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Animal Advocate Calls Blind Guide Dog Users Cruel & Unfit, PETA, Off-Base Or Playing to Public Fear?

Animal Advocate Calls Blind Guide Dog Users Cruel & Unfit, PETA, Off-Base Or Playing to Public Fear?

“We oppose most seeing-eye-dog programs,” says Daphna Nachminovitch, vice president for Cruelty Investigations for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), in a January 10th interview with the LA Times’ “LA Unleashed.”

Nachminovitch’s objections go beyond PETA’s distaste for breeding programs. “They are kept in harnesses almost 24/7, people are prohibited from petting or playing with them and they cannot romp and run and interact with other dogs.” PETA also claims that schools force blind people to return their retired dogs.

Nachminovitch doubts the fitness of most blind people to care for their animals, “A deaf person can see if a dog has a medical issue such as blood in her urine, a blind person living alone cannot.” PETA’s solution would return blind people to lives of dependence; “The human community should do more to support blind people, and give dogs a break. .”

Outraged guide dog handlers and puppy raisers from many schools commented on latimes.com refuting every point. Letters to the editor and Op-Ed pieces were submitted to the Los Angeles Times. Some people, like Tampa-based clinical hypnotherapist, professional musician and speaker Marion Gwizdala,, president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU), wrote to Nachminovitch directly.

“The biggest problem we face as blind people,” writes Gwizdala, who holds a Master of Science degree in mental health counseling and has been in practice since 1996, “is misunderstanding and lack of information. It is unfortunate that you choose to promulgate the myths that create barriers to our full inclusion in society. “

Are Nachminovitch’s comments adding to an underlying bigotry toward blind people? Unemployment among working-age blind Americans is seventy percent. Blind Americans are also more likely to be underemployed and living in poverty. Nonetheless, there are blind lawyers, engineers, chemists, doctors, mechanics, teachers, parents, etc.

Why the disparity? Many believe that it all boils down to the changing nature of what it means to be blind. Throughout history, there have always been blind people who have insisted upon living productive and independent lives. The ancient Greek poet Homer, English poet John Milton and American author James Thurber were all blind. Most Americans are familiar with the accomplishments of Helen Keller. The fact, however, that she is the only blind woman most people can name and that she died over fifty years ago speaks volumes about the added obstacles society places in the paths of blind women.

PETA’s solution of having sighted people take over for guide dogs, insulting as it is, simply mirrors the prevailing social attitudes. Despite changes in legislation and a revolution in technology which allows blind people to participate more fully in all aspects of modern life, popular sentiment continues to paint blindness as a sentence to dependence and uselessness. The truth came out in a Louis Harris poll done in 1991. The National Organization on Disability (NOD) commissioned them to find out what America really thought about people with disabilities. The survey summary, quoted from NOD’s 1992 book “That All May Worship,” edited by Ginny Thornburgh, states, “The public views disabled people as fundamentally different than the rest of the population, feeling admiration and pity most often. Embarrassment, apathy and fear are also common.”

We will probably never know PETA’s true motivations for making these statements. Nachminovitch’s remarks are so all-inclusive, so concise and so thoroughly off-base that it is hard to believe they were not deliberately calculated to prompt donations from dog lovers who are either unfamiliar with guide dog programs or uncomfortable with blind people and misinformed about their capabilities. It is possible, of course, that she nurtures a habit of willful ignorance and is not inclined to investigate anything she speaks about. In either case, PETA’s bullying of blind people seems a waste of resources.

The thought that schools would force blind people to give up their beloved helpers is anathema to many guide dog users. Schools have retirement programs but they are voluntary. They exist to take up the slack in cases where a blind person can neither keep their retired guide nor find a suitable home among friends and family.

“More often than not,” Gwizdala continues, “our dogs live out their lives with their blind caretakers. My previous guide dog worked until he was fourteen years old and lived out the remainder of his sixteen years with me.”

Gwizdala, who is also the music director at New Life Unity Church in Tampa, is working with Louiza, his twelve-year-old German Shepherd/Collie mix. He performs under the stage name “Marion & Martin” – a reference to his Martin guitar – and is recording his second solo album, a collection of original songs, covers and contemporary arrangements of traditional music in the new thought genre. Visit NAGDU’s web site at: http://www.nfb-nagdu.org/

Cheryl Echevarria (42) of Long Island, New York is a certified medical insurance specialist and medical biller. Maxx, her three-year-old black Labrador retriever from the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind (Smithtown, NY), is Cheryl’s first guide dog.

“Hold on there,” she says in response to PETA’s idea that guide dogs aren’t given any affection and are forced to wear their harnesses 24/7, “Yes I use my dog when I walk to the bus and go out shopping, or any place I go to be independent. But even when I am at work, Maxx has a nice comfy spot under my desk. No, he doesn’t need to be tied down, and no, he doesn’t sit there all day with his harness on. I take it off and he sleeps or chews on his bone until I need to go somewhere with him.”

Cheryl works at Sunrise Medical and was the first visually impaired person to graduate from Branford Hall Career Institute in medical billing. She is a member of New York’s Association of Guide Dog Users, and treasurer of the Greater Long Island chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of New York.
She recently started a free group for one of her favorite activities, cooking. The Blind Cooks e mail list is a place where people can exchange ideas about techniques, equipment, accessibility issues and other topics of interest to blind cooks as well as professionals in the culinary arts and those who wish to enter the field. For more information go to, http://www.nfbnet.org/mailman/listinfo/blind-cooks_nfbnet.org

Guide dog schools all teach handlers not to allow people to pet the dogs when in harness. There is a difference between work and play, and it is safer when people respect that. Guide dog handlers regularly report that people approach them while the dog is in harness and pet the dog without even saying hello. Most people ask to pet an unfamiliar dog and respect the person’s wishes. If they say no, they don’t pet the dog anyway or assume that no one ever pets that particular dog. The fact that this is what happens when strangers encounter guide dogs is evidence that blind people are not respected as independent adults.

“When we are home,” says Echevarria, who has a twenty-year-old daughter, three grown stepchildren and four grandchildren, “he runs around the house like any dog. Plays in the backyard, and gets spoiled by my husband and my daughter and any friends that come in contact with us.”

Cheryl, who is legally blind due to diabetic retinopathy, had a kidney transplant from a living donor in 2005. She belongs to the Diabetic Action network (DAN). DAN is a resource for all diabetics especially those with vision loss. Blind diabetics can and do accurately draw up insulin and monitor blood glucose levels.

Are blind people, many of whom monitor their own serious health conditions like diabetes, unqualified to meet the health needs of their dogs as PETA implies? The comments made to me by my first guide’s vet in Philadelphia echo across the decades. One of his professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine said that if a blind person brings in their guide dog and tells you they think something’s wrong and you can’t find anything, keep looking.

For a less anecdotal and more current perspective, we need look no further than the November 2008 report “Guide Dog Health Survey” by the Morris Animal Foundation (MAF). MAF, which was started in 1948 as the Buddy Foundation to address the health needs of the first guide dog, has since funded over 1,600 research studies benefiting animals around the world. Concerned that health information for adult guide dogs was scarce, they conducted a survey, not of veterinarians, spouses, parents or the lady down the street but of guide dog users themselves. It is the first of its kind and intended to serve as a base-line for future surveys. Their care in preparing and pre-testing an online survey that was easy for screen reader users to complete was matched by not only the breadth of the study but the many opportunities for guide dog users to comment freely about their concerns and experiences.

The 1,000+ survey participants gave over 11,500 open-ended comments, prompting the report’s author, Patricia Olson, DVM, Ph.D. (MAF’s President/CEO), to write, “Guide dog teams have been referred to as the gold standard for a bond between a person and his or her dog. Handlers provide love and care to their dogs; the dogs provide independence and loyalty to their handler. The overwhelming response to the survey made it abundantly clear just how much guide dog handlers appreciate and love their dogs. Any work that allows these wonderful teams to enjoy even better health and wellness is very important to MAF.”

Blind people share PETA’s concern for unwanted dogs. PETA, however, doesn’t acknowledge that most guide dog schools have already tried using shelter dogs. Too many shelter dogs failed the programs, adding to the cost of training. Breeding programs provide healthier dogs with the aptitude and temperament for the work. Guide dogs perform advanced tasks, avoiding overhanging obstacles, navigating public transportation and moving safely through crowded pedestrian and vehicular traffic. They can find specific locations, when trained with patience and praise.

Here again, comments from MAF’s survey underscore the validity of dedicated breeding programs, “In fact, guide dog schools have often been a model for evaluating health trends and reducing disease through appropriate breeding.”

A form letter from Heidi Parker, PETA’s Mail Coordinator, sent to people like Gwizdala and myself, back-pedals on Nachminovitch’s remarks. “Our comments were not meant to reflect badly on people who use or train guide dogs.”

One wonders whether Ms Parker actually read her boss’s remarks. If she did, what else does she think Nachminovitch would have had to say, if she had “intended” to reflect badly on guide dog programs and those who benefit from them? From the selfless people who raise them as puppies – the family of the Hudson River hero pilot Sully Sullenberger among them – to the volunteers in the kennels and the trainers themselves, many dog lovers participate in the care and training of guide dogs. If cruelty was endemic in the programs, wouldn’t someone have spoken out before now?

Echevarria has some advice for the LA Times, “people who write such articles should go to the schools and speak to the professionals about the training.” She also has parting thoughts for PETA, “I hope you never go blind and need a dog. I also say that you should learn from the experts before you open your mouths and stick your foot in.”

PETA has not seen fit to make a public apology, and the LA Times has yet to respond.

Copyright 2009 by Donna W. Hill