Her Forever Home
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Her Forever Home

Abused and neglected, Erica faced a bleak future -- until a group of friends banded together to rescue her.

Erica's Wounds

There was something odd about the on-screen photo of the gaunt black Labrador retriever mix named Erica. Frankie Prouty leaned in for a closer look. She was horrified to see an open wound on the 1-year-old stray dog's scrawny neck that was just beginning to heal. The painful necklace of damaged tissue was left behind by the removal of a too-small collar that had become embedded in Erica's skin as she grew. "Even though she has every right to hate humans, she does not," said the Web site post that accompanied Erica's photo. "She's as sweet as she can be!"

It was August 2006 when Prouty, an avid animal-rescue volunteer, came across the disturbing picture as she was scrolling through the "Animals in Need" forum of one of her favorite animal-rescue Web sites, the Best Friends Animal Society's BestFriends.org. "I'd never seen anything so bad," she said.

By then the 61-year-old, a purchasing agent for a Sterling, Virginia, chemical supply company, was no stranger to the suffering of animals. After Hurricane Katrina she and her husband, Ted, 65, a retired police officer, joined the Utah-based Best Friends Animal Society, one of the largest national groups devoted to rescuing abandoned or abused pets and companion animals. But the picture of Erica was still enough to shock her.

As Prouty scanned the post, she discovered that the King William, Virginia, pound holding the Lab was going to euthanize her in just three days. In her time as an animal rescuer Prouty had learned a painful truth -- that she couldn't save all the animals that needed help. "That's not possible," she says, "but we learn that we have to do what we can for the ones we can save." Here was a sweet young dog who had clearly suffered from an unconscionable level of neglect, her collar so tight her body had been forced to grow around it. "I thought, I can give this dog a new beginning," Prouty recalls.

Other members of the Best Friends Network around the country thought the same thing. Within hours of the post by Amanda Hook, 39, of Boston, Virginia -- who had received the information from a friend who had seen it on Petfinder.com -- online messages poured in. Marti Lombardi, 52, offered to foster Erica at her Norman, Oklahoma, home if someone could get the dog there. In Portland, Oregon, 52-year-old Carrie Fagerstrom provided a link to contact information for the Virginia pound that was holding Erica.

Galvanized by the online support, Prouty e-mailed the president of the Middleburg Humane Foundation, a farm shelter in Middleburg, Virginia, where she volunteered regularly. Within a day, the facility agreed to take Erica, and Prouty posted the good news on the forum. "Look what teamwork accomplished in two days!" wrote back a jubilant Fagerstrom.

Forming a Connection

Prouty picked up Erica from the pound -- just a day ahead of the executioner. "When I saw her it was difficult not to cry," Prouty says. "I knew her neck must be hurting. But she still had a glow about her, a liveliness." Erica was also surprisingly affectionate, as the post had promised, nuzzling close when her ears were scratched.

Thanks to the antibiotics and warm compresses Erica received at Middleburg Humane Foundation, her neck healed quickly, and she returned to a normal weight. During Prouty's weekly shifts at the facility she took photos of Erica and reported her progress on the Best Friends Network.

As the Lab recovered, the women involved in her rescue found that what they'd done for Erica had cemented their bonds with each other. "Saving Erica was empowering," says Prouty. She and Hook, who lived within a few hours of each other, met at a restaurant for dinner. Prouty, Fagerstrom, and Lombardi then formed a spin-off online group where they could chat not just about animals, but also jobs, family, and more. They connected off-line as well. When Lombardi's Australian cattle dog, Duke, died of cancer at age 8, Prouty picked up the telephone and cried with her.

The women continued to use the original forum to save animals. After reading a posting about Fred, a Lab-hound mix in a Tennessee shelter, Prouty drove eight hours to adopt him. When Fagerstrom fell in love with Corky, an elderly abandoned Lhasa apso described in the Animals in Need forum on the Best Friends site, a network member delivered him to her.

Finally they decided it was time that the whole group got together in person. In May 2007 Prouty, Lombardi, and Fagerstrom signed up for a volunteer vacation at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, in Kanab, Utah. (Hook wanted to join them, but had just given birth to twins, so she couldn't make it.) From the moment the three arrived at the facility, their connection deepened.

During the day they cared for animals awaiting adoption and attended workshops on such topics as rescuer burnout. Evenings were more like slumber parties. "There was no lull in the conversation -- ever," says Prouty with a smile.

While checking her e-mail one afternoon at the sanctuary Prouty got word that Erica was about to be adopted by a 14-year-old girl from Connecticut named Lindsay. "Everybody was ecstatic," she recalls.

Prouty logged on to the Best Friends Network to add the happy postscript to Erica's story. "This beautiful girl has finally found a 'forever home,'"Prouty typed. "What a blessing! She more than deserves it." She signed off with her motto: UNTIL THERE ARE NONE, RESCUE ONE.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2008.