Hello God, it’s me again, Hercules. I know you are busy, what with breed discrimination running rampant and dogfighting (what is THAT all about!) out of control, but I have another favor to ask. I know I am asking a lot, because you already answered my prayers when my leg hurt, and when the tumors were multiplying all over my body. Thank you for showing Dr. Kali where the cancer was — I am doing so much better now without my leg! But the favor I want to ask you is this: could you let me live just a little bit longer, so I can help Kylie when she is ready to go to school? She is so small, and I want to protect her when she ventures out into the world.”
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Photographer Lisa Scarsi specializes in portraits of pets and children, and is also a huge advocate of animal welfare and has worked on a few projects for different nonprofits. In her job as a photographer, she often runs across exceptional stories. This one gave her pause.
Scarsi received a message from Leslie Oakley, someone she’d met at a fundraiser for Friends of Orange County Homeless Pets (FOCHP). Oakley said she had a 5-year-old pit bull terrier named Hercules who had cancer, and she wanted to get portraits of him and her 2-year-old daughter Kylie before Herc's time ran out.
A photo session was scheduled immediately, and Scarsi was deeply touched by the mild mannered Hercules. The palpable love between Kylie and Herc went beyond words-her photos tell the tale. “It was just absolutely touching,” shares Scarsi. “On top of that, the story of ‘how Hercules became their dog’ was pretty interesting and had so many lessons. I just think this is a beautiful story and a teaching story, and one that will open people's hearts to love a pit bull.”
The Story of Hercules
Hercules was born on November 25, 2005 to a pit bull mama named Roxy. One of five pups, Herc was the biggest and cutest of them all. FOCHP volunteer Oakley was smitten with him, but found him (and his siblings) wonderful homes after they were all spayed and neutered. Unfortunately, Hercules was returned to FOCHP when he was 1 ½ years old (in the summer of 2007) because the family did not seek training when Hercules was a puppy and he was "destroying" their home. Oakley took him back into foster care, and prior to putting him back up for adoption, she trained him. “To tell you the truth, he drove ME insane too!” laughs Oakley. “He took to the training sessions very well. He just wanted someone to tell him what was ok and what was NOT ok. He listened and reacted perfectly.”
Oakley fell completely and utterly in love with Herc, but at the time had three other dogs and could not add another to her pack. She put Hercules up for adoption around the end of 2007, when she was seven to eight months pregnant. Several people expressed interest in Herc, but didn’t pass the grueling interview with Oakley. Nobody was good enough for Herc. “I was really strict about his adoption because we did so much work with him and he was now such a wonderful dog, I wanted to make sure the adoptive family would continue the training and discipline. Well, I think I scared everyone away.”
By the time Kylie was born on January 11, 2008, Hercules was still a member of the Oakley pack. Oakley recalls Kylie’s birthday with fondness. “Since the day Kylie was born, Herc was in love. At first it seemed like curiosity, and I thought he would get over it after a couple weeks. (All the other dogs did). But he didn't. Herc just wanted to be in the same room with her, laying on the floor with her, etc. He adopted my daughter when she was just a couple months old and life has never been better. I decided to take him off our 'available dogs' list and welcomed him as a permanent member of our family. I have never regretted that decision. He is the world’s most amazing dog. Kylie truly has a unique bond with him that brings tears to my eyes every time I think about his life span.”
Hercules was diagnosed with mast cell disease (cancer) in the beginning of 2008. It started as one tumor on his back leg, which was quickly removed. About eight months later he had multiple tumors growing up his back leg and into his groin. All of the eight to 12 tumors were removed, and Oakley was referred to an oncologist.
“Because Hercules is such a big part of our life, we do treat him as a family member, which means he gets the best medical treatment we could possibly afford-or go into debt for!” Oakley recalls. “The oncologist gave us options of radiation, chemotherapy and amputation. We chose to amputate because it seemed like the best fighting chance to keep the cancer out of his body and bloodstream and organs. Along with his leg came his lymph node so we could do a biopsy and see if the cancer had reached that far yet. It had not. The amputation took place in January 2010. I do not regret our decision to amputate, but it was a very hard recovery for our family.”
Hercules was walking the night of his amputation surgery, but he remained depressed for a few days. Oakley felt helpless in that she could not explain to him why parts of his body were missing, and why he had to continuously visit the vet only to be poked, prodded, X-rayed, cut, etc. “When Hercules had his leg amputated, it was a challenge. Kylie was not old enough to understand that she needed to be gentle with him so he got a lot of ‘rough love.’ We did our best to keep her from climbing on him during recovery, but the two are inseparable, so I know he put up with some pain while playing with her. But I think he would do it again in a heart beat. I don't know if Hercules' depression was a reflection of my emotions about the situation. Indeed it could have been because my heart was filled with both fear and guilt. I wanted to make sure we were removing his leg for his best interest, and not our selfish desire to keep him around as long as possible. But he looks great now. I truly believe we made the right decision.”
Eventually, life returned to normal and Hercules seemed to be his old self again. Until more tumors appeared.
In June 2010 Hercules had to go back to the vet to have eight to 10 more tumors removed from his body. They were spread from his tail, to his rear end, into his groin, onto the side of his body, onto his chest, and up to his front legs. The poor guy had staples and stitches everywhere! At that time, the vet took another blood panel and ultrasound, which showed him to be free of any mast cell disease.
“All we do now is check for more lumps (which have already appeared) and take things day by day. We will continue to remove any and all tumors and make sure he is happy, and that is the best medical decision that can be made. His comfort level is our priority, along with keeping him around to be with Kylie as long as possible. The day I have to explain to her why Hercules is not here is going to be one of the worst days of my life.”
BadRap, Bless the Bullys, Mariah’s Promise, Villalobos Rescue Center, DenverKillsDogs, Rescue Ink, and of course Best Friends’ “Pit Bulls: Saving America’s Dog” campaign. And I love the video Jodi Preis just released! She really hit the nail on the head in portraying the truth about pit bulls. Please grant all of them the strength and resources to continue the good fight — we never meant to cause any harm to anybody, yet we are being punished for our breed. I’ll never understand that.
All I want to do is protect and love Kylie and Leslie. I pray that you will take care of them when I am gone.”
*Click here for an update on Hercules and Kylie!*
By Roni Raczkowski, Best Friends Network volunteer
Photos courtesy of Lisa Scarsi, photographer
Video courtesy of Jodi Preis, Bless the Bullys
**Check out Lisa Scarsi's photoshoot of Shorty and his Pits on her blog. Shorty and his furry sidekicks star in the HUGE show, Pit Boss on Animal Planet. If you haven’t seen the show you need to check it out (click for show times). Shorty runs a rescue called Shorty’s Rescue and is committed to spreading the word that pits are really misunderstood “underdogs” who deserve our love and respect.