After enduring months of crippling pain, she was finally diagnosed with hypermobility (a condition where joints pop in and out of their sockets) and fibromyalgia (the result of having contracted the H1N1 virus) early in her freshman year of high school. Everyone predicted a future of impaired motor function and limited possibilities for her. But not Riley.
By the time she was a sophomore, she proved just how wrong they were. And just how much of a typical 16-year-old she could be. She was surrounded by caring friends, had a wonderful boyfriend, and drove her own car. Atypically, she worked after school at the Town Square Animal Hospital and Pet Resort. Why? Because animals were her passion.
One night in late November of 2011, as she was following some of her friends on Facebook, she did what she usually did. She clicked onto the page of the local kill shelter, glancing at the photos of the dogs, many with comments such as "cute" and "I’d love to take this one home" underneath them. Scrolling further, she was suddenly brought up short. Staring out at her with a long, sad face and long, droopy ears was an extremely thin Treeing Walker coonhound with no comments under his photo at all. His name was Jethro.
By the following afternoon, she had made up her mind. She told her mother that she wanted to save Jethro’s life. Her mother was stunned. They already owned two poodles. Why would her young daughter who loved two beautiful poodles suddenly want to save the life of an old, ugly and dying coonhound? But Riley was adamant. She could neither be swayed nor moved. This was what she wanted to -- needed to -- do. In the end, her mother grudgingly relented.
But her permission came with three rules. One. If they did get Jethro out in time, Riley would have take him to daycare at the animal hospital with her every day. Two. At home, he would have to stay in a crate. Three -- and the hardest for Riley to accept – she had one month to rehome him or he would be returned to the shelter. To the agitated teen, all this meant was a stay of execution, a temporary reprieve for this hapless dog. And she was determined to do better than that. But for the moment, there was no time to waste. And so she quickly agreed to her mother’s terms.
They drove to the shelter, arriving exactly ten minutes before closing time. And those ten minutes literally saved Jethro’s life. They were taken back to the kennels and neither of them was prepared for what they saw. The coonhound was scarcely more than skin and bones and too weak to stand or walk. A tearful Riley ran to him, and the ailing dog had just enough strength to lift his head and lick her face. Riley immediately took this as a sign. She was doing the right thing. And Jethro knew it too. As her mother signed all the necessary papers, they were told that prior to his leaving the shelter, Jethro would have to be neutered. They were also warned that because of his age and poor health, it was doubtful that he would even survive the surgery.
At home, both toy poodles seemed to understand what was happening, and after a few curious sniffs at Jethro and a few half-hearted barks at Riley, the pair headed to her bedroom. Next to her own bed was a crate filled with warm, cozy blankets and a wonderful new dog bed. Just for Jethro.
That night, Riley kept a watchful eye over the sleeping dog she had rescued. “I believe and always will,” she later said, “that Jethro knew he was finally safe from harm. The look in his eyes that first night hasn’t changed in 2 years. It’s a look of pure happiness and relief.”
But ever conscious of her mother’s third rule, she kept her word and started Googling various coonhound and senior dog rescue groups. “Hi,” she wrote again and again. “My name is Elisabeth Spain. I’m 16 and I’ve saved a coonhound from being put down in Daviess County, KY. His name is Jethro. He’s 10 years old and what a wonderful dog he is. He loves to play ball and chase. He’s microchipped, neutered and up-to-date on his shots. I would love to keep him, but my mother has given me a month to either rehome him or find a rescue for him. CAN YOU PLEASE HELP ME? Transportation is not a problem. Thank you for any help. Love, Elisabeth and Jethro.”
And they did. They located a suitable adopter in Spring, Texas and arranged for Jethro’s transportation there. With mixed emotions, Riley relinquished the dog she had only just gotten to know, convincing herself that it was best for Jethro and that she had kept her promise to her mother. But, in reality, it didn’t make letting him go any easier. Now all that remained of her own coonhound companion was his crate, his dog bed and her printed picture of him.
Riley, meanwhile, had spent the entire week without Jethro in utter misery. She realized how attached she had become to him and how desperately she missed him. When she heard that he couldn’t stay in his new home, she couldn’t have been happier or more relieved. What were the chances, she wondered, what were the chances. Acknowledging the depth of their daughter’s feelings for the dog she had rescued, her parents agreed that Jethro could return to Owensboro. He would stay with Riley’s father, who lived close enough for Riley to visit him. For Riley, it wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was a solution. Her beloved Jethro would be coming home!
But his homecoming would prove anything but simple. It was like a page torn from an old movie script – part comedy of errors, part Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It began with Coonhound Companions arranging for Jethro to be surrendered to the Houston County Hearts Hound Rescue. While he was there, he underwent some much-needed dental surgery, paid by the Coonhound Companions "Long Ears Alive!" fund. Through Pilots ‘N Paws, he was flown to Little Rock, AK, where he was to be driven to Jonesboro for the night. Another pilot was to fly to Jonesboro from his home in Missouri to take Jethro to Kentucky Dam, where Riley and her father had agreed to meet them.
When the plane eventually did show up, mechanical problems grounded it for days. Ultimately, the stranded pilot, sympathetic to the plight of the waiting dog and the anxious teenager, got in his car, and drove to Jonesboro himself. He picked up Jethro and drove all the way to Kentucky Dam, where the exhausted dog was reunited with an equally exhausted, but elated Riley.
(While all of this had been happening to Jethro, young Riley had had a cancerous lesion
removed from behind one ear.)
Everything was forgotten though, when the “forever mommy” as Riley called herself wrapped her arms around her skinny, shaking hound and vowed to never let him out of her sight again. Rather than going home with her father, she returned to her mother’s house. And the slow but steady rehabilitation and revitilization of Jethro began. He gradually started putting on weight, pleasantly filling out his gaunt, long-legged frame. He became Riley’s constant and adoring companion, one who lived to love and be loved.
These were the best of times for the young girl and her dog, but punctuating them would also be the worst of times.
Because, as the months passed, with each step forward, Jethro took another step back. He bounced physically from one health crisis to another (including the drainage of infected fatty tumors, irritable bowel disease and pancreatitis) and his doting, forever mom bounced emotionally with him. Every time the aging dog was hospitalized, the vet recommended that he be euthanized. But Riley wouldn’t agree and Jethro wouldn’t succumb. He rallied each time, just in time to get sick again. But neither girl nor dog gave up or gave in. United by bonds stronger even than love, they fought together and beat the odds together.
Tending to Jethro and seeing him improve under her care gave Riley an idea. Why couldn’t she look after other dogs the same way? At the animal hospital, she watched sick and injured animals coming and going all the time. And she knew that only one kind of animal interested her: the ill and unwanted. Like her beloved Jethro. With her mother’s permission, she became a foster for a local rescue called Saving Paws Animal Rescue of Kentucky (S.P.A.R.K.Y.). She fostered both puppies and kittens -- some for just a weekend, some for longer, and some for whom she herself found adoptive homes.
“She’s brought out the puppy in this old man,” said Riley. “Since she’s been here, Jethro hasn't been in the hospital once. Its amazing! Lexi is also a blood donor at the animal hospital and Jethro encourages both of us all the way. He’s like our own little mascot.”
When Riley decided to work at her cousin's veterinary clinic, faithful Jethro accompanied her there. Today, Jethro either cuddles with Riley in her bedroom or camps out in the backyard, depending on his mood. And the bond they share has only grown stronger with time. Riley is still the compassionate teenager who gave her heart to an ailing and aging dog. And Jethro is still the gentle survivor of a thousand scars who holds Riley’s young heart in his large, loving paws.
Article written by Nomi Berger. Nomi is the bestselling author of seven novels and one work of non-fiction. She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada with her first pet -- and the love of her life -- her adopted morkie, Shadow. Nomi now devotes all of her time volunteering her writing skills to animal rescue organizations both in Canada and the USA.