Sunday, December 21, 2008
It means a lot of things but most often I would guess it's a word that immediately gives you the sense of safety, comfort, shelter and warmth. I might go so far as to say it could be one of the single most comforting words a person can know. I'm sitting in my home now, typing while Simon, the neighbors rescued/adopted dog I'm watching, vies for my attention...
With a bit of 1792 Ridgemont on the rocks sitting beside me (a recent splurge from having deposited my first paycheck in far too long) the typing continues. I don't make a lot of money and I live in a house that's smaller than the average Amurican's garage but it's my home. Think about what home means to you for just a second, give it some thought... and now imagine not having a home. No place where you know you are safe...where you know the hot water will come on and there's food in the fridge. Imagine no heat, no roof. No bed. Let that thought sink in for a second. These most basic things that we covet and protect and show off with pride to all we know - don't exist for every one of the animals I met last week. You might now be rolling your eyes thinking I'm going a bit over the top — but when you stand on the other side of a chain link fence and see the eyes of a dog who's done nothing wrong other than be born into a life where he was sold for a profit then chained to a post beside a broken down car in a yard of dirt and garbage until the family that bought him decided the thrill of having a puppy wore off and dumped him in the desert to die - look into those eyes and you will feel a myriad of emotions.
I'm not going over the top, trust me - the glass of bourbon is only half gone. Every day last week I looked into the eyes of dogs who's fate was all the same. Discarded, dumped off, abused, unloved and tossed away. Every one of them ended up at the same place - death row at the El Paso Animal Control shelter. Unknowingly hoping for a new home but most likely joining the 26,000 other dogs each year that are euthanized and thrown into an open pit dump.
But for a very select few either a caring and aware person adopts them or someone like Loretta who runs the Animal Rescue League where I was filming saves them. ARL is a NO KILL shelter so when they pick up a dog at Animal Control they make a commitment to that animal - whether it gets adopted or not - that it will have as close to a home as possible until it IS adopted.
I've spent a bit of time around impressive people. Worked on a Nike commercial with Michael Jordan for a day, was pulled aside by Steven Spielburg on the set of Minority Report and asked to join him for lunch with Tom Cruise. I even had Sarah Jessica Parker punch me on the set of Sex In The City. I have learned you don't gush over these people, you treat them like anyone else. You keep your job in mind and act like a professional. Always. You don't ask for an autograph and you sure as hell don't show your personal emotion no matter how ecstatic you are to be working with them. So I applied the same 'got a job to do' approach to Sherry, the rock-star animal behavior specialist on DOGTOWN who I would be following all week. We met at the airport and were promptly greeted by Loretta and Letty of ARL who explained the order of events for the week and which dogs they wanted Sherry to meet with. In particular was a troubled dog deemed 'not fit for adoption' named Yahtzee. This guy was raised from a litter found along a drainage ditch and never grew fond of people. Go figure.
There were one or two volunteers that Yahtzee had bonded with so there was hope. I had seen Sherry on previous episodes of DOGTOWN and have to say I was pretty impressed with her and her co-workers who's entire lives are dedicated to saving and helping animals. There's something I find damn cool yet unfortunately rare about that but I kept it to myself, implementing the "Jordan" rule and being the consummate professional. This is Sherry with one of Letty's foster kittens.
It was equally hard for me to not personally engage the animals. I had a job to do but when puppies and kittens are begging for your affection and attention how does one hold the camera steady and not reach out occassionaly?
On more than one occasion I broke my own rules.
And every so often I'd turn off the camera and risk missing a moment to hold someone. Even if just for a minute. The affection I gave those animals was the most appreciated time I've ever given to another living thing. I was often worried someone might see my eyes welling up when hearing the story of these animals.
Like the 3 legged Chihuahua that was drop kicked and left for dead on a desert road. The cousin of the person who discarded the little animal felt guilty having watched the abuse and called ARL. It was a miracle the dog survived, with multiple broken bones one of which was so bad the leg had to be removed. But now Willow is happy and hopping around Letty's home.
So I gave what I could while getting the job done. And I had the very appreciated opportunity to help 2 kittens out of a litter of 5 get more acclimated to people. Each morning I'd pick up Sherry who was staying with Letty and before departing I'd spend time with the kittens. It was the best way to start a day any camearman on assignment could ask for. This is Isa, one of the kittens that would initially run from people but I helped her get over the fear and realize not all people are bad.
One morning I got up at 4am to film the sunrise from half way up a mountain that flanked the city to the North. It was cold and the cop who told me I couldn't park there was even colder. So I set up the camera then drove around returning every 10 minutes to make sure the little red filming light was still on. The view gazes over the Rio Grande into Juarez, current murder capital of the world.
Another day begins and made me wonder what evil things were going on out there. I felt a nervous tension and kept my strained eyes fixed on every car that passed behind me.
I heard many stories of gruesome killings. It's not hard to imagine how people can be so indifferent to animals when they treat each other so brutally. Still it creases me that the culture of the entire area is - dogs, especially fighting breeds and Chihuahua's are a status symbol. Many people live in squalor and cannot afford much more than a tin roof over their head but sure as hell they have the dog chained up outside with the prerequisite "BEWARE OF DOG" and "NO TRESPASSING" signs posted by King Shit of Turd Island.
I drove down dirt alleys looking for the worst I could find - and didn't have to look far. Starving dogs roaming for food, battling at the fences of other dogs who had 3' of chain keeping them in their own filth. A pit bull here, boxer there, great dane and a poodle stuck in the same makeshift plywood house or 4 huskys all with unruly rastafarian coats of matted hair.
Back at the shelter I followed a great storyline of a couple of discarded Shih Tzu's whom Loretta saved from Death Row then had groomed, fixed and finally adopted. This is a shot from the OR...
All the while I remembered that every day was like this for Loretta and Sherry. Every day they were making a difference. Saving lives of animals left by indifferent, callous and selfish people. It was an interesting feeling of encouragement aside frustration. Sherry made her rounds, doling out treats, love and attention. She took a particular interest in a very cool and well behaved dog named Patches who would bring you a ball then sit and wait patiently for you to throw it. Sherry threw the ball then looked at me and asked, "Why would someone dump off a dog like that? That dog was someone's." Patches returned with the ball and Sherry asked, "Where's your people? Huh? Where are they?!"
Honesty, trust and friendship. Without a word spoken.
It wasn't until the last day when Sherry had departed for Utah and I returned to the shelter without a schedule or gameplan that it really started to hit me. Luckily I was alone with the dogs, many who's names I had learned and felt like I was beginning to bond with. I made the same rounds that Sherry had, distributing treats for good behavior, feeling like a rock star with all the attention those dogs were giving. When I arrived at Yahtzee's run I sat down and set the camera on the ground. Normally Yahtzee would be barking and charging the fence but maybe Sherry had made some progress. I sat and talked to the dog and it stopped shaking. I wanted to stay and keep talking - feeling that the more Yahtzee let down his guard, the more I gained. More what I don't know but it was something I don't often feel. Not success but more akin to honest trust. A new friendship. And the thought that maybe I did something good that morning.
I had a plane to catch so I said my goodbyes and made haste to the aeropuerto. I flew late into the evening and got back to this little house in Arlington at about 2am. I walked in and greeted Duck, looked around and smiled. I had a home.
And a kick ass Christmas tree!
So at the risk of sounding like Sally Struthers, if you're interesting in helping - you can. Right from your desk, right now. It's easy and if you have a last minute Christmas present you need to give - get original.
Donations for the
Animal Rescue League of El Paso - CLICK HERE
Donations for the DOGTOWN no kill animal sanctuary - CLICK HERE
Or get your butt down to the local animal shelter - even if all you give is an hour for distributing treats you will feel like the most important person in the world. Trust me, it's worth that hour.
Thanks for reading & have a safe & fun holiday
Posted by Jason Berry at 6:21 PM