CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Cindy Himmel opens the front door of her Dilworth home and three dogs come spilling out — Lulu, a teeny mutt she’s had for about 10 years; Ruby, an even teenier Havenese mix she’s had for 14-plus; and Pearl, an American bulldog mix with cancer, adopted just last March.
Characterizing Cindy as a dog person is like saying NASCAR drivers prefer to be in vehicles that go fast.
But when her adult daughter Amanda Levine told her she was likely going to start fostering a pit bull, Cindy wasn’t thrilled with the idea.
She starts to describe “hearing bad stories” about this particular type of dog, then interrupts herself. “I don’t want to say ‘bad stories.’ Hearing stereotypical (things). I was like, ‘Really? You sure? I don’t knooowww.’ I just remember feeling a little bit of a knotty stomach. Like, ‘A pit bull??’”
Two years and eight months later, both mother and daughter are in situations they couldn’t have dreamed of at the time.
Amanda, who was originally planning to just take in a dark-gray pit bull named Artemis on a temporary basis, became so hopelessly attached that she decided to adopt. And Cindy, who was originally apprehensive about her daughter’s decision, became so emotionally affected by what she would learn about pit bulls — i.e. shelters are flooded with them, the stigma makes them unpopular, many pits wind up getting euthanized — that she decided to try to alter the course of pit bulls’ collective future in the Charlotte area.
This winter, Cindy and her husband, Jeff Himmel, partnered with local nonprofit Stand for Animals Veterinary Clinic to launch what is almost certainly the most ambitious effort to address the plight of pit bulls Charlotte has ever seen.
The Artemis Cares Fund’s first initiative — which aims to treat up to 1,000 dogs a year for the next five years — works like this: If you have a pit bull (or any dog that could be even loosely categorized as one close to one; remember, “pit bull” isn’t an actual breed), Stand for Animals will fix it, provide three months of flea/tick/heartworm preventative medication for it, heartworm-test it, vaccinate it against rabies, and microchip it.
Dog owners will pay just $25 for the suite of services, far less than their actual combined value.
To make that possible, the Himmels committed an amount that, all these months after Cindy first suggested it, still causes Stand for Animals’ executive director’s jaw to drop.
THE DOG THAT HAD BEEN STUCK THERE THE LONGEST
There are plenty of reasons why someone interested in adopting a dog during the first couple months of the pandemic might have taken one look at Artemis ... and then kept right on looking.
This has been the case for years now. According to a 2016 report in The Washington Post, “Pit bulls are pretty much Public Enemy No. 1 of American dogs” due to “a reputation for being dangerous.” The story references an Arizona State University study that tried to determine “how the negative pit bull label influenced dogs’ chances at adoption. The answer, in short: a lot. They found that pit bulls languish far longer at shelters, and potential adopters view them as much less attractive.”
Amanda, for her part, had no qualms about pit bulls. She’d actually fallen in love with one who was owned by a guy she used to date, not long before meeting Artemis.
Artemis had additional challenges, though, too: a tendency to pull intensely and relentlessly when being walked on a leash, and separation anxiety so severe that she had learned how to fairly easily break out of a typical dog crate.
It’s why, when Amanda went in to CMPD Animal Care & Control in May 2020 and announced to the staff that she wanted to foster the dog that had been stuck there the longest, they pointed her straight to Artemis — a former bait dog who had been used to train fighting dogs. It’s why Artemis had been returned to them, Amanda says she was told, multiple times.
And it’s part of the reason why she really, initially, only wanted to commit to three months or so.
Still, she very quickly started falling in love, again, this time with a pit bull whose giant tongue lolled out of a mouth that was missing most of its teeth. (Bait dogs’ teeth are typically removed to help prevent them from injuring fighting dogs).
“When I first got her ... she warmed up to me so fast,” Amanda recalls. She “jumped into my arms, and we cuddled so much the first night.”
As promised, she set to work trying to help Artemis find a forever home, posting pics and pleas on social media. But over time, it became clear that “Artie” was with her for good. “It was gradual,” she said. “As each day went by our bond got stronger. I think the tipping point was nobody was interested. The one family that I thought would be interested turned out to be a fluke. So then I was like, ‘I’m done. This is meant to be at this point.’”
Cindy probably could have called that outcome. What she probably couldn’t have called is her own change of heart.
Despite her reservations, “the moment I met Artie, I fell in love,” Cindy says. In particular, she was touched by “her not wanting to be alone. There’s something really lovely about her just wanting to be with a human all the time.”
She started seeking out information about pit bulls, and reading about the public perceptions, the misconceptions, the fact that there was an overpopulation of pits in shelters nationally, and about how that led to an inordinate amount of them being euthanized.
Cindy had moved to Charlotte from Chicago with her husband Jeff after the pandemic started in 2020. She’d sold the majority stake in a bakery and ice cream parlor chain she owned in Illinois; was looking to get involved in animal welfare; had met Stand for Animals executive director Cary Bernstein in 2021; and the two spent six months on a proposal of Cindy’s to create a sanctuary for senior dogs.
The idea hadn’t worked out. Now, though — thanks to her daughter and her daughter’s dog — Cindy had come up with a new one.
‘EVERYBODY WAS LIKE, OH MY GOD!’
Cindy and Cary were having coffee, and Cindy was telling her about Artemis’s story and her own sudden interest in pit bulls. Cary brought up the fact that, from 2014 to 2018, Stand for Animals had used a grant from PetSmart to subsidize the fixing of pit bulls, so that their owners only had to pay $25.
Cary pointed out that since the grant program ended, her staff had been spaying and neutering far fewer pits.
Cindy asked if Cary could find the specific numbers for her. After their meeting, Cary had them sent them to her.
And, Cindy says, “the line that I kept hearing was, ‘You can’t adopt your way out of this problem.’ We can find the best people in the world (to adopt) and there’s still too many dogs.” In other words, one of the best ways to save so many pit bulls from lives plagued by suffering would be to stop so many pit bulls from being born in the first place. It means fewer pit bulls in shelters.
“All at once it hit me, and I was ready to commit,” Cindy explains. She was a little concerned about Stand for Animals’ capacity to do something on as large a scale as she had in mind. “But,” she says, “Cary was all over it.”
Actually, describing Cary as “all over it” is like saying Cindy is a dog person.
“When you emailed me back and said, ‘I’m gonna do this,’” Cary recalls of being in her office and getting the note, “I went, ‘Can somebody come in here and read this? Because I think she made a mistake.’ ... And everybody was like, ‘OH MY GOD!’”
It was the largest gift Stand for Animals has ever received: $500,000, to be donated by Cindy and Jeff Himmel in increments of $100,000 over each of the next five years.
Amanda says that when her mother told her what they planned to do, “I was so excited ... and very proud of just the complete transformation.”
Initially, both Amanda and Cindy were opposed to any publicity. In fact, Cindy had started off wanting her and her husband’s donation to be anonymous.
But the name of the initiative — the Artemis Cares Fund — naturally begged an explanation. Plus, Cary says, you can’t deny the power of the origin story and its ability to inspire.
There’s Amanda’s small act of kindness — “Not everybody goes to the shelter and says, ‘I’ll take whatever dog’s been here the longest,’” Cary says. “I mean, that’s a pretty beautiful thing.” Then there’s the bigger picture, which Cary says is even greater than the dollar figure. “The focal point of this story,” she says, looking at Cindy as they sit in her living room, “is your relationship with Mandy and that dog, and your belief and commitment that that dog represents a lot of other dogs that you want to help.”
Cindy still appears uncomfortable with the idea of media attention for this. But she also seems to be coming around, especially the more Cary says things like this:
“I mean, hopefully people will say, ‘Wow. This is a big deal that they are gonna do this work.’ And maybe there’s other things that people are thinking about in the community and say, ‘They could do this? Maybe we could do that.’”