By: Karey Burek, PhD
On a hot day in late August 2018, Denali was locked in a cage, doused in a chemical accelerant and watched as the house was set on fire around her; I can only guess that the end goal of this abuse by her former owner was to burn her alive.
Pasco County Fire Rescue crews responded to the two-alarm fire at Denali’s home. Once the fire was controlled, firefighters entered the home and located Denali, carrying her to safety before the fire reached her, but the accelerant that soaked her fur was already beginning to take its toll. She was transferred, after an initial vet exam, to Pasco County Animal Services where they tried to keep her stable over the Labor Day weekend, but it quickly became a life or death situation. Suncoast Animal League was contacted to step in and provide Denali the life saving medical care she needed. As a long-time rescue volunteer for the shelter, I was able to do the transport from Pasco County Animal Services to Blue Pearl Emergency Vet. The drive was 32 minutes, which doesn’t sound like much at all, but Denali wailed and cried the entire ride, bringing me to tears as I rushed to get her to a facility that would hopefully save her life. She spent the next 16 days in the ICU, struggling to survive as the areas of burns from the chemical accelerant continued to grow. She endured several debriding surgeries to remove necrotic skin and muscle tissue, and she remained hooked to three IV catheters with over 7 medications flowing through her bandage wrapped body. I visited Denali in the ICU every day. Sometimes I even went twice a day just to let her know how many people were fighting for her and so she could hear a familiar voice. The Suncoast Animal League Facebook page documented her daily struggles; 134,000 people from around the world were holding their breath to see if this little pit mix would survive. And we waited. The first week was a rollercoaster ride with good days and some very bad days where the conversation became more about her painful quality of life rather than a bright future. The odds of her surviving looked slim. She was suffering from what would be considered third-degree burns over 35% of her body, which most would not be able to recover from. But this sweet dog kept fighting and would offer up small tail wags during her bandage changes and even mustered up the energy to give Dr. Lee, her hero and the reason she is alive, some kisses. I told the shelter director that if Denali survived, I wanted to foster her through the rest of her recovery. I was hopeful I would get the chance.
After almost three weeks at the emergency vet, Denali walked out of the hospital and into her foster home with me. Her inspirational story of overcoming abuse, injury and pain touched thousands and she quickly became famous for not only her horrific story but for how gentle and sweet she was. She immediately bonded with my older dog Lexi, spooning and grooming one another, always sleeping in positions so they could touch one another. Her wound care continued because even though she was out of the hospital, she needed her body bandages changed every three days and then as she continued to heal it was once a week. After 64 days of being wrapped, she was finally free. I photographed her body every week as they would cut away the bandages and reveal the wounds and trauma underneath. The colorful and decorated wraps almost made you forget what happened to her. Almost. I have these photos lined up side by side with dates to show how far she has come and how much she had to endure.
The fur that has grown back in some areas is now white because of a loss of pigmentation. Her shoulder, leg and back are bare from the chemical burns and you can follow the “pour pattern” of the accelerant; on her head, down her shoulder, covering her back and down her hind end. She will never have fur in these areas and it makes her even more beautiful. Unique.
Through it all, Denali’s eyes have remained kind and gentle, spreading the message of hope and forgiveness wherever she goes. Her greetings to everyone are full of warmth and silly wiggle butt wags, with her greatest reward being the opportunity to meet new people, give kisses, bringing joy to those that need it most.
Denali is a burn survivor, a resilient spirit that overcame the odds. She is both stoic and silly. I like to watch her lay in the sun in the yard, snoozing and snoring lightly. When the sun warms her scars a little too much, she rolls on her back to let the rays tickle her belly. I find my own strength within her. She reminds me to live in the moment, to be silly. She reminds me to breathe and to just be calm.
On the weekend leading up to Valentine’s Day 2019, the shelter held a special celebration they called “Denali’s Be My Valentine” party. Denali, of course, was the guest of honor and spent the three-hour event on her “throne” in the photo booth so all of her adoring fans could meet her and get their photo taken with this special dog that inspired so many. People drove across county lines just to have the opportunity to meet this exceptional survivor and witness her adoption and the beginning of a new life. Valentine’s Day seemed like the perfect adoption day because she is a permanent part of my heart.
Since her Valentine Party Denali has begun a life of paying it forward so to speak. Her, along with Lexi, host foster dogs and puppies with medical needs and help them heal, play, nap and feel the comfort and love needed to bridge their past with their future forever homes. Denali’s gentle spirit is a calming aid for the injured animals that find solace in our home as they recover. Her Instagram page and the shelter Facebook page document their recovery with the help of Denali kisses and zoomies, her kind soul taking these broken ones underwing and helping them feel better.
Denali has also found a kindred spirit and friend in Clover the firehouse dog for Madeira Beach, a fellow burn survivor. They train together, with Clover being Denali’s mentor on her journey to receive her Canine Good Citizen certification. Denali is a sought after guest at schools, clubs, Assisted Living facilities, visiting children and adults as an ambassador for courage, love and to help bring awareness to the impact of animal abuse. She greets everyone with kindness and her gentle nature along with sloppy kisses and snorts continues her growing fan base. Denali also was a special guest at Fire Camp at a local fire department, helping to educate kids about the difference between thermal and chemical burns, what an accelerant is and how damaging it can be when on skin. Her wounds have healed but her scars are widespread, and she loves when the scars on her back are gently touched—the kids were able to feel her scars, how soft she is, they saw her resilience and courage, taking the story of her abuse and survival to heart. Something they won’t soon forget.