Over time, I’ve fallen into a morning routine that has become invariable. I wake up, feed the animals, make coffee, read the headlines on gainesvilletimes.com and then log on to Facebook.
It was during one of those early morning browsing sessions last September when I read about Xena the Warrior Puppy. Friends of DeKalb Animals, a group that rescues and provides foster homes to strays awaiting adoption, posted shocking pictures of a puppy that had been discovered dumped in someone’s front yard.
She was about four months old and looked to be a pit bull mix. To say she was skin and bones is an understatement. She weighed only 4 pounds, was missing large patches of fur due to malnutrition and, most horrible of all, she had huge scabs on her muzzle. She hadn’t just been starved. She had most likely been confined and deprived of all food and water. The injury was caused when she tried to gnaw her way to freedom.
The first miracle was that she escaped with her life. The second came when staff at the DeKalb Animal Shelter decided not to immediately euthanize her. In an incredible leap of faith, Friends of DeKalb Animals agreed to take care of this almost-dead puppy. A foster family was found, she was given fluids and sent home. I doubt anyone expected her to make it through the night.
The young dog who couldn’t stand on her own managed to live until morning. Her foster mother recognized the determination in her sunken eyes and gave her an appropriate name: Xena the Warrior Puppy.
A few days later, a Facebook page was created to document her horrible mistreatment, show her progress and help raise funds to finance her long and expensive recovery. A $2,500 reward was offered for the arrest and conviction of her abuser.
Each morning, I would read the foster mom’s report of Xena’s recovery. It was a long struggle. A video was posted of her taking trembling steps on matchstick limbs. It was a month before she was declared out of danger. Her Facebook following grew. People sent donations and toys. It was thrilling to watch her transformation from a skeletal shadow to a happy puppy, joyfully playing with a stuffed animal.
Her shameful start in life had taken its toll. There were lingering skin problems, food allergies and digestive issues. But through it all, Xena persevered.
A few months after her rescue, Xena was featured at a meet-and-greet fundraiser. Local television coverage shows her making a beeline to a man and young boy who had just arrived at the event. No one knew it at the time but Xena had chosen her new family.
The Hickey family of John’s Creek already had two rescued dogs but Linda Hickey, like so may of us, had been drawn to Xena’s story. After her husband and son met Xena on that fateful day, the decision was made to bring her home for a trial adoption.
In February, Facebook documented Xena’s arrival at what everyone hoped would be her new home. There were pictures of her getting acquainted with the other, initially dubious, dogs. There were pictures of her joyful reunion with Jonny, 8. There were lots of sloppy puppy kisses.
At the time, few in the Facebook community realized this was Xena’s third miracle. The little boy with the Harry Potter glasses is autistic. Like many children with the condition, he was a solitary child. He spent much of his time playing with marbles and had serious issues about personal space. With Xena, however, these problems quickly lessened. She became his constant companion, snuggling against him and encouraging interaction.
Coincidentally, April was Autism Awareness Month and Be Kind to Animals Month. Xena sat on a piano bench with her paw protectively on Jonny’s knee as the young boy spoke to the world in a video posted on YouTube: “My name is Jonny and this is my puppy, Xena. Well, my Xena was hurt really bad. By some not-so-nice people. And I have autism. So I think we make a pretty perfect team to spread the word to be nice to animals and nice to kids like me.”
The previously withdrawn little boy was transformed. As his mom said in a interview on the Today show: “He is non-stop chatter now. ... He is the happiest child that I’ve ever seen him be in eight years. ... I really believe God had a plan. These two were destined to be together — to save each other at a level that humans just can’t understand.”
The saga of Jonny and Xena has spread from local TV channels to the networks. NBC’s Jill Rappaport traveled to Atlanta to tell the story and outlets as far away as France, Greece, Croatia and the Philippines have featured pieces about this inspirational partnership.
Donations to Xena’s fund have topped $30,000 and has led to the establishment of the Xena Shelter Fund for severely abused and injured animals. Her Facebook followers number more than 27,000.
Yes, this is a story full of miracles. And while Xena’s journey is remarkable it’s important to remember that she’s not one-of-a-kind. All dogs have this ability to help us see our best selves reflected in their loving, nonjudgmental eyes. Every rescue pet is miraculous and I can’t think of anyone who isn’t, at some point in their lives, in need of a miracle.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville business-woman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and at gainesvilletimes.com.