He’s not the kind of animal you’d expect to see in the kitten nursery at the Arizona Humane Society (AHS), but Boots, a nearly 13-year-old Golden Retriever/Chow Chow mix, is definitely a welcome presence as he socializes some of the shelter’s smallest residents, making them more likely to be adopted into dog-friendly homes long-term.
“They just kind of climb on him, they climb under him. Sometimes they’ll just play around him,” says Boots’ human, Susan Juergensen. The former AHS employee began volunteering in the kitten nursery after it was established in 2014, and when she heard that Feline Welfare Specialist Liz Truitt was looking for a special canine ambassador, she immediately volunteered Boots.
“And Liz said, ‘You still have Boots?’” recalls Juergensen, who (along with Truitt and many other AHS staff members) traveled to New Orleans 10 years ago in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to help the tens of thousands of animals left behind as the deadly flood waters rose.
Juergensen worked in the animal care department at the time and was on the same deployment teams as Truitt, who was an emergency medical animal technician during Katrina. Both women served on the first AHS team deployed, and then went back to Arizona before being deployed again on team four.
“When I first came back, I was watching Fox News and CNN and I was like, ‘Yes, that looks bad, but it’s really worse than that,’” Juergensen remembers. “When I went again on team four, that’s when I met Boots. He had already been rescued and they were treating his feet — that’s why his name is Boots, because of the bandages that were on his feet.”
Boots’ bandages were covering more than just minor injuries. All four of his paws had been nearly degloved thanks to hurricane debris. He also had chemical burns and a laceration on his stomach. According to Truitt, Boots was one of the most severe medical cases at the AHS camp, which was stationed in a Salvation Army parking lot before moving to the FEMA rescue camp at the New Orleans Saints’ football training field.
“Needing to be bandaged for as long as he did, he was a little bit more extreme than what I saw from the other animals,” she recalls. “There was so much gunk floating around in the water, there were so many chemicals, and it really did a number on him — and the other animals.”
Luckily for Boots, he had a lot of support in his recovery. “He became like my best buddy while I was there,” explains Juergensen. “We all had like one or two who we really bonded with and took care of on our own, and he was the one that I cared for.”
Truitt remembers how the mixed breed would make friends fast, despite being in so much pain. “The cool thing about Boots was that he became not only our camp mascot when we were still stationed in the Salvation Army parking lot, but also when we moved and we were based out of the big FEMA camp, with all of the first responders there — all the firefighters and all the search and rescue guys,” says Truitt, who adds that everyone in the camp of hundreds knew and loved Boots.
A decade later, Juergensen still recalls how firefighters from New Jersey and California would come over to the AHS area in the evenings to sit with Boots and pet him.
“It was their way of decompressing for the day,” she says. “Everyone wanted to make sure he was okay, but he was making us all feel better even though he felt awful.”
At one point during her team four deployment, Juergensen got a call from her husband. The couple’s beloved Golden Retriever, Ladybug, had collapsed back in Arizona. “I just kept hugging Boots. He needed attention, and I couldn’t get to my dog, so I just poured all my emotions into him to try to make him feel better.”
Although it was difficult for her to leave him, soon her deployment was over and it was time for Juergensen to say goodbye to Boots and fly back to Phoenix to be with her dying dog — unfortunately, Ladybug passed away before Juergensen’s plane landed in Arizona. The animal lover took solace in knowing Boots was in the capable hands of AHS, and would be among the more than 200 rescue animals coming back to Phoenix eventually. Boots would be traveling in a RV rented specifically for the most injured animals, who couldn’t be moved by plane or truck.
“He officially became mine, I believe, on November 4,” says Juergensen, who adopted Boots as soon as his waiting period was complete and no owners had been located. “That’s the day we celebrate as his birthday.”
For Truitt and the other team four rescuers, the adoption was an obviously perfect match. “After seeing them together while we were deployed, it immediately made sense that she would take him home. They just formed this bond, and it was so nice to see them get to stay together.”
Immediately upon arriving at his new home, Boots made an impression on a litter of kittens Juergensen was fostering.
“He just ran right over and started licking them,” recalls Juergensen, who authored a children’s book about Boots’ survival story. “It’s just like he has a nurturing aspect about him.”
For the next decade, Boots continued to love on any foster kittens who came into his home. He also gets along very well with his cat siblings, Lala, 12, Betsy, 6, and a three-legged cat named Mick, who is 5. “I can’t explain it. He came this way,” says Juergensen. “Boots is the daddy.”
It was Boots’ experience as a foster father to felines that eventually made him the perfect candidate for the AHS kitten nursery.
“There was a lot of work that went into building the protocol and making sure we’re doing it responsibly, health-wise and behavior-wise, but once that was all in place it’s been smooth sailing,” says Truitt, who adds that despite Boots’ history and how he was maimed by the hurricane, the dog has always been a perfect gentleman.
“For him to be able to not only rebound but also be able to give back to the community that saved him has just been a really beautiful circular story.”
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About the Author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but the addition of a second cat, Specter, and the dog duo of GhostBuster and Marshmallow make her fur family complete. Sixteen paws is definitely enough. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook, and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google+.