Spirit Animal

WORDS Dwain Hebda
IMAGES courtesy Angela Meek

Angela Meek wasn’t looking for a dog. Dogs she had, along with an assortment of other four-legged friends on the family spread in Shady Point, Oklahoma, reminiscent of her upbringing in Alma, Arkansas.

But as had been the case her entire life, dogs have a way of finding her.

“I think I was born into it,” she says over cat mews in the background and two hounds lolling nearby. “Our whole family is animal lovers. We all have cats and dogs and horses and cows and goats. I grew up on eighty acres and we had horses and cows, cats, dogs, chickens.”

In 2012, Angela’s pack already included a handful of dogs, including the mother hen of the bunch, a blue-eyed Husky named Anna Bell. And it was Anna Bell who announced the approach of another candidate for the collection, a scraggly-thin Staffordshire Terrier.

Again, Angela wasn’t looking for a dog and she sure wasn’t looking for a pit bull.

“I never had a Staffordshire Terrier before. All I heard was pit bulls are the dogs that’ll kill you or kill your kids or do something bad,” she says. “And I’m like, I don’t need that up here with my cats and kids.”

Nonetheless, Angela fed the black pup with the golden-oak eyes and immediately took to social media to try and find either its previous owner or a new one.

“I was hoping nobody had dumped him. I hoped he just wandered up or jumped out of the back of a truck,” she says. “I posted pictures everywhere. At that time, I was leaving to go on a cruise with my family and I told my husband, ‘When I get back, that dog needs to find another home.’”

When the family returned to the green grass of Oklahoma, Angela discovered the squatter had indeed found a home – hers.

“He was the first one to greet me,” she says. “He just worked his way in.”

The fluffer, dubbed Bart, soon demonstrated well-tuned instinctual tendencies that allowed him to fall right in step with the family, particularly Angela.

“He just wormed his way in and kind of had my thoughts,” she says. “When I would think of something, he was looking at me and I’d go to do it and he was right there.

“He was like, ‘Okay we’re going to do this. We’re going to go somewhere. We’re going to get the cows out of the yard. We’re going to go take care of the kids and walk to the pond and go fishing. I’ve got to make sure the kids don’t fall in or fall off the porch.’ I thought, OK, you’re not going anywhere.”

The following year, Angela would realize a long-held dream – a nagging, biting compulsion, really – to start an animal rescue. She’d seen the many dogs in the local kill shelters and felt the same pull of their eyes that all animal lovers do. “Are you the one?” they asked her, “Is today the day?”

She finally couldn’t take the shadow of their faces on her mind any longer and with two friends, formed 3 Girls Animal Rescue. Her partners lasted a hot minute once they saw how much work and commitment it would take, and for most of its existence she’s been the organization’s lone driving force. That is, if you exclude Bart, which you really can’t do given how instrumental he was to giving the mission its momentum.

“He went into the pounds at the very beginning, because his nature was the best of any dog,” she says. “He could sense the dogs and whether they would get along with other dogs and kids and stuff. He saved a lot of lives with his demeanor of just being laid back and letting them sniff and play a little bit and if they got too rough, he’d tell them, ‘You don’t need to do that or you’re not going to get to go.’

“He was the out for most of the dogs in the pound. If Bart said yes, then they got to be saved.”

Together, Angela and Bart saved four hundred pups that first year, farming them out to foster families until they could be placed, and doubled that total the next year. But it wasn’t enough for them.

“I was still walking into those kill shelters and looking at the animals knowing that if we didn’t get them out, tomorrow they would be put into a gas chamber,” she says. “I thought, there’s got to be people out there besides me who want to help get these animals into another home.”

Angela learned of transport organizations which existed solely to connect rescue operations with waiting owners in other parts of the country. Overnight, the mission horizon for 3 Girls broadened substantially into a pool of owners-to-be for whom distance was no longer an issue.

“We discovered Going Home Transport in the Tulsa area. We visited with them and started sending ten to twelve of our dogs every two weeks with them,” Angela says. “Then, we reached out and got some more organizations involved, some no-kill shelters. Their adoptions were so quick; we’d send a dog up there and two days later, I’d call to check on it and they were like, ‘She’s already in a home.’”

Two years ago, 3 Girls connected with ASPCA Transport to send dogs to the East Coast and the floodgates opened – a thousand dogs one year, twelve hundred the next, sixteen hundred and counting in 2021. Meanwhile, there were funds to be raised, a processing facility to open that put new dogs (and now cats) through health checks before transport and a myriad of paperwork.

Bart, the organization’s de facto mascot, added community relations to his growing list of responsibilities.

“We would have yard sales to raise money and Bart was there. He was at every event we held, and everybody got to meet him, especially kids,” Angela says. “We had schools that wanted to do donations at Christmastime, and they were like, ‘Can you bring Bart? We’ve heard about him.’ And I’m like, ‘Of course.’”

During that first visit, as Angela proselytized the good news of spay/neuter and other elements of responsible pet ownership, Bart worked the room, coming to rest at one student’s feet, then another.

“I told Bart, ‘OK, see everybody,’ and when everybody was petting and rubbing all over him, I asked the teacher, ‘Do those children…?’” Angela says. “And she said, ‘Yes; one of them has really bad anxiety and the other one is in a bad family situation.’ Bart knew that they needed extra attention and that he needed to be the one for them, that they were okay when he was there.

“Then the next classroom, he did the same thing. Then that teacher gets to talking to a teacher at another school and I get other emails, ‘We would like for you to bring Bart.’”

Angela would have Bart certified as a therapy dog, but it was a mere formality; the gentle pittie was already a caregiver to the core. More schools beckoned, then hospitals, nursing homes; she even reached for him when her own anxiety took hold. And he always reached back.

“I know he gave me a lot of comfort,” she said. “He just had that power. And he didn’t have to do anything except be himself. He could do tricks, but it wasn’t a trick. It was just the look in his eyes, and the sigh, and then the way he would lean on me. Then he’d want me to hold his hand.”

Angela’s voice trails off, knowing a terrible question is coming, the one that asks about the events of November 1, 2020, exactly one year prior to this interview. Of how they’d received a large donation of dog food, pallets of it, more than they could use before it expired, and how a Little Rock rescue offered to take it off their hands. Bart was there, as always, while the pallets were being moved by a skid steer. The driver turned, the load shifted, then fell off. Bart was gone.

Shortly after the accident, Angela got a call from Pat Walker, host of the Oklahoma City TV show Dog Talk. Pat had met Bart and, like everyone else, fell in love with him in 2015. She urged Angela to write a book as grief therapy, as a way to preserve Bart’s memory and continue his work. It was not an idea Angela originally welcomed.

“I was like, ‘I can’t write a book. I’ve never even thought about writing a book.’ This happened in November and she’s calling me the end of December? I’m like, I can’t even,” Angela says, her composure starting to fray. “And she said, ‘His story needs to be told. That breed needs to be talked about and the wonderful things that he did and the impact on the children’s lives that he made.’

“At first I didn’t feel like writing was helpful. The book could have been a thousand pages, because every day of my life we were doing something, herding the cows or we were going somewhere that he had to be all prim and proper and behave himself, or he was out there running, playing, swimming in the pond.”

But write she did and Bart…Best Dog Ever! written in Bart’s voice and words, became a reality. Angela remembers the day cases of the book were delivered to her home; she looked at the cover and once again into the eyes of the dog she never expected, but that came to command such a huge part of her.

“I’ve read and picked up a lot of books, but I’ve never rubbed the cover of a book,” she says. “I was like, OK, now I can take a breath. Now, I’ll be okay.”

Angela wasn’t looking for another dog after Bart’s death, but per usual, some have managed to find her. She’s learned how each has been put in her path for a reason and she appreciates each animal’s true gift of self in ways she feels Bart would approve.

“I wish people would be more like him, just to put others first,” she says. “He always did. He put other animals’ lives first to help them. Just to be kind and put others first and think about the choices that you make, because they will impact somebody else. Most of all, I want people to know that he had a kind soul.”

Bart…Best Dog Ever can be purchased at 3girlsanimalrescue.com. All proceeds go to fund the Bart Best Dog Ever scholarship for students headed for veterinary school.

3 Girls Animal Rescue
28871 North Side Lane, Poteau, Oklahoma
918.564.2483

 

 

 

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