Dogs may not be able to change the past, but every once in awhile one of them does manage to change the future. Over the past six years, a smiling Pit Bull named Sunny has altered history in Louisville, Kentucky, and helped save the lives of countless dogs.
She inspired the creation of Saving Sunny, the rescue organization that shares her name, and catalyzed a change in the public perception of Pit Bull-type dogs. Recently, those who’ve adopted a dog because of Sunny have taken to sharing their rescue stories under the hashtag #SunnySavedMe. She’s famous these days, but long before she became a hero worthy of a hashtag, poor Sunny was a discarded dog in deep trouble.
It was July 2009, and the woman who would soon become Sunny’s human — Kelsey Westbrook — had just started her serving shift on the patio of a riverside restaurant. As Westbrook took orders from customers, a white Chevy Malibu came to a stop on the nearby Second Street Bridge, which towers 80 feet above the Ohio River.
“Somebody at one of my tables said, ‘Oh my God, someone just threw a dog off the bridge!’ and I was like, there’s no way, that was not a dog,” says Westbrook, who turned to see what she thought was a falling piece of debris narrowly miss a barge passing under the bridge.
After the falling object hit the river with a loud splash, Westbrook realized her customers were right — she could make out a pair of floppy little dog ears bobbing in the water. Disoriented and in shock, the dog who would soon be named Sunny was swimming in circles.
That’s when Westbrook — a dog lover who was volunteering at a local shelter — grabbed a friend and ran closer to the river. She started jumping up and down and calling to the dog, trying to get her to stop going in circles and head to shore. According to Westbrook, Sunny seemed to understand that all the commotion was for her.
“She perked right up — it was like you could see the thought process,” she says. “She started swimming her little heart out.”
Luckily, the Louisville Metro Fire Department Dive Team was on the river that day, practicing about a mile away from the spot where Sunny was dumped. The divers pulled Sunny out of the water when she was about 20 feet from shore and the dog promptly began wagging, wiggling, and licking everyone she could get her tongue on.
As a rescue volunteer, Westbrook knew a Pit Bull wouldn’t have a promising future if she was taken to the shelter, so she asked first responders if she could foster the dog instead.
“The police officers and the fire department were like, ‘Okay, that sounds great,’ so I took her home that day.”
Twelve hours later, Sunny had stolen Westbrook’s heart and the decision was made: Sunny would be staying with Westbrook and Shepherd mix, Nala, permanently. Sunny quickly adjusted to her new world, but the world was a lot slower at adjusting to her.
“As soon as I took Sunny home, I started experiencing the kind of discrimination that goes along with owning a ‘blockhead’ dog,” Westbrook explains. “I was threatened with eviction from my apartment, had friends and family that didn’t want to come over, and people didn’t want to walk on the same side of the sidewalk [as us].”
Soon after the eviction notice arrived, Westbrook was contacted by animal advocate and lawyer Maureen Keenan, who would eventually become the co-founder of Saving Sunny.
“She reached out to me, and we formed an immediate bond then and there because we both knew that if Sunny had not come home with me that day, she would have been considered evidence in a court case and would have had to stay in quarantine,” Westbrook explains, adding that Sunny’s court case lasted 18 months.
Instead of languishing in a cage for all that time, Sunny got to enjoy her new life as a pampered pup, playing with Nala and helping multiple foster dogs who found a safe haven with Saving Sunny. Over the years, Sunny’s charming personality and excited wiggle made her friends all over Louisville as she visited schools and worked with human victims of abuse. In 2014, Sunny was there as her namesake organization launched its Community Dog Resource Center, which provides free spay and neuter services, flea and tick medicine, and dog supplies to low income owners.
“She’s been such a driving force. She’s done so many amazing things in our community, and she’s been able to open people’s eyes,” Westbrook explains. “When I brought her home, it was a much different climate for Pit Bulls here in Louisville, and now, you’ll be walking down the street and you’ll see five just on your daily walk. She was such an integral part of that.”
For years, Sunny has fought against breed discrimination, but now she’s fighting something even scarier — cancer. A routine dental cleaning recently revealed a large mass in her mouth. It stretches behind her eyes and into her nasal cavity. Ninety percent of the fist-sized mass was removed during a recent surgery, but the tumor’s location means it’s not completely removable.
“It’s a neurofibrosarcoma,” explains Westbrook. “This type of tumor is not responsive to medication — she wouldn’t be a candidate for chemo or immunotherapy.”
Despite all she’s going through, Sunny has not lost her joyous spirit and is back to eating, drinking, and bouncing around like she normally does. At first, Westbrook didn’t share Sunny’s health issues with the public, but in February — unbeknownst to Westbrook — some of Sunny’s friends friends set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for medical expenses.
“She’s had such a big impact on our community. It’s so funny how one dog can do that,” says Sunny’s grateful human.
No one knows what Sunny’s future holds, but one thing is clear — this dog is a survivor.
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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 Specter the kitten and GhostBuster the dog make her fur family complete. 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 +.