A moving documentary about resilience and survival of man’s best friend.
On April 10, the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and Animal Planet hosted a red carpet, reception, and screening to premiere their joint film Second Chance Dogs, directed by Ken Bell. Guests in attendance included Matthew Bershadker, the CEO of ASPCA, Kristen Collins, the director of Saint Hubert’s, the rehab center depicted in the film, Ken Bell himself, actress Jackie Cruz, and The Today Show host Tamron Hall, who moderated the panel discussion after the screening.
The attitude of the night was one of hope and redemption, with many of the families who had adopted dogs from the film in attendance with their beloved pets. The event was held at the House of Vans, a former warehouse on the Greenpoint waterfront that now functions as a skate park by day and concert venue and event space by night. Before the film began, we were able to catch up with Matthew Bershadker, Kristen Collins, and film director Ken Bell to discuss their work, the project, and dogs.
How do you feel about the event tonight?
Matthew Bershadker: I’m extremely excited! I’m glad to be bringing this incredible work and this very, very important issue to a national stage. We’re extremely excited to share this with tonight’s audience and really demonstrate that these animals who have suffered so greatly are capable of such incredible recovery.
Do you have any particularly inspiring stories to share?
Bershadker: Sure, so what inspired the entire rehab center was a hoarding case in Tennessee. It was June of 2010, it was extremely hot, there were about 110 dogs living out in the woods with a very, very impoverished individual, and the sheriff was going to begin shooting the dogs if we didn’t do something. And we had to go and assess the dogs medically and behaviorally and place them all in one day. And at that moment we really dedicated ourselves to finding a way to heal, to undo the psychological impact of abuse and neglect.
And what kinds of dogs do you work with?
Bershadker: All kinds of dogs. Really the center focus is on specific behaviors that are the result of fear and under socialization. So it can be big dogs, small dogs, any type of breed – it’s the behavior that we’re looking to undo, and that behavior is the result of human interaction, human neglect and human abuse.
How closely do you work with the dogs?
Bershadker: I personally am not working very closely with the dogs, but Kristen Collins is the director of the center and she’s working every day hands on with the dogs. Regrettably, I don’t get as much time with the dogs as I would like.
So Kristen, you work very closely with the dogs. Can you talk about that experience?
Kristen Collins: Absolutely. It’s an incredible experience. I love watching them come to us and then change as drastically as they change. They’re incredibly resilient and I think the journey for them is what makes us so motivated to do this work. They are not pets when you bring them to us, and when they leave it’s incredible to see that we’ve given them an entirely new life.
And do you a certain story that inspired your career so far?
Collins: Boy, I’ve got so many… I think the most inspiring thing for us and the things that really were catalysts for this project were things we did in the field. We did a lot of work with animals who were coming from really horrifying environments, really isolated, and they were in terrible behavioral shape, and often physical shape too. But the behavior was really horrible to see. They were just terrified of all people, and seeing that and realizing that there wasn’t anywhere for them to go… I think that was particularly, for me at least, just inspiring and a driving force, knowing that there needed to be an answer for them, that there needed to be somewhere for them to get better. I love working for an organization that actually took the step to do that. I’m so proud to work for us for that reason. I think meeting them as individuals because at the rehab center there are so many stories, so many dogs that come to us, and they all have different challenges. I think each and every one of them struggle in a different way, and seeing them have joy finally for the first time is just incredible.
Do you face any challenges for being different from other rehab centers?
Collins: This rehab center is actually the only one of its kind in the entire United States, but I know there are a lot of people working to change dogs’ behaviors in shelters across the country. I think the challenge that we face is that we’re taking the hardest cases, the worst of the worst. About 80% come from cruelty cases, so they’re coming from hoarding cases and coming from puppy mills. They’ve faced such trauma and such isolation and neglect that I think our biggest challenge is taking these animals who’ve literally never had a relationship with a person and never had any joy in their lives and introducing them to the entire world.
And do you have a dog yourself?
Collins: I do! I actually have two! They come to the rehab center and help, because they’re very confident so they help the fearful dogs. One came from a hoarding case actually and her name is Tofu because she has extra toes. Then the other one is a border collie, he came from a shelter too, and his name is Wink. They’re good kids.
And so Ken, do you have any specific stories that inspired you?
Ken Bell: Well I was the director, and what was inspiring to me was seeing all these incredible women, all these behaviorists working their magic and doing such a great job. And then I went to the homes where the dogs were adopted. They didn’t go there, but I went to the homes to meet the people that adopted the dogs and some of them are here. And to see these dogs with these issues and then they’re in these homes and they’re clearly loved, it’s very, very, very touching. Well, you’ll see at the end of the film! That, to me, meant a lot. When you make these films, I enter all these people’s lives and they have no idea really what you’re going to do. And so you get all this trust and you want to make sure that in the end it was well placed. I wanted to do the best job I could. So when I saw the homes they were in I knew we had something because we had that end. The people were just so great.
And what made you want to make the film?
Bell: I have a website called thedogfiles.com with this mascot Max. Max passed last year, but everything I do – I would not be here right now if it wasn’t for him because he changed my life. And I have Remy too, he’s at home right now. I did a shoot called “Here Are Dogs 9/11” about the search and rescue dogs in 9/11 and it was on Animal Planet a few years ago. ASPCA and Emily saw it and they called me up and said, “Hey, let’s talk about you filming something for ASPCA.” And then they brought me in and at the time I lived in northern New Jersey and it was taking place in New Jersey at Saint Hubert’s so it was perfect. So that’s what we did and three and a half years later, here we are.
You mention your dog Max having changed your life. In what ways?
Bell: Well, I hadn’t had a dog since I was a kid so I had kind of forgotten. When I got Max it just blew me away how incredible he was. And so I created thedogfiles.com, it didn’t exist without him, he’s the logo. “Here Are Dogs 9/11”, the television show, my own web series online on thedogfiles.com, all this stuff, all these people I know, every single person here, standing here talking to you – it’s because of this one dog. So I tell people that a dog can change your life. Mine did and they can do it for anybody so I’m always just pushing for adoption to get these dogs into homes because they do so much good. Sometimes you hear “Well what about people?” But what about people? I mean, dogs make people’s lives so much better, right? So, to me, it’s an incredible cause to work with ASPCA.
After our interviews, we all sat to watch Second Chance Dogs, which was followed by a panel facilitated by Tamron Hall. The film detailed the specific treatments of several dachshunds and malamutes. We are able to watch these dogs from the very beginning, seeing their rescue from abusive situations, their initial difficulties, their slow and steady treatments, and their eventual total transformation and adoption. The film is remarkably inspiring and heartfelt, with several moments garnering laughs or affectionate ‘awww’s from the audience. All in all, the message comes across that the resilience and individuality of the dogs is something to be admired and respected.
The film will air as a special on Animal Planet at 9am eastern on Saturday, April 16 as part of a celebration of the ASPCA’s 150th birthday.
Photo credits: ASPCA.