book reviews, dogs, Virginia

Reviewing My Journey with Ernie: Lessons from a Turkey Dog, by Heidi H. Speece

A few weeks ago, I ran across an entertaining article in the Daily Press, a newspaper I read when I was growing up in Gloucester, Virginia. I had to use a VPN to read the article, thanks to the strict privacy laws in Europe that have made reading the news from home more complicated. I am glad I had the VPN, though. Otherwise, I might not have ever had the opportunity to read about Ernie, an adorable golden retriever “Turkey Dog” who is now happily living in York County, just across the river from where I spent my youth.

In that Daily Press article, I was introduced to Heidi H. Speece, a high school English teacher who decided she needed a change in her life. Change was most certainly in the cards for Heidi– in the form of a rescue dog from the streets of Istanbul. After I read the newspaper story, I was interested in reading Speece’s book. It turns out we have a lot in common, and not only because I grew up just over the river from where she now lives. We’re close in age, and I was once an English teacher, albeit only for a couple of years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Like me, Heidi Speece is a dog lover. Her former golden retriever, Buddy, had died about a year before Speece heard of a very special dog rescue called Kyra’s Rescue, which is based in Washington, DC. Kyra’s Rescue aims to find homes for stray dogs, primarily from Turkey. Turkey has a big problem with homeless dogs, many of which are golden retrievers or mixes thereof.

After Buddy died, Speece was missing canine company. She had visited Turkey on a cruise in the late 90s and had loved the country. So she contacted Kyra’s Rescue and started the process of adopting Ernie, a golden retriever who was found abandoned outside a Turkish auto body shop in March 2017. Now about ten years old, Ernie has brought Speece laughter, adventure, and much joy. But it could have turned out very differently for Ernie if not for a few guardian angels, both in Turkey and the United States.

When he was found, Ernie was malnourished, mangy, and had a bad hip injury, most likely caused by being hit by a car. He had managed to survive, thanks to kindhearted mechanics who worked at the auto body shop. They gave him scraps of food and let him sleep in the shop when the weather got too inclement. Later, a woman took Ernie to a pet boarding facility, where he was eventually connected with Kyra’s Rescue. Ernie arrived in the United States on July 4, 2017; Heidi picked him up in the parking lot of an IKEA the next day, and gave him the middle name “Bert”. You can probably guess why she added the name “Bert”, if you are familiar with the children’s TV show, “Sesame Street”. I used to live in northern Virginia, so I know exactly where the IKEA is where Heidi and Ernie came together!

I am familiar with the homeless dog issue myself, having spent two years in neighboring Armenia as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I still vividly remember the packs of street dogs there. I’ve also visited Turkey, so I’m not surprised that there are stray dogs there. However, I was surprised to read that the homeless dogs in Turkey are often golden retrievers. Golden retrievers are originally from Scotland. Also, I’d always known them as great family dogs, lovable, sweet, and friendly. But then, although I’ve adopted several rescue dogs, I have little personal experience with golden retrievers.

As I read Speece’s hilarious story about Ernie and his non-stop antics, I sort of understood better why they might be cast out of their human families– not at all that I condone abandoning a pet. It turns out that golden retrievers are sweet, but very mischievous! People who are inexperienced with golden retrievers sometimes adopt them, forgetting that the cute little puppy will eventually grow into a large dog who can raise all kinds of ruckus. Very soon, Heidi Speece got the excitement she needed, as her new companion collected balls, ran amok at football games, and attacked model skeletons in veterinary offices. Ernie quickly bonded with Heidi’s mom, who lives in Williamsburg. She dubbed herself Ernie’s “grandmummy” and also eventually adopted a “Turkey Dog” from Kyra’s Rescue, another golden retriever named Limerick.

I really appreciated the thoughtful touches that are included in My Journey With Ernie. I mentioned that Heidi Speece teaches English, so her book includes some resources that other authors might not have considered. At the end of her story, she admits to knowing that high school students often use tools such as “Cliff’s Notes” to familiarize themselves with works of literature. In that vein, Speece offers a “watered down” version of her story, including a cast of characters, which makes it easy for me to remind myself of details I might have missed while reading the book. I thought it was an ingenious touch!

My Journey With Ernie was just published last month, so the information in it is very current. Speece even writes about a recent rule from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that is wreaking havoc with Americans who have pets and live overseas. In July 2021, the CDC imposed a temporary ban on importing dogs to the United States from countries at “high risk” of rabies transmission. Turkey is on that list of high risk countries; so at the moment, it’s much harder for Americans to adopt dogs from Turkey.

I’m in a Facebook group for servicemembers who are moving to or from the United States with pets. Germany is NOT on the CDC’s banned list of import countries. However, because of the hassle and potential liability issues from the ban, Lufthansa, Germany’s national airline, which happens to be among the best for transporting dogs, has also reportedly been declining to transport animals to the United States from Germany. It’s caused a huge problem for people who are trying to rotate back to the States from Germany with their dogs.

I’ve read many panicked messages from Americans trying to move back to the States with dogs and running into roadblocks. And the new rule also doesn’t help that negative impression some Germans have of American dog owners. Speece rightfully points out that, although the rule came about because someone imported a rabies positive dog from Azerbaijan, the odds of other dogs coming to the States with rabies is tiny. The new rule really does make things difficult for a lot of people and their pets. I speak from personal experience that international travel with dogs has never been easy or cheap, even before the pandemic struck and this new rule was enacted. Hopefully, some successful lobbying will get the rule dropped or restructured so that it doesn’t cause such a hardship for Americans who live abroad.

As my regular readers might know, Bill and I adopted a street dog ourselves last year. On August 31, 2019, our beloved beagle, Zane, died of lymphoma. Ordinarily, we would have contacted a beagle rescue and adopted another beagle to keep our surviving dog, Arran, company. But beagles aren’t as popular in Germany as they are in the United States, so they aren’t as easy to adopt here.

Americans also suffer from a lingering bad reputation among animal shelters in Germany, thanks to some members of the military abandoning their pets before leaving Germany to go back to the States or elsewhere. A lot of Americans in Germany who want a dog end up buying them from breeders. We didn’t want to buy a dog from a breeder. Bill and I did try to adopt a beagle from a German pet rescue, just as the pandemic began. But thanks to a series of disasters and an ultimate tragedy, that adoption didn’t work out. You can search my blog for the story on that incident.

But happily, we do have another dog now, which makes me have something else in common with Heidi Speece– as our latest dog is also from a country that has issues with strays. A fellow dog loving friend and dog rescuer introduced me to an American woman named Meg who lives in Germany and rescues dogs in Kosovo. That’s how we ended up with Noyzi, our Kosovar street dog. Noyzi was found by a young man from Pristina. He was a four week old puppy, all alone and screaming in the street. The young man named Noyzi after an Albanian rapper and gave him to Meg, who kept him for about two years, until Noyzi finally found his way to Germany through Bill and me.

Next month, we will have had Noyzi for a year. It’s been such a pleasure and honor to watch Noyzi go from being a terrified and confused dog, to a loving companion and family member who surprises us every day. No, Noyzi isn’t a beagle, and he’s not like any of our other dogs. He’s very special and much loved. So, on that level, I could relate to Heidi Speece’s story about adopting her “Turkey Dog”. By all rights, Ernie, like Noyzi, should not have survived puppyhood. But look at both of these dogs now! They are living their best lives. In a way, it’s a reminder that the American Dream can be a very real thing– even to species other than human!

I suppose if I had to offer a criticism of My Journey With Ernie, it’s that I’m sure some people will point out that there are plenty of homeless dogs in the United States. But personally, I am not going to offer that criticism, since I have a dog from Kosovo, and he’s changed and improved my life. I can tell that Ernie has given Heidi Speece the change she needed in her life. And Ernie has no doubt made a lot of people smile, which is the job that dogs do best.

If you love dog stories, I would definitely recommend Heidi Speece’s book, My Journey with Ernie: Lessons from a Turkey Dog. I’m glad I read it, especially since I have so much in common with the author. I think it will appeal to anyone who has ever loved dogs and adventure. It’s a quick, easy read, entertaining, and often hilarious. And it really does touch my heart to know that Ernie and Limerick have found new lives in America. Dogs are wonderful for bringing people together and helping them form friendships. I feel like I have a friend in Heidi Speece, even if we’ve never met!

Well, Noyzi the Kosovar street dog is now pestering me for a walk. I’m sure Arran will join him soon. I guess this ends today’s fresh content. I hope you’ll read Heidi Speece’s book and let me know what you think!

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book reviews, religion

Repost: A review of Kathryn Joyce’s The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption

Here’s a repost of Kathryn Joyce’s The Child Catchers, which I reviewed on March 24, 2014 for my original blog. It appears here as/is.

So I just finished reading The Child Catchers, which I happened to be reading a few days ago when I first read about the disturbing trend of “re-homing” kids who were adopted internationally.  This book was written by Kathryn Joyce, a feminist author who also wrote a book about the Quiverfull movement.  I don’t think I made that connection when I bought this book; I tend to buy books on impulse.  It just looked like an interesting read, and it was.

In The Child Catchers, Joyce takes a revealing look at the international adoption industry, particularly as it pertains to religious people.  It’s very trendy for Christians in the United States to adopt children from abroad.  Many Christians see adoption as a kind of ministry, where they bring people who wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to “the gospel” into their homes.  Sometimes, these people truly do want to be parents.  Sometimes, they are looking for some kind of misguided glory within their religious circles.

Disturbingly, sometimes the children who are adopted internationally still have parents in their home nations.  Joyce writes of three sisters from Ethiopia who were adopted after their father was told they would be educated in America.  Though his wife had died, he had a middle class job.  He was not told the full details of what adoption meant.  His daughters were taken; their names and even their ages were changed; and the adoption ended up being a disaster.  The eldest child was “re-homed” with her adoptive mother’s parents and, once she turned 18, changed her name back to what it was before she was adopted.  She also moved to another state.

Joyce writes of another family from Primm Springs, Tennessee that adopted a bunch of children from Liberia and essentially used them as slaves.  Nancy and Colin Campbell, founders of the magazine and Web site Above Rubiesare fundamentalist Christians.  Their daughter, Serene Allison, wife of Sam Allison, is a well-known advocate of raw dieting.  The Allisons took in the four Liberian children and brought them back to Tennessee, where they lived in a house off the grid.  One child described their lifestyle as if she’d moved from Africa to Africa.  The children were ostensibly home-schooled, but actually received very little education.  They did a lot of chores, too.  Several local people became concerned about the kids and contacted the local child welfare office, but nothing much was done about the alleged abuse and neglect. 

While I had heard a bit about adoptions that failed, I had no idea how serious the situation was.  Nor did I have any idea of how many birth mothers are pressured into giving up their child for adoption.  Joyce writes about the manipulative tactics adoption agencies use to get mothers to cooperate.  Then, American couples pay $30,000 or $40,000 to adopt.  With that much money involved, it’s no wonder the agencies go to such lengths to get more kids.  One of the most disturbing chapters in this book was about “crisis pregnancy centers”, some of which use slick methods to convince prospective birthmothers to relinquish their babies.  I was particularly interested in what she wrote about LDS Social Services, mainly because I read RfM a lot and there have been many stories over the years written by women who felt compelled to give up their babies when they got pregnant out of wedlock.  Of course, the Mormons are not the only ones who do this type of thing.  Joyce writes a lot about fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, too.

Sadly, it seems that a lot of American or European families that wish to adopt children from abroad aren’t aware of the challenges they may face.  They see themselves as rescuing children from godforsaken places and sometimes that is truly what they end up doing.  But they may not realize that the adopted child may have problems stemming from a lack of infant care or a mother who abused drugs or alcohol during her pregnancy.  The children may end up with serious psychiatric or medical problems that drain resources or even put family members in danger.

I thought this book was very well-written and mostly well-researched.  Joyce does seem to have an agenda against Christians, which doesn’t really bother me, but may offend some readers.  I don’t think this book is particularly balanced, as Joyce doesn’t offer much if any commentary on adoptions that did work out.  As you read this book, you come away with the idea that there is a terrible crisis, when, in fact, Joyce may just be highlighting the worst cases.  Nevertheless, I learned a lot reading The Child Catchers and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the international adoption arena.  At the very least, Joyce reminds readers why potential adopters need to be cautious and certain they are dealing with ethical adoption agencies.

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