Dogs are surrendered every day to shelters for many reasons—the most heartbreaking of which is the "too old" reason. Senior dogs relinquished to animal shelters most often don't make it out alive.
This was Shady's certain fate.
The dog, a 16-year-old, cancer-stricken Pit Bull, was an owner surrender at a high-kill California shelter this past spring. She had lived with a family her whole life before she was taken to the shelter due to her advanced age. While there, Shady quickly became depressed, hopeless and despondent. She appeared to be dying.
Enter Lori Fusaro. This local photographer and dog welfare advocate was taking pictures at the Carson shelter to help network the dogs for HeARTs Speak (http://heartsspeak.org/) when she first crossed paths with Shady. And neither woman nor dog was the same ever again. Shady received her walking papers, got a new name (Sunny) and a new mom (Fusaro), all in rapid fashion. Shady, back in May, seemed to be at death's door. Fusaro wanted to give her a few moments of love before she crossed the Rainbow Bridge. But together, this new team has defied the odds and is still going strong, months later.
What follows is a love story, and how age doesn't matter one bit to the heart.
Orange County Dogs Examiner: What was it like to see Shady for the first time?
Lori Fusaro: When I go to the shelter I usually have to limit myself with the contact I make with the dogs I photograph. There are so many dogs there and my heart can only handle so much. I get pretty overwhelmed most of the time. I know I can’t help them all and so I try to focus on the ones that I am there to help. As I make my way down the kennel aisle I stop to pet the dogs I pass and give them treats. Sunny (then Shady) was one of those dogs. She was so sad. She didn’t lift her head. Didn’t take a treat. She just watched me. Hopelessness surrounded her.
OCDE: When you networked her online, did you hope someone would step forward and adopt her? When did you figure out that someone was you?
LF: I put the photos on Facebook and my hope is always that a rescue or person will step forward. The next day, I was photographing [dogs] at the Riverside Shelter and on my drive there, Sunny kept popping into my head. I still can’t explain why. When Sunny popped into my head for the fourth or fifth time, I decided right then that I had to get her out. I wrote about it on my blog: " I know it’s crazy, but I can’t let her die alone in the shelter… I am going to pull her from the shelter and find her a home. We’ll see what happens. I have no idea how her health is…at 16 years old, there could be so many things wrong. But I’m throwing caution to the wind. I think she deserves to spend the last days (or months) feeling loved."
OCDE: Why did you keep her and not just foster her?
LF: Initially I thought I was going to be bringing her home, giving her a few days of love, walks and hamburger and then humanely putting her to sleep with me there so she wouldn’t feel unloved and alone. In the shelter she looked like she was very close to dying. [But she's not.] I’m learning that my heart is a lot stronger than I thought. I have found a way to put my sole focus on what the dog needs and ignore my emotions and sadness.
OCDE: What attracted you to her?
LF: The fact that she was an owner surrender, so old, sick and so pathetic. I’ve always had a place in my heart for the underdog.
OCDE: What does this say about senior dogs in our community?
LF: I can’t tell you how many times I see people at the shelter turning in old dogs and cats. At least three to four times every single time I go there. All ages and types of people. I just don’t understand it. It makes me so angry. These people treat their pets like a broken-down car. Doesn’t work so well anymore, time for a new one. Many times, the people turn in their animals and go pick out puppies from the shelter floor. It blows my mind. Senior animals (especially ones that have lived in a home environment their whole lives) need us even more when they are old. I can’t figure out if it’s lack of money to care for them, lack of education, the inability to deal with the emotions of losing a dog or just rotten people. I’m sure it’s a case of all of the above since everyone is so different. I have to bite my tongue so as not to lash out in anger at them.
OCDE: Tell me more about the outpouring of community support when you rescued Sunny.
LF: I belong to a fantastic group called HeARTs Speak. I’m the creative director. We are an international group of artists who use our artwork to benefit animals in need. I was able to network Sunny via HS’s online presence in addition to my own. The response has been absolutely unbelievable. There were several days when my inbox would ping every few seconds with messages, donations or offers to help. Petco contacted me asking how they could help. Hill’s pet food donated a year supply of food. People from all over the world made donations. $5, $25 even $1. Together we raised close to $2,000. Blessings of Bella made a special matching collar, leash and bandana for her. Indigo Rhythms donated a healing session. My vet has pitched in with discounts on meds and visits. I still have people keeping up to date on Sunny's story via my Facebook page and blog. Something about this dog has put a face on senior dogs. There are thousands of dogs out there that need a home, that are worth saving. But why Sunny? What is it about her that touched so many? I don’t have an answer. I think it just boils down to timing…the right people crossing the path of that dog and able to convey its needs in a special way that connects with people. Sunny is special. But so is every other animal in the world. I still ask myself, why her? I’m just glad that things worked out the way they did.
OCDE: What's home life like now?
LF: She’s becoming more and more alive (in more ways than one) with each day. She loved [my other dog] Gabby from the beginning. In fact she’s great with all dogs. She’s OK with the cats too, but I have a feeling she was a cat chaser in her younger days. Gabby keeps Sunny company. Sunny will look at the cats, then look at Gabby, then at me, then back at the cats….you can see her brain trying to figure out why no one is chasing them. I think she’s also confused why they don’t run. We go on lots of walks. Gabby and Sunny sun bathe in the backyard or nap on the couch. When I’m editing photos on the computer, she will lay by my feet, with Gabby on the other side. Sunny has started talking too. When she wants attention she’ll do this whine-cry-bark thing to get my attention. At first I thought she was in pain and couldn’t get comfortable. I learned that it’s the complete opposite. She wants me on the floor with her and wants me to play. It’s absolutely joyous to see.
OCDE: What does adopting Sunny mean to you?
LF: It means I will be heartbroken when she finally succumbs to her age and/or aliments. It’s a reality that I know I will have to face much sooner rather than later. But until then, it means the world to me that I can give her everything she wants and more. To see her tail wag, her smile, her joy for the little things in life have been wonderful. My husband says she’s risen from the dead. I can’t believe how she has completely changed…she’s not the same dog she was in the shelter. It makes me proud that I was able to put aside my own emotions to fully give my heart to her and let her know that she is loved, important and not discarded trash. I often wonder what her life was like before. I hope that she was loved and cared for. It breaks my heart to think that this is the best her life has ever been.
OCDE: How does Gabby feel about this ?
LF: Gabby is the best dog ever. She accepts every creature I bring into the house. My husband worries that she will get upset that she doesn’t get all the attention anymore. But I think she knows how important things like this are. She came from South Central. She was a street dog and had 7 puppies. She was terrified of men when we first got her. She has been through her own terrible story, so I really think on some level she knows what it’s like to come from a very bad place and end up in doggie paradise. Sunny has started giving Gabby kisses….like she is also grateful that Gabby has accepted her and loves her.
OCDE: What kind of dog is Sunny?
LF: Sunny is the perfect name for her. She really is just a happy girl and goes with the flow. She’s becoming more playful and talkative. She loves to eat and sleep. She loves riding in the car and taking walks. It really seems like she is taking every moment in and enjoying it all. My husband calls her a big Snuffleupagus. I call her a big padunka. She likes to use her snout to move pillows and make a bed. She likes to investigate the corners of the house. She is fascinated with the cupboard I keep the dog food in. She’s inquisitive. She likes to look at us and watch us. I wonder if she wonders if she’s dreaming.
OCDE: What is her medical condition now? Plans for treatment? Is she really 16?
LF: The first thing I asked the vet is…"Is she really 16?" He said she is very, very old. At least 16! She has bad arthritis in her back legs. Sometimes she falls. When she falls, sometimes she just decides it’s easier to just stay there than try and get up. She climbs up on the couch though. It’s a slow process, but she does it. She has a tumor on her leg. The vet says it’s most likely cancer. But she’s not in much pain. She is 90 percent deaf and probably has a hard time seeing, too.
OCDE: What message would you like this story to say to others?
LF: Senior animals are not garbage. They need us more than ever. And if you follow your heart, things have a way of magically falling into place.