Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Small Candles

In which we take up the topics of sisters, dogs, dirty politics, and hope.

She joined our family before I have conscious memory. She died when I was eighteen. In every way, other than biological, she was my sister.

We slept in the same bed. She was terrified of storms. When I was eight and she was five, a terrible tornado struck and devastated Lubbock, Texas. The Panhandle town was leveled. The apartment where our family lived was in the direct path of the monstrous storm; if I close my eyes, I can still today conjure up the sound of shrieking winds. It sounds nothing like a freight train; the low lone whistle of a freight train is a sad and strangely comforting sound. A tornado howls like a demon.

Over the years, I've learned to deal with my relationship with stormy weather. I happily head to the basement when necessary; when the "all clear" sounds, I'll spend the next hour foraging for carbohydrates, but I cope. She never did. The sound of hail striking windows and roof would send her into a panic attack, trembling and shivering. Even in her teens, she had a prescription for tranquilizers, used only during storms.

She wasn't fond of cats, though we once had a small Siamese named "Tejas" (pronounced as in the Spanish, "TAY - haas") with whom she became fast friends. There was also a dog named "Sugar-Plum," a big mutt of a thing, who lived for a time with us. She loved him, loved him dearly. I can still see them rambling the neighborhood together. When he died she grieved for months, inconsolable.

She liked ice cream cones, and going to the swimming pool, and staying up late on Saturday nights to watch old horror movies with my mom, and eating popcorn. My Grandpapa, my father's father, adored her, and she him. I have wonderful memories of the three of us, out fishing with cane poles, catching nothing all day. Nothing that is, but laughter and sunshine and love; things more important than fish.

She hated playing dress up with me, but she did it anyway: Batman and Robin; Robin Hood and Little John. There are pictures, in the family album somewhere, of the two of us, bath towels tied around our necks as we played at rounding up the evil doers of Gotham City!

I was a young mother, only sixteen when Eldest Daughter was born.  She didn't much care for children, in the normal run of things, but she embraced aunthood with gusto. She became the best of all wonderful aunts, gentle and loving with the small, dark-haired mewling thing I had brought into the family.

She was old by the time I was eighteen and she was fifteen.  Her passing ripped a hole in my heart that has yet to close, and probably never will. I miss her more than I could ever adequately begin to express.

Her name was Heather, and she was a gorgeous tri-colour collie.

As I write this, 74 collies and bichon frises rescued from a Missouri breeder over the weekend of February 19, are in the custody of the Missouri Humane Society  in St. Louis, and are awaiting adoption. Well, not all 74 are awaiting adoption. Not all of them survived.

There has been so much hoopla in Missouri this year about breeders, about puppy mills. In November 2010, a ballot initiative, Proposition B, was passed by voters. I voted for it. For me, the important bit on the ballot was this: "Shall Missouri law be amended to  require large-scale dog breeding operations to provide each dog under their care with sufficient food, clean water, housing and space; necessary veterinary care; regular exercise and adequate rest between breeding cycles." I confess, at the risk of sounding inflammatory, it seemed like a no brainer. Take care of the animals entrusted to you.

I barely remember when Heather joined our family, but I have heard the story over and over from my Mom and Dad. How the three of us went to visit the "breeder," a suburban family like us whose beloved family pet had given birth to a fine litter of healthy collie pups. The "breeder" had one dog; when time for breeding came, the male who was to be the father came and stayed with the family. The family of the sire was given "the pick of the litter" in exchange for stud services. We had to provide references. They were checked. The family followed up with us for years afterward, to be sure "the fit" was right. It seems like a no brainer. Take care of the animals entrusted to you.

Dog breeding on the scale that is current in Missouri boggles the mind. Some breeders have upwards of 500 dogs. I'm sure there are "good breeders" out there, at least I like to think so, men and women who love and care for the dogs entrusted to their care. But there are also bad breeders, and the horror stories coming out of those breeding facilities would be unbelievable, if they weren't documentable. There are hundreds of articles and reports out there on the internet; I won't detail them here.  A report issued last year, "Missouri's Dirty Dozen", details some of the worst of the cases.

So, Proposition B, demanding basic care be given by Missouri's dog breeders to their animals, seemed to me like a no brainer, as I have said. And yet opposition was intense. It was argued that the new law would put breeders out of business. It was argued that the Humane Society had a hidden agenda, and that Proposition B was just the first step to outlaw the eating of meat. It was argued that Proposition B was an attack by radical activists on individual liberty. The language of fear and fear mongering ran rampant.

Then, we voted. Proposition B passed. This is the democratic process. I thought it was over, and we could move forward.

But no.

Two separate measures, House Bill 94 and Senate Bill 113 were introduced to repeal Proposition B. Really? Lawmakers are going to try and override the stated will of the majority of the people? Something smelled dirty, but what?

We've all heard the truism, "Follow the money." Following the money  led to Assistant House Deputy Whip Jason Smith. Smith is a Republican; he's the representative from Salem, Missouri, and his mother, Mary Ann Smith, owns and runs a dog breeding business in Salem. Ms. Smith, it turns out, is not just any ole Missouri dog breeder, either. Remember that report on Missouri's Dirty Dozen? The puppy mills with the worst track records and most horrible conditions? She's one of those.

And suddenly much becomes clear. Dirty money, dirty politics. The strong and the privileged preying on the weak, the helpless, the silent. As always. Over and over and over again.

So what do we do? Do we throw up our hands in despair and give up? The work is so vast, and will never be done.

"It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness."

There are a few things that can be done, I think.

The first, and the hardest for me to remember, is to try to stay focused on compassion. Compassion not only for the suffering dogs, but for the breeders who, for whatever reason, have become trapped in the industry. I have been told by a source I trust, though I have not yet been able to document the claim, that it was the Department of Agriculture itself, many years back, who encouraged dog breeding as a way for rural agricultural concerns to stay afloat. It was encouraged, I am told, as another form of animal husbandry. Surely no one ever intended for it to become the monster it has.

Another thing we in Missouri can do is to call our state senators and urge them NOT to repeal Proposition B. I've done that, and was pleased to find that my own state senator has already issued a statement saying she will absolutely not support any measures designed to weaken Proposition B.

The third thing is to help the Missouri Department of Agriculture as they struggle to enforce animal welfare laws already on the books. Operation Bark Alert is an initiative to connect concerned citizens with the men and women charged with enforcing those animal welfare laws. Their web page states: "Operation Bark Alert has an online reporting system making it easier for you to help us locate unlicensed breeders in Missouri. With every tip from the public, animal care inspectors visit the location in question to validate the report of animal welfare."

They may be only small candles, but they are there for us to light. 

 stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of short stories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjects: felines , philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com. Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful story! I remember that tornado & the devastation it left on Lubbock!