Chia the Chihuahua, a touching tale
Keith Olbermann's donation covers wheelchair for puppy, aids rescue for special needs dogs
By Lindsey Anderson
The El Paso Times
CHIA THE CHIHUAHUA arrived at the Animal Service Center of the Mesilla Valley in Las Cruces NM earlier this fall, her back legs paralyzed. The black, white and tan pup didn't even weigh 2 pounds and was only 2 months old. Veterinarian Beth Vesco-Mock would have had Chia euthanized had she known how bad the dog's injuries were. It wouldn't have been fair to send Chia on to another rescue, putting the emotional and financial burden of euthanizing the dog on someone else, Vesco-Mock said.
She didn't realize the extent of Chia's injuries, so she passed the pup on to "lifesavers" at From the Heart Rescue in Canutillo, Vesco-Mock said. "They're a great group," she said. "They take all the ones no one else wants to take on."
So, in August, baby Chia ended up under the care of Brandy Gardes, a former assistant U.S. attorney and one of the founders of From the Heart. The caretakers gave Chia her name, short for Chihuahua. They were running out of names, Gardes said.
At first, Chia couldn't move and would just sit in a corner. Her caretakers started acutherapy, and the pup's condition eventually improved. From the Heart decided to raise money for a doggie wheelchair so Chia wouldn't have to drag herself around by her front legs.
"But that takes time," Gardes said of fundraising. "It takes a lot of time." Little did she know, a game-changing donation was on its way. ESPN commentator Keith Olbermann was about to contribute an undisclosed amount to From the Heart, letting the rescue group buy a 10-ounce wheelchair for Chia and ultimately leading to the dog's adoption.
Olbermann learned of From the Heart through El Paso's Minor League Baseball team, the Chihuahuas. The team held a Bark in the Park promotion this summer that featured jerseys splashed with a larger-than-life Chihuahua face. The team even adopted a Chihuahua and had a contest to name her. The efforts raised more than $20,000 for the Humane Society of El Paso and won the team Promotion of the Year.
Olbermann got wind of the "extraordinary" jerseys and wanted one, he said. They were only being auctioned off to benefit the Humane Society, so Olbermann donated money in exchange for a shirt. But he wanted to donate to another organization, too, so he put a call out on Twitter for suggested recipients.
Someone mentioned From the Heart.
"Just looking at the website, I was overwhelmed by the stories," Olbermann said in a phone interview after returning from walking his own dogs. ›› Listen to Keith Olbermann's full interview [Note: Poor audio quality but well worth the struggle to understand. -Marie]
From the Heart takes in "recycled pets, less-than-perfect pets, special needs pets," fixing them up and putting them in foster homes while they await adoption, Gardes said. Some are abandoned or abused dogs. Some are sick or just old. Some are amputees or paralyzed, like Chia. "They're the ones that get left behind," Gardes said.
Neither Olbermann nor Gardes would disclose how much Olbermann donated, but it was "rather generous to the point I fell off my chair" when she saw the money come through PayPal, Gardes said.
From the Heart began more than a decade ago, and places 250 to 400 dogs in homes each year, Gardes said. The rescue only euthanizes animals on a vet's recommendation if they can't be healed. Thirty-five dogs are currently under the rescue's care.
"People ask: Why do you do it?" Gardes said. "And our answer is: Because there's nobody else who will."
The rescue operates on less than $100,000 a year, most of which goes to veterinary bills, Gardes said. Olbermann's "donation has truly been lifesaving to a number of dogs, and it will continue to be," Gardes said.
The donation allowed the rescue to explore new possibilities for the dogs, like protheses and a wheelchair for Chia, Gardes said. K9 Carts in Langley, Wash., agreed to make a lightweight cart for Chia and sell it at cost, about $175.
"Dogs like her, if they don't get into a cart, they become deformed over time," developing sores or a curved spine, K9 Carts General Manager Glenn Parkes said. "By getting them into a cart, it gives them a normal standing posture. They can run around and go to the bathroom." Parkes has designed wheelchairs for possums, sheep, skunks, rabbits, a cheetah, a hedgehog, a guinea pig and a handful of chickens, making about 60 to 100 carts a week. But Chia's cart is the smallest dog wheelchair he has ever built. He used a 3D printer and carbon fibers to create the lightweight contraption.
Chia received her wheelchair in mid-October and soon captured the heart of a local nurse practitioner, who first learned of the dog in a Facebook post. Alexandra Chavez happened to stop by the PetSmart at Sunland Park three weeks ago when From the Heart was holding an adoption day and recognized Chia.
"I saw her running around and I thought OMG," Chavez recalled. "I said, 'Do you have adoptive parents?' And they said, 'No.' " A week later, after Chia was spayed, Chavez took the now 6-month-old pup home. "She's an angel," Chavez said. "She's such an adorable little puppy. She has a great temperament. She doesn't know she's paralyzed. She thinks she can hang around the big dogs and cats."
Chia doesn't require much extra care, Chavez said. The puppy cuddles with Chavez's 13-year-old daughter, Lila, and their two other dogs. If the family's garage is open and they aren't watching, Chia will roll right down the street in her tiny cart in true, active Chihuahua form. They took her trick-or-treating last week, decking her out in an orange and black skeleton dress.
"I think she's really cute, but she likes to bite my hamster," Lila said.
On Saturday, Chia and her new family stopped by the PetSmart during a From the Heart adoption event. Chia rolled herself over to her canine friends to say hello, trotting back toward Chavez whenever her new mama called.
"A bike!" one young boy squealed when he saw Chia's wheels.
Gardes keeps Olbermann informed about every dog that comes into the rescue. Olbermann tweets out a From the Heart pet-in-waiting each day, sharing the adoption and donation link to his 524,000 followers. He said he hopes to show people there are solutions other than euthanasia for injured dogs. At least one From the Heart dog has been adopted because of Olbermann's tweets.
"What an amazing evolution to go from, quite frankly, a really ridiculous jersey — and I say that in fun — to making a difference," Chihuahuas General Manager Brad Taylor said.
Chia's story is remarkable, Olbermann said. "Because I thought it would be fun to have that uniform," he said with a laugh, "the thing has snowballed."
"The result of this," Olbermann added, "is a tail wagging somewhere."
From the Heart Rescue in Canutillo takes in injured, old and sick dogs, caring for them and placing them in foster homes until they are adopted. From the Heart is always in need of volunteers, foster families and donations.
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