PAWS Magazine

 

Issue 49, Summer 2001

 

Dog is her co-pilot

by Samantha Sherman

A teenage girl waits for the bus in front of a Vashon Island feed store. She scans the literature on the wall and her eye falls upon a poster depicting a horrific sight that strikes her so deeply and personally that her life would change forever. The poster, from the American Anti-Vivisection Society, shows two scientists standing over a scared white pit bull with a second heart surgically implanted in its neck. In King County at that time, Animal Control was required by law to sell unclaimed companion animals to research laboratories. Looking at the poster and thinking of her own dog, she realizes that the threat exists of losing him to a similar fate. This moment, at 14-years-old, became the root of all that is now Diane Jessup. Born was the drive to fight for and protect not just her dog, but all the other animals that stood to be used for scientific research. That was also the day that, somewhere in her mind, she began to write a book.

Now, almost 30 years later, Jessup’s first novel, “The Dog Who Spoke With Gods,” was recently published by St. Martin’s Press. Jessup, a nationally-respected pit bull advocate who lives in Olympia and works for Thurston County Animal Control, used her lifetime of experience with the much-maligned breed, a lifetime of concern for laboratory animals and her unabashed devotion to dogs, to create this wildly unique and moving tale of a pit bull named Damien and a girl who grows to love him. She has been chosen as one of the 12 new up-and-coming fiction authors featured in Publishers Weekly.

“Seeing that poster was the turning point in my life,” says Jessup. Passion and anger drove her to contact the American Anti-Vivisection Society who supplied her with literature to distribute. Outside her local grocery store, with shoppers taking pains to avoid her and her card table full of gruesome pictures, Jessup sat by herself, trying to spread the word. With a now heightened sense of awareness, she soon learned that she was not alone in her crusade. “I heard about a volunteering opportunity to go make signs, probably for a protest. I can’t remember names very well but I sure remember her name,” says Jessup. The name? Virginia Knouse, co-founder of PAWS. “There was a King County referendum, that she was spear-heading which was to stop the county from selling animals to research. And I was like ‘woo-hoo!’ Here’s a woman who’s spending her time [helping animals], and she’s an adult! And I got to go to her house and help build signs and I just thought I was in the presence of the Second Coming! And I’ve never forgotten that day.

“I followed her career and it amazed me how one person, working with others, could make the difference she and PAWS made locally. PAWS was the [group] who stopped the sale of animals from the King County shelters; it was a tremendous thing.”

The 14-year-old girl is now an adult herself. Her license plate reads “1BAD PIT.” It’s more irony than descriptive. Jessup is definitely not one of those pit bull owners you hear about on the news.

Her love of the breed and desire to work with dogs led Jessup down a path replete with a variety of different ways for her to get involved. She started off training dogs for police work and obedience. The more she learned, the more she spread her knowledge. She began getting recognized as a pit bull expert and was called upon frequently for her professional advice. She was regularly called on as an expert witness in court cases involving dogs regarding bites, temperament evaluations, and aggressive tendencies. Interestingly, but not surprising to Jessup, she can’t remember any of the dog biting cases involving pit bulls. Dobermans, golden retrievers, and Labradors were the “bad boys” in the bunch.

“If there ever was a breed of dog that needs help, it’s the pit bull,” says Jessup. “They’re the victims.”

Being a pit bull guardian and trainer, Jessup is painfully aware of the issues now surrounding the breed. “They’re a fad breed right now and because of that they’re so overpopulated.”

As one of the nation’s leading experts on pit bulls, Jessup has been able to use her status to bring a positive message about the much-maligned breed.

She’s written numerous articles for national magazines covering everything from “The History of the Guard Dog” to “Selection of a Good Dog.” She was, and is, regularly interviewed by news teams and specialty shows for her opinions on dog aggression and dangerous dogs. Not long ago she received a call from the television show “The O’Reilly Factor,” asking her to possibly appear and participate in a debate regarding banning pit bulls. She, of course, was on the “con” side of the debate.

Animal control associations across the United States, as well as other organizations, have participated in her “The Dangerous Dog and You” workshop. Designed to deal with “all aspects of dangerous dog behavior,” she and her pit bull dog Dread would serve as the lead actors in a simulation that taught students how to deal with an attack dog. She also ran a workshop entitled “Introduction to Dog and Cock Fighting,” designed to educate mainly law enforcement officials across the U.S. on what to look for when presented with scenes showing signs of possible humans engaging in animal fighting. Her clout took her to five different countries that also wanted to host her workshops.

Her passion for pit bulls lead her to write two other books as well: “The Working Pit Bull,” which sold 10,000 copies and she co-wrote “Colby’s Book of the American Pit Bull Terrier” with Louis Colby. Both publications focused on the American Pit Bull Terrier, their history, and their nature. “[They] show all the other things pit bulls are good at besides fighting,” says Jessup.

She and Dread had some time in the Hollywood spotlight as well. Dread has appeared in movies with MacCaully Culkin, Marlee Matlin and Sylvester Stallone. Working on a set is tricky, Jessup says, because of the pressure of getting the shot right. But there was great satisfaction when the goal was achieved. Jessup even met Oprah Winfrey when she appeared on the Oprah Show in 1996 as an expert on canine aggression and dog attack.

Now Jessup spends much of her time devoted to rescuing and finding loving homes for pit bulls. “I don’t like the word ‘expert’,” says Jessup, “but I would say I’ve done a lot with pit bulls. I would say I’m very comfortable speaking to people about pit bulls and explaining them and understanding them, so I guess that would be the definition of an expert.” She adds, “In the last 16 years I’ve been very involved in the breed, constantly researching and looking into the history of it. But you can read and you can research, but if you’ve never owned a pit bull you cannot, in my opinion, be a pit bull expert. When you live and breathe with something I think you can call yourself an expert.”

To say that she lives and breathes with pit bulls is almost an understatement. Her answering machine plainly states that she will be “out with the dogs” until 9pm, every evening. Her one-acre home consists of a modest one-bedroom house for her and the rest of the land is parceled out, front and back, to the dogs and her second love—her garden. Each dog has his or her own house atop a pitcher’s mound of dry dirt. They are each clean and cut like Arnold Schwartzenegger and each have a rugged collar with a brass name plate that gives their name, her name and both of her numbers. They are exercised regularly and brought in the house to sleep each night (no small task). To see them with her melts the heart—the mutual adoration and respect is almost palpable.

Jessup poured this adoration into her newly published novel “The Dog Who Spoke With Gods.” “The book was my way of getting out a young woman’s journey from not really having any idea about pet ownership and then befriending a dog,” says Jessup. “And really how casually that bond grows from nothing to such a strong bond that she’s willing to forsake a lot of things.”

The book’s story harks all the way back to that fateful day in the feed store: A medical student named Elizabeth takes a job as a socialization handler at a university research facility. There she meets Damien, a stray pit bull found by a scientist and brought in to become a laboratory research animal. Damien is not an ordinary dog, which is possibly why she becomes inexplicably drawn to him. She finds herself torn between her upbringing and her instinct. Both her father and grandfather are cardiac surgeons, which is the profession that she herself is working towards. They also regularly use dogs for research. Her love for Damien forces her to examine her emotional self and question philosophies that she had always taken for granted. Can she stand by while this special dog is used as a test animal?

The plot in “The Dog Who Spoke With Gods” centers on the use of dogs in laboratory research. There are graphic and discomforting descriptions that often make it difficult to read. Jessup is concerned that the medical profession’s reliance on animal testing offers few choices for concerned patients. “When I look at animal research testing I would like to have an option to go to doctors who have become doctors without using animal research,” says Jessup.

“We went out of our way to make the research in the book psychological testing—which I particularly think there’s no excuse for,” says Jessup. “I feel there’s no excuse for drug testing either because an animal—a dog—and a person are quite different and you still, at some point, have to try it on a person. There’s an awful lot of research out there that is unnecessary and it bothers me that the human race is so cowardly that we will cower down before disease and say “take my pet, don’t take me.”

Another issue she raises in the book is the use of electric shock collars on dogs. “I was [using the book to] grind my axe about electric shock collars,” says Jessup. “They are becoming super popular.”

The electric shock collar is an ominous and uncomfortable presence in the story when Damien is made to wear one as a way to force loyalty. “They’re available at Petco,” says Jessup. “No training needed. Anybody can buy them.

“You can program it to different levels, it can emit a short shock or a continuous shock, it emits about the same amount of pain as an electric fence.” But instead of a fixed obstacle like a fence, control of the electric current is in the hand of the human. “There’s a story of an owner trying to train his dog to track. He kept applying the continuous shock until finally the dog bit him. The dog was, in turn, put down.”

PAWS also opposes the use of shock collars on dogs. “They are just dealing with symptoms, not causes,” says Tamar Puckett, PAWS Companion Animal Advocate.

Jessup’s commitment to pit bulls may be costly. “We could sell a lot more copies of this book if you make this a different breed of dog,” said Jessup’s literary agent Jane Berkey, who is involved in pit bull rescue herself.

Jessup didn’t even have to consider her answer. “Absolutely not,” she said.

This came as a relief to Berkey who was also very committed to keeping the dog as a pit bull. “We knew it was never going to be a commercial book,” says Berkey. “But it was something we wanted to put out with a pit bull just being a normal dog—other than the talking!”

Oh, that’s right. Damien, the canine hero of “The Dog Who Spoke With Gods,” talks. What better way to communicate the frustration inherent in being a laboratory animal?

Shelters like the PAWS Lynnwood shelter suffer from the stigma against pit bulls. Even though PAWS constantly evaluates the temperament of all of its dogs, many people are reluctant to adopt pit bulls because of negative assumptions about the breed. Because so many backyard breeders are producing pit bulls, the shelter tends to attract a disproportionate share of them. And even when an adopter falls in love with a pit bull at the PAWS shelter, if the adopter is from a community like Everett, PAWS can’t adopt the dog to her. Everett has an ordinance that effectively bans pit bulls.

“It’s one of the reasons why we support dangerous dog ordinances and not breed specific ordinances,” says PAWS’s Puckett. Dangerous dog ordinances target individual dogs who are proven dangerous, and places a greater burden on the dog’s human guardian.

Jessup is concerned that many people don’t realized how sensitive pit bulls can be. “The last thing you need to do is get tough with a pit bull,” says Jessup. “They are really eager-to-please dogs. People think they are hard-headed or tough, but they’re pretty sensitive dogs.”

Pit bulls are also burdened by the stigma that when they bite, their jaws lock, making them especially dangerous. Jessup clears up this urban legend borne of the breed’s background working with cows on farms. “It’s really blown out of proportion because everybody thinks they’re so mean and they’re biting people all the time—if they were then they’d be hanging on and we’d have a lot more mess than we have.” But of course we don’t have a population of people with dog mouths permanently locked to parts of their bodies. “When they grab another dog they do tend to hang on and that’s when people get really freaked out and frightened.

“Probably the biggest myth behind ‘locking jaws’ is that they are an aggressive breed—a breed that’s mean to people, or that they’re great guard dogs,” says Jessup. “Nothing could be further from the truth. They’ve never been really bred for that and generally pit bulls—a sound pit bull—are a very people-friendly, unsuspicious, unprotective sort of dog.”

The media plays a large part in perpetuating myths about pit bulls. Jessup is concerned that the media does not provide balance. She notes an incident that happened on July 4 this year where a child was mauled by a Chow Chow. “He’s going to need multiple surgeries to put his face back together,” says Jessup. “But did you hear about that on the news? No.” Jessup’s point is that there are many dog bite incidents involving many breeds. But by just focusing on incidents involving pit bulls, the public is led to believe that not only are all pit bulls dangerous, but conversely, all other dogs breeds are benign.

“People forget that dogs are not people,” says Puckett. “They are pack animals and their behavior towards people is usually predicated on where they perceive that person to be in the hierarchy of the pack. It would help if the media were to put that type of perspective in their coverage.”

Raising a pit bull can be immensely rewarding, but also challenging. The PAWS shelter has had its share of pit bulls returned after adoption. “Sometimes people don’t know what they are getting into,” says Richard Huffman, PAWS Director of Advocacy and Outreach. “They are very active, and are full of energy. They can be dog-aggressive. They can be your best friend ever, but they need a lot of your attention.” Huffman should know; Ruby, a pit bull mix he adopted from PAWS in April, takes up much of his time. “She’s a great girl though.”

Jessup believes that much of dog behavior comes from their genes. “I truly believe that a dog is about 90% genetics,” says Jessup. She believes that many of the aggressive pit bulls put down in the nation’s shelters are the victims of generations of indiscriminate breeding.

Another problem facing pit bulls is getting the dogs placed in a home at all. Sometimes pit bulls at the PAWS shelter wait two or three months to find a home. Part of the difficulty, says Huffman, is that “people come in with assumptions about the dogs and that makes it harder to place them.” From her work at Animal Services Jessup concurs. “They’re not an easy dog to place. They are what I call ‘special needs’ dogs. Single-animal homes are best.”

“I know the source of the [pit bull] problem. And I have no problem saying that it’s the high-risk owner. A dog is only as dangerous as the owner allows it to be,” Jessup asserts. Puckett agrees. “It’s the human beings that exploit the predisposition of pit bulls. These dogs have the potential to be very loving dogs.”

Unfortunately many of these dogs, suffering from insurmountable behavioral issues, have to be euthanized. Jessup has even personally had to perform this task at Animal Services. One of Jessup’s main focuses now is in pit bull rescue. She works closely with Jane Berkey, her agent, flying dogs back and forth between here and the East Coast. A dog may get a plane ticket if there is a home in the Northwest that suits the dog and its abilities. Jessup and the other rescuers are very careful to match the dog well with its new guardian. As a matter of course, Jessup recently could not resist adopting, for herself, another pit bull who bears the descriptive name of Crazy Kate. Crazy Kate got a plane ride out of the deal!

What is the motivation for a person to go to such lengths for animals? “I have definitely shared a lot of my life with a lot of animals and if I could give something back that would be a tiny part of what they’ve given to me, I would be glad to do that.” Her book is an homage to dogs, and the bond that can occur between dog and human. She dedicates it to four dogs in her life, one being of course, her special dog Dread. The obvious respect and admiration she has for dogs and what they can give us is clearly apparent through the course of the book.

“I would like readers to have enjoyed it like they were able to share the experience of truly loving a dog and seeing nature through that animal,” says Jessup. “I think that’s one thing dogs do for us, [they] bring out the Peter Pan in us, they bring out the kid, the nature lover. It’s more fun to walk through the woods with your dog than it is to walk through the woods alone. A dog really sharpens your appreciation for nature. Dogs are really unique animals and they really deserve our respect. It’s a book about friendship and I think that people need to be friends with their dogs.”

Flash back to the 14-year-old girl, the Vashon Island feed store, the poster. Jessup does the tabling. She meets PAWS’s Virginia Knouse. She feels encouraged, supported and inspired to follow her heart and dedicate her life to animals. She is particularly taken by a breed that coincidentally needs her. She has loved them, lived and worked with them and has educated others along the way. Jessup puts it best: “Some of my best friends are dogs. I’ve had an opportunity in my life to really rely on my dogs, they’ve really come through for me. So I really feel like I owe them a lot, too.”



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