Not-so-fluffy news

The pet beat takes chops

(Peter and Maria Hoey)

Most reporters expect to bring their résumé or clips to a job interview. Tanya Irwin was asked to bring her dog.

The Blade, in Toledo, OH, was looking for an animal-welfare reporter, and publisher John Robinson Block was eager to meet both Irwin and her Chihuahua, Martha. Laid-back Martha got on well with Block’s friendly basset hound Clementine, and Irwin got the job.

America loves animals: The Humane Society of the United States puts the pet population at approximately 83.3 million owned dogs and 95.6 million owned cats. So it’s not surprising that pet reporters abound, covering anything from leash laws and local shelters to funny cat videos.

As The Blade’s “dog reporter,” Irwin wrote about rescued kittens and bears, but it wasn’t all fluff: She also confronted death on a daily basis. “I had to go to the dog warden and get a list of all of the dogs they had euthanized the previous day,” she says. The Blade used the information in its “dog log,” listing the deceased pets by breed, color, gender, and where they had been found. Block often asked for follow-ups on the entries—he was worried dogs might be put down unnecessarily. Even after he learned that most of the pets were euthanized because they were too dangerous to be suitable for adoption, the paper kept running the list. “These dogs who died, they deserved to be memorialized, and this was almost like their obituary in the paper every day,” Irwin says.

Other investigative pieces fared better. Workers at the pound had a habit of labeling many of the dogs “pit bull” mixes, prompting Irwin to write a story on breed identification. “There was a stigma around pit bulls,” Irwin says, and people were unwilling to adopt them because they thought the breed was too aggressive. Irwin arranged DNA tests for six dogs the pound had labeled pit bull mixes, and only one turned out to be a pit bull. The breed was removed from Ohio’s “vicious” dogs list last year, and Irwin believes her story and The Blade’s advocacy helped change the public’s perception of pit bulls.

Among Irwin’s cuddlier jobs? Fostering Nellie, one of the first pregnant pit bulls to come out of the Lucas County pound. “She had her babies in my house. We set up a puppy cam, which we actually broadcast on the newspaper’s website, and I wrote about it,” Irwin says. Nellie’s nine puppies were born on St. Patrick’s Day 2012 and were all given Irish names. “That was quite the experience. I had never seen a dog give birth before and I was a nervous wreck. You would think I was having babies instead of the dog.”

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Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu