An unusual, but true, story involving a cat, a dog and a local man was recently named winner of a national contest after being submitted by The Animal Shelter of Texas County (TASTC).

Called The Most Heartwarming Story Contest, the weekly competition is sponsored by Blue Buffalo Dog Food and the Helen Woodward Animal Center (in San Diego County, Calif.). It is open to all facilities that participate in Blue Buffalo’s “Home 4 the Holidays” program (a worldwide adoption campaign that focuses on helping pet adoption facilities and rescue groups find homes for pets during the holiday season).

TASTC’s winning entry chronicled the story of Plato area resident Michael Richards and his cat, Sir Goober Cat, and dog, Pepper. As was documented in a Herald feature story last December, Richards lost much of his left arm in an automobile crash and felt led to obtain a dog to act as a partner and help him through the aftermath.

Richards visited TASTC during his quest to find the right buddy, and was shown Pepper as almost a last resort after every other dog in the facility had failed the test. In an unexpected twist of fate and destiny, the little female Jack Russell mix – who was previously known to always be skittish around humans – immediately latched onto Richards and basically wouldn’t leave his side.

“She was born my dog, and from the moment we met, she knew exactly what she was supposed to do,” Richards said.

In October of this year, the not-for-profit TASTC organization sent out a plea via Facebook for someone to foster a feline amputee. Richards answered the call and took in the young three-legger.

Inexplicably, Pepper took to Sir Goober Cat (who was named by Richards’ three-year-old son Matthew, who spouted out the three-word moniker when he first laid eyes on the cat) in the same way she had for her human charge almost a year earlier.

As Goober was healing, Pepper was there for him virtually all day long and licked his wound every evening before bed.

“These two animals are truly angels in our lives,” Richards said.

Blue Buffalo’s Home 4 the Holidays campaign began Oct. 1 and ends Jan. 2. As a weekly winner, TASTC’s entry was featured on the Helen Woodward Animal Center’s online blog page and will join a pool of other finalists with a chance to win a $500 award after a public vote in February. “Each one of our adoptions are special to us,” TASTC manager Marsha Martin said. “Some have more impact than others, but they’re all important. But when you can share a story like this, it feels good to know you had a part in changing the person’s life and the animal’s life. And to know that other places see that importance is what matters.

“Things like this is what it’s all about. It’s not about the recognition, it’s not about the adoption fees and it’s not about the numbers – although higher numbers are good because it means we’re placing more pets. It’s about that feeling in your heart that you had a part in it.”

“Obviously, this makes us proud of what our shelter does,” TASTC president Rita Romines said, “not only for animals, but for people, too.”

TASTC hopeful in bigger contest

TASTC has also entered five success stories in another contest, this one sponsored by Petco pet products and the Petco Foundation’s Holiday Wishes Campaign, in conjunction with Halo food products (founded by TV celebrity Ellen DeGeneres). The competition allows organizations throughout the country a chance to win prizes of $100,000 for first place, $50,000 for second and $25,000 for third. Prizes of $10,000 or $5,000 will also be awarded to 10 other selected organizations.

TASTC’s entries in that contest (which must be 500 words or less) document the stories of Mya (a mixed-breed dog that ended up with a head full of birdshot after being blasted at close range by a shotgun), Addie (a pit bull with 14 puppies who had been badly over-bred during her life), Sir Goober Cat and Pepper, and a couple of other memorable successes.

Martin expects results to be announced by the end of the year.

DOC director singles out TASTC stories

The Missouri Department of Corrections launched its Puppies for Parole program in February, 2010. In partnership with animal shelters and animal advocate groups throughout the state, the program pairs rescued dogs with prison inmates around the state who put the animals through a two-month training period in which they learn verbal commands and general obedience.

Puppies for Parole recently saw its 2,000th graduate adopted through a participating rescue facility. In honor of the milestone, DOC Director George Lombardi orchestrated the production of a detailed article featuring stories about eight of the program’s most interesting success stories, which was published in the Puppies for Parole newsletter and posted on the program’s website.

Out of the eight stories Lombardi highlighted, three were about dogs brought to the program and later adopted out by TASTC: Sparky (a deaf dachshund who now lives and works at the Missouri School for the Deaf), Mya (the shotgun survivor) and Bear (a three-legged Great Pyrenees mix who was adopted by a retired Marine Corps Master Sergeant who now works at the South Central Correctional Center in Licking).

“We get a lot of support from a lot of people,” Romines said. “The prison program has really been a blessing.”

“We have so many more of these kinds of stories,” Martin said. “They just kind of happen around here.”

Placing plenty of pets

Now with more than 4,100 “likes” on its Facebook page, TASTC has in 2013 already broken its previous record for adoptions in a calendar year.

As of Dec. 12, the count was at 660 adoptions (555 dogs and 105 cats), already eclipsing last year’s previous record of 656 (547 dogs and 109 cats). The robust numbers project out to more than 700 by year’s end, and are the combined result of a steady flow of in-house adoptions and shipping numerous animals to all corners of the country.

Martin said most people really aren’t aware of all that goes on during a typical day at TASTC.

“There’s a lot of work that goes into taking dogs from a situation you can’t imagine and giving them a life they can’t imagine,” she said. “When they get here, some of them don’t know anything but how to walk in a four-foot circle around a tree. But helping them and helping people is why we’re here.”

Romines said the operation has grown to a point she never envisioned when she founded it.

“When I started the shelter, I thought of it as one puddle,” she said. “As it has grown, it’s more like a lake with streams flowing out in every direction, to many places I never dreamed it would go.

“And it started with dogs and cats, but it’s now about people, too. It’s amazing.”

There’s a lot of work that goes into taking dogs from a situation you can’t imagine and giving them a life they can’t imagine.”

TASTC’s winning story on the Helen Woodward Animal Center’s blog:

Missouri Department of Corrections Puppies for Parole newsletter:

December 2012 Houston Herald feature story about Michael Richardson and Pepper:

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