RIDGWAY – Elise Johnson clearly remembers the day she first met Chance. It was late July, 2013. She and her family were driving home from their Florida vacation on Highway 31 in rural Alabama when they passed a dog on the side of the road that was so emaciated, it made them gasp.
“The first thing we all thought was, ‘Oh, oh, God, we have got to go back and get it some food,” recalled Johnson.
As they came back around from the other direction, the dog had crossed to the other side of the road and was sitting patiently, as if he was expecting them.
Up close, it became clear that he was in even worse shape than they had thought. “He was cold and shivering, starving and dehydrated,” Johnson recalled. “He was literally skin and bones, with sores all over his body. He was filthy, and covered in gnats, fleas and ticks.”
When she realized that he was a pit bull, Johnson told her family to stay in the car, and approached the dog with caution. But the bedraggled creature was not aggressive; he just wagged his tail and tried to kiss her. As he leaned toward Johnson, his hind legs gave out from under him and he collapsed.
Johnson, who had spent much of her life rescuing abandoned animals, couldn’t just leave him there. There were no houses nearby, so she called 911. The dispatcher told her to contact animal control – a death sentence as far as Johnson was concerned.
“That wasn't happening!” she said.
So the Johnsons wrapped the dog in a blanket, loaded him into the car and set out for the nearest Humane Society, in Greenville, Ala. It was a Saturday, and the facility was closed. The next stop was another Humane Society in Montgomery, Ala., “and they were also closed,” Johnson recalled. “So we drove the remainder of the way home to Atlanta with this poor dog covered in blankets in our backseat.”
When they got home, the Johnsons went straight to an emergency vet clinic. The news was not good. The animal “Had everything curable wrong with him – full body scotopic mange, high fever, topical skin infection, two-inch long toenails, and he hadn't been neutered,” Johnson said. Worst of all, he tested positive for heartworms; an X-ray of his heart looked like a bowl of moving spaghetti.
“But he also had the sweetest smile, and most love-filled eyes I have ever seen in a dog, that seemed to say ‘Thank you for helping me...I love you,’” Johnson said.
The clinic staff confirmed that the pit bull was about a year old, estimating he hadn’t eaten for two to three months and was days away from dying of starvation. They scanned him for a microchip, and found none. A vet tech discreetly told Johnson that if they turned the dog over, he would most likely be put to sleep.
“So we thanked them kindly, paid for treatment and brought him home,” Johnson said.
There, the dog got a long, careful bath. His fur transformed from gray to white, and he was “looking, feeling and smelling so much better,” Johnson said. Through it all, he was “sweet, loving, affectionate and gentle.”
“It breaks my heart to imagine how he ended up on death’s doorstep,” Johnson said. “To think about how many people drove by him without stopping to help him.”
Johnson, who works as a real-estate agent, took on the role of nursemaid, feeding him slowly – one-quarter cup of dog food every four hours. “He ate every bite and drank plenty of water,” she recalled.
The family named him Chance. As he regained strength, he proved himself to be the perfect pet – obedient, housebroken, crate-trained, well-socialized, and with a clear understanding of basic commands from “sit” to “heel.” But for a variety of reasons, they could not keep him themselves. So they set out to find Chance a new forever-family, “well before he was healed, so that someone would be eagerly waiting on the other end of the long dark tunnel,” Johnson said.
The vet had prescribed an intensive treatment plan for Chance’s mange and heartworm – a multi-month process requiring special gastrointestinal food, fortiflora and antibiotics, along with monthly testings and medicinal shampoos.
Johnson’s head was spinning as she faced the escalating vet bills. She had never been a Facebook user before, but in desperation, she created a Facebook page “to share this special dog's story,” she said. Money poured in from friends and kindhearted strangers worldwide. In three weeks, she had exceeded her goal of raising $1,500, and capped the effort at $2,000.
“These wonderful people, whom I have never met, sent words of encouragement and love,” she said. “The positive feedback humbled and motivated me, but still we needed a forever home.”
Phone calls to rescue adoption agencies across the south all yielded the same result: “They were full, and couldn't help,” Johnson recalled. On a whim, she decided to try shelters in Colorado, posting Chance’s information wherever anyone would allow her access – including the Second Chance Humane Society in Ouray County.
On the same day that SCHS posted the information, Ridgway resident Kim Miller happened across Chance’s story on Facebook. She had lost her own beloved golden retriever, Cayman, to cancer in 2012.
“I thought, what an amazing story, and what amazing people they are,” Miller recalled. “I was ready for a dog, but I had been waiting, because I had a feeling that the right dog would find me. This dog just tugged at my heart.”
The two women struck up a correspondence. For Chance’s sake, Johnson ran a background check on Miller, a single mom with two teenaged kids, who works as a waitress at Thai Paradise in Ridgway.
“You can't be too careful with a young pit bull,” Johnson explained of her caution. She had gotten some strange inquiries from other people who were interested in Chance, asking questions about whether he was neutered, and how big he was, that made her worry he would be used as a sire in a puppy factory, or worse, thrown into the fighting ring.
Miller’s background check came back clean and she seemed to Johnson to be the perfect owner for Chance. The Johnsons agreed on a plan to deliver Chance to Colorado once he got a clean bill of health. Miller “was mentally with him through his healing, calling and writing almost every day,” Johnson said.
Four months later, Chance emerged from an intensive heartworm treatment, and the vet pronounced him healthy. “He was a trouper through it all,” Johnson said. “Even when you knew the pain was excruciating, his tail still wagged and he wanted to be loved upon, wanted to live.”
In mid-November, the Johnsons boarded a plane in Atlanta and personally delivered Chance to his new home in Ridgway.
Miller, her kids Jake and Jessi, and her mother Priscilla Peters, were all there, “waiting to scoop him into their arms and start his new healthy life with him,” Johnson said. “And so, as much as we will miss him, it was never about us, it was always about this incredible dog that got a chance to be. Happy endings happen.”
For Miller and her family, and for Chance, it is also a new beginning. “I call him Mr. Second Chance,” Miller said.
On a recent morning just before Christmas, Chance came bounding into the kitchen at Miller’ house with a glittering black bow tie attached to his collar, scattering the cats that were lounging on the kitchen table.
Large and muscular, with sparkling eyes framed by big brown patches and a tail that never stops wagging, he is a far cry from the walking skeleton the Johnsons found on the side of the road in rural Alabama five months ago. He has adapted happily to his new home, Miller said; his favorite thing to do is to run through the snowy soccer fields at Solar Ranch. When he’s at home, he is always at Miller’ side.
“My gut told me he was a winner, and he is,” she said. “He is the sweetest dog. He is a puppy in a big-boy body.”
While it’s clear that Chance has already received basic training, Miller looks forward to working with a dog trainer in the new year to start refining his exuberant manners.
She will never know the beginning of Chance’s story – whether he was abandoned or ran away. He doesn’t have the wounds that would suggest he was in a dogfighting ring. “We felt pretty confident he wasn’t in that scenario,” Miller said. Nonetheless, she said of Chance’s origins, “It’s a mystery.”
In the south, where dog fighting operations are rampant, pit bulls have a stigma, “like Rottweillers and Dobermans,” Miller said. “But it’s the people, not the breed,” that’s the problem. “This dog is sweet and loyal as the day is long.”
He gets along great with other people, dogs and even cats. “Every dog he has met off-leash, his tail just wags and he wants to dance and play,” Miller said. “There is no hint of aggression; not even a snarl. I think he is so full of gratitude and love, he knows that between the Johnsons and me, that ‘these humans love me and I feel so much better, now.’”
Above all, Miller marvels at the Johnsons’ generosity in saving Chance, and bringing him into her life.
“They are the original angels,” she said.
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