Compassion for dogs, compassion for humans

Published August 13, 2006

We received dozens of letters about our July 30 story "Kennel Trash," about the seizure of 139 dogs, most of them pit bull terriers, in Polk County.

The story described a raid in which some dogs were found emaciated, sick or injured. (Breeder Hewitt Grant is awaiting trial on charges of animal cruelty, charges he denies.) St. Petersburg Times staff writer Kelley Benham and photographer Cherie Diez followed the dogs to Polk County Animal Control, where shelter workers proudly refer to themselves as kennel trash.

For several weeks the staff cared for the dogs, forming close bonds with some of the pit bulls even though they knew they would probably have to euthanize them.

Many readers responded emotionally to the tenderness and humanity the workers showed as they did their difficult work. Other readers were moved to express their feelings about the way society treats abused and unwanted animals. Here are some of their letters.

- MIKE WILSON, assistant managing editor/Newsfeatures

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I wanted to thank you for the wonderful article you and your colleagues wrote titled "Kennel Trash."

I work for the SPCA of Polk County. As one who has to make the decisions regarding euthanasia, I am glad that the piece gave folks a glimpse of what shelter workers have to endure on a daily basis - this is not just a job for most of us, it is a devotion. I cry every night about the things I have to do and the things I see, and then I get right back up in the morning and do it all again, hoping to comfort just one animal that day. My staff works for peanuts (barely over minimum wage) - we are funded entirely by donations - and they are the most dedicated workers I have ever had the privilege to work with. We are a close group - only a shelter worker understands what a shelter worker must go through.

We have space at the SPCA for roughly 300 animals. Last week we admitted 289 animals and adopted out 25 . . . you do the math.

Thank you again for such a moving piece.

- Suzanne Sousa, shelter manager, SPCA of Polk County, Lakeland

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I am a 37-year-old woman living in South Tampa and have never been so moved by a newspaper article. I had to read it in sections all day on Sunday, because it was too moving to read all at once. The portion about "Grandpa" going out in the yard with Karen before he died that night was so wonderful. You described him almost as a real person, and it makes you wonder what kind of life this dog must have led.

I am a college graduate, wife, working mother of two and owner of a Labradoodle named Charlie. I just wanted to thank you for keeping me aware.

- Paige Gibbs, Tampa

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I don't usually write to newspapers, but I had to write to you. My deepest and heartfelt thanks to Kelley Benham and Cherie Diez for producing this incomparable in-depth story. For 20 years I worked at an inner-city shelter. It took all of two weeks before I adopted a 6-month-old American pit bull terrier with a broken rear leg, and only a few years more until I established my own pit bull terrier rescue, Friends of Terriers. After 10 years I had to stop - I was getting 13 calls a day.

I always tried to bring home to people exactly what you did with this article: the ultimate innocence of the dogs, their painful and sometimes necessary end and the grief of those who genuinely love animals and into whose hands the dogs' final moments on Earth are placed. It is a horrible burden - yet the dogs who found their way to this Polk County staff are truly blessed.

- Jeanne Balsam, Stewartsville, N.J.

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"Kennel Trash" was so moving and so very human that it compelled me to write to you. I could hardly read it through my tears. You made me truly feel the compassion and dedication that Karen, Donna and Debbie have.

You showed us the difficulty and enormous burden they carried. The responsibility of these people to make these types of decisions is a heavy one, and not one that many people would be able to do. Seeing the headline and photographs in your article let me know that it was my responsibility to read the article, however difficult. It was the least that I could do. The least that anyone could do.

We all have a responsibility to be aware of animal hoarders, dog fighters, puppy mills and animal abusers and to prevent this abhorrent behavior so that people like Karen, Donna and Debbie do not have to carry this weight alone.

- Cara Castle, St. Petersburg

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I was inspired by your kennel trash story in your Sunday edition. I would like to share with you the story of our own pit bull named Milo.

A year ago Milo was a thrown-away dog, lost in an urban jungle with little chance of survival.

As my co-workers and I prepared to close the office, someone spotted him outside our door. His skin was torn, and patches of hair were missing from his body, replaced by what looked like a skin fungus. He was weak and moved slowly toward us. He was so malnourished it was hard to tell what breed he was. Businessmen from an adjoining office had gathered now with us and took turns guessing what he was. Chocolate Lab is what they decided on.

The longer I sat with him, the more I knew that I couldn't leave him there in his condition, aware that he could die in the night all alone. I volunteered to take him to an emergency vet.

The vet said his chances were good if they could get an IV in him and start him on several medications. He quietly lay there on the table waiting patiently as I decided his fate and the vet tech washed his wounds. I thought, "What have I gotten myself into?"

He has lived with my mother since that day. She nursed him back to health. His boxy head and strong, wide shoulders soon made it clear Milo was a pit bull. Fear inevitably followed, and the question came too: What if he is aggressive?

My mother worked with him, training him to obey her. Then his sweet, loving personality came out in abundance. He lives a rich life now alongside several cats and an aging German shepherd.

Some dogs in Milo's position are aggressive, and for the majority the only humane thing to do is euthanize them. Still, with the right family leadership, training and love, most can go on to become devoted companions. If you stay and watch Milo as he chases bugs around the pool and hides toys and bones in the yard, you may begin to see the truth in the adage: You can't judge a book by its cover.

- Amy Byrum

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It was a very moving article and while very well written, extremely difficult to read. As an owner of six beautiful American pit bull terriers, stories like this enrage me. I fight so hard to help fend off breed-specific legislation across the U.S. and the negative image portrayed to the public by many journalists. It saddens me to think of how many other dogs are out there living in these types of conditions and how many people honestly think the dogs are a danger to humans, rather than thinking that the humans are a danger to these dogs. While my dogs are trained in conformation and therapy work, spend their lives playing and being pampered, the dogs in this story wait for the end. Heartbreaking.

I want to thank you for reporting that this breed is not supposed to be human-aggressive and for the photos of the dogs showing affection to the animal control workers. It was a great story, but not one that I could read twice.

- Charlotte Barnett, www.legacyapbt.com, Hernando County

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Thank you so much for writing this article. It needs to be told in every newspaper. I am impressed with what I see as courage from your editors for even running this piece.

The plight of these dogs is by no means the only case like this, and more people need to know the truth. I feel desperately for those that work in the shelters and know they are doing everyone else's dirty work.

I can only hope that you continue your coverage to find out if Hewitt Grant is convicted of criminal charges, if he pays the county $38,305, and if he ever tries to own a dog again.

- Dianne Cottrell, Richmond, Va.