His Past Did Not Determine His Happiness.

 

Jason and Sugar Mama – the dog who saved his life.

This story first appeared in the Summer/Fall 2018 edition of The New Barker dog magazine in our Men Who Love Dogs series. by Anna Cooke

FIGHTING HATE WITH LOVE. The longer you’re in prison, the more hardened you become. “Suddenly, a dog in my life I learned how to control my anger. I was allowed to finally show emotion because it was with a dog,” said Jason Bertrand. “Sugar Mama meant love. She gave me hope while I was in prison. She gave me a reason to want to get out.”

Having been incarcerated since the age of 12, Jason spent most of his life in prison. “Being a good person is not easy when you’re used to being a bad person, and you think it’s easier to be bad. I’ve lived my life in a fight mode. It was easier to stop someone physically than to talk it through,” he said. “But, I don’t want to be that guy anymore. The world I grew up in, isn’t this world. It’s kind of like the Tarzan movie, where the world he grew up in wasn’t the real world.”

Jason was released from prison in December 2016. “I’m beating the odds,” he told us. We spoke with Jason and his wife Crystal over a cup of coffee, outside Cappuccino’s Fine Wine & Espresso Bar in Dunedin in September 2018. We met Sugar Mama, the dog who helped Jason change his attitude and turn his life around while still in prison. They were introduced by the TAILS program.

TAILS (Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills) is a collaborative effort that brings together prison inmates and hard-to-adopt shelter dogs. Through partnerships with Northeast Florida shelters and the State of Florida Correctional System, dogs are placed in correctional facilities to be trained, socialized and cared for. The program was developed by First Coast No More Homeless Pets, now operated by Pit Sisters, a Jacksonville-based 501c3 organization that finds foster and permanent homes for hard-to-adopt dogs. Members of the Pit Sisters team assess at-risk dogs at the shelters to select candidates for the TAILS program, matching them with inmates signed up for the program. Pit Sisters also provides transport of the dogs to the correctional facilities.

“TAILS benefits dogs, trainers, families, prison staff and the entire community,” said Jennifer (Jen) Deane, founder and executive director of Pit Sisters. Sugar Mama had been confiscated in a raid to break up a dog fighting ring. She ended up at Putnam County Animal Control. Jason was at the Jacksonville Bridge Community Release Center, a transitional program, when Jen brought Sugar Mama there in April 2016.

When Jason first laid eyes on Sugar Mama, and was told her story, he was filled with a lot of different emotions, all at once. “Here is this dog, with scars and a broken back, recovering from surgery, and she’s smiling and wagging her tail,” said Jason. “I asked myself, why am I so angry? If this dog, with what she’s been through, can be happy, why couldn’t I be happy?”

As he sat with Sugar Mama at their first TAILS meeting, Jason also wondered what kind of person could do this to an innocent being? What kind of person could be so cruel and selfish and intimidating? “Then, I realized that the person I was describing was someone like me. I had been that kind of person.”

He breaks down easily at the memories of hurting the people he loved through his behavior; scaring people – the victims of his crimes. “Just when I think I’m over the tears, every time they come, I’m surprised by them. Prison made my heart calloused and hard. I shut down my emotions and became the kind of man that other men are afraid of. You’re either scared and victimized, or you’re tough. I was dangerous, because I felt that I had needed to be. And that’s how I lost myself. Sugar Mama gave me back my humanity. She melted my heart.”

The reality is, rehabilitation at the Department of Corrections doesn’t exist. In 2018, the Florida Legislature passed and Governor Rick Scott signed an $87 million budget that was $28 million short in prison funding. To close the gap, the Florida Department of Corrections began eliminating programs that prepare inmates for their return to the community. One of those recently closed was Bridges of Northeast Florida, the transitional program that Jason was in when he met Sugar Mama, almost two years ago.

The goal of the TAILS program is to have the inmates train and socialize the dogs, readying them for adoption to families outside the prison system. After the eight-week program of living with and caring for the dogs, they are taken from the inmates, who know this going into the program. Jason knew it. When he finished the program with Sugar Mama, he would have four months left in the transitional program before being released into society. Four months without her. The rest of his life without her, if she was adopted by someone else.

There have been occasions when an inmate is able to adopt the dog they’ve been paired with in the TAILS program. A family member must be available to take in and foster the dog until the inmate is released from prison. “Jason approached me about adopting Sugar Mama,” Jen told us over the phone. “But, he didn’t have family to send her to; he didn’t even have a home. He told me he would live under a bridge if it meant keeping her with him. She was that critical to his humanity.”

“I had to have her in my life,” said Jason. “She was the first living and breathing being I had ever had unconditional love for. And she reciprocated that love.” Jen went to the Community Release Center’s supervisor on Jason’s behalf. “We both saw the changes, not only in Jason, but Sugar Mama. We agreed that without Sugar Mama, Jason would most likely end up back in the prison system,” said Jen. “We made an exception and let Sugar Mama stay with him until his release, four months later.”

What makes the TAILS program unique is that it is not funded by the Department of Corrections. “Our program is the one vehicle that helps the inmates transition. We pair hardworking guys with positive reinforcement training that gives them experience and discipline, making them more employable when they’re released. They receive certificates from the program,” said Jen. “While we’ve seen a decline in recidivism, we’re working with a professor at the University of North Florida who is helping us pull those numbers together and quantify the benefits of the program. TAILS has been in existence for three years and all of the dogs have been adopted. Zero percent have been returned to the shelter,” said Jen.

The TAILS program teaches inmates how to be responsible. “It’s about being part of a team. It’s about showing up when you’re supposed to,” said Jason. “Yes, it’s about getting up at 5am to put food in the dog’s bowl, but that’s just the superficial level. It’s a lot deeper than that.”

Jason has a lot going for him now, including a good job working as a technician for a heating and air conditioning company. He has a family – Crystal, Sugar Mama and the couple’s other dog, Emma, a Jack Russell Terrier. He has a home and a car. It’s the first time in his life he’s putting the needs of others before himself. He’s also become a spokesperson for TAILS, traveling to the facilities that have the program to talk to inmates.

When speaking to a group of inmates, the first thing Jason tells them is his DOC number, so they know he was an inmate. “It’s a way of letting them know that I am no different from them. Inmates don’t care what the free world thinks. Sharing my DOC number helps break the ice. I want them to know that there is life after prison.”

While in Tallahassee, Jason listened to an inmate speak. “He had a tough guy presence; acted like he didn’t care about anything. Just then, one of the TAILS dogs walked over to the inmate and nudged his hand. Instinctively, the guy started petting the dog, as he continued to talk. And, I had to stop him to point out what was happening. I told him that, right there, that was an act of unconditional love and kindness towards him. I reminded the group to never minimize any experience.”

It costs $300 for a dog to go through the TAILS program. When sponsoring a dog, you’ll be able to choose your dog for the program and receive updates about the dog you are sponsoring.You’ll be invited to attend graduation where you’ll meet your sponsored dog, along with the trainers and the new adopters.

“Never minimize any experience.” Jason Bertrand with Sugar Mama.

For more information on TAILS, contact Jennifer Deane, Founder/President and Executive Director of Pit Sisters for more information. Email Jen Deane at jen@PitSisters.org Jen is also a Regional Director for the Miami Coalition Against Breed Specific Legislation. Since 1989, it has been illegal in Miami-Dade County to own or keep American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers or any other dog that substantially conforms to any of these breeds’ characteristics. More info on TAILS at: PitSisters.org/Tails Miami Coalition Against BSL: MCABSL.com

We See What We Choose To See.

by Anna Cooke, Editor in Chief, The New Barker dog magazine.

Would you be able to tell whether or not someone was homeless just by their appearance? According to the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative (THHI), data collected in 2016 counted 1817 homeless men, women and children. There are 67 counties in Florida.

Bob Blair, a member of the Tampa Elks organization, helps organize a monthly outreach program that assists the homeless. Once a month, volunteers visit homeless camps throughout the city to provide food, counseling, toiletries and other necessities. The roaming outreaches, as they’ve been dubbed, help to determine where each quarterly outreach program will be held, which is much larger in scope.

During the roaming outreach visits, volunteers have noticed an increase in the number of pets living with many of their homeless humans. While it is clear the pets, mostly cats and dogs, are loved, it is obvious they need care. About half the animals are spayed or neutered.

Thankfully, word travels fast among animal lovers, and Victoria Parker of Bayshore Dog Training pulled together some pretty incredible can-do partners, including Second Chance Friends Rescue and 4 Lucky Dogs Pet Rescue. All three organizations pooled their resources and were able to collect large donations of pet food, flea, tick and de-wormer medication, collars, leashes, toys, bowls and tarps. They attended their first quarterly community outreach event as the Homeless Dog Owner Outreach group, which was held yesterday, June 13 at The American Legion Post 111 in Seminole Heights on the corner of Florida Avenue and Sligh.

The group’s volunteers set up tables inside and outside The American Legion. They were just one of many businesses and volunteers donating their products and services to those less fortunate. The Homeless Dog Owner Outreach group connected with more than 50 dog owners, many of whom had not brought their pets with them.

“Oftentimes, when we visit the camps, these folks will refuse any help – whether it’s money or food. There are trust issues with many of these people,” said Bob Blair, the Tampa Elk volunteer. He estimated they would most likely see about 250 people during the day’s event. A hot meal was guaranteed to every person who attended. The food, donated by The Tampa Elks organization, was prepared and being served by Salvation Army volunteers.

“It was an emotional day for me; seeing the gratitude of the people passing by our table,” said Victoria.

“We didn’t know what to expect and ended up helping a lot of grateful people. We gathered good information,” said Bill Gray of Second Chance Rescue. “The biggest thing I learned is that nobody is actively helping these people. We found out that some of the pets are in need of immediate medical care.”

Not everyone reaching out was homeless, but they were definitely in need of assistance, and education. One woman, with two small children, said the family’s young female Chihuahua had lots of fleas. While the medication and supplies were being put together for her, Gray asked if her dog was spayed. “No, we want her to experience motherhood, so we’re going to let her have one litter of puppies before having her fixed.” In a most eloquent and respectful conversation with the woman, Gray was able to convince her that spaying would be beneficial to everyone – the dog and the woman’s family. “Give your contact information to one of our volunteers right here, and we’ll arrange to have your dog spayed. We’ll cover the costs.” The woman looked relieved.

As a result of their willingness to reach out, yesterday, the Homeless Dog Owner Outreach group has been asked to meet with both Metropolitan Ministries and Hillsborough County’s homeless veterans liaison. They are already preparing for the next quarterly outreach program in September.

It would be wonderful to see the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, Animal Coalition of Tampa and the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation partner with the Homeless Dog Owner Outreach group and provide on-site animal wellness checks, vaccinations and spay/neuter procedures during the Tampa Elks quarterly outreach events.

In a previous issue of The New Barker (winter 2010), we featured a story on Gainesville’s St. Francis House Pet Care Clinic. At that time, the clinic was still operating in the back of the St. Francis House homeless shelter. While driving across town in Gainesville, Chris Machen noticed what others chose to ignore: the proliferation of homeless people with pets; mostly dogs, some cats. She observed how well-loved the pets were when their humans wandered into the St. Francis House soup kitchen and homeless shelter, where she volunteered. Wanting to become more involved in her community, Machen listened as her friend, Gainesville veterinarian Dr. Dale Kaplan-Stein, talked about wanting to open a clinic for animals of Gainesville’s homeless population.

“The homeless are not faceless,” Dr. Kaplan-Stein would tell her detractors. “They are people. Those who say that the poor should not own pets should rethink that statement, because that pet could be the only thing that gives them joy, love and hope. Pets make us all better people. Besides, if these animals are healthier, our community will be healthier.”

We met Sir Drake, a seven year-old Poodle, during the Community Outreach event for the Homeless in Tampa on Tuesday, June 13. His human, Charles, has lung cancer and is no longer able to drive. The New Barker has made arrangements with Tampa’s Rover Done Over Grooming to visit Charles at home and give Sir Drake a bath and groom.

 

“If You See A Risk And Walk Away…

Then hope you never have to say, I could have saved a life that day, But I chose to look the other way.” From a poem by Don Merrill, “I Chose To Look The Other Way.”

by Anna Cooke, Editor-in-Chief of The New Barker dog magazine.

We have a problem in this state. Call it whatever you want: pet overpopulation. Blame it on the irresponsible public, if you’d like. It has reached epic proportions in Miami-Dade. Law enforcement and government officials are turning the other way, saying it’s not their job, not in their pay grade, not in their circle of knowledge.

Small bands of animal advocates are stepping in, but it’s only a bandaid. The problem is growing, and dogs are dying as a result.

Dogs are being dumped in an area known as the Redland Rock Pit. Volunteers with organizations like the Redland Rock Pit Abandoned Dog Project are trying to help the dogs by either capturing or feeding them have witnessed cars driving up, doors opening to let a dog out, then driving away. In one heartbreaking scene that played out just last week, a German Shepherd Dog chased after his owner’s car. The dog stood on the corner as the white car took off. A volunteer with Racing 4 Rescues coaxed the dog, now named Brady, safely into her car. Racing 4 Rescues volunteers were already in the area with the goal of pulling a momma (another German Shepherd Dog) and her two pups to safety.

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Momma and her two pups in the Redland Rock Pit area. Photography by Jaime Wald Seymour-Newton of JSN Photo/Animal Rescue.

 

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Her puppies were pulled. But, momma eluded volunteers with Racing 4 Rescues.

Miami-Dade Animal Services is crowded – at capacity. Same story, different town. This, in spite of a grand opening in June 2016 of the brand new Miami-Dade Animal Services Pet Adoption and Protection Center. “The new Pet Adoption and Protection center is a significant accomplishment for our pet loving community and will help Animal Services continue to save lives,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. “We built the best facility to help ensure every pet gets adopted, offer more low-cost spay/neuter services and enrich our life-saving programs,” he added.

Yet, in a response to the Redland Rock Pit problem, the Mayor sent this email last year, around the same time: “The shelter has rescued over 1100 strays from the Redlands/Homestead/Florida City area in this time period (three years). ASD continues to stand ready to respond to any issues identified by volunteers and asks all individuals to provide specific addresses and locations so that they can respond and follow-up on stray animals or cruelty issues.”

Mayor Gimenez, emails and phone calls are going unanswered. The dumped dogs, many of whom are unaltered, are left to fend for themselves. They are breeding, adding to the problem. Cruelty issues include dogs being sacrificed in Santeria rituals. Death by poisoning, or from being hit by cars. Starving to death.  Have you seen some of the cruelties, Mayor?

Welcome to Miami, Florida (warning – graphic images within this video)

Meanwhile, people and businesses from outside your community are coming in to help, donating time, services and food. Resources that could be used to help shelter pets and the pet overpopulation problems in their own communities.

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Food, donated by Pet Food Warehouse of St. Petersburg, is loaded onto a truck bound for Miami.
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Yoho Automotive & Towing, owned by Danielle Yoho – also the founder and president of Racing 4 Rescues.

But, your situation, Mayor Gimenez, has moved people to want to help, because it is a problem that belongs to all of us. And yet – no word from anyone in your offices, Miami-Dade Animal Services or law enforcement. Tell us, please, what should your constituents do? What can we, as concerned Florida animal advocates, do? We would love to speak with you. We’d love to hear your take on the situation. It is only going to get worse. My email address is anna@thenewbarker.com

Contact the office of Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez: mayor@miamidade.gov Call 305.375.1880.

Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners:

District 1 – Commissioner Barbara J. Jordan: district1@miamidade.gov; 305.375.5694

District 2 – Commissioner Jean Monestime: district2@miamidade.gov; 305.375.4833

District 3 – Vice Chairwoman Audrey M. Edmonson: district3@miamidade.gov; 305.375.5393

District 4 – Commissioner Sally A Heyman: district4@miamidade.gov; 305.375.5128

District 5 – Commissioner Bruno A. Barreiro: district5@miamidade.gov; 305.643.8525

District 6 – Commissioner Rebeca Sosa: district6@miamidade.gov; 305.375.5696

District 7 – Commissioner Xavier L. Suarez: district7@miamidade.gov; 305.669.4003

District 8 – Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava: district8@miamidade.gov; 305.375.5218

District 9 – Commissioner Dennis C. Moss: DennisMoss@miamidade.gov; 305.375.4832

District 10 – Commissioner Javier D. Souto: district10@miamidade.gov; 305.375.4835

District 11 – Commissioner Joe A. Martinez: district11@miamidade.gov; 305.375.5511

District 12 – Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz: district12@miamidade.gov; 305.375.4343

District 13 – Chairman Esteban L. Bovo, Jr.: district13@miamidade.gov; 305.375.4831

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Brady, the dog left behind in front of witnesses at Redland Rock Pit, is in the caring hands of volunteers at Racing 4 Rescues. He has tested HW negative and is receiving treatment for skin issues.

Every Dog Happens For A Reason.

angel_2091-copyMeet Angel, the newest addition to The New Barker staff. Like Bailey, the dog in the movie A Dog’s Purpose,  we’re clueless as to what Angel’s purpose is at the moment. We’re not even certain what compelled us to adopt a puppy at this stage in our lives. It’s been 18 years since we’ve raised one, and evidently our memory bank was devoid of all that is involved. Maybe it has something to do with her name, given to her before we adopted her from VIP Rescue Florida in Clearwater. Divine intervention for two broken hearts?

Our home, over the last 10 years, was complete with four dogs. As editor of The New Barker dog magazine, there are many opportunities for dogs to cross my path, increasing the odds of falling in love, over and over again. In A Dog’s Purpose, Bailey falls in love over and over again with a different human. Without love, after all, what is the purpose of life?

While attending this year’s Florida Gulf Coast Classic Clusters dog show with a dear friend, she mentioned why she enjoyed coming to the show so much. “I love watching you interact with the dogs, because every dog you see, it’s as if it’s the first time you’ve ever seen a dog.”

Over the course of eight months during this past year, we lost our two Cockapoos, Zoe and Chloe. They had been a big part of our lives for 18 years, and boom, just like that, we were a family of four – two humans and two canines.

One of the reasons it’s so difficult getting over the loss of a dog is the simple fact that they are so dependent on us. They won’t “grow up” and develop a new circle of friends, go off to college, establish a career and start families. They leave us only when their time is up, whenever or however that may be. Their departure opens a space in the heart that may never be filled. But, what if, having known that one dog, a place is opened in the heart to make room for more love, compassion, faith and hope? Room for another dog, whose purpose may not be clear at first.

With it’s cool soundtrack, A Dog’s Purpose is not just a story about dogs. It’s as much a story about humans, with our foibles, our loneliness and our ability to forgive and love again. Yes, it’s a love story that will make you laugh and cry, then laugh again, which is exactly what dogs do.

While Angel’s purpose may not be clear to us, for now, she is helping to mend a pair of broken hearts. And, at present, that’s all we can ask of a nine-week old puppy.

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Angel’s Adventures will be a weekly feature of The New Barker blog, so be sure to sign up. Follow The New Barker on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest for a cuteness overload of Angel as we follow her growth and discover just what her purpose in our lives will be.

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Ice Cream Is The Answer. (Who Cares What The Question Is).

A scoop of Toasted Coconut and a scoop of Valrhona Chocolate.
A scoop of Toasted Coconut and a scoop of Valrhona Chocolate.

Have you ever been to an ice cream tasting? Ulele presented a delicious experience for the palate as well as the eyes to a lucky few of us last week in Tampa. An official opening date for this fabulous new restaurant has not yet been announced. When it does open, look out, foodies. All details point to success for this newest Gonzmart family project.

Located in the heart of Tampa Heights with a wonderful view of the Hillsborough River, the restaurant (and brewery) will focus on all things local, including fresh fruits, veggies, seafood and “other proteins” from Florida. Richard Gonzmart and his head brewmaster Tim Shackton are even developing a specially-crafted beer to be named after Richard’s German Shepherd Dog, Rusty. And, in keeping with all things sustainable, they are contemplating the creation of dog treats from the spent brewing grains. Is there a Ulele dog treat tasting event in the very near future? Be sure to stay connected to THE NEW BARKER for details.

But, let’s get back to the important subject at hand – the ice cream tasting. American author Ernestine Ulmer is best known for her quote, “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.” And that’s just exactly what we did last Wednesday at Ulele. Imagine the smooth, creamy, cold and refreshing scoops of six (yes, six) different flavors of ice cream, served up in a half coconut shell. Turns out Mr. Shackton’s other passion is making homemade ice cream. Lucky for all of the taste testers, he did not disappoint. Valrhona Chocolate. Naviera Espresso Swirl. Ugandan Vanilla Bean. Florida Mango. Florida Wildflower Honey. And my personal favorite – Toasted Coconut – transported me to another time.

Savoring each spoonful, with my eyes closed, I saw a little girl visiting grandparents in Puerto Rico with her mother. Details and presentation are just as important as the food itself to fulfill a unique experience. So, the delicious memory of a street vendor handing me a half coconut shell filled with creamy coconut ice cream on that sunny day so many years ago, was perfectly recreated last Wednesday evening at Ulele. It is no coincidence that Richard Gonzmart’s philosophy for his new venture is to honor past generations while creating memories for the next generation.

We were each given a form to rate the ice cream. And, oh my goodness, that was tough. But, hey that’s the price a hardworking ice cream taster must pay in order to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s creativity in the kitchen. Understandably, I did not require dinner that evening. Which now reminds me of an Erma Bombeck quote, “Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.”

Looking out onto the Hillsborough River from inside Ulele.
Looking out onto the Hillsborough River from inside Ulele.
Arrowheads that Richard Gonzmart has been collecting over the years, have been infused into the bar tops.
Arrowheads that Richard Gonzmart has been collecting over the years, have been infused into the bar tops.
Richard Gonzmart giving the taste testers a little background on the inspiration of Ulele.
Richard Gonzmart giving the taste testers a little background on the inspiration of Ulele.