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Rescue Ink: How Ten Guys Saved Countless Dogs and Cats, Twelve Horses, Five Pigs, One Duck, and a Few Turtlesby Rescue Ink and Flaim
Chapter 14: Rebel
The Piper aircraft taxied up to the hangar at Republic Airport, a small suburban airport in Farmingdale, New York, on the westernmost edge of Suffolk County. Scheduled to arrive from Murray, Kentucky, at 11:30 P.M. on a windy Sunday in February, the plane had been delayed by ice formation on its wings. After landing in Pennsylvania for an hour-and-a-half detour into a heated hangar to melt the ice, the pilot had finally arrived in New York at 1:00 A.M.
Even before his aircraft rolled to a stop, the pilot was eager to be back in the sky. He was far behind schedule, and his sole goal was to drop off his cargo—two muscle-bound men and one strange-looking dog.
The door of the small propeller-driven plane opened, and G emerged, carrying some duffel bags and two sets of noiseblocking headphones. He looked relieved to be on solid ground again, and exhausted after some twenty hours of round-trip flying. It seemed impossible to him that he had left Republic Airport at 7:30 the morning before. It felt like a week had passed.
Then Joe ducked out of the impossibly small-looking aircraft. The pilot helped him open a small door on the side of the plane that accessed the cabin. Joe reached in and then leaned in deeper, struggling to remove something from the cabin. Finally, he extracted a medium-size red dog wearing a harness so new it still had its price tag attached. He set the wriggling animal down on the tarmac.
The dog shook himself good-naturedly and wagged his tail. He had very little fur on his face, which was mostly covered with large patches of shiny pink skin. He had no outer ear flaps at all, and his ear canals were so swollen, they bulged out of either side of his head. He looked more like a walrus or a seal than a dog, but that’s what he was: Rescue Ink’s new clubhouse dog.
On January 31, 2009, an emaciated red-nosed pit bull wandered into a garage in Murray, Kentucky. When the homeowner returned, she found him there, getting along placidly with her own two dogs. He had puncture wounds on his face and neck, and his face was so swollen he looked like a shar-pei. He had once had ears, but they had been cut or torn off, leaving ragged ribbons of cartilage framing his skull. That soon became his temporary nickname: Ribbon.
The homeowner took the dog to the Humane Society of Calloway County, which arranged to have him boarded at a veterinary office, where he was given antibiotics and pain medication. The strips of flesh that were all that remained of his ears were neatly trimmed and sutured. He just needed time—time to gain weight and for the many wounds on his head, neck, and legs to heal.
But Ribbon also needed a home, and that was a far bigger problem. The humane society’s executive director, Kathy Hodge, was at a loss over what to do with the obviously abused creature. Her shelter had no expertise in abused pit bulls, and she was reluctant to adopt him out. She also did not want to euthanize him if there was any possibility of getting him the rehabilitation he needed.
Kathy had no idea what Ribbon’s story was, and probably never would. She knew that police had busted up a dogfighting ring in a nearby county. Perhaps Ribbon had been turned loose from there. Either way, she had no leads and very few options. So she sent an urgent e-mail out to four reputable pit bull rescue groups that she trusted and respected. One, in Tennessee, forwarded the e-mail to Joe.
“I got the e-mail with the pictures and called Mary,” Joe remembers. “I told her to call these people and tell them we would do whatever they needed. Mary said we have no money to give them. I told her I would get it even if I had to steal it. I know what it feels like to be in this dog’s situation, left for dead, and not know where to go and who you can turn to. I told her, I want this dog here. I will go pick him up even if I have to drive there by myself.”
When the rest of the guys read the e-mail, and saw the pictures of Ribbon, there was an instant connection. He was a survivor, a tough dog who didn’t fold. But while he looked more than a little rough on the outside, wore the scars of where he had been and what he had seen, they hadn’t changed his basic good nature. He still loved life, and people, and other dogs. He was a walking billboard for both the forgiving, loving nature of pit bulls and the atrocities of the fighting ring.
The challenge was getting him up to New York. A few weeks before, at a fund-raising rescue benefit in New Jersey, the Rescue Ink guys had met representatives of Animal Rescue Flights, or ARF, a nonprofit group that transports rescued animals, many of them facing death row at kill shelters, to other parts of the country where loving homes await. Ribbon sounded like a perfect candidate, and Mary immediately got on the phone to arrange for his transport to New York.
G and Joe got some sleep after their late-night arrival with Ribbon. Then they headed to the clubhouse, where everyone had assembled to meet the dog they had heard so much about. When the amber-eyed dog walked into the clubhouse, there was an eruption of elation, curiosity, and for some, relief.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to look at him,” Eric admitted, as Ribbon wagged his tail furiously at him. “He’s going to be really good when we go to the schools. I’d like to see these smart-ass kids laugh at him. You can show all the pictures you want, but when you have an actual dog like this to show people what dogfighting is all about, there’s no comparison.”
The dog’s ears looked terrible, with each ear canal so swollen its sides touched. Still, this was a huge improvement over what Ribbon had looked like when he’d been rescued two weeks before. “The ears were so infected,” remembers Kathy Hodge, “that when the volunteer drove over to pick him up, he got in the car, shook his head, and pus flew all over her car. She spent the rest of the day cleaning it off.”
The closer the guys looked at Ribbon’s wounds, the more disturbing his story became: There were thin cuts around his muzzle and legs, suggested that he had had his mouth tied shut and been hogtied.
As Ribbon made his rounds around the room, sniffing curiously and stopping for back scratches and affectionate thumps, G and Joe told the story of their trip: The tight quarters and freezing temperatures in the tiny airplanes. The joyous reception from Ribbon’s rescuers when they arrived. The generosity of Ribbon’s vet. How Kathy and her humane-society volunteers spent the down time waiting for their delayed plane by rescuing a pig whose ears had been mauled so badly in a probable dog attack that he was Ribbon’s oinking alter ego. (“I would’ve taken the pig back with us,” said Joe in all seriousness, “but there wasn’t any room on the plane.”) How during the flight Ribbon had refused to wear the red coat that Mary had gotten for him, fussing until he eventually wriggled out of it. And how Joe and G had panicked when they tried to rouse the dog and he didn’t move. They thought he was sick; he was just in a deep, contented slumber.
At the dark, deserted Kentucky airport the night before, Ribbon was ready to follow G and Joe wherever they led him. “He jumped up on the wing of the airplane like that’s what he did,” Kathy recalls. “He just looked so comfortable, and he bounced on in there.”
During his convalescence at the vet’s office, Ribbon became very attached to the vet tech who tended to him every day. He showed absolutely no signs of aggression to humans, and was friendly with dogs, too. “We wondered if there was a situation that could flip that switch and make him angry,” Kathy says. But if there was, they never saw any indication that Ribbon was anything less than a sweet, loving dog.
One thing was very clear: Ribbon was extremely food-motivated. His nose was constantly to the ground, looking for morsels. He would sell his soul for a bit of string cheese. This was very good news, as it meant he would be very easy to train.
Then again, Ribbon didn’t need much work on his manners. Yes, he pulled on the leash. But he eagerly sat for a treat, and even offered his paw. “This dog was someone’s pet before,” G said, intently watching Ribbon as he politely took a treat from Johnny O. He was clearly well socialized to people and dogs. He didn’t growl or otherwise protest when someone stuck a hand in his food bowl or tried to take away a bone or rawhide. Even sadder than the story of his abuse was the growing possibility that he had once been someone’s beloved pet and had been stolen to be used as a bait dog.
Ribbon didn’t respond to their calls and whistles, and some of the guys wondered aloud if he was deaf. “When you tell him to sit, he does,” said G, rolling his eyes. “How do you figure he can’t hear?” The verdict would be in soon enough: Ribbon had an appointment at the vet’s office later that afternoon.
Now that Ribbon had met his pack, the next order of business was a new name. While it had served ably as an interim name, Ribbon, everyone agreed, just didn’t suit him. As suggestions were tossed out, Junior wrote them on the dry-erase board on the clubhouse wall. “JD,” short for Jack Daniel’s. “Jim Beam.” “Bourbon.” Clearly, Ribbon’s home state of Kentucky reminded the guys of some powerful hooch. “Cassius” or “Ali,” because the famous boxer hailed from that southern state. “Rebel,” a classic good-ole-boy name.
The guys put it to a vote, and all except Batso, who abstained, wrote their choice on a piece of paper, crumpled it up, and tossed it in a Styrofoam coffee cup. Ali had a cluster of votes, then Rebel came on strong. When all but one of the slips of paper had been read, the two names were neck and neck, at four votes each.
Bruce unfolded the last vote and read it aloud.
Rebel it was, with five votes.
The inspiration was American Idol.
On a Sunday afternoon in late February, the Rescue Ink guys—all except G, Batso, and Angel—took their seats behind two adjacent banquet tables in a ballroom at Junior’s catering hall, Chateau la Mer. Almost by osmosis, Junior had become the newest Rescue Ink member: Though he didn’t have any ink, he had been there for almost all of the rescues in the last two months. Behind the guys, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the Great South Bay, where wedding parties often arrived by yacht. Waiting in an adjacent room were about two dozen potential volunteers who had learned about this casting call of sorts from an e-mail and follow-up calls from Mary.
Rescue Ink had always operated with a sort of pack mentality, but as its projects grew more ambitious, the need for help at events, at the clubhouse, and behind the scenes in general had become increasingly obvious. The guys had compiled a list of interview questions for the assembled attendees. Some were obvious: What kind of experience do you have with animals? Can you foster an animal? Can you do transport, or work on fund-raising? Some were vaguer: Do you remember the experience that made you love animals so much?
One by one, the prospective volunteers came into the ballroom and handed their applications to Johnny O, who sat at one end of the long table. Some were old hands at rescue. Others were stay-at-home moms or recent retirees with time on their hands and the yearning to do a good deed. There was Fran, a teacher retired after thirty-three years in the classroom. (When she taught special ed, “I had a lot of guys like you in class,” she said matter-of-factly. “I know how to handle you.”) There was a twenty-something vet tech who admitted to having been turned down by seventeen vet schools. There was Brian, twenty-three, in an Ed Hardy sweatshirt, who had gotten tattoos of his late dog’s actual pawprints. The youngest applicant was ten-year-old Angeline, who stood ramrod straight and answered all the questions with the composure of a Marine. What they all had in common was a genuine love for animals, a desire to help them, and perhaps not a little bit of curiosity about this band of tough guys.
A woman named Lauren had a virtual menagerie in her house: four dogs and four cats, all rescues, and some birds. “I’ve had pigs, iguanas, lizards, snakes, scorpions,” she said, ticking off a veritable phylum. “I lost the scorpion in my room once, and it ended up in the laundry basket.” Not surprisingly, Lauren came from a family of animal lovers. “When I was born, my mom had rescued a skunk,” she explained. “It used to sleep in the sink.”
“Was that an excuse for your mom not to do the dishes?” Ant joked.
When it was his turn, a thirteen-year-old named Dylan talked about the three rescued pit bulls he owned. “There are people who arefi ghting them that are ruining that breed,” he said, running his hand through his crew cut.
“And that’s because abusers are . . . ?” said Joe, trailing off expectantly.
“Losers,” replied Dylan without missing a beat.
One of the last volunteers was a quiet, petite woman named Donna. She walked up to the edge of the banquet table and handed Johnny O a manila envelope. Inside were pictures of a dog he and the rest of the guys knew well: Freesia the French bulldog, who had been rescued from a filth-covered bathroom. The woman, Donna Guidi of the French Bulldog Rescue Network, had fostered Freesia for the last four months. “Freesia was adopted on Friday,” she said, as the guys clapped and cheered. Freesia’s new family included two girls, ages seven and ten, “and you guys are their heroes,” she said, beaming.
Donna was a dedicated rescuer: She had fostered twenty-six dogs in the last three years, three of them Frenchies, the rest boxers. She had two boxers of her own, one of which was deaf. “He was being bounced around, kept being returned by his new owners,” she said. “I needed a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I needed a mission, so to speak, and he really helped me emotionally.”
“So he basically rescued you,” Junior volunteered.
Donna nodded, smiling. “I was so grateful for what this dog did for me, I wanted to give back.” And that is exactly what Rescue Ink is doing, she added. “I’m such a groupie,” she said, walking under the sparkling chandeliers and out of the ballroom. “They’re the biggest guys, but they have the biggest hearts.”
The day after arriving in New York, the newly named Rebel went to see Dr. Dennis Leon, DVM, at Levittown Animal Hospital. Crowding inside the exam room, Joe, G, and Junior got clarity on some things—and a wait-and-see on others.
“I know that he can hear—he definitely responds to sounds,” Dr. Leon said with finality. He had seen the dog lift his head in curiosity when he heard another dog barking. If he was not responding to the guys when they called, that was likely because he was unfocused, taking in the new sights and smells around him.
Like everyone else who had come into contact with Rebel, Dr. Leon found him almost supernaturally friendly. “If this was your ear that had been cut off and infected, you wouldn’t let anyone near it,” he said. “He just wants to love, which, unfortunately, is why he was a bait dog.”
As for Rebel’s swollen ears, only time would tell. “When I looked inside the ear canal, there was a lot of discharge and debris, mudlike stuff,” Dr. Leon explained. Also, above Rebel’s left ear there was still a lot of scabbing and crusting, and an infection was brewing underneath. Though Rebel had been on a course of antibiotics in Kentucky, Dr. Leon prescribed another round, along with antibiotic eardrops and an ear wash. “Overall, he’s really thin,” Dr. Leon noted. “You can see his backbone. He weighs fifty-three pounds now, and he’s going to need to put on at least another fifteen to get up to a desirable weight.”
Because of the extensive scar tissue around his face, much of which had already healed, Rebel’s fur might never grow back. “There might not be any hair follicles left,” Dr. Leon said, though “the bald spots might get smaller.”
Finishing off Rebel’s exam, Dr. Leon noted that his teeth were broken and worn, as if he had been chewing on rocks or other hard objects. G mentioned that Rebel had a hoarse bark, and asked if it were possible that he had been debarked—that is, had his vocal cords cut. It was possible, replied Dr. Leon. “He could just have laryngitis from lots of barking, or he could have been kicked in the throat,” he explained. If a more normal-sounding bark didn’t return, then, yes, he might very well have been debarked.
The guys returned to the clubhouse with Rebel. Bruce had already posted a walking, feeding, and play schedule for Rebel; the guys would take turns working with him, giving him his medicine.
“It’s cool to rescue,” says Johnny O. “It’s not a nerdy thing or inappropriate because a lot of the women do it. If you love animals, you love animals. And it just shows that you don’t judge a book by its cover.” Just like Rebel. And just like Rescue Ink.
In the days and weeks after his arrival, Rebel continued to impress the guys with his even temperament and general love of life. His biggest vice was his appetite for cats, about which he was clearly unrepentant. He would sit outside the door to the clubhouse’s cat room, stonily determined. This wasn’t Rebel’s fault; it was a hardwired part of being a pit bull, which has a naturally strong prey drive. But try explaining that to the cats.
When Rebel first arrived, dog trainers came out of the woodwork, offering to train him. Most used punishment-based methods, like shock collars or physical corrections. Many of the Rescue Ink guys are old-school when it comes to dog training; they learned how to communicate with their dogs with the “jerk and pop” choke-collar techniques made popular in the 1950s by returning World War II dog trainers. But Rebel had been through so much that they wanted the gentlest training method possible. And Rebel really didn’t need that much remedial work, just some brushing up on his basic manners. Most important, for Rebel’s progress, the guys needed to come to a consensus on how they would train him.
For their first foray into positive dog training, the guys got in touch with Denise Herman of Empire of the Dog in Brooklyn. Denise had trained at the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers, known as the “Harvard for dog trainers.”
Eric, G, Joe, Big Ant, Angel, Johnny O, Mary, and Bruce cleared the main room of the clubhouse, pushing all the chairs against the wall so Denise would have room to work. As she stood in the clubhouse, surrounded by this muscled assemblage, she started off with an appropriate analogy: bodybuilding.
“Say you want to get into shape, so you go to a gym, grab a ten-pound weight, do your reps, and go home. If you come back the next day and I throw you a hundred-pound weight, you’re going to fail,” she said. “That’s not because you’re spiteful, or because you didn’t want to. It’s because you haven’t worked up to that level yet.” Similarly, with dogs, learning obedience is about repeating training, in increasingly more distracting environments, until the dog has the “mental muscle” to respond the way his handler wants him to.
Rather than correcting Rebel with a pop of his collar when he was doing something wrong, Denise showed the guys how to point out when he was doing something right with a well-timed use of the word “Yes!” After distributing a handful of dog treats to everyone in the room, Denise had the guys take turns calling Rebel’s name, then saying “Yes!” just as he turned his head in their direction, followed by a food treat. Rebel soon learned the point of this round-robin game, and as the guys called him from different directions, his responsiveness to his name grew faster and faster.
While Denise used food treats, a reward can be anything a dog wants that a human has control over. After the name game, Rebel was thirsty, but instead of giving him his water bowl right away, Denise used it as leverage to teach Rebel how to stay. Holding the water bowl at waist level, Denise waited for Rebel to sit. Then slowly, she lowered the bowl. As soon as Rebel stood, she raised the bowl. When he sat, she lowered it. Up, down, up, down, in ever smaller increments Denise withdrew the water as Rebel broke his sit, then lowered it when he leaned back on his haunches, until the bowl had reached the ground. Understanding now that his waiting got the water bowl where he wanted it, Rebel sat patiently. Without even a word of instruction, he had mastered the sit-stay. And with an enthusiastic “OK,” Denise released him, and he slurped the water contentedly.
Sitting around the circle, the guys were impressed. “You could see the dog thinking,” said Joe in genuine amazement. “He was trying to figure out how to manipulate her, while she was really manipulating him.”
When Eric went home that day, he tried the water bowl technique on his min pins. So did Mary with her little yapping pack. And Joe did the same with Bond. It worked.
You can teach old dogs new tricks. And sometimes you can teach their owners, too.
Rebel was transformed. It was just three weeks after his arrival, but this was a different dog from the one G and Joe had brought back on that cold, bumpy flight from Kentucky.
In defiance of the vet’s prognosis, Rebel’s hair had grown back, even around his ears. With daily cleaning and medication, his ear canals had shrunk almost back to normal. His ribs and spine no longer poked painfully through his skin, and with his weight gain his chest had filled out. He never did recover his ability to bark.
Rebel experienced snow for the first time soon after he arrived at Rescue Ink. At first he had to be coaxed out of the door. “When he stepped into a world of freshly fallen snow, a world that lacked all the smells he was looking for, he was really disoriented,” says Bruce. But, true to form, Rebel eventually waded out into the cold white stuff and decided it wasn’t that bad after all.
Rebel’s story is still a work in progress. Though he was intended to be a clubhouse dog, his life since his arrival has been a series of sleepovers at different Rescue Ink homes. He spent some nights at Joe’s, getting introduced to Bond. And of late Bruce has snuck him into his apartment, despite the no-pet lease and the cranky landlady. “I feel like a teenager sneaking a girl in and out of the house,” Bruce admits. Forget clubhouse dog; Rebel deserves a permanent home of his own. And what everyone knows is that eventually, he will go to one of the guys’ homes and just never leave.
On a balmy Saturday in early March, the first springlike day of the year, Rebel attended his first Rescue Ink event: an adoptathon for the Center Moriches cats in a firehouse party room in North Bellmore. Half a dozen of the volunteers from the “audition” had turned out in their black Rescue Ink staff T-shirts, helping to set up crates and collate adoption forms.
Everyone who went in to see the row of cages of contented, snoozing clubhouse cats stopped to pet and fawn over Rebel.
“It’s amazing that even with all this dog has been through, he’s like this with people,” said John Warkala of North Bellmore, who was waiting to adopt a calico cat named Pumpkin. “I know I wouldn’t be.”
And that is the magnetic attraction of not just Rebel, but Rescue Ink as well. Think what you will of them, these guys are proof that a fresh start is possible for anyone, that redemption is attainable. Even if you have a rap sheet, even if you’ve got a past that needs a fair share of redacting before it’s ready for prime time, you can re-create yourself.
But no one teaches this lesson more eloquently or explicitly than the animals. They live in the now, react to each other and those around them based on who and where they are in the moment. For Spike, or Gracie, or Nike, or any of the animals Rescue Ink has taken from an iffy situation, the past is just that: the past. What matters most is how they have changed, and who they are in the process of becoming.
“Animals don’t care what you look like. They don’t care what color you are. They don’t care how big you are, what you do for a living, how much money you make,” Joe says. “It’s unconditional love. We try to teach animals, but we should take a lesson from the animals and try to live our lives like they do, not to judge anybody. The world would be a better place.” For Rebel, and the dozens upon dozens of other animals that Rescue Ink has saved, it already is.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from RESCUE INK: How Ten Guys Saved Countless Dogs and Cats, Twelve Horses, Five Pigs, One Duck and a Few Turtles by Rescue Ink with Denise Flaim.
Copyright © 2009 by Rescue Ink Publications LLC
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