Pit bulls have long been stigmatized by stories of aggressive behavior, locking jaws and poor temperament around children. Some cities and counties in Georgia ban pit bulls from being off-leash in dog parks, and national statistics show that dogs labelled as pit bulls in shelters spend three times longer there compared to other dogs — and are also the most likely to be euthanized.
For the last decade, Jason Flatt has made it his mission to save as many of these dogs as he could. He is founder of “Friends to the Forlorn” pit bull rescue in Dallas, Georgia. The rescue houses between 75 and 100 animals on any given day – most of them pit bulls – and has re-homed over 600 dogs since 2009.
While Flatt grew up around animals and expressed interest in becoming a veterinarian as a child, he ended up pursuing a successful career on Wall Street. However, when he lost his brother to suicide in 2005, Flatt fell into depression. At the time, he’d just moved from New York City to Georgia.
“It was crippling,” he said. “Nobody knew it, but there were days that I couldn’t function.”
But Flatt’s life took a sudden turn when his friend gave him a pit bull puppy he named Angelo.
“I needed [Angelo] more than he needed me. And just every day, that was my reason to get up… I saved him, but he saved me.”
Flatt says he promised Angelo that he was going to pay it back, and that promise became Friends to the Forlorn.
Flatt makes a point of adopting the dogs that no one else wants or the ones that need the most help, like those with severe behavioral or medical problems.
“My job is not just to rescue these dogs, my job is to protect these dogs,” Flatt shared.
Friends to the Forlorn rehabilitates these dogs and places them into adoption whenever possible. Potential adopters go through a rigorous screening process to ensure that each dog is resettled into a healthy environment.
Flatt reflected that in many ways, Friends to the Forlorn was a kind of rescue for him.
“If it wasn’t for this rescue … You could offer me 20 million dollars in cash and tell me to walk away,” he explained. “[I] couldn’t do it. I’m in too deep, I’d never leave. I’m gonna die doing this.”
Friends to the Forlorn is currently working to build a state-of-the-art dog shelter in Paulding County. You can find more about their upcoming plans and efforts on their website.
On choosing a career on Wall Street
Things need to happen for a reason. Certain events happen in life and sometimes you just — some people go through life never finding what they're supposed to do, what their true calling is.
On what brought Flatt to Georgia
I know what brought me there. My brother committed suicide right before I moved to Georgia and everything that I was chasing on Wall Street, the money and the success and, you know, trying to be comfortable. What made me comfortable didn't matter anymore.
On dealing with his brother’s suicide
When that when I got that, I was down here looking at houses when I got the phone call. It was July 22 and my dad called me and told me. I flew right home and I buried my brother, went back to work and got caught up in that. It's almost like numb. And then when I moved down here, my wife and kids were up in New York and I'm finishing out the school year and I was down here all alone and I worked from home. And that's when the depression really set in. And it was ... it was crippling. You know, I never understood it. You know, I'm a man. I'm not supposed to break down and nobody knew it. But there were days that I couldn't function. And there were there were days I curl up in a ball and just couldn't even answer my phone for work. And that was a scary time for my family. And, you know, they started to see it and it's like the superhero, you know.
Virginia Prescott: The man of the family.
Yeah. You know, I had my mom to worry about. I had my wife, my kids and it was, you know, my stepchildren and, you know, how can you break down? I wasn't allowed. But, you know, certain things are beyond your control. It creeps in and it crept in. And it's something that you don't want to admit. And so on the outside, no one knew anything was wrong. And on the inside, I was torn up and I battled it for a few years. I mean, you'd never get over it. It’s always there. But you find a place for it. You find how to deal with it. Therapy wasn't my thing. Drugs, alcohol, just not interested in it. Never was.
On what helped him grieve and how Friends to the Forlorn began
It was a little dog that kind of helped me fight my fight. I brought that little puppy home and it was he needed me and I needed him more than he needed me. And just every day, that was my reason to get up was to work with him and just to take him everywhere. And I wanted him to know I saved him, but he saved me. And I promised him I said, “I'm going to pay it back to you.” And I did. And that's that was the birth of Forlorn.
On his experience touring animal shelters
It was insane. I walked into DeKalb County Animal Control and all the Xs on the cages. At the time, DeKalb County didn't adopt out pit bulls to the public. Pit bulls or pit bull mixes. And like you said, dogs get lumped into the group of pit bull. If it has a large head, large chest, any characteristics, it becomes pit bull. They killed an average of, I think,135 pit bull or pit bull mixes a month. And it bothered me. And I walked out of there and I said, “Something needs to be done about this.” This little dog, Angelo, that I have is the most amazing creature in the world. And these dogs don't deserve this and something needs to be done.
On the stigma of pit bulls
People are afraid of what they don't know. People see me and they cross the street. They don't know me. People are very scared of what they don't know and they don't know what pit bulls truly are.
On his own appearance and how people perceive him
People assume I've been in prison. People assume you're in a gang. My pitbulls, my tattoos … they don't describe who I am. You see what I do. Take it. Take a chance. Take a look deep into what what I really am.
On choosing the organization’s name
I wanted to pick something that described these dogs. And I also wanted it to make people think. People tend to react without thinking, and I wanted people to think. Figure out what it's about and then maybe understand why we've taken the dogs that we do. You know, we take on the dogs that nobody wants. Nobody wants a pit bull, but nobody wants a messed up pit bull. Nobody wants a pit bull that’s shot in the head or with disease. They don't want them. Those are the ones that need you the most.
On where he gets the dogs
The majority of them we take from pounds. I don't have to look too far. Every pound emails me. Every day I get between 1,200 and 1,500 emails a day from all over the country.
Virginia Prescott: Obviously, you can't take all of them.
No. I'll never be able to rescue my way out of it.
On what resources Friends to the Forlorn provide
We give them whatever they need medically, behaviorally. Most of the time, it's just some love and some food. These dogs are resilient. They come back. I took a dog a couple of weeks ago. I got a call from some friends who run animal control down in Macon. Their animal shelter was shut down. But the neighboring county, Twiggs County, doesn't have an animal control. They called me at 8:00 at night. There was a dog that was found on a woman's porch in horrible shape. So the dog had nowhere to go. And they held the dog until I could drive down to Macon at midnight.
When I got down there, the dog, he was thin, his bone was exposed in his tail. There was wounds all over him that were down to the bone and he was shot in the face and he was still wagging his tail. Three weeks later, the dog’s brand new. He can't see out of his eye, but we're going to treat his heartworm disease. He's all full of muscle on his back, playing. Rehabilitate. It's pretty easy on the physical side to rehabilitate them. And they're so forgiving and they're so trusting of humans. It amazes me. All he wants to do is eat and love and play.
On why he does the work
It’s almost selfish for me.
Virginia Prescott: What do you mean?
It's therapy for me. Like, it's tattooed on my knuckles. It says “Save pits.” And for me, sometimes I just cross my hands and says “Pits save.”
The more the dog needs, the better it makes me feel inside when they come back. The comebacks are so much bigger than the setbacks and it's almost selfish for me because it doesn't take much. Sometimes it takes a few thousand dollars, but to save a life, I'd pay a few thousand dollars. We've had dogs that were paralyzed and we spent $7,000 on the surgery. But if you were paralyzed, I think you'd spend a lot more than $7,000 if you had a chance of walking again. You'd take that chance. So I want to give them every opportunity to get right.
On what makes Friends to the Forlorn successful
We're dedicated. We're committed. We don't exaggerate. We don't fabricate. If there's a dog and it's shot in the face, I don't sit there and fundraise. We find out what the dog needs first. We don't make everything an emergency. And I think that people see the truth. I think people see what really happens with us, and I think that that's what made us successful, is our marketing is just our integrity. It's like here we are, here's what we're gonna do. And then we show them what we do.
On what makes putting pit bulls up for adoption difficult
The placement is the most important part. Like you said, this is the breed that people love to hate and people want these dogs abolished. Every time that there's an incident, every time that you put a dog into a bad situation and something happens, you're one step closer to those people getting what they wanted. My job is not just to rescue these dogs. My job is to protect these dogs. So I'm very careful. We have a pretty severe process. Our applications [are] incredibly invasive. We invade your home, we do a home visit. Background checks, property record checks. People lie all the time. We deny probably 80 to 85% maybe of our applications. Sometimes they attract the wrong people.
On how providing spay and neuter services supplement his mission
I'm a humanitarian. I care about life. I care about all forms of life. I know that in my heart that I'm never going to be able to rescue all of the dogs or all of the cats. So by spaying and neutering, it helps cut down the population and helps cut down by instead of trying to get them out of the pound. I'd rather prevent them from ever getting in.
On his family and friends’ reactions to his lifestyle shift
I'm no saint, but I've had some people really applaud my efforts and I've lost some friendships and lost some relationships. You know, it's not for the faint hearted. I went nine years without a day off, working seven days a week. And, you know, we've grown enough now where I have employees and I can travel a little bit and do things like come here. If it wasn't for this rescue — like you could offer $20 million in cash and told me to walk away. Couldn't do it. I'm in too deep. I'd never leave. I'm going to die doing this.
On what he wishes people would understand about pit bulls
There's a lot of people that love them. I wish people understood them a lot better. People are animal lovers, but they don't understand animals and pit bulls sometimes don't like other dogs. And I wish that they wouldn't fail them. People fail these animals at an alarming rate. They think that they're going to love all the problems out of them. No, you manage some of those issues. You don't rehab them. You manage them.
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