Wild Heart Ranch is located in Claremore, Oklahoma. We provide medical or infant support to any indigenous wild animal in need of assistance and release it into suitable wild habitat once care is completed.
A tale of two heroes,
"He is better today, Annette. Lazarus is going to survive!"
The words I had been waiting three days to hear when I called my veterinarian to check on the fatally ill six month old puppy. He isn't mine anymore, but I couldn't have been more afraid of losing him if he was. You see, Lazarus is no ordinary dog, with no ordinary responsibilities. He is saving a life one day at a time. That is his job and his duty and his absolute joy and pleasure. Let me tell you the story of how this special pup came to be.
Lazarus was born one of seven orphaned husky mix puppies who came to me for bottle feeding this past spring after their mother died. They were all healthy, fat, rolly-polly puppies, except for one. The runt. He was barely alive and hanging on by a thread. His body cold, his gums white, I feared the worst for the new arrival. He was less than half the size of his siblings and fading fast. It took days of intense care and diligence to pull the puppy through, but we got our miracle and soon he was romping and playing with his siblings as if he had never had an issue. Still half their size, he certainly wasn't an alpha by any means. He wanted to be a "big dog". You could see it on his face whenever he took a paw to the head or a rolling tackle from one of his much larger and stronger siblings. He would stare as if he was thinking "someday, you're not going to get away with that. Someday.”
The puppy was all heart. I had seen this routine before. Born “broken” in some way, the weaker puppies face challenges and emotions that the stronger siblings will not experience. They are physically vulnerable, and they know it. Most often they compensate with unusual intelligence. “If you can’t beat them, outsmart them” and this pup was no exception. He was figuring out his world and how to work it in his favor. He was a delight to watch, and it wasn’t long before his size was no longer a factor and he was revered in the pack as an equal, simply for exercising superior strategy and cunning.
When it came time to adopt out my seven gorgeous puppies, I was having a difficult time letting go of my littlest man. He was special, and I had no idea what I would do with him, but I followed my gut and let the universe lead me to his home. The universe, as always, didn’t let me down.
I operate a very busy wildlife rescue in NE Oklahoma. My days are filled with saving the lives of every natural indigenous species imaginable. During the spring we care for around a thousand wild orphans who had lost their mothers to one mishap or another. It’s a 365 day a year awesome responsibility and my crew of volunteers and I work tirelessly to see that every animal gets the best care possible. No life is less than, regardless of species. Not in my clinic.
One of the benefits of being part of such a beautiful and compassionate mission is the quality of people who step up wishing to help. Our volunteers are a treasured, special group of people, from all walks of life, every circumstance, but one thing we all seem to share, that common thread that brings us to this place; we are all broken in one way or another. I have discovered, as have many of my volunteers, that when you are able to assist those far more helpless and worse off than yourself, then you also begin to heal. That is the return on the time we give. Our own problems and struggles seem so very menial and unimportant while tending to a fawn whose leg has been shattered by a car, who will never see his mother again, or an owl that clings to life with a bullet in his wing, starving by the roadside, unable to hunt. Though our lives are riddled with tragedy and triumph, obstacles and bridges, at the end of the day if we all step up for each other, not only do we ease the path for one another, but we stay on our own feet while we do it.
Several of our volunteers are veterans from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are “my boys” and I couldn’t love them more and hope for them more if they were my own sons and brothers. For some, their torment leading them to the peace of the woods, their compassion leading them to wild animals in need, their wish to help leading them to me. I don’t believe much in coincidence. Sometimes they are here to work off community service hours for a DUI charge. Either way, what they find here is what they were looking for but didn’t realize. A place to heal where everyone is broken and no one has any expectations other than to help. It’s a good place to find purpose, and the men and women on my team welcome these folks into the fold as family. It’s who we are.
Not all of the scars of war are obvious. Some veterans are far more broken on the inside than out. They return to us mentally and emotionally in pieces, desperately trying to find evidence within themselves that they will someday return from war, put the images, fears and shame behind them and be themselves again. For many, that hope has an expiration date. As their lives return to "normal" for everyone around them after the celebration of coming home "safe" is behind them, they struggle to follow suit and fit into that life once again. How do they express what they have been through, what they have seen, or what they had to do to carry out orders or survive? Often times drugs and alcohol become their only friend to cope and escape from the frustration and depression, never fitting in to their own lives again, needing the people they were close too to understand that they are forever changed, but not able or willing to talk about why. Being alienated from your own existence is a trauma all on its own in addition to the horrors and stress of war. These young people are prepared and conditioned to obey without hesitation, face certain death without question, kill without remorse and fight without cause. Then they come home...completely and utterly lost.
Many find their way back to themselves quickly and soon their lives are in a familiar rhythm of details and responsibilities, obligations and relationships, but in the case of some PTSD veterans, they just stay lost. Charles F. “Trey” Clawson III, is one such young man. After serving in the Army as a line medic for the 82nd Airborne Division from 2004-2008 in Iraq, he saw more than his share of bloodshed and combat, and himself was blown up three times suffering traumatic brain injury. Trey eventually came home to face his life once again, but the war came with him, and his battles for survival continued. His good friend Elliott Heyne, also an Army veteran suffering from PTSD and a brain injury from an IED explosion, brought Trey to my rescue a few years ago to see if working with the animals would help him adjust as it did for himself. Trey loves it, but unfortunately he hasn’t been able to come as often as he has wanted nor as often as he should.
Elliott on the other hand, is a budding success story. He will never again be the man who boarded the plane in uniform, who set out to be a hero. That man was lost in the war. The Elliott who returned has found a way to assemble the pieces of himself into someone new that he can live with. The glue, for him, has been spending time with animals and the relationships he has forged with compassionate people like himself. His journey to me began with orphaned coyote cubs and have led to a friendship I treasure. I couldn’t be more proud of his progress, and he grows every day within his newfound self. Helping other veterans is a way that Elliott keeps himself in check. He is former law enforcement and is a natural to set an example for others. He will always be manic, he will always battle depression and he will always struggle, but the one thing that keeps Elliott helping himself is the fact that he understands the cycles of PTSD, and he knows what he must do to stay out of the pit of depression and hopelessness. He stays active and he stays occupied and his two American Bulldogs are his ever present anchors to routine, responsibility and companionship.
Companion animals provide a pressure free relationship for people who have lost their way, and struggle with human relationships. Providing unconditional acceptance and support, their instincts seem to always know when their master is in need, and unlike most people, they are there for as long as it takes, no judgments, no impatience, just love.
Elliott’s dogs have been his lifeline since returning home from war. Trey had not yet looked to that resource, but it was time. Trey was once again arrested for DUI and this time, his freedom, that thing he was overseas risking his life to fight for, was utterly at stake of being lost from his homeland, at his own hand. His battle with alcoholism and drug use was taking its toll. His condition helped to negotiate his freedom, but the consequences were not light. Trey had no more chances, and probation would be steep. Everything he had been doing to cope with his stress was now lost to him. Elliott, a wise and thoughtful friend explained nothing to Trey or to me, but knew exactly what he was doing and how I would respond. He simply brought his troubled friend over to see some puppies.
When I handed my little runt to Trey I saw his eyes soften instantly. The tortured soul who struggles daily to make sense of his world, was transformed into the boy who had never seen war. "There you are!" Is what I thought in that moment. This would happen. The little broken puppy in the arms of the broken soldier. Meant to be. Neither would ever be who they wanted to be in this life, but they could be everything to each other now. Both of them finally belonged to someone who would understand and accept them completely. I explained the puppy's story of how he barely survived his first few days here and Trey immediately named him "Lazarus". It fit. A strong name, the name of a survivor, just like his new dad.
I didn't charge Trey an adoption fee even though I had a waiting list for all my puppies and then some. This was my gift to them both, and the reward for me was tenfold what I had done for the pup. I got what I wanted in that first moment when the puppy licked his new masters face; I saw hope. "Dear God let the healing begin." And it did.
Today Trey lives a completely clean and sober life with his ever present companion "Laz" who goes everywhere with him. Laz is certified as his service dog and the two previously broken, downtrodden boys remember little of their world without the other. Trey is constantly focused on his pup. He has a mission. A mission for training, a mission for care, and most importantly, he is never alone with his thoughts. There is never a lack of distraction with Lazarus in his life.
The other day Trey called me. Laz was sick. Very sick. He had been vomiting for two days. He described his symptoms and my heart sank. It was parvovirus. Not the standard, run of the mill strain either. It was the newer cpv2c virus that is far more aggressive and deadly. There was no time to waste. I had worked with my Veterinarian on this treatment for four years when we first discovered the strain nearly a decade ago. We could treat it, if we weren't too late. I got my veterinarian on board and she began treatment.
Lazarus responded slowly and then plateaued and began to decline. This response is typical in this strain when treatment is delayed, and he was now in danger of losing his battle. I was terrified for Trey. The young man's voice on the phone was nothing short of desperate. "I can't lose him Annette. He goes everywherewith me. I need him!" My heart pounded. There was no option to fail.
When Lazarus' blood work came back with the results, it confirmed what we had suspected. The virus had ravaged the puppy but he was still here. My prayers couldn't have been more diligent or pleading. I needed a second miracle for this puppy. Another life hung in the balance as well. Trey's life. His sober life with Laz.
Yesterday I called my vet clinic and Bayleigh, my doctor's daughter answered the phone. She knew the whole story of the two broken boys and their absolute need for one another.
"He is better today Annette. Lazarus is going to survive!"
Two tears rolled down my cheeks as I hung up the phone. One for the warrior that was the pup, and one for the warrior that was the man. May there come a day when their fight is all behind them and they have nothing left to overcome.
Meant to be.
For every veteran suffering from the scars of war, inside and out, I wish the honor of saying to you; "You paid the price so my life can go on undisrupted by military threat. You gave for us all, but I take your sacrifice very personally. Thank you for your service to keep war away from our home. Though you may never heal, may you overcome, and never ever lose hope to find your way home in every way."
Thank you from the bottom of my heart to any organization who helps provide and train service dogs for our veterans, and for the businesses who recognize that not all our wounded are obvious. That dog at their side may often be the only thread holding a hero together.
Thanks for reading.
Wild Heart is a State and Federally licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility since 1996. Over 30,000 animals assisted. (and some awesome people too!)
"We all suffer the same"
Annette King, Founder/Director/Head Care Specialist
Wild Heart Ranch Wildlife Rescue