I know it sounds corny, but for me the State Fair of Texas is where my heart can always be centered. It’s crowded. It’s crazy. The weather can be temperamental. Still, this is the place where I first fell in love with caramel apples, renewed my wedding vows atop the Texas Star, and showed my child the sort of arts and crafts I’d known growing up as a preacher’s kid in tiny towns across north Texas.
The fair is also where I accidentally discovered my place in the animal rescue world, hence the blog’s header up there. It’s safe to say my life has been changed forever at this point. The animals and people I’ve met have become an enormous, extended family. Through the efforts of many, I’ve witnessed the group morph from a handful of volunteers into a full scale network of almost twenty-thousand Facebook followers with almost 1,200 successful adoptions. We’ve worked together within the community to create educational presentations, spay and neuter days, low cost microchipping events, donation drives, and many, many other beneficial programs benefiting not only the animals, but also the people in the DFW area. That said, every day is a fair day in our world.
DFW Rescue Me is hosting its third annual month-long adoption drive at the State Fair of Texas, and I’m really excited to be a part of it yet again. The past two years, we’ve been fortunate to host the event alongside Dallas Animal Services. However, this year our group will be running the show on our own and will need all hands on deck in order to ensure our dogs are present and attended by as many caring folks as possible.
If you’ve been considering getting involved in animal rescue, this is a fantastic opportunity to learn a boatload about the work we do in a very short amount of time. I promise the experience will be one you’ll not forget, and you’ll be rewarded handsomely in ways that cannot be measured when you witness a dog you’ve grown to love go from near hopelessness to enjoying the new warmth and comfort of a great home.
We need transporters. We need people to walk dogs. We need people to sell merchandise. We need kissing booth attendants. We need people to reassure pups who are scared and uncertain of their environment. We need people who are willing to fill water bowls and distribute treats and remind fair-goers that our dogs aren’t part of a petting zoo. So, you see, there are a lot of ways you can get your feet wet in this shindig.
Reach out to fairvolunteer[at]dfwrescueme.org for more info and to schedule your time with us during this year’s event. The fair begins September 27th and runs through October 20th, so there are lots of times and dates available for you to assist.
This is officially *your* Six Days at the Fair (and more)!
(And now I probably need to give our coordinator my volunteer fair schedule, too, before she strangles me. Sorry, Mer.)
I’ll be honest: I haven’t given much thought to judicial elections in the past, but the entire ordeal with Judge Larry Mitchell grandly fudging up his original decision in the Justice case this week demonstrated how important it is to use the people’s power as wisely as possible moving forward. And how convenient; we are entering an election cycle as I type.
A quick jaunt on social media revealed the name of a prosecutor running against Mitchell: Brandon Birmingham. Mr. Birmingham’s website provided enough information for me to determine he wasn’t on a mission to become the next Montgomery Burns of the 292nd Judicial District Court, but I still wasn’t sure I wanted to throw my full support toward a candidate I didn’t know. Therefore, I decided to introduce him to the toughest possible critic, Sweetie the Pit Bull, who’s never failed at separating the wannabes from the true contenders. With Birmingham and Sweetie both game, I set out to meet our next judge hopeful. I told Birmingham, “Wear comfortable clothes. It’s one thousand degrees where we’re heading, and you’re going to get covered in dog fur.”
What he didn’t know was the great significance of our meeting place. As I opened the hatch of my vehicle, I told Birmingham, “This facility is where I met Sweetie. She was abandoned here for six months a year and a half ago by people who’d neglected her for a lifetime, dumped her when she was dying. Luckily, DFW Rescue Me and Toothacres were able to step in and save her life. Give me a minute to make sure she’s comfortable being here, ok?” I searched for compassion in his eyes. Found it.
Sweetie lumbered her way out of my car and greeted him. Happy tail, so we were off for a walk around the grassy perimeter of the property. We bragged about our kids and families, the rescue effort in north Texas, and it felt like I was really just walking dogs with a new volunteer rather than discovering more about a politician. After a bit, Birmingham asked if Sweetie wanted some water, so we headed over to where an oscillating sprinkler was being operated by a couple of other volunteers. He coaxed, “Come on, Sweetie! Cool down a little,” and stood next to her while she tested things out. I tried to stop him: “Wait, I was going to get a photo of you. You’re going to be all wet,” but Birmingham laughed, “Oh, it’s fine. I don’t mind. She’s hot. You can take a picture anyway.” I watched the sprinkler chase them while Sweetie rolled in the mud like a pig. Hard to imagine Judge Mitchell doing any of that. Really hard.
One of the ladies introduced herself from Duck Team 6, a local rescue group that serves the needs of Dallas’s street dog population. When I mentioned my guest was running against Mitchell, who presided over the Justice case, she couldn’t conceal her excitement. “You’re running? And you’re here? That’s wonderful. Thank you!” Suffice it to say that finding political candidates willing to spend their free time walking around a deserted pet cemetery with a wet-and-muddy, old, rescued Pit Bull is akin to spotting a unicorn riding a narwhal over a rainbow; it just doesn’t happen often enough.
While we visited, I asked the prosecutor where he stands on animal welfare: “I always look at why people commit crimes. What were their motivations? If I find a lawless person has been senseless with no mitigating reason, I feel those responsible for acts of violence deserve to be punished severely. Animal cruelty cases fall into the spectrum of individuals who cannot stand up for themselves. They don’t deserve what happens to them. Those are the class of victims I take to heart and have throughout my career.”
And Birmingham’s record attests to his claims. With over a decade of prosecuting experience, he successfully tried the state’s case against Willie Atkins, who was sentenced to life in prison for intentionally spreading AIDS to many unknowing people. Imagine proving THAT. Bank robbery cases? Yep. Abuse cases? Check. He was even able to deliver a guilty conviction in the case of unapologetic, child killer Jose Sifuentes by presenting evidence recovered through the enlistment of superdogs Vodin and Pace from Search One Rescue Team. “Because of those dogs, the defendant pled guilty and got a life sentence,” he mentioned. In addition, Birmingham was the key prosecutor in the conviction of Juan Cantu, a member of the Mexican Mafia who received life for the brutal murders of his friend’s child and ex-girlfriend in 2004.
“The defendant was mad at his friend’s girlfriend, went to the house where he found not just her, but also her poor kid and another woman. He raped and tried to kill the other woman, even set her on fire. Just a horrible crime. We got him on DNA evidence and witness testimony. It was a tense case, and I admit there were a few times I feared for my personal safety, but that’s a part of my job.” Elaborating further on proving cases through DNA, Birmingham, who is also Chief of the Cold Case Unit, pointed toward his role in the judgments against Marion Sayles and Frederick Anderson last winter. “Once the DNA previously exonerated [Raymond Jackson and James Wilson in court proceedings prior to Birmingham's involvement], we had the DNA from the rape exam entered into the CODIS database — it’s a database of DNA profiles created from inmates in TDC — and the DNA matched two inmates. The case was indicted, and I was asked to try it. I did — both of them with Russell WIlson, Chief of the Conviction Integrity Unit. I wish I could say that I shook the hands of the exonerated [who'd been wrongly imprisoned for 29 years]; I hugged the victim Mary Smith after the trial and was proud to do so.” He credits the partnership between the two units as being instrumental in securing life sentences for the “true perpetrators who committed this horrendous crime.” Nice.
When I asked about a case that really touched his heart, he paused and inquired, “Do you remember Monika Korra? She was the SMU student who was abducted by three men as she was walking with her friends and repeatedly sexually assaulted. They just stopped and swept her away. She lived and wanted to come forward to stand up as a voice for rape victims; she didn’t want to be silent. Very, very brave young woman. A book about her plight is currently being written.” He continued, “It feels good to stand up for a victim as a prosecutor, to channel anger to prove a case. There are long hours. It’s tedious and like a roller coaster, but at the end of the day, I really feel honored to do the work on a case and tell the story from the victim’s standpoint, revealing all the vile and deceitful acts of a violent criminal. I know more about their crimes than they do. Because of that, I can’t wait to tell twelve people what I found out.”
Sweetie is all about changing the world for the better, so I thought I should throw in a couple of questions for her about what Birmingham would like to see happen in the future. He obliged. “The judicial system is set up to be reactive and tends to not, by nature, be proactive. I like to see programs put in place by groups that enlist our help to go into the community.” He says he’d be happy to lose his job as a prosecutor if it meant there were no more cases for him to try. “That would be great, but right now there’s a need. Violent offenders need to be locked up, and we need to be vigilant about those other non-violent offenders to help them become productive members of society.”
Having covered the heavy stuff, I figured I should give the guy a break. After all, Sweetie reeeaaally wanted to know: “Do you have a dog?”
[Laughing] “A cat.”
I assured him, “I can fix that.”
“Yes, we’re quickly on our way then! No, we have a thirteen-almost-fourteen-year-old cat named ‘Macy’.” Then he quickly added, “That’s ‘M-A-C-Y’.” (Love that.)
“Got it. Macy. ‘M-A-C-Y’?”
“Yes, that’s correct. I adopted her from the Houston SPCA. She was with me through law school and has been my friend ever since.” He whipped out his cell phone and scrolled through pictures of his girl. “This is her right here,” he smiled.
“And what would Macy have to say about you?”
“Oh, Macy would say something like she prefers to be fed by hand and drink water directly from the faucet. She’d also say she misses me because I work too much.”
Wrapping things up since Sweetie was past due for her third afternoon nap, I asked my new legal friend what he’d be doing if he wasn’t in law. After assuring me he’d be point guard for the Mavs, Birmingham admitted he’d love to teach history or philosophy . . . or become a musician. I shouldn’t second guess his aspirations. He’s already appeared on “The First 48,” lectured around the nation regarding rules of evidence as well as constitutional and ethical issues, learned how to play guitar and drums, and, of course, continues to fulfill his most important role as family guy to his wife and two kiddos and Macy.
For now, though, he’s prepared to put aside his secret ambition to join the Dallas Mavs in order to serve the residents of Dallas County. He assures, “I pledge to be a full-time judge, who is decisive, consistent, fair, and tough when needed.”
“So you’ll hammer and hammer to get us what we deserve?” (I had to.)
“Ha, ha! YES!”
(Hear that? March 4th. Mark it on your calendars. That’s the big day, not to be missed, folks. He’s got to win the primary in order to make it to November’s ballot. Click here for precinct and voting info.)
After submitting to Sweetie’s pressing inquiries, Birmingham told her goodbye and that he really enjoyed meeting her. She reciprocated the sentiment and prepared for her big nap home.
Sometimes you meet someone who sincerely wants to make the world better for everybody in it. There’s just an obvious quality about that sort of genuine kindness you can’t fake. That was the overwhelming feeling I had about Brandon Birmingham as I drove away: What a super nice guy. Just don’t tick him off by breaking the law because, evidently, then he’s, eh, not such a nice guy.
And that’s what we need.
The world might be a perfect place if people like Alissa Umberger grew on trees.
Since adopting her kitty Delilah two years ago from the Humane Society of Central Texas, thirteen-year-old Alissa has actively volunteered at the shelter in a variety of necessary functions.
Upon visiting her first shelter, she didn’t entirely understand why the animals were there: “It was a very overcrowded place, too many animals, but I figured they were all adopted.” Alissa believed the dogs and cats were only crashing for a while until they found permanent homes, like a pet hotel of sorts. Since then, the youngster has witnessed a full reality of animal rescue and shelter life — something most people might never experience in a lifetime, let alone as a junior high student.
“It is extremely heartbreaking at some points, but it is worth it. When you go out there with an animal and bond, it can change you,” Alissa points out. The sage advice she claims helped her cope most: “It’s hard, and sometimes you won’t exactly reach your goals, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try.”
Most notably, Alissa recalls her experience with Sugar, one of the dogs she loved who failed to find a home.
“Sugar was my pet project, and I haven’t really dealt with it. She was euthanized for no fault of her own. She was [labeled] ‘unsocialized’ and that wasn’t true. I still sob…a lot. But her death has motivated me and many others to try HARDER. We all know it is nearly impossible to save them all, but we shall try anyway.”
She’s done more than try, though. That’s for sure. After meeting Sasha, a dog who was returned multiple times to the shelter for having anxiety issues, Alissa began taking pictures and posting her animal photography last year with the goal of attracting more attention for her new friend.
“Sasha would have to be the best success story out there,” Alissa explained. “After being returned 4 times for her anxiety issues, Sasha was on death row. It was the sad reality of an ‘owner surrender.’ I became attatched to Sasha. I cried a lot knowing at any moment she could be killed. BUT after sharing a photo on the internet, SASHA MADE IT HOME. I haven’t seen her since, but we are planning a visit soon. She now has a sister, and they both suffer from anxiety issues.”
Grab a Kleenex. This video our young rescuer created is amongst the sweetest of things I’ve watched in a long while:
With more than 2,000 Facebook fans (go “like” her, guys), our young heroine has definitely cultivated an audience of supporters as well as a legitimate forum for addressing topics like adoption (as an alternative to purchasing) and breed-specific legislation — something she’d passionately like to see end.
“I am against BSL. I hate it. I have only met 2 aggressive pit bulls, and they had been used for FIGHTING. I can’t stand any animal being euthanized because of breed. If so many more people would quit listening to [discussion about] their ‘bad reputation’ and look at the bright side of these breeds, [those people would learn] they are fantastic animals. They are just the same as a lab or weenie dog. I think the only thing we can do to stop BSL is to educate. There is a lot to teach and so little people.”
Preach it from your hilltop, Alissa.
The work doesn’t end when Alissa is finished editing her photos and volunteering her days bathing, socializing, and cuddling homeless animals. She and her family currently care for their foster, Carly, who was dumped at a house and doomed to live in a facility with an 83% kill rate. Nice of Alissa and her clan to step in and offer refuge.
“My pets are CRAZY. I have 3 dogs and 2 cats. And the foster [Carly]. She is actually sitting with me RIGHT now. Then there are Sniffles & Peachie. Sniffles thinks he can catch birds, but he is a little Chihuahua. He can’t. LOL. And there is CJ. He is a great dog, who originally came to us as a family dog, but turned into my ‘son’. We adopted him from a local rescue almost 4 years ago. Then there are our kitties. Delilah was adopted on July 31st, 2010, from the Humane Society of Central Texas, and Shrek was born as a feral kitten who was going to be surrendered to the Humane Society, but now he is my little baby. Shrek is still a kitten. Then there are our 2 fish…who don’t do much.”
In ten years, Alissa hopes to be finishing college at Baylor University. We’ll see more of her, though, because she’d like to become a professional photographer “fostering/rescuing dogs across the country.” Until then, she believes rescue groups can reach a wider public response through networking, TV ads, YouTube videos, billboards, and more adoption events.
“It’s a big idea, but it CAN get done,” she says.
If I had fifty bazillion gold stars, I’d give them all to Alissa Umberger’s efforts. It’s been a true honor communicating with this talented, intelligent, insert-all-the-positive-adjectives-here, young lady, and I hope you will all spend a moment thanking her for the excellent work she does for our Texan communities.
Alissa, you’re a heroine if I’ve ever seen one. Very best wishes to you, and I look forward immensely to seeing your calling continue to unfold.
For more about Alissa and her photography, visit here. Alissa’s Facebook rescue page is here. To view the animals Alissa assists in rescuing, who are available for adoption, visit the Humane Society of Central Texas and Fuzzy Friends Rescue.
All photos and media used with the permission of Alissa Umberger.
Many thanks to Monica Valdez for pointing me toward this extraordinary, animal advocate’s mission.
Becoming familiar with your foster pet’s likes and dislikes is important for developing boundaries and trust. Both of those are pretty handy if you ever plan on convincing an untrained dog to quit crapping inside the house on your great-grandma’s antique rug.
Our last foster dog, Rex, was a picky guy. He liked only one kind of treat, one kind of toy . . . you get the idea. He also really hated being left alone and cried like a siren unless you left the radio on WRR, our local classical radio.
Merlin is certainly less demanding and more light-hearted, so that seems to be helping us earn smiles a lot easier. He’ll eat anything and thinks everything is a toy.
But he’s definitely not a WRR kinda dog. In fact, Merlin has an embarrassing secret.
That’s right. He’s never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, and don’t you know it by that wagging tail.
(Notice Banksy to the left. She’s more of a Flaming Lips kind of gal, and Clover gets down to Loverboy.)
If you’d like to jam out to Rick Astley with Merlin forever, he’s available for adoption through DFW Rescue Me.