Over the last 10 years, some big dogs have been fighting puppy mills. The Humane Society of the United States, for instance, has tracked shipments of dogs from mill to mall and brought people to court. The ASPCA has conducted raids. PETA has managed to send some of its investigators undercover.
Their efforts have led to the closure of some puppy mills, and shamed some of their partnering pet stores. And yet estimates still stand at 10,000 U.S. operations churning out 2 million-plus dogs each year, with abuse and neglect continuing at facilities both licensed and unlicensed.
All this considered, what are the odds that a crowdfunded documentary out of Colorado Springs can really make a difference?
“I’m very optimistic that we’re going to make a huge difference,” says Pete Schuermann, director of A Voice for Lil Olive. “I think if this film really does get into the public consciousness, you’re going to see an outcry for a lot of this stuff to stop.”
As Schuermann sees it, this underdog film has a lot going for it.
For one thing, Lil Olive will frame the issue in terms that people can handle. First and foremost, it’s the story of a dog rising above a brutal past — not a vessel for dozens of heartbreaking images and statistics, as in so much other puppy-mill messaging.
“I think those commercials that you see by the Humane Society and others work to a degree, but can [also] have an opposite effect,” Schuermann says. “… You know the ones, with Sarah McLachlan doing sad songs and you see the dogs shivering in cold. Most people will turn the channel and just block it out. It’s too hard to deal with for a lot of people.”
Schuermann knows people can instead be moved by exposure to a single mill survivor. Even before he got deeply involved with the cause, his wife Ashley had studied puppy mills and became committed to taking in a rescued dog. They adopted Lola at about 3 years old, brought her home — and watched the Italian greyhound hide under the dining room table for most of the first six months. Seeing her struggle, Schuermann says, convinced him to do the movie. (Today, Schuermann notes, 7-year-old Lola sticks to the two of them “like glue,” but still won’t approach someone else unless she’s seen that person a few times.)
Schuermann also believes in the power of today’s social media landscape — and for good reason. Blackfish, the documentary about orcas suffering at SeaWorld, peaked in popularity not during its short theatrical run, but months afterward, when a CNN broadcast and Netflix streaming fueled a Twitter conversation seen by more than 7 million people. Awareness turned to action when people distributed and signed petitions against SeaWorld, using sites like change.org. Two and a half years later, unable to stem the tide of bad PR and having suffered huge drops in attendance, the theme park announced an end to its orca shows and breeding program.
The Lil Olive team has a head start in the social media world, since 41,000 people already follow Lil Olive’s page on Facebook. And they’re sure to get a boost from celebrity supporters including Patrick Fabian, Laurel Harris and Linda Blair.
Schuermann is struck in particular by all that Blair has done to advocate for animal rights, especially in her home state of California. He points out that thanks in part to luminaries like her, California’s legislators have been more active than most in protecting animal welfare. For instance, in January they stopped the sale of pets at flea markets, which are notorious for selling puppy-mill survivors.
So while a problem like this can appear intransigent, there are reasons to be hopeful — optimistic, even. Schuermann is still gathering information on all the elements that make this a complicated issue, but he fully believes that he can reach viewers with a clear and compelling message.
“I think what they’ll see is just simply that dogs are very loving; they need to be treated that way back,” he says. “It’s as simple as that, you know?”
— Kirk Woundy
Copyright 2016 Shelter Island Films
A Voice for Lil Olive is a new documentary from award-winning filmmaker Pete Schuermann. The film explores the special bond between pets and their families, and how rescued dogs change lives. The film's mission is to make people aware of and to change attitudes about rescued pets through the telling of Lil Olive’s tale. In this way, she becomes the voice for so many dogs and animals in need.