Photos by Joshua Pelta-Heller
The Utleys took the field early Thursday morning with their rescue dog Jack. No local news crews were on hand yet when I arrived at the McVeigh Recreation Center, in the heart of Juniata Park, for the unveiling of the Utley Foundation’s 2nd annual “Be Kind to Animals”-themed mural. Nor were there any school children or faculty from nearby Russell H. Conwell Middle School, who had helped artist David Guinn paint the vibrant mural. They would arrive soon by yellow school bus for the dedication ceremony, along with local kids and residents eager to catch a glimpse or autograph from the Phillies’ All-Star second baseman. But with no one else around, Jack, a gray-brown pit bull with what appears to be a permanent smile, trotted happily off-leash with Chase around the damp field.
Jen and Chase Utley have had Jack for the last four years. They adopted him from the SPCA right around the time the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. And while Chase has been helping the Phils dominate the National League almost every year since, both Chase and Jen have been equally busy off the field promoting animal rights, particularly for rescue dogs. What began with animal abuse prevention—raising funds and working with the Pennsylvania SPCA to create Humane Law Enforcement (HLE) that breaks up dog-fighting circuits and rescues abused animals—has blossomed into the Utley Foundation, which educates schools and the general public about animal kindness.
For the past two years, the Utleys have worked closely with the Mural Arts Program to create murals that impact neighborhoods where dog-fighting rings and abuse cases are tragically common. “We met the animal police,” Mural Arts Program Executive Director Jane Golden told me. “We did an analysis of the highest rates of pit bull fighting, and so we said we’re just going to target those areas, go right into the heart of where there’s trouble and try to provide educational opportunities for kids, while also doing something beautiful at the same time.” Their first mural can be found at 22nd and Dauphin Streets, and Jen Utley plans to meet with Golden soon to discuss plans for a third.
With Jack nearby, I spoke with Chase and Jen about their animal advocacy efforts and the community’s response, their partnership with Mural Arts, and Jack’s clubhouse habits at Citizens Bank Park.
215: Could you tell me about the mural and how this project came together?
Jen Utley: This is the second mural we’ve done with Mural Arts. Basically, our first one was such a success, and we loved it. We worked with kids who were more in kindergarten through third grades last year, and it was really fun. But we did realize that a lot of the cruelty that’s happening is in a little bit of an older age group. So we decided this year to work with Conwell, and they’re a 6th-8th grade middle school. We’ve been lucky that Mural Arts has let us fast-track these projects with them. Everyone wants to do a mural, and it’s great but backlogged. And the communities have been so receptive in agreeing to have us use these walls. I think it’s been a positive experience for all of the pieces involved.
215: How have you seen Philly respond to your animal advocacy efforts in the last few years?
Chase Utley: In general, on a daily basis, if I’m out and about, I feel like someone will come up to me and comment on the work that we’ve done. And how they’ve either adopted an animal, or they’ve had families that have adopted an animal, or seen abuse or reported it. Almost on a daily basis, I feel like somebody’s recognizing the things we’re trying to make them more aware of, so it seems to be working a little bit.
215: And how is your partnership with Mural Arts enabling your foundation to educate communities about animal kindness?
JU: It’s been amazing! We have been so lucky to do two [murals], and I think that as long as we’re here, we really want to keep doing this. And I think that they agree, because I have a meeting with Jane Golden next week to plan number three. It’s been such a fun project. For me in particular, what I was seeing at the SPCA, was a lack of—it was sort of a band-aid effect—so that all of these animals would come in from these dog fights, or these cruelty situations. And it just became, like, we can just continuously band-aid and mend the animals, but how do we prevent this from happening in the community. Obviously, you know, all of this comes from education and learning right from wrong. And this was a way, without draining SPCA resources, to really attempt to start tackling that part of the problem.
215: Will the plan for the third mural involve another school?
JU: A different school. What we do is we work closely—because I’m on the board of the SPCA, so I’m pretty involved on that side as well. So the insider information—we work with our HLE department, and I’m the head of that, and work to see what are the hot spots of the city. And then we find schools in those areas that we feel would really benefit the most from this project.
215: This seems like such a great extension from the animal abuse prevention that you both got started with—through the HLE—so what will come next?
JU: The education piece, for us, is really what our foundation is focusing on. And, I mean, I’m hoping to take this national. It’s different—we’re having such a successful relationship and partnership with Mural Arts. And I love the fact that we can give to a non-profit that we can still be a part of and a project, rather than just writing a check to another program. Not to say have control over it, but to have such involvement in it, and be a part of it, and see a result, sort of from start to finish—is what I really prefer doing, and I think what makes the most impact. And we’ll keep on going as long as this is still an issue.
215: And you’ve been working to expand the SPCA as well?
JU: We are.
215: How far along is that expansion?
JU: Well, we have an incredible amount of cruelty that comes in. And not only is it a space issue, but it’s a finance issue—a money issue. So because we’re a non-profit and we don’t get any money from the city, it’s difficult. That’s another whole part of our thing is raising awareness so that we can improve these facilities. We’re hoping to build an entire different building on our shelter property that’s just for cruelty cases, so that it’s more training, involving them with other dogs, getting them assimilated into going into homes, behavior training, also medical—so there’s a whole—
CU: A whole slew—
JU: A whole slew of things.
215: And in terms of the medical, are you working with Penn Veterinary?
JU: We actually have a hospital at our shelter, and we have a ton of vets from all over the city who volunteer their time and then work exclusively for us.
215: In your work with the SPCA, with educational programs, and also with your own adoption, have you guys noticed any change in the public perception regarding pit bulls?
CU: As far as the guys I’m around on a daily basis—in the clubhouse—there were a few guys who were a little hesitant of pit bulls. Probably because of their upbringing they grew up around, maybe, some mean ones. But I bring Jack in the clubhouse weekly, when I’m running around. He plays with the guys. And you see the guys who originally were timid of Jack—now they love him.
215: So he’s able to just come in and hang out?
CU: Yeah, he hangs out.
215: An unofficial mascot.
JU: Full blown, he loves it. [Chase] said he gets out of the car and knows exactly where to go—
CU: He loves it.
JU: He doesn’t even stop. He knows the door. He’s run out onto the field. He’s gotten out a few times, which is…interesting, when I hear about it later. And I’m like, where was Chase? And they’re like, Oh, I don’t know.
JU: But I mean, perception-wise, to go back to that—I think that anytime you’re sort of in an urban city where you hear a lot of stories about dog fighting. Regardless of the amount of work that you do, this sort of shadow is cast on that, whenever that happens. And the problem that I have is that these dogs are really the martyrs for that. They’re the ones that take this blame, when it’s really not them. These dogs are not born into acting like this. This is something that’s taught. And it’s unfortunate that the dogs take the wrath of this, when really it’s a human issue that should be dealt with.
215: When I was at the SPCA to adopt a dog, my experience was that there was a majority of pits up for adoption, and that seems to be the trend, by and large. But it’s great that part of your efforts has been working to change that perception.
CU: Well I think [Jack’s] just a good example. We try to take him to as many places as possible. And I think he’s a good example of what this type of dog can be all about. But like Jen was saying earlier, his mom and dad were really into fighting. But he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.
215: As an animal rights advocate and as a Philly athlete, do you think that Mike Vick has done enough to send the right message on animal cruelty?
CU: I haven’t really been keeping track of what he’s been doing.
JU: I don’t think that what he does, and what we do, are anything related.
215: One more question, do you think, Chase, that it’s going to be easier to change the public’s perception about pit bulls, or do you think it’s going to be easier to make the shift over to third base for the Phillies next season?
CU: [Laughing] I think it’s a toss-up question.
JU: I wish it was the perception—I wish that that was the one that was easier.
CU: We’re gonna work hard at both, how does that sound?
A separate interview with the Utleys’ dog Jack will be published in The Woofington Post.