Where all dogs are welcome, especially the ones that are broken and scared.
Posted in , Apr 23, 2021
“This dog is not normal,” my friend and fellow veterinary technician Shannon said, studying a tiny bulldog mix puppy who’d been born at the clinic where we worked. We watched Rosalie try to find her balance. As soon as we put her on her feet, she would flip onto her back.
“Something’s definitely off,” I said. “But I’m going to figure out how to help her.”
Rosalie’s breeder thought the kindest thing would be euthanasia. No way, I thought. This eager puppy, with her white fur and brown spots, just needed someone to give her a chance.
And that someone was me. I knew what it was like to feel broken. Scared. Hopeless.
The vet confirmed that Rosalie had cerebellar hypoplasia, a neurological condition that affected her motor movements, and she wouldn’t ever be able to stand up on her own. The diagnosis didn’t scare me, though. “We just need to get creative,” I told Shannon. She smiled. This wasn’t the first time she’d seen the wheels turning in my head.
Not only do I work at the clinic but also on a private farmstead in Pensacola, Florida—a place our team of volunteers lovingly refers to as the Misfit Ranch, where we take in and rehabilitate dogs that have been abused or have special needs.
It all went back to late 2009, when I’d been the one in need of healing. I’d felt so trapped then. Trapped in an unfulfilling job, where I was just going through the motions to get through each day and pay the bills. And worse, trapped in an abusive relationship that I couldn’t find a way out of, no matter how hard I prayed.
“Everything happens for a reason,” my grandfather used to tell me when I was little. But I couldn’t understand the reason for my misery. Why was I living a life I didn’t belong in? Nothing about it felt right—not my job, my house or my relationship.
One day I got a call from a friend who was looking for a helper to move to her ranch nearby. “I need someone I can trust to take care of the horses part-time,” she said. Something in me sparked to life at that. A part of me that had lain dormant for so long I’d almost forgotten it.
Animals were a huge part of my growing-up years. My parents and I were constantly bringing home sick or injured little creatures, mangy dogs, stray cats, birds that had crashed into our windows. We’d nurse them back to health and release them or find them homes. I always thought I’d work with animals, but I didn’t even have a pet as an adult—no one to greet me when I came home from work or comfort me when I felt lonely.
Taking care of horses…Something in me told me that I needed to do this. I picked up and moved to the ranch. My boyfriend came with me. I thought the new setting would change him. It didn’t. But what had begun to change, without my consciously realizing it, was me. One night, I finally stood up to him and sent him packing. It was terrifying. I could barely sleep that night, still shaky from the whole ordeal.
It was the horses that helped restore me. Their presence calmed me. Caring for them every day reminded me of nursing animals with my parents. Even though I was just a kid, I’d felt such joy and purpose then. Little by little, the fear that had its hold on me for so long faded. I knew God had led me here to the ranch, to this place where I could heal. He would help me find that sense of joy and purpose again.
I started volunteering with dog rescue groups in the area. I felt drawn to the dogs for whom it was hardest to find homes. The old ones. The ones with medical conditions. The ones on hospice. There was plenty of room on the ranch to foster them. And plenty of room in my heart to love them, even if it was just for the short time they had left on this earth.
I was in and out of clinics often with my foster dogs. I want to be able to do more for these dogs, I thought. What if I learn more about veterinary medicine? I took a leap of faith and began training to become a vet tech. It was difficult balancing the physical work of caring for the horses and the mental stamina needed to learn. I started treating animals as a vet tech in 2017 and got a job at one of the clinics I’d taken my fosters to.
Sometimes I would take stray dogs home with me from the clinic to give them one-on-one care overnight. I always had a soft spot for the tough cases—the broken ones who, to others, seemed hopeless. Word spread and I became the go-to for abused or differently abled dogs in North Florida. Vets would give out my number or people would contact me through social media, asking me to take in a dog that was blind or aggressive, had mange or an amputated leg. The Misfit Ranch grew to a point where I needed help caring for these animals that had no place to call home—especially because I never turned any of them away.
Like Rosalie, the little bulldog mix with the neurological condition. The breeder let me take her. I jerry-rigged contraptions to help her walk. A few months later, a local pet equipment provider offered to make her a custom wheelchair. With her new ride, Rosalie Turtle—a nickname I gave her because of her tendency to flip over—was finally able to stay upright. Now she’s independent and living life to the fullest.
Every dog that comes to the ranch has a story. Tipsy came into the clinic one night after being shot in the leg. The terrified pit bull mix cowered, refusing treats. She seemed to have lost all trust in humans. Understandable. So I took her home. “No one is ever going to hurt you again,” I promised.
It took time—and a lot of howling out of fear—but Tipsy learned she was safe and, most importantly, loved. She’s turned into one of my most outgoing dogs, racing around the ranch on her three legs.
There’s a fair share of heartache at the Misfit Ranch. Sometimes, no matter how well we care for these animals, no matter how hard I pray over their ailing bodies, they just can’t go on. I’ll never forget Hugh, a feisty, spotted bulldog who came along after Rosalie. When the paralysis in his hind legs worsened, he also received a wheelchair to cruise around in.
Hugh and Rosalie became fast friends—they understood each other—but their fun didn’t last. Hugh’s pain remedies stopped working and he became aggressive. He wanted to be left alone. I spent long nights worrying about him. One morning, Hugh crossed the rainbow bridge. So many people had been following his journey on my Facebook page (@rosalieturtleandfriends), praying along with me. “If only love could be enough,” I wrote. “Fly high, my boy.”
Every time I meet an animal that’s broken and scared, I think back to the time when I thought I was beyond repair. There’s something to be said for being a misfit. It might take you a while to find where you belong in God’s world, but when you do, you’ll see your hardest struggles are what led you there. Like my grandfather said, everything happens for a reason.
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