If you’d told me a year ago I’d be writing this post, I would’ve told you to check your head. Every rescue story I record here is special to me for one reason or another, but this one really changed the way I view the world in its entirety.
Sweetie is an old lady pit bull who was tragically abandoned at a boarding facility a year ago this spring. Riddled in pain from years of puppy-machining, neglect, and a life spent confined to a concrete dog run, the poor girl seemed as if she’d lost hope. When we met, Sweetie was covered in large callouses, flies that’d laid eggs in her fur, and grossly infected teats. She snarled. She snapped. She lunged, and I’ll be frank: I believed her quality of life was likely to only improve through the kindness of death. (I wrote about Sweetie’s long suffering here.)
While the boarders journeyed through the tedious process of gaining legal custody of Sweetie, we brought her bones and treats in an attempt to occupy her and earn her trust. None of it was easy; her health deteriorated further, but she began to approach us more and more — still growling, still hating on us, but with cautious desire to interact. Admittedly, I’d never dealt with an animal so full of aggression. We were flying by the seats of our pants, really — hoping she would understand we weren’t like the other humans she’d known, taking each step slowly by allowing her to lead the way.
After months of having only food and water slid to her through a chain-linked fence by workers and receiving whatever treats we had to offer, Sweetie finally stood close enough to the gate for us to touch her one day. She groaned a little, but switched sides allowing me to stroke her fur again through the fence. It was like touching cardboard. Broke my heart, numbed my brain. How could someone treat a creature so terribly? When my fingers connected with her fur that first time, her suffering was tangible, and I felt it in my soul. Can’t explain it, really, but I knew her spirit was still alive. She was trying.
The facility won custodianship by mid-summer, and I arrived to jailbreak Sweetie on behalf of DFW Rescue Me for her well-deserved trip to the vet. Later that day, I drove her to my home to recover, but had little faith I’d be able to safely foster her with my other animals. After all, I’m no dog trainer, and I’ve always told folks I’m a cat person at the end of the day. All the same, I considered Sweetie’s spirit and her progress. Maybe, just maybe things could work, I thought.
That first month we kept Sweetie in a room alone. She wanted to eat the cats and other dogs. The next month, she wanted to eat the cats and other dogs less. We took her on walks and supervised play time in the yard, and, remarkably, she decided to befriend our little Italian Greyhound foster guy. We moved Sweetie into a large crate by our patio door so she’d have a better view and also be able to spend more time observing the offending cats, whom she became slightly less dead set upon devouring. Slightly. By the end of the third month, she’d made friends with our cat Mr. Bob Dobalina, a grey tabby tom dude with titanium tolerance. Like a helicopter mom, I began leading Sweetie around the house on her leash so she could hang out in general population. I could tell she wanted to please us and was grateful; she just needed to take her time.
In the evenings, we sat in the hammock in the backyard and stared at the sky together. Sweetie would close her eyes, lean into me sighing and kissing my cheek. Her teats weren’t swollen anymore. Her fur felt like…fur. She was content. And beautiful now. Sometimes I’d gawk at her in complete disbelief that she was the raggedy old hag who used to spit and cuss at me just months earlier. I’d hold her and tell her everything was going to be ok, but I knew we still had a haul ahead of us.
Even though Sweetie was improving, her thyroid wonked out. Rats. Here I was with a pit bull burdened by a sordid past [strike] who was old [strike] with a condition that required medication twice a day for life [strike]. She wasn’t receiving boatloads of adoption applications, let me tell ya. I wished she could only get along with my little dog, Nova Party Pants, who was still pretty irritated Sweetie was crashing at her pad. Rock and a hard place, but with a little wiggle room for hope.
A couple months ago, Sweetie was snoring on the couch when Nova slumped up next to her. Burrowing into the fatty folds of Sweetie’s belly, Nova passed out. Everything really was going to be ok, I realized. Nova just needed time, too. There they were: Four cats and my beloved gal pal Nova…and Sweetie. Victory.
Because Sweetie’s progress was so significant, I began socializing her on Main Street. Then we started going around in the car more. Last week, I’m honored and proud to say she completed her fourth appearance as a Voices for Justice dog, which is an educational program our rescue presents to local elementary schools and children’s groups within our DFW communities. (She was even on the news because she’s a superstar like that.)
On Wednesday, like almost a thousand people before me, I completed an online application to adopt through our group. All of our dogs deserve the best homes possible, but certainly Sweetie’s was a lifetime coming. I closed my laptop after sending the app and told Sweetie, “So you’re staying. Forever.” Then, for the the first time ever, she tore apart my kitchen trash. Stinker. Pfft.
In the past year, I thought I was working on Sweetie, but, truly, she was working on me. I was the one with trust issues. I was the one who needed to believe the unimaginable was possible. I was the one who underestimated myself and my ability to let the world unfold instead of forcing that which only time often reveals. When those flies were laying eggs in her cardboard fur, she could’ve given up…but she didn’t. There was spunk buried inside her will to live. She chose to become a better dog when new people showed her a light, and because of that, I’d be a fool to not become a better person through her lessons.
As I type, Sweetie is snoring with her pokey out-y tongue hanging out and drooling on my bed. She’s shedding and smells like hell, but I don’t care. Like the rest of my clan, I love her without end.
And I’m humbled she calls this place “home.”
Welcome home, Sweetie. This is our sweet hereafter, old girl.
Thank you, thank you, thank you to Toothacres, Jim Wenger, and the great volunteers at DFW Rescue Me who created a bridge for Sweetie’s recovery as well as an outlet for her to share her story to educate others. Most of all, thanks to Russell for saying “yes” over and over again, even when saying “no” would have often been easier. <3
This story began in 1987 when Mike Ross leaned over and shared a first kiss with me. Never in a billion years could I have guessed that treasured wrinkle in time would’ve ended up the way it did last Saturday in Houston, TX. That’s life for you.
Allow me to back up a bit even further, though.
My best friend in elementary school was a gal named Ivy Sunshine Lee. Like a lot of us do, Ivy and I lost touch over time after school, even though I thought of her frequently. After years of searching, I received word from a stranger on the internet — a story nothing short of crazy kismet featured here (see comments) — that Ivy drowned when she was 28 in Lake Travis. As I sat on my porch, broken-heartedly scrolling through the photos her kind friend sent me, I decided to contact the other people who’d shaped my life before it was too late.
So I found Mike.
Just as I remembered, he was intelligent, big-hearted, and an all around funny guy. We chatted off and on about the roads we’d traveled, but I could tell there was an underlying sadness in his words. Life hadn’t been easy for him, even though he was fortunate to have been gifted with many talents. However, when he talked about Bacon and Nugget, his two beloved Dachshund gal pals, it was obvious he knew joy with them.
In December, Mike’s sister posted from his Facebook account quite unexpectedly that he’d suffered massive organ failure. Once again, I sat on my porch scrolling through photos with a broken heart. Mike was gone. Just like that.
At the funeral, I awkwardly asked if I could take the girls. To my surprise, his sister’s eyes filled with tears as she said, “Really? We’ve been wondering what to do about them. Mike loved them so much.” We exchanged information, and I agreed to assume responsibility as soon as they were ready for assistance.
I picked up Bacon and Nugget a few days later from one of Mike’s neighbors, Cliff. As he said goodbye, he broke down. This guy — a burly man who’d known Mike well — told me, “Mike was my only friend. I wish I could give his girls the life they deserve.” He went on to add that he was sorry for crying, that saying goodbye to them was like saying goodbye to the last of his friend. Then he kissed them, “Uncle Cliff loves you guys. Be good.” I offered to give him Bacon’s tags with Mike’s name and info, but he disappeared quickly, embarrassed. I later discovered he’d lost his job the same week. At Christmas, of course. I can’t save people, sadly. Only their dogs.
Initially, the weenies unmistakably grieved the loss of their dad. They looked for him with their confused old lady, white faces. Bacon whimpered a little. Nugget sighed. Fortunately, a week later, they were milling comfortably around our house, burrowing under our bed linens, and begging for belly rubs on the sofa like tiny sea otters. I felt like Mike was with us sometimes when I’d look into their eyes, and that brought me a lot of peace. Of course, like Cliff, I knew I was also going to have to say goodbye.
When we started the girls’ adoption process, we received a very special application from Holly and Deb in Houston. Something about the time and consideration Holly took to describe the kind of home she wanted to give the girls really struck me. It was as if Mike was pointing at this couple, saying, “These are the ones.” Even though Holly and Deb lived hours away, people from the rescue group for which I volunteer pooled together our resources and decided to find a way to make it happen.
Holly and I spent a lot of time on the phone throughout those weeks. During those conversations, I realized why fate or Mike or whatever led her to the girls. Like my sweet friend, Holly understood the struggles Mike faced in his life, but had overcome them. She said, “When I saw their picture, I knew they were for us. I knew they needed us as much as we need them.”
On Saturday, I packed a bag for Bacon and Nugget. It’s always kinda bittersweet bidding farewell to a foster, but these ladies really seemed more like family. I procrastinated as I put their bones and food and treats and belongings in a bag. Their favorite bedding. Nugget’s favorite stuffed bat (and two replacements). Bacon’s ball. All that. Then I put the girls in my truck and went to meet Jill and Frank, my rescue buds who were thoughtful to accompany the three of us to Houston.
When we arrived in Holly and Deb’s neighborhood, Bacon sat up for the first time during the trip and wagged her tail. She knew she was home.
Holly and Deb were waiting outside next to a sign that W2, their 16 year-old Doxie, “made.” We hadn’t even made it into the house, and everybody knew this was a perfect match. The girls belonged with those ladies. Once indoors, the cats and W2 greeted their new sisters (and Frank). Then we headed to the patio, which was more like Fantasy Island for weenie dogs. Really, there was no reason for us to stay at that point, but, again, I was procrastinating. I took some terrible, shaky photos with my cell phone. I showed Holly and Deb what I’d included in Bacon and Nugget’s travel bag.
And then I went to the door.
Nugget and Bacon followed me. I said, “I love you guys. Be good,” just as Cliff had done.
Holly hugged me and said, “This isn’t goodbye. You’re family.”
Back inside the car with Jill and Frank, things were quiet for a bit. I’d just said goodbye to Mike, I realized. I thought about Ivy again. I thought about how glad I was that I’d known them both, that their paths in my life had led me to this place. I thought about how cool Holly and Deb are and how they’d stumbled into two of the most awesome freaking dogs I’ve met.
By midnight, I was home again. The house seemed empty without the girls even though Sweetie and Nova and their four cat friends were swarming around my feet, wondering where those weenies had gone. Duty done, gladly. Friend honored.
For some reason when stuff like this happens, I’m always reminded of what John Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, wrote to his father in My Father Who is on Earth : “…and, Dad, when you come upon shadows, remember it was sunlight that made them.” Through such sadness comes a happy ending, even if the journey seems riddled with clouds along the way.
Certainly, for Bacon and Nugget, there’s only sunlight now.
With love, RIP, Mike Ross.
Much gratitude to DFW Rescue Me for sponsoring this adoption process, Meredith, Jill and Frank, Russell and Bella, everybody who shared Bacon and Nugget’s story, Dale and Lindsay (!!!).
Holly and Deb, here’s to your new life with Mike’s lovely ladies. I’m always a phone call away, my new friends.
Last night concluded our group’s second 24-day State Fair of Texas adoption drive in conjunction with Dallas Animal Services. With happy tears in my eyes, I’m excited to report 120 dogs are safe in new homes. To be clear, that’s 120 dogs who – as a direct result of this large scale adoption effort – escaped death and life on the streets. Pop a champagne cork now. Big news.
For me, this was a different year volunteering with DFW Rescue Me at the fair. It wasn’t something I wanted to do for fun or because I thought it’d be a learning experience for my kiddo; I did it because these dogs have now become part of my family. The little rescue group with less than 200 followers I discovered during a bored afternoon spent rabbit-holing on Facebook last year has morphed into a network with well over twelve thousand fans. Since the last fair, we’ve developed educational programs, dog socialization programs, and enlisted assistance from countless caring and resourceful people. Perhaps the most monumental change enacted by the group over the course of the last year is the Justice Fund, which serves the needs of neglected and injured dogs who might otherwise be turned away from adoption.
When we lost Justice in April, people around the globe reached out and mourned alongside us. Hundreds attended his candlelight vigil. Many waited hours in line to sign his remembrance book at the funeral. When legal hearings for Justice’s accused attackers were held, supporters flooded the courthouse to stand against animal abuse. In the end, it seemed one heartbreakingly unfortunate dog, who represented a huge failure of humanity, served as a binding beacon for others needing a voice.
With sadness, our group privately gathered for a small ceremony in July. Volunteers placed a beautiful headstone over Justice’s grave, and we said goodbye.
I regularly walk our dogs along the trails surrounding Justice’s burial site. We pause while I read: “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” Even though the inscribed words were meant for poor Justice, they’re applicable to each dog in our group, in all groups, in every shelter, in every home lacking heart. Judging by the thoughtful notes and trinkets regularly left on his grave over half a year later, the light Justice left behind continues to shine brightly on many paths threatened by the darkness of man.
During this year’s fair event, Justice was definitely with us in spirit. The crowd asked for legal updates on the abuse cases. Attendees wanted to know progress reports on our Justice dogs and visited with beneficiaries of the program, like Hudson the Rottweiler mix. Although it’s not the way I would’ve ever wanted to grow community involvement, I’m grateful people from many walks of life have banded together out of compassion.
These animals truly are our beloved companions as we travel life. The stories people shared with me at the fair weren’t always unfamiliar; I can relate to the sorrow of something like losing a dog pal. However, there’s something to be said for a simple tent at the fair where so many strangers gathered and unexpectedly found themselves trading tales about Fido. More than once, I stood before potential adopters who apologized for crying when telling me about how much they’d loved past dogs. Likewise, more than once, I caught myself awkwardly choking up when I told people the stories of my fosters and how much I also love them. As I said before, this fair was a different place for me a year later, and as happy as I am to see it end, I’m still very sad to say goodbye.
Although we celebrated the good fortune of 120 dogs who found new families, this year’s fair wasn’t without trial. The crazy storms during opening weekend, followed by extreme weather changes the next week and more rain, produced lower attendance. People were trapped at the top of the Stratosphere for most of Saturday evening as live news covered the rescue effort. Naturally, the biggest blow was the “death” of Big Tex, our historic State Fair of Texas champion of hearts. I admit, as I watched him burn from my TV that morning, it was traumatic. He wasn’t a structure for most of us who love the State Fair; he was the epicenter of fair magic. Fortunately, volunteer photogs were able to take some amazing images of our dogs with the ginormous man in the cowboy hat before Big Tex was lost that day.
Eighteen minutes before the State Fair of Texas 2012 ended, I realized I still hadn’t enjoyed a single caramel nutty apple. Usually by that point, I would’ve consumed enough of those things to fill a couple tents. This year, I guess I was sidetracked. Luckily, I found a few tickets to add to the ones another volunteer had in his pocket and I raced from the western end of the park to the other side of the Midway to buy the apple from my favorite stand.
Victory apple acquired with minutes to spare.
Here’s to the dogs. Here’s to the volunteers and the DAS employees and the fosters and the dog walkers and the kissing booth leash holders and the t-shirt peeps and the donors and transporters and home visitors and everybody I’m mistakenly forgetting. Here’s to Justice. Here’s to the people who adopted a new friend. Here’s to the “Friendly Maker.” Here’s to new nicknames. Here’s to not-so-new nicknames. Here’s to my homeboy Big Tex.
Here’s to my Sweetie, who didn’t find her home but enjoyed a few car rides anyway.
And here’s to 2013, y’all.
I admit I am super bummed about the comments you made while interviewing Christopher Walken on your nationally televised talk show this week. Two reasons: (a) I like watching your banter with Andy Cohen, and (b) I like pit bulls.
“[...] if it’s a gangster it would have to be a dangerous pit bull kind of dog, right?”
Oh, Kelly. Gaw. There are a bazillion kindhearted, scared pits sitting in pounds across this country — hopeful someone might give them a second chance before they’re fatally overlooked, and you laid out a death-sentencing stereotype for a ginormous viewing audience. You’re a human; you say dumb stuff like the rest of us. I get it. Of course, the difference is when I say ridiculous things rooted in ignorance, my face isn’t in front of a camera that’s feeding to millions of households. That said, you’ve got the tools to make it right, so, come on with it.
I’ll let you in on a secret: I used to believe pit bulls were dangerous dogs, too. In fact, I almost spontaneously combusted when my daughter returned from a visit with her father and announced, “Dad got a new puppy. He’s a pit bull/Mastiff named Rupert.” Certain the pit mix was going to eat my daughter’s face, I scrambled to the phone so I could yell, “Why are you taking a chance like this with our child? What are you thinking?!” I complained to anyone who would listen until one day a friend of mine said, “You know, I respect you, but you’re way off base here. Rupert is going to be a great dog.”
Years later, I’ve discovered my friend was…wrong. Rupert isn’t a great dog; he’s an exceptionally outstanding, magnificent dog. And I was an uneducated jackass.
Since meeting Rupert, I’ve worked with quite a few disadvantaged pitties in the animal rescue circuit. The shelters are full of them not because they are dangerous, but because the mythic stereotype — like the one you and I perpetuated about them — keeps many prospective adopters at bay. Even worse, breed specific legislation (BSL), which is an unjustified witch hunt against protecting the welfare of dogs who “look dangerous” to the nosy-old-bitty Miss Suzy Q. Peabodies of the world, is a current item voters in many areas are addressing as I type.
Kelly, whether you realize it or not, there’s probably at least one dog who died today because your fans decided not to adopt a pit bull on death row. There are probably many other fans who decided to vote in favor of BSL because: “Kelly Ripa is a savvy chick, and she thinks pit bulls are dangerous.”
You have the power to say you’re sorry and make a difference in a way most of us combined would be unable to achieve within our lifetimes. I bet you could have an intelligent pit bull advocate on your show tomorrow morning. I bet you could have a hundred. Or a thousand. I bet you could save a lot of lives and reverse an enormous amount of bigotry by giving these dogs five minutes of your airtime.
You slipped. It happens. Fix it, homegurl.
Wantin’ to be your fan,