Lilly the Hero Pit Bull could have rested on the laurels of reputation.
She justly earned that moniker two years ago for taking on a speeding 800-ton freight train to rescue an unconscious woman who had collapsed on the tracks - losing a leg but inspiring millions when that feat made headlines worldwide.
Now 11, three-legged Lilly is on another rescue mission, as poster dog of a Facebook-based charityto help other pit bulls and their responsible owners.
“We learn of, and then post, a specific cause in which the pet or its responsible owner needs help - and our fans reach out,” says DavidLanteigne, a Boston police officer who adopted Lilly from an animal shelter five years earlier as a companion for his mother, whose life was saved by their joint-custody pet.
Consider it David’s way of paying it forward.
“After Lilly saved my mother, the local SPCA started a fund to help with Lilly’s medical bills, which were over $12,000,” he explains. “Within four days, $76,000 came in from around the world.”
The cop, now 31, met a graphic designer named Lindsay Dancy, who was also inspired by Lilly's freight-facing heroics, to launch the Facebook page. It now has nearly 360,000 Likes and a devout following.
“We want to advocate and promote the pit bull, stand up for the breed and their responsible owners,” says David. “But mostly, it’s about keeping great dogs in loving homes.”
Kindness of Strangers
Some 50 dogs and their owners benefit from approximately $20,000 raised annually through the Facebook charity (along with Lilly's personal website). That money is supplemented with proceeds from the sale of “Lilly the Hero Pit Bull” T-shirts, “pawtographed” photos and a children’s book published by National Geographic featuring Lilly on its cover available at pet events throughout New England, where Lilly is a fixture.
“It is so much work!” says Lindsay. “But it’s an awesome feeling to be able to help someone who can’t help their best friend.”
Those best friends include Magnolia, who emergency surgery bill of $3,600 was paid by Lilly’s fans. Aurora, hit by a car, got $1,700 for her treatment. Sweet Alice, “who was nothing but a breeding machine for her previous owner, having eight litters in four years,” says David, was safely removed and relocated to a loving home halfway across the country, thanks to $1,300 in contributions.
Three fans offered to pay for the cremation of Cami when her grieving family couldn’t afford to - ignoring the offer of an unopened, top-of-line espresso machine that a shelter volunteer ponied up as incentive.
And there’s Millie, a 60-something pet parent who was confronted by a mugger outside her home when her pit Champ, although afflicted with cancer, leapt a fence to prevent the robbery. Lilly’s fans raised $2,000 for the dog’s medical treatment and to help with other expenses for Millie, who had recently lost her job.
“It used to be mostly we’d try to help with medical bills that dog owners couldn’t afford,” says Lindsay. “But the biggest problem now is people having to relocate because they have pit bulls.”
Sometimes, Lilly’s fans provide local referrals to pit-friendly housing; sometimes they chip in for motels.
“Our fans have restored my faith in humanity,” says Lindsay. “Not all are pit bull owners but most are dog owners. Some don’t even have pets; they just want to help - and it’s all because of Lilly.”
From Family Pet to Hero
It was just past midnight on May 3, 2012, when Lilly went from being just another shelter-adopted family pet to Hero Pit Bull status.
“The engineer told me that as the train approached, he saw what looked like a dog, frantically trying to get this woman off the tracks pushing, pulling, doing everything it could,” recalls David. “He tried to stop the train but said there wasn’t enough time. And at the last second, he said he saw my dog intentionally put his body between the train and my mother.
“He said that he expected to find a dead woman and a dead dog. What he found, when the train finally stopped, was that my mother was still unconscious but uninjured. And my dog was bleeding profusely, but still watching over her.”
That story was echoed by EMTs: A severed leg and blood everywhere. Wailing sirens and flashing lights. But through it all, Lilly remained calm, continuing to watch over Christine Spain, then 54, who had collapsed onto the tracks while walking home from a friend’s house with Lilly.
Even seen-it-all first responders couldn’t help but marvel at the actions of this member of that most maligned and misunderstood breed, proving in spades exactly why we love dogs.
Proving Them Wrong
Ask any responsible pet parent of the so-called “Nanny Dog” - as pits are known elsewhere for a reputation as the ideal family dog - and you’ll hear the same thing: How smart, trainable, gentle and sweet their dogs are, with exceptional loyalty and unbreakable bonds for their human pack. The breed bested only by the Labrador Retriever as the most patient and tolerate, according to temperament tests.
Good owners make for great dogs of any breed. But David, Lindsay and Lilly’s fans know that for the most part, it’s pit bulls that are singled out to be outlawed in several U.S. cities - and not necessarily because of any individual actions by the dogs or their owners.
“I always knew Lilly was a special dog, before any of this happened. But since she saved my mother, I started to get more insights on just how much and unjustly pit bull are stereotyped and discriminated against,” says David. “Lilly never deserved to be in a shelter, and neither do so many other dogs. But people are afraid to adopt pit bulls because of that stereotype, so they’re put to sleep.”
David asks for a moment. A sniff is heard over the phone, tears can be visualized. Even for a cop who spends nights patrolling one of Boston's toughest areas, it’s understandable. Emotions run deep with this kind of story - and for this kind of dog.
“I know it’s changing, and more people now realize that it’s not the breed but the training that’s behind their stereotype,” says David. “But you wouldn’t believe how often I go to events and people meet Lilly - this amazing, innocent example of complete love and sweetness - and still say ‘Is this really a pit bull? I thought they were mean!’ It’s great to prove them wrong.”
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