The Defining Moments How I Got Here: The Intro

Over the course of production for this doc-series, I will be writing blog entries pertaining to subtopics the film covers. I’ve shrunk it down to 6 primary categories: Dogfighting; Breed Specific Legislation; the Animal Welfare and Sheltering Systems; the Human-Canine Bond; Racism and Classism; and Mental Illness.

If there was a singular defining incident in time that got me to where I am sitting today, without a doubt it would have been 14 years and three days ago – April 25, 2007…the day NFL star quarterback, Michael Vick, was suspected of participating in the illegal underground activity of dogfighting.

An ESPN article written the day after Vick’s house was raided.

At the time, I was already researching all forms of animal cruelty for what would be my first documentary film as an aspiring filmmaker. The previous two years I finished writing a screenplay titled “kArmA”, and began assembling a cast and crew to turn those 110 typewritten pages into a feature film. After a couple failed attempts to keep everyone together long enough to start production, I turned my attention to another film genre that I had more control from concept to completion, to scratch the creative itch in filmmaking I acquired.

Enter – Documentary Film.

Going in, I knew I wanted to focus the topic on animals, because I was a proud “people suck” kinda guy. It seemed widespread negativity about our human species was and still is commonplace found in candid conversations, because most people I knew also thought people sucked, and that helped create a contagious mentality that was easy to conform to.

I mean, having heart is for suckas, right? Because only one thing is bound to occur when you care – you just get hurt.

So, beginning in January of 2007 sometime after the New Year, I spent next several months locked inside my small one-bedroom apartment in Lakewood (OH) on Cleveland’s westside, attempting to narrow down a subject matter within the systems of animal cruelty that interested me to examine further, and hopefully do my part in exposing a problem while contributing to positive change.

Every night after work and on days off, I would fill my free time reading detailed stories and watching horrific videos of abuse which allowed the unnecessary suffering of animals. And, frankly speaking – it changed me. No, it first horrified me that monsters like that existed…but, I guess that was needed for it to be the catalyst that led to some initial personal changes.

Perceived optimism and change was starting to fill the air when a little-known Senator from Chicago named Barack Obama threw his name in the hat on February 10th to become our country’s 44th President of the United States, and if successful, the first African-American to accomplish the feat. His entire campaign slogan he ran on was this simple idea of CHANGE, which it soon spread nationwide in the subsequent months leading to the primaries (in 2008), and becoming a battlecry for Democrats as his popularity grew in support.

Before then, it was easy to declare myself an “animal-lover“. It sorta rolls off your tongue with such ease – I’m an a·nuh·muhlluh·vr.

But, there wasn’t any accountability from others – let alone from myself, while having discussions with others in the unofficial ‘people-who-love-animals-who-hate-people‘ movement. For someone who spent the majority of his life seeking the group of people I belong to, I felt I finally had my place where I fit and would be accepted. And, who shared some of the same skewed beliefs and priorities.

I was no stranger in expressing my views on animals and their rights as a living, breathing creature on this planet in earlier phases of my life. Some of my earliest memories as a child are the time spent in the woods in the undeveloped neighborhood we lived, curious about every living creature running, crawling, hopping, flying and slithering passed me.

For my final presentation in Speech class my junior year of high school, I nervously talked about animal testing, complete with graphic images plastered in a collage on poster board of animals screaming in agony used for experimentations, and usually in the name of vanity.

I realized then that using shock value isn’t a preferred or sustainable method to promote the type of change that will produce actual results on a macro level. Shock value is just meant to make people uncomfortable, and when people are uncomfortable, they typically tend to ignore or find some other way to tune it out. This goes for both animal and human causes.

But, professing my love for animals across the board also came with a massive amount of hypocrisy attached to it. My mom used to have to remove the meat off any bone at dinner time in order for me to eat it, because with every bite it was a reminder that I was eating the flesh of an animal, and it made me nauseous to the point I lost my appetite. While I didn’t directly kill the animal myself, my conscious also didn’t prevent me from not contributing with my continued consumption of meat, dairy and other animal-related products through my 20’s. But, that all started to change for me in early 2007, because I forced myself to be uncomfortable watching investigative videos of legal torture at commercial farms, where regulations are either loose, disregarded or non-existent.

Still undecided about which direction I would go, I stumbled upon a woman doing work in Pennsylvania unchaining dogs living in substandard conditions. I reached out to her on one of the forums she was on, expressing interest in more information about what she does.

My initial impression after reading news articles about her and her work was she seemed incredibly authentic and credible, but also brave, too, because she had been arrested for doing what she believed was necessary, putting the safety of the animal above all else, including the law.

Research from April 2007.

When we first spoke on the phone, her 2006 case for stealing a dying, chained dog was still ongoing. But, those talks with her helped lock down the film’s theme – an examination of the broken municipal animal sheltering system. Her name was Tammy Grimes.

Two weeks or so later, on the morning of April 25, 2007, I wasn’t sold, but I did wake believing I had found the issue to tackle for this first film. I went through my normal routine of slowly getting out of bed and preparing my breakfast with SportsCenter on the television to catch up on all the previous night’s scores and highlights.

Coming from Cleveland, it’s hard not to be pretty fanatical about sports, especially football. The modern game was born a short trip south of Cleveland in northeast Ohio. And, the NFL draft was approaching in a few days, where optimism is most high for us long suffering Browns fans.

Then, breaking news came across the screen. Little did I know the impact it would create that would change the course of my foreseeable future – 14 years in and counting.

Federal authorities raid Michael Vick’s Virginia property finding dozens of neglected dogs; suspected of running a dogfighting operation.

I, like most, was immediately disgusted by Vick’s participation in dogfighting. Maybe the thing that frightened me most was, this was a guy who had everything – a 100 million dollar NFL contract, to go along with countless tens of millions in endorsement deals, and the face of the Atlanta Falcons franchise. And, he sacrificed it all to be a part of this culture that fight dogs? It just didn’t make any logical sense.

I can’t help but think of the coincidence. At a time when one black man was rising to political stardom and fame (Obama), another was facing an abrupt descent. That morning I took Vick’s case as a sign, and ran with it; I would be changing the topic once again – My film would be about dogfighting with an emphasis on the victims…the dogs.

I was a dog-lover from the beginning, born into a home with a dog. Was much too young to remember anything specific about her, other than her name was Buffy and she must’ve influenced my earliest positive experiences with dogs because I named a stuffed animal after her…only, I couldn’t pronounce my B’s, apparently, so it came out as Puffy, instead. Meet Puffy (see photo below).

Stuffed animal “Puffy” sitting atop the curio cabinet.

Buffy unfortunately ran away one night and we never saw her again. I still think about her – the fragmented picture I created in my head, whenever I look up at Puffy sitting atop my curio cabinet, and can’t help but wonder what happened. I never really asked my parents, it may be wishful thinking, but I only hope she was able to be loved by someone.

From there, the majority of my life my family shared our homes with dogs – mostly smaller or medium sized ones, but never one that would be remotely considered a “pit bull”. Besides a couple friends, my previous interactions with dogs labeled “pit bull” were minimal. And, in hindsight, my views of those dogs weren’t always delightful.

It’s hard to not be influenced by what you see and read. Growing up in the 80’s, you didn’t even have to pay much attention to be unknowingly influenced by the dangers we’re told, especially in news media and in popular culture. And, those outlets succeeded at making “pit bull” dogs different than the dogs I shared my home with. They were talked about as if they were almost a completely different species.

To make matters worse, I was born and raised in Ohio, who had statewide regulations singling-out the ownership of “pit bull” dogs called Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) – passed at the height of the national “vicious dog epidemic” in 1987 when these laws were spread like wildfire. I lived in the only state that had laws restricting the ownership of these dogs for twenty years, and I only became aware of them when I accidentally stumbled upon it while researching dogfighting that first year, which I found that to be more than odd.

I began archiving every article pertaining to dogfighting, while keeping a close eye on Vick’s ongoing case, and organized binders with tabs separating subtopics, as well as potential interviewees I’d like to reach out to. My plan was to also include a chapter about BSL, because I knew they were somehow connected, even if I didn’t know why at the time.

I knew nothing about these issues – let alone the process how to do documentary film, so I learned everything along the way. In some ways it was a blessing, because I remember telling myself – if I am going to be taken seriously as a documentary filmmaker, I must throw away every bias I know I have, question everything, and allow the facts to rise to the surface. When you only have unproven personal opinions, it makes it easier to discard what you think you know, but it also creates an issue because you are forced to look at all sources, and then determine who is and who is not credible from there.

Day Planners from 2008-2020.

Looking back, I’m grateful I kept impeccable records of everything. Every person or organization I reached out to, or conversation I had, was dated and documented. It’s a practice I still maintain today.

By default, the 1st two organizations I sent email inquiries out were the ones most often quoted in those early news articles about Vick’s case – The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Since their headquarters are based in the same region, I set up dates in early May 2008 to visit and conduct interviews with each. On that same trip, I made a stop at 1915 Moonlight Road – the property where Vick and friends kept and trained the dogs.

Around that time, I also began researching local Cleveland area rescues since I didn’t have much hands-on experience with these particular dogs. I felt, if I am going to do a film about dogs most commonly used in dogfighting, and do it responsibly and ethically, I had to meet more. The only problem, there was only one “pit bull” rescue in Cleveland – For the Love of Pits (FTLOP).

Once I returned from that Virginia trip, I contacted Shana Klein – founder of FTLOP. We arranged a day the following week where I’d come over, so she can get to know me and my plans for the project better, as well as help guide me with much needed information. Showing hesitancy to do any on-camera interviews or let me capture footage of the foster dogs in her care, she asked that I leave the equipment behind. Given the plight of dogs labeled “pit bull” in Ohio at the time, and the way local news reported, I definitely didn’t want or intend to negatively contribute to the problem.

On May 15, 2008, I pulled into her driveway. What I didn’t know then, this would be the 2nd defining moment in this journey – The day I met Preston. And, my life and the film would change once again.

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