A little serious, a little satire, and all opinion on animal welfare.
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I saw a disheartening recent blog post from another organization which was essentially attacking any other organization for not doing things the way they do things and actively encouraging supporters of other organizations cease supporting their current charity and instead exclusively support the blogger’s organization.

Messages like this are sad but I understand the place of frustration they can come from with resources being so short, the seeming competitive fundraising environment, and the natural tendency to a “grass is greener” mindset.  We’ve been hard hit in this economy and it’s easy to get bitter. And Lord knows I’ve quite critical of how some organizations have worked on this blog- just look at the last post.  It’s often an easy step to go from a legitimate difference of opinion on the best strategy or even criticisms of what and how others have done their work to blaming where we are based on the decisions we’ve made on others.  But almost inevitably, we are where we are because we have chosen to be here, not because of someone else’s choices.

HSBC’s successes are a group effort and result from the work and support of many.  But our occasional defeats are own and not the result of anyone else.  We share our success, we own our failures.

So let me offer an alternative request to everyone out there who cares about animals: HSBC thinks that every organization, whether it is a no kill, open access, animal control, governmental, breed rescue, foster group, advocacy group or the increasing number of organizations like ours which don’t fall neatly into any of the old standard categories, are trying to do something good for animals and people in the way they think is best for them and the most effective overall.  We think they ALL deserve support and we don’t think that the way for us to succeed is to drive wedges between our common interests.

I will ask you to support our work and I will ask you to support anyone and everyone else who you think is doing a good job and is doing something which you think is important.  Please share share this message of support and inclusion to all those you know who support any organization doing good.  We achieve more, give more and get more when we work together.  We are stronger united than we are divided.

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The State of Pennsylvania seems a little like one of the Presidential candidates. Just because you have a contract with it doesn’t mean it isn’t sniffing around for new partners at the same time; when the going gets tough, you better expect it to leave you; and when it does dump you, you can bet it’ll be in the most callous way possible.

That’s just what it has reportedly done this week to four of its “partners” in Pennsylvania, including one right here in Berks County. For years the Dog Law Enforcement Office (formerly the Bureau until it was downgraded by the Corbett administration), held contracts with animal shelters to provide dog law enforcement and stray dog pick up services. These contracts were paid for with a portion of dog license sales and saved the State a boatload of personnel and benefits costs by not having to staff additional dog wardens.

HSBC held one of these contracts jointly with another organization for years, splitting Berks County up between us for service delivery. When we decided we were getting out of the dog catching business on January 1, 2008, the contract was paying a total of $100,000 between us. If you consider the cost of salary, benefits, mileage, and the holding costs which did not have to be paid for the strays under a different state reimbursement program, it was a real bargain for our “partner” in Harrisburg.

But at a per stray reimbursement average of about $40 a dog for us, it was hardly a good deal for us. When you factor the total received for all animal control services, from all service areas, for all animals, that per animal amount received dropped to about $24. Although it’s hard to say because not all organizations publish their intake and outgoing numbers like HSBC, that reimbursement is probably about the same rate today. To give you a contrasting number, now that Delaware County SPCA has stopped doing animal control and the County has had to build and staff their own shelter, Delaware County has set an animal charge for the municipalities the new animal control shelter will serve at $250 per animal- ten times the amount being paid in Berks for all animals and five times the amount the State was paying for dogs.

Berks County wasn’t just putting out for its partner in Harrisburg. Berks County wasn’t even making Harrisburg buy it dinner and a movie first. And Harrisburg still reportedly dumped the contract, by mail, with no notice, after the New Year when budgets have been set and plans for the year made! That’s like someone telling his wife to go ahead and sign for that credit line at Tiffany’s and then leaving her- and the bill- the next day.

These four organizations had the rug yanked out from under them by the State. These organizations do what they think is right and best for the animals and they try to do their job well, just like we do. If these reports are true, they don’t deserve to be treated like this, and neither do the animals of Pennsylvania.

I can say that we saw it coming. Dog Law has long been a jealous and vindictive lover. It plays the abusive role well. One minute smacking us around, then next soothing us and telling us we just make it so mad, buying us a little bauble and, oh, by the way, would we mind if it dropped off a couple dogs this weekend? We had received enough abuse and very publicly broke up with Harrisburg (and earned the wrath of some especially harsh words in return, threats of bad press and lawsuits, and swat team surprise kennel inspections). We have predicted that Harrisburg would just treat its next partners the same way. We even urged breaking up with Harrisburg first. For once, I am truly sorry I can say, “We told you so.”

Right now the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement- uh, sorry, Dog Law Enforcement Office- is dying a slow death. The Rendell administration gutted its “restricted” coffers for the general fund, leaving it on the verge of bankruptcy. He ensured one step back for every two forward- OK, three, he awesomely pushed through the Puppy Mill Bill- by staffing the BDLE with vindictive and ineffective management. The Corbett administration has done far worse by downgrading it to an “office”, hiring a bank manager with no animal experience to run it, and by not implementing the regulations Rendell worked so hard to get in place. In the words of an anonymous Reagan staffer, Corbett seems to be “starving the beast.” Unfortunately, starving dogs may follow.

So I just want to say something to the organizations that just got their text break up from that cold-hearted Harrisburg. Honeychild, I have been there. Harrisburg doesn’t deserve you and you are better off without Harrisburg. You are proud strong organizations and you should find yourself a good partner to work with, not some shifty service hound like Harrisburg. Sure, I know it seems bad now, but you put on some Gloria Gaynor and remind yourself: You will survive.

We did.

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When people try to protect us by controlling what we can say and how we say it, they are in fact protecting tyranny.  Since the start of our nation people have feared that we are so weak that a harsh word, a short skirt, a fake logo, or a dirty lyric would bring down our economy, our virtue and our way of life.  So far, it hasn’t.  Why do we need to go through this exercise again?

“What they’re trying to do with radio, with this, uh, McCarron-Walter Act and a lot of other ways, is start by saying that they’re protecting the public from wicked rock bands, or girlie magazines, or whatever. but, if you follow the chain of dominoes that falls down, what they’re really trying to do is shut off our access to information itself. If they can’t do it by law they know there are other ways to do it…” Jello Biafra, Freedom of Speech (1989)

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Devil?

In the area of animal welfare, living in Pennsylvania can be a hard row to hoe. With one exception: Breed specific laws (BSL) are illegal in Pennsylvania. Unlike other states, municipalities may not pass an ordinance banning a specific breed from its community. And by specific breed we, of course, mean pit bulls.

Not that it has not stopped some from trying, either outright or via “public safety” ordinances. A public safety ordinance would be immune from the prohibition against BSL’s. Unfortunately for those who have attempted this deft sidestepping of the BSL prohibition, none have been found to be anything other than breed specific legislation under a different name and have been overturned when challenged.

Since the HSBC and Reading pit bulls owners prevailed in a battle against one such “public safety” ordinance several years ago, we haven’t had to put much attention to the issue in our little corner of heaven. However, I’ve followed the ups and downs, as well as the ongoing coverage of maulings and deaths by pit bulls, through the various news aggregators and forward lists I receive. BSL may be slumbering in Berks but throughout Pennsylvania and the nation, it has hardly died.

Angel?

Given the ongoing allure of BSL for local governments which genuinely seek a means of protecting their citizens, I thought I’d share again my conversion to the side of those opposed to BSL’s (and with apologies, buckle up, this is going to be a long one with lots of data and graphs). Yes, I was once a sinner, blinded by the virtues of BSL’s. Or more specifically the virtues of what I believed could be a “well crafted, effective public safety ordinance.” I’ve always been a sucker for well crafted, effective things.

When I first arrived at HSBC, the City of Reading was just exiting a period of imposed “safety” regarding pit bulls. The safety involved muzzling all pit bulls in public, requiring that all pit bulls wear giant “dangerous dog” medallions and their homes were required to post a similar notice prominently (no, they weren’t yellow, six pointed stars, but the mind does wander to other populations which have endured wearing similar pieces of flair), and owners were required to buy expensive dangerous dog permits with hugely large sterilization differentials (something like $50 sterilized, $500 unsterilized). The ordinance was implemented in reaction to a spate of dog bites, prominently featuring pit bulls, and would be re-instituted any time the number of reported bites in the city exceeded 40 in a year and if any one breed exceeded 30% of those 40+ bites.

Since as the new executive director I would be in charge of tracking and enforcing the ordinance, should it ever be triggered again, my new employers explained the history and the details of the ordinance to me. Since BSL didn’t come naturally to me, my first reaction was, “Really?” Then I was shown the stunningly precipitous decrease in dog bites following the implementation of the ordinance, so precipitous that the ordinance actually expired and my response was, “Wow, really.” I was sold. There was clear evidence that the ordinance had worked, that it had targeted a discrete population which was causing the problem, and that it had done it so effectively that the problem went away and the target population was no longer under its yoke. This wasn’t BSL; it truly was a well-crafted, effective public safety ordinance! I just had to look at the numbers to see the proof! I went from skeptical to giving interviews in support of this brilliant little ordinance to media around the nation.

It was not the first time I’ve been blinded by a shiny object and sleight of hand and I doubt it will be the last. As it turns out, I was very, very wrong. Not about the effectiveness of the ordinance; it was quite effective. But like torture, which might also extremely effective at getting the information you seek, as would be killing someone’s children one at a time in front of them, it was effective for all the wrong reasons and there were other means which would have been just as effective or more. We don’t measure the rightness of a law or action merely on its effectiveness.

It turned out that the dramatic decreases in bites following the implementation of the ordinance had more to do with actions buried within it- the increased dog law enforcement, on the high dollar incentive to sterilize, and most importantly the high profile enforcement of dog law and licensing across the board. How do we know this? Because the implementation of this ordinance did not just decrease pit bull bites. It also decreased all other dog bites in direct proportion to the decrease in pit bull bites, despite the fact that the ordinance did not apply to any other breed.

Bernese Mountain Dog: Public Enemy Number One?

I can be entertained by sleight of hand and suspend my disbelief a lot, but don’t tell me it was magic that put that quarter in my ear. It’s going to make me start watching what you are doing very closely. That’s exactly what I started doing in 2007 when the number of bites started to increase again and it started to look like the ordinance would be implemented once again. This time I had seen how the bites had started stacking up, and I saw there was more to it than this “safety ordinance” would address.

For example, since there was a demonstrated enormous increase in the total number of dogs licensed in Reading, as well as the total number of pit bulls, how did a base number of bites (40) continue to make sense? If you have 40 dogs and 40 bites, you have an epidemic. If you have 40 bites and 40,000 dogs, you have a blip. Was it fair to maintain that number basis rather than a bite rate basis?

The ordinance was also triggered when 30% of the 40 reported bites were from a single breed. What if pit bulls accounted for more than 30% of the dog population, as was likely in Reading? Wouldn’t that be holding them to a lower threshold than any other breed? Plus, since this was reported bites, weren’t some bites more likely to be reported? What if bite reports became “lost”, reports which might tally against other breeds (as, in fact, happened).

Even more basic question about the ordinance began to spring up. What if one dog bites several times, as happened. One dog bit multiple people in a single incident. Yet it was counted as several bites, skewing the bite count. Not to mention the whole nebulousness of deciding what was a pit bull or pit bull “mix”, or pit bull “type”. A Labrador with papers is pretty easy to define, but the dogs running around Reading where hardly AKC. Boxer, pit, mastiff, rottie, bulldog; who knows what these things were. We were largely going on looks and supposition. In fact, in all likelihood, the only dogs which would be positively identified were the ones which were self-identified by owners who had licensed them- by definition, the good owners!

1999 and 2007: How can that be the same "epidemic"?

More and more I became concerned with the reality of the ordinance which I had been a booster for, especially as the year went on and the bites started to approach the trigger. I began really digging into the data we had on the bites to try to figure out what was really going on. Were we seeing correlation but not causation when we focused on pits? Why had we seen such a huge rash of bites early in the year? Were there other factors which were more prevalent?

Of course, as the private contractor which was actually written into the ordinance as the enforcer, these questions more than a little disturbed the Reading government and led to some tense meetings. At one, a councilman accused me of “maybe not caring about whether a little girl gets attacked in the streets by a pit bull”. He must have assumed I was in the non-breeder wing of the animal welfare corps and seemed to be genuinely surprised when I took umbrage at that accusation given my own three young daughters. But those meetings were valuable because they exposed that there was virtually no information about the bite trends, just lots of questions.

So I wrote them all down and we set out to answer them in a brief report sent to the City. That report marked the end of the HSBC’s willingness to supervise or endorse the “safety ordinance” and our active opposition to it as BSL in disguise. More than that, we showed that it was actually causing cycles of improvement and decline, leading to a worse public safety outcome.

If that's not a correlation, I don't know what is.

That report answered a lot of questions. Why was the bite count unusually high early in the year? Because we had record high temperatures throughout the winter and spring and the increased bites tracked the increased temperature. Did pits bite disproportionately compared to other dogs by population? No, in fact, they had one of the lowest bite rates based on population, only 4% of licensed population, as opposed to the historical high of 27% in 1999 when this ordinance was crafted. Were pit owners demonstrably worse owners than other breed owners based on specific criteria (sterilization and licensing)? No, they were directly in line with other breeds.

And, drum roll, please: Was the single biggest common denominator in bites the breed or were there other factors which showed greater commonality among all bites? Oh, hell, yes. While it seemed like the biggest group represented in the bite stats was the breed group pit or pit mix, accounting for around 34% of the biting dogs, there were two one factors which had vastly bigger representation on the stat charts: dog license status and sterilization status.

Only 14% of biting dogs were licensed (bites stats at year end) were licensed, a rate probably substantially below the actual licensing rate of all dogs (although we had no direct survey to compare).  Even more stunning was sterilization status.  Of licensed dogs in Reading, 65% were sterilized. But 91% of the all dogs which bit in 2007 were unsterilized. And 100% of the pit bulls which had reported bites were not sterilized! It wasn’t pit bulls which were biting, it was unsterilized pit bulls exclusively and unsterilized dogs of any type more than nine out ten times which were biting.

The likely real reasons for the apparent “success” became starkly evident. When the ordinance was triggered, massive enforcement sweeps began in the city. Licensing rates went up. Pit bulls were sterilized in droves to obtain the lower “dangerous dog” permit fee. The increased awareness and availability of low cost sterilization services led to all other dogs seeing an increase in sterilization. Heavy handed post bite enforcement resulted in better caretaking by good or average owners and relinquishment of dogs by poor or criminal owners. As a result, bites declined among all dogs, with pit bull bites falling in direct proportion, not uniquely.  In fact, the ordinance had a greater impact on dog bites among the non-pit bull biting population (see chart).

The ordinance worked, not because it targeted pits. That was a red herring. In reality, it simply did what we should all know works: imposed better dog law enforcement, better ID standards, heavily incentivized sterilization, and held bad owner accountable.  However, the criminalization of pit bulls also led to a decrease in pit bull licensing as people chose to hide their “contraband” or call them “boxer mixes”.  It was not until the lifting of the ordinance that pit bull licensing exploded (see chart).

And when the ordinance sunset after the bites went down, the expected happened. With no across the board enforcement and no pit bull sterilization incentive, the number of unsterilized dogs increased, the number of unlicensed dogs increased, and the number of bad owners increased. One warm winter to add a few months of prime outside biting weather and, viola, and “epidemic” is born.

This ordinance did not work for the reasons claimed and BSL does not work because it misses the big picture. If we want fewer bites, we need to ensure that dogs are less likely to bite and that owners are less likely to have dogs which are likely to bite. There are obviously ways to accomplish this without criminalizing a particular breed.  Well, obvious to us, but not to everyone.  Our change of heart in the face of facts was one of the reasons we parted ways with Reading as a contractor.

To be clear, I’m no apologist for pit bulls. I’ve been quite blunt in my assessment of people who show more compassion for killer dogs than their dead victims and I personally think there is a large contingent of delusional dilettantes who have no idea what pits, or any dog, are capable of. Most disfiguring bites I’ve seen in my work were inflicted by pits or pit mixes. Just on looks, I’ve more a retriever/setter aesthetic. There’s nothing that obligates me to love pit bulls, nor should we expect special consideration from anyone for any breed.

But the mere fact that I’ve seen a couple nasty pit bull bites or that I think some other breed is prettier doesn’t mean they should get negative consideration either. I once had a very bad experience with tequila and chicken enchiladas. That doesn’t mean they should be banned, let alone banning anything Mexican. And that’s exactly what these BSL’s do. In the face of anecdotal evidence they impose ineffective sanctions against one breed based on isolated, statistically irrelevant examples.

We all know what we would call it if someone referenced crime articles from an inner city newspaper and used them as proof to condemn a single population. Or if an entire religion was held accountable for the actions of a few. Or if we applied a “one drop” heritage rule to a person. But we also know that if an individual does something criminal, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, we should hold that person accountable.

We should also be careful to go after the flavor of the week threat. Remember when it was German Shepherds, and then Doberman Pinschers, and then Rottweilers? Now it is pit bulls. Like drugs, people with a dog problem will just find a new dog to have a problem with. We need to attack the problem, not the dog.

Just as there are ways to combat crime and terrorism without indicting a whole group, there are ways to combat dog bites epidemics without indicting an entire breed and the people which care for that breed. Because people will continue to keep pit bulls and all criminalizing that will do is make people criminals. We only need to look to Prohibition to see how well making something a crime which people are going to continue to do works out. Prohibition effectively created organized crime and made drinking and the nation less safe. BSL’s do the same.

Should there be strong animal control and welfare regulation for all animals? Yes, it’s good for animals as well as our community. Should there be special consideration to some animals which are capable of inflicting more serious damage and injury, such as large powerful dogs? Perhaps, if the additional considerations are fact based and have an actual positive effect. Should we simply select one breed or group of breed for selective prohibition? No, the actual evidence does not support it and the negative impact on a far larger population exceeds the supposed benefits.

So please, municipalities which are looking for a solution to bite cases, don’t be fooled by shiny objects.  Use hard data to figure out what the real problem is and come up with targeted ways to address those problems.  To those in sheltering who harbor a silent mistrust because of what you have seen done by pit bulls in your career but won’t say it out loud because you know it’s bad sheltering politics (you know who you are), remember that your experience is not representative of the whole world.  Just as a vice cop shouldn’t think everyone is a skeevy pimp because he hangs out with skeevy pimps all day, remember that we often see the worst of a species, not necessarily the best.  And to all those pit bull apologists out there who want to pretend that every pit bull was sent from heaven and just forgot their wings, wake up.  These animals have a unique potential for harm just because of how they are built and just because you love your bow legged love bug doesn’t mean that everyone else has to or that the one which just killed a child shouldn’t be euthanized.

Let’s treat dog bites like the public health problem they are and approach it in ways which work. Bites won’t go away but they’ll go down. And at the same time the lives of animals will improve, without breed round ups. Americans won’t give up their their dogs any more than they’ll give up their booze or their guns. If you don’t believe it, ask yourself what you’ll do when they make your dog illegal and send the truck to cart your dog off.  You’ll probably be glad the NRA has made sure you still have a gun.

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With the number of self-professed saints and prophets working in animal welfare, I’d expect more miracles. But while the seven deadly sins are as well represented among those working in animal welfare as any industry, the pre-eminent one must be pride and its sub-sin, vainglory or vanity.

Chances are you’ve met a few of these saints who don’t hesitate to remind you of how tirelessly they work for animals, how passionately they feel, how many animals have died in their arms, or how knee deep in dog crap they have waded. But it’s not about them, it’s about the animals. Actually, it’s often about vanity as far as I can discern.

And you can tell because all too often these protestations of animal loving piety are broken out as soon as the person is criticized or challenged for their actions and for saying something stupid (and don’t look at me- I will readily admit I say stupid things routinely, I lay no claim to saintliness, and I avoid dog crap whenever I can). One might think the go-to response to a challenge would be a defense of the rightness of the action or the soundness of the statement. But it isn’t. So many times it goes straight to something along the lines of, “I work so hard, I love so much”. Unstated: And you don’t, now screw off.

I think they do this because when they are challenged on actions or statements it causes a fluttering in the self-absorbed mirror into which they gaze. When so many in animal welfare look into their mirror they see themselves through a Vaseline filtered, rosy lens, in a slow-motion montage in which they whisk grateful animals to safety amidst a soundtrack of Sarah McLachlan. When they speak they hear soothing sounds emanating from that heart-felt internal video, with McLachlan softly playing beneath their narration, words which are supposed to inspire us to melt and say, “Ohhhhhh, that person is wonderful and right and I wish I could be like him/her.”

So when someone actually says to them, “What are you talking about? That makes no sense at all, it is totally unsupported by evidence, it is factually untrue,” their mirror goes all green smoky and a scary face tells them they are not the most fair and compassionate of all.

That is not to say that many of these saintly folks don’t truly care about animals, aren’t compassionate, aren’t dedicated and devoted. I truly believe most are and that they really believe in what they do and what they spout off, even if it’s patently wrong at times. But they have fallen victim to vanity and they have learned that the animal loving piety card trumps most hands. It is a magic dagger which, when plunged into the hearts of others, both wins acolytes and vanquishes opponents. But like all magic weapons, its power is an illusion and its spell broken as quickly as someone can say, “Yeah, I get you work tirelessly and you smell like dog poop but what you just said is wrong and I’ll prove it.”

We can’t all be saints; otherwise, what is the point of having them? If everyone was a miracle worker we wouldn’t all be saints, we’d all be gods. Not that some animal welfare workers wouldn’t lay claim to that but it’s a harder slog since if they were gods they’d just snap their fingers and actually solve all these problems facing animals or make that voodoo math add up. As far as I know, two plus two still equals four. No one has made it equal “all the pit bulls get adopted”.

The first thing they should do is admit they have a problem. Maybe what they need is a twelve step program. Wait, that won’t work, it requires acknowledging that there’s a power greater than them and they’ve pretty firmly established their personal primacy in the universe. Perhaps we just need to tell them that we appreciate what they do, even if we won’t worship what they do. They don’t have to be a saint. They don’t have to be infallible. They don’t even have to be right. And we don’t have to be wrong just because we disagree with them.

So to the self-sainted I say: Allow me to welcome you back to the ranks of the normal, hardworking, animal welfare community. Back to the ranks of the mere human. Join us, join me. I truly care about animals and work hard to help them. But I still go home to the kids at night and try to enjoy my weekends. I think I have some pretty damn good ideas on how to fix things and I think some of yours are pretty stupid. But I’ve been wrong before and I’m willing to hear you out. I’ve been doing this a long, long time but maybe you’ve been doing it longer- and even if you’re new to it, it doesn’t mean you might not have something to teach me. I’ll dish it out but I’ll try to take, too, and with as much good humor as I can muster, if you’ll do the same. After all, we’re only human.

I’m no sinner but I sure as hell am not a saint, nor a prophet. And neither are you. We don’t have to work miracles together, we just have to work together.

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It’s not always nice to have certainty and continuity in our lives.  Especially when it’s the certainty that the deadly farce that is animal/dog control in Pennsylvania will continue in the New Year.

It’s the same story: Government won’t pay for the service it is required by law to provide, forcing an animal shelter to choose between closing the doors to some or going bankrupt and closing the doors to all.

I'm shocked to hear that the police may legally shoot dogs! Now go round up the usual suspects!

It’s the same response: The dog law brain trust in Harrisburg acts shocked and dismayed that to hear that police are euthanizing strays dogs with guns.  You know, instead of shipping them off to an animal control facility to have it done for them quietly behind doors.  Their shock is about as genuine as Claude Rains’ was in Casablanca when he announces he is shocked to learn that there is gambling in Rick’s establishment- as he is slipped his previous night’s winnings.  Either some of those on the Dog Law Advisory Board are ignorant of the very law they “advise” on or they are liars.  Take your pick, there’s no good choice.

And it’s the same victims:  Dogs with no place to go, a public who thinks that when their government passes a law that requires strays to be picked up and housed by its police it will actually obey itself, and charitable animal shelters who get lectured for not “doing their job” by a government whose big accomplishment in 2011 was not passing a budget an entire year late.  I’m pretty sure we all managed that, too.  And did we mention all the cats and other animals which are ignored entirely because they aren’t covered under the “dog” law?

I guess we should just count our blessings that we don’t live in that town where they let your house burn if you didn’t pay your fire tax.  Shhhhhh….I don’t want to give them any ideas.

Happy New Year!

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