On a quiet Wednesday night a little more than a year ago, Mike DeWitt turned on the evening news and saw a picture of a pit bull buried up to her neck.
She had been shot twice and left to die. Trapped.
It flipped a switch.
"It was instant. It was profound," DeWitt said. "I get that."
DeWitt had been trapped once, too. Two years before, he had held his wife in his arms as she died from cancer. What followed was a very dark time that he knows he would not have survived without the help of a close friend who wouldn't leave his side.
"I was going to be sure that dog was going to spend the rest of her days in a life that was filled with love and attention and all the things that dogs need to be happy, healthy dogs."
He had questions: Would a dog that abused be dangerous? Would she be trainable? Would the people who shot her be dangerous? But he didn't bother with the answers.
The next morning before work DeWitt, 54, sat in a business suit on the floor of Hillsborough County Animal Services. Phoebe crawled into his lap, emaciated, flea bitten, a belly full of worms, two bullet holes in her head. She had a medical file an inch thick.
And a new daddy.
It was another month before Phoebe was well enough for DeWitt and his new wife to take her home to Carrollwood. The first thing Phoebe did was turn a pair of his boat shoes into sandals. Then she crawled up on the coffee table and started chewing. She had never had any rules, but she was a pleaser.
"This dog is a miracle, and she came through it so beautifully," DeWitt said. "We have a routine life, which dogs like, and we're consistent with what we do. That's healthy for her."
She surprised DeWitt with just how good and gentle a dog she is after experiencing so much abuse. The DeWitts gave her a middle name: Gandhi.
"The beginning of her life was so horrible, and her response is to love everybody? How can she be that trusting after everything she's been through?" DeWitt said.
Phoebe was 30 pounds when she was rescued. Now she is a solid, healthy 55. A few bullet hole scars on her forehead where her fur won't grow are the only remaining traces of what happened, but she may never completely heal.
"She still has some bad dreams. She still will cry in her sleep. It's loud. It's not just a whimper, but a cry. It sounds like anguish, but she responds, usually to me, saying 'It's okay, It's okay,' " said Gerry DeWitt, 56.
Hillsborough sheriff's officials say they have identified the people who buried Phoebe in that yard in Clair-Mel, but they don't have enough evidence yet to charge them.
"That guy is going to do something worse one day. That is going to happen to a person before this is all over with, because you have to be a complete sociopath with no conscience or remorse to do that," DeWitt said.
Sundays are the best day of the week. DeWitt takes Phoebe, and another pit bull named Angel that he rescued years ago in the Green Swamp, to Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve. He lets the dogs loose, throws their leashes over his neck and they hike together for hours. Usually they don't see a single person all morning.
"You have to be the change you want to see in the world. When people are in need, you help them. There's this great cycle that happens in the world, of goodness, when everybody just does their little piece," says DeWitt, who now works as director of Patient Relations at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.
Phoebe smells something and races away from DeWitt's side, bounding toward a hill filled with knee-high grass. DeWitt smiles and picks up the pace to see what she's getting into. Blades of grass tickle her face as she runs, tongue flopping wildly, tail wagging furiously. Free.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. John Pendygraft can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8247.