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One Woman Making a Difference for Chained Dogs – a Tribute

The Asheville dog community was saddened by the loss of Peggy Irwin, founder of ChainFree Asheville, after a two-year battle with cancer. I first met Peggy at her booth at the Saturday tailgate market, where she sold home made dog biscuits to raise funds to buy fencing materials, and raise awareness of the chained dog issue. Actually, the biscuits were free – Peggy just smiled and requested a donation in any amount. I learned  that the biscuits were donated by a professional baker, and they rivaled any you would find in an upscale dog bakery – thick, perfectly shaped dog bones and a few dog breed shapes such as Airedales. I always bought several as treats for my dogs. Pretty soon Peggy had formed a nonprofit and gathered a group of regular fence builders. When she saw a chained dog, she bravely knocked on the home’s door and asked the owner if they would consent to having a free fence constructed. Then on weekends, the volunteers built the fences. Their reward was seeing the happy dogs race and bound around their new secure space. ChainFree also distributed spay and neuter vouchers, donated dog houses, and persuaded the City Council to pass an ordinance against chaining dogs. At the time of Peggy’s death, efforts are expanding to the surrounding county, much of which is rural with many chained dogs awaiting freedom. Below is a tribute to Peggy. May her wonderful work on behalf of dogs continue and prosper. She is truly an example of how one woman on a mission can make a difference in many lives.
As many of you may already know, my beloved Peggy, founder of ChainFree Asheville, passed away peacefully on October 14th. Her life was filled with many experiences and accomplishments and most of all, her love of animals. I truly believe all of those were achieved at the highest level for Peggy with her formation and participation in ChainFree Asheville. I would like to relate her journey.

Peggy and I came to Asheville in 2002 to operate a B&B we had purchased. Not long after settling into the day-to-day operations, Peggy saw a chained dog a few blocks from the B&B. She approached and got permission from the owner to bring food, treats, and even walk the dog. Thus, began Peggy’s mission and love until her final days.

Unfortunately, she witnessed many other chained dogs in the Asheville/Buncombe County area over the next few years. She discovered the national organization Dogs Deserve Better and made contact with its founder, Tammi Grimes (now known as Tamira Ci Thayne), which eventually led to Tammi visiting us in Asheville in 2004. With the busy B&B and helping me with our small publishing firm, Peggy wasn’t able to be as actively involved as she wanted.

We were fortunate to sell the B&B and the firm in 2008. At the same time as Peggy heard of a meeting on chained dogs, the Asheville City Council announced it was reviewing its animal ordinances. So, within weeks she had made contacts and gathered a few kindred souls to hold an informal gathering at the North Asheville Library. We were both astonished and thrilled to have about 25 people show up with ideas and support. She boldly announced, “We will get dogs off chains in Asheville! We will build fences as part of the solution and we will get the law changed.”

By mid-summer she was up by 6:00am and then off to set up a booth every Saturday morning at the City Farmers Market. Here, she met hundreds of people who signed up for her newsletter, made one dollar contributions, and gave her encouragement to build our first fence. During the week she researched and talked to other communities that had passed No-Chaining laws. She contacted and later visited Amanda Arrington of the Durham based Coalition to Unchain Dogs who had been building fences for a while and they gave her valuable advice on approaching owners and building fences.

In November 2008 CFA built our first fence for three dogs in West Asheville. We had a grateful owner and a large turnout for the Sunday build. Several other chained dogs got their freedom during the next few months. By Spring of 2009, Peggy had fought through all the red tape and had established CFA as a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization, had raised more money, and begun her strategy to change the City ordinance.   With a $10,000 grant from the Hueston Foundation (an ardent CFA follower had personal knowledge of the foundation) and other donations, CFA was building a fence nearly every Sunday in the Summer/Fall of 2009.

Most of the assessment of finding and qualifying owners/dogs was done by Peggy with help from Michelle Wolf. I would tag along sometimes. She always went right up to the chained dog (just the opposite of what she would warn strangers about!), many times getting her clothes soiled, embracing and petting the animal, Peggy always smiling. Then, sometimes traversing a littered yard, knock on the door with a confident, friendly and engaging manner, talk to the owner about chaining, spay/neuter, or having a free fence built. The outcomes were not always what we hoped for, but for Peggy, it was lighting that candle for the dog….returning again and again.

Besides the fence building, CFA was providing vouchers for spay/neuter to help future freed dogs comply with the law. As the colder months approached, Peggy set up a Habitat for Hounds program through Brother Wolf to coordinate donated dog houses that were then offered to qualified dog owners.

Peggy put together a booklet about the safety and humane reasons to ban the chaining of dogs and marched off to meet each of the City Council persons. Most were receptive to meet, a few even committed to the CFA request for a ban on all chaining. Councilman Kelly Miller was the most supportive and vocal during Council meetings. Additionally, Peggy and a handful of CFA supporters met with the Chief of Police, Bill Hogan, and his animal control department to discuss the enforcement aspects.

At a critical Council meeting, Peggy made a seven minute power point presentation that helped everyone see the issues. Key to her presentation was the fact that CFA was already helping citizens and would continue to do so after the passing of the ban. CFA had so many supporters in the audience that night they had to use an overflow room besides the normal chambers. With this overwhelming visual support and Peggy’s presentation, the Council agreed to have staff and the legal department look at other communities with chaining laws and report back with a vote to be taken at that time.

In October of 2009, Council voted to ban unattended dog chaining in the City of Asheville, with a one year education period (which CFA had recommended). The vote was taken after another of Peggy’s presentations and Chief Hogan standing beside her saying his department was committed to enforcing the new ordinance and working with CFA to help those eligible for free fences for their dogs.

Fence building and the education of the general public about chaining continued into 2010 as CFA worked with animal control to help eligible people to be compliant with the new ordinance.

September 17th, the day after our 10th anniversary, Peggy came out of exploratory surgery with a colostomy pouch on her stomach and the diagnosis of stage 4 cancer. Within a week, she had assured all CFA followers that the mission would continue and established a blog to describe her journey. While she received twice monthly chemotherapy at the Mayo clinic in Jacksonville, FL throughout the Winter and into the Spring of 2011, under her guidance, a small part-time staff kept CFA operation continuing. We returned to Asheville where she came off chemo and she returned to her full-time commitment to CFA. By the end of 2011, nearly 100 dogs had been freed from chains.

In the Spring of 2012, Peggy began chemo at Mayo and then at the new WNC Cancer Center here in Asheville. Unfortunately, in mid-June, she suffered a setback in the hospital for 18 days and returned home, receiving life saving nutrition treatments through an IV. Although this slowed her down, she remained active in guiding and monitoring CFA. Because requests had dwindled substantially for fences in the City of Asheville and the ordinance had been in force for almost three years with the support of CFA, the decision was made to begin to focus on Buncombe County to achieve the same results as the City. Peggy created and executed The UnChain Buncombe campaign that was launched with billboard and radio educational ads in late Summer.

The UnChain Buncombe campaign will continue with CFA. With the help of experienced part-time staffers (full-time animal lovers), Tiffany Cannoncro and Dwaine Stines, myself, and all the other wonderful supporters like yourselves (too many to mention) now and in the future, we will succeed. With the financial backing of hundreds of people’s individual donations as well as generous grants from animal welfare foundations, we will educate and build. With the voices, letters, and support of all of you who have the same passion as Peggy had for this noble, humane cause, we will make a difference in the laws and the ultimate freedom from chains for dogs.

As Peggy journeyed through her illness the past two years, besides the love and support of friends and relatives, her continued involvement with CFA kept her spirits high and gave her a distraction with real rewards. She knew that the success of CFA came from the people who choose to make a difference and was always grateful for those who did.   I will miss her dearly but know that the peace she had came from her experiences with CFA as much as anything else in her life.
See you at the next fence build,

Patrick Irwin

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