It was the coldest night of the year in February 2013 -- just a couple of nights before the Academy Awards -- and the temperature had dipped below freezing in Lancaster, Calif., just north of Los Angeles. A man in a suit walked into the animal shelter, placed a small cardboard box on the counter and said, "I'm turning this dog in because he's old and can't walk anymore." The man turned away without further explanation and walked out the door, as his pug's sad, gray, little face peered out from the box.
The poor dog was a mess -- paralyzed back legs, sores on his hindquarters from sitting in his own urine and feces, infested with fleas, raging bladder infection, ear mites, and more health problems than one dog should ever have to suffer. It was apparent that his owner had let the dog's health deteriorate for months -- probably years -- and done nothing to get medical attention for his canine.
But it wasn't this dog's night to die -- not that evening. A kind soul at the shelter alerted Lori Zech-Shaw at Pug Nation Rescue of Los Angeles, who promptly dispatched one of their rescuers to get him out of there. The rescuer took the dog straight to their vet, who issued a cautious prognosis. It wasn't at all clear whether this pug could be saved or not. His skin was so ulcerated with urine burns and flea infestations, it was uncertain if his sores could heal. His urinary infection was so bad that they might have to amputate his little penis. The dog had been neglected for a very long time, and now, at 13 years of age, it wasn't at all clear whether the paraplegic pug could recover -- and if he did, what his quality of life would be.
Lori Zech-Shaw posted the dog's photo and his rescue story on Pug Nation L.A.'s Facebook page. "Oscar, the Senior Pug in a Box" they called him. Oscar, named for the night he was rescued.
As I was scrolling through Facebook, I saw his sad little face peering out from the cardboard box and tears came to my eyes. Who could do this to their pet? Who could let their dog's health decline for so long without doing anything to help him? If they didn't want the dog, why didn't they turn him in to the shelter long before this? How could they let this little guy suffer so?
I immediately alerted several dog-loving friends. We all agreed -- we must do something to help rescue this pug in a box! Facebook messages flew back and forth, as did emails and phone calls. Friends pledged money to help pay his vet bills and to buy him a set of wheels so he might be able get around despite his paralyzed back end. I offered to foster him once he could leave the veterinary hospital.
My friends and I weren't alone. Thousands of people -- not just around the country, but around the world -- sent messages of compassion and support for this little dog. Hundreds of people offered to adopt him - people from as far away as Japan, Europe, and Canada. Oscar quickly became loved by many, many compassionate dog lovers who sent prayers, money, and messages of encouragement for him -- as well as for the folks who were working so valiantly to save his life.
After many days in the hospital, it became clear that some of Oscar's health problems could be fixed, while others could not. He would live, but with several chronic health conditions which would require a high level of medical maintenance. He couldn't pee on his own, so his urine would have to be expressed several times a day. He couldn't control his bowels either, so "accidents" were completely unpredictable. His hind legs were paralyzed and his front legs were very weak, so even with a set of specially built wheels, Oscar's mobility would be very limited.
But still, the little pug's will to live was strong. After being silent for many days after his rescue, Oscar started to bark softly to his caretakers when he wanted their attention. He loved to be around people and he let everyone know when he was feeling isolated from human contact. His appetite picked up and his puggie personality began to show itself. He was a little character, charming everyone who met him. It was clear that Oscar would live -- even with his chronic health issues.
The next challenge would be to find a home for him. Pug Nation L.A. began screening the applications of those who had volunteered to take Oscar in, and it was with great relief that the perfect home was found with Jamie Nalvarte, who worked at a vet tech at a veterinary hospital in El Segundo. With her professional expertise, she would be able to attend to the dog's medical needs on a daily basis. Jamie is a young mom with two kids (Bridgette and Michael), a wonderful husband, and two other special needs dogs -- she was the perfect adoptive mom for Oscar, the senior pug in a box.
It's now been almost a year since Oscar's rescue and all would agree, it's been the best year of Oscar's life. He has his own Facebook page, "The Oscar Diaries," with friends and fans numbering almost five thousand. Over the months, his loving followers have sent him cozy blankets to keep him warm in the winter, as well as a cooling bed to keep him comfy in the summer. His custom-designed wheels have enabled him to stand and move around a bit, though his weak front legs won't take him far even with the wheels. Oscar goes everywhere his family goes -- the kids' softball games, picnics in the park, the beach, and relatives' homes for holidays. Oscar is so loved that his feet rarely touch the ground, as his family and friends love to carry him everywhere.
Jamie Nalvarte, his angel of a mom, takes Oscar to work with her, since he doesn't like to be separated from her. His physical needs require attention throughout the day, so it's wonderful that the vet hospital where Jamie works lets her bring her little canine companion to work every day.
She updates Oscar's Facebook page several times a week, posting wonderful photos and health reports for his growing group of adoring fans. And just recently, Jamie held a benefit in Oscar's name to sell T-shirts and raise money for Pug Nation Rescue of Los Angeles to help other neglected, abused, and abandoned pugs like Oscar who find themselves in desperate situations.
Oscar has spent the past 11 months surrounded and supported by those who love him, both near and far. His suffering has broken our hearts wide open. In Oscar we can see the neglected, abandoned, abused parts of our own selves.
We think we have rescued a dog, but in reality, the dog has rescued us. Oscar has rescued our compassion -- so often crushed by the cruelty in the world around us. He has rescued our generosity -- for so long shrunk by fear of financial insecurity. He has rescued our hearts -- too often hardened by the rough and tumble of a cynical, competitive world. Oscar has rescued our humanity by reminding us: "Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened." (Anatole France)
This has been the best year of Oscar's life -- and sadly, the last. His health is declining and it's becoming increasingly clear that this is Oscar's last Christmas. He doesn't want to eat much -- which, if you know anything about pugs, is a sure sign that the little guy isn't feeling good. His stubborn, persistent urinary infection keeps flaring up and antibiotics are hard on his little 13-pound body. His front legs are getting weaker so that he can't use his wheels for anything other than standing in place. As his quality of life deteriorates, conversations between Jamie and Oscar's vet revolve around how to keep the dog comfortable as the end draws near.
Thanks to the boundless energy, love, and commitment of the good folks at Pug Nation Rescue of Los Angeles. Oscar didn't die as a paralyzed pug in a box that no one wanted. Instead, his rescuers gave him a chance for his life to have a happy ending. Oscar has spent his last year in a warm, safe home with a mom who was devoted to his care and two kids who adored the little old guy. Oscar will have a good death in the loving embrace of the people who are his family.
But every day across the country, there are countless dogs who are neglected, abused, abandoned, or dumped by the humans who are supposed to take care of their pets. For every happy ending like Oscar's, there are thousands -- perhaps tens of thousands -- of dogs in desperate need of rescue. YOU can help them. You can save hopeless, homeless dogs like Oscar and give them a second chance at life and love. A few dollars go a long way in the capable hands of rescue groups like Pug Nation Rescue of Los Angles.
We all know that dogs are humans' best friends... now is the time to reciprocate and be a best friend to dogs. There are rescue groups for every breed under the sun, including mixed breeds. If you're a pug lover, you can donate money and/or volunteer your time by contacting www.pugnationla.org. They are currently working to meet a challenge grant of $25,000. If they can raise that amount in individual pledges by January 15, a donor will match all those small donations with $25,000. Every dollar helps and no donation is too small.
If you're partial to another breed, just go on the Internet to find out the name of a local rescue group for that breed, then donate to them. Or donate to Best Friends, the largest, most-respected rescue group that saves the lives of dogs, cat, horses, rabbits, and many other creatures great and small.
Dig deep in your pocket and give to help the animals. Do it for the love of dogs. Do it for the love of Oscar.
For more information about adoptable pugs, providing a temporary foster home for rescue pug, and donating to support the group's work, contact www.PugNationLA.org
(Photos courtesy of Jamie Nalvarte and/or Pug Nation Rescue of Los Angeles.)