A tail of hope

Found in late May in North Charleston with electrical tape binding her snout shut, Caitlyn has made a great recovery and has found a good home with a foster family.

There is surely one Caitlyn as famous as her, but one might argue that she’s not quite as endearing. The picture of her amber eye looking out inches above a binding of electrical tape wound tightly around her swollen muzzle — haunting, piercing with mute despair — traveled around the globe, putting a pit in people’s stomachs and crystallizing a universal revulsion against cruelty toward animals.

Indeed, just as Caitlyn Jenner — the only Internet rival in a search for “Caitlyn” — has become the symbol of transgender individuals’ right to live with freedom and dignity, Caitlyn the dog has become the face of dignity and resilience in the face of wanton human cruelty.

And less than six months after her unimaginable ordeal, Caitlyn the dog has healed and her story lingers in people’s minds.

“Sometimes, something monumental happening to one animal can become a catalyst for big change and awareness,” said Kim Kelly, South Carolina director for the Humane Society of the United States. “I hope people remember that for every Caitlyn there are countless others whose stories are never told.”

Aldwin Roman, director of anti-cruelty and outreach for the Charleston Animal Society, the organization that rescued Caitlyn together with North Charleston Animal Control, said the attention has started an important discussion about preventing cruelty to animals.

“Caitlyn has given us an opportunity to tell people that willful cruelty to animals does not go unnoticed and to speak about the importance of coming forward if you see something,” Roman said. “If you see cruelty, you have to report it. Animals are voiceless without us.”

Caitlyn’s story, like many others in the animal world, is heartbreaking. She was found at the end of May in North Charleston with her muzzle tightly bound by nine turns of electrical tape. It had been put on her some 36 hours earlier by her owner to prevent her from barking. By then the tape had cut deeply into her flesh, her tongue was stuck out of her mouth, fluids had accumulated in her muzzle and caused swelling, and the wounds, like circular razor cuts around the bridge of her nose, were infected. It was a life-threatening situation — not to mention that she had not had water or food in close to two days in Charleston’s grueling heat.

After sedating her and giving her painkillers, doctors removed the tape, administered fluids and put her under observation to see if she would even make it.

“It was impossible to tell the extent of the damage and the infection and whether she would survive this at all,” Roman said.

When she showed that, indeed, she would, she was sent for surgeries that, in the end, reconstructed the inside of her cheeks, the area where her upper and lower lip meet, and her lip lines, said Specialty Veterinary Care’s Dr. Henri Bianucci, who cared for Caitlyn. She lost a tiny piece of her tongue, and was heavily scarred, but hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatments and cold laser therapy helped heal the most difficult wounds and lots of tender care nursed her back to health.

Living since June with a foster family that will likely adopt her — Caitlyn’s caretakers declined to be interviewed to protect the dog’s privacy, as well as their own — Caitlyn has made a strong recovery. Her personality, loving and affectionate, has triumphed over the scars of horror, Roman said.

“She is a normal dog. She goes running every day, and she is incredibly playful and full of energy,” Roman said.

The 2-year-old pup is still rambunctious, but listens, obeys, plays with the other dog of the house, sleeps with the children of the home, and has bonded to the family, oblivious to her fame.

“She is in a perfect home setting and she is a happy dog,” Roman said.

Meanwhile, under the hashtag #IamCaitlyn, the dog’s story continues to garner attention around the world.

“Caitlyn is not the first or the last or even the worst animal cruelty case we have seen, but something about her resonated with people. Every abandoned or abused dog around the world has become Caitlyn,” said Kay Hyman, the Charleston Animal Society’s director of community engagement. “She became a beacon of hope for animals around the world, and still is. It created a platform for people to communicate about this around the world.”

Almost immediately, donations for Caitlyn’s medical treatment far exceeded what was needed, and more than $150,000 were raised in her name to benefit other animals through the animal society’s Toby’s Fund. Likes to the Charleston Animal Society’s Facebook page reached 178,000, from less than half that a couple of months earlier. Caitlyn has been featured by news outlets all over the world, including People magazine, the LA Times, USA Today, the BBC, CNN, Gawker and more. She has even been “interviewed” on Skype and asked to fly places for interviews. Cities are proposing stricter anti-cruelty “Caitlyn’s laws,” Hyman said, and Hyman has received Facebook messages from battered women telling her that they found courage in Caitlyn’s story.

“Her recovery and her getting out of her situation and escaping the cruelty gave them hope,” Hyman said.

Caitlyn was lucky in that regard. After having been bound and left, she managed to break from her chain and escape. By chance she was seen by her previous owner, who called authorities to report her condition. Animal control officers and Roman rescued her, and her owner was arrested and charged with felony ill-treatment of an animal. Officials then learned that while he was taping Caitlyn’s jowls shut, the man, William Leonard Dodson, had been out on bail for pending drug and weapons charges here; he was also on parole in Georgia. He is currently in jail awaiting prosecution here. The Charleston Animal Society, technically Caitlyn’s guardian, is keeping close tabs on the case. Meanwhile, the state of Georgia has also revoked Dodson’s parole and he will be extradited there once his charges here are resolved, according to Roman.

Had Caitlyn not managed her fortuitous escape, Roman said, she might have passed away, her story forever unknown.

“How many others are out there who have not managed to escape and died?” he said. “If you see an animal go in somewhere and then not come back out, or you have a bad feeling about a neighbor, call. This is something that needs to be stopped.”

Animal protectionists nationwide second that, hoping that Caitlyn’s image lingers in people’s hearts as a reminder of just how urgent the issue remains.

“To see the photo of the actual abuse against this sweet dog really spoke to people’s hearts. I don’t think there was anyone who had not heard of Caitlyn,” said Kristin DeJournette, cruelty casework manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in Washington, D.C. “But it’s important to remember that cruelty to animals can happen anywhere. Always keep your eyes and your ears open and report anything suspicious to your local authorities.”

On a cloudy afternoon in September, Caitlyn was ready to charm at Brittlebank Park in downtown Charleston.

Prepped for her photo shoot with Lowcountry Paws, her third professional shoot to date, Caitlyn sported a pink polka dot bandana embellished with her name, one of many monogrammed kerchiefs sent to her. She’s surprisingly smaller than one might think, something Roman said people often comment on when they meet her.

Happy and healthy, she nibbled on grass, gobbled down treats and warmed up to the strangers who approached to pet her.

“Is that the Caitlyn dog?!” a young passerby asked before bending down to stroke the famous canine, complimenting her with “You’re so pretty,” praise.

Though the scars are hard to miss, bridging the top of her snout and cheeks in lines of smooth skin, little else suggests the trauma she endured. And perhaps that’s what makes Caitlyn instantly endearing, along with her trusting, sweet disposition.

“I think it will be nice for people to see how well she’s doing,” Roman said.

Though Caitlyn was initially described as a Staffordshire bull terrier mix and has been described occasionally as a mixed pit bull, she appears to be none of those now: perhaps a breed with some herding-dog blood in her, said Roman. She has a slight build and a little curl in her tail. “We might run a DNA test on her,” he said.

Caitlyn Jenner’s publicist’s office declined to comment on whether Caitlyn the dog had stolen her hashtag or forced a renaming of her show — “I am Cait” instead of “I am Caitlyn” — but when asked if they knew about Caitlyn the dog, an assistant said they sure had. We bet.

— Rachel Cook contributed to this story.