I’ve always loved animals. Growing up in North Carolina, my dad was a police officer and K-9 trainer for our local police department, so I was around a lot of dogs throughout my childhood. Most 16 year olds want a car for their 16th birthday…not me, I wanted a horse.
I met the love of my life on a high school graduation trip to Hawaii. We got married nine months later and I moved to Kansas City where my new husband lived. I was 19 years old and my husband, Shane, was 24. We had four children, a boy first and three girls, the first three within three years and the fourth several years later.
Shane worked with a financial services company and became incredibly successful at a fairly young age, so much so that he was named one of the top ten entrepreneurs in the country under the age of 30. We were fortunate enough to move into our dream home and got to travel wherever we wanted–Europe, the Cayman Islands, Mexico–the list goes on. We bought our first dog, a standard poodle named Alexis, from a breeder in 1992. We loved her and so did our kids. Since then, our family has never not had a dog. Some small, some large…all from breeders and all costing hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. After a break in at our home, we even bought a highly trained protection dog from Europe named Nico. We’ve loved every single one of them and each dog has been a cherished member of our family.
In 2001, Shane started having seizures, which led to his diagnosis of Chronic Neurological Lyme disease and a major change to the lifestyle we knew and were used to. Lyme can be an extremely debilitating disease and inhibited my husband from doing much physical activity. Additionally, he would often have to travel to Arizona for 3-4 months at a time for medical treatments. Safe to say, our lives changed. Having a very sick husband, no family in town, and four active kids busy with school and athletics often left me feeling like a single mom. Luckily, my husband worked very hard before getting sick, allowing us to reach financial independence and maintain our quality of life even though he wasn’t able to work. Battling this disease over the last 15 years, my dogs were always a comfort. Dogs have the unique ability to sense when you need a little extra love and seem to always be there for the hard times.
Fast forward a few years…our son graduated from college with a National Championship in basketball…oh and also a degree…but that National Championship win was pretty special. He married his amazing and beautiful wife a month later. Both being big animal lovers, they participated in a dog walk to help bring awareness for homeless animals at Great Plains SPCA here in Kansas City. They met a super sweet lady who was helping with the event and asked how they could get more involved. They decided to start volunteering at the shelter and took a few classes to learn the ropes.
One Saturday afternoon while they were helping out at the shelter, our son called my husband and asked us to come by and “check out this dog.” Shane and I were out to lunch at a local Mexican restaurant and I asked what kind of dog it was. My husband replied, “it’s a pitbull.” Now, at this point in my life, I only knew the commonly spouted stigma surrounding pitbulls–that they were vicious and could turn on you with their locking jaws in a second. I mean, these were the dogs that protected the criminals my dad chased down as a police officer. These were the ferocious dogs you saw stories about on the news. I was terrified of them. To this day, the only reason I can come up with for agreeing to go see the dog is that I had a margarita with my lunch and must not have been in my right mind.
When we arrived at the shelter to meet the dog, I hovered in a corner with my daughter-in-law in the meet and greet area while my husband and son played with “Harold.” A man named Scott was there helping them get acquainted. He seemed to be very knowledgeable and was super comfortable around the dog, which is the only reason I eventually even went into the enclosure. “Harold” seemed sweet…but he was a pitbull—you know the jaws and all. Of course, Shane instantly fell in love with him and wanted to bring him home. I said “no way.” I was just too scared of him. German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Belgian Malinois police dogs–all fine. But a pitbull? That wasn’t happening. Had he not heard the stories? To my husband’s dismay, we left the shelter without the dog.
A couple of days passed and Shane just could not stop thinking about “Harold.” He strategically went back to the shelter on his birthday a few days later (I’m not naive enough to actually believe that was a coincidence) and came home with “Harold” the pitbull. I couldn’t be too mad since it was his birthday…and he said it was a trial/foster type situation so if it didn’t work out the dog could always go back. Being an animal lover at my core, I decided to give it a chance. We changed his name to Cain (after Lorenzo Cain who played for the Kansas City Royals)…”Harold” just didn’t suit him. I tried to pet Cain a little every day so that I could get to know him. He loved to play tug and wrestle and was quite the ball of energy. In the beginning, it scared me and I would say, “Honeeeyyyy, he’s making me nervous.” However, I became more and more comfortable over the course of a few weeks and was eventually able to hold Cain on a leash while Shane wasn’t in the room, or even let him sit with me on the golf cart while we were out riding around on our land. Within a month, this scary, vicious pitbull had me wrapped around his paw. He was quite literally the best dog we had ever owned. Without any hesitation, we finalized Cain’s adoption and he officially became a part of our family. We thought, “Boy, did we get lucky” to find such an amazing dog at an animal shelter…I mean, we are dog people. We know them and love them, but we never dreamed we could get such a high quality dog from a shelter. Cain was just too amazing. After always having gone through breeders or through my dad’s contacts for police dogs, he opened our eyes.
Over the course of the next year, we began visiting the shelter more often to see the dogs, play with them, and just give some extra love to those who needed it. During one of these visits, Shane met a sweet pup named Valerie, also a pitbull, who had been returned to the shelter after her first adoption didn’t work out. Again, Scott was there to help us get acquainted and my husband quickly fell in love again. She had a few quirks and has a medical condition called HGE that can be difficult and expensive to treat when it flares up but he loved her already…so welcome to the family Valerie, now known as Riley Marie! Cain and Riley were fast friends and I was now the proud mama of two “vicious” pitbulls. Had you told me a year ago that I would be comfortable snuggling up in bed with not one, but two pitbulls, I would’ve said, “No way, that will never happen.”
Shane’s battle with Lyme disease continued to have a heavy impact on our lives. He was still having to travel to Arizona for several weeks at a time for maintenance treatments and now that the kids were in college, oftentimes it was just me and the dogs at home. One night when it was just me and the fur babies, I had just settled in for the evening to watch some tv, scroll through social media, and chill. Scrolling through my Facebook news feed, I came across a heartbreaking photo of a pitbull that had just been shot. The sad look in this abused animal’s eyes was completely gut wrenching. Scott, the man at the shelter whom we had become friends with, posted the photo and while the whole story wasn’t clear yet, it was clear that this dog needed help. Scott and his friends at Great Plains SPCA were taking donations to help with the medical costs for this dog as they were obviously going to be extensive. I quickly donated and sent the photo to Shane in Arizona. He contacted Scott immediately to find out more about the situation. There was just something about this dog–the shattered look in his eyes after all he had been through…it was clear that, in addition to his medical needs, he was in desperate need of love. I knew it and Shane knew it. So, he told Scott that we would like to foster the dog, now being called “Lucky”, and would do everything we could to nurse him back to health.
I couldn’t sleep that night, I was so worried about Lucky. Our friends at Great Plains SPCA helped to arrange for me to visit him at Blue Pearl Animal hospital the very next afternoon. Nothing can really prepare you to see a harmless animal, broken and abused, like Lucky was. While the staff at Blue Pearl was amazing with him, you could tell his pain was so much deeper than his physical injuries. Lucky had a gunshot wound in his face with shrapnel throughout the whole left side. He also had a gunshot wound to his leg which broke one of the bones in his left leg. He had a large hole in his tongue, probably from the ordeal of escaping his horrific situation. He was emaciated, his ribs sharply jutting out beneath his skin–only God knows how long he had gone without food. I don’t cry over much–not at funerals, not at sappy romance movies, not at Nicholas Sparks books–it’s just not my thing. But being with Lucky, witnessing him endure all this pain and suffering, it was impossible for me not to break down in tears. Amazingly, despite the trauma and neglect he suffered at the hands of humans, despite his bloody wounds, despite his broken bones…this beautiful sweet boy showed no aggression–he only wanted someone to love him, leaning in to the hands that pet him, licking the faces that kissed him. I think the fact that Lucky was still so sweet and trusting despite his abuse just made me cry harder. The wild inaccuracies of the vicious stereotype attributed to pitbulls had never been more apparent to me than it was at that moment.
Lucky had to stay at Blue Pearl for several more days before he was stable enough to leave. Shane was still out of town for treatment so when Lucky was finally ready to be brought into foster care, my son went with me to pick him up. It was another week before my husband got home and was able to meet him, but I already knew I was never going to part with this angel. Taking care of him was a full time job and I loved every minute of it. Having just sent our fourth and final kid off to college, caring for Lucky gave me something to do. Watching him inhale his food, playing with his new bear toy, and just seeing him heal in general was incredibly fulfilling. I loved mothering him…and he sure loved being mothered. Three weeks later, we made it official and Lucky was the newest addition to our family. We were quickly becoming known as “Foster Fails”…which means we foster dogs and then love them too much to let them go.
We have fostered and failed with three more dogs after Lucky: one a pitbull mix named Louis who is also a gunshot victim, one a pitbull named Smoke whose family had to give him up because the landlord was afraid of pitbulls, and the other a three-legged pitbull named Titan who is a Hurricane Harvey survivor. They are all so beyond special and each immediately had us wrapped around their paws from the moment we met them. Our oldest daughter has fostered and adopted two wolf hybrids who were rapidly declining in a shelter environment. Our youngest daughter rescued a boxer whose breeder would’ve euthanized him because he is deaf. All of our dogs are amazing…and, after Cain, every single one has been an adoption.
Sometimes I forget that we only used to buy the “best quality” dogs from the most “reputable breeders,” spending thousands of dollars and importing them from countries halfway across the world. Little did we know that the best dogs ever to have been a part of our family would be the dogs we spent $80 on at the shelter 30 minutes from our house. Sometimes I forget that pitbulls terrified me just a couple of years ago. Little did I know that I would become the proud mama of six of them. Having spent so many years struggling with the effects my husband’s illness had on our lifestyle–things like not being able to travel or go out–I realized that I found my calling. The joy I got from travelling around the world has been eclipsed by the joy I get from taking care of our fur babies. All of our dogs would have never fit into our pre-Lyme lifestyle. They have had a monumentally positive impact on our lives, bringing me to the conclusion that everything truly happens for a reason. Without Shane’s Lyme, I would’ve never discovered how rewarding it is to be able to give everything to a dog that has nothing. Life wouldn’t be complete without them.
Maybe we just got Lucky and happened upon the smartest and sweetest, most loving Pitbulls…or maybe Pitbulls aren’t at all what the media and people have made them out to be. Maybe if they were given a chance people would start to see how amazing they really are. Maybe you can find some really awesome dogs at your local animal shelter. Maybe it takes having a margarita (it could’ve been two;) on a Saturday afternoon to help a mind be opened…and maybe that will turn into the most rewarding, most fun, most life changing thing you’ve ever experienced and you wind up with a whole new family of fur babies that make your life complete. And maybe it will be the adventure of a lifetime…
By Gina Rudman
Collaboration with Morgan Rudman