by Katerina Lorenzatos Makris ~
This month, after more than 12 years at the helm of a group that has freed an estimated 3,500 tethered, neglected, and often abused dogs from their chains, and after personally rescuing and fostering about 300 of them into new lives, anti-chaining activist Tamira Thayne steps down from her position as CEO of Dogs Deserve Better, the organization she founded out of compassion for these forgotten animals, to begin a new chapter of her own life.
Thayne, a former graphic designer, art director, and United States Air Force linguist, as well as a mother of two, started the nonprofit group in 2002 with nothing but a mission: to get dogs off chains and into safe, loving homes. Since then Dogs Deserve Better has grown to include staff members and hundreds of thousands of followers and volunteers who help support its Good Newz Rehab Center for Chained and Penned Dogs in Virginia, along with its work pushing for legislation and spreading awareness on the cruelty of dog tethering.
What’s next for the woman who is so devoted to her cause that she once spent 54 days tied to a dog house in protest on the steps of a state capitol building, who endured prosecution and punishment for the “theft” of an elderly, ill chained dog rather than leave him there to die, and who persuaded her fiancé that they should get married wearing chains in a big “Chain Off” demonstration wedding?
Thayne answered this question and more in an exclusive interview with Spicy Stories Save Lives during her final week at Dogs Deserve Better.
INTERVIEW WITH TAMIRA THAYNE, FOUNDER OF DOGS DESERVE BETTER
Spicy Stories Save Lives: Why did you start Dogs Deserve Better?
Tamira Thayne: I wanted to make a difference in the world. I spent a lot of time seeking my mission, and every time I asked God or the universe what my mission was, a picture of the black Labrador chained up on the road would come into my head.
I repeatedly said, “No, that one’s too hard, too scary, I need another one.” But God was tenacious, and so I finally accepted it, and “Worthless”—that was the black Labrador’s actual name—was the first dog I was able to rescue from his chain.
At that time, no one was talking about chaining as an issue, and I thought if I took a stand I might well be standing alone. But that didn’t turn out to be the case.
Spicy: Can you tell us more about that first dog, “Worthless”?
Thayne: He was chained to a dog house a quarter-mile away from my Bellwood, Pennsylvania home. He kept getting tangled around a tree.
I drove back and forth past him for six years while taking my kids to school, visiting my mom, etc. Anytime I traveled the road I saw him.
Spicy: Why did his condition trouble you?
Thayne: Because it was cruel.
Spicy: How did you free him?
Thayne: I used to go up and feed him all the time, but they told me to stop coming around. So after I formed the organization I went back up, and the owner told me to go ahead and take him, that his daughter didn’t feed him anyway.
Spicy: Where did he live after you freed him, and where is he now?
Thayne: He lived with me until he died from heart failure six months after his rescue.
Spicy: You must have renamed him? It’s shocking that anyone would name their dog “Worthless.”
Thayne: Obviously we weren’t going to call him that, so my son renamed him “Bo.”
Spicy: Much better. Why did you choose “Dogs Deserve Better” as the name for your organization?
Thayne: Because I had to drive by Worthless every day for six years on his chain. I always muttered to myself, “Dogs deserve better than that,” and after a while it just kind of stuck in my head.
Spicy: Among all the ills and cruelties that fall upon dogs, why did you choose chaining as your focus?
Thayne: I felt they were the forgotten dogs. The dogs who supposedly had homes, but did they really? They were essentially abandoned in the backyard with no love and often without food or water.
Spicy: Do you have any figures on how many dogs in the United States are chained?
Thayne: We worked with Merritt Clifton from Animal People in 2008 to come up with a rough estimate, and we estimated six million chained and penned, “outside” dogs. But it’s merely an educated guess based on the number of dogs we came across on a ten-state tour we undertook.
Spicy: What are the main goals of Dogs Deserve Better? Is the group primarily trying to change laws? Change attitudes? Do in-the-trenches rescues of chained dogs?
Thayne: Yes to all three! From the beginning we’ve attacked all the angles—education, rescue and rehabilitation, as well as grassroots legislative efforts.
Spicy: Why do you think people chain dogs? Do most of them just not know any better?
Thayne: I think it’s laziness. Most of them come from a family of chainers. They don’t stop and think that it shouldn’t be like that. They just do what their granddaddy and their daddy always did. And it’s much easier to have a dog chained in the backyard, not causing you trouble in the house. If you can remember to give food and water daily, you’re done.
Spicy: In the U.S., is chaining most prevalent in rural areas?
Thayne: Yes, but you see it in inner cities and small towns too.
Spicy: Why is chaining dogs wrong?
Thayne: It goes against the very nature of the dog. Dogs are needy, loving creatures who want to be part of the family. When they are ostracized to the backyard, they suffer in a myriad of ways, not the least of which is overwhelming boredom and loneliness. It’s like being a prisoner, but longing to be a pet.
Spicy: What’s the best way to get this information through to folks who chain?
Thayne: If I knew that, our work here would be done! Every year we reach those few people who actually thank us and say they didn’t realize. That is extremely gratifying. But most times we endure antagonism and aggression from those who chain their dogs, and we are often at a loss on how to get through those defenses. I personally believe it’s a brick-by-brick situation. The first contact may seem to get you nowhere, but after a while, if you keep chipping away or adding one more brick to the wall, sooner or later minds gradually change.
Spicy: What about people who argue that if they don’t chain, they can’t have a dog, because they can’t afford to fence their yard?
Thayne: We tell them that it’s free to bring a dog into the home to live. You need no dog house, no chain, or no fence. You can walk your dog on a leash and combine together time and exercise for both the dog and yourself. It’s a win/win. We don’t like to see it as a chained vs. running free scenario. Neither of those are responsible. But making the dog part of the family is the best way to go, for all involved.
Spicy: Do you think there’s hope to convince people to stop chaining?
Thayne: Yes. I’ve seen tremendous progress in the past twelve and a half years, and where there used to be only Dogs Deserve Better to stand against it, now the big groups also take the stand, and there are many smaller groups formed just for the purpose of building fences and/or rescuing chained dogs.
Spicy: How does the U.S. compare to other countries in regard to chaining?
Thayne: Most of western Europe is much better and you rarely see a dog chained in those countries, but we are probably ahead of much of the rest of the world—probably on par with Australia and New Zealand from what I’ve seen.
Spicy: Does Dogs Deserve Better have any programs or outreach in other countries?
Thayne: We used to have volunteer reps in other countries, but our rep program bit the dust a few years ago, so right now we really don’t. Although we have given a couple of Hero Fund Grants to folks in other countries who are helping chained dogs there.
Spicy: Which states here in the U.S. have anti-chaining laws?
Thayne: California has the best law which limits chaining to three hours a day. They do allow trolleys, though, which is just chaining with a little longer distance. Also Connecticut, Delaware, Nevada, Oregon, and Rhode Island.
Spicy: Are there any states where anti-chaining laws are pending?
Thayne: I don’t know of any that are pending. There are bills in committee in Pennsylvania and New York that I know of right now.
Spicy: In August of 2010 you chained yourself to a dog house on the steps of the Pennsylvania state capitol building, and stayed there for 54 days straight, through blistering heat and thunderstorms. Why did you decide to do that?
Thayne: As an attempt to get the law we’d been working on for the eighth year passed. I thought if legislators saw me out there chained every day it would sink into their fat heads just how cruel it was. I failed.
Spicy: Looking back, what are your feelings about that “Operation Fido’s Freedom” campaign?
Thayne: I think it was important to the cause. It did not get the bill passed, but it raised a lot of awareness. Because of that action, Harrisburg [the state Capitol] passed a resolution urging the state to pass the law, then the next year passed a city-wide law limiting chaining.
Spicy: What was the most difficult part of that 54-day demonstration?
Thayne: Feeling invisible. I really got to understand how the dogs feel. Senators and staff would walk right by me like I didn’t exist, and it was very demeaning.
Spicy: What was the best part of it?
Thayne: Just being strong. Taking the stand and not backing down or ending it, until there was no longer hope for the bill.
Spicy: It must have been very physically demanding. Can you tell us about that part of it?
Thayne: I almost suffered heatstroke in the severe heat on multiple occasions. When the sun was high in the sky, there was no shade, and so I went through days of 102 degrees and no place to hide. Dogs go through that all the time, and dogs die of heat stroke on the chain, so I got to understand how they suffer. I also endured days of cold rain, and one time a severe thunderstorm that was blowing water in sheets and torrents across the road. As I was too large for my doghouse, I just stood there in the rain and took it, and people would look out the windows of the Capitol building and just watch me standing there.
Spicy: It had to have been emotionally challenging, too. Can you describe more of the emotional difficulties you went through at the time?
Thayne: I felt a lot of shame for standing up for the dogs when people would look down on me or pretend I wasn’t there. I was made fun of by many people, even people in the animal movement, and I just often felt sad and angry and helpless and hopeless. I was ignored and demeaned for doing it, but I also earned the respect of many, many people for going back day after day and not stopping until there was no hope left.
Spicy: Would you do it again? Do you recommend others doing it?
Thayne: I do, and have continued to do it at state capitols ever since. I have spent 877 hours on a chain in my 12.5 years with the organization. Others have started doing it, PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] did it this winter, and right now Kim Strong is walking to Albany, New York with a 50-pound chain that she and her followers are carrying.
Spicy: How did you get the idea to purchase Michael Vick’s former Bad Newz Kennels property and convert it into the Dogs Deserve Better Good Newz shelter?
Editor’s note: In 2007 National Football League star player Michael Vick pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in connection to illegal dog fighting at his Bad Newz Kennels in Smithfield, Virginia, then served 18 months in federal prison.
Thayne: We had started looking for land in the Virginia area when one of our former reps told us that Vick’s former property was still for sale years later. He had sold it to an investor when the heat was on, and the investor thought he could make a lot of money on it, but as it turned out no one wanted it.
So we looked into it and felt it was a viable location for our facility and that we could start out in the house that came with the property. I hated the thought of those torture sheds being torn down, and I still like the idea of creating a landmark memorial out of the whole shed and giving it a museum aspect and an education display about dog fighting in general and on that property. I am hopeful the organization will still pursue that creation.
Spicy: In 2011 you married your fiancé Joe while you were both chained to doghouses on the steps of the Pennsylvania state capitol building. You’ve got to admit, this is not a typical way to say “I do”! Can you tell us more about this unusual wedding, and why you wanted to exchange your vows this way?
Thayne: I always wanted to get married in an unusual way. And since I spent so much time chained to a doghouse, and this issue was my passion, it became my dream to get married chained on the steps of the Harrisburg capitol building. My husband, however, was not initially on board with that idea, and so I gave it up for awhile. But when I teased him about getting his tux ready for it as a “Chain Off” demonstration, he said, “Yeah, might as well just do it” and so we were off! It was amazing and fun and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Plus, the activist in me knew I could draw more women to chain with me for the day if I promised them a wedding at the end of the day. We women love weddings! And it worked. It was my largest Chain Off event ever, with over 40 people chained all over the steps. It was impressive.
Spicy: What was the worst case of a chained dog you’ve ever been involved in rescuing?
Thayne: Doogie for sure. He couldn’t even stand.
Editor’s note: According to the Dogs Deserve Better blog, in 2006 Thayne was arrested for removing an elderly, ill, chained dog named Doogie from a Pennsylvania backyard. The vet to whom she took Doogie documented his “generally neglected condition—low weight, sores, missing fur, very bad back spurs causing him a lot of pain and… inability to walk… also a mass near his hip.”
“I made a hard decision,” Thayne wrote. “I could not have lived with myself or looked myself in the eye if I were such a coward as to leave Doogie lying there dying on the ground for fear of what would happen to me. I see this case as a travesty against justice…the true perpetrators of a crime are the people who left Doogie to lie there dying for three days without doing right by him.’”
In a Dogs Deserve Better foster home, Doogie began to recover and “learned how to smile, love, kiss, hug, wag his tail, trot (yes! literally trot!) up to [his foster mom] and… play.”
Thayne was later convicted of theft and receiving stolen property, sentenced to 300 hours of community service “for a people organization,” in the words of the judge, “because ‘people are dogs too,’” and ordered to pay for the cost of the trial.
“Arrests such as mine are a pitiful statement for America,” Thayne stated in her blog. “I did what was morally right; I stand by my decision to help him and will be proud of it until my dying day. No one can take that from me.”
Spicy: If you could be granted three wishes for the dogs of the world, what would those be?
Thayne: That no dog ever had to live in a chain, obviously! That no dog had to live outside, period, but had a safe and healthy fenced environment and a doggie door that he/she could choose whether he/she wanted to be in or out at any given time. That all dogs were well-loved family members.
Spicy: What’s been your favorite part of serving as director of Dogs Deserve Better?
Thayne: I most enjoyed bringing an issue to light that hadn’t been brought to light before. I enjoyed the pioneer aspect of it.
Spicy: What’s been your biggest challenge as head of the group?
Thayne: Everything! Raising money to keep going, raising money to build an addition [at the shelter], and dealing with the discord that often arises in animal rescue work.
Spicy: What’s next? What are your plans now that you’re leaving Dogs Deserve Better?
Thayne: I don’t even know yet! I am taking a few weeks off to just think and reflect and rest. I told my husband he wasn’t allowed to bug me about anything for at least a week, which I’m calling Wallow Week, where I get to just lie on the couch and read books and eat bonbons, and then I will actually start to figure out where I go from here.
Spicy: Will you do more writing? I’ve bought your books Capitol in Chains: 54 Days of the Doghouse Blues, Unchain My Heart: Rescue Stories of Courage Compassion and Caring, and Scream Like a Banshee: 29 Days of Tips and Tales to Keep Your Sanity as a Doggie Foster Parent, and look forward to reading them.
Thayne: I’m sure I will. I have some ideas in mind, and I have some course work to finish up which involves a writing project, so I plan to tie that in with a self-help project for animal activists.
Spicy: I’ve read that you’re a minister. Does that have any effect on your work on behalf of animals?
Thayne: I’m an ordained interfaith minister as part of the spiritual and healing coursework I am involved in. I want to use this ministry and my degrees in Naturology to create a spiritual help platform for animal advocates who are suffering as part of their work for the animals.
Spicy: That’s badly needed. We’ve been aiming for kind of the same thing on this website, Spicy Stories Save Lives, particularly for animal rescuers, writing articles on the topic, and also doing the rescue-themed romantic fiction stories to provide a little entertainment, because we do some dog rescue ourselves, and know how draining the whole thing can be, in just about every way. It seems that everyone involved in animal rescue and advocacy could use some support and guidance on how to survive it.
Your background as a minister and as an experienced rescuer and activist will be hugely valuable in helping fellow animal advocates. When you get going on the project I would love to spread the word with more articles on it.
But first… bon appetit with those bonbons. And thanks for all you’ve done for animals so far.
Thayne: Thank you.
Spicy: Just one more question please. What’s your advice to someone who sees a chained dog, feels troubled by it, but doesn’t know what to do, or perhaps feels apprehensive about being “nosy,” or even scared to get involved?
Thayne: I wrote a couple blog posts about this. Here are the links for you.
[Also see tips from Dogs Deserve Better.]
Editor’s Note: On March 20, the Dogs Deserve Better Facebook page featured the following post regarding Thayne’s departure…
“Social media does not possess the space sufficient for a heartfelt tribute in honor of our founder Tamira Ci Thayne. Her work and activism has been one of admiration and inspiration. She has been at the vanguard in changing and implementing legislation for the freedom of our best friends from their chains and from their penning. Her enduring legacy is cast in history and will, through the dedication of our staff, our Board, our volunteers and all of you, continue to grow in its effectiveness, range and scope.
“While Tami will no longer be officially connected with Dogs Deserve Better she will continue to offer her guidance, inspiration, wisdom and perspective throughout the work ahead.
“Our ‘rescue angel’ will be dearly missed as a daily part of our organization.”
Find out more about Thayne and follow her work at the following spots:
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