 

Although many animal species are documented and my own interest lies with dogs, there is such a wealth of information, fascinating facts and thoughtful discussion that I found myself reading every single word, even though I'd never have thought I'd find reading about a suicidal parrot or masturbating orangutan a good use of my time. Skim reading is to be discouraged for if you do, you'll miss out on the cumulative pleasure of reading the vast breadth of stories that are documented here and if you enjoy it as I have, the emotional and intellectual growth it will bring.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Twinkle's Inner Life

Before Susie-Belle came to us, I did a reasonable amount of reading, preparation and digging about making contacts with those who knew better in terms of the psychological problems that we might face that her puppy farm existence could have left her with. As I recall in the book our first year together was a huge learning experience for us as much as her; we offered what we hoped were opportunities to help her grow to live a life of contentment and peace - over time. I don't think we've done too bad and Susie-Belle has done even better; today, over 3 years out of the puppy farm we know that with us, she is almost a normal dog and most definitely a happy one - that can and does change when she's out of her regular surroundings, or if something unexpected occurs, but most of the time, she displays all the signs of being a perfectly peaceful, content dog.

Sixteen months ago, Twinkle joined us and we hoped that our experience with Susie-Belle, coupled with all the extra research I'd immersed myself in, the fabulous people with their dogs that we'd met and learned from, would help us help Twinkle. And no doubt that it has, and we've certainly needed to be confident with her in ways Susie-Belle never really required. Where Susie-Belle's anxiety is a quiet, shyly persistent presence that stays mostly in the shadows, Twinkle's anxiety is a big, blousy nasty force that can spring out and shock her - and us - and even after all the months and months living in our peaceful home it continues to plague her daily life.

But she is making steady steps towards being less anxious, less disturbed, we see progress all the time; she has fewer incidents of hyper-reactivity and panic; she visibly works her way through moments of confusion. For example it's beautiful to see her mind think through that rather than fleeing up the stairs when I approach to put on her harness, she'll take a deep breath and sit herself on her favourite bed and allow me to clip the harness on. We've been doing this two or three times a day, every day for sixteen months, yet still, if Twinkle's not ready, or I approach too briskly, or her mood, or my mood is not conducive to this daily ritual, out bursts that pesky, brash anxiety-demon and off she'll pop into a panicky performance. At home it's manageable, she's safe, she calms herself quickly, we ignore it and go back to our normality. But if we're out and about and Twinkle's anxiety spins into super-panic, it can be more challenging. We've not had any incidents now for quite sometime thankfully, but we have our ways that keep her safe and I keep an eye out for any signs we may need to be alert whilst staying calm - an almost contradictory thought, but not quite, as I know what I mean and need do which is really all that matters to Twinkle.

I've recently been reading a variety of material, from academic literature, to popular pieces in a somewhat intense effort at trying to understand Twinkle's inner life better. My drive is a blend of personal interest - when my curiosity gets tweaked by something, I have a tendency to want to know all I can about it -  plus a desire to do the best we can to help our psychologically complex, and clearly damaged Twinkle and finally to share our experiences with her in the book I'm writing as a follow-up to Susie-Belle's story.

One area I'm absorbed with at the moment is the amazing work that's being done into animal psychology, ethology and neuroscience. To read, and in some cases re-read in detail the works of brilliant scientists and animal advocates like Mark Bekoff and to understand how Twinkle's impoverished and cruel background has affected her brain and thus behaviour is totally absorbing. I can't read quickly or widely enough right now, I'm hungry for everything in this field I can lay my hands on as it's really helping me to understand the inner life and unique needs of my special dog.

An example I read yesterday may illustrate why this is so fascinating to me. Taken from a new book that I've just completed reading (I'll review it later, but suffice to say it's brilliant), Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman, this passage is so pertinent to Twinkle I interrupted Michel's afternoon snooze the other day to read it out to him - he was impressed by my enthusiasm, if not being stirred from sleep:

"During fetal development, neurons in the animal brain are created and migrate to the various parts of the brain where they will stay. The development of synapses between these neurons, the neuronal pathways that give rise to memories, decisions, emotions, and other mental experiences happens a bit in the womb and then takes off after birth in response to a young animal's experience in the world. If some synapses and neuronal pathways are not used, or if they are bathed in high levels of stress hormones they can atrophy; this can result in serious emotional problems as the animal grows".

This explains a lot why puppy farm puppies, let alone the adult dogs like Susie-Belle and Twinkle who live in an environment where stress hormones must more than bathe the neuronal pathways, more like flood them in a relentless tsunami, suffer such major psychological damage. But this is just one aspect of the brain damage and emotional disturbance that puppy farms inflict. There's so much more that I'm understanding better.

Much as I'm fascinated by what I'm discovering, and how it will help me to continue to try and understand Twinkle on all levels, I am struggling with the awful realisation, of just how deeply awful it is for the dogs trapped in puppy farms and breeding kennels. Although we know this, I do after all see it daily with her and have lived now with Susie-Belle's quirks for long enough to realise it, to find out the real extent of the psychological damage they experience is hard indeed. 

Thank goodness that some of the dogs do get out and do experience peaceful lives. My commitment to help to bring an end to this terrible industry is strengthened, with every paper and book I read that reveals how inhumane-humans damage dogs for money.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Awesome walking weekend

Our friend Zoe who adopted her ex-puppy farm breeder, Bella around the time that we brought Susie-Belle into our lives has just achieved an amazing, staggering challenge - literally staggering at the end.

On Saturday, Susie-Belle and I took a short trip up the road to lend our support to Zoe and her friend Lauren as they set off on a walk that would total 104km, or around 65 miles. They walked more or less non-stop, with only brief breaks from 8.20am Saturday, to the conclusion at around 12.30pm on Sunday lunchtime.

Zoe and Lauren both volunteer at Battersea Cats and Dogs Home and together hatched this crazy plan of how to spend their Summer Solstice. The walk was organised by the British Heart Foundation and apparently 60% of participants don't complete and that seems to have been the case this year: from 1000 starters, only 400 or so finished. I can't say I'm surprised at the failure rate, I love walking, but feel pretty tired and achey if I do more than about 10 miles. In fact the last time I walked 10 miles was a few years ago, 6 miles is more the level I do these days. So, to do 10 times that distance, without resting up, is just simply outstanding endurance.

Zoe has run several fundraising marathons so she's no stranger to hard training and endurance, but she described this weekend's walk as like nothing she's ever done. Last night after getting home and resting, her muscles were seized up, her feet were bleeding and she couldn't stand upright.

I am overcome with admiration for what Lauren and Zoe have achieved. They did it to raise funds for two animal welfare charities who have helped two of Zoe's dogs: both Bella and her spaniel Woody came through Many Tears Animal Rescue and Bella was fostered at the Diana Brimblecombe Animal Rescue Centre by Janet, Susie-Belle's foster mum. Their fundraising page is still open here.

Just incredible kindness and dedication to making a difference to the lives of animals.

For more on Bella's story see here.