Written by Helen Walne
Professional photography by Jackie Wernberg Photography
Eight years ago, a frail, thin, crippled dog who’d survived what was then described as one of Cape Town’s worst reported cases of animal abuse, came to live with us.
I was working as a sub-editor at The Argus newspaper when the story broke on the 20th of October, 2011. A stray dog with a broken back had been buried alive at Luhlaza Secondary School in Khayelitsha. The dog had apparently been “making a nuisance of itself” by begging for food at the school, and janitors had reportedly been ordered by the headmaster to dig a pit and get rid of her. Thankfully, the nearby Mdzananda Animal Clinic was alerted, and staff rushed to the scene and dug the dog out. The pictures showed her small, sand-covered face peering out of the hole. It’s a photograph I still return to – Lily’s sweet face has a look of bewilderment, her eyes saying: “How could you do this to me?”
As soon as I saw the pictures being prepared for the afternoon newspaper, I fell in love.
Back then, she was named Warrior by the staff at the clinic, and I wanted to meet her. I wanted to witness first-hand the grit, determination and courage that had allowed her to survive all those minutes underground. Warrior wasn’t short of admirers. Her story had spread across the world, and outraged animal lovers were sickened by her ordeal. Floods of offers of homes had poured in. Back then, I wasn’t concerned about whether I’d get to adopt her; I just wanted to know she was safe and would eventually find people that would love her and restore her faith in humans.
I called Mdzananda and asked if I could visit. That first afternoon, I found a thin, wary dog who barked when I came too close to her cage. The staff explained that she had a broken back, probably due to a previous injury, and had lost the use of her back legs. And, because she’d been moving around by “sledding” her lame legs behind her, her limbs were covered in wounds. But with rest, medical care and lots of love, they were hopeful she’d make a recovery. I returned a few days later, and this time carried her out of her cage onto a patch of grass in the clinic’s pretty garden. Lily was wearing a specially fitted harness to support her walking, and I held on to its handle, encouraging her to take some steps. Then we sat on the grass, Lily on my lap, and I whispered in her big bat-like ears that I’d look after her always. Nothing would ever hurt her again.
Besides falling in love with Lily, I also began falling in love with Mdzananda; with the way the staff worked tirelessly, often under difficult circumstances, to serve the community and their pets. I began volunteering a couple of times a week, working in the on-site charity shop and hanging out with Lily and the other animals in their care and helping out on mobile vaccination clinics. Eventually, I became a board member, serving for two years until other commitments demanded my time.
In November 2011, I brought Lily home. Her legs were still lame and she weighed only 13kg, but she was in good health. She joined our other two dogs – Bella, the 10-year-old Labrador I’d taken in from a friend who could no longer keep her, and Joey, our beloved rescue who’d rescued me from a crippling depression after my brother’s suicide. I’d be lying if I said those first few months were easy! One of the side effects of Lily’s disability was that she was incontinent – something my poor husband had not, um, been appraised of. Our house was constantly awash in pee and poo, and Jik became our new best friend. There was also the problem of Lily not being able to walk properly, and I didn’t want her to injure herself by sledding around the garden. She was only about a year old, so she insisted on slipping past me at every opportunity to gambol (in an ungainly fashion) with the other dogs.
My husband and I had opted to not have children, but those first few months felt as though I was a slightly harried mum, taking Lily to various appointments every week, including hydrotherapy sessions to build muscle and regain control of her back legs, and acupuncture to rewire the nerves along her back in the hope she would walk again – all the while worrying about whether I was doing a good enough job.
Then came that day, in early January, when we took Lily to our local park. I gingerly let go of her harness and she put weight on her back legs and walked! Well, sort of. She limped across the grass and looked back at us, as if to say: “See? I told you I could do it.” I cried. My husband may have too.
Eight years later, Lily now walks like any other dog, with a slight hop of her back legs. She weighs a healthy 25kg, chases hadedas across fields, and even clambers into trees to find squirrels.
But more than the physical healing, we’ve witnessed a gradual psychological shift. It’s taken time: when an animal has experienced such immense trauma, they cannot be expected to suddenly right themselves. They need support, patience and lashings of love to feel safe and secure. When Lily first came home, her eyes were dull and she averted them if we looked at her. She was seldom affectionate, never wagged her tail, and maintained an aloofness that I understood protected her. Over the years, that slowly changed. Now, she stands in front of me, rests her head in my lap, and stares at me with big amber eyes. When I come home, she’s waiting at the gate and prances like a Palomino horse when she sees me. Her tail wags in circles like a helicopter blade.
And she makes us laugh; all of the time. Because her sheer joie de vivre and her unbridled happiness – the way she skips around us in the park, looking at us as if showing off her ability to run; and the way she clambers onto the bed at night and groans with bliss and wipes her face with her paws – is so infectious and life-giving. She truly is the happiest, feistiest dog I’ve ever met. I feel so lucky to have her with us (even when she’s rolled in park poo or just stolen an entire batch of newly baked muffins off the kitchen counter).
Unsurprisingly, my husband – who was filled with trepidation when I brought home an incontinent, disabled bundle of bones – is obsessed with Lily. When I’m away from home for a few days or weeks, he sends me photos of Lily, usually of him snuggling her in bed, or of the walks they’ve been on, or Lily looking as though she’s laughing.
If it hadn’t been for the quick action of the staff at Mdzananda, or the tip-off that she was being buried, or the generous help of the vets and therapists, she’d be in a very different place today. But she’s not. She’s right here, as I write this, snuffling out insects in the garden and following Joey around, her back legs occasionally doing a slight wobble.
Sometimes when I’m hugging her, I run my hands down her spine and feel the raised knot of where her spine was broken. And the overwhelming feeling I have is being so proud of her; of how hard she’s worked to become the dog she is today: happy, playful, curious, hilarious, trusting, crazy and enthusiastic, with the brightest eyes and the sweetest, most content face. And when I watch her playing with another dog in the park, or falling asleep with her head resting on Joey’s butt, or allowing a stranger to scratch her ears, my heart bursts with admiration and awe for this survivor; this true warrior who, deep in sand and darkness, decided to live.
The team at Mdzananda Animal Clinic are true heroes, surviving on donations to carry out the work they do in Khayelitsha, and they need our help to continue delivering the services they offer to pet owners and animals in the community. Visit their website https://www.mdzananda.co.za/ and consider becoming a Paw Member. They truly deserve it.