Wednesday, January 22, 2014

My Heart Dogs

If you know me at all you will not believe this when I tell you....I was never much of an animal person. I know, I know....hard to fathom. Wasn't intentional....just never had all. My folks weren't keen on animals in the house...or how expensive they could be. So we just never owned so much as a hamster. My lack of interaction with dogs became sort of a fear of them later in life as much as an "I don't really like dogs" sort of attitude. I recall a friend of a roommate coming to spend the night and she brought her small dog. I used the no-dogs-allowed in our apartment building as an excuse to send her over to another friend's house. Sheesh. I just didn't like dogs.

Then I married a man who from the get-go dreamed of having a dog...a Labrador in particular...a Yellow Lab to be exact. For the first ten years of our marriage, whenever he saw a Lab, this usually reserved- to-the-point-of-being-boring-man would say "Woof!" No matter where he was or who was listening. I sensed that a dog might bring out the best in him.

I'm not even sure what happened to make it finally seem like I couldn't put it off any longer. Maybe if was the fact that I realized he would never want children. I didn't either...if truth be told, so I thought a dog might fill the gap I felt existed in our marriage. I said ok...get a dog...have your Lab...but he's got to  stay out in the yard...and no dogs on the bed! I regretted the ok as soon as I said it.

In June of 1992...something amazing happened in my life and I would never even come close to being the same again. He was 8 weeks old, weighed not much... And chewed on everything in sight. He got into the trash, ate my shoes, piddled on the carpet and was a general handful. His name was Buster and he changed my life. I was referred to as Mommy and I was never alone again. It took me a few months to open up my heart to this little, yellow guy, after all I had never loved an animal before... but when it happened the world was a different place from that point on. And limit him to the yard and no getting on the bed? Fahgettaboutit. Never happened.
My first husband was a well-known jazz musician and he was gone 6 months out of the year. I loved my time alone....but I didn't like being lonely. Now that I think about it...even when he was home I was lonely. But Buster was always by my side in a way that only a dog can be....and he taught me how to be a better person. With him came patience, humor, sweetness, unconditional love and puppy breath. I was hooked. I was completely and totally in love with a much younger guy who never kept score, never judged me and who lived for the moment I walked in the door. A year later we got his Chocolate female counterpart and I had a family. Buster and Josie...oh yeah...and what's his name.

With the addition of Josie it was very different experience. I had a year as a dog-mom and I knew what that meant. When we picked up this little brown girl I was in love immediately. Buster had taught me how to do that. I named her after the feisty heroine in the novel I was writing and she proceeded to rule the roost. She was 10 weeks old and she took sticks right out of Buster's mouth, hid his toys (or at least it looked like that's what she was doing) and in general told him how it was gonna be. The sweet, gentle guy that he was....let her have her way. He never got rough with her.  The first time we put her in "Buster's Pool" he sat beside it and looked at me as if to say..."'ve GOT to be kidding." They slept next to each other for 11 years. She would whine and look out the window if he went somewhere without her, and years later when she lost her sight, he would get between her and any other dog we passed. Buster and Josie....those 3 words were really one word.

When what's-his-name ran off with what's-her-name I said give me the television and the dogs and be on your merry way. He left for Barcelona and I left the t.v. on for the dogs. During the emotional few months that followed the end of a 20 year marriage...I had my dogs. They slept with me, got me outside when I would have preferred to stay behind closed blinds, smiled at me when I used my Mommy voice and when I cried Buster would actually worry. Even if he was in the other room or sound asleep, if he heard me crying he would literally get in my face. More than once he wiped my tears away....with a big Labrador tongue, his tail wagging telling me it was okay. He was the man in my life now and he seemed to know it. I can't even begin to imagine going through what I did without these amazing creatures by my side. Josie began to lose her sight when she was nine and for the next six years keeping her safe and secure was one of my main goals in life. Even completely blind she was such a happy dog...she was my girl.
Two years later I met Logan and he and the boys opened up their hearts and their home to me and my two dog-kids. You know a man loves you when he takes in you, a slowing, aging old boy and a completely blind girl. He understood they were my children, he understood they were where all my maternal instincts had been devoted for many years...he understood these two were my heart dogs.

Eight years ago I lost Buster suddenly. On Sunday evening he was Thursday he was gone. I was there with him at the Vet and I stayed with him almost until the end and then I got overwhelmed...and scared. I had never experienced anything like this before. Logan took my place. I couldn't do it. Needless to say I came to regret that decision, but it was done  and Buster Man had a guy who loved him very much seeing him through to  the end...his head on Logan's lap. Josie looked for him for days. My big  yellow guy was gone. A week later, on my birthday, I received his ashes. No finer gift.
And just a little over two years ago, Josie, who lived to be 15 years old, told me she had had enough. I knew I  would know when it was time and I did. This time I stayed to the end. Logan, Tate and I sat on the floor with her and she went on to the Rainbow Bridge with all three of us touching her and telling her we loved her. That's exactly how I want to go, thank you.

So now I know. Now I know what it's like to receive pure love. Pure. Love. And I know what it's like to be devoted to an animal. To have a place inside me come so alive that it never dies...even when they do. What an amazing gift God has given us with these beautiful, warm creatures we are privileged to spend our lives with. And still they are here with me. Not in some weird, macabre way, but in that way that you are not the same because they were here. Their collars hang casually at the end of our balustrade and once in awhile I touch them and am reminded of the amazing personalities that once wore them. I am so thankful for them. In the last couple years of Josie's life she would find her way to the bedroom at night and search out her blanket. I would sometimes say out loud "Good night, Miss Josie, Mommy loves you" so she would know I was there. Now I say it out loud once in awhile to remind me that she is there.

And so life goes on. I have had moments, though, when I am sad about one thing or another and thoughts of these two come to me and I feel a moment of surprise that I have actually been able to go on without them. But I honor them every day with the rescue work we do with dogs on The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Every dog we at help at LightShine Canine is a gift from God...true....but it is because of the love that I had/have for these two that I am rescuing dogs at all. And so their legacy lives on.

Thank you Buster and Josie for all you have done for me. I will never stop loving you. And one day when my Father in Heaven welcomes me home and all my family is there to greet me...they will have to wait for their embrace, because Buster and Josie will get to me first.

Happy Dogs. Healthy Dogs. Heart Dogs.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Light A Fire.....'s Sunday and it is snowing here in beautiful Colorado. I don't have to go anywhere or do anything that would get me out of my fleece-lined sweat pants and slippers. I will leave the TV off and the drapes open and watch it snow. Perhaps it will even get chilly enough for me to curl up on the sofa with my dogs...maybe I will even light a fire...with a remote control. I used to love these kinds of days. Actually I still love these kinds of days....but now I know I know the flip side of winter-wonderland days.

This is my third winter working on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota...and on days like this the first thing I do now is check the weather in southwestern South Dakota. Today...not good news. Multiple below zero nights are upon them. The weatherman talks of the cold front sweeping down from wherever they sweep down from...and he makes a little joke about "gonna be cold out there"....over and over again like Bill Murray's radio on the movie Groundhog Day.  All I can think of are the men, women and dogs who live on the streets of Whiteclay...and the children and elders in the inadequate housing all over the Reservation. If history is any indicator....we will very likely here in the coming days of someone who has died inside their own home.

The suffering can be great on the Reservation in the winter. The tribe does what the tribe does....but it is never enough. No one should have to see their breath in their bedroom. No mother should have to fear that the baby might be in danger from hypothermia. No one should have to burn their clothes or break up the furniture for firewood. Elders shouldn't lose fingers or toes to frostbite. These things shouldn't happen....but they do. Every cold spell....every winter...there is a suffering beyond anything we can imagine...these things actually happen. And I hate to tell you this....but if you just read that you know. You can't say you had no idea....because now you know.

We can't fix it one can fix it all. But we can make a that one elder...that one family...that one animal...that one. That ONE. If you will do for one what you wish you could do for everyone....a difference will be made.

It is my desire and the desire of my Lakota friends and family to see this changed. In order for it to change...justice has to take place; complicated, elusive justice. But justice takes time and until it happens...mercy steps in and does what it can. Mercy. Love. Compassion. Help born of sadness, born of anger, born of empathy....but born in some small way. You have the power to make a difference today. Call in any small amount to the propane company on Pine Ridge. 605-867-5199. Ask for Shay and tell her this is for KC Willis' account. When enough is there for an order ($125 minimum) then I will call them with an address...and for tonight a mother can sleep without worry and an elder will be safe. If you prefer you can simply Paypal us at and we can call in a propane order for you or order a delivery of wood.

If you are sitting in a warm house you are blessed. Please be a blessing. Pilamaya. Thank you.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Rez Dogs....A Love Story

Meghan and Protector
If you are an animal lover, the Pine Ridge Reservation can be a tough place to be. Dogs by themselves and in packs are a common sight. In the summer they are hot, hungry, and scared. And in the winter they are cold, hungry, and scared. There is no shelter, no spay and neuter program and animal control is an occasional rounding-up of strays, who are then taken out to the dump and shot. The dump is also where unwanted dogs and puppies are...well...dumped. Hundreds and hundreds of animals do not survive their first year on the Rez.

But thanks to dedicated Lakota animal lovers on Pine Ridge, a wonderful Native man who scours the dump, locals who help injured dogs and a rancher from nearby Gordon named Miss Jean, hundreds, if not thousands of Rez dogs have been saved and are living in homes all across America - including mine. Miss Jean has been known to race the 50 miles to the Rez, when she gets wind of an impending “sweep” of the strays and fills up her truck with as many dogs as she can get her hands on. Sometimes going many miles into the heart of the reservation to find the “lost ones”...those who are wandering in the middle of nowhere far from any handouts or trash cans. It was in one such remote location that my friend Charlie Yellowbird and I were driving one day, when we had to slow down as 2 skinny dogs crossed the road in the middle of nowhere.

Charlie spoke under his breath more to himself than to me.

“Survivors”, he whispered, never taking his eyes off the dogs. He was honoring them with the word; perhaps he recognized himself as the third member of the pack. Survivors all.

 But nowhere on the Rez is this word more appropriate than for the dogs and the humans who live on the streets of Whiteclay. A mere 1000 yards off the Rez, Whiteclay, Nebraska is home to 14 permanent residents who have roofs over their heads.  It is also home to 30 or so who call the streets and the abandoned houses that dot the two-block-long town...home. At any given time there are a dozen adult dogs and an assortment of puppies trying to survive the summer, but most won't survive the winter. The Rising Warriors of the streets are family we know and love, and to many of them the street dogs are their family. They share their food with the strays, name them, sleep with them and on more than one occasion have covered the dead body of a dog with the one blanket they possess. The streets of Whiteclay are dark and violent for man, woman and dog. For every dog who has someone who loves them, there are two dogs who are chased off, kicked, punched and cussed at; dogs who will not know a gentle touch unless someone places a blanket over them when their street hell is over.

But one four legged girl has it better than most. She is loved by he Rising Warriors...even
revered. They call her “Protector”.  Rumor has it, that when bad spirits try to get into the abandoned house where they sleep, Protector will bark and scare them off.  Many know her, some love her, but to Robert Little Crow, a beautiful soul whose address has been the streets of Whiteclay for 15 years...she is his best friend.  A former radical member of the  American Indian Movement, (AIM) Robert these days is more likely to be found being sure Protector is free from ticks and is often seen limping across the street with an empty broken dish of some sort or another filled with water for "his girl." Feed Robert and you will be feeding Protector.

More than once, we have rescued a starving dog from the Rez streets and taken them out to Miss Jean's ranch, but it has never crossed my mind to grab Protector; she belongs to Robert- she is his guardian angel. But the week before Thanksgiving, myself, my niece Meghan and my nephew Robert decided we were going to pluck a little black and white abandoned mutt named “Oreo” off the streets before we headed back home. Simple enough?

 Not so much.

Oreo had hung out all day long in front of our building in Whiteclay, but now that it was time to dog-nap her she was nowhere in sight. Neither was the other pup, Essie, we had decided needed to get off the streets, who seemed to have gotten wind of an ensuing liberation and stuck by our side all day.

My nephew came in and said. “We have to go if we are gonna get out to the ranch before dark, but the dogs aren’t here.”

Not only were the two we wanted not there...there was not a stray in sight. I had never seen that before.  Streets completely void of dogs. “Let’s pray ‘ em in!” I said with a laugh, but began to do just that. All of a sudden dogs appeared from behind buildings, from under cars and the two we wanted, walked right up to us. What happened next was just a little extra “God thing” thrown in to remind us who was in charge of the rescuing around here.

Robert Little Crow
Robert Little Crow hurried across the street as fast as his two bad legs would let him, “KC- wait!” he shouted. The three of us turned around, concerned by the urgency in his voice.  He kept talking as he crossed the street.

“Take my girl! Please! Take my girl!  She’s gonna have puppies. The last litter froze to death.” He had tears in his eyes. “Please get her out of here. We’ve spent two winters together in that basement over there. But she needs a better life than this.”

So do you, I thought to myself.

“Are you sure?” I asked, not knowing if she would come to us, let alone allow us to pick her up to put her in the truck.  Robert seemed to read my mind and he started to call her name. She appeared in seconds, answering the call of her trusted friend.

Robert knelt beside her hugging her. “I’ll miss her, I’ll miss her.” He kept repeating, tears streaming down his face.  Now you have to understand...when you live on the streets of Whiteclay you pretty much own nothing. Maybe you’ve been able to keep a backpack with a handful of this and that from being stolen while you were passed out drunk. Everything Robert owned and loved-he was hugging.

Without saying another word, he lifted Protector and put her in the truck. Just like that her new life had begun...and just like that Robert Little Crow became my hero.

Meghan and Essie on her rescue ride
Miss Jean’s ranch is miles off the main highway and then miles more into the center of the vast ranchlands outside Gordon, NE. In the back of our borrowed van were 3 dogs who had never been in a vehicle in their lives, who had never been put in a small space with other dogs and the sometimes-to-be-feared humans. My nephew, Robert crawled in the back with two of them and Meghan held one in her lap. Protector took quite awhile before she relaxed enough to lay down. An hour and many miles on gravel roads later, we delivered the comandeered canines to Miss Jean’s ranch where they were sure to spend this night safe, fed and warm for the first time in their lives.

I couldn’t wait to tell Robert Little Crow how content Protector seemed and to be and thank him again for what he had done for her and her unborn litter. But less than a week later....the unthinkable happened. Protector vanished; in the dark and the cold, more in the middle of nowhere than ever....she vanished. Was she looking for Robert? Who knows. She was just gone.

Miss Jean looked for her for days; hours every day.  Never in 25 years of rescuing dogs had she had a “non-feral” dog just vanish. All I could think about was how Protector would not have had any way of knowing how remote of an area she was in. I imagined her hungry, cold, pregnant and lost wandering the vast plains until she couldn’t. I prayed for God to keep her safe, I placed angels around her (I do that alot) and I asked Him not to let her suffer. I knew we had done the right thing, but I still felt guilty.

 A week later Jean stopped looking and I stopped praying. Protector was gone. God was in charge, as He always is. He knew where she was and he had not let her suffer. I was sure of it. He had protected Protector.

Two days ago it had been exactly a month since Protector had vanished into thin air. Robert, Meghan and I have been back in Colorado this whole time and I have not seen Robert Little Crow. He did not know that we had lost “his girl.” At night in my prayers, when I placed angels around Robert (and Eli and Donovan and Granny Back Pack etc.) I prayed that God would give me the right words to tell him when the moment came.

But thanks to Miss Jean's words on the other end of the phone...those words would not be necessary.

“You’ll never guess who is in my living room!”  she said excitedly....and I knew immediately.

“What the heck!” was all I could say.

A friend of Miss Jean’s had been feeding a stray at the hospital for over a week, thinking it belonged to one of his employees. Earlier that day when he saw the guy he pointed to the dog and told him he shouldn’t let his dog run loose like that.

His employee said “That’s not my dog.”  I'd like to think God then commented, “No... that’s my dog.”

Jean’s friend immediately scooped up the cold, hungry dog and took her to the only place to take a dog... Miss Jean's house.

“I can’t imagine what she must have been through.” Jean just kept saying over and over again. “It was so cold the first few nights after she disappeared. And Gordon is over 15 miles away!”

After examing Protector, Jean concluded that she was no longer pregnant and we had to assume the puppies hadn’t survived, as it didn’t appear Mama Dog was nursing. But Mama Dog was alive. Robert’s girl was alive. What an amazing end to an amazing story we all kept saying. Amazing? Yes. The end?

Not so much.

Protector slept in front of the fireplace for several hours, seemingly exhausted and not anxious in the first. But suddenly she was up, pacing by the door, unable to settle back down. On a hunch born of rescuing thousands of dogs, Jean examined Protector again.

Milk. She was producing milk.

She quickly called her friend back at the hospital. “Can you show me exactly where you have seen this dog over the past week?”

 “Sure- why?” he asked.

 “I believe there are puppies out there.” She answered before racing out the door...Mama Dog on her heels. Over gravel roads the 15 miles to Gordon will take you a half an hour.

When Jean parked the car in front of the small hospital and opened the car door, Protector took off down the street. So did Jean, on foot...on a mission.

For well over an hour, she tried to keep up with Protector as she ran through backyards, up streets, down streets, sniffing out front porches, almost loosing sight of her several times. Finally, they turned a corner and Protector raced toward an abandoned house. Jean grabbed her hind quarters as she tried to get under the house in a small dug-out opening. Jean held onto Protector afraid that if she got inside the house she might refuse to come out. A phone call to the man who had returned Protector, brought him on the run, along with a thin, young man he worked with...who could fit in the opening.

 “Are you sitting down?” said a voice on the other end of the phone. “Seriously. Sit down.”

 “Ok”, I said, pulling up a stool in the kitchen.

“There are five of them.” She laughed.

“Five what?” I asked, even as I knew what she was going to say.

“Five puppies! Protector has 5 fat, healthy puppies!”

Five. The number of grace.


Robert's girl.

Mama Dog.

Surrounded by angels...

by prayers...

by people who care.



Whisper out loud with me...


If you would like to help us help the dogs on the Rez, you may donate to the dog rescue we now have with Miss Jean....LightShine Canine.  Visit us on FaceBook to see more pics of amazing dogs that have been rescued...redeemed and are ready to go...and of the Lakota young adults helping us. Go here to help us update the housing and fencing for the dogs on The Ranch....our much loved Rez Dogs.

Protector and her puppies, along with Oreo and Essie, all have
KC and buddies.
found good homes. Protector is being loved on a ranch in southern Nebraska....and Robert Little Crow was able to see pictures of her and her puppies and know they were cared for, before he too found a new home in Rapid City with a daughter who finally found him.  

Protector is a special, special dog. Please share her story.