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August 2006
Myth: Pit Bulls Are Vicious

The Dogs who Found Him
The Satya Interview with Ken Foster


Ken Foster with Nicky and Edy at a fundraiser for Furry Friends Foundation in Chicago.

Ken Foster doesn’t find abandoned dogs, they find him. They make their way into his life and he can’t help but respond. The Dogs who Found Me: What I’ve Learned from Pets who were Left Behind (Lyons Press, 2006), is Foster’s memoir of his life with dogs and how they’ve left an indelible mark on him. You get to know Brando, Zephyr and Sula, who eventually end up living with him, as well as other special someones he meets along the way. It’s a sweet and poignant book and resonates with anyone who’s ever loved and taken in animals, especially pit bull rescuers.

Disasters bookend his memoir as Foster talks about moving to New York right before September 11th and settling in New Orleans just in time for Hurricane Katrina. The dogs play a special role in helping him get through these times.

Ken is equally committed to helping dogs in tough times and has been incorporating fundraisers for local animal rescue groups as part of his book tour. He hopes someday to write a book focused on pit bulls and their history. He’ll be teaching at Tulane University in the fall and you might find him reading his students’ essays to pit bulls at the Louisiana SPCA.

While Brando played with Ken’s laptop and drank from the toilet, Ken Foster talked with pit bull mommy Sangamithra Iyer about how dogs saved his life.

You’ve been through a lot with your dogs… September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, heart problems and loss of friends. You say your dogs rescued you in a way. What do you mean by that?
Dogs are so observant, so aware of what’s going on around them. They pick up little clues about what’s good and what isn’t and trust their instincts. In a lot of ways, by taking walks and enjoying time with my dogs, I’ve been able to pick up on their ability to sense and intuit things too. It’s one of the reasons I started noticing abandoned dogs. It’s not so much because I had my own dogs and suddenly felt sympathy for them, but I literally was not registering that they were there on the edge of my vision. Now I see them and I can’t not respond.

Also, in the case of September 11th, Brando would make me sit in front of memorials with him and pay attention to things. Suddenly there were candles laid out where there hadn’t been before. He made me observe and deal with the tragedy that was around us. I might have—especially in my New York frame of mind—just gone forward pretending nothing happened. And you can’t really do that. At some point you are going to have to break down.

Then with Katrina, I felt responsible for them and having rescued them previously, I didn’t want to put them in a position of having to be rescued again. I felt pretty confident that our neighborhood wouldn’t be in danger, but then suddenly thought, ‘What if I’m wrong?’ What if we are surrounded by water, how do I get out with my dogs? That’s what made me get up, put gas into the van, load them in with dog food and drive out of town.

With my heart problem, they knew something was wrong before I did. Zephyr, my rottweiler, would wake me up by sitting on my chest, which I later realized was because she didn’t think I was going to wake up. And when I came back from the hospital with my pacemaker, she put her ear to my chest to hear this working heart I now had. If I didn’t have dogs, I might have just continued to get more and more tired or I might have gone to bed one night and never woken up again.

Those are the ways they rescued me. Some of it is literal, and some of it is in the way they’ve changed the way I look at the world around me.

What was it like coming back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? What is it like now?
Well, last night there was a big blackout and a building a block away burned down. It’s like the old days of November and December—buildings burning down, massive power outages and the National Guard.

I came back two or three days after they were officially letting people into my neighborhood. I was convinced everyone else was back, things were happening and I had missed some really important stuff. But there was nobody here. I remember driving in from Florida. We came across the Mississippi coast and there was just nothing. As we got closer to New Orleans, houses were where they hadn’t been before because they were washed there. There was a little detour to get back onto the highway with boats laying in the middle of the highway. And when I came into the city and you could see the waterline on the houses. It was just very strange and yet it felt right to come back.

When I was gone, it was so frustrating to watch what was going on or what wasn’t being done, and be in a place where I couldn’t do anything at all. I made this list of things that I could do when I got back. One, of course, was helping the animal situation.

And what was coming home like for your dogs?
It was funny because the girls, Zephyr and Sula, just wanted to go straight into the house. But Brando knew something had gone bad and needed to investigate. I think they were nervous the first few weeks we were back. We’d been moving around so much. There was lots of crying and separation anxiety issues. But I took them on long walks in completely deserted neighborhoods, talked to the National Guard and made it seem normal. [Laughs.] I’ve learned through this horrible experience, you need to hang on to whatever little pieces of normal you can find. And for the dogs, it was keeping some kind of routine of walking them three times a day and that kind of stuff. It also helped me too.

For Brando, was the situation similar to post-9/11?
It was in a way. After September 11th, there was this smell of fuel, cement and incinerated remains of the buildings. Every couple months the smell would go away and then they would open up a section of the underground debris, and the smell would drift back up again. There were mornings that I would wake up and he would be crying and I realized that in a couple of hours I would be able to smell it too. At one point, I decided to take him down to ground zero, so that maybe he could understand that there is one site that this smell is coming from. We peered over the crater, and I don’t know if it helped him, but it helped me.

When we came back [to New Orleans], a warehouse filled with propane tanks exploded just a couple of blocks from our house. It was the exact same smell, in the air. One of the first things I did was take [Brando] down to that warehouse so he would know, hopefully, that it was coming from there and not our house.

The dogs you share your home with often get a bad reputation—pit bulls and rottweilers. What would you like everyone to know about pit bulls?
First of all, after the hurricane, 62 percent of all animals rescued were pit bulls. Nobody was bitten, mauled or run down by any of these dogs. There is a sense that pit bulls are inherently evil dogs—making careful plans to attack and kill people—which just isn’t the case at all. I’m not saying that none of them have problems, but most of their problems are created by people who have abused them or trained them to be violent.

They are actually the most playful dogs—incredibly loving and bond really strongly. Many people fall into the pit bull world by accident and feel close to every pit bull—like they are a relative. They are smart, funny and do things that make me laugh. Almost all the pit bulls I’ve found have been the most laid back dogs. There are a few I’ve worked with who had particular issues that made them snappish, and yet if you are aware of your dog’s behavior, you can address it. And if you really look, the percentage of pit bulls involved in anything bad is pretty small, because the pit bull population is actually pretty huge. To characterize them by the way they look, as all dogs that look this way are bad or dangerous, doesn’t make people safer, doesn’t make the dogs safer, and it doesn’t address the actual problem—which is a problem of people.

Several cities, like Denver, Cincinnati and Miami, have adopted pit bull bans. What are your thoughts about this?
I think it’s a huge mistake because they are expending energy on something that isn’t a solution. They are taking dogs away from responsible owners. The people who want to breed dogs for illegal uses will continue doing it because they clearly don’t care about the law.

And in Denver, where they are literally going door-to-door and taking dogs off the couch because they look like pit bulls…think of all the more productive things that can be done with that manpower. What if they actually used that time and money to educate people about how to live with animals and how to be responsible? Wouldn’t that be better? It just seems absurd to me.

A large number of our readers are animal activists. You mention in your book that some animal groups, like PETA, advocate breed bans and even breed-specific euthanasia. What would you like to say specifically to them?
I just don’t understand the logic behind it. It reminds me of how there are a lot of people in New Orleans who think it is a good thing the “underclass” have been unable to return to their homes because it makes the city whiter and richer. As if this is actually a solution to any of our problems. The idea of, if we could just get rid of pit bulls all of our problems will be solved, doesn’t make any sense. And the problem in the case of pit bulls is the irresponsible people with certain pit bulls, and they aren’t going away if you get rid of their dogs. Those people are going to get a different dog and do the same thing that they did with their pit bull.

I’ve corresponded with [PETA president] Ingrid Newkirk and said maybe you should change the name of your organization. Obviously, if you feel strongly that pit bulls should be killed, it’s your right to think that and have an organization that promotes it, but maybe it shouldn’t be considered “ethical treatment” at least.

It’s not that I think everyone needs to have a pit bull, but there are at least 2.5 million pit bulls in our country, and how many of them are causing problems? Not very many at all. It is actually statistically insignificant.

When I wrote to PETA, a year ago I was given a response that I shouldn’t be worried about their policy because they are not going to come get my dogs, which I didn’t think was a good answer. Lately—I think it may have something to do with the fact that I brought this issue up in my book—they have been emailing people who ask about their policy, saying they don’t have a blanket policy for pit bulls. They think they should be judged individually, which is in complete opposition to things that Ingrid published just a year ago.

I also think that if you are going to have a position, make it clear. If she really has changed her policy on pit bulls, I’d love to see her put out a press release announcing that.

In The Dogs Who Found Me you write about a neighbor who is a backyard breeder of pit bulls, others who leave their dog alone for long periods of time or don’t feed them adequately. It seems like neglect and irresponsible dog guardianship is quite common. What do you think people can do to address these kinds of things to target human abusers rather than punish the animals?
I think there needs to be clearer community standards for how animals are kept, the roles animals play in our communities and how the mistreatment of an animal affects the whole community. A lot of people can see when an animal is not being cared for correctly or when an animal is in danger in some way, and yet they don’t feel comfortable confronting anybody. They don’t think anyone is going to back them up.

In dog runs, they post rules and it makes it so much easier to be like, ‘Hey you need to pick up your poop,’ or you can just say, ‘Look at that sign.’ And yet in most cities, I don’t think anyone knows what the rules are for being a responsible pet owner or what the consequences are if you are not, or if there are any consequences. And yet so many cities are concerned with quality of life and enforcing things like public drunkenness. Isn’t someone whose dog is mistreated or crying in the yard or not being cared for a quality of life issue for everybody as well? I think it is. Of course they don’t really want to spend their time on things like this, that’s why they introduce things like breed bans. It’s easier to get rid of dogs than it is to address the people who own them. It’s so rare that people get what they deserve for their animal crimes.

You’ve also met some remarkable animal rescuers who have given you and the dogs support along the way. What have you learned from them?
Animal people often get the reputation of only caring about animals and I think for the most part that is not true. I think the more I’ve learned to care about these animals, the more I’ve learned to care about everybody around me.

Now, I understand you volunteer with the pits at the Louisiana SPCA. Can you tell us about this?
The SPCA used to be down the street from me but it was destroyed during the storm. When I was watching the coverage of all the stuff going on, there was so little mentioned about the Louisiana SPCA. I knew the reason was the shelter was destroyed and that they were so busy doing their work that they weren’t doing what some other groups did, which was to bring in their own PR person. Some groups were having so many press conferences, I don’t know how they could have possibly been rescuing any animals. One person interviewed on Good Morning America was asked if there were any other groups they were working with, and the person said, I don’t know of any other groups that are doing animal rescue. Which is such a total lie!

So when I came back, I wanted to help and the shelter just moved back after having been at Lamar Dixon. There were still so many hurricane animals coming in and a lot of them were pit bulls. They were so shy, they wouldn’t even go for a walk. A lot of them found homes and that was great. I’m always advocating for my little pit bull friends over there.

I heard that people have been reading Harry Potter to them.
Yes, I’m not sure if they are still on Harry Potter or have moved on to something else. One day I went in with my students’ essays and read them to the dogs and asked, “What do you think of this one?” [Laughs.]

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