It sounded like a great idea – a road trip with a four-footed, misunderstood pooch with a goal of changing the world.
From the first trip came a book: “Pit Stops,” in which Frazier park author Michelle Sathe chronicled her adventures driving across the country with Loren, a brown-and-white rescue pit bull who just happened to be available for adoption.
Hoping to change the perception some people have of pit bulls as dangerous animals, Sathe visited animal rescues, talked to people on the street and pretty much people-watched as America interacted with Loren.
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Some of what she saw broke her heart.
“The first time, I was kind of naïve and it was a whole new experience for me,” she explained. “It was kind of cool and I felt, in the beginning, that I was delivering an important message.”
Despite several encounters with people who shrunk back in fear when they saw Loren or those who felt compelled to preach the dangers of pit bulls – no matter how misinformed they might have been – she completed her first journey. Most importantly, her goal of finding a forever home for Loren was achieved just before the first book was published.
Undaunted, she was encouraged to take the trip again, this time with a little more knowledge, a sharper edge and a different dog.
Last month, Sathe returned from her second cross-country crusade, this time taken with Kara, a red pitty fireplug that soon earned the nickname “lovebug.”
“The second time around, it’s a little harder for me to write about it, because I already know what’s going on across the country. I felt like, in the beginning, I was going to make this amazing difference with the book and the trip, passing out postcards and everything. Now I realize it’s an uphill battle to change people’s perceptions.”
“Pit Stops has a built-in market among rescuers and pit bull lovers, but I’m trying to get it to break out into the mainstream, to the people who hear it (the misconceptions) the most,” she continued. “The first time, I focused on the problem, the how and why these dogs have the reputation they do, so now I’m trying to focus on the solution to show how people are overcoming that.”
Just like people have different personalities, Sathe found that Kara’s personality was received a bit differently than Loren’s. Maybe it was because Loren was a bit more of a “diva” (Sathe’s words) or that she looked more like a traditional pit bull and Kara is smaller and more – again, Sathe’s words – “quirky looking.”
“They’re both pits from a shelter,” she said.
In a blog and Facebook postings from the road, Sathe shared her travel adventures, often posting pictures of Kara bundled up in blankets in the middle of a comfy bed, typical of a hardship-fraught road trip.
Other shots included Kara walking along the beach, posing in front of a tourist sign and holding her own during book signings at rescues and pet supply stores.
Because she had the first book to promote on the most recent journey, Sathe said that she heard from people who used it to help educate their friends about both pits and the plight of homeless pets.
“It’s made a difference, but how big a difference, I don’t know,” she said. She’s sold about 700 copies of the book, which is pretty good for a self-published tome. “The nice thing about the book is that it’s relatable, people can attach themselves to a dog instead of a breed. I’m trying to get people to see them as dogs, not some crazy predator.”
Kyle Harris, who owns Kyle’s Custom Critter Care in Canyon Country, works closely with Sathe in helping dispel the myths. She also adopted Kara at the end of the Pit Stops II journey and is currently going through Canine Good Citizen classes with Kara so she can become a therapy dog. Kara will be the first pit bull in Valencia to do so.
“I still have people go ‘ooooh, a pit bull’ and back off when I walk them,” Harris said. “I do think the perception will change, I just don’t think we can make it change fast enough. I believe that the children are going to be the ones to teach the parents.”
“There is a big difference between the first and second books,” she explained. “The change isn’t coming fast enough, and the more I know about animal welfare and what’s happening in the shelters and with dog fighting, I know how many dogs are out there suffering and it kills me. Whereas before I was ‘la di da, I wonder what’s going on?, I’m gonna take this dog across the country and make this big difference,’ now I know how pervasive this problem is and it weighs on me. It doesn’t turn around fast enough, it will take a generation or two or more to turn around, because dogfighting and neglect and breeding and all those things have been going on for generations before us.”
Ironically, the well-publicized Michael Vick Bad Newz dog fighting case has actually helped her cause.
“Several people I interviewed for the book tell me that Michael Vick inadvertently did more to help pit bulls than just about anybody because he changed their perception from villains to victims,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of middle class people even knew about dog fighting before Michael Vick.”
On her second trip, she met rescue people who work in the inner cities and heard horror stories from youngsters about dog fighting that still goes on as entertainment in the streets.
“One of the people I talked with has gone into inner city centers and said that there was an 11-year-old boy who was watching a video about dog fighting and told him ‘Man, that ain’t sh*t, I can do outside in my alley and see a better show than that for 10 bucks.’ I have to keep in mind that there’s something like five million pit-bull type dogs and most of the owners are middle-class people like you and me who happen to have a pit bull and love them.”
“I met a woman at the Santa Fe shelter who said she was still a little ‘iffy’ about pits because they have a locking jaw,” Sathe said. “I told her that there is no scientific evidence that any dog has a locking jaw, and she countered with a statement that pits flip out when they get to middle age. I asked her, with five million pit bull type dogs out there, if that was true and they all had some genetic defect, wouldn’t there be a massive epidemic of dogs going berserk instead of a dozen or two dozen dog attacks per year?”
Sathe said that she’s driven by the plight of the dogs who, right now, need a defender who speaks common sense.
“Even just the average everyday owner who thinks they’re doing a good thing by adopting a pit bull type, but doesn’t properly secure their fence. Their dog gets out and meets up with a lab down the street that starts a fight, but just because there’s a pit involved, the pit will get blamed. It’s dog racism.”
She doesn’t need to be traveling across country to spread her message, though. One of her own neighbors got a lecture just the other day.
“I went up to my neighbor’s house, where she was letting her dog run around and told her ‘you’re a pit bull owner. You have to be super careful, you have to be totally diligent to make sure your dog doesn’t get loose. If a fight happens or something bad happens, your dog will be blamed, whether he’s at fault or not because there are people out there who would love nothing more than to eradicate pit bulls.’”
Sathe did say that she returned from her trip with a new perspective.
“It’s very interesting and very worthwhile to see what’s going on across the country, it gives you a broader perspective,” she said. “When you travel and see the rural areas, dogs chained up in the backwoods and the inner cities, it’s good to get that tactical feel, instead of just an intellectual feel. It’s like opening a Pandora’s box, once it’s open, you can’t shut it.”
She cited her involvement in finding a home for a pregnant pit that was on death row in Castaic just last week.
“If you’re a strong enough person and want to make a change, do it, but if you want to keep living your nice little life and not really know in your heart what’s going on, don’t do it because it changes you,” she said. “It’s given me that ability to really understand the situation from all angles. Usually I don’t get thrown by too many situations, and this experience has made me more hardened.
“It’s good, because I can deal with things more, at first, when I left with Loren, I would cry and I don’t so much, but when I meet a dog and get involved, I’m involved until the end, good or bad. I’m trying to be compassionate towards people and understand that they don’t have the viewpoint that I have.
“I don’t know how they were raised,” she continued. “I try to give people the benefit of the doubt that, given the proper information and tools, they will do the right thing. But then there’s the part of me that believes that there is a certain segment of the population that we’ll never reach. It’s made me more mature, more pragmatic, and in a way, it’s made me more sad.
“It doesn’t come fast enough. When you know there are pit bulls dying in shelters because people choose to ignore what’s going on with them or they choose to believe something that’s not true, it hurts your heart.”