In these contentious times when everything from political elections to college football loyalties divides us, nothing brings people together like the story of a good dog.
And no good dog tale unites folks better than the saga of Rusty, an almost mythical creature who has overcome homeless winters, suburban traffic, a life-threatening case of heartworm and now is fully recovered from his run-in with a rattlesnake. The stray dog's old suburban friends already are loading up goodies as part of a Christmas care package to send to Rusty in his new home in Utah.
"The people back there and his friends on Facebook (Rusty Redd Is Home) really helped pull me through," says Kristine Kowal, who moved from Lake Zurich to Utah last year and this month celebrated her first year as Rusty Redd's new owner. After the rattlesnake adventure in August, she wasn't sure they'd make it to an anniversary.
Kowal had taken Rusty and Maddy, her dog she adopted years ago while volunteering at the Save-A-Pet shelter in Grayslake, hiking in one of their favorite spots to chase lizards.
"Rusty went up to a sagebrush and gave a bark," Kowal says. "Then I heard a yelp and then I heard the bone-chilling rattle."
The poisonous snake bit Rusty twice on his right front leg.
"I had to scoop him up and carry him about 20 minutes to the fence line where my friend pulled up in her car. When I was walking, I thought he was going to die," Kowal says. Rusty bled, developed some nasty looking bruises and spent a few days in a clinic before Kowal, a registered nurse who used to be the school nurse at the Daniel Wright Middle School in Lincolnshire, nursed him back to health during the next three weeks at home.
"Our boy is such a survivor," says Julie Gleason, an office manager for a software developer in the Oak Brook business campus where Rusty first popped onto the suburban landscape in fall 2007. "This dog has nine lives."
In the tony Oak Brook community more familiar with pampered, purebred pets and invisible fences, Rusty was a wild stray for three years. That was part of his appeal, says Harry Peters, president of the Forest Glen Homeowners Association, one of the areas where Rusty would roam in pursuit of free food and playtime with other dogs.
"He was an underdog," says Peters, whose heart immediately went out to the little red dog battling the elements. "We don't have to deal with the life and death of an outdoor existence."
Rusty roamed between residents of the office campus and the Forest Glen and Woodside Estates subdivisions, avoiding animal-control officers, speeding cars, wily coyotes and metal traps.
"Normally I'd be afraid of a stray dog," remembers Gleason, who was driving to work when she spotted Rusty and knew he was special. "That very first day I saw him, I rolled down my window and said, 'Hey, Buddy!', and he looked at me."
Peters, other homeowners and office workers would set out prime leftovers and home-cooked meals for Rusty, and spot him playing with their dogs in suburban yards. But Gleason developed one of the closest human relationships with the stray dog.
"I fed him for about three years," says Gleason, 49, who has a dog named Ellie at her home in Darien. "I am known as 'the cheese lady' as Rusty only would eat mozzarella cheese from me. It got to the point where he would run up to my window. But he would never let me touch him. I would worry about that dog like crazy."
On Sept. 20, 2010, Rusty voluntarily strolled through an open gate in the yard of the Trombetta family to play with Milo, their rescued bichon-poodle mix. Lynn Trombetta closed the gate and called authorities. Rusty surrendered amicably, perhaps because he was weakened by a severe case of heartworm infection. A fund established by Peters and his wife, RonnDa, collected more than $1,000 and Rusty ended up in the Hinsdale Humane Society. The dog recovered from heartworm, but needed training to lose his feral ways.
Rusty was sent to the Best Friends Animal Society, an internationally renowned animal sanctuary. Tucked into the breathtakingly gorgeous mountains of Kanab, Utah, the sanctuary is famous for rehabilitating animals including the dogs abused by Michael Vick and creatures plucked from floods, earthquakes and war zones.
Four months after Rusty arrived in Utah, Kowal, who had read all about Rusty in the Daily Herald, moved to Kanab and volunteered at Best Friends.
"I wanted to see who this star was, this Houdini who avoided capture for so long," Kowal said at the time. With training, Rusty eventually was released to his permanent home with Kowal and her dog Maddy.
"He was a wild animal. He had no dog skills whatsoever. He didn't even bark," says Kowal, who notes that by this summer Rusty had progressed to the point where he would fetch sticks and no longer needs a leash on walks. Then the rattlesnake bit him.
"I spent five or six days hand-feeding him rotisserie chicken and then feeding him mozzarella cheese," Kowal says, giving Gleason credit for the cheese idea. Worried that Rusty might regress and withdraw, the opposite happened.
"He is now the most lovey-dovey, touch-me touch-me, Velcro dog I could ever have," Kowal says. "He sticks to me like glue, which is quite an accomplishment since he used to be such a flight risk, escape artist and door-dasher."
That news cheers local fans, such as Harry Peters, who says the December care package will boast dog toys, handmade treats from his wife and some gift cards to buy whatever Rusty and Kowal need. "I've joked that I'm going to give him some little shin guards for his front legs so if a rattlesnake bites him again, it will break a tooth," Peters says.
The dog who used to roam snowy streets looking for handouts will spend Monday night curled up on a couch with Maddy and his owner watching the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football, Kowal says. The change in Rusty after the snake bite is difficult for even her to envision.
"It's like he went to sleep and woke up a dog," Kowal says. "He's a real dog now."