StubbyDog Hero: Stacey Coleman

November 8, 2011  

Executive Director of Animal Farm Foundation, Inc.

Q: Can you tell StubbyDog readers about Animal Farm Foundation?

A: Animal Farm Foundation, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation, has been rescuing and re-homing animals, as well as making grants to other humane organizations, since the mid-1980s. We are located in Dutchess County, N.Y.

We currently dedicate our resources to securing equal treatment and opportunity for “pit bull” dogs. Whether the dog is called a “pit bull” because of a documented pedigree, or merely on the basis of physical appearance, recognizing that these dogs are individuals for whom we are responsible is an integral step toward a compassionate future for all dogs.

When we started rescuing and re-homing dogs, we focused on American Pit Bull Terriers. During the years, we realized that the dogs we were helping were not necessarily purebred American Pit Bull Terriers, but dogs that people called “pit bulls.” “Pit bull” is no longer a singular breed, or even a breed mix, but an ever expanding group that includes whatever an animal control officer, shelter worker, dog trainer, politician, dog owner, police officer or newspaper says it is.

This opened our eyes to the dogs in front of us. These are the dogs that need our help.

Q: What are some of the current challenges facing pit bull type dogs, and how has AFF evolved in order to address them?

A: The biggest challenges facing “pit bull” dogs today are: (1) the expanding definition of what a “pit bull” is, and (2) the broad generalizations made about this diverse group of dogs.

First, the term “pit bull” has grown to include many different pure breeds of dogs, along with any mixed breed dog that displays certain physical characteristics (regardless of his genetic makeup). For example, in Omaha, Neb., the legal definition of “pit bull” includes seven different breeds of dogs (American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Dogo Argentino, Presa Canario, Cane Corso and American Bulldog) and any mixed breed dog who partially resembles at least one of these breeds; yet in South Bend, Ind., a “pit bull” is only an American Pit Bull Terrier as registered by the UKC or the ADBA and “any crossbreed of the American Pit Bull Terrier,” but it doesn’t include American Staffordshire Terriers or Staffordshire Bull Terriers. In fact, the South Bend law specifically states that American Staffordshire Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers are not pit bulls! And in Millville, N.J., the legal definition of “pit bull” includes a breed of dog that has never been recognized any kennel club: the St. Francis Terrier! (The “St. Francis Terrier” is an experimental brand developed as part of a PR campaign to change public perception about a group of dogs.) The point is, the group of dogs called “pit bull” has become incoherent, and the dogs lumped into the group will vary from community to community and shelter to shelter.

Second, although the definitions of “pit bull” are as diverse as the dogs they encompass, people still make generalizations or assumptions about dogs labeled as “pit bulls.” They think they can predict how a dog will behave based on the label assigned to him, even though that label is arbitrary.

At Animal Farm Foundation, we see all dogs as individuals. The dogs in our shelter come to us from other shelters, rescues or law enforcement agencies. The only generalizations we can make about all of them is that they’re homeless and somebody labeled them a “pit bull.” Beyond that, they are individuals with unique personalities, behaviors and needs.

We have to remember that the dogs don’t change because of the labels we assign to them; those labels change our perceptions about the dog. We can’t rely on labels to understand or predict the behavior individual dogs. We have to look at the dog in front of us.

Q: Will you share the story about your first experience with a pit bull type dog?

A: In March 2001, while living in Indianapolis, Ind., I was driving past an office building when I saw a dog trying to grab a bag of fast food out of an angry man’s hand. Just as the man was leaning back to kick the dog, I threw open my car door and yelled in a singsong voice, “Little dog, what’re you doing?”

So, I stopped being afraid of the dog I was warned about and started getting to know the dog in front of me.

The dog turned and looked at me, started wagging her tail, broke into a full sprint, leaped into my car, and promptly made herself at home in the backseat of my Honda CRV. I will always remember my internal monologue as I turned to see the dog (smiling) in my backseat, “I think this is a pit bull. I am not sure why, but I know I am supposed to be afraid of pit bulls. Oh no, I have a pit bull in my car, what have I done? I have to get away!”

I parked my car, carefully exited the vehicle, and called the Humane Society of Indianapolis to come out and pick up the dog.

The next morning, with a much more rational head, I decided I should support the shelter by sponsoring the needs of the dog they had picked up on my behalf. I called to ask how much money I should send, and I was shocked when the shelter manager told me they were going to kill the dog because she was a pit bull. That just didn’t feel right to me, so I told the woman I wanted the dog back. The woman told me I couldn’t have her back because she was a pit bull. I have no explanation for what I did next because it went against everything everybody was telling me, but long story short, I called an attorney and got the dog back a week later.

After a short stint at the vet’s office, I had a little black, mangy pit bull in my house with my five cats and two other dogs – and I had no idea what to do.

For two weeks, I stared at the dog just waiting for her to do whatever it was pit bulls did that was so scary. Then I remembered that I was smarter than that! In just two days, I had been able to convey to this dog that chasing my cats was not acceptable. This dog was pretty reasonable, shouldn’t I be, too? So, I stopped being afraid of the dog I was warned about and started getting to know the dog in front of me. Gertie (photo above and below) is her name, and she is sitting at my feet while I answer these questions. Many rescues and permanent residents have filtered through my house since Gertie’s arrival more than 10 years ago, but currently she is one of seven permanent dogs and six permanent cats. And, good news, the Humane Society of Indianapolis has new, amazing and compassionate leadership that cares equally about all dogs and no dog will ever again be killed out of irrational fear.

Q: If there is one thing you could convey to the general public about pit bull type dogs, what would it be?

A: Don’t ever support breed-discriminatory legislation. Dogs cannot read the codebook and cannot comply with or break laws. You’re looking to the wrong end of the leash for a solution.

Q: If someone wants to be a better advocate for pit bull type dogs, what steps would you recommend they take?

A: The most important thing you can do as an advocate is understand who your dog is and what his individual needs are, and to accept your responsibility to meet those needs. Having a “pit bull” dog doesn’t make you an expert on all “pit bull” dogs. You may be an expert when it comes to your own dog, but dog behavior is a complicated science and is best left to the experts to describe. Be proud of your dog and brag about him every chance you get, but don’t imply that what is true about your dog is true about all dogs. Celebrate your dog’s individuality.

Q: Who are your heroes?

A: Silly as it might seem to some, my dog Gertie is my hero. During the years, I have asked a lot of her. One of my life goals has always been to live a big life. I try to avoid routines; I try to do as much good as I can, and I step outside of my comfort zone every chance I get. Not surprising, our home has seen a revolving population of wayward puppies, kittens, cats, dogs and the occasional woodland creature (I stopped counting years ago when we reached 100). Once we even took in five non-English speaking children who had just arrived via a refugee resettlement program.

Two-legged youngsters were new to our house, but Gertie took it all in stride! The first time one of the kiddos started crying, and I was busy using my brain to figure out what to do, Gertie just backed in, sat on the little boy’s lap and he wrapped his little arms around her – and the tears stopped. I strive to one day have the patience, good sense and perpetual good nature Gertie seems to have no matter what life brings to her!

Q: We think you’re a hero. If you could have one superpower to make a difference for pit bulls, what would it be?

A: The ability to travel through time. The misinformation and speculation that allowed our society to accept the cruelties and injustices suffered by “pit bull” dogs and the people who love them can be tracked back to a few key moments in time.

I would go to 1976, the year the USDA passed the amendment to the Animal Welfare Act that defined “animal fighting ventures,” and I would help the USDA understand that they needed to be mindful to represent dog fighting as the act of animal cruelty and to make sure that the people who fight dogs were characterized as the criminals and that the dogs never were.

I would go to 1985, so I could help to funnel the energetic minds of the academics and scientists who were interested in studying dogs called pit bulls into something that would help dogs. The mid 1980s saw a number of studies that have been used against the dogs, much to the dismay of many those involved. I would bring with me to 1985 the conventional wisdom of what we could do differently to avoid such negative repercussions for dogs.

I would go to 1987 and tell the executives at Time, Inc. that sacrificing dogs in order to sell sensational magazine stories was not a humane business practice and would result in the discrimination against dogs for years to come. In 1987, Time, Inc. ran stories in three of its high-circulation magazines (People, Time and Sports Illustrated) that were intended to be sensational and entertaining. The result was millions of readers being frightened of a kind of dog they had never even heard of, let alone seen. The dogs are still suffering the negative affects of these three, nearly concurrent magazine stories.

I would go to 2000 to help the Centers for Disease Control realize that the report they were about to release on fatal dog attacks was going to be misused and exploited by people who are afraid of dogs. I think the CDC would really appreciate this help since they have spent the last 11 years explaining that how the study is being misused was not their intention!

And, I would go back just one day, to yesterday, so I could do two things. First, I would say thank you to all the people working so hard on behalf of the dogs and tell them to hang in there because things are getting better, promise! Second, I would tell the dogs and cats in my house, just one more time, how important they are to me.

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18 Responses to “StubbyDog Hero: Stacey Coleman”
  1. mac_naughton says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if someday we could just call them all DOGS and not have to define them? Do I have to start wearing a label so people know I am half Irish…It means I might drink beer! Watch OUT!

    • StubbyDog says:

      @mac_naughton haha, good point, let’s hope that day when dogs are just called dogs comes soon.

  2. WOW by far the best interview I’ve read!!! kudos

  3. Alex B. says:

    Great interview. Mrs. Coleman has earned my total respect. Thanks for all AFF does.

  4. MadelineTalent says:

    We lived in Indianapolis several years ago and we had 5 American Eskimos living with us at the time and a pit bull. One day a rottweiler puppy came was was dropped into our back yard and hid in our shed. The dogs were barking at something and we found him. He was all battered up and believed to be a bait dog. We didn’t know what to do with him after feeding him so we took him to the Humane Society. I was very upset and crying after we dropped him off and my husband decided to call to check on him to bring him back home. They told him that he would be put down because he was a bait dog and wouldn’t be a good pet. I hope now they have changed that ruling against pit bulls or so called “bait dogs” because they can and are good dogs. Dogs live in the moment and don’t relive their past!

  5. bluebrindle says:

    Thank you Stacy for an educational and very enlightening interview. I wish Time, Inc. would take the initiative and time to interview you and publish that interview in their publications — your message should be read by main stream America. Thank you Animal Farm Foundation for seeing all dogs as individuals.

  6. Woodsmudy says:

    Thank you for such a great piece! It made me cry and laugh. I too wish I could travel back into the past and educate people on what great dogs they are. We are on our 2nd PB and will only own this breed. We are forever educating the people we meet on their past and what they are all about.

    • StubbyDog says:

      @Woodsmudy Thanks, what you are doing by educating people is very important, you should be proud to be part of the solution.

  7. blazer says:

    Ohmygosh! This was the best article. Stacey is SO articulate and SO spot-on. Gosh, I wish I were like that. Hearing about her home’s every growing/changing family made me feel so much better about my own. I often second-guess myself or let other’s opinions/ideas encroach on my own thoughts and reading her story made me feel that much more confident. Anyway, LOVE this article and love Stacey. Keep it up!!!

  8. BJE41 says:

    Thanks for this story. We have to re-educate people about this breed before there will be any changes. As a volunteer at my local Animal Control Shelter it is heartening to me seeing the different families that are adopting “Pit Bull” type dogs. Many have been raised with Pit Bulls while others fell in love with a friend’s dog. This is a quiet movement that needs more publicity to show that Pit Bulls are great all round dogs with individual personalities as with anyone else, animals or people.

  9. VickieDick says:

    I am interested in adopting a pup that is said to be full blooded Pit from a Shelter on FB. I was told by someone related to the shelter that it would not be a good idea for me to adopt a pit bull since I have a 5 lb Chihuahua and cats. Shelter person stated that pit bulls are known to be agressive toward small dogs and cats. I figured if I got a pup that it would get used to being around my small dog and cats and not bother them. I also have a couple of dogs that are said to be lab pit mixes..They where adoptions also, but they get along fine with my Chi. In face, the chi is the most aggressive dog I have..

    Just wondering what your thoughts are on this…Thanks..

  10. Woodsmudy says:

    We have never had a problem with our Pit and small dogs or cats. Max’s nanny was our 6 yr old cat, who is his best friend. He plays with our friends small dog all the time. They are like small kids, sometimes a scabble breaks out, but more in fun than not.

  11. avegas72 says:

    They was an awesome interview. That is a truly intelligent lady who knows her stuff. My hat off to you!