James Donio: On Writing a Children’s Book About Dog Rescue, LGBTQ Families, and Love

Gay/Lesbian / Wednesday, December 18th, 2019
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James Donio was born in Philadelphia in the late 1950s. While he didn’t come out as gay until his mid-twenties, he was perceived as effeminate as a young boy and severely bullied in school.

With the encouragement of a gay family friend, James eventually came out in the early ‘80s, but it wasn’t an ideal time: the nation was in the midst of the AIDS crisis. He was excited to live authentically, but he was unsure if his sexual orientation would be a death sentence. He managed to stay safe, and several years later, James met his husband Larry, whom he’s now been with for 30 years.

Though James didn’t have pets growing up, Larry did, and he insisted they get one. They rescued a cat, and about 15 years later, Larry convinced James they also needed a dog. They adopted Zachary, a regal purebred cocker spaniel, when he was five months old. The couple fell head over heels in love. When he was 11, Zachary suddenly developed an aggressive tumor and passed away a few weeks later. James and Larry were absolutely devastated. 

A week later, Larry visited an animal shelter a few times and felt drawn to a small, shy dog with matted hair. James didn’t feel ready for a new dog yet, but a moment of serendipity led him to agree to adopt the dog, which they named Zane. They knew they were rescuing a dog in need, but what they didn’t expect is that Zane would help heal their broken hearts.

James studied journalism in college, but he ended up spending over 30 years in the music industry. He spent the last 15 years as president of the Music Business Association, and he recently stepped down and is now a professor of music business at two universities. 

His passion for writing never went away, and earlier this year he felt inspired to write a children’s book, “Zane to the Rescue,” about his experiences losing Zachary and rescuing Zane. He thought it would be helpful to show children that while we usually outlive our dogs, shelter dogs can rescue us as much as we rescue them. He also wanted to provide representation of LGBTQ families for kids who rarely see families like theirs in books. A portion of the book sales go to the shelter where they found Zane. James and Larry currently live in New Jersey, and they’ve started going on book readings and signings with Zane. They’ve found that kids who read the book love meeting the trio in real life. 

This is James’ story of struggling to come out as gay, losing his beloved dog and finding love in a new one, and writing a book about the beauty of rescuing dogs while normalizing LGBTQ families in the process. 

Profiles in Pride: When did you come out as gay?

James Donio: My official coming out was around 25, so later in life. I actually came out at the very beginning amidst the initial panic about AIDS in the early 1980s. It was probably at the worst possible time to be coming out and confronted with the harsh reality of what was going on in the community at that time.

I’d dated girls before that, and I’d actually been engaged for a short period of time. But I probably always knew, and this is pretty typical. It was with my husband as well; he got married at 19 and had two kids children, but he kind of always knew. Subsequently they split up and he was able to live his true self, and we’ve been together 30 years. 

James Donio with his husband Larry
James Donio (right) with his husband Larry

PIP: Was it difficult for you to come out?

JD: I was always perceived as gay as a teenager. I was born in the late 1950s, and I was bullied and had a really difficult time growing up. All my friends were girls, I played with dolls, I liked to dress up and experience all that.

I denied and tried to fight back, but it was a very hard and difficult time. There are things that happen to you as a child and teenager that stick with you. I’m a small person; I’m shorter than average and slight of build. I was very young, I was 13 years old when I started high school because I’d done seventh and eighth grade in one year. 

I went to an all-boys high school. I was small and perceived as being gay or effeminate, and I vividly remember a group of kids picking me up and throwing me into a dumpster and then throwing other garbage and trash on top of me. One of the teacher’s aides came to my rescue and helped me get out of the dumpster. I’m 63 years old now, and the sense memory of that, I could actually take myself back to that moment, and it was 50 years ago. It’s still vivid for me. 

So I’m hypersensitive to children and young people being bullied, because it’s something that has stuck with me for 50 years, that experience of being demeaned, being demoralized and being thrown in there and kids around the dumpster yelling and laughing. That was age 13 or 14, so it was another 11 years of denying and attempting to live and act and have a straight life. 

It was 11 years later, around 1984, that finally through a very close family friend who was gay — he really helped me and has ended up being now a lifelong friend. He was the one who said, “Look, you’re gay, so I’m going to help you.”

I remember him taking me to the first gay club, a dance club, that I ever went to. I have another sense memory. I remember going into this very small club, and as you walked in and paid the cover charge, there was a basket with really tiny little leaflets like a square that said what you need to know about “the gay plague.” They weren’t even calling it AIDS yet.

I so vividly remember seeing that basket with the little leaflets in it. That was my first time going into a gay club, and here I’m confronted with this. “What is this? I’m coming out now, am I going to die? If I proceed to live this life, is it going to kill me?” Those are my first memories of coming out. 

There were good memories as well. Once I got past the doorway and into the club and discovered all the lights and the music and the embrace and the friendliness and the freedom — that was there too. But it was definitely a schizophrenic existence, because on the one hand I was finally free and being myself, but then there was this cloud. “This is happening and everyone’s talking about it, and everywhere you look there’s articles about this and what’s going on, and how am I going to live this life safely?” Which I obviously did, but that was something else I needed to learn, in addition to who I was going to be as a gay man. 

PIP: When did you meet your husband, and when did you two adopt your dog Zachary?

JD: I met Larry in 1990. I was 33, and he was 28. Larry also had two children by the time we got together, two little boys that were 5 and 8, that came into my life. 

So in a pretty compressed period of time, I came out, was living this life, then met Larry, we quickly got together and were committed to each other, and I became a stepfather all in a quick succession. It was transformative for me. 

I’d never had pets as a child; my family was not a pet-oriented family, but Larry’s was. The addition of a pet into the mix started with a cat we first rescued; her name was named Murphy Brown. We had her for 18 years. In the last three years of Murphy’s life was when we adopted Zachary. 

Zachary, James Donio's beloved dog
Zachary, James and Larry’s beloved cocker spaniel

I was resistant to having two animals; that felt overwhelming to me. Eventually Larry wore me down and we adopted Zachary when he was five months old, and it was just the best thing ever. He was an amazing dog. He was regal and a little aloof, kind of elitist in his persona. Things were on his terms; he was not a lap dog. He would nuzzle up with you and sit on your lap, but under his own terms. When he was done, he was done. He was a purebred cocker spaniel, all black with just a white tuxedo front. He was a beautiful, strong, very muscular animal, and he looked like a show dog. He could have been. But he was our heart and soul. 

PIP: I know that when Zachary passed away, you adopted Zane, a rescue dog. Why did you decide to write a book about this experience?

JD: This book was really a passionate project. It was something I did because of my love for my family, and it was something I wanted to put out into the universe. 

I thought the story about us losing Zachary and finding Zane would probably be a heartwarming story, and there are good lessons for children in this: that animals don’t live as long as we do, and that when you lose one, there are so many animals waiting to be rescued. 

In the next breath I thought, “Gee, I wonder, are there children’s books that show a real LGBTQ family?” So I did a little research and went to some stores, and I couldn’t find one children’s story. First of all, most children’s books and stories are more fantastical, in terms of characters or creatures or space. They’re great and wonderful, but it’s imaginative. Most children’s books aren’t about real people and a real dog and animal you could possibly meet. 

Larry, Zane, and James at their first book signing at The Principled Pet in Collingswood, NJ
Larry, Zane, and James at their first book signing at The Principled Pet in Collingswood, NJ

Then I thought, wow, children of two dads or two moms can’t go into a store, or perhaps even online, and find a children’s book and story that reflects them and their family. So armed with all of that incentive, I reached out to my friend and colleague Mark Collins who’d written and illustrated 10 children’s books. I said, “I have this idea, would you illustrate it?” He said yes immediately, and started working on it in the beginning of July, and it was published the second week of October. I’m giving a portion of proceeds from sales to the animal shelter where we got Zane. 

My husband and I were meticulous about how we wanted it to be depicted and how we wanted the story to show up. It was interesting working on a project where you are yourself being animated. How would you look being animated as a cartoon? That was interesting as well!

And of course, there was so much to the story, but it’s a children’s book, so we honed it down to something kids could grasp and understand easily. I ran it by some families we know that have children and got great feedback, and we tweaked the manuscript based on the feedback.

My degree was in journalism. I’ve been a writer all my life even though the jobs I ended up having weren’t journalistic or writing jobs, but the through line through my career has been writing. I wound up in the music business for 32 years and now I’m a professor, but I’d always tell people I’m really a writer, that’s my identity. I always planned at some point to write a book about the music business and my career in it, so writing a children’s book wasn’t anywhere on the list of things I thought I’d do, but now that I’ve done it and seen how it’s been received, I’m really excited!

Zane to the Rescue - a children's book about rescue dogs and LGBTQ families

PIP: I love it. Could you share more about how losing Zachary impacted you and Larry?

JD: Larry was definitely the alpha of the pack, so it was Larry, Zachary, and then me in terms of the pack — I learned that’s definitely a thing! Larry did the bathing and grooming, so he was very tactile with Zachary. One night he noticed his abdomen was distended and told me to come look at it. We felt it and it didn’t feel normal, so we took him to the vet. 

We were told to take him to a specialist hospital immediately, which I did right away. The doctor said, “It’s not good; it’s an aggressive cancerous tumor. It’s growing exponentially, and it’s attached to his abdomen. We could possibly try to remove it, but it’s so big and growing so quickly that we’d have to break his pelvis to get to it.” 

We decided no, we’re not going to put him through that. We tried to acknowledge and deal with the reality. We asked how long, and he said there was no way to know, because it was growing so quickly. It was actually hot to the touch. We had to decide what to do and what the potential outcomes could be. The worst-case scenario is that it would burst because of how fast it was growing and he would bleed out. 

I worked from home for two weeks with him, and as we were getting toward the end of that two weeks, it was obvious. He’d just throw himself down. The tumor was getting bigger and hotter to the touch, so we made the decision of what we needed to do, and it was literally the worst ever. I’ve said to some people, “I’ve lost my parents, I’ve lost friends to AIDS, I’ve had a lot of trauma of losing people in my life. But I can tell you with complete honesty, I never sobbed the way I sobbed that day. I’ve never had that same level of loss, because he was really a child to me.” 

What made his loss sadder is prior to that, he’d torn ligaments in both his legs. First one, and then the other. He’d gone through months of physical therapy and rehab and rebounded from both surgeries just amazingly, but it was water therapy. It’s very hard to keep cocker spaniels’ long ears clean and infection-free. He had a lot of ear infections as a puppy. After the back to back months of water therapy, he got really bad infections in his ears and lost his hearing. He’d had these two surgeries, he had lost his hearing, he even got to the point where he was having dental problems and had eight teeth removed, and after all that, he bounced back. 

Animals are so adaptive and incredible; it’s just amazing to me how he adapted to each of those adversities. That’s just what made it so much harder, when after rebounding like a champ from all of that, he just got saddled with this tumor. He didn’t deserve this, but it’s the circle of life. He was 11 when he passed.

Losing a pet is part of the deal when you decide to bring an animal into your life, it’s part of the contract, and that’s kind of how the book begins, with children understanding that animals don’t live as long as we do.

PIP: How did that lead you to adopt Zane?

JD: After losing Zachary, Larry was inconsolable, and I couldn’t even deal with it. Within a few days, unbeknownst to me, because I wasn’t ready, Larry went to one of the nearest animal shelters. He found this little dog named Matt, because he was matted and knotted, so that’s what the shelter had named him. Larry went three times all in the first week, and said, “You know, I need this. We have to do something with all these emotions and love.” 

So he brought me to see this little dog, and as I was in the car with him riding to this place, I was like, “I don’t think so, I don’t think we’re ready for this.” We got to the shelter and pulled into the parking lot, and I looked up. I said to Larry, “You’ve been here three times this week? Did you ever notice what was next door to the shelter”? He hadn’t, but the crematorium where Zachary was cremated was literally next door to this shelter. I thought, “OK, Zachary.” I’m a very big believer in fate and that there’s no accidents. I felt it meant that Zachary brought us here; his aura, his soul, was around there, because this is where he was brought, and he brought us to this shelter. 

James and Larry with their rescue dog Zane
James and Larry with their rescue dog Zane

So I said, “OK, we’re adopting this dog!” It was very hard the first couple of weeks; he had terrible separation anxiety. It was so bad, we really weren’t sure if we were going to have to bring him back since it was so hard. 

But love conquers all. We stuck it out, and he just became this incredible dog. He and Zachary were completely different with very different personalities. Zachary was all black and Zane is a beige, blonde color. They were night and day, like light and dark. Zane is like a lap dog like Nth degree, he will lay there for hours and hours at a time, and such a kisser. If Zachary ever gave you a slight side lick, it was like, “Oh my gosh, the heavens moved!” He was not a kisser; he wasn’t demonstrative with his affection in that way. Zane is constant, he will literally give Larry’s face a bath for like 10 minutes at a time. 

Then the rest of the story really is the book. The book is completely 100% true, everything that’s in the book is exactly what happened to us. In fact, a lot of the illustrations are Mark’s vision of actual photographs. We provided photographs for a lot of the events in the book, and through his illustrative magic, he was able to animate our real photographs. He illustrates books in a way that resonates with children and pop and make kids smile, and make adults smile as they’re reading it to their children. 

It has a happy ending, in that Zane actually becomes kind of a local celebrity in our little town. There are really some good lessons in this book, teaching kids about animals and rescue and love, and that they don’t live as long as we do. There’s sort of a caterpillar/butterfly story, because when we brought him home with us he was very scared, timid, and matted — he was just very lost. And through our love and our nurturing and our spoiling him, he becomes this butterfly. Who would have imagined he’d become this local celebrity, even more now that we’ve had the book out! We had a signing at a pet store in town a little more than a week ago, and now people are even moreso recognizing him.

Larry, Zane, and James reading "Zane to the Rescue" to schoolchildren
Larry, Zane, and James reading “Zane to the Rescue” to a kindergarten class in New Jersey

The book ends where there’s a local contest a couple of years ago for a calendar. Some folks created a rescue animal calendar, and the proceeds benefited the shelter where we got Zane. We entered him in the contest and he won! He was Mr. August. He was also chosen to be on the cover of the calendar. That’s how the book ends, with him kind of becoming a local celebrity because people were recognizing him for being on the cover of the calendar. Now people are recognizing him in town because they know now about the book. 

Obviously there’s also the LGBTQ messaging in the book, for parents and children of LGBTQ families. Then the other final message of the book is, when you’re in these situations where you’re rescuing animals, you have to think about who’s really rescuing who. We definitely rescued him; he’d been in the shelter for two months and nobody wanted him. 

The people who ran the shelter said he wasn’t adopted after two months yet because he requires professional grooming, which isn’t cheap, and they said he was also timid and withdrawn. They said most people come in and they opted for bigger dogs that needed less maintenance, or they could see were already happy and would be good around children. We decided we needed to rescue him, and after only a week of losing Zachary, there’s no question that Zane definitely rescued us as well. I have very much become a dog person!

We also had Zane certified as an emotional support animal for us. We have a home in Florida and go back and forth, so we had him certified. There’s an adorable page in the book that shows him as an emotional support animal. There’s another illustration in the book that’s actually from a real photograph. He rides with us and doesn’t have to be in a carrier, and he loves to look out the window at the clouds. There’s something about the clouds, he’s mesmerized. That’s also in the book. It’s a little bit of foreshadowing about what the second book might be; we’re thinking about possibly doing a sequel. 

PIP: What else is in store for the future?

JD: I’m a professor now as well; I teach music business at two universities. I’m actually teaching back at Temple University in Philadelphia, which is where I graduated from 42 years ago. It’s surreal and something I never would have imagined because my degree is in journalism. I teach at another university called Monmouth in New Jersey. 

I left my role as president of the association in early September. We don’t use the R word because I’m not retired; I’m teaching at two universities, I’m on the board of a nonprofit foundation, and I wrote this book. I’m probably busier now than I was when I had my 60+ hour week job running that nonprofit organization, but I’m doing things I really want to do. My time is filled, and writing this children’s book has just opened a new door. I’m going to see what happens now; I’m being encouraged to continue down this road. I definitely want to write a memoir since I have 30 years of experience in the music industry, with a lot of experiences with famous artists, and an interesting vantage point. 

James Donio with Kelly Clarkson
James Donio with Kelly Clarkson

I’m also thinking about how, to my knowledge, there are not many children’s books that exist for children of LGBTQ families. I’m thinking maybe the next book that should be that message. It was a casual message of this book, but the next could focus on it. Between us Larry and I, we have many stories that could be adapted. We had two little ones who are now 34 and 37! I thought that could be an interesting story as well, my stepdad journey to two little boys who were 5 and 8.

I’m kicking it around in my head. We’re working with GLAAD out here on the book since they expressed a lot of interest in it, and we’re working with PFLAG. There’s an organization in Philly I’m reaching out to called Philadelphia Family Pride. I’d love to do readings to groups of children of LGBTQ families. I think that would be a super thing to do and be able to have kids ask questions as well. You can only get so much into a short book but to have a conversation about our families. 

And kids love meeting Zane. We had the signing at this little pet store that’s underneath our building, and children were coming in. One came barreling in; he’d gotten the book and read it. He saw Zane and just couldn’t believe this is the real dog. Like, “I’m actually meeting the dog that’s in the book, how can this be?” Then he sees Larry and I, and he’s like, “Oh my God, you’re the real people!” 

We took a picture of them together, and that was my favorite picture from that day, since it’s just a picture of pure joy and love. He’s hugging Zane, and it’s just love! I hoped that the book would inspire these feelings of love for these animals, and the joy that a child can find in this unconditional sharing of love between people and animals. In that moment, I was just like “OK, if nothing else happens from this book, if I don’t sell another book, the moment captured in that picture is perfect.” 

Featured photo by Matt Skoufalos

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