Freelance Writer
Factory Animals: Some are born there, some never make it out; exploring the puppy mill business
12.04.08 | 1 Comment
Category: Animal Activism

The dog pawing the bars at the pet store is undoubtedly a cutie. As a youngster, it was always fun to browse the store and giggle at the adorable pets for sale, hoping our parents would say, “OK, we can have him.” You didn’t think about where they came from. You didn’t think about the fact that the cunnin’ Shitzu or Cocker Spaniel unfortunately represented and perpetuated a massive, lucrative, cruel pet trade. Neither did our parents. Then, we didn’t know much about where these pets came from. Like with marshmallows, we’re largely ignorant to their origin.

As the ASPCA reports on its Web site, “that cute little puppy most likely came from a large-scale, substandard commercial breeding operation, commonly known as a puppy mill. Puppy mills usually house dogs in overcrowded and often unsanitary conditions, without adequate veterinary care, food, water and socialization. The breeding stocks at puppy mills (possibly your new puppy’s mom and dad) are bred as often as possible in order to increase profits. Unlike your lucky puppy, the mom and dad will probably never make it out of the mill.”

The standards are changing, but not enough. Not enough to stop the flow of purchases that fuels this problem, and not enough to shut down the countless puppy mills that supply these stores or many “kennels” that are really just pet stores with attractive masks.

The puppy mill (as well as mills that breed birds and other smaller animals) problem is a frustrating and seemingly insurmountable one at times, but there’s no giving up; too many animals will suffer as a result. “While many people are aware of the existence of puppy mills,” said Monica Engebretson, project director of Animal Protection Institute, based in Sacramento, California, “few people realize that birds, reptiles and other animals are also frequently produced in mill-type situations where many, many animals are kept in barren cages, and under horrible conditions in order to churn out animals for the pet trade.”

“One doesn’t need to be an animal rights extremist to be horrified by this sort of treatment,” echoed Leigh Grady, who runs the Sterling Animal Shelter. “To treat living beings so crassly, so objectify them as ‘things’ and see only their financial worth is morally wrong.”

The mills, graphically explored in a variety of high-profile investigations for TV and newspaper coverage, are indeed that horrific. With a remarkable number of animals jammed into small crates, devoid of socialization and loving treatment, the mother dogs are usually bred their entire life in captivity, sitting in their own filth and unable to run – or “live.”

Deborah Howard is president of the highly visible Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS), a national animal welfare organization dedicated to protecting companion animals that has a strong focus on researching and investigating pet stores, puppy mills and breeding facilities. As it states on the Web site, “since 1995, CAPS’ focus has been on the USDA’s failure to enforce the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) as it pertains to commercial dog breeders and brokers. In order to document AWA violations, CAPS investigates federally licensed facilities in the Midwest (more than 100 since 1997).”

“Puppy mills still exist because there is still a demand,” says Howard. “People buy on impulse. There are payment plans.”

She started her crusade in 1989 after wandering into an Atlanta franchise of the Massachusetts-based Doctor Pet Center, which had more than 300 stores across the country. “First of all,” says Howard, “I was appalled by the conditions. I saw a lot of sick puppies there, and it wasn’t’ too clean, so I decided to find out where they got the puppies from and then I found out about puppy mills.”

Backed by her background in public relations and a law degree, she dug further into the puppy mill business. Her findings fed an ongoing passion to stop them.

She’s not alone. Large animal rights organizations are devoting a lot of energy and funds toward this issue. Stephanie Shain, who is the director of outreach for the Humane Society of the United States, directs the Stop Puppy Mills campaign for the HSUS. Involved in all aspects of the work on mills, it includes supporting legislation to better regulate factory style breeding, working on a billboard campaign, educating puppy buyers and working with grassroots activists.

“There are so many issues facing animals today,” said Shain, “and so many abuses that could be prevented if more people knew about them. I think what makes the effort to stopping puppy mills so important and unique is that it is the systematic abuse of animals who are one of the most beloved in our country. The same people who spend hundreds of dollars on clothes or beds or leashes for their best friend may also have supported a business that looks at neglect of animals as business as usual.”

Howard and CAPS have been involved in a multitude of media investigations, jumpstarted by an undercover investigation for 20/20, as well as a number of pet shop protests throughout the US and Canada in close to 40 cities in 1990. Her grassroots efforts and PR work now make her a popular source for media coverage, namely a two-part feature on “Dateline” in 2000 that had the second most responded to story in the history of the TV show. “We got so many emails,” said Howard, “that it took me three weeks, seven days a week, 12 hours a day, to answer them. People love animal stories. They are really affected by them.”

Now, CAPS is shooting its arrow at the USDA, which in charge of inspecting the federally licensed facilities in two classes: A and B. The A dealers are the actual breeders and puppy mills. The B dealers are the brokers who sell the dogs to the pet stores. Working with a law firm in DC, CAPS has a bevy of lawyers working pro bono lobbying in an effort to change the standards by which the USDA operates. “Sometimes, we go in a day after an inspector goes in [from the USDA],” said Howard, “and has said there are no violations and we find plenty. And sometimes, even when they find one, they don’t go back to see if corrections have been made.”

Shain adds, “It is important to understand that these standards [that the USDA ensures] require the bare minimum to keep these animals ‘healthy.’” These requirements include the size of the cage, that animals should have food free of bugs, that they are provided water and veterinary care. There are no laws that ensure that the dogs ever be taken out of their cages or given attention or affection. “The dogs are treated like little breeding machines,” said Shain. “Additionally, enforcement is pretty poor. There are about 100 inspectors nationwide and about 4,000 breeding operations. Those 100 inspectors are also charged with inspecting animal research facilities, circuses and other exhibits that involve wild animals. The math isn’t complicated.”

The puppy mill industry is well funded, and Shain reports those mills are working harder than ever to ensure that its way of treating dogs is protected. Conversely, every effort is being made, mightily, by those who want to protect these animals, but like the puppy mills in question, it is like throwing tomatoes at a well-armed bully with a lot of friends. “No decent breeder would ever keep his or her dogs the way puppy mills do,” says Shain, “in cages for their entire lives, churning out puppies as fast as they are physically able, and much to their physical detriment.”

Additionally, the USDA has never required dealers that sell animals directly to the public to apply for licenses, regardless of its size. The Animal Welfare Act excludes retail pet stores from its minimum requirements. It’s the USDA’s position that these dealers are retail pet stores. What does that mean? Well, someone could keep hundreds of dogs in cages and bypass the licensing procedure (however lame that procedure is) because they sell directly to the public. More and more, Shain says, this selling is being done on the Internet. There are thousands of puppy mills operating that no one is even looking at. The current laws are insufficient, argue people such as Shain. Like animal cruelty laws in most states, they don’t do the job.

So one would ask – why the lax attitude? Why does this look-the-other-way approach seem to be prevalent regarding the laws that supposedly “protect” these puppy mill animals? “They are looking at agricultural interest,” said Howard. “They think of dogs as livestock, and it’s a very bureaucratic agency.” CAPS meets with the agency occasionally, namely with Dr. Chester Gibson, the deputy of APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees animal care). They made progress when they connected with the former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, who was appalled at the situation and called in Dr. Gibson for action. “Very little was done,” said Howard. “It’s really hard to shut these places down because, first of all, they are federally licensed, and local authorities don’t want to get involved. Almost all of these places are in rural locations in small tight-knit communities where breeders know the authorities. The USDA just doesn’t do anything. We can present evidence to them. They say, ‘Yes, we are interested in seeing evidence.’ But now, they claim they cannot tell us what happened [with the evidence].”

Now, says Howard, concerned citizens are forced push its requests on these violations via the Freedom of Information Act, a tedious and often fruitless endeavor.

Howard says soon, they are headed to Washington (for the eighth time) to lobby for a congressional oversight hearing, hoping to instigate the Governmental Accountability Office to launch an investigation of their own. “It’s a way of looking at government management to get them to look at the USDA,” says Howard, who is opposed to breeding in general – reputable or not. “Why would you want to contribute to the pet overpopulation. It really bothers me.” I hate to see animals killed, and millions of them lack homes. I don’t understand this obsession. Why do people have to have puppies? They grow up so fast. I love mixed breeds. A rescue dog usually is better because they know you did something special for them. I don’t understand why people need to buy a purebred dog.”

Being affected and reacting in a proactive way are two different things. Even those with the kindest of hearts can be unaware of where an animal may come from that is at a kennel or pet store. Either that, or they repress the knowledge and convince themselves that it is ok.

And actually, Massachusetts is not a puppy mill state. We don’t technically have any here. Most, experts say, operate in the Midwest. Pennsylvania, particularly Lancaster County, is also known for puppy mills. “They have really bad facilities for the most part,” says Howard. “There are a lot of Amish bred puppies. We’ve investigated a number of facilities in Lancaster, and Holmes County in Ohio. Holmes is actually a lot worse.” There are mills located in Oklahoma and New York, as well. The problem is mushrooming as some operate with 20-30 dogs in cages in a garage, unloading the pups through the Internet or ads.

The puppy mills are not in this state, but the puppies bred there definitely are. In fact, says Howard, more than 90 percent of the puppies in pet stores come from mills. One of the “tricks” these stores use on customers is to argue that they are a “USDA licensed facility.” We’ve covered that one. That means you are buying from a puppy mill. “Pet Land really twists the truth,” says Howard. “I’ve seen a lot of their paperwork. They don’t list the broker’s name. They only list the breeder. They want you to think they buy directly from the breeders. That’s why your puppy costs so much; there are several layers involved.” Howard has CAPS members who work undercover at pet shops and says many are given training manuals to educate the worker on what to say to the customer who asks, “do these puppies come from puppy mills?”

In Massachusetts, where a “puppy lemon law” does exist (but is weakly enforced and little known), there are numerous offenders. Essentially, if it is a pet store, chances are you should stay away. And many kennels position themselves as responsible rescues or breeders, but in essence are pet stores in disguise. Laughlin Kennels in Oxford, for instance, last year went through a nasty dispute with Cathy Denaris and Tina Mastrototaro, who say the kennel adopted to them a very sick puppy. The two, who had to adopt the puppy to another family because they couldn’t chase the medical costs, maintain a campaign online and in local papers to warn others of Laughlin. While people such as Shain are reluctant to name names (though others will – just poke around the Internet), the bottom line is that when looking for a new puppy, never buy one unless you see with your own eyes where this dog came from, and that it is humane.

“Many people think that if they don’t have a puppy mill down the street,” says Shain, “then they don’t have a puppy mill problem. Those people couldn’t be more wrong. Puppy mills deliberately operate far from the public eye. Walk in to your local pet store and ask to see the paperwork that comes with the puppies. What you will likely see is that the puppies have been shipped across the US – and just a few weeks of age – to be sold in that swanky pet store.”

Holly Sternberg is the founder of www.petstorecruelty.org, which is both the name of a Web site and a group based in Washington DC determined to end the sale of animals in pet stores: that includes puppies, kittens, rabbits, birds, ferrets, hamsters and all over living creatures. With energy directed at large conglomerates such as Debby’s Pet Land, the group runs an extensive list of companies to boycott on its site – including Massachusetts – that are padded with customer testimonials urging others to resist buying from these stores.

Sternberg became involved in animal protection in 1980, after her image of the US being animal-friendly was shattered while working on her BA in Neurobiology and Animal Behavior at Cornell. “We feel that animals should not be treated as merchandise,” says Sternberg. “Some of these animals, such as birds, are still wild, and should not be kept in captivity at all. We let people know about the horrible ongoing homeless animal crisis and encourage them to help stop the killing by adopting their animals from shelters and rescue groups.” (Note: Sternberg does not imply that bird owners should just open a window and let their pet free. She is arguing that birds should not be captured in the wild and forced into captivity, or bred into captivity, as their complex behavior demands that they fly and flock – a subject for a later issue of Pets!)

There is often the argument of “but I want to save the pet in the store.” But what people need to comprehend, say experts, is that saving that one only kills 100s because it keeps the business alive. With all the lobbying, fighting with the USDA to do its job and trying to shut down pet stores, the answer really lies with the animal buying public. “People need to stop buying the puppies,” says Shain. “It really is that simple.”

Psychologically speaking, people don’t want to believe that the person selling that adorable puppy would lie about where it came from. Furthermore, when the buyer ends up with a sick – or dead – animal, they often are too drained to take legal action. Fighting these companies, and mills, takes so much energy that some have gotten tired of fighting. But thankfully, there are still strong-willed folks on the frontlines.

We are making strides in terms of the public’s knowledge of these places. However, in response to the buyer’s awareness, those who profit from the puppy mill business are developing more savvy tactics to deceive the public. A newer approach is for mills or stores to place ads in community newspapers to give the impression that it is a small, conscientious breeder.

“I am never surprised,” says Shain, “when I talk to someone who has bought a puppy who seemed healthy in the store but who died soon after, and they tell me that the store promised them the puppy came from a good breeder. I have yet to see a case when that is true. In my experience, they have always come from a mass breeding operation. A puppy mill. If you are buying a puppy mill puppy, you are part of the cycle of puppy mill abuse. Your money keeps your puppy’s mom in a cage for her entire life.”

Think about that, and head to a shelter next time.

SIDEBAR: One reporter’s findings

Andrea LePain, investigative producer and co-managing editor for NECN (New England Cable News), spent six months investigating a pet store in Stoughton, MA, called Missy’s Puppyland. The investigation was spawned by several customers complaining to the station that the dogs from the store were sick or genetically defective. Some had incurred thousands of dollars in vet bills.

What she found was surprising, and the result even more surprising.

LePain started her investigation at the Bureau of Animal Health, with which she filed a public records request. It produced a long list of consumer complaints, and Missy’s Puppyland had been cited numerous times for violating state health rules. LePain wanted to check this store for herself. Hidden camera in tow, she noticed some of the dogs for sale to be skinny, timid and unusually lethargic. Others, she adds, had diarrhea, and there was a strong smell of urine permeating the store.

“I went a step further and bought a dog so that I could have it checked out by a vet,” says LePain, “but when I went to pick the dog up, the store owner told me it was too sick to go home with me. So I ended up getting a different dog, and I took that one directly to the vet. The vet found a couple of problems – something with the dog’s eyes and its tail. He also said the puppy was underweight and not breed standard. When he heard I got it from Missy’s, he said he had treated many dogs from that store and had just seen bad health in general.”

Ultimately, LePain confronted the store’s owner, Linda Snow, asking for answers about the problems related to her store. She denied any issues. Interviewing the Bureau of Animal Health produced few answers either. “They basically said all pet stores have problems,” she said, “and they were trying to work with Missy’s rather than shut her down.”

Generally speaking, LePain says people understand what a puppy mill is, and assume that some pet stores get their dogs from such places. However, seeing that cute pup in the store erases this knowledge –at least for the time being. “They can’t resist buying it,” she says, or they feel sorry for the dog and buy it in an effort to – in their minds – rescue it.”

LePain’s story generated dozens of viewers calling or writing to NECN, stating that they were angry that Missy’s – and stores like it – were allowed to stay open. Protests even erupted from the story. Others wrote to the Bureau, trying to urge them to close Missy’s. “To my knowledge, Missy’s is still up and running,” says LePain. “It appears the Bureau issued them a new license this year.”

SIDEBAR TWO: Important Web sites

Confused about where to go, or want to know more about the action being taken regarding puppy mills and the stores who buy from them? There are countless sites focusing on this issue. Do Google all you want, but here are some to click on:

http://www.hsus.org/pets/pet_adoption_information/how_to_find_a_good_dog_breeder/

www.stoppuppymills.org

www.puppybuyersguide.org

http:www.consumeraffairs.com/pets/lemon_ma.html

Attorney Sarah Luick, Animal Champion: Because Animals Should Have Their Day in Court, Too
12.04.08 | 2 Comments
Category: Animal Activism

Appeared as monthly column, “People Making a Difference” in Pets ! Magazine

The world grinds slowly. Social consciousness chugs along so that sometimes we barely sense the advances. This frustrates those passionate for change; Passionate about injustices that, though they seem so blatantly, well, wrong, aren’t addressed with appropriate speed. It can get discouraging, no matter what the war.

Animal lovers crave some good news from the battleground. They want to hear that the wheel is turning. That we are evolving.

We are, especially if you listen to advocates such as Sarah Luick, a Massachusetts attorney with a penchant for animal law.

As a kid, Luick would keep tabs on animals in her neighborhood and make sure they got home safely. She’d watch birds and marvel at them taking off and going about their business. She didn’t want to dominate them. She only wanted to protect them.

She was destined to protect them. As a board member with the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and the Massachusetts Animal Coalition, she’s on the frontlines in the battle against cruelty. And though she says we’ve got some serious hurdles to clear, people are becoming more intolerant of injustices against animals.

“It does frustrate me,” says Luick, “but there are changes. I think the media even covering cruelty cases leads to outrage often. Just having it in the public view has made changes in how we view our pets. We are beginning to see changes, even with information on how cruel we can be with food animals and lab animals. We’re starting to see that industries using these animals have to pay attention more than they ever had to in the past.”

Luick serves on the board for the Massachusetts Animal Coalition, which is meant to gain working relationships and networking for those who do companion animal work as well as feral cat work (and much more – visit www.massanimalcoalition.org for lots of information). And since the early ‘80s, for ALDF, which is an organization that provides free legal work for any prosecutor across the country trying an animal cruelty case, Luick has been assisting with expert legal advice to give their cases the best chance at victory.

As a child, watching those birds in flight, she might not have been able to express it as eloquently as she can today, but Luick was always infuriated by humans‘ disgraceful treatment of animals. “I don’t understand why society should ever allow pain and suffering and depravation of any creature capable of feeling pain,” she says. “At the very least, you have to justify it through the balance of interest tests. I always wondered why I didn’t go down the same route as rescue people. But to me, this is about people. Why is this acceptable? If you can’t use people the way you use animals, how can you get away with it without anyone questioning it?”

In Massachusetts, if the District Attorney deems an animal cruelty crime a felony, someone convicted of the crime may be punished with up to five years in jail and a $2,500 fine. Many agree that the law should not only be stricter, but more strongly enforced. Cruelty laws tend to be “interesting” in that they are rather vague, which sometimes can be a strength in court, and sometimes a weakness.

Luick says that’s where ALDF helps, and where those in law enforcement are coming around. To her, attention is slower to come around to what she calls “institutionalized cruelty,” such as puppy mills, laboratories and farms. “We really do have more of an ethic in regard to our companion animals,” says Luick, “in that we won’t accept animal cruelty. That means local police departments can’t ignore it either, or it will be on the news that they have. I think the difficulty comes in where you’re talking about a large number of animals. The remedy to prevent it from continuing or happening again needs new direction and new thought and new cooperation between all organizations.”

Growing up in Boston, Luick attended Suffolk University, and specialized in animal law. It was a rarity 25 years ago, but thankfully, more common today. Now, more law schools have courses in animal law. More bar associations have animal law committees. And it’s becoming standard for law schools to have student groups involved in animal laws. In years to come, as these students enter the work force, the change will only positively infiltrate the system. The animals of the world are quietly applauding.

But it’s something Luick knew long ago. She’s glad others are coming along, and is full of faith. “I think because I’m an attorney,” says Luick, “I have confidence that our legal system is really meant to address and find a remedy for what are clear and obvious wrongs.”

For more information on the Animal Legal Defense Fund, visit http://www.aldf.org/.

SIDEBAR: The state of animal cruelty

In February of this year, the ALDF compiled statistics for 50 states to report on how each fared in its laws to protect animals from cruelty and neglect. Stephan Otto, ALDF’s director of legislative affairs, reported that while each state had room for improvement, some states were clearly stronger than others in their concern for animals.

Here’s what they found.

Comparing overall strength and comprehensiveness

States with the best laws
California
Illinois
Maine
Michigan
Oregon

States with the worst laws
Hawaii
Idaho
Kentucky
North Dakota
Utah

The top tier (the states that treat their animals the best): California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Vermont, Virginia

The middle tier: Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee

The bottom tier: Alaska, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wyoming

Those that made the “worst” lists landed there for a variety of reasons, including no felony animal cruelty provisions, inadequate definitions/standards of basic care, no humane agents, inadequate provisions for forfeiture of abused animals and no separate crime for the sexual assault of an animal.

This report by the ALDF is the first of its kind, and the organization has plans to release one on an annual basis. Visit the site for the complete report.

SIDEBAR 2: a major victory for ALDF

The Animal Legal Defense Fund is often victorious for our animals in the courts. But as a group, it has been highly concerned in recent years with issues that affect large groups of animals such as hoarding, puppy mills and factory practices. Last year, the ALDF made history when it was successful in getting a mill shut down.

Sarah Luick explains: “The Animal Legal Defense Fund recently won a first of its kind and unprecedented court victory in Sanford, North Carolina where a unique state law allows any person or organization to sue an animal abuser. In April 2005, the judge granted an injunction allowing ALDF and county authorities to remove more than 300 diseased, neglected and abused dogs from the home of a local couple. As a result of this lawsuit, the couple was prosecuted for and found guilty of animal cruelty. In addition, ALDF was granted custody of the animals with the ability to provide them with needed veterinary care. ALDF subsequently won the right to restrict the couple’s visitation rights while the dogs remained in custody during ongoing appeals.”

Letting Go: The Pain of Saying Goodbye to Your Best Friend
12.04.08 | No Comments
Category: Animal Activism

As published in Pets! Magazine, 2007

Tina Zlody and Louie Despres spent years keeping their dog Olivia’s Cushings Disease at bay with monthly acupuncture sessions. Heart disease, too, would plague her later in life. Her heart finally took her at 14 years old last year. That prior August, Zlody had to put her cat Tawny Kittaen to sleep because of kidney failure at only nine. A stray in “not the best neighborhood,” Tawny had worked hard to win over Zlody, who had never grown up with cats.

“The day my husband was to leave on a trip,” said Zlody, “was the day we had decided that she needed to not be in pain anymore. He offered to postpone the trip in order to be with me. I explained that she was my cat and that I had to do it alone. I miss her every day. Olivia had a great long life. Tawny had a short, bad life.”

But the death that resonated most deeply, in retrospect, was her first dog, Maggie. Zlody got her after moving out of her parents house and it was the first that was “hers,” and she was Maggie’s. “In so many ways she kept me on the right path,” says Zlody. “I could have done very silly things, but just the idea that I had to be there for her, care for her, made me more responsible. She was with me through relationships, job changes, moves and was the one constant in my life. She was my soul dog. She got sick with pancriatitis and I didn’t see the symptoms in time. Again, it breaks my heart to this day that I had to put her to sleep, and not at our vet.”

The loss is profound, and difficult to recover from for true animal lovers. “We do everything for them,” said Zlody. “and that is a huge emotional investment, so the loss leaves a huge void. They play a role in everyday activities. They are the first thing I deal with when I get up and the last thing at night. I also think that people, if they are dealing with a longterm human illness, have time to hopefully make peace with each other. I had no opportunity to apologize to Maggie for missing her symptoms and to thank her for all she had done for me.”

It is love in the absence of words that makes it transcend language. It is the lack of a language that makes it hard to explain and hard to say goodbye. It is the way pets are woven into the very fabric of our lives that make it feel that the world is unraveling when they go.

Jeannie Hebert of Shrewsbury has lost many animal companions in her years of adopting dogs and cats. Within the past year, she said goodbye to her 21 year old cat Louie, and more recently, her white German shepherd Kirby. “To me, it is as if I have lost a child,” she said. “Kirby was my constant companion and the source of much joy to me. During the span of those years [with him] my life changed drastically. My marriage broke up, I changed careers, but Kirby was there for me each and every day. Even when those I believed to be my most trusted friends disappeared, he was there with love and compassion….when he passed I was crushed. He seemed invincible to me.”

They are our rocks. So how can you cope when that rock is gone?

Judith N. Stone, LICSW and grief counselor with more than 25 years experience, works with Vescone, a 24-hour veterinary emergency and specialty center that offers 24 hour coverage, in leading its free pet loss support group. “People can call Vescone 24/7 for support and information about pet loss,” said Stone. “They can come once or as many times as they would like.”

Stone explains that many have such a difficult – sometimes seemingly impossible – time coping with the death of their pet for a variety of reasons. “First and foremost,” she said, “pets tend to provide unconditional, uncomplicated love and devotion to their owners. Their needs are simpler and they provide true and steady companionship and comfort, something that can be harder to find in human relationships.” They also enhance human relationships, she reminds us. Couples and families refer to and think of pets as members. For single people, they are family.

“There is more and more evidence of a wide range of emotinal experience in animals. I think we as humans get great satisfaction from experiencing that emotion and mutuality with another species. For all of these reasons and more, the death of an animal companion means the breaking of a powerful bond, the rupturing of an attachment, and it can therefore be devastating.”

There are lots of ways to help people cope with this devastation, explains Stone. It’s important to validate the range of feelings, which include pain, sadness, confusion, fear, anger, emptiness, loneliness and disbelief. Sometimes it can be hard to find this empathy, and it is a critical part of support. It is particularly helpful in a group setting, said Stone, because members share stories, grief and their own ways of coping. Almost always, Stone finds, people who come to the support group have experienced a lack of empathy from others – others who lack the understanding of the animal-human bond.

As with losing a human, at first, many cannot grasp the reality of the death. “When Kirby passed,” said Hebert, “I literally took to my bed. I would collapse in a sea of tears at just the mention of him.” It’s important to allow space to those who need to grieve. In Stone’s group, there is discussion about the stages of the grief process.

“Crying, thinking a great deal about their companion, talking, even ‘talking to’ the lost loved one,” said Stone, “keeping a toy, blanket or other object that reminds them of their pet for a time can all be useful ways to move through grief.”

For Hebert, part of letting go meant giving Kirby a proper burial, just she had done for her beloved Hannah, who died years earlier of the same type of cancer, and others before them. She had already picked out a plot at Angel View Cemetery in Middleboro, which took care of the arrangements. “They were so kind and understanding,” said Hebert. “It was exactly the same as planning a funeral for a human. To me, Kirby was as important to me as any other human in my life. Much more than some, really.” Kirby’s family and friends gathered around him to say goodbye, and be there for support.

Hebert will most likely adopt another pet, eventually, especially to fill the void and give a companion to Pia, Kirby’s best buddy. But Stone reminds us that it’s usually a good idea to wait for some time so the person is emotionally ready to accept another pet into their home and heart. It’s advisable, too, that the new pet not look like the one that has passed.

“I think there is a great need for grief counseling,” said Stone, “but often people have a hard time asking for help or don’t know that resources are available. Our culture doesn’t offer a lot of support for grief. Working with people who are grieving is a powerful, fulfilling experience for the counselor. It gets down to the bedrock of human experience. It can allow for a special kind of openness and healing that is like no other.”