Since my new book The Dog Merchants was published earlier this month, I have been doing talks and book signings at libraries and bookstores all across my home state of New Jersey. Sometimes, only one or two people show up. Sometimes, it’s a packed room.
The past two weeks, at the public libraries in Chester and Randolph, New Jersey, the turnouts were strong—and amazing conversations happened among purebred and rescue advocates alike.
They are the kinds of conversations I’ve never seen happen, anywhere, among people who often won’t even stand in the same room together. They were conversations taking place between the kinds of people who will often scream at each other in ALL CAPS on Facebook. Whether they’re on the “rescue side” or the “breeding side,” most of these people tend to believe the other side is the enemy. They can’t even hear one another, let alone want to try to listen.
But in these two libraries, on these two nights, they all managed to come together.
And in the end, they were all thinking similarly and trying, very hard, to work with one another and be on the side of all dogs.
The Dog Merchants in Chester
Before my program in Chester officially began, I asked everyone around the room what kinds of dogs they had. I was making small talk, just trying to kill time before the official start.
Quite a lot of people in attendance had purebreds, and it was obvious that they knew one another. They had come as a group. At least a few were breeders. One woman, sitting in the back with her arms folded, asked me what kinds of dogs I had. The way she asked the question—her tone and her demeanor—made me feel like I was being challenged to a duel.
I explained how I’d grown up loving my family’s purebred Scottish Terrier, Doberman Pinschers and West Highland White Terriers, and that today, I have two beautiful mutts.
“That term is offensive,” she shot back.
“What term?” I asked.
“The term ‘mutt.’ The proper term is ‘All-American Dog.'”
I was familiar with the term “All-American Dog.” It is the name of a category the American Kennel Club introduced a few years ago, for mutts who compete in events like agility.
This woman was laying down the gauntlet at my talk, letting me know before I even uttered my first words that she was there to represent the American Kennel Club’s interests.
And this was minute one, before I’d even said a single word about The Dog Merchants book.
You can imagine how the next part of the story began to play out. I opened my talk the same way I always do: by explaining why I wrote The Dog Merchants book the way that I did. I talked about my previous dog book, Little Boy Blue, and about how at a lot of those talks and signings, I’d be standing there with my 2-year-old dog Blue, and people would tell me they couldn’t read books like mine because they were always too sad. The dog always died at the end.
“But … this is Blue,” I’d say. “Alive and well. See? He’s fine.”
They wouldn’t read the book. They just knew it would make them cry, because that’s what books about serious dog issues do.
“With The Dog Merchants,” I explain today, “I wrote a book that follows the money. It talks about how dogs are bought and sold and marketed, whether it’s for sale as purebreds or for rescue as mutts. I purposely wrote it in a way that won’t make you cry. Half my book is about purebreds, and half my book is about mutts. And you will see that I believe there are responsible rescuers and breeders–along with irresponsible rescuers and breeders. My message is that we, the dog lovers, have to stop being on opposite sides and all get together to support the sellers who are treating dogs responsibly, breeders and rescuers alike.”
Now, with a crowd like that one in Chester last week, my basic opening statement can soften the blows, but the antagonist’s first instinct is still to keep punching. Some of these women had come to have an argument, not a conversation, so the best that I could do was try to have a reasoned and polite conversation in response to whatever they said, however they said it.
After about 15 or 20 minutes of the verbal jousting, two other women in the room began to speak up. They had already read The Dog Merchants. One had grown up in a family that bred German Shepherds and gone on to volunteer for a local rescue group, and one owned a local pet-supply store where she was struggling to find responsible rescue groups to work with on in-store adoption events.
These two women began to answer the accusations of the women from the “purebred side” of the audience. The conversation was at times tense, but always respectful.
I watched in awe and did my best to encourage every moment where a standard “attack line” from the purebred or rescue side was shot down by the other, and to steer the conversation back to the notion of how dogs are bought and sold—which is neutral territory in this particular war of words. Nobody has ever written a book that comes at dog issues from the angle of following the money, so nobody has canned attack lines ready for that conversation. Dog lovers on both sides of the divide actually have to think a little before they speak, and when they start to think from this slightly different perspective, they ultimately realize they have more common ground than they previously believed.
By the time that 90-minute event in Chester had ended, the dog lovers in the room had discussed everything from whether U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations are sufficiently strong to protect dogs on commercial-breeding farms to ways that legislators might think about beginning to define the term “responsible rescue” in our society.
The woman sitting in the back eventually unfolded her arms, and she talked openly about some problems she believed exist in the breeding community. She also seemed to realize that the rescue-minded people in the room were dealing with some of the exact same problems.
When it was over, most of the people bought a book so they could learn more about the actual issues that so many dogs face. The librarian thanked me and said my talk was one of the most thought-provoking events they’ve had in a while.
She also congratulated me on maintaining a level temperament, which I have to tell you, is not an easy thing. My natural state is to be a fighter, too. An incredible level of tenacity is required to even get a book like The Dog Merchants published in the first place. I do know how to throw a punch. I’m simply choosing not to swing my fists, even when jabs are coming directly at me.
The Dog Merchants in Randolph
Last night, my talk at the Randolph library started out the opposite of the one in Chester from last week. This time, the crowd of people who knew one another and had come as a group was even bigger, but this time, they were from the rescue community. A few everyday dog lovers had also taken seats, mixed in among the many women wearing T-shirts from the rescue groups where they volunteered.
One lone woman sat in the back and listened quietly and intently, and she let all the rescuers who all knew one another say their piece, as they had clearly come to do. The lone woman listened, along with everyone else, to my explanation of Chapter One in The Dog Merchants, which tells the story of a day inside America’s biggest legal dog auction—where breeders and rescuers alike bid on the same exact dogs.
The lone woman watched as even the most knowledgeable rescuers in the room quieted down, because many of them were learning about a part of the dog business they had no idea even existed, let alone that was part of “their side” of the issue when you look at it from the angle of following the money.
Lively conversation then ensued, about real issues: about whether there are any meaningful regulations at all for small-scale breeders and rescuers; about whether there is any real way for consumers to figure out whether they’re doing business with a responsible breeder or rescuer; about whether and when it is necessary for public safety to euthanize some dogs in our shelters.
After about an hour or so of thoughtful debate and conversation, the lone woman in the back raised her hand to speak.
She said she has been volunteering at a shelter because she thought it was the right thing to do, but that the shelter workers all make her feel bad because she bought a dog from a breeder. She said her children have allergies and she wanted to protect their health, but she also didn’t want them to grow up without a dog, so she went to a breeder for the dog she has in her family, and then she volunteered at the shelter to help all the other dogs too.
This woman said the shelter workers told her she was a bad person, that she should have drugged her children to save a homeless dog even if her kids were allergic to him, that a dog died because of her decision to go to a breeder, that she was a horrible human being.
She looked me in the eye from across the room and said, “Your book came at just the right time for me, because you are not saying it’s bad to go to a breeder. You’re only saying it’s bad to go to a bad breeder.”
And I said, “Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying. Breeder is not a bad word. You are a good mother, and you are a good person. You wanted to protect your children and you wanted to have them grow up with a dog. Those are wonderful things, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
The lone woman started to cry.
Her eyes welled with tears because I’d had the simple decency to tell her that she was not a bad person for having sought out a hypoallergenic dog and then volunteered at a shelter.
And then several of the rescuers in the room turned to her and tried to comfort her. “She’s right,” they said of me. “You’re a good person. You care about your kids and you care about the dogs. You are trying to do the right things.”
And then a number of the rescuers started talking about how not all rescues are good, and how maybe the shelter where the lone woman was volunteering needed to change some of its ways too. Quite a few of the rescue-minded people in the room had horror stories to share of adoptions gone horribly wrong.
Many of those same people then thanked me not only for writing The Dog Merchants book, but also for building the website dogmerchants.com, where all dog lovers can rate breeders and rescuers alike, to help all of us dog lovers share information about which sellers we can trust.
And then we all talked about the pending “pet store puppy mill ban” in New Jersey, a piece of legislation that is highly contentious within the breeding and rescue communities, a piece of legislation that is meant to become a model for the entire United States.
We talked about the language that is actually in the “pet store puppy mill” bill, and what it would mean for good and bad rescuers, as well as good and bad breeders, right across the board. One very activist rescuer sitting in the front row in her rescue T-shirt—a woman who had been involved in promoting the bill’s passage—said she was going to go back and look at the language one more time, to make sure she’s actually supporting what she thinks she’s supporting. She wants to support the overall cause of rescue, which is great, and she wants to put what she calls disgusting “puppy mills” out of business, which is also great. But she doesn’t want to hurt the responsible breeders, and she doesn’t want to send rescue-minded buyers to the least responsible “rescuers” who move sick or dangerous dogs into unsuspecting people’s homes.
I agree with her 100 percent.
That activist woman had walked into the room at the start of last night’s talk with three pre-purchased copies of The Dog Merchants that she had asked me to autograph before the evening even began. She had asked me to dedicate one of them to the Morris County Board of Freeholders, the lawmaking body in this part of New Jersey, because she wanted them to know that local dog lovers care about these issues and will vote on them.
The librarian finally came in to kick us out because they were closing for the night. I received thunderous applause, and then a few people waited for me in the parking lot to talk even more.
We stood there last night, first in the haze of dusk and then in the full-on dark, in a library parking lot, talking about ideas that might help so many dogs on the breeding and rescue sides alike.
And I felt wonderful because I knew that, just maybe, a new ray of light was actually starting to beam awfully brightly. If I continue to do my job correctly in the mass media, while I am promoting my book, then that light just may dawn soon all across America.
If you’d like to read The Dog Merchants book, you can order a copy here.
If you’d like to add your voice to the conversation, feel free to comment on this blog, or come share your views on Facebook or Twitter.
If you’d like to schedule a live or Skype event in your own hometown bookstore, library or living room, then you can reach me here.