The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Life!

December 26, 2012

True champs

An unlikely survivor turns into lifelong friend

Champ, the dog, skinny and frail, would have to grow into his name.

Firstly, the American Pit Bull Terrier by birth belonged to the most misunderstood, frequently despised, exploited and abandoned canine breed in America. Second, Champ had a snowball’s chance in Palm Springs of finding a loving family on his own, if he could escape his circumstances at all — or so it seemed.

He was what those of the purebred puppy persuasion would consider damaged goods. A law enforcement officer found him, tied up with no food or water, adjacent to a residence in Sullivan where they were making an arrest. The officer called Animal Control, who immediately picked him up.

With a harrowing past only he could fully detail, had he the way and desire to so recall, he entered the Raleigh County Humane Society looking like death in a fur coat — the walking illustration of a skeleton from a veterinarian’s textbook, with a taut, fawn-colored hide stretched over top.

Starved nearly to death, Champ was a good dog who had every right to turn bad and every probability of a bad outcome. But he was made of stronger stuff, and fortune was about to reward him for his trusting heart.

Enter the Pierces.

Sherri and Jim Pierce had just lost their beloved dog, Bo, a pit mix, when they visited the Humane Society of Raleigh County on the Saturday after his passing. They traveled there to donate Bo’s extra collar, his bed and his food to the shelter. If we get his things out of here, it will be easier, thought Sherri. It wasn’t.

Afterward, they noticed Champ while checking the HSRC’s Facebook page under “urgent rescue.” Says Sherri, “He looked a lot like our Bo.”

The Pierces read Champ’s story and it moved them deeply.

“We made one trip West without Bo, and I got to thinking about it. For once, I wasn’t crying about Bo, I was crying about Champ being there without a home.”

They called the shelter fully expecting Champ to be adopted already or, worse, euthanized.

He was still there.

Joining a married, truck driving couple in trekking cross country may not appeal to most as the ideal home life, but to a dog like Champ, it was the Daddy Warbucks of adoption situations.

“We are gone five days and are home for two days,” Sherri explains.

Where before he was tethered by rope and circumstance, he could now see the sights in Los Angeles, Calif., Yuma, Ariz., and Amarillo, Texas, his tongue tasting the air outside for atomized sea salt, smog, mountain rain and desert heat. He’d forsake memories of his hard knocks beginnings to traverse the far corners of the continent from on high and on wheels.

With the Pierces, Champ is finally home.

And to think it was all because of the efforts of another group of champions.

Two years ago, to call the Humane Society of Raleigh County a high kill shelter would’ve been an understatement. Pam Romansic, HSRC director since August, says the euthanization rate at the shelter stood at 68 percent in 2011. It has since dropped to 13 percent.

The difference? Someone sought to make a difference.

A group effort known appropriately as Operation Underdog formed to help the Humane Society of Raleigh County to find homes, transport dogs to rescues as far north as Massachusetts and to give faces to the notion of abandoned and homeless animals through social media and news outlets.

Led by volunteers Erica Stock, Sharon Masula, Erica Tuck, Elizabeth Raney and Sarah Buday, Operation Underdog set out as the first formal rescue program to assist the local shelter. Following guidance from a group in Philadelphia, Stock launched the Facebook page where the Pierces first encountered Champ. And there have been many, many wagging tails since warming themselves in their forever homes.

“(Erica) worked her hind-end off,” credits Romansic. She says Stock, also a Humane Society of Raleigh County board member, helped to connect to multiple rescues where she and her faithful crew now regularly make transports. “She was the key factor in getting this turned around.”

In addition to HSRC’s heroines, Nicole Shryock, Humane Society of Raleigh County assistant director, remembers well the man of the hour, Champ. “Champ came to us back in July 2012 as a cruelty case. He was starving.”

He was very sweet and loving, she recalls. He had an understandable degree of food aggression, which made the Pierces ideal candidates for adoption, since there were no other pets in the household.

“Most animals picked up as cruelty cases are dropped off at the shelter.” 95 percent are not returned to their original owners.

“We get a lot of pit bulls in here. They are given a bad name and it isn’t the dog’s fault. It’s the way they are raised and that can be so for any breed of animal.”

Shryock has worked at the shelter for five years, witness to the “extreme difference” now compared to the way things used to be. “We used to have to put animals down for space all the time and now we don’t have to do it.”

As of May 2012, the Humane Society of Raleigh County reported a 90 percent adoption/rescue rate, far superior to the national shelter average of only 25 percent.

Sharon Masula, co-founder of Operation Underdog, says the group is determined to reach a 100 percent adoption rate and this will be possible in part through a change in perspective of what the shelter means to the community.

“I think a lot of what’s changed is when animals are brought in now, they aren’t a lost cause. They are given medical attention and a chance at life instead of just being euthanized.”

All in all, it’s a story of one champ recruiting other champs to help Champ, the dog, and every underdog (and cat) like him throughout Raleigh County.

As for the Pierces, they are grateful to everyone involved in bringing them together with their new co-pilot.

“I would like to thank the officer who found Champ,” says Sherri. “He knows who he is.”

They are also appreciative of the efforts of the Humane Society of Raleigh County, on behalf of all the dogs and animals whose lives have been spared over the past year. They are especially proud to have taken over for his initial rescuers in nursing Champ back to full champion status.

Champ, in turn, wears his fairytale ending well, chest held high at the passenger window of his family’s gigantic blue 18-wheeler on his regular route out West, as if he were guarding a towering, mobile castle or standing captain at the bow of some majestic ship.

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