Saying goodbye to Willie Boy
Of the 22 Vicktory dogs who came to Best Friends after being rescued from Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels in April of 2007, Willie Boy faced some of the biggest challenges. But neither his traumatic past nor his frail health could ever wash away the best parts of his character, and the people who became his family at the Sanctuary will always remember him as a fun, happy and gentle soul.
On Friday night, that family, which included Dogtown caregivers and members of the Best Friends veterinary team, had to make a heart-wrenching decision. Willie, who was 13 and had an extensive medical history, was fading fast.
During all the brave dog’s previous struggles — with babesia (a blood parasite spread by way of bites among dogs forced to fight), with cancer and, later, with an intestinal disorder that led to constant protein loss in his body — he’d hit plenty of lows, but he’d always rallied. This time, however, he became so weak that his family knew it was time to say goodbye.
Though Willie’s passing brought heartache to those who loved him, he left the world with ease and at peace, surrounded by their love.
Willie was one of only four Vicktory dogs remaining at the Sanctuary nearly 10 years after their arrival. In spite of his illnesses and the behavioral challenges that prevented him from being adopted, he lived a life full of friendship and love. “It’s especially hard to say goodbye to Willie Boy,” says Michelle Weaver, director of animal care at Best Friends. “Although he wasn’t able to be adopted, this was truly his home and he was a cherished member of the Best Friends family. Here he was safe, he was loved, and he lived a good life.”
Like so many of the Vicktory dogs, Willie Boy was shut down and sick when he arrived at the Sanctuary. He got expert medical care to manage his babesia (a lifelong condition) and Dogtown caregivers and trainers put in extra time and effort to help him transition to life at the Sanctuary. Although he would always remain a somewhat fearful dog who could only handle having a small circle of friends, Willie put the worst of his shock and fear behind him.
Even as Willie started building trust and relationships with his caregivers in those early days, however, he showed signs of unpredictability. There were moments then, and throughout his life, when Willie was simply “off.” He’d get a certain look in his eyes, or he’d be standing in his room with his hackles raised, and his caregivers would know that he needed space. His caregiving team realized that creating a very consistent routine was really important for Willie. They also recognized what was rewarding to Willie and what wasn't. By listening to him and creating stability for him, they were able to help him make progress. While those episodes were brief, and his caregivers never faulted him for them, they were one of the main reasons Willie remained at the Sanctuary while other Vicktory dogs found homes.
Willie also wasn’t good with other dogs when he arrived at the Sanctuary and, because babesia can be spread through bite wounds, it was safer for Willie to live by himself at Dogtown. He was far from lonely, though.
Willie Boy’s people — the few to whom he offered his heart and his friendship — will never forget how his inner light really shone through. Dogtown caregiver Paul Lindley, who started working with Willie the summer after he and the other Vicktory dogs arrived at the Sanctuary, describes him as a gentle spirit. “When he was himself, he was the sweetest, most gentle dog. He didn’t expect a lot from people; he just wanted to be your buddy and to feel loved,” Paul explains.
Paul’s favorite memories of Willie hearken back to the days when Willie started trusting him enough to go on outings with him to out-of-the-way places at the Sanctuary. “Many dogs enjoy Dogtown,” Paul says, “but Willie really thrived on the serenity and quietness here and on the peace of the canyon. There are very few dogs who deeply appreciate that, but Willie was one of them. I loved him and I’ve never met another dog like him.”
Tyson Horn, Best Friends co-founder and one of Willie’s caregivers, remembers Willie’s playful side. He loved large red plastic coffee containers. “He liked them more than dog toys and he would bat them around in his room for hours,” Tyson says. “He would get a new one once in a while but he often kept the old ones, too. I think at one time he had about 20 of them. He was a fun dog, and we liked watching him play.”
Dogtown caregiver Carissa Hendrick recalls that things really started changing for the better for Willie as he aged, especially after he had surgery to remove his spleen (which was damaged because of babesia). “He began to have more confidence,” Carissa says. “For the first time he could go into the dog park and strut around, sniffing everything out, and it was so great to see him enjoy it.”
As Willie mellowed with age, Carissa and his other caregivers tried again to see if he could have relationships with other dogs. They started doing group walks, keeping the dogs safely separated but letting them be where they could still see each other. Willie took an interest in a couple of shy dogs, who became his friends and helped him blossom in the last years of his life.
Dogtown caregiver and groomer Alyssa Hill’s favorite memories of Willie are of him interacting with these dogs. She says, “He was very flirty, and he would get really animated when he was around them. You could tell he really enjoyed their company.”
Willie also enjoyed delicious home-cooked meals. Because of his protein imbalance, he needed a special diet, and because he was so special to his caregivers, they would get together every other week and cook him a huge batch of specially prepared food and supplements, portioned out carefully according to his doctors’ orders. Getting the exact nutrition his body needed (with some extra love baked in) is part of what kept Willie going strong for so long.
Although it wasn’t a surprise that Willie’s time eventually ran out, his family has been hit hard by his loss. Their love for him, however, will live on, along with the life-affirming legacy of the Vicktory dogs. And the kindness, compassion, love and support that Willie Boy, his caregivers and all the Vicktory dogs received from Best Friends members and friends will never be forgotten.
Together, we will Save Them All.
Note: The story of the dogs rescued from Michael Vicks’ dogfighting ring was memorably told in the award-winning documentary The Champions. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It can be downloaded here or streamed on Netflix.