IN DOG WE TRUST

OF­TEN IT’S DIF­FI­CULT TO TELL WHO’S RES­CUED WHO. HERE ARE SOME TOUCH­ING TAILS OF SHEL­TER DOGS AND THEIR SAVIOURS TO GIVE PAWS FOR THOUGHT.

Fraser Coast Chronicle - - WEEKEND - WORDS: DENISE RAWARD

TRACEY WICK­HAM AND JEMMA

For­mer swim cham­pion Tracey Wick­ham has had it pretty tough, so it’s only fit­ting the dog who res­cued her had a hard time of it as well.

Jemma, the black toy poo­dle, was one of 244 dogs seized from an il­le­gal puppy farm in Wondai, in the South Bur­nett, in 2009. It was a no­to­ri­ous case for the Queens­land RSPCA, spark­ing the big­gest fos­ter­ing ex­er­cise in the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s history.

If that wasn’t bad enough, four-and-ahalf-year-old Jemma was blind and, be­ing un­fit for sale, was a des­ig­nated breeder, con­fined to a cage for her en­tire life, churn­ing out lit­ters of pup­pies and never leav­ing the cage to toi­let, walk on grass or feel sun­light.

Tracey met Jemma when she and the dog she was caged with were put in short-term care with a neigh­bour of Tracey’s mum in Bris­bane.

“I was staying with mum at the time and I would go over there to see them,” Tracey says. “She was so timid. I’d be over there six times a week, spend­ing time with them, and I could see her slowly com­ing out of her shell.”

None of the dogs could be per­ma­nently re­homed un­til af­ter court pro­ceed­ings against the prop­erty own­ers. By then, it was a ma­jor op­er­a­tion as many dogs had given birth while they were in fos­ter care or in the shel­ter.

There was a huge strain on RSPCA re­sources to vac­ci­nate, de­sex and re­home the dogs and their pup­pies sep­a­rately so Jemma and her cage­mate re­mained with their fos­ter carer for a while.

It was at a time when Tracey was at her low­est. In 2007, she lost her 19-year-old daugh­ter Han­nah to cancer and was strug­gling with grief. She would some­times take the dogs for a walk or sit with them to get them used to hu­man con­tact.

“I just felt so sorry for Jemma,” Tracey says. “Some of the fos­ter car­ers ended up tak­ing the dogs per­ma­nently but mum’s neigh­bour couldn’t.

“Mum and I had talked about me tak­ing Jemma. I’d just lost my 14-year-old Mal­tese Daisy but I didn’t have a per­ma­nent place to live and Jemma was blind. I didn’t know how I’d need to care for her and it didn’t seem fair to drag her around.”

On the day her mum’s neigh­bour had to take her back to the RSPCA for re­hom­ing, she got to within 3km of the old cen­tre at Yeronga and turned around to come home again. She couldn’t do it.

“So that’s how I ended up with Jemma,” Tracey says. “I re­ally think we were meant for each other.”

Tak­ing on a trau­ma­tised, blind dog was the project Tracey needed.

“She was sen­si­tive around men or men’s voices,” Tracey says. “Even to­day she just shakes un­con­trol­lably when she hears men’s voices she doesn’t know. I don’t know what must have hap­pened to her.”

Tracey was so wor­ried about her go­ing back to a cage at the RSPCA to be spayed and mi­crochipped, she or­gan­ised for the pro­ce­dures to be done in as short a turn­around as pos­si­ble.

“That first night af­ter her op­er­a­tion, she slept on my ch­est so she knew she was safe,” Tracey says. “She’d just been through so much al­ready.”

The same could be said for Tracey. Jemma was there through the next set­back in Tracey’s life, a fall on a wet floor at a Bris­bane ho­tel that dam­aged her lower back. To date, Tracey has had three spinal fu­sion op­er­a­tions and strug­gles to walk and per­form daily tasks.

It’s a long way from the spritely teenager who was a swim­ming sen­sa­tion well ahead of her time. At just 13, Tracey was selected for the Aus­tralian swim­ming team for the 1976 Mon­treal Olympics.

In 1978, at 15, she broke her first world record in the 1500m freestyle. Later that year she won the 400m and 800m freestyle at the Com­mon­wealth Games in Ed­mon­ton and set world records in both events at the World Swim­ming Cham­pi­onships in Ber­lin. Both records stood for a re­mark­able nine years.

She didn’t com­pete at the widely boy­cotted 1980 Moscow Olympics but re­turned to swim­ming for the 1982 Com­mon­wealth Games in Bris­bane, where she won gold in her pet 400m and 800m freestyle events be­fore re­tir­ing.

She has been awarded an MBE, an Or­der of Aus­tralia medal, is in the Sport Aus­tralia Hall of Fame and the In­ter­na­tional Swim­ming Hall of Fame.

But life for Tracey did not go the way any­one would have pre­dicted. Af­ter a bit­ter divorce, she was beaten so sav­agely by her new part­ner, she was hos­pi­talised. But noth­ing hurt as much as Han­nah’s death.

Tracey strug­gled to find her feet again, bat­tling de­pres­sion and a de­pen­dence on pre­scrip­tion drugs. She fought to over­come both, only to be felled by the ac­ci­dent that plunged her into fi­nan­cial hard­ship as well – her pain pre­vent­ing her work­ing.

Through it all Jemma has been her con­stant, “a de­light”, Tracey says, “the best thing she could have done”.

Poo­dles are renowned for their in­tel­li­gence and, from the start, Tracey was amazed at how quickly Jemma adapted.

“I’ve had lots of moves in the eight years I’ve had her and she can stake a place out in

no time,” Tracey says.

“I don’t know whether she counts steps or how she does it but she gets her plan in her head of where things are and she doesn’t for­get it.

“I put mats down near stairs so when she walks on them she knows the stairs are next. She knows how many stairs there are, where her bas­ket is, where the food and water are, where the couch is, where the bed is.

“She knows so many words. I’ve never known an­other dog like it. I can say ‘No’ or ‘Dan­ger’ and she won’t take an­other step.”

To­day, Jemma loves her free­dom. She runs in the park and is great friends with Kimmi, a dog Tracey and Jemma took in “by de­fault” when a fam­ily mem­ber couldn’t keep her any more.

“Kimmi ab­so­lutely knows Jemma is blind and keeps an eye on her,” Tracey says. “She’ll run off to get her when they’re in the park and sneak her treats be­cause she knows she can’t see.”

The tight-knit three­some are soon fac­ing an­other move, this time back to Bris­bane to be near Tracey’s mother, who’s hav­ing cancer treat­ment.

Tracey is fac­ing more ma­jor surgery too in a bid to give her more move­ment and try to re­lieve some pain. It’s not guar­an­teed but Tracey feels she has lit­tle choice. Her rough patch seems far from over.

“I’d live in a tent be­fore I parted with my dogs,” Tracey says. “Jemma came to me at my low­est point and was the best medicine I could have had at that time.

“I re­ally think she was wait­ing four-and-ahalf years in a cage for me to come along too.

“She was a bless­ing for me and I changed her life for­ever as well.”

REUBAN KAR­IUS AND BERT

The Kar­ius fam­ily spied Bert on the An­i­mal Wel­fare League’s web­site and pretty much fell in love with him in­stantly.

“But we thought we’d sit on it for a week,” mum Leishae Kar­ius says.

The next week­end the fam­ily vis­ited the AWL’s Coom­babah shel­ter and couldn’t see the bull arab/cat­tle­dog cross un­til they spot­ted a pen with his name on and found him hid­ing be­hind his bed­ding.

“That was it. We fell in love and said we’d like to adopt him,” Leishae says. “We found out some­one had taken him home ear­lier but re­turned him to the AWL so that broke our hearts.

“Ap­par­ently he was a bit of a Hou­dini and liked to es­cape.”

But Bert wasn’t like that with the Kar­iuses and was set­tling in well when, af­ter two weeks, he rolled off the bed one evening.

“He was hav­ing a seizure on the floor and we thought ‘what’s go­ing on?’,” Leishae says. “Our old­est boy Reuban has epilepsy so we knew how to han­dle it.”

Bert had a clus­ter of five seizures that night and was com­ing to dis­ori­ented and dis­tressed. The next morn­ing he started to as­pi­rate on his saliva so they packed him into the car and took him to the vet at the shel­ter.

Af­ter run­ning tests, Bert was di­ag­nosed with epilepsy and the vet ad­vised them it might be best to choose an­other dog but Leishae says that was never an op­tion.

“I can un­der­stand why the vet said that,” she says. “But our son Reuban was di­ag­nosed with epilepsy at 10 so that wasn’t the mes­sage we wanted to send.

“We knew Bert had been at the shel­ter a long time and some­one else had re­turned him. We knew it would be hard for him to find an­other home now.

“What would hap­pen to him? We just couldn’t do that.”

Reuban, now 14, started show­ing early signs of epilepsy at five but wasn’t for­mally di­ag­nosed un­til 10.

“It was a long process but we’ve been deal­ing with epilepsy for 10 years now,” Leishae says.

“I was blown away ac­tu­ally. It never oc­curred to me that a dog could have epilepsy. What are the odds of that hap­pen­ing?

“So, this is our life. We have two epilepsy ba­bies in the house now.”

Reuban and Bert have formed a spe­cial bond. Both of them take their tablets morn­ing and night and the fam­ily is vig­i­lant in keep­ing an eye on the signs – for both of them.

“I’ve done a lot of read­ing on epilepsy and now ca­nine epilepsy as well,” Leishae says. “Bert is in the age group of the con­di­tion com­ing on.

“It might have been trig­gered by him be­ing re­homed or the change in en­vi­ron­ment. Epilepsy is symp­to­matic so it’s an­other rung on the lad­der for us.

“Bert is a gor­geous boy. He’s just got a beau­ti­ful na­ture and so gen­tle. He and Reuban have that bond. We couldn’t imag­ine life with­out him.”

I WAS BLOWN AWAY AC­TU­ALLY. IT NEVER OC­CURRED TO ME THAT A DOG COULD HAVE EPILEPSY. WHAT ARE THE ODDS OF THAT HAP­PEN­ING?

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