In 2010, a series of animal abuse cases inundated Baltimore. A gang of kids beat a puppy to death in a public park, two 13-year-olds placed a mother cat under a box and set it on fire. Two teenagers tortured a dog by lighting the animal on fire. In each instance, children committed these horrific acts against animals.
“I kept asking myself, ‘How could a kid do this?’” says Sande Riesett, president and co-founder of Show Your Soft Side. “It was all I could think about and talk about. It consumed me.” Riesett, who has a background in advertising, decided that she wanted to do something to reach kids. She had an idea about tough guys showing their soft side after witnessing her husband fall in love with a stray cat they took in.
“His whole tone and voice changed, and I wondered if that was the same for everybody,” she says. “Do big guys like MMA fighters and football players act the same way?” Riesett was introduced to Caroline Griffin, who, at the time, was serving as the chair of then Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Task Force. Riesett also connected with Lori Smyth, who is a former radio promotions director for 98 Rock, and the three women decided to create a poster awareness campaign for Baltimore City Public Schools called Show Your Soft Side.
The campaign featured three posters with former Orioles outfielder Adam Jones, former Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson and former MMA fighter John Rallo posing with their pets along with the slogan that reads, “Only a punk would hurt a cat or dog.”
“It was only meant to be distributed in schools, but it really struck a chord with people,” says Riesett. “We became a resource for people who wanted to help but didn’t know how.”
From the first campaign, Show Your Soft Side received more than $200,000 in donations from media companies and got calls from all over the world. In early 2013, Show Your Soft Side was incorporated as a nonprofit. It will soon celebrate 10 years of raising awareness for adoption, fostering and supporting animal shelters in Baltimore and beyond.
Since it began operating, the organization has featured more than 250 male and female athletes and public figures affectionately nicknamed “Softies.”
“Most of our posters feature players with their own pets, but we’ve also used adoptable pets from local shelters. There have been some amazing times when a Softie has walked in to pose (with an animal) and ended up falling in love and adopting it,” she says.
Riesett admits she’s been amazed and thrilled with how hands-on the Softies have been. When COVID-19 struck, she got texts from Ravens players who wanted to donate food and help people who were struggling to take care of their pets.
Ravens wide receiver Chris Moore and his wife Toria got involved with Show Your Soft Side about four years ago. Riesett says that they’ve come through every time the organization has needed them.
“Animals and children are the two things that can’t defend themselves or speak up for themselves, so those are the creatures that we should defend the most,” says Toria.
Both she and Chris have ventured into the community participating in events for Show Your Soft Side, from bowling and yoga to the organization’s annual fashion show, Pawject Runway.
“I love the clothes and modeling with the adoptable animals. Toria has to stop me from taking home a dog at every fashion show,” says Chris. “Last year, Tyler Matakevich, who plays for the Buffalo Bills, adopted the dog I walked with.”
The Moores, who have two dogs named Marley and Malia, know how special animals are to peoples’ lives. They encourage anyone looking for a pet to go to a local adoption agency or shelter such as BARCS that takes in surrendered or abandoned animals.
“There are plenty of dogs out there that need homes. Even if you can’t take in an animal, you can still get involved and support your local shelter,” Chris says. “Fostering is amazing. I think once I’m done with the league and have a more stable schedule I’ll consider doing that.”
Ravens tight end Nick Boyle is another Softie who has gone above and beyond to help Show Your Soft Side. Whether it’s modeling for Show Your Soft Side, holding Happy Hours, promoting adoption through social media or making appearances and visits to BARCS, Riesett says that Boyle and his wife Kristina are always front and center.
Boyle says his passion for animals grew after adopting his rescue dogs, Molly and Cooper. “There’s a huge problem with neglect and cruelty,” says Boyle. “Dogs can’t control who owns them or where they go and some are put in unfortunate situations.”
“For everything Show Your Soft Side does, from supporting shelters or holding auctions to raising money for the animals, it’s just an awesome organization, and we’re proud to be a part of it,” says Boyle. During lockdown, Boyle and his family fostered a dog named Hank from a local rescue and found him a home.
Caring for Animals During the Pandemic
Since the coronavirus pandemic began last year, Show Your Soft Side has tried to fill as many needs as possible, including donating more than $50,000 through the Medical Assistance for Baltimore’s Street Kitties program. This initiative pays for emergency medical and dental care for the thousands of homeless cats in Baltimore.
To keep helping struggling caretakers, the organization also set up PetAid, a program that accepts donations and distributes pet food to families. Through generous donations from their Softies and Weruva, a family-owned pet food business, staff have distributed more than 19,000 pounds of cat food and more than 1,000 pounds of dog food.
“We also wanted to keep kids connected to the Softies during the pandemic. We set up an Instagram Live series called ‘Softies on the Hot Seat.’ Kids can submit questions and have
the Softies answer them,” says Riesett.
The Phoenix Fund is one of the more recent programs Show Your Soft Side has established since COVID-19 occurred. This fund helps rescues and shelters that have been struggling to stay afloat financially. The program launched last October and provides grants to Maryland rescues that take in abused and neglected dogs.
Riesett explains that even if a rescue stabilizes a neglected dog it’s pulled from a shelter, the animal might still need special food or have serious dental problems due to malnourishment.
Named in honor of Phoenix, the abused dog who inspired the creation of Show Your Soft Side, the Phoenix Fund provides up to $500 for veterinary care, medication, food, trainers or anything an animal might need to get it ready for adoption.
“What we didn’t expect was rescues saying they didn’t want to take the money away from someone else, so we had to nudge them to apply,” says Riesett. “I think that speaks to the amazing community here in Baltimore.”
Looking Toward the Future
Up until COVID-19, Show Your Soft Side was providing classrooms with posters, lesson plans and videos created with the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work.
Once children get back into the classroom, Riesett is hopeful that they’ll be able to bring their curriculum back and introduce it to Baltimore schools. “I’m holding out hope that the idea of teaching compassion will be part of all school programs one day,” she says.
The organization has created #teamsoftside on social media to help identify shelters or events in other states that need money or volunteers. Visit showyoursoftside.org and follow them on Instagram (@showyoursoftside) and Facebook.
With its army of Softies across the country, Show Your Soft Side is also eager to welcome new celebrity spokespeople and continue to bring its community of animal lovers together in Baltimore and around the nation.
Winter Pet Care Tips
Take care of your pets this season with winter pet care tips from the Maryland SPCA.
Contributing photography courtesy of Zhenia Bulawka and Leo Howard Lubow