a Soft Side

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Strength through Compassion

Phoenix, a female, two-year-old Pit Bull Terrier, was discovered by a young policewoman on her regular patrol. What the policewoman first saw, was the cloud of black smoke emitting from Phoenix’s burning body. Phoenix survived four days with over 95 percent of her body burned, but succumbed to kidney failure, and she was subsequently euthanized. It was only hours, before Phoenix’s story spread nationwide, as outrage grew over the cruelty afflicted upon her, while having hope for Phoenix, as she struggled for life. Phoenix was the soul who was the catalyst in Sande Riesett, Co-Founder and Board Member of the Show Your Soft Side organization, taking initiative towards ending animal abuse, perpetrated by the youth, under the falsely equated notion of cruelty as an act of toughness or strength. “For me, Phoenix was the lynchpin. It was impossible for me to comprehend how anyone, let alone a child, could do this sort of thing to a defenseless animal.”

Strength shown through compassion is the core message of the Show Your Soft Side (SYSS) campaign, which aspires to create a more compassionate world, not only for animals, but also for people. The campaign was launched in September 2011 in response to the alarming epidemic of animal abuse in Baltimore in 2010; what was more alarming: animal abuse was being perpetrated by the youth. As Riesett accounts, in 2010, there was an incident of animal abuse, one horrific case after another: a nursing cat was set on fire by two 13-year-olds; a gang of kids had clubbed a young puppy to death in a public park; Phoenix set on fire, after being doused with kerosene. The perpetrators of the cruelty and inhumanity afflicted upon Phoenix were caught, and sent to trial. People who followed Phoenix’s story, including Riesett, grew angry, as the trial of the two teens, Travers Johnson, and his twin brother, Tremayne, resulted in a hung jury. The two were later acquitted after their retrial in April of 2012, after jurors determined the prosecutors had insufficient evidence, as reported by The Baltimore Sun. In the same month, Travers Johnson pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree murder and the use of a handgun in a crime of violence (charged in December of 2010), and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Animal Abuse as a Precursor to Violent Crimes

Although it seemed like this was a period of rampant animal abuse, Riesett observes, there was no singular reason for this epidemic; most likely, animal abuse had been ongoing in many cities, including Baltimore, where the public was unaware, due to lack of reporting, both in the media and to the authorities. Charles Siebert, in an article for The New York Times, “The Animal Cruelty Syndrome,” cited Stacy Wolf, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Senior Vice President of the Anti-Cruelty Group, who stated, “It really has only been in recent years that there’s been more free and accurate reporting with respect to animal cruelty, just like 30 years ago domestic violence was not something that was commonly reported,” emphasizing the courts’ necessity in recognizing all vulnerable victims, including animals. “Violence is violence.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Association for Prosecuting Attorneys (APA) have universally acknowledged that animal abuse is a precursor for a violent crime, including domestic violence.

Siebert cited Dr. Randall Lockwood, ASPCA Senior Vice President for Forensic Sciences and Anticruelty Projects (and member of the Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force in Baltimore), where Dr. Lockwood stated, when he was a part of New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services, he and his team “discovered that in homes where there was domestic violence or physical abuse of children, the incidence of animal cruelty was close to 90 percent.” The prevalent pattern: the abusive parent used animal cruelty as a means of controlling the behaviors of the other family members, as companion animals have become a vital member of the family. The threat of violence to the companion animal “becomes a strikingly powerful intimidating force for the abuser.”

Siebert also cited a 1997 survey of the largest 48 shelters for victims of domestic violence and child abuse:

  • Over 85 percent reported that women who came in reported incidents of animal abuse
  • 63 percent reported that children who came in reported incidents of animal abuse
  • 25 percent of women who were victims of domestic violence reported their delay in leaving the abusive relationship out of fear for her companion animal (before shelters developed “safe haven” programs that also offered refuge for abused companion animals)

United through Love and Compassion

Riesett, and her soon-to-be Co-Founders (and Board Members) of SYSS, Caroline Griffin, Lori Smyth, as well as photographer, Leo Howard Lubow, knew something had to be done to end this cruelty. “Although we didn’t know each other at the time, each of us was experiencing the same feelings about Phoenix and wanted to contribute in some way.” Soon Riesett contacted Caroline Griffin, who then, was the Chair of the Mayor’s Anti-Animal Abuse Commission (created in response to Phoenix and all the victims of animal cruelty). Riesett had the opportunity to attend a commission meeting, speaking with the members, many of whom were in law enforcement. In this conversation, it was clear that the key to preventing animal abuse, was targeting the message to kids.

Riesett believed the kids would listen to their idols, athletes and other “tough” guys. Soon, Riesett was introduced to Lori Smyth, who was the Promotions Director at 98Rock and WBAL-AM (which at the time, was the flagship station for both the Baltimore Orioles and the Baltimore Ravens). As soon as Riesett walked into Smyth’s office, she knew Smyth would be a perfect addition to the team, as “every inch of wall space was dedicated to either an animal or an athlete.” Within weeks, the SYSS organization was born, with three athletes eager to participate. For Riesett, the actual concept of “Show Your Soft Side,” originated from watching her husband with their rescue cat, Little Man, “His whole tone and manner changes when he’s with our kitty, so I wondered if the same held true for other guys.” It was. The SYSS campaign has featured approximately 120 athletes, musicians, police officers, and Veterans, all of whom, are affectionately known as “Softies,” including nine female Softies.

Showing Your Soft Side

The SYSS campaign launched with three impressive Softies: Adam Jones (with the Baltimore Orioles) and his dog, Missy; Jarret Johnson (who was then with the Baltimore Ravens) and his dog, Tucker; and John Rallo (a mixed-martial arts fighter) and his cat, Doobie, all secured by Lori Smyth, as the SYSS campaign features prominent athletes and recording artists, who act as ambassadors for compassion. As Riesett accounts, “Our Softies include many of the biggest, toughest, baddest, and best in their fields, yet none are afraid to admit they have a soft side for animals. The message they’re sending to kids (and everyone else) is that compassion is a strength, not a weakness.” When the kids see their idols, big strong guys, who truly love their cats and dogs, it significantly impacts them. “These guys are living what they promote,” as these ambassadors are partnered with their own companion animals. A number of the Softies representing Baltimore are now board members of the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, Inc (BARCS, with the mission to accept and care for all animals in need and promote responsible ownership for a more humane community in Baltimore City). Riesett observes, in her 30 years in the advertising business, working with a myriad of celebrities on various campaigns, “I have never seen any of them go on to get involved like our Softies have,” who become actively involved with their local shelters: fundraising, advocating for efficient legislation, and adopting or fostering shelter animals. The Softies reach people of all ages, as Riesett affectionately observes, diehard fans of their home team, will also cheer for the opposing Softies.

The SYSS campaign is featured on posters, ads, billboards, bus shelters, and light rail panels, currently, with Baltimore and Philadelphia as the only two markets with outdoor advertising; SYSS will be expanding to two additional markets this year, Jacksonville, Florida, and Dallas, Texas. In December of 2015, the SYSS team worked with the New York Giants, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the band, Shinedown with lead vocalist, Brent Smith. Although much of the printed campaign is featured in only several markets, the SYSS campaign is no longer a regional campaign, as a vast amount of people have been reached online, through social media. The SYSS Facebook page reaches half a million to 1.2 million each week, even globally, where the SYSS team will hear from rescues around the world. The SYSS team looks forward to expanding, with hopes of new Softies from all regions joining the SYSS family. New campaigns are launched approximately a couple of weeks after the photo shoot (primarily with Lubow) and the approval of the final layout.

The Softies

The majority of the ambassadors are partnered with their companion animals. Inspired, after joining the campaign, some Softies have adopted a shelter animal, including Torrey Smith (formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, currently with the San Francisco 49ers). Although many pairs of the SYSS campaign have been memorable, Torrey Smith and his dog, Prince, had the greatest personal impact on Riesett. Smith’s first poster was with Prince, where soon after, Smith would participate in an event with the Baltimore Orioles, throwing the first pitch of the game. During a conversation afterwards, the SYSS team told Smith of the staggering number of homeless animals who enter BARCS. Riesett fondly recalls, two weeks after that conversation, she received a call from Smith: he wanted to adopt a sibling for Prince, from BARCS. Smith would go on to participate in additional campaigns, which included the new addition to his family, Mama. To Riesett, it was amazing to see the impact Smith’s participation made, as he has become a huge champion for the SYSS campaign, and for BARCS.

Another memorable Softie was Josef Newgarden, an IZOD IndyCar Series Driver with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, who also adopted a companion. As Riesett accounts, Newgarden, a “long-time cat lover,” had been in town for the Grand Prix Race, and agreed to participate in the SYSS campaign. Newgarden was photographed with a litter of shelter kittens, where one kitten stood out. With a laugh, Riesett comments, Newgarden and the kitten, MJ, instantly fell in love with each other at the shoot, “MJ just adored him; you could see the sparks fly!” A couple of weeks later, Newgarden indicated that he wanted to adopt MJ, his lucky charm since.

As many of the Softies are prominent athletes, members of law enforcement have also joined the SYSS family. Baltimore City Police Officer Dan Waskiewicz was the first police officer Softie, joining the campaign after responding to a “dangerous dog” call. Rather than drawing his gun, Officer Waskiewicz got down on his hands and knees, as the dog (who would be named Bo) approached him. Officer Waskiewicz was taking Bo to BARCS, as Bo smothered Officer Waskiewicz with kisses during the car ride; Officer Waskiewicz’s partner took photos, which would go viral. Officer Waskiewicz would become a Softie, photographed with his new family member, Bo, all the while, capturing numerous hearts with his soft side.

Baltimore City Police Officer, Jon Boyer, is also a memorable Softie. Officer Boyer had been known to routinely save cats, taking them to BARCS; BARCS would soon give the SYSS team a call. The SYSS team asked Officer Boyer to join the SYSS campaign, where Officer Boyer was joined by his kitty, Lilly, for his campaign. Officer Boyer was also asked to participate in Pawject Runway, their annual fundraiser taking place at the Baltimore Arena, with proceeds benefiting the BARCS medical fund, with one dog honored each year. Pawject Runway is the hippest fashion show, featuring the Softies modeling adoptable cats and dogs from BARCS. Pawject Runway is the place where adoptable companion animals are superstars, and a homeless dog gets a standing ovation. The Huffington Post would write a piece about Officer Boyer’s heroics in rescuing cats (three of whom he adopted), and showing his soft side in the SYSS campaign. This year’s Pawject Runway takes place on May 13, 2016, at the Royal Farms Arena.

As Officer Boyer was a memorable police officer, Retired-Sergeant Matthew White, was the most memorable Veteran. In early December of 2015, the campaign featured Retired-Sergeant White, of the 82nd Airborne Division and Purple Heart recipient, who joined the SYSS family with his best girl, Nike: his heart and soul. A friend of Retired-Sergeant White, had messaged the SYSS team about Retired-Sergeant White. After learning his story and his incredible love for Nike, the team asked if he would like to participate in the campaign. Riesett recalls, “Matthew is a very private guy and it took from the summer of 2014 to the fall of 2015 to finally get him to say yes.” Nike is Retired-Sergeant White’s companion dog (rather than his service dog), who has made a huge impact in his life, particularly in his transition into civilian life after two tours in Afghanistan. Seeing Retired-Sergeant White and his unconditional affection for Nike, was the reason the SYSS team wanted to secure him as a Softie. Although SYSS currently does not have plans for a Veterans’ series, “We are always open to people who personify what being a Softie is all about—and certainly, these guys top that list,” Riesett comments.

Perhaps the most popular of the SYSS ambassadors, is Aladdin, the therapy dog who has captivated hearts with his gentle demeanor and loving heart, despite his past abuse. Aladdin had been found wandering the streets in south New Jersey, severely emaciated, both back legs and his tail had been broken, he had various wounds on his body and face, and he was missing 12 teeth. Aladdin was then brought to the Camden County Animal Shelter, who reached out to Michele Schaffer, Lilo’s Promise Animal Rescue Community Outreach Director, who initially intended to foster Aladdin. Schaffer realized that Aladdin belonged in her family, “I never thought about adopting him, but I never thought about not having him in the house.” Aladdin and his mom are long-time members of the SYSS family, as Riesett observes, “[Michele] is the best ambassador!” considering Schaffer as an integral part of the SYSS team, as their Philadelphia representative.

Aladdin joined the SYSS family when the campaign was expanding into Philadelphia, and the team was introduced to Schaffer. When the team traveled to Philadelphia, they finally had the opportunity to meet Aladdin, and instantaneously, “all of us fell in love. Here is a pup that has been through hell and back, and yet is one of the most gentle, loving creatures you’ll ever meet.” NFL players to rock stars are fans of Aladdin! It was perfect to partner him with Jon Dorenbos, of the Philadelphia Eagles, also a good friend of Schaffer’s. It is not a surprise to Riesett that Aladdin is the most requested guest at all the SYSS events; with a laugh, Riesett comments, at an event with NFL players in attendance, most guests will ask, “Is Aladdin going to be here?”

Doris Day
Doris Day

Doris Day is an American film and television actress, singer, and animal rights activist. Day began her career as a big band singer in 1939. Her popularity began to rise after her first hit recording, "Sentimental Journey", in 1945. | Photo: Doris Day | Link |

A Soft Side to Create Compassion

Riesett reflected in why the campaign was started: when we make this a better world for animals, we have better adults. What Riesett has learned while working on the SSYS campaign was that despite the increased awareness about animal abuse, there is no humane education in schools. The SYSS campaign partnered with the Mickey Project, to inspire humane treatment of animals among elementary school children, when the Mickey Project (a partnership between Jasmine’s House and Dr. Bernard Harris, Sr. Elementary School in Baltimore City) approached the SYSS organization. The Mickey Project was named in honor of a nine-week-old puppy, named Mickey, who passed away during surgery, after having been starved and thrown from a car, in November of 2011; despite her good spirits, even taking a few steps with her little wrapped leg, and wagging her tail, after two days of intensive care, Mickey passed away during her leg amputation, as the last stitch was being placed on her leg.

The SYSS organization provides posters and materials (as well as to teachers and schools across the country, free of charge), where all three SYSS board members have visited each semester, each time impressed by the results of the program. As The Mickey Project reports, the students had completed pre- and post-test questionnaires about their attitudes and knowledge, which included the following results:

  1. Before Project Mickey, approximately half the students felt that the Pit Bull breeds were a little more dangerous than other breeds; after, 93 percent reported they felt the Pit Bull breeds were no more dangerous than other breeds.
  2. Before Project Mickey, 75 percent of the students felt strongly they could teach others about dogs; after, all the students felt they could confidently teach others.
  3. After Project Mickey, students were able to identify 40 percent more expressive words and 40 percent more needs of companion animals.
  4. Students were able to identify: four different ways to stay safe around unfamiliar dogs; two ways to tell how a dog is feeling based on behavior; at least two facts about Pit Bulls; approximately two examples of abuse or neglect; and at least two consequences of dog fighting (the statistics represent twice, even four times, as many correct answers to the questionnaire before the completion of the program).

Riesett hopes that through humane education, children learn that when they care about an animal, they receive infinite, unconditional love in return, as animals aren’t judgmental, and will continue to love you, no matter their past history. Riesett believes this compassion can be instilled in people of all ages. Siebert cited Dr. Lockwood, who reinforces Riesett’s observation, believing that “empathy is essentially innate, but I also think empathy can be learned, and I know it can be destroyed.” Siebert accounts that one of the most promising means to help heal those whose empathy has been destroyed, is through working with animals. Dr. Lockwood states, animal-therapy programs “draw on the same issues of power and control that can give rise to animal cruelty, but elegantly reverse them to more enlightened ends.” For example, equine-therapy programs have been helping a number of teenagers with severe emotional and behavioral issues, as well as children with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. Aspen Ranch, located in Loa, Utah, gives troubled teenagers the opportunity to work with wild mustangs who have been adopted from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Dr. Lockwood continues, the child or teenager who works with a horse or teaches a dog to do tricks, is “getting a sense of power and control in a positive way,” by doing something constructive. Other programs include shelter dogs living with, and being trained by, prison inmates; perhaps, in training them to become service dogs.

Everyone can do something constructive, such as being a part of the SYSS community, whether by donating, spreading awareness, or being kind. As the SYSS organization is an entirely volunteer-based organization, 100 percent of the funds raised go towards the campaign. Much of the organization’s funding comes from corporate sponsorship, where spreading awareness about the campaign, can be crucial in saving lives, both animal and human. To Riesett, connecting people who are all working to create a more compassionate world for animals, resulting in a compassionate world for ourselves, “is something we’re all about.”

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”—Dalai Lama, Tibetan Leader

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:01 PM EDT | More details


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