“They could chain me, starve me.
They could breed me, fight me.
They could beat me, neglect me.
They could not break me.”
My name is Tillie. I am a #367 Survivor.
In August 2013, law enforcement and dog advocacy agents rescued 367 dogs in the second largest dog-fighting raid in U.S. history which spanned across Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Texas. Federal and local agents also seized firearms and drugs and $500,000 in cash from dogfighting gambling that took place over the course of a three-year investigation.
We were held as evidence and housed at the HSUS temporary facility. There were a lot of people who came to take care of us, clean our kennels and socialize us. Humans would come in pairs to scrub the kennels, hose in hand. They would greet each one of us but quickly moved on to the next kennel. Some of us were excited to see the humans, some were shut down, some just looked at the humans and lay their heads back down.
One of these humans was Heather. She was on her first deployment to this facility and she worked with another volunteer to clean the kennels. She made her rounds throughout the facility, meeting many of us dogs there.
Then she saw me.
She froze, dead in her tracks. I was lying on a raised bed. My tan body old and tired and she could see golf ball-sized tumors running the length of my mammary chain. I struggled to stand, and slowly walked toward her, stopping at the gate to my kennel.
My front legs were bowed out; chain broke slowly over years under the weight of my heavy chain. I was in the worst shape medically of any dog in the place. I was heartworm positive, riddled with tumors, chain broke legs, and extremely underweight. My body showed the years of living on the end of that heavy mental chain outside, cold and hungry, and being used as a breeding machine.
But she saw me. She saw that my face was wise and kind. I was quiet, slow and searching for acceptance. She knelt down to me and stroked my face and side through the chain link. I am not sure how long we stayed like that, in complete silence, holding soft eye contact.
We were startled back to the present moment when her human partner yelled from the outside that she was ready for her to pull open the guillotine door that would let me into the outside portion of my run so that she could enter and clean the inside. Heather quickly wiped away her tears and stood up. By the time the guillotine door open, I was gone from her sight.
Later that day, Heather came back and talked to me. She then opened my kennel door and slipped the leash around my neck. Many of us dogs were so shut down we needed to be carried while some would walk tentatively and others would pull with all their might.
Not me. To Heather’s surprise, I cheerfully exited my kennel and walked with her through the long corridors and through several doors until we were up at the front office.
The volunteers and staff took a special time to greet me — they do for each dog brought into the office. We are survivors and they treated us as such. I stopped to greet each person and then they put me into a small private office reserved for dogs with the worse conditions. Dogs like me.
Heather and the other volunteer also gave me a name: Tillie.
The next days she would spend any extra time she could sitting on the floor with me in my small office. I have no idea why anyone would feel sad for me. I love to say hi to people; whenever I saw someone come into view, I started the process of getting up off my bed to walk to the door. I was slow and old but I would try nonetheless. The staff finally decided to close the top half of the door so I could not see people outside of her room, just so I could rest.
And I needed the rest. I was not doing so good. I urinated lot and all over my office. Heather was worried I was in renal failure. And my tumors looked bad.
But at the end of the week, Heather left. She didn’t even say goodbye… I thought she saw my unbreakable spirit, but I was used to being disappointed by humans.
One month later, Heather came back to see me!! I was wiggly and happy to see her. Heather didn’t think I remembered her but I did!
I had gained weight and had settled into the routine. Heather would visit me when she could and told me she loved me and that she would be bringing me home to her house as soon as I could leave! I wasn’t even sure I heard her correctly!
What I didn’t know was that Heather had decided that she would request for me come to her rescue — Handsome Dan’s Rescue — once we were released and were no longer being held as evidence. She made the formal request to Daisy, the Shelter Manager. She also requested that if my medical condition worsened and they felt they needed to euthanize me, to let her know so she could like fly back down to be with me.
I never thought someone would care about me and I was so glad it was her! Heather also told me that she would spoil me and love me for however long I had left. It would be a sort of hospice care, a compassion hold, she said. She had to leave me again at the end of her second deployment but she promised she would be back for me.
Then came the day I was admitted to the vet hospital. My uterus was infected and needed to be removed along with the mammary tumors. Heather was a wreck but she was kept informed long distance as best they could and she waited for news.
When her phone rang and she saw it was Daisy calling, she quickly answered and all she heard was Daisy crying. She felt a huge lump in her throat…but Daisy screamed out that my tumors were benign. I did not have cancer! Heather was so surprised. How could this be? They were all so sure it was cancer. I was not going to need hospice care after all. I was only going to need foster care!
So the months dragged on and we waited for the day I would be released and I could come to her home… our home.
Heather would send me little care packages, one of their supporters sent me a new bed. She ordered an ID tag for my collar with the words “Tillie #367 Survivor” engraved on it with her phone number. She wore that tag on a chain around her neck until I could wear it around mine. She told her dog Handsome Dan all about me and how he was soon going to have a new foster sister.
Then on January 13, 2014 at 10:02AM, her phone rang. It was Daisy but that was not unusual as they had been in close contact regarding the other four dogs that would also be coming to HDR upon their release. Her daughter Josephine was singing and her house was busy as usual so she decided to take the call in the backyard where it was quiet.
She walked out the back door and answered the phone. Again, she heard Daisy crying, but this time was not like the last. Heather was able to make out that Daisy needed to talk to her about me. Heather sat down on the cold ground and started to cry. All she could say was NO! She was expecting the worst.
The next thing she heard was one of the sweetest things she will ever hear. Daisy said, “Heather, Tillie is yours. She has been released. You can come take her home.”
Heather sat for a little while, sobbing into the phone, and Daisy just let her sob. She finally collected herself and Daisy gave her some detail and information; the bottom line was that they would be able to bring me and the others here to Rhode Island at the end of the month. Heather hung up the phone and ran in the house and told her family. It was all hugs and smiles.
She told the HDR volunteers who were equally as excited and they raised the funds for the transport costs to bring seven of the #367 dog to their foster homes with HDR and Jasmine’s House.
I won’t forget that day. February 1, 2014, we left the facility and made the momentous journey. It was our Freedom Ride. I was finally free.
I am now an official HDR foster dog but Heather aka Foster Mom says I can stay in our home for as long as I need to. HDR volunteers did an amazing job completely redoing the large laundry room to be my room. Yes, I have my own room! My own little suite complete with a mural on one wall painted by HDR volunteer Laurelin Sitterly of the life I should have had from the beginning.
The first order of business for me is heartworm treatment. It was not easy — I had a scare in April when I became severely lethargic and unstable on my feet that I was admitted to the ICU — but I completed the treatment. Then Heather noticed that I was losing so much weight so they did an ultrasound with my last HW injection and a target shaped tumor was found, which indicated it was most likely cancer.
My foster family decided to wait three weeks, until I finished my prednisone, and did another ultrasound. That was on Friday morning and the findings were discouraging: The original tumor had grown and there was a second target shaped tumor that had appeared in only three weeks.
So, my family weighed these two options. They could do nothing, and spoil and love me for the projected 4-6 months I would have left, but if they did nothing there was the chance the tumor could start to bleed at any time, could be in a week, could be in a few months, and they would have to put me to sleep immediately. They went through this with another dog and it was awful; the tumor would bleed slowly and cause him to pass out. This is not the way they wanted me to spend my last few months or weeks.
The other option was to surgically remove my spleen. Because the cancer was so aggressive it will likely return in another organ, probably my liver, but this option would give me some good months and I would have more pain-free time.
Neither option was good. They hated the thought of putting me thorough another surgery, but my wonderful vet, Dr. Lester, says I would do ok, and that although it will be a long incision, dogs generally recovery very quickly and that I would probably be feeling better in about three days.
So on the morning on June 23, 2014, I went in for my spleen removal. My foster parents were beside themselves with worry, but know that I was in the best possible hands. At the end of the surgery, Dr. Lester removed my spleen and did not see any abnormalities on the liver. He also removed five mammary tumors which can be biopsied as well if needed later.
I went home the next day, sore and tired but happy to be sleeping in my bed.
On June 26, my Foster Mom was in tears. This time they were tears of joy and disbelief! She said I had them fooled yet again! The tumors in my spleen, despite being target shaped, came back benign, meaning not cancer! I fooled my radiologist, my doctors and all of #TeamTillie!
And all five new mammary tumors which were sent to pathology also came back benign! So now I’m heartworm free, cancer free and spleen-free!
So that’s my story for now, and it is quite a story. I am an old girl with an old and broken body: My legs are bowed and I have trouble walking because my legs broke under the weight of a heavy collar and chain that yoked me for years to the buried car axle. I have a broken sternum and a broken tail, but my spirit could not be broken.
My family and I are grateful for everyday I can enjoy my new life. I now wears a pink collar and a necklace of big white faux pearls. I love cuddling up next to everyone who comes to visit me. I love my Foster Mom & Dad, foster sister Josephine and brother Cam. I also love dressing up and digging holes!
My name is Tillie, I am a #367 Survivor and I will continue to show the world what this little survivor can do.
#TeamTillie would like to thank: HSUS, The ASPCA, The FBI and local law enforcement for bringing this group of victims to safety. Daisy Balawejder, Chris Schindler and the rest of the HSUS Dogfighting Rescue Coalition for the amazing care and love shown to these and all dogs in their care. The HSUS Dogfighting Rescue Coalition Partner Rescues who will be taking these dogs into their programs and will eventually help them find their happy endings. And to the many, many HSUS Animal Rescue Volunteers who deploy time and again to provide care for these dogs. And finally big props to the Handsome Dan’s Rescue family.
Sadly, Tillie left us on November 5, 2015. From Tillie’s mom, Heather: “On Thursday evening, with her perfectly-sweet, soft face resting in my hands, surrounded by the love of her family and her vet, Tillie left this world. She was tired, she told us it was time, and she left with the same peaceful dignity she brought to each heart she won as she fullfilled her mission on this earth.” You can read the full note here.
Run free, Tillie. ♥