Beaten and burned by a human when she was just a young puppy, Susie the Pit Bull–German Shepherd was determined to survive. Despite suffering the horrific attack, this dog went on to change lives and laws in North Carolina. She also helped a human victim of animal abuse reclaim her love of dogs.
“One Pit Bull nearly took my life, and the other one saved it,” says Susie’s human, Donna Lawrence.
Just 10 months before Susie came into her life, Lawrence also survived a horrific attack, this one by a neighbor’s Pit Bull. The dog had been left behind in a move, so Lawrence, a long-time animal lover, was taking food to the Pit Bull when the dog suddenly attacked her. She sustained significant injuries, and the attack would have a lasting impact, both physically and emotionally.
“I lost an early pregnancy because of it, and then found out I wouldn’t be able to have kids,” Lawrence explains.
After spending time in the hospital, she eventually returned home to her husband and her small, mixed-breed dog, Baby-Girl.
“I think I had what you would call post-traumatic stress — I mean, I would shake and have nightmares,” says Lawrence.
While Lawrence wasn’t afraid of little Baby-Girl, seeing other larger dogs terrified her and reminded her of the attack that cost her so much.
“I was almost killed, and you just develop this fear,” she explains.
Lawrence was still feeling fearful almost a year later, when she met Susie through a friend who volunteered with the Guilford County Animal Shelter.
The puppy was recovering from horrific abuse she had suffered at the hands of a man who beat and burned her — knocking some of her teeth out before dousing her in lighter fluid at just eight weeks old. When Susie was found in a park two weeks after the attack, she was terrified and covered in maggots. The ordeal left her with second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body, and her little ears were burned right off.
“They had to put her to sleep for treatments because it was so painful,” says Lawrence, who believes the people at the shelter recognized Susie’s will to live early on.
“Sometimes when a dog comes in in that shape, they have to put them down,” she explains, adding that Susie’s wagging tail made it clear she wasn’t giving up.
“It was like she wasn’t living in the past, she was living in the moment.”
That attitude was contagious, and Lawrence started spending as much time with Susie as possible before eventually adopting her.
“I thought, if she can conquer her fear and trust humans again, so can I,” says Lawrence. “It was really like as if she brought healing to me.”
Susie’s presence helped Lawrence cope when she learned the dog attack she’d suffered had left her without the ability to have children.
“Physically, I was healing from the scars and stuff, but it took a lot longer emotionally.”
While Lawrence and Susie were both recovering, the man who’d hurt Susie was arrested. The case went to trial, but those seeking justice for Susie were disappointed to find out that he wouldn’t do any jail time for animal abuse. According to Lawrence, back then North Carolina’s cruelty-to-animals felony classification meant no jail time for first-time offenders under the state’s structured sentencing guidelines. Because Susie technically belonged to the man’s girlfriend, he received a stiffer penalty for a property crime.
“He ended up doing eight months for burning personal property, as Susie counted as the personal property,” explains Lawrence. “You could burn your neighbor’s couch and get more time than burning a dog.”
“Everyone was outraged in the community,” says Lawrence. “That’s why we set up a Facebook page called Susie’s Law and started rallying all over North Carolina to change the law.”
Lawrence and Susie went to court, pressing for change, and in 2010 Susie’s Law was signed. It reclassified animal cruelty felonies and increased penalties for animal cruelty. Judges can now send animal abusers to jail for 10 months.
Despite the victory, Susie’s work wasn’t done yet. With Lawrence at her side, Susie has become an advocate for increased penalties for violence against animals.
“My goal is to do a national movement to protect animals and stop this epidemic of animal cruelty,” says Lawrence, who has fully committed herself to sharing Susie’s incredible story with the world. Through their non-profit organization, Susie’s Hope, they aim to foster education and understanding about animal abuse.
Lawrence has written extensively about Susie’s story, publishing a range of books for both kids and adults.
“When I did the books, I just really felt like this would be a really great movie,” says Lawrence, who got her wish in 2013 when Susie’s story was turned into a movie — the appropriately titled Susie’s Hope.
In addition to becoming a movie star, Susie also became a therapy dog in the years after her attack. She goes to schools, hospitals, and nursing homes with Lawrence, inspiring and encouraging others who’ve been victimized.
“So many people have told me they were able to forgive bad people because of Susie,” Lawrence explains.
In 2014, Susie’s efforts as a therapy dog were recognized as she took home the American Humane Society’s Hero Dog Award for making the world a better place for dogs and humans.
And Susie isn’t done sharing her story. In 2015, it will reach yet another audience as she is featured in the documentary, A Dog Named Gucci, a film about animal abuse laws in the United States.
Despite all that she suffered early in life, Susie has gone on to help Lawrence, many other humans, and an unknown number of animals through her advocacy work. This dog who survived against the odds is a hero to both dogs and humans.
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