It's in the eyes.
In the first two years of life, those eyes showed pain, torture and sadness.
But on Thursday, March 12, those same eyes had a different look in them, a look of happiness, security and most of all - forgiveness.
It was the day Sunset, was going to her forever home in Cape Coral with her new human best friends in Anke and Ralf Sturm.
"I never imagined this would be the outcome," said Gulf Coast Humane Society Executive Director Jennifer Galloway. "It's been an amazing experience, she not only brought awareness to the community, but it also united our staff here. It's a journey we took together."
Sunset is the dog who has won the hearts of many in the Fort Myers' area after she was featured in the media when she was brought into GCHS with severe injuries after being used as a bait dog.
Video and pictures of her quivering, helpless body as it rested on a clinic table, stabbed a sword of sadness and anger in many peoples' hearts, as the question of "why?" came in the form of public outcry on social media.
A look of hopelessness and giving up was in Sunset's eyes after over two years of being used a breeding dog and finally, being disposed of as a bait dog to help train fighting dogs to gain the taste of blood and death.
It were the eyes which struck a chord with many.
"I've asked different people of community what caught their attention, and many responded that it was just that look in her eyes," Galloway said. "It was a sadness and I think it really just touched everyone and broke their heart. The video of her laying on the table and shaking, it made it real for people."
The injuries Sunset incurred gave her a "50-50" chance of living.
"She came in nearly comatose, she was pretty well ripped up," said GCHS veterinarian Dr. Jeannette Barnes, who was on duty Feb. 27. "She had an injury to her left ear, which was almost ripped off her head. She had wounds down her mandible. Her feet were oozing and her left front foot pad was almost ripped off. Both of her ankles very swollen and full of puss.
"There were so many wounds, it was hard to tell what caused what. There were some slashing injuries and some bite injuries."
Sunset was named after the boulevard she was found on, which was also near Buckingham Avenue, by former GCHS employee Paul Livesay.
Livesay was ironically driving to GCHS at about 11:30 a.m. Feb. 27, when he spotted an "emaciated dog" on the side of the road. He had a few brownies with him to try and entice her to the car.
"She was too exhausted and beat up to even move," Livesay said. "Her paws had puss coming out of them and she was bleeding pretty good. I brought her home, and put her in the garage and gave her some food. She actually ate for me and after I contacted Jen (Galloway), she asked if I could bring her in."
At the time, GCHS was running very low in money for their Second Chance Fund, which pays the costs for cases like Sunset's. But Galloway and Dr. Barnes made the decision to try and save Sunset.
"This is what we do, we shelter animals and give them medical care," was Galloway's answer.
But with funds dangerously low in the Second Chance Fund, Livesay brought her home for the next five nights, giving her fluids and antibiotics through an I.V. since he had veterinarian tech experience in the past.
After Sunset's story went public, a huge outpouring by the public resulted in the Second Chance Fund being replenished, thus allowing the critical care she needed.
The first night Sunset was featured on the news, it caught the attention of Anke and Ralf Sturm. That's when the journey of Sunset's adoption started.
"I started crying immediately after seeing her on the news, and 30 minutes later, we saw her story on news again," Anke said. "Two days later, we came to Gulf Coast to bring her some soft treats and toys. A few days later we met her. That's when it all started."
Since the only attention Sunset ever received in her two years of life included being fed and watered, which probably occurred inside a dusty and dank crate, she was very weary of any human interaction.
But she didn't act out aggressively against people, but instead shied away, looked down in shame and kept her tail tucked tightly between her legs.
The Sturms and two other families remained a constant, along with the loving care of the GCHS staff. That positive attention slowly chipped away at her shell of insecurity.
Along the way, Sunset's infection and injuries were healing. But it was the emotional damage and scars which concerned Galloway.
"When the doctor said she was fine to get spayed, we knew she was strong physically and healing well," Galloway said. "But emotionally, that was the concern. The attention everyone spent on her, though, really brought her out of her shell.
"When we got a tail wag one day, and she was responding to people, we knew she was healing on the inside, too."
All the while, the Sturm couple remained a constant in Sunset's life with many visits. Building a trust connection with Sunset was going to be the challenge, but once again, her uniqueness was on display.
"The first time we met her, she couldn't even look at people," Anke said. "But everyday she was able to look a little more and more. Now you can tell, when she looks at you, it's with happy eyes."
With another family ahead of the Sturm's on the adoption list, since they were the first to apply, Anke and Ralf still had no hesitation to keep up their visits.
But after the two families met, along with Sunset, something happened which would secure her home with the Sturms. She chose them.
"We were all together, with her kids and Sunset," Anke said. "After five minutes, Sunset walked over to Ralf and laid at his feet. And I think that was when she made her decision."
The mother and her kids decided the Sturms would also be a good home, as well, and asked for them to be Sunset's new owners. It was a decision meant to benefit Sunset, a very unselfish one at that.
"She found her safe haven," Ralf said. "No one lost in this."
Sunset's departure from GCHS was an eventful one, with news media covering it and tear-filled goodbyes from the staff, with furry kisses and hugs given. She still has injuries she is still recovering from, including having stitches in her mouth.
Sunset also has an infection on her spine. Galloway pointed out she suffered a broken back in the past, which has caused the slumping in her spine.
After Sunset's adoption papers were officially signed by the Sturms, a little later a dog fighting awareness meeting was held by a Crime Stopper group, in conjunction with GCHS, with over 45 people in attendance. The meeting included Lieutenant J.D. Loethen of the Lee County Sheriff's Office to answer questions.
The response of a GoFundMe account in Sunset's honor and to raise reward money to lead to the arrest of dog fighters in the area, has been overwhelmingly positive, with over $25,000 raised.
Currently, a $6,000 reward is being offered for tips leading to an arrest in any dog fighting case. The group is also putting up billboards in the area featuring Sunset's picture, as well as flyers.
Her plight also led to the formation of a new community organization, called "Stop Illegal Dog Fighting in SW Florida."
It was also stressed at the meeting to citizens to not try and confront dog fighting rings by themselves, but contact the local authorities and let them do their jobs.
"It's time this gets as much attention as possible," said Ralf, who will allow Sunset to remain the face of dog fighting and not let her past misery go in vain.
But as for Sunset, her days of hopelessness and a battered life are well behind her. She may carry the physical scars of a life of destitute and torture, but her mental well being is well on the path of healing.
It will be a normal life.
"She is going to have a life of being able to be lay on the couch, take a bath in the pool, taking treats and just being a normal dog," Anke said.
To make donations to the Second Chance Fund, call GCHS at 239-332-0364. Donations can be made directly to that fund if requested. Or visit their website at www.gulfcoasthumanesociety.org.
Galloway estimated the total cost of Sunset's care will run nearly $8,000.
The Humane Society of the United States will offer up to $5,000 leading to the arrest and conviction of a dogfighter. You can call 1-877-TIP-HSUS and your identity will be protected. If there are any tips on the abuse of Sunset, you can call 1-800-780-TIPS and donations can be made to help raise reward money to www.gofundme.com/lmf15c.
Tips also can be made at www.swflcrimestoppers.org.
In the end, the eyes tell it all.
They once told of a life of abuse and indifference.
But one look into Sunset's eyes now, and they will tell you of survival, well-being and forgiveness.
It's time to live a normal life, Sunset.
Enjoy. You deserve it.
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