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|Steve’s Pet Central farewell|
|Written by Steve Dale|
Many of you asked that I post my lengthy, final remarks on Pet Central, WGN, Sunday, April 26. Interspersed between these words, brief conversations with Dr. Ron DeHaven, executive director of the American Veterinary Medical Association; Dr. Susan Little, president of the Winn Feline Foundation and Dr. Sheldon Rubin, president of the Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association.
12 years ago, nervous at the start of my first show, I used notes. I use notes one more time – on my last show.
It was 14 years ago when Kim Okabe, an editor at Tribune Media services said this guy has a unique passion for animals – she read it my writing, and well, by listening to me when we had lunch together. I suppose she was right. I’m proud of the column I continue to write for Tribune Media Services. But I never would have thought all those years ago – that this would happen: I would become knowledgeable enough to become certified as a dog and cat behavior consultant (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants). And that one day, I might at the 50,000 watt powerhouse, WGN Radio.
I had appeared several times with Bob Collins, who was a real dog lover – crazy about his Booger. After one appearance, which lasted the better part of hour – and no one was on the Collins for more than 10 minutes, let alone nearly an hour. , . , at a meeting, the program director suggested adding specialty shows. News director Tom Peterson, I’m told, said, “How about that guy on with Collins this morning? Why not a pet show?”
And that’s exactly what I began to do in June, 1997. I can’t tell you how grateful I was then and I continue to be…working at this legendary station – the house that Wally built, Smooth Roy Leonard I thought defined radio, Collins made it seem so easy and legends like Steve King. I couldn’t believe I was here. Radio is a business, where if you make your mark – if you are lucky enough to make one – and then, well you’re pretty much forgotten about once you’ve departed. I will always remember these names, respecting those who came before me, particularly Uncle Bobby. And then, there’s Spike. There’s a story, the Naperville Humane Society knows…Spike once told on air. I did once, and that’s it. All I’ll say, his beloved Otis will always be remembered.
What a ride it’s been…I can’t think of anyone in the pet world I’ve wanted to interview that I haven’t – interviewing the most respected experts in animal behavior and veterinary medicine, and pet book authors. Authors found a venue in my show, and I was happy to help sell their books. But what I will be most grateful for has been the opportunity to make a difference in Chicago, and across the country.
Whenever I just opened the phone lines, the topic of dog owners being ticketed for simply allowing their dogs off leash was brought up. One such call really caught my interest, as the listener called in from a high rise, describing how she was overlooking the beach - a woman was at that moment being chased by the police, as if she was a criminal. Her crime was apparently allowing her elderly dogs running or hobbling beside her off leash…It was January and no other people or dogs were anywhere near this person.
I thought – enough – dogs need places to exercise off leash legally, and to socialize, like a dog parks….So, I contacted the Chicago Park District, and within a week was testifying in front of their Board – and gained permission to work with them to establish a committee to create dog parks, which in Chicago we now call Dog Friendly Areas, We already had one sort of experimental park for dogs – but by that summer, a group of us created the perimeters for these DFA’s, I’m sure, eventually, dog parks would have begun anyway – but it was nice to be a part of that.
Remember when President Bush asked children in the U.S. to each send one dollar to help care for the kids in Afghanistan? It was WGN listeners, Joan and John, who explained their child also wanted to contribute to the effort to help children in Afghanistan. But their Tibetan Terrier Boots Montgomery had no way to do that. So, I approached the American Veterinary Medical Association with this idea: Pets for Afghanistan Kids. This fund, which went directly to the White House, made it possible for pet parents to donate to help human kids. Countless thousands and thousands of dollars were raised.
I’ve been criticized by a small number recently for so frequently siding with veterinarians. Listen veterinarians are, according to a Gallup Poll, the second most honored and trusted profession – and that’s for a good reason. And they keep my pets healthy. I make no apologies for my long standing relationship with veterinarians, with the AVMA based right here in Schaumburg – where they can keep an eye on me…and I’m honored to have spoken, to have presented many times at all the major veterinary conferences in America, not to mention sometimes in other countries.
Can you believe Illinois politicians – or at least some – once thought it was a good idea to tax rabies vaccines. Back in 2005, we actually negotiated live on the air with the state public officials involved.
But it’s you – who tweaked me to do what I do…For example, I remember this listener call like it was yesterday. One man, visually impaired, telling me how time and again taxis fly right by him because of his service dog. I contacted the Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Consumer Affairs, and met several times with her. Finally, with the director of Animal Care and Control Nikki Proutsos we created signage for all taxis in the City to have this statement, ‘Chicago Welcomes Service Dogs.’ With a legal explanation, how service dogs must be picked up, we wrote an educational hand out for all taxi drivers and hotels and motels in the city so they understood the laws and rights of service dogs. And for about six years, each and every taxi in the city had that signage…Until the new Commissioner of that Department felt the signage was no longer necessary. I disagree…But maybe she was correct. Today, I receive few calls about taxis passing visually impaired clients with service dogs.
When we began the Scoop the Poop campaign with the Dog Advisory Workgroup, I asked the Mayor if he had a plastic bag. That’s right, Mayor Daley himself appeared on Pet Central, the only interview he’s ever done on pets. Covering the pet food recall for print, I was very involved in that sad story, feeding information to the WGN newsroom, and more than once interviewed Senator Dick Durbin on the air.
Following 9/11 – and I mean only days following 9/11, I spoke live to dog handlers working at the site of the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon. Dog handler Christ Christenson told the story of his dog Servus – and how he was injured desperately searching for survivors. We were all pretty emotional back then – but my producer was in tears and so was I. His description of the destruction, even the smell, horrifyingly real. It turned out my interview with Chris at Ground Zero was one of the few live interviews the media did with anyone who was actually at Ground Zero at that point. Several additional reports of mine, including one on pet cremation, actually aired on WGN Radio News over the years.
Only days after Hurricane Katrina, I spoke to Robin Case – she was seen on CNN or FOX News with the words painted her roof . “One big dog, two cats, one person. Please bring help.” You see at first they wouldn’t rescue Robin with her two Rottweilers. So she and thousands like her stayed behind with their animals. And I’ll never forget that first hand report from St. Bernard High School in New Orleans. People evacuated to that location with pets. But then the school was surrounded by water and everyone was.forced to leave, authorities gave them no choice. Pets were not allowed to join them. They were told they would be reunited with their animals. Instead, all the pets were shot and killed. I helped break that national story, and well many others over the years, some in print and some right here on the radio.
Here’s something that wouldn’t have happened without WGN. I was interviewing Laura Maloney, then president of the Louisiana SPCA in New Orleans. Their shelter was destroyed by Katrina. I wanted to do something to help. You came up with the name, Mardi Growl – a listener who said, ‘Steve, I don’t have a pet, but love your show.’
I teamed up with the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association, and lots of dog trainers, and together we raised over $40,000 for the LASPCA. More important, our benefit, attended by several hundred people and around 50 dogs, prompted a few other benefits just like ours.
Diane Keaton, Kyra Sedgwick, Vanessa Williams, Shirley MacLaine, Jane and Audrey Meadows, Lee Ann Rimes, Sol Dembs, Doris Roberts, Carole Cook, wonderful Betty White. . . I really can’t remember all of the celebrities appearing in the famous Celebrity Pet Segment. My favorite: Jane Goodall
Lots in life happens over 12 years. Personally this year, our friends and family know how hard Robin and I have had it. In 2006 we lost our Brittany Chaser. And this now is the most difficult part of what I have to say…I miss her every day…If you believe I have helped countless pets, it’s Chaser who really deserves the credit. Chaser is the reason why I do this for a living. Ringo died of FIP as a little kitten in 2004. Nothing is more heartbreaking than feline infectious peritonitis. In 2003, we lost my best friend of all – a cat – that’s right, a cat was my best friend…the cat who played the piano and jumped through hoops, and probably appeared on TV more than I did. It’s ironic how much national and local PR WGN gained as a fall out of my cat, Ricky, in the late 1990’s, truly worth an entire ad campaign. If only Ricky had been around in the era of You Tube. My little virtuoso died of feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is all too common in cats – and there was nothing to do, no treatment. He wasn’t even 6 years old. So, I began a fund with the Winn Feline Foundation, to support research – with the hope that one day cats would stop dying of this disease which affects all cats, particularly some breeds like Persians.
I don’t know how much money we’ve raised in total, but I suspect it’s well over six figures by now. And as a result of the research, in two breeds genes have been identified and breeders are beginning to wean out HCM in Ragdolls and Maine Coon cats, saving lives. All as a result of that money, in part, it’s from all of you. So many of you have contributed over the years. And I hope you continue to.
Last summer my goal – to set some type of record for microchipping cats, and for each cat chipped a dollar went to the Winn Foundation. Indeed through promotion in my columns, and various radio shows, we set some sort of record with HomeAgain for the number of cats microchipped in America
WGN, of course, is known around America, and so apparently is my fight against breed bans. When there was a devastating attack in Alderman Shirley Coleman’s ward in 2000, she went on TV and actually said, “Not only would I wish to ban Pit Bulls and Rottweilers, but also all dogs. I can’t ban all dogs. But I will do my best to ban those breeds.” I called the Alderman, and spoke to her at length. She agreed to come on the radio and listen to all of you. And she did. It was you - not me – you convinced her to change her mind. Instead, she put me in charge of a blue ribbon task force to seek alternatives to breed bans. And that’s what we did. City Council approved unanimously. That wouldn’t have happened without you, and wouldn’t have happened without WGN allowing me to make a difference, to make our city safer for people and pets.
A few years later, another challenge from another Alderman after another dog attack And this time, with Alderman Coleman’s help and Alderman Gene Schulter, I formed the City’s Task Force on Companion Animals and Public Safety. Again, we pushed back that proposed breed ban, even though the Mayor was for it at first. Let’s face it, in Chicago, that doesn’t happen every day. And this time, it seems so many cities were looking to what Chicago would do. It might have happened either way in those communities – but all those cities decided to drop their proposals on breed bans. Alderman Schulter’s Task Force became a model for other cities. I am still the co-chair.
So last year, along comes a new flavor of the month, mandatory spay/neuter – my friend, Dr. Shelly Rubin, president of the Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association was in the studio, way early on. Of course, we are for the concept and practice of spay/neuter. But even then without yet really digging into all the research on the issue – we knew it wasn’t a good idea. I thought at first you might not get it, after all, I’ve always been FOR spay/neuter. But you did indeed understand this is kind of draconian, with so many unintended consequences, and really isn’t solely about spay/neuter.
Believe it or not, there’s so much more I could mention…With summer coming, I’m thinking how this show was so instrumental to sway the city to finally make it officially legal to allow for doggy dining outdoor patios or sidewalk cafes….Our early support of trap, neuter, return for stray and feral cats, and you following up by phoning county commissioners. There’s so much more, from our recent promotion with the Chicago Animal Shelter Alliance and the Blackhawks to the Canine Cruise – an architecture cruise for dogs – which began around six years ago, started as a result of Pet Central.
And Pet Central has won awards of one kind or another I think every year I was on the air, from my colleagues who write and broadcast about pets…and a part of the reason I earned the highest honor the AVMA offers to a non veterinarian….and far far far too many award to mention here.
I did earn one honor, in part, for me taking on this one prominent TV dog trainer. Those archived interviews and my associated print stories still get hits on the Internet from around the world. Listen, for radio stations who crave controversy – I certainly have created buzz. But the overwhelming majority of your mail and email is so very kind.
Most gratifying, more than anything else are your calls, and emails saying ‘thank you.’ Here’s what I mean. Wanda just emailed three days ago, “Thanks to your advice, Scout isn’t barking at the mailman anymore Steve. My neighbors are happy, and so am I. And now, it’s rain, sleet, snow or scout – we always get our mail.” Pets are part of the family – and my primary job has been to help families. Not a bad gig. Another listener, from a show just a few weeks back – when Dr. Rubin was on - took our advice, and saw her veterinarian. And she tells me that’s why her dog is alive today.
None of us work in a vacuum. So often not thanked these days is engineer support, so here’s a cold one to Ed Wilk, Ron Cone, Aubrey Mumpower, and all the others…I’ve been lucky enough to have some of the best of WGN’s producers – I know I am leaving out names, but Scott Cameron, Dan Segrue and Kristen Decker, truly have made me better…It’s my dad who encouraged my interest in animals in the first place. And it’s not always easy living with a guy so passionate. 12 years on WGN was nice; 21 years of marriage, far more important. I love you Robin.
In radio, what I just did is unheard of. I thank WGN for the opportunity to say ‘goodbye’ – while I disagree with WGN’s opinion, and really don’t want to go…I respect WGN no less today than I did 12 years ago, I feel honored to have worked here, and continue to write my newspaper column for Tribune Media Services and host two nationally syndicated radio shows. You can also catch me in USA Weekend.
I really believe if we treat our pets better, one day we will learn to treat one another better. If cats have nine lives, I can at least have two. I know I will be talking to you again.