by Ryan Howard
All Kacie Carlson wanted was a dog. She didn’t expect the pet to change her life.
Carlson, the former naturalist at Wild River State Park, who now lives in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, adopted her pit bull, Maple, from the Northwoods Humane Society in Wyoming early in 2012.
This year, she found a way to give back to the animal shelter by entering an essay writing contest sponsored by Petco Foundation and Halo Purely for Pets. The contest asked pet owners to write about their pet adoption stories, with the top four winners’ home animal shelters receiving $50,000 and other prizes.
Carlson won, and Northwoods received a $50,000 check from Petco and Halo on Dec. 11.
Carlson said she hoped her essay would be one of the smaller winners, which granted smaller donation amounts to humane societies around the country.
“I thought they might get $50 or $100 out of it; I never imagined that they would get $50,000 out of it,” she said.
“So many of the stories are about dogs saving their owners’ life in some way or another,” she added.
Maple didn’t save Carlson’s life, but she altered it immensely. Before they found each other one January day in 2012, Carlson, who then lived in Taylors Falls, had been looking for a dog for about six months but couldn’t find the right one for her. Then, she visited Northwoods and a spotted a friendly looking pit bull – not a breed she’d been planning on getting.
“She gave me the eyes and she was the one I wanted,” Carlson said. “She was so calm and quiet, and I found out that’s pretty normal for rescue dogs.”
Taylors Falls is home to a myriad of outdoor recreational opportunities on its surrounding trails and waterways, and Maple joined Carlson for many walks and swims prior to the pair’s move to the similarly verdant Grand Rapids. Carlson is outdoorsy by nature and by trade, as a regional naturalist for Minnesota State Parks and Trails, and Maple was a constant companion on outdoor excursions. Her eagerness to get out and explore when her owner got home led Carlson to a healthier, more active life.
It was one such post-work adventure that led to a particularly life-changing moment.
“It was a hot day in July,” Carlson recalled. Without a pet, she may have just collapsed on the couch after a full day of work, but she could see in her dog’s eyes that Maple wanted to go outside. She went to a beach on Lake Pokegema and found a secluded area where Maple could swim away from kids and other dogs. Before long, however, she saw a dog paddling up to Maple from a nearby fishing boat.
“At first, I was annoyed,” she remembered. The dogs played well together, however, and she soon befriended the folks in the boat – including an Afghanistan veteran with ambitions to be a police officer, named Eddie. Eddie and his dog, Merica, accompanied Carlson and Maple to a nearby pizza place with a lake access, and before too long, he and Carlson were dating. In her essay, Carlson calls Eddie “the love of my life.”
Northwoods found out about the award on Dec. 2, and staff members could scarcely believe it. Executive Director Brenda Zelinka remembered asking Petco and Halo representatives if they really said “fifteen thousand” instead of “fifty thousand.” Never before, she said, has Northwoods received a donation so “huge” – the equivalent to one-sixth of the shelter’s annual operating budget. She thanked Petco and Halo for their generosity and said that though the Northwoods board hasn’t made a final decision on what to do with the money, some options include replacing an old pet transportation van and improving the cat living area.
Carlson said part of her surprise at winning the contest is due to the fact that, for a dog, Maple is “nothing special.” Instead, she said, her pet is an example of the everyday benefits a dog can bring into a person’s life.
“Dogs, they teach you compassion, they teach you companionship,” she said. “There’s so much you learn from a dog.”
Zelinka agreed but took it further.
“I think what it shows is that people who adopt shouldn’t expect their pets to be heroic when they’re the ones who are being heroic because they’re saving a life,” she said. “All of the dogs here are remarkable if they’re allowed to be.”
I was approved to adopt a pitbull. I had visited Northwoods Humane Society several times looking for a spaniel, or maybe a retriever, but this time the dog in the corner, sitting patiently with her head tilted as if asking, “Pet me?” caught my eye. Maple had a rough start. She was found tied up and abandoned in an alley, taken by animal control, put on death row for dogs, and rescued by Northwoods Humane Society, where she saw dogs come and go for two months. Today, I can say she’s my best friend, because she’s always the one willing to take on every adventure with me.
Being single can be tough since the best memories are made when you can share them with someone else. I didn’t always have time to wait for someone else. That’s where Maple came in. Our first big adventure was buying a houseboat. Maple and I would sit on the roof and watch the stars, fish, repair motors, swim and kayak — all things that would have been unbearably lonely alone, but she was my co-captain. Since then, adventures have been our norm — camping, backpacking, skijoring, nature therapy. Maple hasn’t committed any heroic act, but it’s the every day small things that have had immeasurable impact on me, my outlook on life, and who I’ve grown to be as a kind, compassionate person.
She motivates me every day to appreciate little things, smile, and enjoy life. She’s taught me to be a better listener, to greet people with excitement (like she does), to be a devoted companion, and the list goes on. I’ve learned all this from a dog who was sentenced to death! As if those qualities aren’t enough, she really changed my world one hot day in July. The day was perfect, but the beach was crowded, so we snuck around to a more hidden cove. We had the place to ourselves — just us and a fishing boat offshore. Then, I heard the splash. Swimming towards us was the fisherman’s dog — obviously attracted by Maple. In no time, the dogs were running, jumping and splashing. Eventually, the guys pulled up, we introduced ourselves and apologized for each other’s dog instigating the other. An hour later they invited us for pizza, and a month later Eddie and I were dating. On this day when I probably would have retreated to air conditioning, Maple brought me swimming to find the love of my life.
But meeting Eddie didn’t mean Maple’s work was done. With Eddie’s future of odd-hours as a police officer and potential for more deployments with his Military Police unit, I know I’ll never be alone. I’ll have Maple to keep me going. It’s hard to imagine that she was once abandoned in an alley because I can’t imagine life without her. She hasn’t changed my life — she’s made it all that it is, and continues to make me a better person every day.