Their Story

image by Greg Murray Photography

From the moment I adopted Preston on October 4, 2008 we were inseparable from that day forth. I was already in a transition in life going into my 30s, spending less time socializing with long-time friends who were getting into serious relationships and having babies, which made it easier to live a simple life; Working my day job, then coming home and going on a daily walk with Preston through rain, sleet, sun or snow, and the rest of my time was devoted to examining breed specific legislation.

Since this law is not exclusive to Ohio or the rest of the United States, I didn’t know how broad I wanted to explore it on a global basis. Places like the United Kingdom, who has had a ban of American Pit Bull Terriers and associated” breeds since 1991; the entire Canadian province of Ontario, who passed a ban a few short years before Lakewood; or, in the Down Under where “pit bull” dogs have been legislated against in Australia and New Zealand. These are just a few examples of the dozens of countries who singled-out “these” dogs. They can’t all be right, right?

Then, things started to happen. A friend named Jean Keating in Toledo (Lucas County, OH) was making progress on their city’s longstanding ban, repealing it in 2010. Since I was still learning how to be the most effective in my advocacy, I asked her for help to replicate what she did there here in Cleveland. Seven months later, we were repealing Cleveland’s breed specific legislation in June 2011. This was before the state of Ohio repealed in 2012, ending that restriction of ownership that lasted 25 years. After the state law went down, several more municipalities proactively followed suit, since most only mirrored the previously state law.

Once again, I took that as a sign. This documentary about breed specific legislation would follow Lakewood’s proposal and passing of the ban in 2008, the subsequent enforcement of their law, while using Ohio’s state law and its impact on local communities as the backdrop.

Along the way, two more dogs found their way into our home – A six month old girl, Era, in 2011, and a heartworm positive girl named Fergie in 2012, both of whom came from the Cleveland City Kennel, during a time they too were going through a transition from being dog catchers to animal care and control.

Guilty Til Proven Innocent” (GTPI) was released on April 28, 2013, premiering in my hometown, and subsequently did 20-some screenings around the country, including official selections to two film festivals (2013 St. Louis International Film Festival; 2014 Kansas City Film Fest), as well as being shown in three law school universities as part of their animal law curriculums, and being supported by one of the largest national animal welfare organizations – Best Friends Animal Society, who sent copies of the DVD to state and local lawmakers faced with this issue.

The research for this documentary taught me many lessons, and helped shape my advocacy to become more inclusive. What started as a film meant to exonerate dogs labeled “pit bull”, unexpectedly transformed into an exploration into the human component of the law, and how it was born out of racism and classism in the 1980s when it was spreading like wildfire across the U.S. and eventually around the world.

As they say – What goes up, must come down. During that climb watching the film success, and being a part of local and national media coverage and other accomplishments it helped create, I also found myself indirectly involved in an alleged cruelty case for much of latter portion of 2013, after one of the hosts for an early screening found himself in a year long allegation of providing unfit care for the dogs in his sanctuary.

Additionally, I began a follow-up film project called “Train Ave” in January 2014, after meeting a talented tattoo and visual artist, who was routinely finding dead dogs in garbage bags discarded along a forgotten-about road in a downtrodden neighborhood on Cleveland’s westside. I took my camera and documented his work, which included having them cremated so they didn’t end up in the city landfill, and incorporating their ashes into his art to tell their stories.

Once optimistic and full of ambition, by mid-2014 my mental health took a nosedive with crippling depression and severe anxiety, leading to my first attempt at suicide in November (2014). I became irritable and opinionated about the state of animal welfare, and definitely publicly criticized some influential welfare organizations, which didn’t buy me any friends. I woke up in a cold sweat on another restless and sleepless night, no longer afraid to die, I was afraid to continue suffering.

I walked into my home office that early morning around 5 a.m., closed the door and wrote what was to be my final blog entry – “Save Me, And I’ll Save You“, with the intent of hitting publish followed by putting a bullet in my head. Moments before I finished typing the last paragraph and psyching myself up to relieve myself of my living hell, Preston nudged the door open and stared at me. I took one look into his soulful brown eyes, and lost it. This dog saved me from carrying out a plan I could never take back.

That wasn’t the end, though. It was a long process getting my mental health back with some normalcy again. For the next 2-3 years, every day I questioned whether I made the right choice in sticking around in hopes for a better day. My dogs were the only reason I had that gave me the purpose to get out of bed. It was there I became even more aware of this special human-canine bond, and how dogs enhance our lives physically, as well as mentally and emotionally.

Beginning in 2017, I became active again in animal welfare, as a new movement was forming to repeal Lakewood’s ban, and on April 2, 2018, Lakewood City Council unanimously did just that. We re-released “Guilty Til Proven Innocent“, completely re-edited and updated to include the repeal ten years later. This is where I also came up with a handbook of sorts of best practices to be effective in repealing this law which has become increasingly unpopular, and put it to the test, assisting in repealing a couple handfuls of other cities over the next year.

Sadly, on January 7, 2019, Preston experienced his first known seizure. He was brought to his vet the following morning for tests, where it was discovered he was anemic. His outlook looked grim due to his estimated 14 years of age and lack of money to get him the medical help he needed. Two organizations stepped up – Mr Mo Project and Live Like Roo, and paid his expensive medical treatment at a veterinary hospital where he stayed over the weekend and was passed down through the different specialist departments to get him some new form of health again.

Preston lived another 14 more months, before his deteriorating health reached a point on March 16, 2020 where it was in his best interest to be humanely put to sleep so he never knew a minute of suffering since the day he was taken from that home in 2006.

Unfortunately, the year 2020 was not kind to our family. As the rest of the world was dealing with the COVID pandemic, Era had two surgeries in back-to-back months immediately following Preston’s passing – first to remove several suspicious growths, followed by another after a diagnosis of cancer on her anal gland (Anal gland adenocarcinoma).

Just as all attention was now on Era, on July 5th (2020) Fergie nearly collapsed in the yard. She was brought to the vet the following morning to have tests run where it was discovered she had two large masses in her chest and abdomen. Within three days she stopped eating and my second dog in four months had to be put to sleep to avoid any further unnecessary suffering. The goal then became to not lose all three of my dogs in the same calendar year.

Thankfully, Era achieved that, but she was miserable without her lifelong companions, which became increasingly understood whenever she had overnight stays at my parents and their two smaller dogs, and how they put life back into her again. While I visit her 2-3 times per week, it came with the bittersweet realization that it’s in her best interest to live out her final chapter in a home other than mine. She’s happy again.

Through these last 14 years, I came in as a dog-lover, who started a documentary film, and evolved into an advocate for all life. That’s what happens when good dogs – who are branded with an unfair label, crash into your life.

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