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Favorite pet moments of 2011

Animals: The stories that touched a writer’s heart

Posted: December 31, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: December 31, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Kyle Harris, left, walks her dog Kara among (counterclockwise) Clare Storey and Norman, Lynda Hill and Red, and Yvonne Allbee and Jack, all participants at the Canine Good Citizen Class at Central Park in Saugus. All of the dogs in the class are rescued pit bulls or pit bull mixes. Harris plans to make Kara a therapy dog.

For those of you who don’t know me beyond my byline, I am a passionate animal advocate and rescue volunteer during off-hours.

That’s why I was thrilled when The Signal started a pet page earlier this year and asked me to write features for it every other Saturday. It’s been a golden opportunity to provide pet owners with tips on health, nutrition and other topics of interest, as well as to profile the many incredible human beings that help animals every day in our community.

There were many heroes on these pages in 2011, whether it was the veteran and his family that gave a shelter dog a new life or the pit bull owners training their dogs to be Canine Good Citizens, a crucial step in helping a misunderstood breed overcome an undeserved reputation.

And it’s not just the traditional domestic pets that touched my heart. A visit to The Gentle Barn changed me profoundly. I no longer eat meat (except for occasional seafood), have cut down drastically on dairy products and am aspiring to make more humane food choices every day.

Animals give us joy and unconditional love. The least we can do in return is to treat them with respect and humanity. 

That’s what I took from my findings over the last year. Hopefully, you did, too.

Here are my favorite pet moments from 2011.

Farm animals find safe haven
Monty struts around his pen, his magnificent feathers and broad chest puffed out. Call his name, and Monty responds with a hearty gobble, making him a favorite at The Gentle Barn farm animal sanctuary in Canyon Country.

Two years ago, Marty was destined for a Thanksgiving dinner table. Instead, he now lives at The Gentle Barn with his companion Marcia, who was also rescued from the slaughterhouse, and more than 130 horses, pigs, chickens, goats, sheep and cows.

“When people get to see these animals eye-to-eye, really see who they are, it expands their heart,” said Gentle Barn founder Ellie Weiner. “All creatures deserve a place on this Earth. At the end of the day, we’re all the same; we just look different.”

Open to the public every Sunday and during the week for private tours, The Gentle Barn offers opportunities to groom horses, brush cows, give pigs tummy rubs, talk to turkeys and more. The organization — located on a picturesque six-acre ranch — also created programs for individuals with special needs and at-risk youth, such as children in foster care.

“There’s no way these kids would sit on a couch and tell a therapist their problems, but when you show them a miniature horse named Boz, who was beaten by his alcoholic owner for six years, they hang on every word,” Weiner said of the latter. “The walls come down, and it melts away the defenses. They begin to heal through these animals.”

Class makes canine citizens
They move in unison, a tan pack of wagging tails and smiling faces.

“Forward. About turn. Left turn. Halt. Sit.”

The commands come quick, and the dogs respond appropriately, much to the delight of their owners, who gather in Central Park in Saugus each Thursday morning.

The four canine classmates — Jack, Norman, Kara and Red — are training for American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen certification.

Started in 1989, the Canine Good Citizen Program is a two-part program that stresses responsible pet ownership for owners and basic good manners for dogs. All dogs who pass the 10-step CGC test receive a certificate from the AKC.

Jeanette Beltrans, a CGC-certified dog trainer who has led group obedience and CGC classes in the Santa Clarita Valley for the last 15 years, runs the canines through their paces. “I know these gals, and I knew they were going to bring their ‘bully breeds.’ I have a soft spot for bully breeds,” Beltrans said.

Bully breeds include pit bulls, boxers or bulldogs.

“One of the benefits of getting a CGC on one of the so-called ‘dangerous breeds’ is that there are a couple of insurance companies that are willing to insure pet owners if they have CGCs on their dogs. Before, they might not insure you at all,” Beltrans said.

Another benefit, Beltrans continued, is the ability to go further into therapy dog training.

Most organizations that utilize therapy dogs require CGC certification.

Kyle Harris, of Canyon Country, plans to do just that with Kara, the only girl in the class. 

“We want to join the READ program, to go into libraries and schools, and help children learn to read,” Harris said. “Kara loves people and all the attention.”

Program matches pets to veterans
He was in a county shelter, just another brown Chihuahua, a stray waiting for the day when he would be adopted.

They were looking for a dog to save, one that might take away the pain of combat memories for the man of the house.

When Yankee Boy met the Robbins family, of Valencia, it was the beginning of a healing journey for everyone involved.

“He just came up to us. It was as if he had a grateful heart and wasn’t expecting much from anyone, but had a lot of love to give,” recalled Sarah Robbins. “It was a really good day for our family when we adopted Yankee Boy and it’s continued to be a blessing to have this new pup.”

The adoption was free to the Robbins family as part of Pets to Patriots, since Kent Robbins is a military veteran. The Los Angeles Animal Alliance program, sponsored by the Jason Debus Heigl foundation, is offering free Los Angeles County shelter pet adoptions to veterans through Dec. 31.

The usual adoption, spay or neuter and vaccination fees, which can cost $100 or more, are waived; adopters must still pay a $20 county licensing fee.

Participating shelters include Castaic Animal Shelter, where Yankee Boy was housed before being paired with the Robbins family at a mobile adoption event at PetSmart in Stevenson Ranch.

“Besides the fact that the adoption was free, it was just nice to know that people care about the service that veterans have given, that they’re thought of, and that organizations like this honor the families,” Robbins said.


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