Little Booker was a looker, a brown and white spotted pit bull puppy with an adorable face. He was saved from the streets of the Antelope Valley, where he was being used as a football by some punk kids, by a rescuer who had the courage to step in. Problem was, Booker’s savior couldn’t keep him. The lucky puppy landed at the Canyon Country home of pet sitter and foster mom extraordinaire Kyle Harris.
Kyle, a Castaic Shelter volunteer, was a friend of mine on Facebook. She had bought a copy of “Pit Stops,” but we had never met. Seeing Booker gave me an idea. I had just been assigned to start writing a bi-weekly pet page for The Signal, where I was now working full-time again as assistant features editor, and wanted the first story to be about fostering. Kyle and Booker were perfect.
The Harris home had been remodeled by the television show “Garage Mahal” the year before. What was once a maze of crates and supplies in an overstuffed garage was now a high-end, fully functional kennel indoor/outdoor kennel with a soft bed and plenty of space for Booker. It was a nice set up and Booker seemed very happy to be there.
During the interview, he bounced around the backyard, the vision of cuteness playing with Kyle’s own dogs, a mix of rescued Yorkies, terriers and Chihuahuas. Kyle had been fostering Castaic Shelter dogs for years, mostly mamas, puppies or both. Booker was her first pit bull, but Kyle already knew the score.
“There’s not a mean bone in his body. Booker’s a strong pup; he just needs someone who will continue to train him and not let him jump all over people,” she said in the article. “Booker’s a great dog. He’s going to be a real ambassador for his breed.”
It seemed I had a book tour contender. While it might be a challenge to take a puppy across country, a very strong one at that, who could resist Booker’s charms?
Not Carol Rock, it seemed. Carol, a Facebook friend and fellow writer in Canyon Country, had seen my post on Booker. She had talked to her husband about considering the puppy as a companion for their older dog. The meet and greet turned into an on-the-spot adoption.
My heart, while joyful for Booker, was also a little heavy. Who would I bring on the road now?
he answer came in January when a new face popped up on Kyle’s Facebook page, an adorable little fawn bully girl with the cutest wrinkled brow, pointy ears and inquisitive gold eyes. Her name was Kara and according to Kyle’s post, she was a stellar bully breed: dog-friendly, human adoring and altogether charming.
I had to meet her.
If anyone remembers from the first “Pit Stops,” I’m really not a camping girl. Sure, if someone else does the work, pitches the tent, makes the food, I’m down. On my own, not so much.
However, I wanted to mix things up on this trip, really get into nature and have a brief absence from the electronics that seem to rule my life. So Kara and I left the sanctity of our Wichita Falls hotel room destined for outdoor adventure at Cypress Black Bayou Recreation Area about 325 miles away.
It looked nice enough. About 15 miles from Shreveport, the surrounding area was lush, almost tropical with brick track homes surrounded by never-ending lawns. The winding road took us to the gate of Black Bayou. I stopped to make a reservation and ask some questions. The first, of course…“Do you have gators in the park?”
“Well, ma’am, we have some on the far north end, not near the camping sites,” said the nice clerk, a young, tanned woman with numerous piercings.
In California, I’m offended when people call me ma’am, taking it as reference to my age. In the south, it’s just a form of politeness. Or so I tell myself.
“OK,” I took a deep breath. “How about snakes?”
“I’m not going to lie. We do have snakes here, especially this time of year. I hate snakes,” she said, shaking her shoulders and head about wildly, the universal sign for the heebie jeebies.
“Do they go in the campground?”
“Well, sometimes they do, but if you have a dog, they shouldn’t come around,” she said, infinitely patient. “We’ve never had anyone complain of having one in the tent.”
I paused for about 15 seconds. Was I going to puss out and go to a hotel or just deal with the elements? How realistic was it to get bit by a snake or eaten by a gator here, anyway? Probably the same as getting hit by lightning. I would not let fear control me, like I did in Florida with Loren.
“Alright,” I said. “We’ll take a campsite for a few nights.”
We scouted the campgrounds, which only had about three other sites occupied, and picked T-11, right near the lake or body of water, the one I was assured was gator-less. It was very picturesque and better yet, an ideal spot to play fetch.
That’s the first thing we did, to get Kara good and tired so I could focus on setting up camp, my first time with the new equipment I purchased before the trip. Kara loved being able to skid in the soft grass, sometimes catching the ball in mid-air and coming down on her side, prompting a high-speed roly poly.
Once Kara was tired from all the action (or I should say, after I cut her off, because that dog would go on until she dropped from a heart attack), I took out the lounge chair from the RAV and tied the leash around it. Kara watched with curiosity as I continued to pull the tent, then the air mattress. Her eyes really grew wide when I started to pitch the tent.
OK, so I am just about the least mechanical person around, but tents nowadays are fairly idiot-proof. The poles are strung together and there were only two of them. How hard could it be? The tent went up pretty quick, once I actually read the instructions, an extreme rarity for me. I hate instruction manuals. So boring. I usually try to figure it out myself, but this was only one page.
It was a little confusing, but I managed to erect the tent, which looked pretty textbook, if slightly crooked on one side.
“Yeah!” I told Kara, who was panting off in the shade. It was muggy and warm here. Actually, it was like being in a steam bath, minus the ability to open a door and escape.
The air mattress confounded me and I was not amused upon discovering the included air pump needed batteries (something Coleman failed to mention on the packaging). This prompted a trip into town for a pillow (which I had forgot to bring from home), the aforementioned batteries, ice and some healthy dinner items (Greek and potato salad, a fruit smoothie) to make up for the shrimp po’ boy and French fries I’d had for lunch. Hey, when in Rome, right?
Filling the air mattress went smoothly and our camp was beginning to look like home. Our neighbor, a construction worker from Mansfield, Louisiana, introduced himself to us as Robert. He stayed at the camp when he had work in the area, rather than drive 90 minutes each way.
Robert pointed out the other campers. “The guy on the end is kind of belligerent. He and his wife have lived here for nine years.”
“Wow. Well, I might be pissy if I had to camp for nine years, too.”
“Good point. Hey, you know that show Billy the Exterminator?”
I nodded, intrigued. Wayde and I had watched the show a few times. Basically, it’s about a redneck exterminator named Billy, who proudly sports a blonde mullet and hunts wild animals, many of which we’d never heard of before. We laughed at how backwoods it was.
“His business is just a few miles down, right by the Chevron on your way in,” Robert said. “One of the raccoons he found on his show lives in the campground zoo now.”
Somehow this didn’t comfort me. Billy was called upon to “relocate” all sorts of creepy crawlies and gee, he lived right down the road. Great.
I was sticking to the vinyl booth like a decal on a hot car window. I tried to put the fact that I was soaking wet and looked like a complete idiot out of my mind while Erica Daniel gave me the background on how Dolly’s Foundation came about.
Erica worked by day as a kennel attendant at a central Florida shelter. She’d heard every excuse in the book by wayward, reckless, uncaring owners while the canine body count stacked up. Sick of it, Erica began countering with solution.
Take the pit bull owner whose dogs were confiscated after he went to jail. When the man, whom Erica said looked like Lil’ John, came back to retrieve three of the four dogs from the shelter, Erica asked him why he didn’t want them all back.
“He said he had seven more at home. I asked him if he bred puppies and he said yes. So I told him that most of the pit bulls here were a result of backyard breeding and that many of them would die in a shelter just like this one. He seemed shocked, asking me, ‘For real?’ Then I told him about spaying and neutering, that dogs who don’t get fixed often get cancer, and he just kept saying, ‘For real?’”
While Erica, who has a degree in zoology, never heard back from the rapper look-alike, and doesn’t know if her education efforts always make an impact, she never stops trying.
Sometimes she scores a direct hit.
When a young couple walked into the shelter six months prior, Erica asked them what kind of dog they were looking for. “Anything but a pit bull,” the woman replied.
Erica spent time with the couple, educating them about the breed and introducing them to many of the shelter’s available dogs. Twenty minutes later, the couple walked out with a pit bull. They emailed Erica shortly thereafter with the happy news. “This is the best dog we’ve ever had!”
That kind of story brings a smile to Erica’s face. So does Dolly, the pit bull she rescued more than a year ago from the shelter. Dolly had come in, mangy, scarred and bloody from a stint as a bait dog, the passive pawn used to train other dogs how to fight. Erica, who admits to having a strong affection for the hardest luck stories, immediately felt a kinship to Dolly and took her home to heal.
The Daniel home is on a two-acre spread in Geneva, where Dolly now lives with four other dogs and Erica’s husband, Grant. Dolly has not only recovered from the trauma, she blossomed into a snow-white beauty that now represents her breed as a canine good citizen at appearances at nursing homes and children’s hospitals throughout Sanford.
Inspired by Dolly, Erica started Dolly’s Foundation in January and quickly garnered support from pit bull lovers all over the world through Facebook. DF, as she calls it, has thousands of friends, many of whom send donations and gifts such as homemade dog collars that the organization sells to raise funds.
In April 2011, Best Friends Animal Society asked Erica and Dolly to appear in Tallahassee on behalf of Bill SB722, which would overturn the current “dangerous dog” law and allow shelters to evaluate and rehabilitate dogs used in fighting rings rather than automatically euthanizing them.
“Several of the representatives were on the fence and asked me for my opinion. I said, ‘Look at my dog,’” Erica said. “I showed them the before and after pix of Dolly, told them that she was a CGC and therapy dog, that she does wonderful things for her breed.”
SB722 unanimously passed.
A fifth grade girl in Sanford had heard about Dolly. Inspired, she wrote a speech about the dog to present in class. Erica planned to surprise the youngster with a visit from Dolly that upcoming Sunday. “Dolly’s just the best advocate for her breed,” Erica said proudly.
Since its inception, DF has saved more than a dozen pit bulls from shelters in the area and placed them in foster or adoptive homes. The happy endings kept Erica going when the harsh reality of what happens to many pit bulls at the shelter, where the breed makes up anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of the canine residents, became too much.
As a kennel attendant, Erica nursed the dogs’ wounds, gave them attention and cheered when one got adopted into a good home. She hoped for the best when adopters didn’t seem to have the dogs’ best interest at heart. (Home checks were not required at the open-door shelter, which takes in 14,000 animals a year).
“It’s really hard,” Erica said with a sigh. “I’d say a dog has skin issues or an expensive health condition or isn’t good with kids. I’d try to talk them out of it.”
Due to lack of space at the shelter, pit bulls were usually the first dogs selected to be killed. Erica was often in the room during the euthanasia process.
“I’d give them special treats or a walk or just sit in the sunshine with them,” Erica said. “I give every dog I can a bath before they are put down. They need to know what it’s like to be clean, to die with dignity.”
The thought of a dog like Kara, an innocent sweetheart of a soul, being put down for nothing more than lack of space at a shelter was almost more than I could bear. That Erica could help homeless, unwanted dogs meet their end with love and compassion earned my respect and broke my heart at the same time. She was a truly brave woman.
My eyes filled with tears, which Erica quickly noticed. “Stop it, you’re going to make me cry,” she said and sure enough, her eyes got misty.
After working a long day at the shelter, Erica spent many of her remaining waking hours transporting dogs to fosters, raising funds for heartworm treatments and networking on Facebook, in addition to taking care of her own pack, which currently includes a foster pit bull named Tecky, whom Erica rescued out of the shelter.
“I can’t sleep at night, thinking of all the dogs,” she said. “I’m obsessed with it, with trying to help.”
When I asked what her ultimate goal was for Dolly’s Foundation, the spunky blonde 26-year old didn’t hesitate. “Global domination,” Erica said with a laugh, though her eyes glowed with intense determination. “It’s all about education. One person at a time.”