Monday, October 17, 2011


Tallie giving me a smooch
I lost a friend one year ago today, on October 17, 2010 at 9:15 in the morning.  She was a wonderful friend, even though she could be a bit moody and demanding at times.  She was beautiful, loving, loyal and always thrilled to hang out with me, even when I wasn't that easy to be around.  Her love for me was unconditional, and mine for her was the same.  Her name was Tallie.  She was my dog.  That wonderful little being came into my life on May 4, 2004.  Tallie was born exactly one month before I had to make the painful, yet necessary decision to put my beloved poodle, Jasmine, to sleep.  Jazzie, as I called her, saw me through my twenties, thirties and into my forties.  She was there through the deaths of some very important people in my life.  She was there through the best of times and the worst of times.  Her loss was very difficult because she was such a gentle, undemanding soul, and had been with me for nearly sixteen years.  However, the anticipation of bringing Tallie home helped ease my sorrow.
Tallie's baby picture
The breeder allowed me to visit her once it was safe to do so.  I loved the cockeyed little spot on her head.  The dots on blenheim Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are supposed to be in the center of their heads when they are lucky enough to have them.  Hers wasn't, and it gave her a very comical look.   She always appeared a bit worried, and that misplaced spot kind of took the edge off.   Tallie was small, but she was sturdy and she always let you know exactly what she wanted.  That was evident when she was just a few weeks old and her "Grandmama" went to visit.  She snuggled up on her chest, and when it was time to go back to her doggy mom, she protested with a loud puppy squeal that defied her small size.   From that day forward, Tallie and "Grandmama" had a special thing going on between them.  I always joked that Tallie should be my Mom's dog because she loved her more than me.

I got to take Tallie home a week earlier than anticipated because the breeder knew she would be in good hands.  I prepared the house for the new "baby, but what I didn't anticipate was the cat's reaction.  Miss Misha is a Siamese and has more than her fair share of  "catititude".  Misha loved Jasmine.  That was HER dog, and she wailed nightly for a week after Jazzie died.  I figured Tallie would be a distraction for the cat and they would have a grand time romping around together.  Boy, was I wrong!  Miss Misha was NOT pleased and was extremely vocal about her disapproval.  She hissed, growled, spit and hid under the bed for three long weeks.  Misha did come around eventually, though Tallie was always very cautious about the cat's intentions.  It was not unusual for Misha to cozy up to Tallie, groom her lovingly, then haul off and bite her with those sharp kitty teeth for no good reason.  Such was their relationship...

Even now, with the pain of losing her still so raw, I smile through tears when I think of what a little diva Tallie was and how she demanded attention from everyone.  Should perfect strangers dare think to ignore her, she let them know about it.  As a puppy, she would squeal and carry on until they took notice and admired her.  In the vet's office, Tallie would walk up to every single person and vocalize until they acknowledged her cuteness.  She had a little potty dance that she did when it was time to go outside.  It actually looked like she was doing the puppy polka!  She was a favorite on the bike path during our walks.  She wanted all the love and she got it.  Everyone loved Tallie. When she wanted food (and she ALWAYS wanted food) she had the annoying habit of plopping her butt on the floor and dragging it around in a perfect circle until she got her way.  Yes, she was spoiled...
Tallie with "Grandmama"

One of my favorite memories is how much Tallie loved going to see "Grandmama".  Sometimes I would say it very softly to her and with different inflections, but the result was always the same.  She would cock her little head from side to side, then yip with glee until we loaded up the car and were on our way.  She'd start in again when we would take the exit off of the highway.  Tallie loved her "Grandmama"!  She also knew an easy target for food when she saw one.  On one trip, we stopped to get "Grandmama" a hamburger.  I was unloading the car when I heard shrieking inside Mom's house.  Tallie had snatched her hamburger, wrapper and all, and ran under the table to enjoy her feast.  That wasn't the only time she stole food from "Grandmama", but it was the most amusing.
Jene with baby Tallie

I never wanted to share my bed with another dog after Jasmine, but Tallie had other ideas.  I would kiss her goodnight and put her in her little kennel.  All was well with the world until four in the morning.  Then, she would cry as though her little heart was breaking and of course, I would give in.  Tallie would put her little paws around my neck and sleep like the most content little dog in the world.   That lead to a morning ritual that lasted until the week before she closed her eyes for the last time.  When I would wake up in the morning, I'd tell her, "puppy love!" and she would throw her paws around my neck and smother me with wet kisses.  I miss that.  Tallie would make what I called her "cave" at the foot of the bed on cold nights.  The comforter was folded back so she would burrow in and all you would see is her little freckled nose peaking out.  In the warmer months, she'd hang out under the bed during the day.  I miss seeing her lush white tail sticking out from under the bed skirt.  I miss so many things...

A little more than a year after Tallie came into my life, fate brought her a "brother".  I never intended to have two dogs, but I fell in love with Bogie and when his previous owners decided they didn't want him, I jumped at the chance to have him join our little family.  He fared much better with Miss Misha.  She only hissed at him for three days and then decided to ignore him.  Except for an occasional smack on the head or a nip on the butt, Misha keeps her distance.  Tallie was a bit horrified by this noisy, energetic little guy who kept pouncing on her and demanding to play.  That didn't last long.  They became the best of friends and he followed her like a shadow.  They would run through the house yapping at each other, pretend they were growling in each others faces, and always seemed to want the same bone or toy.  They would take turns tattling on each other to me.  Bogie never knew a day without his "sister" and I am thankful they were together until the end.  He seems lost without her...
Tallie's first night in ICU
Tallie & Bogie loved road trips

During the week of September 26th, Tallie wasn't very interested in food.  That was not Tallie.  She could wolf down her food at a rate that never failed to amaze me.  I took her to see the vet on September 29th and she was quickly, and incorrectly, diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection, even though she was not coughing or sneezing.  A couple of antibiotics each day was supposed to cure her in no time.  She did seem to perk up a bit, so I took her to see "Grandmama".  Although still happy to make the journey, she wasn't her exuberant self and still wasn't very interested in food.  In an attempt to fix that, we bought a deli chicken that normally would cause her to become a savage little beasty.  She turned her nose up at it and I told my Mom I was taking her back to the vet the following morning.

On Monday, October 4th, Tallie was significantly weaker than she had been so we put all morning rituals aside, got in the car and headed back to the vet.  The hours that followed are a bit of a blur.  A blood test was finally done and it revealed her red count was 9, which is dangerously low, and she needed an immediate blood transfusion.  I was told to take her to Alameda East Veterinary Hospital.  I don't know how I pulled it together enough to drive her there.  I was probably a true hazard on the road, but fortunately, the hospital wasn't that far away.  I met with doctors there and the preliminary diagnosis was Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anemia, or IMHA.  I had never heard of this illness and truly wish I never had.  Those four words changed my life forever and began a journey that left behind a trail of tears.  The staff let me stay with Tallie for quite awhile during the time she was being transfused.  I went home and got a pillowcase from my bed to leave with her.  It was so hard to leave that night and even more difficult to try to sleep.  Instead, I read every bit of information I could find on IMHA.  Much of it was scary and didn't offer much hope although I did find a great website with dozens of success stories.  "One day Tallie's story will be among these," I told myself.  Then, I slept.
Tallie with Dr. Shanna O'Marra
Bogie stayed by Tallie's side
The next morning, I woke up very early, which is unusual for this night owl.  A doctor from Alameda East called me shortly after waking.  Tallie's hematocrit level rose to fifteen and doctors were hopeful it would continue to rise.  Visiting hours for ICU patients are from noon to two and seven to nine.  I took full advantage of every moment and the staff was kind enough to let me stay far beyond that schedule.  It was so hard seeing Tallie hooked up to an I.V. with her furry little tummy shaved from where they performed an ultra sound.  That revealed that she had blood clots in her spleen.  Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anemia causes blood clots, so in addition to the transfusion and Prednisone, Tallie needed an anti-coagulant.  The only pharmacy that carried the type she needed was at Children's Hospital so I went to pick that up.  I also brought the t-shirt I was wearing that morning for her to sleep on.   Each day blurred into the other and became a cycle of hope and despair, hope and despair.  On the fifth day, I received news that Tallie's PCV was stable enough to bring her home!  I was overjoyed and hopeful at the thought of bringing my girl back to the home where she was raised, back to her "brother", and even back to Miss Misha.  I was terrified at the thought of giving her the medication she required, including shots of Lovenox every six hours.  I drove very carefully, picked her up slowly, and walked through the door.  Bogie squealed with delight and Misha even kissed Tallie on the nose.  I made a bed on the floor for all of us and there we remained until the next day.  I can still hear the ticking of the alarm clock that I set as a reminder so she would not miss a dose of her medicine.   Tallie needed daily visits to the specialists who were treating her so they could monitor her blood count.  The next day brought bad news:  her PCV had dropped, there was a notable change in her breathing pattern and Tallie needed to be readmitted to ICU.  Fear tugged again and was winning.  I had to leave her once more, but was allowed to stay with her past visiting hours once again.

The next day brought unexpected good news.  Her PCV was back up and I could take her home!  Her breathing was still a little ragged and we needed to keep a close eye on that.  When we got home, Misha hissed at Tallie and hid behind the computer monitor, something she had never done before.  We snuggled on the floor in front of the fireplace Tallie so dearly loved and slept ... The specialist wanted to check her again on Monday and the hope was that her blood count would continue to rise.  The news seemed encouraging and I grasped it with all of the hope in my heart.

Saturday night was rough.  Tallie seemed more restless than she ever had before but she was still eating and drinking water.  Bogie laid down next to her and stretched his paws across her.  They stayed like that for quite a long while - enough time for me to snap a few cherished pictures.  I know now that doggy gesture was his goodbye to her...
Bogie's goodbye to Tallie
Tallie fought so hard...
Very early on Sunday morning, October 17, 2010, I knew something had changed.  The routine of her care continued and Tallie's condition seemed no worse.  At about 9am, she started struggling to get outside but was having a difficult time standing.  I picked her up to help her, and Tallie looked right into my eyes.  That's when I knew for sure.   I still don't know why I said these words to her, because they really weren't true at all, but I told her if she had to leave me that was okay ... that I would be alright.  With that, she took two soft breaths and died in my arms at 9:15 that morning.  A blood clot hit her lungs, despite the regimen of Lovenox. Her death was peaceful and she was with the person who loved her the most.

I still mourn her premature passing and I have frequently asked myself why her death has been the most difficult to deal with at this point in my life.  I believe I finally have the answer.  I have lost loved ones, human beings who raised me and loved me, as well as pets that I loved dearly.  The difference was that each lived a full life and the conclusion of those lives was not sudden or shocking.  My family members died safe and warm in their beds, surrounded by people who loved them.  My previous dogs lived well into their teens... Tiffany was 16 1/2, Jazzie was one month shy of 16, and our little Bingo was almost 17.  I have been very fortunate to not have suffered the pain of a life that ended too soon...until now.  Perhaps that is to be my lesson.  Life is a fragile circle and it is very important not to take it for granted.  No being is guaranteed length of days.  Because of that truth, it is so important to appreciate and not waste whatever time is given because it is indeed a gift.

Tallie wasn't granted the gift of a long life.  Even though I only got to hold her in my arms for half of the usual life expectancy for her breed, I will hold her in my heart forever.  There is a paragraph from "The Rainbow Bridge" that I would like to share:

"The day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. The bright eyes are intent; the eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to break away from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. YOU have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.  Then you cross the Rainbow Bridge together..."  -Author unknown

Until we meet again, sweet girl.  Run free, Tallie, run free...


Saturday, February 26, 2011

My Journey to the Crown...

The recent headlines about the homeless Miss Colorado USA 2011 pulled me back in time to March 1979.  Nearly 32 years later, the memories are clear and not blurred by time or my advancing age...

Jene getting a hug after being crowned
Jene Nelson
I was crowned Miss Colorado USA on March 25, 1979 at the Regency Hotel in Denver.   I was eighteen years old.  The road to the pageant was not at all typical and frankly, not one I ever thought I'd travel.  I have always been a do-your-hair-and-makeup-once-and-forget-about-it kind of gal and continue to be more comfortable as a background player rather than one to step into the spotlight.  I have never considered myself to be the most beautiful woman in the room, much less in the state.  I was studying Mass Communications and Speech at the University of Southern Colorado (now Colorado State University - Pueblo) and was approached by two classmates who nominated me to be a contestant.  I was flattered and grateful, but thought, "No way!"  My sisters ended up seeing the invitation and insisted that I compete.  I was mortified at the thought of prancing around in a swimsuit and being judged on my scrawny figure that was lacking in curves. I was persuaded (forced?) to do it so I made my mind up to make a decent showing, then come home, concentrate on school and figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

I focused on finding a swimsuit that would minimize that fact that I had no bust to speak of, and highlight my twenty-two inch waist.  I found one for seventeen dollars.  My aunt went to work sewing my pageant dress.  She didn't buy a pattern - she made her own out of grocery store paper bags.  The cost of the material was under seven dollars.  The dress was off-white with a slit up the side and a dramatic drape in the back.  We were both frustrated over that drape.  It just wouldn't hang properly until my aunt got the brilliant idea of sewing a penny into the seam and it was perfect after that.

The family home
Grandma, Aunt Annie, Mom & Jene
There was plenty of female influence as I prepared for the pageant.   We lived in a house filled with women.

My Grandma, truly a no-nonsense woman who never voiced any opposition to this project, my Aunt Mitzi, who was a master seamstress and spent 60 years working at St. Mary Corwin Hospital, my Aunt Annie, who was a tough cookie despite her diminutive size, and my Mother, who raised four daughters by herself and lived with the stigma of being "that divorced woman" for much of her adult life.  My Mom was disabled in a terrible car accident in 1955.  She broke her back and was told she would never walk again.  She not only walked, she danced her way through the next few decades.  Mom was very lucky to be alive, but lost the use of her left hand.  I still marvel at how much she is able to do with just one working hand...  We all lived together in a very modest two bedroom, one bath home with a surly little poodle.  It was the same place that my Mother and her siblings were born, it’s where my three sisters were also raised, and it is the same home where my Grandma and my Aunt Annie took their final breath.  It was the home where I shared a bedroom with my Grandma and where the clacking sound of Aunt Mitzi's ancient sewing machine was putting the finishing touches on my pageant dress...

Finally, the big day was here.  I made the hundred mile journey to Denver armed with my homemade dress, my swimsuit, an interview outfit that I borrowed from my sister, two pairs of L'eggs pantyhose (the kind in the silver egg), and the desire to get this over with as quickly and painlessly as possible.  Total cost for competing in the pageant:  less than thirty dollars.  My brother-in-law's corporation, Mauro Brothers Farms, put up the steep $500 entry fee.

Newspaper clipping
Jene in 1979
The pageant was held at the Regency Hotel in Denver.  We were housed four girls to a room, which meant we had to share a bed with a complete stranger.  That was rather awkward and I remember not sleeping very much that night out of fear that I would inadvertently kick my bed mate.  The dreaded swimsuit competition wasn't so bad.  We did not have to appear in our swimsuits publicly.  Instead, we were taken in groups to a private room and judged individually.  Whew!  The interview portion was a breeze. I always spoke my mind, more so back then than even now, and never thought about the consequences of opinion.   I gleefully sashayed down the runway in my seven dollar dress during the evening gown competition.  I remember seeing my Mother in the audience.  She was glowing with pride, or the effects of menopause.  I am still not sure which one it was, but she looked more beautiful than any of the contestants.  Then, when I was named as a semi-finalist, I breathed a sigh of relief.  I had done what I had come there to do.  I had a respectable showing.  Next, I was named a finalist.  I remember what I said for my personal statement.  "We are but a moment's sunlight fading on the grass.  Thank you for letting me share some of my sunlight with you."   I had no idea where that came from, but of course later realized it was from the song "Get Together" by the Youngbloods.  I don't know why I remembered it at that particular time or why I chose to use it.  Regardless, then there were two.  It was just another candidate and me.  I was certain she was going to win and was desperately trying to remember which way to exit off the stage when they called her number.  Instead, it was MY number, delegate 28, that was called as Miss Colorado USA 1979.  Again, I looked at my Mom and mouthed, "I love you" as she appeared to be hyperventilating...

What followed was and is still a blur.  I remember one of my friends, who was a fellow contestant, hugging me and knocking off my crown.  It still has the dent.  I never had it repaired because it gave it character.   Then came hugs from my family and tears from my Mom.  My niece, who was three at the time, announced that she was going to put that crown on her head and she did.  The realization didn't hit until I was presented release forms and contracts to sign.   I had precisely twenty two days to get ready to compete in the Miss USA Pageant.  I was given a $500 check and the instructions to buy a pageant gown, have three other "formals" to wear in addition to my seven dollar dress, and to come up with a state costume and state gift.  I would receive a round trip ticket to Biloxi, Mississippi where the pageant was being held.  Wow!  There was a lot to accomplish in short time frame.

My beloved Aunt Mitzi
That lovely dress!
My fondest memory is when we got home.  My Aunt Mitzi was unable to attend the pageant because she and Aunt Annie were caring for my Grandma.  She had made a banner that said, "Welcome Home, Miss Colorado!" and hung it over the door.  I still have it.  Time has faded her penmanship, but the memory is vivid.  The state costume was easy. The United States Air Force Academy cadets were the official escorts for the pageant, so I would be a "cadetette" in sequined hot pants and a borrowed hat. The state gift was easy too. It was a beautiful statue of the bighorn sheep, which is Colorado's state animal. Aunt Mitzi went to work on the three required "formals" and they were stunning. How she was able to pull it off in such a short time is still baffling all these years later. Clack clack... Her sewing machine driven by her amazing skills turned out a beautiful sea foam green Grecian-style dress, a steel blue two piece gown with a daring open back, and my favorite of all -- a black and white pantsuit with stove pipe legs and a swinging jacket. She was truly something else.  The competition gown was another matter.  The first one I tried on was very expensive but incredibly beautiful.  It was a gold beaded Lily Rubin that cost $700.  I only had $500, and the state costume was going to cost $200.  The state gift was fifty bucks, so that left me with $250.  No other dress compared to that first one.  My family all kicked in what they could and I was able to get that gorgeous dress. I remember writing the check and my nephew, who was ten at the time, shouted, "You don't have that much money!"  Despite the odd looks from other patrons at this very elegant store, I smiled sweetly and left as quickly as possible with my gold beaded treasure fluttering behind me.
The journey to Biloxi was very interesting. I had been on an airplane precisely one time prior to that trip. My carry on items would have never been accepted under today's standards. I had my crown and banner in one box, the state gift in another, my prized Lily Rubin dress, my state costume, a borrowed trench coat and a dozen roses. A toddler kicked the back of my seat all the way to New Orleans where I was picked up and transported in a "limousine" which was actually a big white bus that was fetching several pageant contestants.  We had a flat tire along the way... 
The preparation for the pageant was unlike anything I had ever expected.  First of all, April in Mississippi means humidity.  I had never experienced that before, and my naturally wavy hair was out of control.  People were asking me for my autograph!  Most of the other contestants were models or actresses and I was nothing but a student who had no clue about what the future would hold.  I had never given it a moment's thought.  We had grueling rehearsals where we learned three dance numbers.  I ended up weighing 105 pounds on my 5'7" frame after those two weeks.  I remember the day the swimsuit segment was shot. I was suffering from cramps, my hair was a disaster, and the weather was worse.  We were taken out to the docks and the Gulf of Mexico was very rough that day.  I thought for sure I was going to lose my breakfast as the dock swayed with the tide.   There was a photo shoot later that day at the hotel pool and I remember the picture that was in the local newspaper.  I was the only one looking the other way as that picture was snapped and as a result, stuck out like a sore thumb.
The dreaded swimsuit competition

One wardrobe fitting in particular still makes me blush.  In one number, we all wore Vicki Vaughn dresses.  The outfitters could not figure out why mine looked odd until, to my horror, I realized I had put it on sideways!  The bow that was supposed to be in front was under my armpit.  Oops.  Problem solved.  Then there was the competition swimsuit category.  We all wore the same style, but in different colors.  Mine was electric blue.  I have already alluded to the fact that I was not well endowed, but this swimsuit highlighted my deficits.   It had a plunging neckline and I lived in mortal fear that what little I had would pop out at the most inopportune moment. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.  I developed the skill of teetering on five inch heels while making my way down the steps of the riverboat set without looking down.  I still remember that trick, though I have never had the occasion to use it again.
The opening number

After all of the preparation came the big night.  On April 30, 1979, I was the 28th woman to represent Colorado in the Miss USA Pageant.  I belted out my name and my hometown as I stepped into the spotlight.  Actually, I was more fascinated by the production itself than by being part of it.  It was sort of an out of body experience.  I met Bob Barker when he still had brown hair and marveled at the sensation that was Leif Garrett.  I was more into Neil Diamond at the time and thought Leif was rather dorky.  Most of my spare time was spent behind the scenes, watching the director and curiously skulking around observing the technical crew.  I found what they did much more fascinating than what I was supposed to be doing.  And so a producer was born...

I was little more than a prop during the Miss USA Pageant, but that was okay.  It was much more than I ever aspired to be.  My natural clumsiness reared its ugly head a couple of times.  I spilled a glass of champagne all over the tuxedo-ed Mr. Harold Glasser, who was the president of Miss USA/Universe.  When Eileen Ford of the Ford Modeling Agency (and a pageant judge) complimented my treasured Lily Rubin dress, I mumbled a response that wasn't quite English or any other language.  Perhaps I was speaking in tongues...

After all of the fanfare, we packed up my suitcases and headed back home to Colorado.  I had a nice year of appearances at ribbon cuttings and riding in convertibles in parades. During my stint on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, I was replaced on the phone banks by none other than Ronald McDonald!  One of my appearances during that year is still very clear.  I was invited to tour Children's Hospital in Denver with Lyle Alzado, the Broncos defensive end.  This was prior to his trade to the Cleveland Browns.  I'm still not sure if I made those poor little children feel any better, but one teenaged girl made a lasting impression.  The representative from Children's Hospital gave us a briefing on the condition of each patient before we went into their room.  This particular girl was seventeen - one year younger than I was at the time - and she had just had her leg amputated below the hip due to bone cancer.  I thank God to this day that I had the presence of mind to remove my crown and banner, take the camera from the hospital representative, and act as the photographer for her session with Lyle Alzado.  She was beaming as he held her hand and kissed her on the forehead.

Jene in the control room
A few years later, I was hired by a local television station and that began a very long career in broadcasting.   I'm frankly surprised that my former employer did the story about the current Miss Colorado's situation that attracted so much attention without answering some of the basic questions that are being asked by critics now.  My raised eyebrows are among the reasons my lengthy career there has ended.  Clearly, things have changed over the years.  Thirty two years ago, I would have never wanted publicity for having a homemade wardrobe or living in a humble house or even for having a disabled mother and a wayward father.  It wasn't shame that kept me from talking about those things -- it was dignity.  I never felt like I didn't have enough because I had plenty.  I am proud of where I came from and honored to call the place that gave shelter to generations of our family - all 826 square feet of it -  my home.  It remains the one place I can go and still feel safe, despite the fact that the neighborhood is steadily going downhill.  It isn't an elegant house, but it has kept me warm and shielded me from some very harsh realities.  I visit frequently and as I enter the doorway where that banner welcoming me home once hung, I can’t help but smile.  I sleep in the bedroom where the sewing machine still stands and though it has been silent for many years, the memories and the lessons I learned continue to ground me.  The cherished Lily Rubin dress hangs in the closet, too tiny for me to ever squeeze into again.
Mom & Jene in 2009
In conclusion, here are a few thoughts from a former Miss Colorado USA to the current one.  It is a privilege to represent our state and to be part of Colorado history.  However, today's media darling can quickly become tomorrow's villain.  There are always consequences to choices and they are the responsibility of the person making the decisions.  I urge you to do some volunteer work at a shelter and meet people who truly have nowhere to call home.  The title you now hold is an honorable one, but it will not define who you are or who you will become.  Walk like a winner and never wear the shroud of a victim. Enjoy the journey, and may your memories be as joyful and colorful as mine when you look back on this very special time.

Jene Nelson is a multiple Emmy award winning journalist and recently released a documentary titled  I Breathe, which is an in depth look at the multi billion dollar commercial dog breeding industry.  She is passionate about fair and humane treatment of all living things.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Walking the Walk

Jene with Bogie, Misha and Tallie
Jolee at National Mill Dog Rescue
My journey producing the documentary, I Breathe, is over.  Another journey is just beginning.  Her name is Jolee.  She is a tiny Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that spent five years producing puppies.  That was her job and when she was no longer able to do it, she was "fired".  That was a good thing for both of us.  Jolee came into my life on November 6, 2010. We were both broken in a sense.  I had lost my beloved Tallie on October 17th.  It was very sudden and certainly unexpected.  That is another story for another time... Jolee was brought to Colorado from Missouri by National Mill Dog Rescue.  I respect the work the organization does and it is featured in I Breathe.  The director of National Mill Dog Rescue, Theresa Strader, knew how much I loved Tallie and how utterly devastated I was by her death.  She invited me to visit Jolee as well as two other Cavalier King Charles Spaniels they had brought back from Missouri.  Until now, I had been a tourist in the world of rescue adoptions.  I have seen many of the success stories and told a few of them in I Breathe.  I was about to experience life imitating art...
Jolee with Sharon, a volunteer at NMDR

Joelle, as she was named by volunteers at the rescue, was the tiniest adult Cavalier King Charles Spaniel I had ever seen.  She was way too thin, her coat was shaved and dull, but her little tail seemed to have a life of its own!  She made the decision for me.  She was going to be my dog.  Jolee needed surgery which would be performed at the same time she was spayed.  She had an inguinal hernia, likely from a rough delivery of her last batch of puppies, an umbilical hernia that was never corrected, and her teeth were in bad shape.  It was hard to leave her, but I knew she was in good hands.  One of the other Cavaliers that was rescued with her was missing an ear and had a grade 5 heart murmur.   Those afflictions didn't dull that little girl's enthusiasm either!  She wagged and wagged and looked so hopeful.  My furry household would have been too hectic for her, but I was happy to learn that she found her peaceful, perfect forever home!
Jolee getting ready to go home!
Jolee was rescued on Halloween.  A day celebrated with scary images became her independence day.  The scars of her lifetime as a "kennel dog", and "breeding stock" took their toll.   Her kneecaps are permanently luxated and she probably suffers from arthritis.  Her tiny toes are splayed from years of living in a cage with a wire floor.  She was horribly infested with parasites including hook worms, tape worms, round worms, and nasal worms that were robbing her of nutrition.  The lab that did the analysis hadn't seen many cases of nasal worms.  Her ears were a mess from years of chronic infections.  We continue to work through her problems and when she gazes at me with her grateful eyes,  I melt.  It is truly an honor helping her though the rough spots and teaching her what it means to be somebody's baby instead of merely a commodity.  Of course, for her that also means a few panicked visits to the vet and being poked and prodded and pestered quite a bit...

Jolee with the ever watchful Bogie
Jolee with her new "Grandmama"
I held her close on the ride back from National Mill Dog Rescue.  When we arrived at my Mom's, where we would be spending  a few nights, Jolee growled and snapped at Bogie.  He is my male Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and he has never encountered this type of behavior.  He was shocked!  Misha, my Siamese cat, threw her usual hissy fit.  When it was time for bed, I tried to put Jolee in her kennel.  She was having none of that.  She had spent too many nights locked up in a cage.  So I put her on the bed where she promptly peed all over the covers.  One clean set of sheets later, we tried again.  Jolee slept peacefully on the fresh sheets, but woke up at the crack of dawn.  Now I am not a morning person, period.  It took some time and many blurry eyed, abrupt wake up calls, but Jolee has discovered the joy of sleeping in and gives me a dirty look on the rare occasion I have an early morning.  Despite her time as a "mill dog", Jolee did not have any accidents at my Mom's house.  "Grandmama" has a magical gift with dogs.  They are always on their best behavior around her!

Jolee on "her" pillow
Jolee might be missing some teeth, have quirky habits and feet splayed from too many years of living on wire, but she is my show dog.  She continues to show me the lessons of healing, of forgiveness, of second chances, and the beauty of new beginnings.

Jolee gets the last laugh
To her previous owner:  Shame on you.  How could you have looked at that little face and not felt any tinge of compassion?  Shame on you for continuing to breed her and sell her puppies and not give her the proper medical care and attention that she needed and deserved.  Shame on you for selling a promise to the people who bought her puppies and delivering dogs that are genetically prone to orthopedic problems. Shame on you for not loving her and for sending her on her way once you used her up.  The money that you made from her puppies is probably gone, but her love is unconditional.  As she sleeps on my pillow every night and snores happily (and loudly!) into my ear, I hope she is forgetting every second she spent imprisoned by you.  She wins. You lose.

To my friends in rescue:   Thank you!  Your selfless work is amazing and so very important.  I initially summed it up in I Breathe as "the tears are part of what keeps them going."  Now I know what the other part of that equation is ... it's the laughter and the joy that these little ones that were someone's castoffs bring to their new people.   It's the lesson you will learn when you walk the walk of rescue.
My sweet Jolie went to the Rainbow Bridge at 4:15 am on December 18, 2013.  We did not have enough time together, but I will always cherish those three years.  What a precious, undemanding soul that learned to love and be loved.  She was a joyful little dog.  "JoJee", I kept my promise to you.... When I brought you home, I held you close and whispered in your ear that you would never, ever have another bad day.  You didn't.

I, on the other hand, had many bad days after you passed away.  One night, I was sitting on the porch of the house where I grew up, looking at the sky from the same vantage point I had for more than half a century.  That night, as tears poured down my face, I saw something I had never seen before.  A shooting star bolted through the sky, and for a split second, it appeared to suspend itself in time.  I stared at it and in that blink of an eye, I KNEW ... and it brought me peace. 

Thank you for being my dog and for the lessons I learned from your life.  RIP my girl.  Run free, Jolee.  Run free.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

I Breathe: Behind the Scenes

I am angry.  Actually, I am outraged.  Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”  We live in a great nation and I am proud to be an American.  However, a multi billion dollar industry makes me question how cruelty is slipping through cracks that appear to be as wide as the Grand Canyon.

I am referring to the commercial dog breeding industry.  I spent more than a year exploring this multi billion dollar business for the documentary, I Breathe.   My goal was to produce a balanced project from the viewpoints of professional breeders and rescue groups.  The cornerstone of journalism is accuracy and fairness.  It is important to remember that there are at least two sides to every story.  With that mission and objective in mind, I set out to research the topic.
Theresa Strader, director of NMDR

Rescue groups were more than helpful.  The people at National Mill Dog Rescue in Peyton, Colorado gave me access that is a journalist’s dream.  They understood from the beginning that this was not about choosing sides or being a champion for their cause.  My intention was to look beyond the “puppy mill” headlines and to investigate whether the professional dog breeding industry was a victim of propaganda by rescue organizations or if it placed the noose around its own neck.
During the production of I Breathe, three trips were made to Missouri which has more dog breeders than any other state.  After the first one, in which I was introduced to the business of dog auctions, I contacted some breeders and asked if I could videotape and profile their kennels for my film.  Shortly after my phone calls, I received an email that was circulating across the country.  It warned breeders about a producer that was making a documentary and instructed them not to talk to her.  It suggested the producer was working for the Humane Society of the United States.  Presumably, that producer was me.  I am not working for anyone, nor did any organization contract or pay me to complete this project.  After receiving this email, I did what any good journalist would do - I contacted Barb York, president of the Missouri Pet Breeders Association.  She put me in touch with Frank Losey, the attorney and lobbyist for MPBA.
Frank Losey
I explained to Frank that I wanted to profile a top notch large scale breeding facility in Missouri and he went to work trying to find one that would allow me in.  Ultimately, Frank Losey was unsuccessful.  I suggested that Barb York, who is also a dog breeder, would be an excellent person to showcase.  My request was denied because she was renovating her kennel.  I explained that would be part of the story, but she still refused.  It was frequently mentioned that in the past, breeders who were eager to cooperate with the media and proud of their profession were not portrayed fairly.  I repeatedly asked for links to those stories and no one I talked to was able to actually provide one.

French Bulldog gets emergency care
I did get a firsthand experience in Missouri with large scale commercial dog breeders.  I was invited to go along with a rescue organization to kennels where the breeders were surrendering dogs to them.  It was like stepping right into the video or one of the photographs that are all over the internet. Smelly, dirty, loud and reeking of desperation are some of the words to describe the conditions.  It certainly was not the “puppies in a basket” picture that is portrayed on so many websites.  It is a mystery how these USDA licensed kennels pass inspection.  Perhaps the problem lies in the number of investigators charged with visiting these facilities.   There are 82 inspectors nationwide for thousands of kennels.

Barb York, president of MPBA
On my third and final trip to Missouri, I met with Barb York in Wheaton while attending Southwest Kennel Auction, where a couple hundred dogs from Prairie Bark Kennels in Denver were being auctioned off.  I had previously spoken to Chad Hardin, the owner of Prairie Bark Kennels.  Chad had a sad story to tell.  He was a victim and was being forced out of business by rabid animal rights activists.  I spent a few hours on the phone with him prior to the auction and tried to convince him to let me profile his kennel, which he insisted was well-run, clean and that he had “nice dogs”.  He wouldn’t agree to that, so off to the auction we went.  The dogs did not look mistreated, but they did not seem particularly happy, either.  In fact, they had the same blank look in their eyes that I had seen repeatedly during my journey into the world of commercial dog breeding.  His dogs were sold to the highest bidders, with rescue organizations taking some of them.  More about my experience with Chad Hardin later…   Earlier in the day, I met with Bob Hughes, who runs Southwest Auction.  Again, I explained my agenda to him and asked for an interview and to allow cameras in during the auction.  He declined the latter request, saying breeders would not attend his auctions if cameras were present.  He told me he’d think about the interview and get back to me.  Barb York drove a couple of hours from her home to Wheaton to meet me in person.  I found her to be very pleasant, professional and she seemed like an honest woman.  I believed she would do her best in finding me a large scale dog breeder to profile, even though she was unwilling to invite me to her kennel.  Barb went to great lengths to describe the fear that breeders felt for anyone seeing their operation because of the “bad rap” they had been given by animal welfare organizations, especially the Humane Society of the United States.  She told me we must take “baby steps” in order for them to trust me since they had been wronged so many times before.

Joe Watson, VP of Petland
I returned to Denver with high hopes.  I was wrong.  Bob Hughes stopped returning my calls and emails, Barb York was unable to find a breeder willing to cooperate, Joe Watson, the vice president of Petland, never responded to my acceptance of his invitation to tour the flagship store in Chillicothe, Ohio, and the Hunte Corporation refused to honor my request for a visit to its facility in Goodman, Missouri.  The Hunte Corporation is a large scale puppy broker and according to reports, ships up to two thousand puppies each week to pet stores throughout the United States.  The website extends an offer to tour the facility, but clearly, I was not welcome.

So, I was back to square one.  I contacted Chad Hardin, who still had several dozen dogs at his facility in Denver.  He agreed to meet with me.  When I arrived, video camera in hand, he told me I could not shoot video because he was ordered out of the building.  At this point, I was debating whether this was an unlucky man who was truly a victim of overzealous animal welfare people, a very accomplished liar or a really dumb guy.  He agreed to let me into Prairie Bark Kennels, but not with a camera.  Once inside, what I observed was exactly why critics hammer this industry.  There were filthy, overcrowded cages, newborn puppies in with other adult dogs, and no sunlight filtering into the building.  It was a warehouse for dogs and their puppies. Chad was moving his operation to Arkansas, newborns and all.  I offered to contact some rescue groups to help him out, particularly with the puppies.  He declined.  I wonder how many puppies survived the trip and how many could have been saved if he would have accepted help, put the welfare of the dogs first and left some of his pride behind in that dark, dank warehouse…

Dawn Craig, kennel owner
Eventually, a dog breeder in Eastern Colorado agreed to a videotaped tour.  She had about sixty dogs and they appeared to be very well cared for and nicely groomed.  It was the complete opposite of what I witnessed at other facilities.  Yes, the dogs were in cages but they were clean and appeared socialized.  The owner seemed to really care about them and truly love dogs.  This kennel is not an example of the large scale facility that mass produces puppies.  I was not allowed in one of those with a camera.  It is mind boggling to fathom the energy it would take to properly care for hundreds of dogs and their offspring.  I would personally like to shake the hand of the person who can do that and give each one of the dogs the love and attention they deserve. 

Symposium in Denver 
Obviously, I was missing a key component of my documentary.  Not one person from the commercial dog breeding industry from the state of Missouri had spoken on camera.  As a last ditch effort, I invited them to Denver for a symposium.  To their credit, Barb York and Frank Losey attended.  Also in attendance were Bob Yarnall, president of the American Canine Association, two hobby breeders, a commercial dog breeder from Colorado, and two people from National Mill Dog Rescue.  The symposium was scheduled to last two hours and it ended up going four and a half.  All attendees agreed they deplore substandard kennels and they should be put out of business.  Barb York and Frank Losey insisted the majority of breeders in the state of Missouri were good ones who loved their dogs and spent thousands, tens of thousands of dollars on their care.  Barb York stated that she spends 24 hours a day in her kennel because she loves her dogs, most breeders do. 
Barb York
She also claimed that she had a vet bill she could retire on and that all of her dogs are loved.  In the end, they all agreed to work together to make the industry better.  To date, none of the participants from the breeding industry have been in contact with the rescue group that was represented.  In fact, shortly after, Barb York sent out an email instructing breeders not to give their dogs to rescue because they tell lies and besmirch the industry.

At this point, I had enough material to complete my documentary even though it fell short of my original vision.  It was written and ready to edit.  Then, I received a call from a rescue volunteer.  They had just returned from Southwest Auction in Wheaton, Missouri, where they paid one penny for an eight-year-old Miniature Pinscher.  They named him “Copper”. 
He was lame, had horrible teeth and a retained testicle which is genetic.  Copper should not have been bred.  The breeder who sold him for one penny was Barb York, president of the Missouri Pet Breeders Association.  Upon learning this, I contacted Barb.  She readily admitted to selling him for one penny because she was reducing her stock.  She denied that he was lame and said his teeth were like that when she got him two years ago.  She purchased him at an auction in Oklahoma and “only paid fifty bucks for him.” 
Barb York's email
After we hung up, I immediately got an email from her stating that she never got any puppies from him, just a lot of love.  I asked her for a clarification, since the auction listing claimed he was “proven”, which meant he sired litters.  I did not receive a response.  Later, I was invited to videotape Copper’s surgeries.  I watched as his poor hip, which was bone on bone, was repaired.  I cringed as fourteen of his horribly decayed teeth were removed.  One of them fell out by itself. 
Copper's surgery
I was angered as his retained testicle was fished out of his abdominal cavity and wondered how many of the male puppies he sired had the same genetic problem.  I am happy to report that Copper is doing well and has a family that loves him very much.  He is using all four of his legs, not hobbling on three which he did for Lord knows how long, and he can eat without pain.

A sad day at NMDR
Yes, I am angry.  I’m angry enough to publish a blog that is much too long with the hope that it will give insight into an industry that has been allowed to run rampant for too long.  I am angry that my good intentions were met with suspicion and deception.  I am angry that I wasted so much time in the pursuit of fairness and basically ended up empty handed.  Are there good breeders out there?  Yes.  Do they deserve to be painted with the same broad brush as substandard breeders?  No, but it is their responsibility to separate themselves from the pack and stop protecting people who don't deserve it.  They should welcome restrictions and changes to commercial dog breeding because it will eliminate bad kennels and ultimately, the good dog breeders will make more money for their quality puppies.  When it is time to retire their breeding dogs, they will be properly socialized and healthy.  The current laws clearly do very little to get rid of or punish the bad breeders.
Blind Bulldog released to rescue
There are far too many examples of terrified and sick dogs that have received little or no care to draw any other conclusion.  It is easy to blame others and to claim the role of victim.  My journey ends with the facts.  There is a reason for the secrecy that shrouds the commercial dog breeding industry.  As I said many times during the production of I Breathe, silence screams.  It usually screams a message of guilt.