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‘Louisville’s dog’ Sunny leaves a legacy of kindness, hope, redemption and joy

Photo by Jess Amburgey

When a white Malibu pulled over to the side of the Clark Memorial Bridge in 2009, patrons and waiters at Joe’s Crab Shack saw a small bundle thrown from the car, which dropped 85 feet to the water below. One keen-eyed observer noticed it wasn’t a bundle of trash, it was a small red-nosed pit bull.

Many Louisvillians are already aware of this story: the dog’s miraculous survival; her subsequent adoption by Kelsey Westbrook, one of the waiters at Joe’s Crab Shack; and the founding of the organization Saving Sunny, an animal rescue and education nonprofit here in Louisville. It’s an honest to dog heart-warming tale of how kindness can change lives, of how each of us can have worth even if someone has thrown us away, and how love can bring redemption and hope.

Last week, after several months of battling cancer, Sunny died at the age of 7. Insider Louisville spoke with Westbrook about Sunny’s life and early death, how the conversation has changed around pit bulls since Sunny came into Westbrook’s life, and how to say goodbye to a friend. How Sunny Got Saved When that little pit bull was tossed from the bridge, the Louisville Fire Department’s dive team was practicing maneuvers on the waterfront. One of Westbrook’s co-workers at the Crab Shack called 911, the dive team was alerted and they quickly plucked the pup from the water.

The dog’s sunny disposition was evident from the start, according to Westbrook, who met the boat at the shore.

“She was wiggling and shaking off, and jumping up, and so excited, carrying the same disposition people have loved. She had that since day one,” she remembers.

Westbrook knew many pit bulls were euthanized in Metro animal shelters, and that this wiggling pup wouldn’t stand a chance if the firefighters took her to the shelter. So she asked the firefighters if she could foster the dog.

Sunny’s story, like so many of the great true stories, is marked by several improbable moments. Beyond the fall, beyond the near collision the dog had with a passing barge, beyond those firefighters serendipitously being close enough to act, beyond the fact that those firefighters, legally speaking, should have said “No.” Technically, the pit bull should have gone to Metro Animal Services since police chose to prosecute the driver of the Malibu. She would have gone into a quarantine cell as evidence in an ongoing court case. She would have stayed there for 18 months, the time it took to prosecute the person who had thrown her from the bridge.

Eighteen months, locked in a cell alone. Westbrook is quick to point out that Metro Animal Services does their best to take care of every animal, and walk them and keep them company, but she also knows the reality isn’t always pretty. Animal services works on a tight budget.

But those firefighters chose to use a little human decency, and they sent the dog home with Westbrook, who named her Sunny.

Of course, Westbrook’s original intention to merely foster Sunny and help find her a home was discarded almost immediately. “After 12 hours, I was, like, nope. She’s my dog, I love her, she loves me. We’re a family.”

Starting Saving Sunny

Within 24 hours, Westbrook and Sunny, as well as Nala, Westbrook’s other dog, were all facing eviction, since Westbrook was immediately thrust into the world of breed-based discrimination.

Staring in the ’70s and ’80s, as dog fighting came to the fore of the national consciousness, pit bulls have been portrayed in the media as vicious killers. In some areas, breed-specific laws have been passed against so called “bully breeds” that include all the breeds generally referred to as pit bulls. Louisville doesn’t have any breed-specific laws, but many apartments or rental properties include breed-specific prohibitions. Westbrook’s landlords contacted her after seeing her on the news and informed her that she had to get rid of the dog, or move out within 48 hours. She immediately pored over her lease to see if there were any breed-based prohibitions, and saw there were none. She then began making phone calls.

“I contacted the news outlets that had just been covering me and said, ‘This is what’s happening, I’m being evicted,’” she says. The media covered her impending eviction, and the landlords got so much heat from the public, they ended up backing off.

But it was a frightening introduction to the world Westbrook had stepped into with her act of kindness.

She already was beginning to consider how to fight back against breed discrimination when she received a phone call from Maureen Keenan, a local attorney. Keenan was a passionate dog lover who had recently attended a seminar at best Friends Animal Society. They sat down to talk about what they could accomplish together, and Saving Sunny was born.

“We didn’t set out to be a pit bull rescue, but we became one by default because we would rescue them,” says Westbrook. At the time, other rescue organizations weren’t working with bully breeds, but Westbrook found that the animals who needed the most help, the ones that needed extra care, were these maligned breeds of dogs.

Saving Sunny has helped thousands of dogs — sometimes finding them homes, sometimes just helping owners find the resources to be better dog owners through Saving Sunny’s resource center. (Full disclosure: They helped me find my dog, Buster. He’s another red-nosed pit bull that might have been euthanized if Westbrook, Keenan and everyone at Saving Sunny hadn’t helped Buster find his forever home as part of my pack.)

Louisville’s Dog

I admitted to Westbrook in our interview that my family sort of considers her and Sunny extended members, and asked if she ran across that reaction frequently.

“Absolutely,” she says. “Especially people who have met Sunny, they feel like they have an intrinsic connection if they’ve adopted a dog from our program.”

Sunny’s impact goes way beyond adopters like myself. Westbrook says the media’s tendency to follow Sunny since the day she was thrown off the bridge has taken Sunny into a lot of hearts and homes. “And we post updates of her on social media. People love to find that connection — I think it was just special with her, (because) she just radiated positive energy to everyone,” says Westbrook, who paused before adding, “She was kind of Louisville’s dog.”

As Louisville’s dog, she repped Saving Sunny at loads of public events, becoming an ambassador for her breed. “She changed the tone for so many other dogs like her that came along,” says Westbrook. “She wanted  to be everyone’s family member, but it (made) people look at pit bull dogs like family.”

The Diagnosis

In February, Sunny went in to see a vet for what Westbrook thought was an abscessed tooth.

“My vet called me and said, ‘Kelsey, this isn’t a dental abscess, it’s a mass.’ She said, ‘I don’t wanna scare you, but I can’t take this out. It would require removing a portion of her jaw.’”

Westbrook agreed to have the mass biopsied. While she waited for results, the mass grew and started to restrict Sunny’s breathing. “The same day we got the results back that it was cancer, we were in the emergency room because she couldn’t breathe.”

While the vet couldn’t remove the cancer, they performed a “de-bulking” surgery, essentially removing the easy-to-get portions of the tumor so Sunny could breathe. “Immediately after surgery, she went back to normal,” Westbrook says. “Bouncing around, hiking, rollerblading, swimming, everything. And we started exploring all our options.” She felt traditional radiation was out of the question. The side-effects were too harsh. “It burns the skin, causes really uncomfortable side effects — side effects I would never let Sunny go through.”

Part of this comes from the way radiation therapy works. The radiation burns only in certain shapes — squares and rectangles — so portions of skin and tissue that aren’t cancerous are damaged. But some vets are starting to use a kind of radiation therapy called stereotactic radiation therapy (SRT). It’s done on humans here in Louisville, under the flashy name “cyber knife.”

“They can make shapes, go in and out of a nasal passage, do all these things that will only target the tumor,” explains Westbrook. It also takes a lot less time. Normal radiation requires dozens of sessions on successive days. SRT only takes three sessions.

Sunny underwent the process, and Westbrook and her pack waited for results. It would be three months before they knew whether the therapy was effective.

She Loved Water

Westbrook, her boyfriend Jamie Davis and Sunny’s siblings Nala and Pierre made the most of the time they had. She particularly remembers a trip to the ocean, calling it something from Sunny’s bucket list. “She loves water, which is funny for a dog that got thrown off the bridge.”

Shortly after their trip to the beach, Sunny’s condition worsened, and after another visit to the vet, it was clear Sunny’s cancer had completely regrown and was not responding to treatment.

“It was a devastating blow,” says Westbrook. “Seeing her at the beach, two days earlier, running around jumping in the waves, it was crazy to see there was a tumor in her mouth the size of a human fist.”

They began to look at end-of-life care, bringing in Dr. Courtney Bennett of Heart’s Ease Veterinary Hospice. Westbrook calls Bennett “the most wonderful angel on the planet Earth.”

Bennett helped Westbrook and Davis make decisions about when to let go of Sunny, to ensure they were making decisions based on what was right for Sunny.

As many pet owners know, in moments of grief, it can be easy to makes decisions based on denial, based on our own unwillingness to let go. Westbrook says she’s glad they had Bennett’s help. What’s more, by delaying too long, Westbrook risked having the decision forced by Sunny’s illness.

“There was a risk when we got toward the end that we could end up in an emergency situation, like her not being able to breathe, and have to say goodbye then, when it’s traumatic, (in a hospital) on a silver table. We didn’t want that.”

With Bennett’s in-home care, when Sunny said goodbye, she was surrounded by her pack — humans and dogs — sitting on her favorite blanket in Westbrook’s backyard. Her day was filled with treats, belly rubs and sunshine.

“When Courtney showed up that day, I was laying with Sunny on the blanket and she got up and ran to Courtney and wriggled left and right,” Westbrook recalls. “She was still holding true to herself until the very last day.”

Sunny is Gone, But Saving Sunny Lives On

Westbrook has taken a little time away from the responsibilities of Saving Sunny, but it’s just a momentary break to grieve. “Our work in the community, everything we’re doing, it’s not gonna suspend,” she says. “That would be a disservice to her legacy.”

“I love nothing more than hanging out with dogs and drinking beer,” says Westbrook. “I need to surround myself with my Saving Sunny family.”

Sunny made an impact on many lives, and she will be missed. Donations can be made to Saving Sunny to continue to support the work Sunny inspired — helping other dogs that need a second chance. While she is gone far too soon, it’s still remarkable to think how much she meant to so many people, including me.

Sunny was marked for death when she was thrown off that bridge on that bright and sunny day seven years ago. But she lived, because sometimes people are kind. Other dogs — including my best friend Buster — lived because sometimes kindness can stretch beyond one initial act of of grace and affect a whole community.

Go home and kiss your dogs. Kiss your kids, hug you friends or scratch your cat. But more importantly, be kind to someone or some creature you don’t know. Be kind, and watch that kindness ripple outward and change the world. Written by: Eli Keel


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