By Luke Westerman
The summer of 2008 changed my life forever. That’s when I met Franky. Hurricane Gustav was about to make landfall in New Orleans, just two years after Katrina devastated the city and made tens of thousands of people and animals homeless. I had been wanting to adopt a dog for a while and pulling one out of harm’s way before the storm hit was the motivation I needed to act immediately. So, I found Franky, a pit bull type dog, in need of a home. I flew him up to Ohio to join my family.
I had never paid attention to the negative stereotypes associated with the “pit bull” breeds, but once I rescued Franky, there was no more ignoring it. It hit home. It was personal. I now had a family member who was not only a pit bull type dog, but an absolute angel and a total love bug to boot. And I wasn’t about to let ignorant fear mongers tarnish his name.
So, on behalf of Franky and millions of dogs like him, I began fighting the evils of breed discrimination. I would talk to everyone I came across about Franky, how sweet and gentle he is, how he loves absolutely everyone and how he would never hurt a fly. I was changing one person’s perception at a time. But I needed to go bigger. So, I learned about Breed Discriminatory Legislation, an ugly law that cities can enact that permits them to legally discriminate against a dog just because of their appearance. Breed discrimination became my sworn enemy. So, a political action committee was created called, Ohioans Against Breed Discrimination. Our goal was simple. We would go city to city, town to town and convince elected officials to repeal any Breed Discriminatory Laws or breed bans in favor or Breed Neutral Legislation (which holds people accountable and treats dogs as individuals). We had success, which further fueled my passion for advocating for animals.
I soon learned about the horrors of puppy mills and the life of neglect and abuse the animals suffer who are enslaved by these shameful institutions. Picture large buildings and barns with stacks of tiny cages from floor to ceiling. Cages so small the animals can’t even stand up. The animals spend their entire lives in these tiny cages, never feeling the sun on their backs, never getting an ounce of human affection, never stepping foot on grass, never feeling a cool breeze across their face. The only interaction they get is when the females are in heat and the puppy mill operators strap them down and insert the male dogs into the cage to rape and impregnate the females. When the pups are born they are ripped away from their mama (before 8 weeks) and sold to unscrupulous pet stores who sell them to unsuspecting customers.
Ohio, my home state, is one of the worst offenders. So, I took action and began fighting these dens of evil – partnering with city council members in Grove City, Ohio (the largest suburb of Columbus) and along with advocacy groups and civic leaders, fought to make it illegal in city limits for pet stores to sell puppies (which they source exclusively from puppy mills). We won.
We’re still fighting to make puppy mills illegal throughout Ohio and in all the other states as well. But this disgusting industry is big business and pet stores throw millions of dollars at lobbyists who fight for their right to continue to abuse and torture animals for profit. So, it is a very difficult fight. But I will never give up. I can not fathom my Franky being forced to live as a slave, suffering constantly for some monster to make money off of. So, I continue to fight – for him and millions of other animals who are being victimized each and every day by this vile industry.
Many dogs who are commercially bred like this end up being dumped in animal shelters. Millions of dogs are killed annually in animal shelters – many of which are happy and healthy. This fact makes me physically sick. So, I decided to begin helping animal shelters implement proven best practices that will help save lives and get animals adopted into loving homes. After years of advising shelters I felt called to lead one as executive director – and the Humane Society of El Paso offered the perfect opportunity.
I have been here in El Paso nearly 6 months now and we’re saving a record number of animals, drastically reducing pet homelessness, helping the community treat their animals like the family members that they are, and we’ve partnered with Animal Services (the city shelter) to make El Paso the largest No-Kill city on the planet.
We have a dynamic ecosystem of animal people here in El Paso, from the shelters, to the rescue community, to our engaged city leaders to the community on the whole. Our active collaboration to save lives is working and the results are thousands more dogs and cats finding happy homes with each passing year. I am so excited and honored to be here serving this great community. And the best is yet to come.
All of this I owe to my Franky. He changed my life and helped me realize my life’s work, my passion, my calling. He lit a fire inside of me and I thank him every single day for that. Because of precious souls like Franky, I will never stop fighting for the voiceless!