AGAWAM – Once considered the “All American Dog,” the American Pit Bull Terrier’s image has been tarnished over the years, but one local woman hopes to change that perception.
“It is my passion, and I work very hard to help save the image and lives of these sweet dogs,” Jolene Mercadante, assistant director at the Agawam Public Library, said.
An exhibition of her “fun photos” of her own pit bulls are currently on display in the library’s gallery through July. She is also the author of “The Angel on My Shoulder: My Life with An American Pit Bull Terrier,” a memoir of her life with Rumer, her first American Pit Bull Terrier.
“My photos have proven to be very effective in revealing to people – and kids – the true pit bull,” she added.
Her memoir was started partly to help combat the unfair stereotypes many people have toward pit bulls. Due to stereotypes and discrimination toward these dogs, many are abused, fought or abandoned in shelters, with one out of 600 pit bulls making it out of shelters annually.
Mercadante’s love of animals and photography shone brightly throughout the interview, as she noted she has been surrounded by both loves most of her life.
Growing up in Agawam, she noted she has “always loved animals” and her extended family included dogs, cats and horses. When she was 16, she purchased her first Pentax camera.
“I guess I’ve always loved photography,” she said. “I spent my very first check I ever made from my very first job to buy a camera.”
In her youth, Mercadante lived across the street from hay fields and the historic Bowles Airport in Feeding Hills.
“I would get up at 5 a.m. to take pictures in the fields, of tractors, and my animals,” she said.
Mercadante’s exhibition of close to 40 prints is a testament to her love for her own pit bulls – past and present. In addition, she has a photo of “Cherry Garcia,” an all-black terrier that survived NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s dog fighting compound. Known as one of the “Vicktory Dogs,” Cherry Garcia couldn’t walk when he was adopted locally and had scars over most of his body.
“Cherry Garcia is so good with children,” Mercadante said, adding, “some of the best dogs are very forgiving.”
Mercadante noted it is a “great honor” to showcase the breed’s “goodness.”
“I have lost a few of my pit bulls now and still have a hard time with their loss,” she said, adding, “they’ve had such an impact on my life and have created a much better person in me.”
“I work so hard to help their kind,” she added, noting that most proceeds raised from her business, Spread the Rumer, LLC, benefits animal rescue operations including Kane’s Krusade in East Longmeadow, the Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control & Adoption Center in Springfield, and Noah’s Arks Rescue, based in North Carolina.
In addition to her writing, speaking and photography endeavors, Mercadante has also found a home on Instagram, a free social media outlet that connects individuals around the globe by capturing and sharing moments in time. Her link is @mylifeinpits on Instagram.
“I’m an animal advocate and pit bulls have especially touched me,” she said, noting she started training her pit bulls to pose for photographs – mostly in natural settings – on her spacious grounds that she shares with partner Cheryl Kowalski in Southampton. The couple currently are surrounded by love from “Po,” “Addie,” and “Daisy,” as well as a 23-year-old half Arabian and half Andalusian horse named “Cesa.”
Over the years her photos have brought joy to many and changed the perception of the pit bull.
“The photos are a different image from seeing the photos presented from the media,” she said.
As her followers on Instagram continue to grow, Mercadante hopes that the public will once again see the American Pit Bull Terrier has a loving, loyal, beautiful and sometimes humorous dog.
“There is nothing like a pet to open people’s hearts,” she said, adding it has been her photographs that has had the most profound effect on others.
“My goal in life is to spread peace and to help save the lives of these animals,” she said.
On a related note, a photograph of “Mei Mei,” one of Mercadante’s pets for many years, will be displayed posing as Superman complete with mask, for this summer’s “Heroes” theme for the children’s reading program.
Mercadante is available for book talks, events and fundraisers to support her advocacy for the pit bull breed. She can be contacted at 362-4837, or at the library, 789-1550, ext. 8866. Also, for more information on her product treat line, including Angel Wings K-9 Treats, made from 100 percent dehydrated chicken breast, visit www.spreadtherumer.com.