New Mexico's Pet ResourceFALL 2002



Animal advocate Jim Willis, a prolific writer and artist, is well-known on the Internet for his poignant piece "How Could You?" Twelve years ago Jim and his wife Nicole Valentin founded a multi-species rescue, placement, humane education and advocacy effort called The Tiergarten Sanctuary Trust. They have adopted and currently care for over three dozen animals. The proceeds from Jim's new book, "Pieces of My Heart", a collection of his writings (available through his web site or on or, will be used to fund the activities of his sanctuary as well as those of other animal groups. A long-time resident of Europe, Jim currently lives in his home state of Pennsylvania. Recently he took time out of his crazy schedule to answer some questions. -Ardeth Baxter

What compelled you to get into animal advocacy and rescue in the first place?

I started volunteering for a "kill" shelter in Pittsburgh when I was 14, and soon learned how naïve I was. The more I learned and the more I was confronted with the problems and issues, the more I became entrenched in doing something about it...although in the beginning it was just animal by animal. I'm still learning--and struggling to understand how so many people can betray an animal companion for such shallow reasons; how governments can ignore their responsibilities and allow millions of unwanted animals to be killed annually in North America; how they can still (after all our education efforts and exposés about puppy and kitten mills) allow pet shop sales; or ignore the need for mandatory spaying and neutering, and still not provide funds for such programs.

We have a huge animal population and control problem; a poorly organized, understaffed and underfunded animal welfare system that costs both the US and Canada billions and is often paid for by taxpayers who don't give a damn about animals; and anything that is provided for the benefit of animal welfare is usually provided sparingly and grudgingly by legislators who also don't give a fig about animals. At a time when we desperately need more USDA inspectors, we have a US President proposing further cuts to the USDA budget. When you add in the powerful lobbying efforts and financial backing of animal registries and commercial breeders, the misunderstanding and misinformation among the public, the lack of knowledge among many pet guardians and animal lovers about the true situation (e.g., that 25% of animals in shelters are purebred and that there are breed- or species-specific rescues for nearly every kind of animal); the real and imaginary "divisions" between animal welfare and animal rights concerns --it's a lose-lose situation and the animals are the biggest losers of all.

It is inexcusable that such situations are tolerated in a country that spends annually about $38.5 billion on its pets. Those who would hurt animals or profit from them have done an excellent job of "divide and conquer" among those who care about animals. When the abuses come from those entrusted with the proper care of animals, then we really have a problem (a recent article in US News exposed how some of even America's "best" accredited zoos dispose of old, infirm, and unhealthy animals--by relinquishing some to roadside zoos and breeding operations!)

Besides dogs and cats, what species of animals have you rescued over the years?

Wolves and wolf-hybrids, horses, poultry, birds, some wildlife to be rehabilitated, and one species that became a "specialty," European hedgehogs. We raised the hedgehogs that were orphaned in the summer and fall, got them through hibernation and then released them into a protected nature area (in Germany) in the spring.

Tell us a little about your sanctuary.

We sold our first property in Germany, relocated to the US for several years for family reasons, and are now in the process of acquiring a new property in Germany and returning there later this year. Still, that property will only be sufficient for our present animals and won't be the "sanctuary" that I still hope for. What I'd most like to do is have a habitat- appropriate facility especially for rescued wolves, an education program, and, of course, continue the efforts for companion animals. However, since we've always funded our own efforts, finances are a concern, and we've had to settle for what we can afford to do.

You're best known for your heartbreaking story "How Could You?" which is told from the point of view of a formerly loved, but then abandoned shelter dog. How do you account for its enormous readership?

The avalanche of mail I've received about it surprised me and the essay has apparently been translated into almost two dozen foreign languages, even though the scenario of the story is typically North American. I think it struck a common chord because it contains many elements of what happens to so many formerly "loved" dogs and cats. I think it moved people effectively because the dog in the story isn't being very judgmental and is forgiving--which is, after all, the true nature of the dog.

Even though I've received literally thousands of messages about that one story in which people tell me how sad it is, how true, and how much it made them cry--I could, indeed, have made it much more sad. Shelters that must dispose of animals and euthanasia technicians appreciate the story because for those who must put down animals, it depicts them in an accurate manner --there is a lot of compassion on their part among most of them. But I could have easily had the dog die in a gas chamber run from the exhaust pipe of the animal control truck, or being shot through the head-- because those are still some of the "euthanasia" practices being conducted in some shelters and dog pounds in the US.

In response to "How Could You?" I had messages from people who went to their local shelter and adopted a pet, and that means a great deal, but some of my favorite messages have been from a few people who wrote to say the story changed their minds and stopped their decision about giving up on their animal companion.

I still regard the story as mostly "preaching to the choir," but thanks to the efforts of many readers to have it published in local newspapers or broadcast by local radio stations, it has started to reach some of "the congregation."

How do you discipline dogs who were abused or neglected in their earlier lives and have behavior problems?

Neglect can be much different than outright abuse. Dogs thrive on attention, companionship, nutrition, and exercise, so the improvement usually goes very quickly with a pure "neglect" case--and I'll add that I consider owner-relinquished animals where the animal received no training, no attention, and little exercise "neglect" cases. Most are under- socialized and poorly behaved and it can take a long time to get them over behavioral problems.

Abuse is another matter. First you have to build trust and we are very methodical about such things as schedule, always feeding at the same time, doing everything in the same way. Dogs and many animals are very dependent on routine and they find that comforting. All dogs are home-raised here, we've never kenneled a dog and never will.

The rest of it I would describe as "firm love." You have to control and contain the animal, control the situations and interactions with other animals, not be confrontational or present challenges, while still remaining firm and authoritative. I believe animals learn by example and communicate with each other. Even a dog severely abused by a man has usually quickly responded to me in our home environment because the other dogs have shown him/her that I'm "okay." I get down on their level, my vocalizations are clear, I turn my back to them to demonstrate I trust them, etc. But I also won't tolerate aggression and even though there is never any physical punishment, there are loud and long oral lectures and "time-outs," and as much positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors as we can manage. We humans often forget to reinforce and reward good behavior, and for a traumatized animal, "good" behavior can simply be doing nothing "wrong."

I can't claim any "magic," just an innate way with animals and a good sense of their natures, and a couple of decades of living with them. The more years I've spent with more dogs, the more I've learned about being a dog. Dogs are not out to kill, they crave love and companionship, they need fresh air and exercise, they need reliable guardians who give clear signals, they want to know the parameters of appropriate behavior. I make sure all those are in place and they do the hard part--they heal, learn to trust and love a human again, and most get on very well with other dogs.

Even though most species don't have a sense of elapsed time, you also have to proceed slowly. If an animal suffered several years of abuse, even if you do everything right, it doesn't mean you will change the animal in two weeks' time. A few animals will be permanently scarred by their past experiences, but what I admire most about dogs is their resiliency. The majority do respond to good care and love and live happily ever after.

You’ve rescued a number of wolves and wolf hybrids. What’s it like raising a wolf as opposed to a domestic dog?

The simple answer is that it’s a difference of dealing with a domesticated animal versus dealing with a wild animal, even one born in captivity. Almost anyone who has rescued a wolf or high-content hybrid does not have the luxury of raising a very young pup, or an animal who hasn’t been traumatized. Most of the animals do not accept change easily, most cannot be rehomed, especially since there are so few people with the proper experience and facility, permits, etc., to keep even a high-content hybrid.

Although wolves and dogs are nearly 99% genetically identical, probably the most noticeable features of a wolf are the obvious intelligence, single-mindedness, and call of the wild. They are not easily contained and will go over, under, or through most fences or obstacles. They are very inquisitive and destructive. Their pack instinct is very strong and important--wolves must have companionship. It may take a long time for a wolf to trust a human, after which time they will be very bonded with that human and may still not accept the attentions of another human. In most cases, a dog submits easily to a lead and collar, to crate-training, etc., a wolf will usually not. Of course it depends on the environment the animal came from, the age and the individual animal, but most of the people who breed and sell wolves and high-content hybrids care about little more than money, so the animal is destined to be a problem by the time the buyer acquires one. By the time the animals reach sexual maturity, they can be unmanageable.

It’s truly one of the saddest rescue situations in North America. Wolves are magnificent, awe-inspiring creatures--it is absolutely no surprise that people would be enamored of them (and it is unfathomable that we allowed and still allow what is done to them), but, as I preach--no matter how much you admire and would like to share your life with a wolf, don’t! It would be difficult to find a worse “pet.” They belong in the wild and only in the wild.

In your view, what’s the best approach to people who don’t care about animals, and may, in fact, exploit them?

Educate them, calmly, reasonably - hit them with the statistics and the facts, which means we have to educate ourselves. I try to not be confrontational--you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. I try to be knowledgeable about the facts and the issues. I try to be a good listener. I find that there is a big need for discussion and education even among those who care about animals and the various factions. There needs to be a lot of dialogue about what “animal welfare” is and isn’t, what “animal rights” is and isn’t. There is a lot of confusion and many misunderstandings. Most of us who care suffer moral quandaries--we rescue animals, feed them factory-farmed meat, buy products tested on animals, often for animals, wear leather shoes, and go through fast-food drive-up windows while we are relaying animals as a volunteer effort. It can take a lifetime to learn, to educate ourselves, and decide how much we can raise our consciousness and attempt to live more compassionately. Unfortunately, there are many who love their pet, only their pet, and will do nothing else. I think we are all in a state of flux and none of us should project a “holier than thou” image.

As for those who don’t care about animals, you may not get through to them on an emotional level, but you can let them know how much of their tax dollar is spent trying to clean up the “mess” we humans have created, and how we all need to contribute to a more effective, less expensive, more compassionate solution.

For those who exploit animals, we’d waste our breath trying to convince them that what they are doing is wrong. I like to tell them all the ways some of us are working to shut them down, why we intend to put them out of business, and how we will pass new laws that will prevent them from doing what they are doing. Despite their lobbies and their money, their shady tactics and strange bedfellows, we have some good legal precedents to use against them, such as the laws of many western European countries. The US and Canada need to model new legislation on those laws.

What are your personal goals as an animal advocate and rescuer?

I realized a long time ago that I wasn't going to change the world or be able to save every animal and person in need. Along the way, I learned that I should be applying my writing and communication skills to those needs and the issues. But I still approach that goal with the realization that I need to practice changing one mind at a time, saving one animal at a time. For all of us involved in this cause--really, for any cause that tries to bring about social change--it can be exhausting, frustrating, defeating-- you often feel helpless and hopeless. I still shed tears when I lose an animal, I still hate losing on an issue or legislative campaign- -I hope I always will.

I was recently honored when Dr. Elliot Katz, the founder/director of In Defense of Animals, read the prose from my book, "We Are Their Heroes," at Animal Rights 2002 in Washington a few weeks ago. I suppose a lot of readers find something in that piece that speaks to them, or encourages them--that pleases me, but I first wrote that piece to myself, to remind me of what is important and why I do what I do. I still have a copy of it on my refrigerator door and some days when I feel like I want to punch the wall, I take some deep breaths and reread it, and go on.

It's also very important to me that the animals under our direct care have a good life, and it's a daily struggle to keep all the balls in the air, try to achieve some balance, sufficiently divide my time between answering mail, writing, working on campaigns, spending time with the animals and scooping poop. But I have no regrets. I think when you realize you are living your "passion," even when it doesn't make "sense" always, or it is frustrating trying to maintain a balance--that's still far better than trying to mold your life according to expectations others have tried to apply to you.

All each of us can do is try harder and the only thing we should never do is stop trying. As Helen Keller said, "I am only one--but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. I will not refuse to do the something I can do."

How Could You?

I Stole Your Dog Today

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