Heroes on a Roll

November 21, 2012  

StubbyDog chats with Bettye Baker, founder of Oak Hill Animal Rescue and mom to Chili, a therapy pit bull on wheels


Originally post on Oct. 25, 2011

Q: Tell us how you got involved in rescue from a personal level to founding Oak Hill Animal Rescue, Inc.

A: How much time do you have? I tell everyone I can remember doing this since I was 5 years old and would sit on our neighbor’s doorstep and pick ticks off their dog. Even then I was appalled at how people treated their pets. My sweet hubby grew up with a dog under the front porch even in the cold Indiana winters, but when we met and began dating, he quickly learned my passion. Everyone asked me, “Does he know about the dogs?” Too funny! He said he’d never done herd management, but he quickly saw and understood the need. Just like with most folks, it has to do with education, and he’d just never been confronted with the statistics – which he found appalling. He is as passionate now as I am and is as much a driving force in everything we do.

Q: Why did you decide to concentrate on injured and abandoned animals?

A: No decision was ever made to concentrate on that … it just happened. Just because they were a little broken in body, you could clearly see they weren’t broken anywhere else. When grandma has to go to a wheelchair, we don’t put her to sleep, do we? We’d never heard of wheelchairs for dogs; we just made it our business to find out how to help them. And we’ve been the ones rewarded. In doing so and putting ourselves and them “out there” to educate people on mobility solutions for dogs, we’ve been perceived as either experts on handicapped dogs or who the city shelters call when they have an injured animal they think we could help.

Q: How did Chili come into your lives?

A: Chili was born into a litter that was next door to one of our vet’s technicians. No one knows why, but for nothing other than sheer meanness she was tossed over a 6-foot fence onto concrete. Tracy saw it happen and saw that she couldn’t move and was shaking from head to toe, which was how she came by her name, Chili. She was only 8 weeks old. The damage to Chili’s spine is neurological, and her feet won’t support her – they have no feeling and they turn under. Unlike Arlo, (Bettye’s paralyzed Dachshund) she can move her legs, but they are atrophied and are straight; therefore, she’s never been able to walk since then. Eddie’s Wheels, where we get our wheelchairs, will not build a chair until the dog is a year old. The chairs can be modified to some degree, but it’s desired that the animal be full grown before taking measurements and fit the saddle to their specifications. The saddle, which is a figure eight their legs go thru, is most critical and can’t be modified once built. Our vet called and told us about Chili and was going to euthanize her if we didn’t want her. We just couldn’t let that happen, so she stayed with us until she grew big enough for a chair and we ordered it.

Q: Was it hard for Chili or other dogs to adjust to the wheelchairs?

A: Chili was quite like a porcelain statue at first, but quickly realized “this thing rolls!” We live on nine acres, so unless you’ve got your track shoes on and you have time to go pull her out of the woods, you have to keep her on a very long lead because she loves to go chase squirrels and the other dogs. Arlo, on the other hand, took to his immediately – we call him rocket man. We’re routinely asked this same question and our common answer is, “If they weren’t on these leashes, they’d be changin‘ zip codes!”

Q: Tell us about your involvement with Baylor Hospital.

A: In the early days of our organization as a nonprofit, we shared a venue with another rescue group that used a donated retail store front on Saturdays to do pet adoptions. What a wonderful experience that was for us, as it taught us so much about how to run a venue and what was required. We routinely took Chili with us, not for adoption – we knew she’d stay with us – but to educate the public on mobility solutions for dogs/cats. Who am I kidding here – we knew when people saw her, they’d come over to see her and ultimately the dogs we had for adoption. We were lucky that this venue had a big green belt beside it next to a craft store. We found people were drawn to her, first, clearly by the spectacle of a dog in a wheelchair, and then they wanted to know all about her. This green belt was also right in front of the handicapped parking places, so people who were in wheelchairs themselves made a bee-line to see her and ask all the typical questions. They always told us, “When I did rehab, there were always therapy dogs there, but none were in a wheelchair like me.” That made a profound impression on us. That, and how Chili “receives” people – which is with a huge, open smile and a wagging tail.

On another day, a nurse from Baylor rehab came out to see her and told us, “This dog has to go to Baylor.” She gave us the business card of the pet assisted therapy program director for Baylor, and it started from there. I should tell you that Chili and Arlo both passed the temperament testing with flying colors. Jim and I had to be background checked and spend five hours in orientation, so we were more thoroughly vetted than they were. Baylor only does certification for their pet therapy dogs twice a year. We applied in June and were accepted in August. The pet therapy coordinator sends out a monthly calendar for Baylor’s many sites, but we concentrate on the rehab institute. It’s on the second floor and is easier to maneuver the wheelchairs around in than a patient’s room. We also go to Baylor’s Our Children’s House and to the transplant floor. Those folks are in the hospital for many months when transplants are involved. And the kids just love Chili and Arlo and are mesmerized at their carts.

Tidbit – they only stay in the wheelchairs for about four hours at a time. It’s very labor intensive on the upper body, so the three-hour stint at pet therapy is just about perfect for them in terms of tolerance.

Q: Can you tell us a story that stands out with Chili and a visit to Baylor?

A: There are so many, but the most profound ones are when patients who haven’t spoken for months or days, sit up and want to touch or talk to her. You never know what you’ll get. We recently walked up to a man doing his physical therapy, and as soon as he saw her he broke into tears and began sobbing. Jim and I should be used to this by now, but you never are fully prepared for this onslaught of despair. He had been away from home for so long and missed his dogs so much and the thought that someone could hurt a dog like they did Chili just broke his heart. He had clearly had a stroke and had limited use of his limbs, but he did his best to pet and love Chili to relieve his need for connection. She stood impeccably still and rested her head on his legs. Puts a knot in your throat, I’m telling you. There’s nothing you can say or do – Chili speaks volumes to them. On a different visit at an assisted living facility, Jim had a similar experience with a man he didn’t even realize was a resident. He kept insisting Jim bring Chili back to him, and it wasn’t until later in the visit that he was told by one of the staff that the man had been there for three months with early Alzheimer’s and in a deep depression. He hadn’t spoken to anyone. This is when you realize the impact they have.

Q: The Dallas County Juvenile Authority’s P.R.E.P. program is a program where young men from the Youth Village are paired with homeless dogs and teach the dogs basic obedience training. How did Oak Hill Animal Rescue come to partner with P.R.E.P.?

A: The key to our involvement has much to do with our organization. I say this because most rescues are built around foster homes. We knew we didn’t want to do that, as there are never enough of them. So when we decided to do this in earnest, we built a 1,600-square-foot heated and air-conditioned kennel so that all the dogs we brought into the rescue would be under our roof. That was the key to our being chosen for P.R.E.P. All our dogs are in one place all the time. Their care is standardized in terms of food and living environment. We personally know their personalities and dynamics with other dogs. Our building has population areas, so everyone lives in pods, not in cages. Some are crated, due to behavioral issues, but each pod gets a long time outside in their run every day.

We also bought a choir bus, so there’s transportation to get them to and from the location. Nobody else has this, except the big players like SPCA of Texas or Operation Kindness maybe, but the trainers (Canine Dimensions) wanted to work with a smaller rescue group. We were the natural choice because all other rescues had dogs spread out among lots of foster homes. The dogs are required four days a week, for two hours a day, then they have to be returned. Nobody else has what we have, so we were an easy choice I think.

Q: How does the program help the kids there?

A: Recidivism is very low for the boys who enter this program. It changes them, just like it changes the dogs. The boys who come in tough and pushy are turned into caring, compassionate people who now have a marketable skill they can use when they get out. It’s a win-win situation because we get an obedience trained dog.

Q: Chili is a pit bull that is disabled and a therapy dog and ambassador. Do people react in any way, either positive or negative, to the fact that she is a pit bull?

A: Yes, that’s definitely come up and, ironically, it’s been predominately African American people who were patients at Baylor. Likely because they tend to come from neighborhoods where dogs run loose and are fought and Lord knows what else; they are instinctively afraid, although I think of dogs in general. To our pleasant surprise, we’ve only had one person say, “Get that dog away from me, it’s a pit bull.” Part of the orientation you go through with Baylor is how to approach people, what you can say and what you can’t. We always bring the dogs toward them, but ask permission, i.e. “Would you like to pet her?” That way we aren’t making an approach we shouldn’t. Moreover, we never use the term pit bull. We always say she’s an American Staffordshire Terrier. For people who want to make the argument that she’s a pit bull, we try to make it a teaching moment and say that pit bull is not a breed, but rather a type of dog – shuts ’em up most of the time, not always.

You noticed, I hope, that in her picture that she wears a skirt. With the patch on her eye, she reminds everyone of Petey from “The Little Rascals,” who, of course, was a boy. We paint her toenails hot pink and her diaper cover is hot pink too. She has a hot pink halter too, but when we’re at Baylor, she has to wear the Baylor issued gear, which is Baylor blue. Still, people call her boy. It’s just the face I guess.

Q: Chili suffered from abuse, as many animals in your care have. Does she show any affects from that abuse?

A: None, zero, nada. She was so young and has had nothing but love since then, so I doubt she remembers the trauma. I often wonder if she knows she’s different or just thinks other dogs are unusual. She bounces and wants to play with them even when she’s not in her chair.

Q: Can you share any inspiring stories from your work with Chili and Arlo?

A: Only that they make our lives complete I think. I can’t imagine life without them and I know that day will come. But just like Leslie Grinnell at Eddie’s Wheels has come to realize, they are a gift. We love them and take care of them, but the reward is ours. We watch them teach patients, “If I can do this, so can you,” and the typical non-judgmental love that animals give makes our lives worthwhile.

Jim and I were talking the other night and were saying out loud that we’ve never been so broke, so tired or so happy! We both have full-time jobs on top of what we do with OHAR, and while we have a few devoted volunteers, we really have no one that has undertaken fundraising. So my business, bakerconsultingsvs.com, and Jim’s job with AT&T support most of what we do. We were hoping with media exposure to get some monetary support, and we did get some, but nothing to cover the $1,200 a month in dog food or the vet bills, which keep mounting. Still, I’d rather be doing this than anything else in the world.

Have to share a quick story with you: We were contacted by the Fort Worth Animal Shelter two weeks ago about a pit bull momma with two puppies. She was found dragging herself around taking care of her babies, 10 in all, and animal control was called to get her off the street. I’m not clear on what happened to most of the puppies, but by the time they contacted us with a plea to take her, she was down to two. They had developed a ChipIn fund for her, and we agreed to take help her. Unfortunately the boy puppy died on Saturday of upper-respiratory problems, but the little girl is doing well, as is momma. We decided to name her Hunny.

Two days after pulling her from this shelter, I received an e-mail from an attorney from a big law firm downtown that actually had sponsored the purchase of Arlo’s wheelchair. After finding out about wheelchairs for dogs, they had bought their dog one too for her last years with them. She had passed away a few months back, and she had been meaning to call me all that time and see if we might want her dog’s wheelchair. I couldn’t believe our good fortune, as the dog appeared to be about the same size as the pit bull momma.

I always make memorial donations to my favorite charity for people when they donate their pet’s things to us, so naturally I asked for her dog’s name.

She said, “Thanks for asking … her name was Honey.”

Got chills? Me too.

« « The Story of Beaglopolis and Pitlantis | The Family Nanny Dog » »

Comments

11 Responses to “Heroes on a Roll”
  1. Very touching story..

  2. LoveaLeeRoach-SchererHayes says:

    happy tears, sad tears, well worth the tissues and shared, 😉

  3. blazer says:

    LOVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. BJE41 says:

    Stubby Dog gives you hope with their wonderful stories about Pitties. It gives you the signature Michael Mountain touch that I have known since I got my first Best Friends magazine almost 10 years ago. Keep up the good work and the stories that give the rest of us hope that we are making a difference in the public image of these wonderful dog.

    • StubbyDog says:

      @BJE41 Why thank you very much! We all are doing our part, and that includes the thousands of people that we don’t hear about everyday, but are making a difference for pit bulls.

      • BJE41 says:

        @StubbyDog

        You are doing a great job. More and more responsible people are adopting Pit Bulls from the Animal Control Shelter where I volunteer. I try to mention your website as a possible resource for answers to situations they might find themselves in.

    • michaelmountain says:

      @BJE41

      Thank you for the kind words. The stories are all now written by many other people, who have that same touch, too — basically sharing the same idea that kindness to all animals makes a bette world for all of us.

  5. Adrienne Clegg says:

    Love your big dog lovin hearts!

  6. richdt says:

    I feel very humbled every time I read about wonderful people like Bettye. It makes me wonder why society chooses to idolize and make heroes out of sports stars and Hollywood actors when you couldn’t ask for better role models than the many selfless people engaged in rescuing and rehabilitating helpless animals anonymously. Thank you Bettye, you are a great lady.

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  1. Explore says:

    […] Heroes on wheels. We’re touched by the stories of these remarkable therapy dogs. […]