He held the rusted chain link fence to steady himself as he stood and pulled the phone from his pocket. He kicked the broken sidewalk while waiting for an answer and then said, “She’s still here.” He shook his head, “It’s locked. No, not this time… but I have an idea.” As he hung up his phone and brushed the dust from his jeans, he looked back over his shoulder through the fence. She hadn’t moved at all, hadn’t even looked in his direction. He often stopped by this lot on his walks, and it was always the same: she was lying in the dirt with a chain around her neck. Sometimes her nose was turned up toward the sky, twitching as she took in the smells of the junk yard, but most of the time she simply looked deflated, like a forgotten balloon whose string was caught in a high branch while its life slowly leaked out. Only, her restraint was a chain, and the depth of her eyes let him know that there was much more to her than what he could see. As he began to walk away, he quietly said, “Don’t give up, girl. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
He had called animal control many times to report the dog locked in the junk yard, but the response was always the same: “We can’t remove her from the property as long as she has food, water, and some kind of shelter.”
He could feel heat rising in his cheeks, “Yes I know, but they can’t leave her tied up out there! It’s freezing at night, and I’ve never seen anyone around.”
“I’m sorry, sir, as of now there is nothing we can do, but please let us know if her circumstances change.”
“What would happen if she got out of the yard? Would you pick her up then?”
“Yes, sir, if she was reported to be running loose, we could move her into our care.”
“That’s all I needed to know. Thank you.”
He put the phone down and sat with his head in his hands, staring at the floor between his feet. After seeing her again today, listless and alone, he knew what needed to be done and that he couldn’t wait any longer.
What exactly happened that cold night in March we can’t say, but we do know that the next morning, a small brown dog was brought to the ACC near Philadelphia and her paperwork says that she was found loose. She had a collar partially embedded in her neck and was sick, but she was free. As the intake worker took this dog into her arms and moved towards the holding area, the same soulful eyes who had spent years looking out from behind a junkyard fence now looked at her new surroundings. It was the first day of the rest of her life, but for a dog who had only ever known isolation and abuse at the hands of humans, this new place filled her with fear.
After she was brought into the shelter, the little junkyard dog was shut down. She was fearful and sick, so she was eventually added to the euthanasia list. But thankfully, as is often the case, there were rescue workers and volunteers who were doing their jobs: watching shelters in search of dogs who were about to lose their second chance. The word went out and someone at Mighty Mutts responded and came to pick up the small brown dog named “Fernanda.”
Something stirred within Annette when she saw the call for help: a rescued junkyard dog needed a foster home. However, she initially hesitated, wondering if she could take in a dog with such deep emotional and physical scars. The words that kept floating around in her head were neglected, sick, fearful, and abused. But as the day went on, she continued to think about Fernanda and finally picked up her phone to contact the rescue. When Annette opened the door and saw the small brown Pit Bull looking up at her, the words that had previously described this girl disappeared. All she saw was big brown eyes etched with kindness and uncertainty. As she walked through Annette’s door, Fernanda was finally free, completely safe, and deeply loved.
Annette kept Fernanda in her Philadelphia home for 3 months while she went through medical treatment and took physical rest. She put on weight and began to come out of her shell, but when she made the trip to NYC to begin to look for her forever-family, she still had a long way to go. On one of her first adoption events in the city, a volunteer named Jill was tasked with keeping her company during the event and described her this way: “She was an absolute doll… friendly with everyone we met, a little underweight, but happy to lay froggy-style out on the concrete and eat ice cubes out of my hand on a hot day.” Jill and her Fiancé were planning a wedding and didn’t think they could take in another foster, but Mighty Mutts needed help. Jill told me, “the adoption coordinator knew my type and basically set me up by having me sit with Fern and laying it on thick… it took a little convincing for my fiancé to agree to foster another” but pretty soon Fernanda was on her way to Harlem to settle into her second foster home.
Fostering can teach us so much about compassion, patience, and love, and as Jill and Alex found out, fostering can also upend breed misconceptions. The first time that Jill and Alex fostered, they were asked to take an abandoned breeding dog named Wanda, but the fact that she was a Pit Bull made Alex nervous. He had heard negative things about the breed and didn’t have any personal experience; however, after bringing Wanda home, falling in love, and eventually adopting her out to his own parents, he was hooked on Pit Bull love. When Jill told Alex about a new dog needing a foster home, though his initial response was that they should wait until after the wedding, it didn’t take much convincing before Fern made herself at home on their couch and in their hearts. A few weeks later, when an adoption application came in from someone who wasn’t a good fit for Fern, Jill and Alex faced the reality of Fern leaving them and agreed upon what they both already knew. They immediately contacted Mighty Mutts ask them to remove Fern from their adoptable list. She was already home.
Hi there! My name is @fern_the_wimpy_pitbull and you can probably tell by my big Pibble smile that I have an amazing life. Mom and dad let me do somersaults on the couch, sleep in their bed, and burrow under the covers. They laugh at me when I happy-snort and bring home lots of stuffed animals. Life in the big city was scary at first because I didn’t like loud noises, the dark, and strangers who wear hoods (and did you know there are lots of those things in NYC?), but my people were very patient with me and helped me find something I did love: new friends. I especially love little kids and give them lots of licks, and senior people are just my speed. I feel really brave and proud when I make new friends, so mom and dad thought I might make a good hospital therapy dog. I went through lots of training and tried my very hardest, and all the humans made a big fuss when they gave me my therapy bandana. I know you heard some sad things about my past, but I never think about those things. All I think about is my now, and every day is my very favorite day.
Fern’s parents found a way to distract her from her fears, by providing opportunities for her to be brave. @fern_the_wimpy_pitbullis now a therapy dog who proudly walks to a senior center on weekends to provide love to people hospitalized there. When I first heard Fern’s story, what most amazed me was that a dog who was once left by humans to live alone in a junk yard could later turn around and provide hope to people who are themselves needing encouragement. When these seniors gingerly pat her head and praise her for not giving up, I am sure that somewhere inside, those words of encouragement resonate with them. Alex told me that some people are wary of Fern at first, but with time and consistency, she wins them over with her Pit Bull wiggle and kind heart. Rain or shine, Fern shows up, and according to Jill and Alex, these therapy visits are her favorite part of the week.
Certifying organization: The Good Dog Foundation
While making plans to photograph @fern_the_wimpy_pitbull’s story, I realized that we all live in the same neighborhood and suggested that Fern come to our apartment and meet my daughter. It’s really important to me to consistently share the message that Pit Bulls are great family dogs, and Fern couldn’t have been sweeter with Rinnah and our neighbor’s baby Elliot. Parents: it’s really important to teach children to ask before approaching dogs and to practice interacting respectfully, and when looking to adopt, families with kids should never overlook Pitties as a potential family member. They are loyal, goofy, kind, and gentle with children as many of you have experienced. As is always the case, certain dogs aren’t suited for kid-life, but never judge a dog simply by its breed.
When I am sharing stories of rescued dogs, I want to be careful to give an accurate description of life after adoption. Just like us, dogs have distinct personalities and needs, and those those who have suffered abuse or neglect bear physical or emotional scars. Signing adoption papers is only the first step towards healing, and the road from that point forward can sometimes be long. Fern’s development wasn’t automatic; rather, Jill and Alex were patient with Fern’s fears and provided opportunities for her to use her strengths, and with time and training, the scared junkyard dog began to emerge into the girl we all know and love. Thank you for the opportunity to share Fern’s love this past week. It was a joy to meet her, and it was an honor to share this story with all of you.
NOTE: The exact details of Fernanda’s rescue have been inferred based on the facts available and fictionalized to capture the essence of the story.