BY NICK DIAMANTIDES
It’s not unusual for someone to say that their dog is their best friend. But when thousands of people call the same dog their best friend, that canine is nothing less than a hero. Such was the case of Wheely Willy, a 4-pound, paraplegic Chihuahua that passed away recently at the age of 22.
When he was about 2 years old, Willy was abandoned in a cardboard box on a Los Angeles street. His vocal cords had been severed, his hind legs were paralyzed due to a severe spinal trauma and he had a number of less serious wounds on various parts of his body. The person responsible for his injuries was never found out.
The dog was taken to a Los Angeles animal hospital, where he was treated for his injuries and kept for a year in the hopes of finding him a home. “Nobody took him home, and I found out about him,” said Deborah Turner, who at the time owned Doggie in the Window, a pet store well known for rescuing injured/abandoned animals. “I thought I could find a home for him, so I went to the hospital and discovered that he was the sweetest, happiest fellow I had ever seen.”
Originally Turner planned on giving the dog to a loving family, but after a few months she fell in love with Willy and knew she had entered into an “until-death-do-us-part” friendship with him. “I carried him with me wherever I went, and thought he would probably never be able to move around on his own,” Turner said. “But I noticed that he was happy to drag himself around so he could play with some of my other pets.”
Turner made various attempts to increase Willy’s mobility but was not satisfied with any of the results. Then she found out about Canine Carts (now called Pet Mobility Rehab Center), a company that makes custom-fit wheelchairs for dogs. “So I sent away for the wheelchair and soon as Willy got his, he was instantly empowered,” she said. “He didn’t try to analyze the situation, he just started running around happily.”
Within a day or two of Willy’s newly acquired mobility, Turner began taking him with her on various errands. “Of course he attracted a lot of attention and the word got out about him,” she said.
Soon newspapers and television stations began telling his story to the public. “Then hospitals began calling me to ask me to bring Willy to their facilities,” Turner said. “They thought he could help kids with disabilities that were holding them back.”
She noted that without exception, Wheely Willy always had a positive impact on injured or disabled children. “They could see that having a disability was not the end,” she said. “By looking at Willy, they realized that you could be disabled and still have a happy life.”
Thus began Wheely Willy’s career as a bringer of hope, comfort and inspiration. For nearly 20 years, Turner brought the little wonder dog to hospitals, convalescent homes, schools and therapy animal conferences throughout the world to visit children and adults with long-term or permanent disabilities.
“He generated so much interest and captivated the feelings of so many people that I was just astounded,” Tuner said. “That inspired me to write books to tell his story to the world.”
Turner said she has many wonderful memories of Willy helping people. “One time we were at an airport and a little girl in a wheelchair motioned for us to go to her,” Turner said. “I put the little dog in her lap and the girl began to cry.”
Through her sobs, the child told Turner that she was sad the dog had to use a wheelchair. “She also told us that one day she would walk again,” Turner said. “Then the little girl’s nurse told us that this was the first time the girl had ever expressed any kind of hope for the future.”
Barbara Parkes, owner and CEO of Langley, Washington-based Pet Mobility Rehab Center, was also inspired by Willy’s life. “He was a tiny little dog, but his heart was so big,” said Parkes. “We were very privileged to be able to contribute to him having such a wonderful life. He touched so many people.”
Last January, while carrying Wheely Willy down a flight of stairs, Turner lost her footing and fell. The fall broke her arm and seriously injured her tiny friend. After almost a year of veterinary clinic visits and lots of tender loving care from Turner, Willy succumbed to his injuries. He died in his sleep on December 22.
“He died sleeping right next to me,” Turner said. “He was a bundle of love and had no aggression or negative feelings whatsoever. My heart is broken and I miss him, but I am glad that he lived such a long, meaningful life. This little dog showed the world that life is what you make out of it by your actions and your attitude.”
For more information on Pet Mobility Rehab Center, call (800) 578-6960 or visit petmrc.com. To find out more about Wheely Willy and the books Turner has written, call (562) 685-8498, write to P.O.Box 90993, Long Beach, CA 90809, or visit wheelywilly.com.