By Carrie Libera
Any animal lover will tell you that the relationship they have with their pet is special – each in their own unique way.
Having a pet can bring numerous benefits to your life. They can give you motivation and help keep you active, make you smile and forget all about a bad day, or provide unconditional love and companionship.
JJ, Pooka, and Barry Sanders are three pets from Animal Humane Society that have played a critical role in the families they were adopted into. They've helped them through challenging times, proving just how powerful the human-animal bond can be. To their humans, these animals are heroes.
In January 2012, a dog belonging to Kathryn, a Leech Lake Reservation elder, unexpectedly gave birth to a litter of puppies. Unable to care for all eight puppies, Kathryn tried to re-home them and successfully placed three with new families. The rest, including a puppy named Manatu, were taken in by Leech Lake Legacy, a rescue partner of Animal Humane Society.
Little did Kathryn know that surrendering Manatu that day was the start of something very special. Leech Lake Legacy brought him to AHS and on August 14, 2012 he was placed in the St. Paul adoption center. The very next day, Denise Weber and her son Quin were visiting AHS.
Sixteen-year-old Quin has special needs that make daily tasks more challenging for him. Animals have always been a part of Quin's life – he was raised with a dog and a cat at home, and two years ago he began participating in horse and dog therapy programs which helped him reach social and behavioral goals. Because of his connection to animals and the progress he made with them, Quin's teachers and doctors thought he would benefit from a service dog. But Denise found that waiting lists for service dog programs were long and the fundraising required to obtain one was extensive. So for the time being, getting a service dog would have to wait.
The day Denise and Quin were visiting AHS was simply an opportunity to look at all the different animals for fun. But they found themselves drawn to Manatu, the 7-month-old Lab/Shepherd mix puppy. At the time, he was visiting with a teacher who was experienced with therapy animals and felt Manatu would be a good therapy dog. Denise and Quin learned more about the puppy and took him out for a walk. Once outside, Quin got overly excited and the puppy instinctually walked between Quin's legs and stopped him, allowing Quin to calm down as he gently petted the dog. ”He seemed to know what to do at that moment to help Quin,” says Denise. ”It was incredible to see and got me thinking that this puppy might be exactly what Quin needed.”
They left AHS without Manatu that day, but Denise went home and did some research. She made a few calls to trainers and decided to go back the next day and put their faith into this wiggly puppy. Quin named him JJ.
It's been more than a year since they brought JJ home and the impact he's made on Quin's life is remarkable. Quin's biggest challenge has always been transitions; JJ now goes everywhere with him and helps him transition from one activity to another or from one place to another. In the past, Quin would have daily struggles riding in the car. With JJ's help, trips in the car are now a much less stressful activity for both Quin and Denise. And just as he demonstrated when they first met at AHS, when Quin gets too excited JJ walks in front of him or nudges him to calm him.
“JJ has a command we use often,” Denise explains. ”We say 'go hug your boy' and he goes over to Quin and puts a paw on him or lays on him. This gives Quin a comforting pressure that helps him calm down. That deep pressure sensation is so important in helping him work through difficult moments.”
Denise and Quin have taken JJ to private training sessions to teach him the skills he needs to help Quin. When they cannot afford private sessions, they continue to train on their own every single day. ”It's a lot of work training and caring for a dog to make sure he is a good canine citizen everywhere we go, but it's completely worth it.”
As Quin gets more independent, Denise hopes they are able to further train JJ so that he and Quin become more of an independent pair that can accomplish tasks on their own. ”If this is where JJ's skillset stops, I would be perfectly happy,” says Denise. ”But my wish is that they can continue to learn together, and JJ can help Quin enter the stage of independent living – helping him with things like transportation and having a job.”
“This was certainly not the traditional way to obtain a service dog, but we needed some serious help and this gift from heaven arrived just in time. Sometimes when you least expect it, a hero comes along. I believe JJ was born to be my son's service dog – it was truly meant to be.”
A 2-month-old kitten was found at a Waste Management facility in Minneapolis and brought to Animal Humane Society in June 2012. AHS staff aptly named her Grungetta after Oscar the Grouch's girlfriend on Sesame Street. Grungetta was extremely shy and scared, she refused to walk around which made it difficult to evaluate her, and our vets noticed that her tail wasn't moving normally.
Over the next week, Grungetta was monitored and veterinary staff evaluated her health and behavior. During that time she warmed up to people and began to want to be held. Her tail function improved with just the tip still immobile, which didn't seem to affect her well-being. She was able to be spayed and moved to the adoption center.
Meanwhile, Sami Bucklin was dealing with her own challenges. She was 18 years old and approaching the second anniversary of the loss of her father and three teenage brothers in a plane crash in Wyoming. ”I found myself struggling to stay afloat in a sea of what can most easily be described as absolute chaos,” says Sami.
In addition to that, after growing up in such a large family, Sami was living alone for the first time in her life. ”Being alone had always been a source of anxiety, so living on my own plus the added grief and depression was tough. I thought what better place to end up than Animal Humane Society?"
When she walked in to AHS's St. Paul shelter, Sami was greeted by a room of tiny mewing kittens, most of which were sticking their heads or paws through the kennel doors as if to enthusiastically say 'come play with me!'
“They all looked like little hyperactive balls of joy — and then there was Grungetta,” says Sami. ”This little tortie was curled up in the back of her cage looking horrified and rather irate. I asked to take her into a room to visit where she quickly lunged for the nearest corner to hide as I sat quietly in the opposite corner, waiting.”
Sami sat in the visitation room with Grungetta for well over 20 minutes before the kitten finally approached her and the feathery toy she'd been semi-enthusiastically waving around. Then slowly, quietly, ever so carefully Sami reached out and gently rubbed the back of Grungetta's ears. To Sami's delight, the little kitten sat down, closed her eyes and purred. ”I actually cried a little right there,” says Sami. ”Just that sudden shift of attitude; I knew at that moment that I absolutely had to take home this grungy little kitten.”
As endearing as the name Grungetta was considering the place she was found, Sami thought a new beginning was in order and renamed her Pooka.
Since then Sami has seen only the occasional glimpse of the scared little kitten that once was. Pooka is now a one and a half year old cat that oscillates between acting like a playful kitten and being a calm, mature old soul. ”She's feisty but also very intuitive,” says Sami. ”Pooka knows exactly how I'm feeling. She's always by my side and seems to know exactly what I need from her at that moment. I don't know how I would do it without her.”
Pooka follows Sami around the house and sleeps on her pillow every night. The bond they have has undeniably helped Sami cope with tragedy and overcome the anxiety she felt about living alone. ”I'm never lonely with Pooka. It's hard to feel alone when you've got a cat in your face asking for your attention!"
Nothing can bring back the family that Sami lost on that day in 2010, but with Pooka by her side Sami is navigating what is now her new reality.
“Pooka provides more daily comfort than I ever thought possible, and on days when I really need it, she provides purpose. It's as though no matter what happens I can always come home knowing I mean the world to someone. I owe her so much more than I could ever give, though I certainly do try through massive collections of felt mice and hours of ear scratches. I never could have known all the love I was taking home that day in that little cardboard box.”
Mickey, an 8-month-old Boxer/Hound mix puppy, came to Animal Humane Society from an overcrowded shelter in Georgia in November 2012. He was very shy and fearful when he arrived, so he was enrolled in the Adoption Preparation program where AHS staff worked with him on gaining confidence and learning that humans weren't so scary after all. After spending a few weeks in the program, he was able to be placed in the adoption center. Lucky for Mickey, he wouldn't have to wait long – that same day Anna Bohlke was visiting AHS's Golden Valley location in search of a puppy.
Anna and her husband Matt had been married since 2010. They decided to add to their family, and Anna became pregnant in 2012. In July of that year, they suffered a miscarriage. ”It was a pretty dramatic miscarriage and it left us hurt and confused, and filled with a love we never knew existed,” says Anna. ”Our marriage felt strained and we went through some pretty dark days.”
Looking to fill the space left in their family, Anna thought about getting a puppy that they could love unconditionally together. Anna knew Matt had always wanted a puppy and because they worked opposite schedules someone would always be home with the new dog. Plus Christmas was right around the corner so Anna felt the timing was perfect.
She spent some time with Mickey that day going back and forth about whether to get him and surprise Matt, or wait for Matt to meet him and agree that he was the right dog. ”I had already fallen in love with this dog and was terrified someone would snatch him up if I didn't act quickly,” says Anna. ”However good senses kicked in and I decided Matt should meet this dog first, just to make sure I wasn't making a rash decision.”
The next day Anna called Matt from work and told him about her visit with Mickey. She asked him to go visit with Mickey right away, hoping that he would fall in love with him just as she did. ”I think he thought I was crazy because I was so adamant he go right away. But I was imagining someone else adopting Mickey and the dog I loved would be gone!"
Anna raced home from work and before she could take her shoes or coat off, Matt came to the door and said, ”Can we name him Barry Sanders?" Anna replied, ”Of course, we can name him whatever you want. I just want that dog!" They got in the car and went to adopt their new family member.
It's been almost a year since Barry Sanders came into their lives, but for Matt and Anna it feels like much longer. ”He is so entertaining,” says Anna. ”Sometimes we just sit and watch him run around and I think to myself, what did we do before we got him?"
In addition to providing hours of entertainment, Barry Sanders is also a first-class snuggler. Anna describes him as a 'leaner' saying, ”he always has to be touching you, always has a paw on you.” Matt adds, ”He just likes to know that you are there.” When asked if Barry Sanders is a daddy's boy, Matt smiles and says "no.” But everyone in the room can see that's not the case. Barry Sanders is leaning on Matt so closely it would seem impossible to separate them.
Matt and Anna continue to help Barry Sanders overcome his shy nature. He's still nervous around new people, but gains confidence once he's comfortable. Going on walks can be a source of anxiety for him, but he loves the dog park so they go several times per week. He enjoys running around with all the canine friends he meets and, true to his name, Barry Sanders can outrun any dog at the park!
One of Anna's favorite parts of Barry Sanders' adoption story is what she found out after they brought him home. She later learned that when Matt went to AHS that day, he sat with a dog for quite a while. He knew right away he wanted that dog, and was trying to think of how he would change Anna's mind to adopt that dog instead of Mickey. He stood up and read the card on the dog's kennel and saw that this dog was Mickey! He knew right then that this dog was meant to be theirs.
In the future, Matt and Anna may once again try adding to their family with a baby. But in the meantime they are just enjoying spoiling Barry Sanders. ”He truly picked us to be his family,” says Anna. ”I really believe that this dog saved our marriage and our lives by bringing the joy and smiles back into our house when we didn't know how.”