Thursday, January 29, 2009

I want my very own Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

Okay, I don't care if the founders did once dance around in purple robes listening to boring sermons about The End of Days, I really want to go visit Best Friend's Animal Sanctuary (although one thing I am going to ask them is how they they evolved from "Beelzebub is my co-pilot" to "dog is my co-pilot"). I just got my National Geographic's Dogtown DVDs "Dog Town - Second Chances" and "Dog Town - New Beginnings" and I'm telling you, if you watch them, they're gonna make you drop a tear or two.

Best Friends Animal Society may not yet be a common name in Canada. I certainly never heard of them before I got into this whole dog rescue thing. They are huge in the States, however, and deservedly so. Unlike some other big name animal organizations down there that seem to crave publicity more than doing good deeds, Best Friends rescues thousands of animals a year and is one of the leading proponents of the no-kill philosophy. They've got a large ranch in Utah where they operate the nation's largest no-kill sanctuary for domestic animals, housing approximately 2000 animals at any given time. Being a no-kill facility means that animals which can't be placed live out the rest of their lives in the sanctuary and while their lives may not be as ideal as being in a true home environment, the huge runs and daily attention they get are exceptional.

Best Friends really started making a big name for themselves when they played a lead role in rescuing almost 6000 Katrina dogs over the course of their 249 day rescue operations there and then, more recently, showed us how it's done when they took in 22 of the most abused Michael Vick dogs. They were in the media often enough already but then in early 2008, National Geographic started filming and airing the show "Dog Town" and, well, I think they're going to help create a whole generation of kids that are going grow up putting dog rescuers on par with fire fighters and policemen.

Now I work in media and like to think that I'm a pretty media savvy guy (well, don't we all?) and I recognize that one of the most important tasks of a television show is to polish turds so that viewers go "I wish my turds looked that good" thus engendering the feeling in them that they must go out and buy something disposable and plastic to make themselves, or their children, feel better about having sub par turds.

Watching the "Dog Town" videos, though, I can tell you that while the turd polishing aspects of popular television are present (the sombre this-is-important voice overs, the over-dramatization of non-events, the criss-crossing storylines, the time compression), they don't detract from the fact that the people in front of the lens genuinely love their jobs and the animals they care for. And the animals genuinely love their people back.

The show hits all the emotional buttons. Worry and anxiety on part of the staff are apparent when dehydrated puppies are brought in from an oven-like desert junkyard or when a severely wounded dog with its guts ripped open still manages to lift its head to nuzzle a rescuer.

Determination is abundant as the various staff hunker down and get to the ofttimes long and arduous task of rehabilitating these dogs back to physical and emotional health, sleeping beside the dogs that need to learn to trust, spending months training dogs how to behave well enough to live in our human environment.

Happiness ensues when homes are found for these "lost causes". The untrainable dog is trained and finds a home. The left for dead dog is revived to health and finds a home.

And tears flow. And not the hysterical, woe-is-me-look-at-me type tears but the embarrassed, let-me-wipe-that-away-quick type tears. The emotions are more palpable because they're not overwrought, they're trying to be kept hidden as a nod to personal dignity. That's almost quaint when you compare it with the ludicrous in-yer-face, screaming, insipid boobjobs and bigdicks that populate every other reality tv show.

While the human side provides the necessary narratives and talking points, the dogs are equal stars of the show. Each episode follows the rehabilitation of three or four animals. Throughout all the near hopeless situations, the dogs' happy natures keep revealing themselves and despite the sometimes painful procedures these dogs have to go through, they remain brave and mostly without complaint. The few times a dog does utter a whimper or whine, you know something's really really hurting.

Almost all the stories have happy endings but the one story that got to me was a story about an old Chow named Bruno. He was suffering from some sort of vestibular imbalance which caused him to be wobbly on his feet and sometimes fall over. Our old dog Barclay was afflicted with the same condition before he passed away so this story got to me. Bruno, though a Chow and normally looking nothing like a Bearded Collie, had also been given the same haircut Barclay had, namely all shaved except for around the head. We did that to Barclay to help him stay cool in the summer. Bruno needed it to get rid of impossible matting.

There was a scene of Bruno's foster parent, a vet, lifting a bowl of dog food up to Bruno's face to help him eat better because he was having trouble "finding" his food and it immediately reminded me of how Barclay had so much difficulty eating his food as well. Even when the food was right in front of him, he'd reach down for it but because of his balance issue, he'd miss it or just get a bit at the edges. He had an even harder time drinking water. It took him forever because he could only just barely lap at the surface, not being able to judge distances very well anymore.

Bruno didn't make it through his rehab. His funeral is the closing scene and while I knew that it was a very overt attempt on the part of the writers of the show to wring out as much teary-eyed melodrama as possible, it still worked because the dog was true.


Anonymous said...

You have your priorities and your heart in the right place!

jan said...

LOVED your turd polishing metaphor. And wouldn't it be nice if animal organizations with huge budgets did even part of the work that Best Friends did? Glad to see they are getting the recognition they deserve.

deakat said...

I had been waiting for Dogtown to show up on my satellite tv service, and finally, they had a marathon on New Year's Day. Inspiring! It feeds my hope for the rehabilitation of my heartdog and her fear aggression issues.

Ian said...

"I want my very own Best Friends Animal Sanctuary"

On a small scale I think you already have that.

Good people that care and do their best but they can`t please everyone all the time.

You help the ones that others would toss away.
You take them back when they`re tossed away a 2nd and a 3rd time.
You help the cute ones,the "ugly" ones,the young and the old.

I`m sure you have had both sad tears when you`ve had to let them go in peace and happy tears in your eyes when they`ve gone to their forever homes and I`m also sure you`ve heard the same criticism that they get.

Pat yourself on the back Toronto`s Animal Sanctuary.

Joanne said...

I also did the New Years Day marathon of Dogtown. Didn't get dressed until 5 p.m. I have known about them for years and have a friend that volunteers there (and another at Pasados Safe Haven - check that one out also). The tinkling chimes at Bruno's funeral put me at the bottom of the kleenex box.... Do you know that vets at Best Friends are allowed to spend any amount of money to save an animal. They have no restrictions on financial outlays. They also raise about $20million a year in contributions. We should have such an organization. The new Dogtown starts very shortly. On their website they have a lot of stuff from Dogtown past and future. They have their own plane if you can believe that. I too want to go there some day and shovel poop. Do you notice that in one way or another our lives are filled with turds....

Fred said...

I really do think that because of the success of the show plus the huge emotional impact it has on people, it will make many many more kids (and mid-life crisis adults) consider a career in animal rescue. I just hope there will be enough shelters/sanctuaries where they will be able to fulfill and support those ambitions.

House of the Discarded said...

I was shocked to recently find out that my own sweet animal-loving parents give a good size monthly donation to Best Friends. Normally, it wouldn't be surprising, except that they NEVER gave me a dime toward my cat rescue organization! Best Friends definitely does a great job marketing themselves. Good for them!!! :)
Loved the "Turd" metaphor too. Reminds me of whenever my Dad was in trouble with my Mom he'd say, "Looks like I'm the turd in the punchbowl now, Beth" :)

Fred said...

Like that: "turd in the punchbowl". Have to remember it for the next office party.

Lynda said...

I love Best Friends too! I didn't know they were the organization in Dogtown until I saw the show about 3 or 4 times. I never really paid attention to who ran it, I thought it was actually a rescue called "Dogtown". LOL! I blame the fact that I have 4 dogs vying for my affections and I don't pay close attention to much else when I'm at home.

But I digress - I really liked your post Fred.