//Heather sits in her yard in Lakewood with a neighbor dog (left) and a puppy she fosters (right) on May 23. Photo by Polina Saran | firstname.lastname@example.org
In the digital age, it’s easier than ever to search for furry extensions to the family. In addition, multiple social platforms also make it easier to care and provide for them.
However, these powerful tools can also bring in an array of problems.
Between the police, good samaritans and bad actors such as breeders and dogfighting handlers, the reach of social media has greatly changed the world of animal welfare.
Recognized by animal welfare activists as two of Colorado’s biggest animal lovers, Joan Ogner and Jessi Harris created a Facebook group called Colorado Cats in Need. Their main objective was to help cats find homes and foster parents, and their owners find resources.
“Joan really is Colorado’s cat mama,” Harris said. “She has saved so many feline lives with her compassion and her insight. I just really wanted to help start this page with her because I wanted to give Colorado, or a Coloradan, a portal to her.”
Ogner and Harris met through volunteering at No Kill Colorado, a non-profit organization that works to adopt-out homeless pets. Ogner, who is one of the founders of NKC, convinced Harris to join. They became very close, and with some initial resistance, Harris eventually became a board member where she still holds a position.
Ogner is an avid cat lover and fosters cats in need whenever she has room. Harris, meanwhile, calls herself a dog mom to Daisey, her “fur baby.” Their animal preferences don’t divide them, but instead, highlight differences between the cat and dog communities.
Harris and Ogner noticed that the online cat communities shared fewer resources than the ones for dogs. They decided to fill the void with the Colorado Cats in Need group.
“I was the person who really advocated for the cats,” Ogner said. “So this was kind of a natural thing for us to do, to set up something that really solely addresses cats, because there really isn’t anything else that I know of in Colorado that addresses those kinds of special needs focused on cats and kittens.”
Harris dubbed Ogner a Colorado cat expert, drawing a chuckle from Ogner.
“I just know how to network to the real experts,” Ogner said.
Asserting that the group is in no way a “fluff page,” Ogner and Harris said they have zero interest in cutesy pictures and watching people post about wanting a kitten.
“We just wanted a place where rescues and shelters can share available cats and even lost or in-need cats,” Harris said. “I think we also have a goal of keeping as many cats out of overburdened shelters in the first place, so by offering people a venue where they can post lost-and-found cats, or cats in need of medical or financial assistance that they may need help with.”
They both emphasized how helpful the group is to the cat community, which Ogner admitted came as a bit of a surprise, but Harris said she knew the community would pull together for a good cause.
They said they wanted the page to help cat lovers find and adopt cats in need of a home. The page also helps create a network for owners needing things such as resources for veterinary financial or food assistance, and help for special needs cats struggling with ailments including diabetes.
One less expected use of the platform was to address awareness for animal abuse and highlight bad actors within the community.
During the stay-at-home order, many of the shelters along the Front Range were forced to close their doors and stop accepting new animals. For a short time at the beginning of the pandemic, many members of the Facebook group were rushing to neuter, spay and rehome the cats who were still homeless.
A large number of those animals were transported out of Pueblo. A network of people in the group, who wished to remain anonymous, transported carloads of cats to Denver clinics and homes to avoid having them left in Pueblo for fear of “baiting.”
Baiting is a term used in dogfighting when small dogs and kittens are used to make dogs aggressive before a fight. It usually ends in death for the majority of the animals used as bait. Pueblo has had a long history of dogfighting.
Some of social media’s bad actors
Social media can help track offenders, but it can also be used as a resource within the dogfighting world.
Metro Area Behaviorist Heather Harberg has said that when home checks and application processes are bypassed on social media, animals can be put in harm’s way. On social media, there is little accountability or exchange to decide whether someone has good or bad intentions.
“Go on Craigslist right now and look up for-sale puppies and kittens,” Harberg said. “It doesn’t end. Every single day there’s hundreds and hundreds of posts that you can flag and have taken down. There’s 10 more like them. How do you think all of these puppy fighters are able to get dogs so easily?”
A long-time animal behaviorist, Harberg specializes in working with dogs who are on their final strike. These are the dogs with known aggression and anxiety toward humans and other dogs who no one else will work with.
Even without formal schooling, she is recognized and called on throughout the Front Range animal community. In the past, Harberg has worked with rescues like the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, Denver Animal Shelter, Aurora Animal Shelter, Humane Society of South Platt, Humane Society of Fremont County and more.
In February 2018, Animal Law Enforcement along with the Pueblo Police Department arrested Jerry Grady and his partner Armando Vigil after evidence was found that the two were involved in dogfighting. In June 2019, Grady was found guilty and received both felony and misdemeanor counts for dogfighting, while Vigil did not appear for court.
Lindsey Vigna, the assistant director and lieutenant of Animal Law Enforcement at the Humane Society Pikes Peak Region, was involved with the dogfighting bust.
“Part of why Pueblo might get a rap for having more dogfighting or whatnot is just because we pushed it so hard in the media,” Vigna said. “We did that simply for no other reason than we wanted to gain awareness that it does still happen.”
The investigation to bust Grady took Animal Law Enforcement well over a year and utilized social media and required the help of the Pueblo Police Department near the end.
“Mr. Grady in particular was a tough cookie to break,” Vigna said. “It took a lot of visits to the house, a lot of time and resources.”
With the help of the police department, they were able to gather evidence for a warrant. Pueblo Police Department’s Sgt. Frank Ortega was also involved in the Grady bust. He said that police are able to assist with dogfighting investigations because those individuals are usually involved in other criminal activity such as drug trafficking.
Ortega previously worked as an undercover narcotics officer and said he would bust people involved with illicit drugs like meth. Dogfighting would often be added as an additional charge in those cases.
As an undercover officer in the age before social media, he would find out about individuals involved in dogfighting by asking about possible entertainment while purchasing illicit drugs. At the time, police gathered evidence against dogfighting handlers by collecting DVDs they made to advertise the dogs. Ortega said that now people exchange those videos digitally.
After Grady served a six-month sentence, he went back to living in Pueblo. As part of his probation, he is legally restricted from being in contact with animals. However, members of the online animal community suspect he has returned to the dogfighting world.
Many of the posts circulated online accuse Grady of currently breaking his probation, bu the photos used in those posts date back to 2016.
“The problem with social media is people sharing old information that has already been prosecuted,” Vigna said. “I field quite a bit of complaints that come through and it’s information related to what we’ve already investigated.”
And while Vigna and Ortega both assured that they take all tips seriously, they maintained that investigations are thorough and take time.
“The team down in Pueblo got extremely excited that they got to follow this case through,” Vigna said. “That took well over a year of investigating and talking to witnesses and scouring through social media. It wasn’t something that just happened overnight. It was quite the feat to say the least.”
She said that in the age of social media, law enforcement has more information to work with. They are now able to keep track of a lot of people who posted something that was pertinent to previous investigations.
“We’re able to gather more evidence and continue efforts to hunt these guys down,” she said.
When social media backfires
Harberg has been an animal advocate for years after having a close encounter with dogfighting when she was younger.
“I know for most people in animal rescue, their first introduction to the dogfighting rings is seeing the aftermath on dogs. I was introduced to it more in a real-world situation,” she said.
In 2007, someone close to Harberg had their dog stolen from a Denver neighborhood shortly after she graduated high school. After putting up a reward, some teenagers contacted them saying they had the dog and would meet for the reward. Harberg and her friends involved the Lakewood Police Department as they met with the boys.
The officer told Harberg that they were the lucky few as he handed the dog back. Normally, he said, they find the dogs in bits and pieces on the side of the road in garbage bags. The dog itself had been the clear victim of abuse, with cigarette marks visible, reeking of gasoline.
“We were so lucky in that moment, but it made it so real,” Harberg said. “I’ve had other people in rescue and even in animal control say that dogfighting isn’t really a thing.”
Back in 2007, people associated with dogfighting used children to acquire animals, but now they can just look online. Harberg fears that social media makes it easier to obtain the desired breeds for fighting. However, social media is also how many members of the Pueblo animal community and members of the cat Facebook group track some of the known offenders. To Harberg, the problem is only getting worse.
Colorado doesn’t really have as much of a puppy mill problem as it does a backyard breeding problem, Harberg said. Social media just makes it easier for these breeders to work without certification. Dogs with aggression are more typically sold on sites like Craigslist in order to bypass records that shelters may keep. It is also more lucrative to sell online rather than dropping the animal off at a shelter.
Harberg ran a nonprofit sanctuary and rehab called Bruno the Companion. Bruno is a name used to reference unneutered stray dogs. In order to foster and rehome animals formally, sanctuaries and shelters are required to follow the Pet Animal Care Facilities Act and pay money annually to stay certified.
“That’s an issue,” she said about the online traders. “Why aren’t they being managed? Where is PACFA? Why aren’t they forcing them to be licensed? Why aren’t they going after Facebook and Craigslist to end these issues, instead of going after people like me who pay up to $800 for various licenses that allow me to save these animals that nobody else will invest in?” Harberg said.
Harberg is now reimagining Bruno the Companion. She’s gone on hiatus and did not update her PACFA certification this year. Instead, she is working to launch a new nonprofit that is building the community of animal rescue altogether.
“We can save some of these dogs. We can counter-condition some of these things that horrible humans have trained them to do,” she said.
Social media helping to find deserved homes
Since the stay-at-home order went into effect and restricted shelters and sanctuaries in the area, many of them moved to online platforms to make rehoming more accessible.
MaxFund is one rescue shelter that Ogner personally networks with. They have someone who specifically posts whenever there are special needs or senior cats. The chances are higher to have them adopted when they post on the Colorado Cats in Need page, she said.
Many of the local shelters work with Ogner for both homing and some informal issues such as offering resources for cats struggling with various diseases. She personally has extensive knowledge on cats with diabetes and kidney disease. Ogner, along with a group of page members, informally offer to mentor people who obtain special needs cats, so long as the shelter is comfortable with permitting it.
“People are afraid to get special needs cats because of the cost or because of their lack of experience,” she said. “There are different places that will help cover the costs, that would help teach, that would have resources. Those are the kinds of resources we offer,” she said.
The Colorado Cats in Need page only allows people to post about adoption if they are looking for a special needs cat.
Just recently, a couple looking for a senior pet was allowed by Ogner and Harris to post on the Facebook page.
Within a day, the couple found their ideal cat in Pueblo.
“It’s that kind of thing that we do that we love,” Ogner said. “As soon as we put it up, people were going crazy commenting, tagging people and so forth.”
The couple who adopted the cat is Chad and Missy Roberts. Their newest family member is named Loki.
Chad and Missy lost their senior cat Oscar last summer. Still missing him, they decided to search for a cat that would remind them of him. They posted a picture of Oscar online and requested a senior or special needs cat that looked like him.
They started on Craigslist, and were eventually referred to Colorado Cats in Need.
Rick Gonzalez, a volunteer at a Pueblo no-kill shelter named the Southern Colorado Spay and Neuter Association, saw the post on the Facebook page and wrote to them saying he had the perfect cat.
“He sent the picture and it was kind of love at first sight,” Chad said. “Missy saw it and said we needed to have him.”
Chad drove from Parker to Pueblo to meet Loki, and after a good introduction, he and Missy drove down once more to bring him home.
It’s a pairing that would have been hard to match up with the help of social media.
“It’s one in a million that you find someone looking for special needs cats,” Gonzalez said. “We always worry. We just want them to go to a good home.”
Although Ognar and Harris are both happy that the Facebook group raises awareness around bad actors in the community, it is not why they created the group though. First and foremost, they created it to help animals and their potential owners.
“It’s important to be aware,” Harris said. “I think with all the bad, there’s also a lot of really good, and I think that this is a venue for an opportunity for people to help educate and then offer a venue for networking which is what it’s intended for.”