Sarah Lauch had one of the hardest jobs you could imagine. As a transfer team volunteer at Chicago Animal Care and Control (CACC), it was Lauch’s job to act as a liaison between the city shelter and local rescue groups, evaluating the dogs who came in and then trying to encourage rescues to come in and pull them.
“We had to be really honest with [the rescues] because the biggest thing is earning their trust and making sure they know your evaluations are real and you’re not just trying to get the dog out of there,” Lauch says. But the goal, of course, was to get as many dogs out as possible. Those that didn’t make it out would be euthanized due to a lack of space.
It was at the tail end of her time volunteering at CACC that Lauch met Roo. While the other dogs jumped and barked in their cages asking for her attention, Roo lay quietly. A brown Pit Bull-type dog with a wrinkly face reminiscent of a Shar Pei, he drew her to him with his calm presence—it wasn’t something she was used to seeing there.
At the time, Lauch says, the shelter was packed. It was April, the beginning of puppy season, and there were more at-risk dogs than usual. Luckily for Roo, Lauch had come in that day with the intent to take home a dog to foster. She took him out of his cage, and he gave her a big, wet kiss, which immediately sealed the deal. Her friend Kelly, another CACC volunteer, fell equally in love, so the pair decided to co-foster.
Immediately upon taking Roo out of the shelter, however, a problem became apparent.
“We got him outside and we knew something was wrong,” Lauch says. “He was urinating for like four minutes, and it was coming out really slow. We kind of assumed that maybe a neuter would fix it, but we knew that he needed some vetting pretty quickly.”
Roo soon went to the vet for a dental appointment—his teeth were completely ground down; Lauch suspects it was from chewing on rocks in his previous home. During the appointment, the vet noticed a lump around his groin. It was tested and the results were worse than expected: bone cancer.
Faith in the face of cancer
Lauch was driving in her car when she got the call about Roo’s diagnosis.
“I remember getting the news and having to pull over crying on the side of the highway,” she recalls. The cancer was advanced, and it was too late for chemo. The dog she had fallen in love with so quickly would now be gone just as fast.
Soon after the diagnosis came, Lauch and Kelly decided to do the next best thing and give Roo the most amazing life possible for the short time he had left. It was a small decision that would quickly launch into something bigger, but at the moment, all Lauch cared about was spoiling Roo as much as possible and making sure his last days were his best.
It started with a bucket list. Lauch and Kelly came up with things they wanted to do for Roo, including a stay at a fancy downtown hotel, a boat ride, and lots (and lots) of ice cream. They posted the list online, and started updating on Roo’s adventures. The posts quickly went viral, with people from all over the country tuning in to see what Roo was up to. Requests started pouring in for more Roo updates, and the #LiveLikeRoo hashtag and Live Like Roo Facebook page were born.
“People were so nice, and everybody just surrounded him with gifts and love,” Lauch says. A couple of months later, Roo passed away—a happy, loved dog, with a belly full of his favorite foods. But his story was far from over. “I knew I had to do something with all these people who were following the story. I just wasn’t sure what.”
For the several months between Roo’s diagnosis and passing, Lauch’s focus was on bringing joy to him in any way she could. But now, she was left with the pervasive feeling of sadness that had accompanied his diagnosis and death. She thought about how broken her heart was upon hearing that a dog she had only known for a month had cancer, and the devastation that those who have spent years with a dog must feel upon hearing the same thing. Sadness turned into motivation, and Lauch decided she wanted to provide support for the people and animals traveling such a harrowing road.
“I thought about maybe just sending care packages,” Lauch says about the beginning of what would eventually become the Live Like Roo Foundation. “It was just me doing it on my own. I sent a few in the beginning to dogs I knew had cancer. They had a blanket, tennis ball, toys, treats, a McDonald’s gift card, and some tissues for their person, who I knew could use them.”
The existing community built around #LiveLikeRoo and the Facebook page meant that the small project Lauch took on quickly grew into more. Cancer is the leading cause of death in 47 percent of dogs and 32 percent of cats, according to The Veterinary Cancer Society. And it doesn’t discriminate—many pet parents have found a lump, gotten the call, and faced the horrible reality of their beloved companion having cancer. So Lauch decided to turn Live Like Roo into a foundation, providing medical donations and care packages to pets and their people across the nation who were dealing with the diagnosis.
In just a short time, the Live Like Roo Foundation has experienced tremendous growth. In addition to the care packages, which Lauch still personalizes and makes by hand, shipping out about 25 to 30 a week to dogs, cats, and even horses all over the country, the organization hosts events throughout the Chicagoland area, raising money to help people with cancer-related medical bills.
The high cost of cancer treatment can make pet parents feel hopeless to save their animals. A three to six month course of chemotherapy can cost anywhere between $200 to $2,000 or more, and remission is never guaranteed. So the Live Like Roo Foundation tries to ease the burden, providing as many applicants as they can with a minimum of $350 toward their pet’s medical bills. In 2017, Lauch estimates the organization covered about $50,000 in treatment costs.
Lauch’s CACC connection has remained strong throughout her transition from transfer volunteer to foundation head. Live Like Roo is a member of the Chicago Rescue and Intervention Support Program (CRISP), a collaborative effort among eight local animal rescue organizations to keep animals out of CACC, either by funneling them directly to rescues and foster care or providing resources so they can stay with their families.
And then there are the CACC dogs. Lauch says she can still remember every name, every cage number, and every end result of each dog who was in her care as a volunteer. One dog, Wonton, who she helped successfully place with New Leash on Life, received a cancer diagnosis after being adopted. Lauch fundraised for her care and eventually she was cured.
“I kind of saved her life twice, if you think about it,” Lauch says.
Even for those who don’t get as happy of an ending, the support from the Live Like Roo Foundation means a lot. Receiving the care package is “like a little shiny moment in a very bad time for a lot of people,” she says, and sometimes just knowing you’re not alone can give you the strength to pull through.
“People tell me their dog is dying and they just want to curl up in a ball in bed and cry. But you can’t do that, because animals can read you. You have to get out there, go for walks, get on a boat, go to an ice cream shop, go get some steak.” And that’s a big part of Live Like Roo—supporting people through financial donations and care packages, but also carrying on the mission that started with Roo of taking a cancer diagnosis as a call to action to make the most out the time you do have together.
“I would say Roo is the epitome of how we should all live,” Lauch says. “Tomorrow is not promised. Live Like Roo isn’t just for dogs or animals, it’s for everybody.”
For more on the Live Like Roo Foundation, visit LiveLikeRoo.org.