Red, a Chow-mix, gazes at the hullabaloo: the milling crowd, vendors setting up wares, the sumptuous smell of gourmet food. Overwhelmed, she darts to the nearest comfort, her owner’s legs. “This is the most stimulation she’s had her entire life,” says owner Nancy Rataj. Rataj rescued Red from a neighbor, who chained the dog to a propane tank between his farm’s silo and barn…for seven years.
It’s the morning of June 28, and Rataj and Red are attending the national “Chain-Off” event, a protest and outdoor festival sponsored by the non-profit animal-rights group Dogs Deserve Better. To call attention to the cruelties of dog abuse, eleven protesters have decided to wear dog collars and chain themselves to doghouses for twenty-four hours. “Would you do this to a person? Why are you doing it to your best friend?” asks Tammy Grimes, the non-profit’s executive director.
This year’s event is at the DuPage County Fair Grounds, a stretch of grass flanked by train tracks and the looming Wheaton water tower. Adoption shelters have set up tents beside vendors hawking everything from all-natural treats to pet portraits to doggy psychic services. However, the real draw of the festival is the protest area, where the animal-rights activists (or “chainees”) sit on the ground with heavy metal chains tethering them to crude wood doghouses. “I asked if I should bring my iPod or a book,” says chainee Brittany Ashby, an English major at SIU in Edwardsville. “But if the dogs don’t have anything to play with to occupy their time, then I shouldn’t either.”
“With animals, you can’t explain to them what’s going on, so they must be terrified in certain situations!” explains another chainee, Jenny Lawson. With bare feet and sunglasses, the redheaded Earlham College student is the spitting image of Molly Ringwald. “I’ve always felt this bond, and a need to give a voice to creatures who are voiceless,” she says.
The youngest activist in the group is Samantha Ahlman, a freckled, 10-year-old Naperville resident. Ahlman is committed to sticking it out for the entire twenty-four hours. “It’s not really nice to chain dogs outside for their whole lives,” she says. Ahlman wears a pink dog collar, which links her to a doghouse she built and painted with her father. “We made them to be our companions, so we have to be a companion to them.” (Laura Hawbaker)