Pit Bulls Are Vicious
The Dogs who Found Him
The Satya Interview with
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.]
To learn more visit www.ken-foster.com and www.dogswhofoundme.com.
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