By Paula Sparrow
At first glance, Nick Raley may not seem a likely subject for a column about animal heroes. A resident of Mt. Washington, he does not have a house full of rescue dogs, he does not run a shelter, and he has not been shown on TV leading a puppy mill bust.
But he’s a hero to me.
The story goes back nearly a year to when I first met Hulk, a senior dog at the shelter where I volunteer. An American Staffordshire Terrier, Hulk was brought in by his former caregiver for supposedly being dog-aggressive. In the months that I walked and played with him, though, I never saw that aggression.
We all know how easy it is for shelter dogs to become kennel-crazy—I’ve seen it myself too many times. But Hulk, despite his months in the shelter, always had a big grin on his face, and his whole body wiggled when he saw me coming with a leash. Of all the dogs I’ve worked with who have spent long periods of time in the shelter, he was the happiest and most cheerful.
I made a point of spending time with Hulk every day I was at the shelter. True, the first ten minutes of every walk consisted mostly of him walking me, but being a senior, he would soon settle down and we’d have a lovely walk through the back fields. Then we’d spend some time under a tree trading belly rubs for kisses. He was a joy to be with, and I became very attached to him. As other shelter volunteers can attest, sometimes there are just certain animals you form a particularly strong bond with, even if you don’t know why.
So when the shelter came dangerously close to euthanizing for space, I panicked. Hulk would be first on the list due to his age, length of stay in the shelter, and supposed dog-aggressiveness. How do you get a dog like that out of a shelter? I knew how wonderful he was, but I worried that I wouldn’t be able to convince others who didn’t know him like I did that he just needed a chance.
Not knowing what else to do, I turned to Facebook. I explained Hulk’s situation, posted pictures of him, begged, pleaded, and shared his story as much as I could. I started getting a lot of responses, but no one was able to give Hulk the kind of home he needed. Then I got a message from Raley. We’d spoken before—he was interested in getting a dog, but was still mourning his Boxer who had passed away. Raley was obviously torn, but he wanted to know about Hulk. So I told him that Hulk was the kind of dog not many people wanted: He was big and strong, even at his age, and needed to be an only child. I told Raley how much I wanted Hulk to have a chance, but that I wasn’t going to pressure him. Raley said he would get back to me in a couple of days. I continued my Facebook campaign.
Soon after, Raley said the words I’d been dying to hear: “You can stop posting Hulk. He’s coming home with me.” Crying with happiness and trying to remain calm, I arranged a meet-and-greet between Raley and Hulk. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t yet a done deal—it might not be a good match, Raley still had to have his application approved … anything could happen.
I didn’t have to worry long: For Raley and Hulk, it was love at first sight. They took to one another immediately and spent a lot of time on the grounds getting to know each other. Raley’s application was approved and when they left the shelter together I don’t know who was wearing the biggest grin: Raley, Hulk, or me.
I still cry when Raley sends me pictures—partly because I miss Hulk, but mostly it’s knowing that Hulk is sleeping on furniture instead of concrete, and watching television instead of looking out through a cage door. And I cry because Hulk filled a hole in Raley’s heart, and because Raley gave a home to the most deserving dog I know.
And now that I think of it, which of these two is the real hero?