It was on a sun-dappled, frigid January morning that I first saw him. His eager expression conveying the golden light of hope shining in the deep auburn pools of ocular love. His foxlike caramel ears perked in attentive interest. It was only on my eighteen-inch digital screen, but his alertness broke through my world to express his enthusiasm for a life awaiting.
I wanted to know more about him.
I didn’t know of his plight, nor of his friends’. He hailed from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas (the Valley, as called by locals), a region where the challenges of any one dog’s life are a daily uncertainty.
The caption read:
Willie is a special needs dog in search of a home.
He was saved by Red Fern Rescue, a Denver nonprofit concentrating on saving as many dogs and cats from the Valley as possible. Since July 2019, they have saved nearly six hundred dogs and one hundred forty cats, many of which are special needs.
What special needs meant in rescue dog parlance, I wanted to know more. Two years into life, Willie is crippled and incontinent after he encountered a speeding and distracted motorist who left him for dead by the side of the road, with his back legs paralyzed. For two excruciating weeks he crawled around on just his front legs in search of food and shelter until he was found.
Thus, we come to the story of an authentic Texas survivor. It’s also of the good people who saw the value in saving his and his friends’ lives, for rescue is a more often an effort made by a tribe of dog-loving women and enlightened men. It is offered as a teaching of forgiveness and strength, of joy and pure love, a statement that despite the wanton cruelty visited upon his small body, he has forgiven humanity for all their trespasses again him. It’s also his prayer for his homeless friends left behind and struggling to survive in the grasses and reeds deep in that Valley, that they may make it out alive to ride on Red Fern Rescue’s next transport and into a willing foster home to ultimately find their own loving forever homes.
Willie’s second chance at life began when an enlightened Good Samaritan discovered him in the dark of night near the roadsides. Pursuing him through the brush, he ran as fast as his two legs would carry him to escape yet another harmful human. Unbeknownst to him, she had kind intentions of helping save him and bring him to a vet. With this in mind, she followed him through the brush, caught him and cradled his broken body into her arms. It was likely the second time he’d been in a car in a while, the first not winding up in his favor. His ride from there to San Antonio would be a gamechanger and the beginning of his opportunity for life anew.
From the shelter in San Antonio where his wounds were treated and toddler camouflage pants were adorned to protect his wounded legs, Melissa McAllister and Gregg Patterson of Red Fern Rescue pulled him to come to Denver. He was driven with a dozen other friends from the Valley to the safe haven of a foster home. Willie, however, was going to need a special kind of foster, one with sufficient time, ability and willingness to take on a special needs dog. As with most nonprofit rescues, Red Fern is foster-based. Fostering is thus the critical and selfless step in saving any one dog’s life. It’s not for the faint of heart. There’s a reason rescues say:
Fostering saves lives.
Without fosters, rescues cannot pull a dog from a shelter and find him or her their forever home.
Jude, a student who fosters for Red Fern Animal Rescue, was the foster Willie’s doctors ordered. Just days after his arrival in November, she and her family took him to his first appointment, which necessarily turned out to be an MRI at a local veterinary hospital. Images on the screen confirmed what those in contact with him already knew. His spine was severed:
He can live, but he’ll need manual expressions of his bladder several times a day. He’ll never use his back legs, they were told. And, he has small bullets or pellets lodged in his chest.
Willie returned home with Jude and her family. They opened their hearts and home to him, giving him a place to rest and heal. All the while they knew they were his temporary resting place, as vital to him as the Good Samaritan, yet not his final destination. As Willie slept alongside their French bulldog in Jude’s bedroom, she attended high school classes remotely. Somewhere between AP college prep and Facebook, she and her family raised funds from dog-lovers for veterinary fees, wheelchairs and handicapped harnesses. Understanding the temporary nature of their fostering relationship, Jude persisted with finding him a home through social media, posting photos, posing for photographs in The Denver Post, and taking him to adoption events. For two months, she and her family trotted him along the concrete sidewalks of Denver, and loaded him into the family car for ski trips to the high country along groomed trails with their pack.
And of course, expressed his bladder four times daily.
All the while, Jude knew her daily task of preparing pumpkin-kibble diets and his following her up and down the hallways of their Denver home would one day end.
It was then that I found her. I had been helping rescue dogs find their forever homes on social media since the pandemic began, sharing, organizing, communicating and donating. I know Texas in particular was a region where spay and neuter is an unpopular practice born of more liberal, educated or economically sufficient regions. The San Antonio region itself saw over twenty-nine thousand animals between October 2019 and September 2020, only a portion of which made it out alive to find their forever homes. Even more telling was a recent statement from the San Antonio Shelter, asking that if an animal was found on the streets, either Take it into your own home or return it where it was found.
Knowing this, I felt compelled to send Jude a DM chat:
He’s adorable. We have an incontinent elderly dog in diapers in our home here, and I love his wheelchair!
Her response was Gen-Z quick:
He’s only two, and he sleeps A LOT…and then, Would you ever adopt?
I looked back at Willie’s images. His special needs screamed for my help. I turned to my husband, Frank:
Do you think we can take on another incontinent dog? I handed him my smartphone. It’s been ten years since Sheba’s stroke that rendered her incontinent. Ten years of daily Prazosin and Bethanecol, Vet’s Best Diapers, washing beds and expressing her “pipeline” (I leave the doggie biology up to you, dear reader).
He glanced down, then scrolled. Looks like the little guy needs some help…Yes, I think we can, he smiled.
Let me think about it overnight, I responded back to Jude.
I retired to bed that evening with not a small amount of anxiety and hesitation. It was going to be twice the work to take on another incontinent dog – the diapers, the bladder expressions, the special sweet potato/pumpkin diet – much less having a dog in a wheelchair. Would our mountain environment, with blasting winds rolling off the Continental Divide and drought-afflicted summers with stalky, itchy grasses prove too brutal for a vulnerable, handicapped dog? We had no gentle Kentucky bluegrass lawns, no fenced yard in which to roam, but a ten-acre high altitude mountain valley with woodlands and open pasture, occasioned by mountain lions, moose and bears. We also lived in an area where responsible, talented animal care was in short supply. Would I ever be able to find someone I trusted to care for him if I wanted to travel after the pandemic?
The next morning, I called someone who understands my propensity to help animals (and my husband’s) but with a more objective opinion: My ex-husband.
You already have three dogs. You need another one like a hole in the head. Are you really going to adopt THAT dog?
I thought of my former’s propensity to travel about the planet and our struggle, now over, to find common ground amidst my want to care for every creature I encountered. I felt the relief that we no longer had to have such arguments, but could now have amiable philosophical conversations about our respective lives, and I took joy in the fact that I had found a new husband to love animals alongside me. I looked again at Willie’s expression in the photographs, his foster Jude kneeling alongside him in The Denver Post article in his wheelchair. I scrolled through images of him trotting alongside her French bulldog on the groomed ski trails. I could feel his vulnerability, sense his struggle to survive. He made it out of the Valley, I said to myself, this dog is a survivor.
I wanted to help him. In that moment, my uncertainties and worries for the future fell away. What remained was his special needs and our ability to meet them.
Yes, we are, I finally said.
On another brisk January morning, Gregg’s van pulls into our driveway. I can see Willie on Jude’s lap from the pasture where I’m standing with our young rescue dogs, Smudges and Charlie. I wait on the creekside trail while they climb out of the van. As Jude lowers Willie into his wheelchair, Smudges and Charlie strain at their horse-lead draglines I employ to control them in the presence of migrating moose.
Let’s take a valley walk, I suggest. Forward momentum disperses energy and creates pack mentality. If the cool indifference of our meet-and-greet a week earlier was any indication that we had work to do to settle Willie into our lives, I wa intent on starting off with a walk on our trails.
The day was blessed with the quintessential azure sky, black-capped chickadees calling in the willows and nuthatches scampering up Ponderosa pines. Life with our new differently abled dog had begun.
In the Valley, Melissa shared, throwing a dog out of a car is a daily occurrence. I had no idea growing up in San Antonio this was happening until I began rescuing dogs.
I gave Willie a long hug when she told me.
Willie’s choice for love of life shows up in our every moment. This morning, he wakes me by waddling over to my bedside, chomping on Mr. Squeaky. A high-pitched noise emits. He sits, little-boy fashion, then drops it. He stares up at me. And waits.
I get up and toss Mr. Squeaky ball down the hallway. Willie swanks after it, then returns for another round. We could do this a while, but now it’s time to wee everyone. We traipse outside, Frank rolling Willie in his little red wagon, his back legs stretched straight out in front of him.
Sheba waddles behind. Smudges and Charlie sniff around to detect traces of moose and elk from the evening before as Frank and I roll Willie to his favorite wee spot on the west side of our home. Bending down, we express his bladder as he kneels on the dry winter grass, staring out onto the valley beyond. Our resident red-tail hawk, Reggie, circles above. It’s a crisp twenty degrees. Shivering, we all retreat back to the warmth of the wood stove in the house for chicken jerky treats (dogs) and a fresh pot of coffee (people).
Later in the morning after the sun has warmed the valley, we’ll venture out for a woodland walk. We’ll put baby knee-crawling pads and hock huggers on Willie’s back legs, Ruffwear booties on his front paws, a fleece coat on his torso (for those Divide winds) and strap him into his wheelchair harness. We’ll control him on his Extend-a-Lead for when his vulpine impulses lead him deeper into willows, brambly rosehips and low-hanging pine branches than my preferences tolerate. Once and again, his enthusiasm will override his limitations and he will land turtle-like when he hits a boulder at a precise angle, lands in a squirrel hole or rolls up on a tree root. We try hard not to allow such unfortunate circumstances for reasons manifest, but I struggle with allowing him freedom to roam and explore the nature of our mountain valley.
While we’re out on our woodland walks, Willie follows closely behind Smudges. Charlie trots behind him; occasionally the onset of squirrel chatter will attract the pack, causing a rollover incident of a different kind. Smudges is learning that being alpha doesn’t prevent her being run off the trail by her differently abled brother who’s in hot pursuit of all things furry.
The other afternoon, we took Willie for a walk up the mountainside trail bordering the southern edge of our valley. He raced alongside the shelf trail, peering alongside Charlie over granite rock edges and sniffing out chipmunks with reckless abandon.
Hold his wheelchair by the back, Frank warns. It’s good to have my cautious spouse in tow, lest Willie’s enthusiasm override our topographical edge.
We trot along with the pack for a mile to an overlook. Pausing to oversee Sheba resting on the front porch of our home, we then turn around. On the return trip, Willie catches a scent of something wild on the trail. He races down with the fervor of Dale Ernhart. He fishtails around the corner as I dash back up the mountain, catching him just as a wheel leaves the ground. I think of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, who says to Richard Gere,
This baby corners like it’s on rails.
If I had any concern for Willie’s suitability to live in our mountain environment, it evaporated with the cloudless days intrinsic to high altitude living. Two-mile walks are a breeze for him, and crossing bridges poses no challenge, for he trots over as though they were simply a part of his terrain. When I worry that he will tire on our walks, he shows me why I need not, by ducking under the fencing surrounding the gate bordering our valley. His forward momentum occasionally hangs up when his wheelchair catches on the smooth wire fencing, and we sometimes use that as an opportunity to turn and head back home. It takes him a while before he decides to join us, and I cast a backward glance for the eight minutes in between our turn around and his decision to rejoin the pack.
Then, he races up to us with all the enthusiasm of a Thoroughbred crossing the finish line, and I give him a huge,
Hurray, Willie! And a big hug.
When it snows, we switch out his wheels for skis, and he sails along the deep, heavy snowpack in the valley like Peek-a-boo Street on the slopes. When it comes to doorways, we are learning to pay careful attention. On not just a few occasions I’ve been seen in my slippers and camisole or Frank in his boxers and boots early in the morning by locals riding the N Route to Boulder carrying our handicapped dog back across the valley to our front door after a successful escape.
I’ve promised the family to sign up for more dog training after the pandemic abates.
Article by Denise Boehler, M.A.,