West Oak Lane is a tough section of the city of Philadelphia. Crime rates are high, and almost 25 percent of the residents of this area live below the poverty level. It was there, on a scorching summer day, that a 4-month-old pitbull puppy was doused in accelerant and set ablaze before being found by a passerby.
The kind person who came upon this sad scene rushed the badly burned pup to the Pennsylvania SPCA. Shelter intake staff quickly named the pup Hercules after the hero in Greek mythology for his extraordinary strength.
"We hoped by giving him a big, strong name, that he would pull through," Angela DeVito, then operations manager at the PSPCA recalled.
Angela immediately contacted rescue partner, Animal Alliance in N.J., knowing that the level of care Hercules needed, as well as the expense, was beyond the reach of the shelter. Anne Trinkle, executive director of Animal Alliance took the call.
"My heart dropped to my feet when I heard about Hercules," Anne recalled. "We knew his chances of survival were slim, but we wanted to give him a fighting chance."
Guardianship of Hercules was transferred to Animal Alliance and he was transported to Crown Veterinary Specialists, a 24-hour veterinary center in New Jersey, for specialized treatment. The emergency veterinarian who treated Hercules on intake, Dr. Amy Zahn, recalled her horror, "In my entire career, I never saw such extensive burns. I was not optimistic, but our team gathered round Hercules and we gave it our all. When he survived the first night, we knew he was going to fight along with us – he wanted to live."
Extensive second and third degree burns put him at risk for life-threatening infections. His burned skin shrunk and was so tight it restricted normal movement. Skin grafting material for human burn victims was donated for emergency use. Happily, the skin graft took and his legs regained full range of motion.
The story of Hercules' survival made local headlines on social media and TV. Many people inquired about adopting him but were put off by his massive, body-wide scarring.
In the end, it turned out that Dr. Zahn, the vet who saved his life, had been thinking all along about making Hercules a part of her family. She and her husband had one easygoing dog, Andy, and two young children, Aidan and Elka.
"I worried that he would have residual mental trauma," she said. "I wanted to show him the love of a family."
She brought Hercules home for an audition with the family, and he and Andy hit it off. That sealed the deal. Hercules was home!
Little Elka fell in fast love with Hercules. He sleeps in her room, she sings and reads to him. The scars on his body are prominent, and as Dr. Zahn predicted, he has some fearful behaviors.
Seeing Hercules and Elka together, her arms around his neck, face snuggled next to his heavily scarred body, the love between child and dog is evident. Most importantly, she doesn't see his scars, and he doesn't feel them anymore.