Guthrie Center graduate featured in new documentary

Mindi Callison was watching the news when her life path was changed forever. A graphic scene played out on the screen in front of the 2007 Guthrie Center High School graduate, as she watched a story about a Des Moines woman raising dogs in a hotel room. They were living in terrible conditions, eating cigarette butts, and one of them had just given birth to a litter of puppies. The worst part for Callison was that at the end of the story, the woman was not charged with anything serious.

I was obviously horrified, because my husband and I have rescued black labs,” Callison said. “I’ve always loved animals my entire life. I had no idea that if you actually hurt your dog, nothing was going to happen to you.”

Finding out that Dyvig’s Pet Shoppe in Ames, where Callison lives now, sold dogs sourced from an inhumane puppy mill only made her feel more compelled to do something, say something. The preschool decided she needed to make a difference somehow. She took a look at the world around her, where it seemed like everyone was getting help, from the banks to the government, but not animals in need.

“I was like, ‘Why is no one bailing out the dogs?’” Callison said. “We don’t have laws protecting our companion animals against abuse, neglect and puppy mills.”

That was when she started Bailing Out Benji in 2011, a blog to educate viewers about animal cruelty laws, and the puppy mill industry throughout the country, with little articles she wrote. Now, five years later, what started as a blog to spread awareness has grown into a non-profit national effort to end puppy mill abuse, and to encourage responsible breeding practices, showcased in the documentary “Dog By Dog,” which released last week.

In late 2013, the documentary film crew from “Dog By Dog” approached Callison. Over the years, Bailing Out Benji had developed a following — of both interested viewers and hands-on volunteers — through peacefully protesting Dyvig’s Pet Shoppe every weekend for five and a half years, and running a successful “grassroots educational” social media campaign. The Bailing Out Benji blog was eventually transitioned into a website, which has received 460,000 views. And a more recent project, creating and uploading informative puppy mill maps from several big name states (like Missouri, which has more than 800 puppy mills), usually draws close to 1 million views on the Bailing Out Benji Facebook page.

Callison and her team of around 15 volunteers also work together to offer free speeches and presentations about pet safety, donate their time to animal shelters and rescue organizations, sponsor billboard, bus and newspaper ads about avoiding puppy mill pets, and sometimes drive from state to state rescuing old puppy mill dogs and delivering them to safe locations. In every aspect of their work, the intention is never to “scare people straight” with graphic images or accounts of what goes on at puppy mills. It is to get people information about an industry they might not even know exists, so they can make better decisions about pets in the future.

“Every person we educate will adopt their next pet hopefully,” Callison said. “We’re always kind. We’re planting that seed that next time they’ll hopefully make the humane choice. It’s just the most sickening industry in the entire world. Thankfully we have a very dedicated group of volunteers who are willing to do anything they can.”

When the team from 5414 Productions heard about Bailing Out Benji, and the work done through it, they invited Callison to be a part of the documentary, where she could share her story and cause. Callison’s philosophy about not using gore and violence to get people’s attention mirrored the intentions of the film. Instead of only showing footage of injured dogs crammed into too-small cages, or the squalid living conditions at many puppy mills, the focus is on the bigger picture. On the legislations surrounding animal safety, and how voters can ensure the politicians they support follow through with what they stand for. On the finances behind the puppy mill industry, and what large companies back it. And on the importance of adoption and education on puppy mills.

“There’s been a few documentaries about puppy mills in the past, but they’re very sad and graphic,” Callison said. “Your heart breaks, you cry. Nothing is good about this industry. Thankfully, ‘Dog By Dog’ follows the money trail. You’d be shocked by what big corporations support puppy mills. I am very glad that we can 100 percent say this film does a wonderful job of educating without being graphic. Honestly, the facts about puppy mills are scary enough. We don’t need to use heart wrenching photos to change minds.”

For the documentary, Callison got to show the filmers some nearby puppy mills, brought them to her weekly peaceful protest at Dyvig’s Pet Shoppe and shared how Bailing Out Benji got started.

After filming in 2014 and wrapping up the documentary in 2015, the next move was to host screenings at major cities across the United States, as well as Canada and the United Kingdom. The film screenings brought big names on board to help out and support the cause, including John Elway, general manager of the Denver Broncos, and Victoria Stillwell, an English dog trainer featured in Animal Planet’s “It’s Me Or the Dog.” With every screening of the movie, Bailing Out Benji picked up more followers looking to get involved. Last summer, a small volunteer team opened up in Texas. Another soon sprang up in Nebraska, then in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. There are now four volunteer teams for Bailing Out Benji.

“It seemed like every time a screening of ‘Dog By Dog’ was happening, people were reaching out about helping in their communities,” Callison said. “They’re just dedicated people who want to make a difference in their corner of the earth.”

It was the screening in Ames that brought Ankeny resident Suzy Schnell on board with the organization. Before watching the film, she had followed Bailing Out Benji on Facebook, and often shared their posts. But it was the documentary that inspired her to actively get involved as a volunteer. Now, she tries to be at the pet store protest every weekend, helps transport dogs from puppy mills to rescues and has made the puppy mill map project her main focus. 

That definitely pushed me in that direction,” Schnell said. “That was the first time I had seen the documentary. It was just really motivating, and really neat to see that many people that were so passionate about animal rescue and ending puppy mills.”

“Dog By Dog” released on iTunes, Amazon and On Demand on January 31. DVD and Blu-Ray distribution is set to begin on February 28.

“Because of ‘Dog by Dog’ I feel like the dogs trapped in puppy mills are no longer invisible, and this has given me so much hope that we are closer than ever to seeing an end to this cruel industry,” Callison said. “We have been able to give these dogs a very loud voice across the world, and I think we are sending a strong message to the puppy mill owners that animal lovers everywhere are taking a stand.”




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