Ted Kerasote and I have two things in common.
We both lost our beloved older dogs to horrific diseases: his boy, Merle, to a brain tumor, and my girl, Murphy, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, to hemangiosarcoma.
We both are doing what we can to change those endings for other people and their dogs while we give our animal family members the best lives possible.
Kerasote certainly gained an audience with his book, Merle’s Door, which detailed his life in Wyoming with a stray dog he ‘adopted’ on a trip to Utah. It’s fascinating for me, whose outdoor adventures are limited to the occasional cherished trip to Yellowstone and the sidewalks of my beachside Seattle neighborhood, to read about (and be thrilled by) the adventures of an avid sportsman and his energetic dog.
There’s a reason I live with Cavaliers, well, one now (and a cat). The same reason Kerasote doesn’t.
Kerasote is one of the few writers whose books appeal to me because of their quality and heart: well, his dog books, as I haven’t read the others, but I’m hooked now, and will. His new one, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs, continues that fine tradition of smart, well-written, possibly researched-to-death books that educate as well as they entertain.
I know, he’s been criticized for mixing his personal life into his research, but that’s actually a tribute to a great writer.
And what awesome criticism it is! It’s saying that in a world that tends to ignore facts for fanaticism, Kerasote’s relentless research to find a way to choose a dog and then help it live a long life is so compelling that we don’t want the distraction of his personal life. We just want the facts—what he discovered in his quest to learn from the people who feed, treat, breed, train, and entertain our dogs as he explores the industries they work in. What a testament to his rigorous research and his writing that in a sound bite culture a serious book about dogs is both welcome and admired.
But I for one (and many) admire it more because he doesn’t hesitate to show us why it matters: he loves living with dogs, and, like most of us, wants them around as long as possible, so he’s trying to figure out how.
I know. I’ve spent the last 15 years on that one. I thought I had it all figured out—food, vaccinations, toys, green living, fun. I had a Cavalier most people encouraged me to give up on at 2. We figured it out, and she led a vibrantly healthy life until, at 13-1/2, we met hemangiosarcoma. It was not the end I was expecting.
Now, those who dismiss the personal in Kerasote’s books are forgetting that ideas and facts without heart and intelligence are how we got into the mess we’re living now with our companion animals. Kerasote’s anguish over his choices, his delight in his dog, their adventures in living, convince us that he isn’t just nerdy—he has heart, and that means he has real purpose. His research comes to life when he brings it home to show us how he searched for, and raises, Pukka. He’s a man in love with his dog and not ashamed to admit it. His choice between shelter and breeding, his well-reasoned decisions about spay/neuter, food, vaccinations, toys, exercise (yes, Merle’s real door makes me crazy, but I understand it in places like Wyoming), all come together in a book as compelling and important as Goldstein’s The Nature of Animal Healing, Schoen’s Kindred Spirits, Frost’s Beyond Obedience, and Clothier’s Bones Would Rain from the Sky.
Without heart the facts make no difference. He’s smart, educated, passionate, and clear about what it takes to create healthy dogs. Unfortunately, it’s what it takes to live with dogs in our complex world, and why we’re losing them.
Kerasote is clear about what he thinks, and why. He appears to be someone who can be a leader in the tough business of having quiet, serious, painful conversations about how we will get our dogs healthy and long-lived. About what is, and is not, working in our lives with dogs.
Kerasote is living the human-animal bond. There is no higher compliment, but it’s not enough.
I used to think that love alone could bring all of us together to save our dogs—the vets, shelters, breeders, suppliers, families. But I was wrong.
People criticized me for buying a purebred dog, and when she developed health problems, they swore it was breeding that caused them.
It wasn’t. It was me listening to crappy vets—me being away from dogs for a dozen years and overwhelmed by the new world of animal care. It was me agreeing to bad food, repeated vaccinations, paternal dogma, and early spay/neuter.
It was confusion over repeated illnesses that made no sense to me that finally woke me up. It was vets saying it was routine for dogs to take multiple antibiotics before they were 2, and my horror at their complacency, that made me dig deep for better answers.
It was me deciding to figure it out on my own, firing half the vets in Seattle, and turning to research, and Goldstein, and Dodds, and alternative vets and home-cooked meals. I already had the green home.
Now I think that everything I did might have made no difference because I, too, was the one who believed them when they said early spay/neuter made animals healthier, that waiting until they were sexually mature was too risky.
And I was the one who said goodbye to my beloved when her spleen ruptured from hemangiosarcoma. You said it in your book, Ted: “spayed females have been found to have five times the risk of intact females for developing hemangiosarcoma.” Did Murphy get cancer because I spayed her early? It’s possible: there were no other risk factors, none. Even if there were, because it’s possible, the practice is wrong—cruel, heartless, stupid.
So now what?
Here’s the problem: the average person just wants to have a happy life with their dogs, but it’s increasingly difficult to do that. What Kerasote and I have done to create healthy lives for our dogs isn’t just intellectually challenging—it’s time-consuming, expensive, frustrating, and terrifying (if you don’t think that, you have never seen a cancer ward). It’s more than the average person can do, more than they should have to do. Why? Partly because we live in a complex world, and everything that makes it easier can be suspect, from food to toys, as Kerasote so vividly demonstrates.
But also because of agendas, and those we can do something about.
So let me tell you a story.
In the last year, I have quietly and earnestly talked to people about early spay/neuter and their animals.
I am very aware that I have two ticking time bombs in my house: my Cavalier boy, Alki, and Grace the Cat. I shudder when I think of their potential future, one they wouldn’t have had to face if I had known better. Well, people say, they could still get cancer from a number of things, including bad luck. But why add a risk factor to the mix? Why not trust people with the facts, let them decide what is best for their animal families before they become animal families?
I spayed and neutered my kids because I thought that it would make them healthier. The dogs were from breeders, the cat was through a local rescue group. None of my kids came from a place that forced me to do early spay/neuter or thought so poorly of me they mutilated my animals before they trusted me with them. In fact, both the breeders were there for me in Murphy’s last weeks: when has a shelter representative sat with anyone in a cancer ward?
The truth is, they don’t care. Here’s the proof.
Remember those conversations I’ve had with people in the last year? I quietly explain to them that I lost my oldest dog to cancer. Their eyes fill up, they express condolences, and then I quietly say, “Did you know that cancer is linked to early spay/neuter?”
They look at me, then reach down and wrap their arms protectively around their dogs, horror and fear and tears in their eyes. It dawns on them, you can see the confusion. They say, “But we’re supposed to do that to reduce overpopulation.”
“I bought that, too,” I say. “But has your animal ever been unsupervised? Does that even make sense? Don’t we all take care of our animals?”
They stop, then, sobered. Which allows me to mention the other things that can come from early spay/neuter: obesity, thyroid disease, hip dysplasia, arthritis, incontinence, behavior problems, cognitive issues. They ask questions, I answer them, as best I can.
One man looked at his gorgeous golden retriever and insisted he neutered him for his behavior issues, then, with a frown, said: “Cancer.”
Yes, cancer is a huge issue for goldens; Murphy lost two golden friends from the same family in her long life. I could see this man thinking about his decision. “Well,” he said quietly. “I could’ve done better training.”
So here’s the thing: every single person—well, everyone who was not in the animal welfare business, but a regular person like me, and Ted, and probably you—every one of those I’ve had this conversation with has left saddened and wiser. I hear back from them: how they’ve told their friends, who are now making different choices, ones that fit their animals and not politics.
The revolution has started.
But there are others. One day I talked with a well-known, highly regarded behaviorist, who glanced away when I said I’d lost Murphy to cancer, that she had no other risk factors but early spay/neuter, that all the things I’d questioned about it years ago turned out to be true. The vets, the shelters, they’re wrong.
Get ready to scream.
The behaviorist couldn’t look me in the eye. Instead, she straightened and said, “Your dog was old enough. There’s a larger purpose.”
Yes, she really said that.
And the purpose? Reducing pet overpopulation. Well, that’s a long conversation, and as Kerasote points out, as I well know, it’s involved.
But the truth is, what we’ve done for 40 years hasn’t worked. It’s complex, as Kerasote demonstrates in a discussion of American poverty and animals (and here I thought it was partly our easy culture), and it’s mindset, as he shows with European pets. It’s also the odd American stereotype that people who ‘rescue’ are heroes, including those who dump their unsold mixed-breed puppies at the shelter, or the shelter administrators who claim there aren’t real ‘breeders,’ encouraging people to buy a shelter dog for $250 – $350, mutilation included.
Welcome to the new puppy mill—your local shelter or rescue organization, and those big name ones we’re supposed to worship.
This is a huge discussion, one that needs to move beyond bitterness and divisiveness to claim love as its heart and soul. Love for ourselves and for our animals and for those who go unclaimed. What we know is that 50% of our dogs over 10 get cancer, that cancer is an epidemic in our country and no one will admit why or knows all the answers (even me), that millions of our animals suffer from chronic diseases that reduce their quality of life and are linked to early spay/neuter, that people get weepy because they want a pet but can’t afford veterinary care. I see this, I hear this, and I am saying: it’s past time to change direction.
Early spay/neuter is stupid. Cruel. Wrong. It’s politics and brainwashing and ‘father knows best’ and it’s time to stop it.
Remember the behaviorist? Remember what she said, without being able to look me in the eye?
My dog was old enough.
There’s a larger purpose.
Well, a hundred million years would not have been long enough with the dog I claim as soul mate.
Hatred is not a larger purpose. I ask you: why are we trusting these people?
So here’s what I say, to Kerasote, to all of us. Ted, you were brave enough to call for people to vote with their dollars and quit buying hazardous toys and supplies. But you failed to call for an end to early spay/neuter and the system that supports it. Tubal ligation and vasectomy—interesting. Chemical castration: sorry, I’m green, and so are you, and we’re supposed to be eliminating chemicals in our kids, not adding them.
And you’re wrong when you say we can’t change public opinion. I’m already doing that, in my small way, without the audience you have. And we can change the system, the mandatory laws, the spay/neuter mindset that has lobotomized the animal welfare movement.
It’s easy. We’re Americans. We vote with our dollars.
We simply shut them down. I tell people not to go to a shelter or rescue organization that takes this choice away from them and their vet. Not to buy from a pet supply store, or a food manufacturer, or use a trainer, or behaviorist, or animal communicator, or vet who is still spouting that same old nonsense. Don’t give them your business. Tell them why.
Just say no. To Best Friends, to the Humane Society. Don’t give them your money, your heart, your trust. Shut them down.
Will we make enemies. Yep. Will it matter? Absolutely. Will animals die in the meantime, before they change? They already are dying. Ask Ted to tell you about Merle. Ask me about Murphy. Read even one of the heartbreaking emails I’ve received in the last year as people search for answers to canine cancer and find my blog about Murphy, especially the entry on our visit to the veterinary surgeon. Remember that Kerasote wrote this book in part because real people who love dogs wanted to know why they were losing them too soon.
Money counts when love is blocked, and money will talk here.
We’ll shut these people and their agencies all down, and quickly, dare I hope in less than a year? We’ll shut down all those systems that have become the new, cruel, terrifying puppy mills. And build real loving humane organizations from what’s left.
Love will lead the way.
I know that Murphy’s won’t be the last face of canine cancer. But perhaps hers will be the beginning of the end.
Ted, you have the platform. Use it. Take these groups off your website. Support yourself—the love and smarts you’ve demonstrated in your wonderful book.
And to everybody else out there: buy Kerasote’s book. Read it. Go back to it. Live it. It matters. He matters. And when he wakes up and takes on that last bit of cruelty and insanity, our animal families will thank him for it.
As we vote with our dollars.
Now, here’s my thanks for a beautiful moment in the book, where Kerasote says that he was determined to make his last days with Merle wonderful by “unwrapping each day as if it were a gift.” That’s what I’m doing now, when I tell people about Murphy, when I work in my intuitive practice. Each day with our beloveds is a gift. Value it, value them. Find the right people to help. Ted, you’ve helped, you are a gift. Thank you.In memory of Murphy Brown Fritz July 16, 1998 – March 8, 2012
© 2013 Robyn M Fritz