Charitable Work

Join Me at the 2014 ASJA Writers Conference

asja-2014As the head of the Contracts & Conflicts Committee for the American Society of Journalists and Authors, I’ve been asked to give a seminar at the 2014 ASJA Writers Conference in Manhattan My presentation will be bright and early, at 9 a.m. on Friday, April 25. It’s called “Contract Zingers and Traps: How to Protect Yourself.”

Our committee helps ASJA members review publishing contracts before signing them. A handful of worrisome contract clauses tend to pop up repeatedly, and those are the ones this presentation will feature. The talk will be geared toward new writers trying to make sense of jargon they’ll need to master in order to protect themselves legally and financially when accepting assignments. Specifically, I’ll be talking about things like waiving of moral rights, indemnity protections, defamation guarantees, copyright guarantees, privacy guarantees, pay on acceptance vs. pay on publication, and work made for hire vs. serial rights. Attendees will learn how to spot these topics in legal documents and amend the clauses so they’re fair to both parties.

You don’t have to be an ASJA member to attend on Friday. Everyone is welcome. If you’d like to register, this is the sign-up page.

And if you choose to become a member of ASJA before April, then you can also attend members-only day on Thursday, April 24, when my colleague Milton Toby from our committee will be giving a talk on mastering the art of negotiating contracts. He’s a great writer as well as a lawyer, and I’m looking forward to his presentation as well.

Hope to see you there!

An Op-Ed Generating Predictable, and Unfortunate, Response

boston-globe-op-edI wrote an op-ed piece titled “The Good, the Bad, and the Biters” that ran in yesterday’s Boston Globe Magazine. It’s about new rules that the state of Massachusetts is about to announce in public hearings, rules that would require rescue groups to assess a dog’s behavior and disclose all findings to fosters or adopters before the dog is transferred to a home.

My piece comes out strongly in favor of what the state is trying to do, based on my research into nationwide rescue for my award-winning book Little Boy Blue and my personal experience of having had 20 foster dogs come through my New Jersey home in the span of two years. As I wrote in yesterday’s piece, most of my fosters arrived friendly, healthy, and as advertised. But a few supposedly healthy dogs arrived sick, and one “ultra-friendly” Labrador mix attacked my own dog and bit me five times in the arm and legs, leaving nasty puncture wounds and me limping for a week. My piece says that the state is right to require that all rescues perform due diligence and disclose any findings about a dog’s health or temperament before giving him to any family. Put another way: Know the dog, and be honest about what you know before you hand him over, plain and simple.

This may seem like common sense to anyone trying to adopt a dog or help the cause by fostering, but the predictable response in comments on the Globe‘s website, as well as on the Little Boy Blue Facebook page, has been backlash and outcry from some rescuers who believe that any regulation of rescue is akin to persecution. They point the finger at puppy mills—disgusting places churning out for-profit purebreds with all kinds of problems—and try to change the subject by saying things like, “Why are you bothering rescuers when these puppy mills exist? We’re the good guys, for Pete’s sake!” Another predictable response has been from rescuers who say things like, “Why is the state trying to shut me down? I care about these dogs and do a good job with the budget I have.” Which is probably true, and is admirable in concept, but does not actually address the question of protocols for behavior screening and disclosure. Having a wonderful heart and wanting to save as many dogs as possible is a great thing, but it doesn’t mean the process in place is working as well, or as safely, as it should be.

I look forward to the day when rescue supporters (and I count myself as one, despite those dog bites) can look at problems within the rescue system and talk openly about addressing them instead of trying to change the subject. Until that day, escalating rules like the ones Massachusetts is about to impose will be the norm, and rightfully so. Rescue is a wonderful thing, but the groups doing it still have work to do if rescue is going to win the public’s trust and solve the problem of homeless dogs once and for all. It’s a fact that few people are willing to write about, because so many rescuers attack the writers with comments like the ones that my piece in the Globe is receiving. But it’s a fact that rescue needs to accept and address if the cause is going to move forward and succeed.

PetSmart Charities did a study with Ispos Marketing in 2012, repeating a study done in 2009 about why people buy purebreds instead of adopting from rescues. “You never know what you’re going to get with a shelter animal” continues to be the opinion of about 1 in 5 responders. That’s about 20 percent of people out there getting dogs, saying that they don’t trust the rescue process. At the same time, Wayne Pacelle, head of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote in his book The Bond that if just 25 percent more people already getting dogs would choose to adopt, then statistically speaking, we’d have a home for every dog being killed in the shelters today—a home for every dog that rescues are so desperately trying to save.

What I wrote in yesterday’s Boston Globe Magazine is about common sense and basic math. It isn’t just about Massachusetts, but is instead about how Massachusetts is addressing an issue that affects rescue nationwide. It isn’t about persecuting rescues, it isn’t about puppy mills, and it isn’t about anything other than the fact that rescue could be better in its overall processes, which would then win the public’s trust and actually solve the problem of homeless dogs. The debate here shouldn’t be about whether rescues need to know the health and temperament of the dogs they are advertising for adoption. It should be about why any state gets so many complaints about rescue that it has to step in on this matter at all.

But I’ll take the negative comments, and I’ll be the lightning rod for debate, and I’ll keep writing pieces like this, and I’ll even do so with a smile—because at least then I will know that this conversation about rescue is getting the mainstream media attention that it deserves. That, like the new Massachusetts rules, will only serve to strengthen the cause of rescue overall.


Giving Thanks that Hoss is Safe

This Thanksgiving, there is a surprise guest in my home—my former foster puppy, Hoss.

I last saw him five months ago, when he was just three months old. The rescue where I volunteer adopted him out to a family who had never before owned a dog. They went through the evaluation process, provided good character references, and promised to love him and take care of him forever. I handed them the 12-pound bundle of joy, kissed him goodbye, and wished them a wonderful life together.

Yesterday, those same people brought the now eight-month-old, 65-pound puppy back to my house. He walked them down the driveway, not vice versa, in a telltale sign that he’s had minimal training. The 9-year-old daughter said nothing. The 11-year-old son handed me a bag containing one meal’s worth of food along with the original, tiny food bowls that they never bothered to replace as Hoss got bigger. The father handed me the leash and said, “Thank you, Kim.” Then they all turned and walked away, without even bothering to tell their puppy goodbye.

Hoss has been back here for about 24 hours now, and he’s essentially still that 3-month-old puppy inside of a much larger body. It’s obvious that his adopters failed to teach him a lot of basic things, and it’s clear to me that he didn’t get enough exercise. He did seemingly endless wind sprints in my back yard until he finally took a nap at my feet. He doesn’t want to leave my side, he seems so starved for attention.

Luckily, Hoss has retained his beautiful, friendly spirit—along with his handsome good looks. With a few weeks of proper care, exercise, and training, he should make an absolutely wonderful addition to just about any family.

Today is Thanksgiving, and I am most thankful that Hoss is safe back here with me as a foster until his true forever home can be found. The holiday season is now upon us, the time of year when lots of families decide they want a cute, little, adorable puppy. Come this spring, though, a lot of those puppies will be tossed out of their families just like Hoss was, all because they started to grow up and require time, training, and attention. Not all of the unwanted pups are lucky enough to end up back with their original fosters. Some of them end up back in the shelter, right on death row where they originally started.

I hope that everyone thinking about bringing a puppy home this season will keep Hoss’s story in mind. Understand that puppies grow up. Believe that you will need to spend time training them and giving them exercise. Know that they are depending on you, and that you are making a lifelong commitment when you adopt them.

And give thanks every day that you are lucky enough to have a great dog in your life. I sure do, not only for my own rescued pooches Blue and Ginger, but also for the many wonderful foster pups like Hoss who give me nothing but love and joy.

Saying Goodbye, and Good Luck, to Ginger

Last night, the foster puppy I’ve had longer than any other found what I hope will become her forever home. Kissing her goodbye was one of the most bittersweet moments of my life.

Ginger arrived in New Jersey on Saturday, June 16. She had been abandoned at a South Carolina shelter where she, her four siblings, and their mother were given just a few days to live. The puppies, believed to be a mix of German Shepherd and Labrador Retriever, were only three months old.

Lulu’s Rescue, one of the groups that helped to rescue my dog Blue, agreed to take the mom and five pups and find them homes here in the Northeast. The rescue called the pups “The Spice Girls” and listed them on as Ginger, Cinnamon, Nutmeg—you get the idea. The pooches were put on an RV transport and driven to my home state of New Jersey, where, by the time they arrived, the rescue had four families approved to adopt one puppy each. When the RV’s back door slid upward and open, the families stood off to the side, eagerly clutching the brand-new leashes and collars they had bought for the newest members of their families. The transporter handed the puppies one-by-one out of their crates and into the waiting arms of the Lulu’s volunteers, who placed them on the grass as the adopters knelt down and smiled.

Four of the five puppies ran toward the adopters with kisses and love so glowing that they might as well have been a rainbow streak across a field. Each of those four puppies got a home that day.

Ginger got scared and wouldn’t let anybody pet her. She tried to run away. And she was once again left unwanted.

I had Blue with me that morning at the transport, and Ginger was willing to follow him even if she wasn’t too sure about me at first. She slept the whole hour’s ride to my home, making me think she’d been awake for at least half the night in the RV, listening to every bump in the darkness. When I let her into my large, fenced back yard, she immediately ran under the deck to hide. She barely came out for the next two days, except to sniff around Blue when he walked in the grass. I had to leave food for her in a bowl on the deck and then inch it closer and closer until I could get her into the house to eat. It took a good week before she would eat calmly with Blue in the kitchen, with me standing next to her.

It’s been more than two months since that week when Ginger first arrived in my life. Four other foster puppies have come and gone in that time, all adopted into new families through Lulu’s Rescue, lickety-split. Ginger has stayed, slowly but surely learning to trust me and feel safe. She now romps and plays with Blue all day long, rolls on her back to ask me for belly rubs, and practically pulls my arm off with her leash when we make the turn at the park that leads to the river. She’s a swimmer, absolutely gorgeous to watch as she frolics and slaps at the water, occasionally sticking her face below the surface to look for fish. She loves to ride in the car, is fully house trained, and doesn’t even need a crate anymore. She’s an old soul who has never once chewed on anything except her toys. Unlike most puppies, Ginger thinks before she acts. She’s been a pleasure to have around, and I’ve of course fallen in love with her. So has Blue. They often lie together on the deck, taking long naps in the summer sun.

Lulu’s received several applications from people who wanted to adopt Ginger these past two months, but things just never worked out for this sweet girl. One woman who applied hung up on me after I explained to her that Ginger is shy with new things, and that she would be standoffish at their first meeting. One family had five children younger than 10 years old, which the rescue and I both thought would send Ginger into an aneurysm. Another family had a kid who plays soccer and wanted to take Ginger to the local fields four days a week so that all the kids could pet her. Also a recipe for disaster with a shy dog. Yet another family with older children had a 2-year-old rescue dog who needed a playmate. When I drove 90 minutes to their home to introduce Ginger, she got so nervous that she wouldn’t let the people touch her for a half-hour. And she wouldn’t play with their dog, either, even though she usually plays beautifully with other dogs. As we sat their in their backyard, me on the ground at Ginger’s level and these nice people willing to give her a chance, Ginger hid behind me, shaking and probably wishing she were invisible. They politely withdrew their application.

After that day, Lulu’s Rescue offered to pay for Ginger to learn some confidence with strangers at Doggie Day Care. I took her to my vet to get her the required shots, and then I drove an hour round-trip to drop her off at Doggie Day Care. After all that effort, I could barely get her to walk through the front door. Her hind legs were shaking so badly with fear that the staff didn’t want to approach her at first. I again got on the ground, put Ginger in my lap, and tried to soothe her nerves. We all knew that at just five months old, Ginger could still be brought out of her shell, but they agreed it was going to take some work. When I drove back to pick her up later that day, they told me she had settled down a little bit and allowed a few people to pet her—but only after more than an hour of being bribed with chicken and cheese.

As the weeks turned into months, I tried to figure out how I could adopt Ginger and keep her myself. She felt safe with me. She felt happy in my quiet, country home. But I had two problems. First, Blue and I were about to start touring for my new book about how he was rescued. Ginger would never tolerate the stress of that schedule, and she’s not the kind of dog who tends to do well in a kennel. Second, I knew that if I adopted Ginger, there would be one less space for foster dogs who were still on death row in the shelters and waiting desperately for a place to go. As much as I adored Ginger, I felt like I had a responsibility to be a part of the big-picture solution. I’ve had 19 foster dogs in the past year. If I’d adopted the first one, then 18 other dogs would have died, including her, because the foster space in my home would have vanished.

I knew there was a dog as great as her sitting somewhere in a shelter, needing her spot in my home. I had to keep working with the rescue to find Ginger’s true family.

Then, on August 14, just one day shy of Ginger’s two-month anniversary with me, Lulu’s Rescue received an e-mail from a couple named Tim and Charmaine. They had seen Ginger on Petfinder. Their note was short but promising: “Hello Ginger, we have the perfect home for you. We have been caring for dogs for over 25 years, ours and rescue dogs. Excellent references, excellent environment.  We are dog people. We live on a farm with two cats. Searching for my best friend, for unconditional love and attention.”

Tim and Charmaine drove more than an hour to my house even though I offered to meet them halfway, because they said they wanted to see Ginger wherever Ginger felt the most comfortable. They walked from my driveway into my back yard, watched Ginger scoot away, and then sat down on the grass—where they stayed for a good 15 minutes waiting for Ginger to settle down. I gave them each a handful of treats, and they gave some to Blue and some to my other foster dog, Chase, while trying to coax Ginger to come. She walked in between them at least a half-dozen times, each time getting a little closer, before finally taking a treat from Charmaine’s hand. Not once did they try to force Ginger into being a different kind of dog. Not once did they complain that they were sitting on a stranger’s lawn. They accepted her shyness and tried to let her know they loved her just the way she was. And they commented a few times on how gorgeous Ginger was in person.

Then we moved into my den. Ginger followed us inside and took more treats from Charmaine, then accepted a quick scratch on the head. Ginger wasn’t shaking or nervous—the first time I’ve ever seen her act that way with strangers. After taking a few more treats, she lay down perfectly content. I picked her up and put her on my lap, and Charmaine sat next to us on the sofa. Ginger went to her willingly while Charmaine petted her. Then Tim moved onto the sofa next to me. Ginger lay next to him, put her head on his lap, and closed her eyes.

Tim and Charmaine offered to foster-to-adopt Ginger that afternoon. They said they loved her just the way she was, and they didn’t think anything was wrong with her at all. The only reason they didn’t adopt her outright that day is that the rescue has a process of verifying references and doing a home visit to ensure that the adopters are legitimate. That process just ended yesterday, which is when I drove Ginger to their farm to say goodbye.

A mile’s worth of cornfields line the road to their 200-year-old farmhouse, which is quiet, so Ginger won’t be startled by random people or noisy traffic. They have adult children, so Ginger won’t be grabbed at by toddlers. Tim loves to kayak, so Ginger can go all the time to the river with him to swim. And they have a huge hole in their hearts from the death of their longtime dog, Heidi, whom they considered a child. I saw pictures of Heidi all over their house, and even embroidered into a quilt. Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of Heidi’s death. Tim and Charmaine spent that day honoring her. And one day later, Ginger took Heidi’s spot in their home, and in their hearts.

“I’m so glad you gave her a chance,” I told them on the first day we met, finally feeling like the rescue had found people who would be as good to Ginger as I could be myself. “Ginger is a special one. She’s just an unusual puppy.”

“She sure is,” Tim said, before adding two sentences that I will never forget: “She is smart, she is thoughtful, and she is extremely well behaved for her age. I think she just might be one in a million.”

Lulu’s Rescue Featured in Short-Form Documentary

I do a lot of volunteer work for Lulu’s Rescue, the group that helped to save my dog, Blue, from a gas-chamber shelter in North Carolina. The group is featured in my forthcoming book “Little Boy Blue,” due out in hardcover this summer from Barron’s Books.

Lulu’s was recently featured in the following 13-minute documentary, which won high marks at a film festival in the United Kingdom. The film covers a lot of the same themes that “Little Boy Blue” addresses—all important to understand if we are going to save more dogs like Blue from certain death in America’s shelters in the future.

Lulu’s Rescue from bshiflett on Vimeo.

Yes, I’m a Little Weepy as I Type This

Yesterday, I said goodbye to my sixth foster dog. His name is Mac, and he’s about 10 or 11 months old. He arrived at my house after being saved from a North Carolina shelter that was going to kill him in a gas chamber. He had just three days to live. He was emaciated, with not just his ribs but also his backbone and shoulder blades sticking out. And he had terrible diarrhea. His stomach must have hurt every minute he was alive.

After six weeks with me and my dog, Blue—also a rescue from a gas-chamber shelter in North Carolina—Mac grew into the happy, loving, healthy dog that you see here. He adored going with us for walks in the park and jogs on the local trail. He scarfed down no fewer than six cups of puppy food every day, along with one rogue batch of defrosting ground beef that he sniffed out in my kitchen sink. By the time he left us yesterday, I’d even managed to house-train him, crate-train him, and teach him both “sit” and “lie down.” Such a smart boy. So eager to please.

All dogs are special, but this guy really had a quality that bore straight into the core of my heart. Blue loved him, too. They romped around all day like brothers. I swore I’d only give him up to the perfect home—and then along came a lovely family with these two boys, an older brother, a big back yard, and a 4-year-old black Labrador who needs a playmate. It appears to be a perfect match. And so Mac is off to start his new and even more wonderful life with them.

I’ve already told Lulu’s Rescue to line me up for another foster puppy, as so many more dogs like Mac are facing death in the shelters and just need a place to stay for a little while until permanent homes can be found. Fostering is how my dog Blue was saved, too, and I talk about the process in my forthcoming book “Little Boy Blue: One Puppy’s Great Escape.” As I wrote in the manuscript, the number of dogs the rescues can save from the kill shelters is directly proportional to the number of foster homes where those dogs can be placed.

So yes, it’s tear-filled when I have to say goodbye to a great dog like Mac, but I’m looking forward to meeting my seventh foster dog a week from now. I hope I’ll play a role in him finding a perfect, permanent home, too. It feels great to be part of the solution.

My New Foster Dog, Buster, in Memory of the Chesterfield 22

Today, the dog-rescue groups Middle Mutts and Pilots N Paws are working together to move as many death-row dogs as possible from high-kill shelters to adopters and foster homes nationwide. Lulu’s Rescue, which helped to save my dog Blue, was asked to participate in the event. As a Lulu’s volunteer, I’ll be spending part of today meeting a private plane here in New Jersey and bringing this cutie pie from North Carolina, named Buster, to stay at my house until a permanent home can be found.

Today’s nationwide rescue event has been organized in memory of the 22 shelter dogs that were allegedly killed by workers from the Chesterfield, South Carolina, animal control facility back in March. While reports stated that only eight dogs were slated to be put down humanely on that winter’s day, activists claim that 22 dogs and puppies from the shelter were taken to the county’s landfill and shot. It is legal to shoot a dog in South Carolina, but apparently only in an emergency such as a rabid dog attacking a person. Activists claim that the Chesterfield 22 were shot by some shelter workers for no such reasons. (Investigations are continuing.)

The hope for today’s rescue event is to show that not just eight or 22, but far more dogs can find good homes instead of being killed if people just try to help them. Given all that I have learned about homeless dogs while reporting my forthcoming book, “Little Boy Blue: One Puppy’s Great Escape,” I am absolutely thrilled to have been asked to participate.

Buster will be my third foster dog, following Izzy and Summer. Those lucky girls both went to live in mini-mansions on cul-de-sacs. Let’s see what I can do for this handsome boy, too.

If you are interested in learning more about Buster or adopting him, please visit the Lulu’s Rescue website.

Update: Here are some more photos that I shot of him after he’d had a single good night’s rest at my house (without complaining in his crate). Such a happy boy!