ODESSA — Lisa Lewis leaned on the fence and watched Teddy with his trainer. After some prompting, he sat down.
"Good boy, Teddy!" Lisa shouted and clapped. "Good boy!"
Teddy couldn't hear her. The Australian shepherd is deaf. And lucky to be alive. Nearly a year ago, somebody stuffed him in a plastic bag, along with three other puppies, and tossed them into the Hillsborough River.
If not for a woman who happened onto this act of cruelty and fished the puppies from the dark water, all would have died. She kept one of the pups, which was blind. It's not clear what became of the other two. But two months ago, the rescuer decided she could only keep the blind dog and delivered Teddy to a nonprofit animal rescue group in Odessa, a unique place of healing and hope.
Healing in Teddy's case meant learning how to communicate with him. Shouting commands at him is useless, so Lewis searched for a trainer to teach them a doggie sign language. Lewis found Joyce Moore, a New Port Richey trainer who is donating her weekly lessons. The night before the second class, she got a roasted chicken and carefully picked off all the meat to use as training treats. Teddy, whose fur is mostly a cream color, with a coffee-colored rump, sat down again and got the sign for good boy — a thumbs up.
"He's learning," Lewis said, watching Teddy as though he were her child.
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Lisa Lewis, 43, and Sue Lambert, 48, have been friends for 15 years. They met while boarding horses at the same place and connected with their love of animals. Lewis grew up poor in Ohio as one of six children in a house that always had a cat, dog and a bird. At 14, she got a job with a local veterinarian and got in trouble for sneaking pets home on the weekends, so they wouldn't be there alone. Lambert's grandmother in Indiana ran a pet shelter.
For many years, they volunteered with various animal rescue organizations but then, a year ago, decided to create their own and called it the Community Animal Rescue & Educational Shelter.
Both women spent nearly two months saving animals in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Lewis took a leave of absence from her work in finance and Lambert from the excavation business she and her husband own. Both women spent their own money to get there and back, with Lambert trading in her boat to buy an air-conditioned trailer for the animals.
"Not going wasn't an option," Lewis said. When she saw news of the hurricane on TV, she called Lambert and said, "We're leaving." And they bought boots and camping gear and food and water and hit the road.
They first set up a shelter in Hattiesburg, Miss., and then moved into New Orleans, including the devastated 9th Ward.
What they saw there was nightmarish. Tied-up pets, weeks dead. Animals left to die, their bodies embedded in a barn. The women crawled into crumbling, rancid homes to reach pets they could save and slept in parking lots at night, circled by the National Guard for protection.
They returned home dazed and sad. But instead of turning away from all the hurt, they agreed — "We have to do more," Lewis said.
Going to the Gulf Coast pushed Lewis to abruptly change her life. She quit her job and six-figure salary as a finance director for AutoNation. She now does freelance work selling insurance and car-loan financing and doesn't make much money, especially when most of it goes to the rescue efforts and the care of her Brooksville ranch, where she has her own animals and her parents, who also live there.
Lambert's business has been hit hard by the economy and also barely breaks even because of running the rescue, which began with Lambert asking her husband, Buel, if it was okay to convert his pole barn on 20 acres in Odessa to a few large kennels for rescued dogs. Then they built another and another — with salvaged wire and wood — and soon the land that previously had mostly been used for his business, storing his mammoth machines, became this sanctuary for animals.
Buel Lambert even dug out a lake for the dogs to swim. The places where the pets live are 14 feet by 14 feet, if not more, and shaded from the sun with blinds and fans that drone peacefully during afternoon nap time. There are blankets and stuffed animals, worn from nuzzling. Attached to each cage is a page with the animal's photo, name, medications, food and history: a quirky mix of the abused and forgotten. The property now holds about two dozen animals. The operation depends on volunteers and donations. They also pick up scrap metal and turn it in for money.
"It helps to pay a few vet bills," Lewis said.
And they've found some sponsors for pets, such as a man from Rhode Island who donates money for Calico, a 19-year-old cat. Since they began, the rescue has saved and found homes for more than 200 animals. The ones they can't house, they find foster home for or places in other shelters.
Lewis doesn't sleep much. But when she does, her cell phone is beside her. She always feels a deep angst about missing a call about an animal in need and lives for getting photos of pets, happy and healthy, from their new homes. She has scrapbooks of before and after photos like Lola, a mixed-breed found with barbed wire embedded in her skin — wounds so old the skin and fur had grown over them — and now Lola has been treated and adopted. The other day, she got an e-mail with photos of Piper, a boxer stray, at her birthday party, hat on, surrounded by gifts, at her new home.
A veterinarian told Lewis and Lambert that Teddy, who has small, vivid blue eyes, will eventually go blind. "It could be tomorrow or it could be five years from now," Lewis said. "We don't know."
Being surrounded by all of this sadness doesn't make the women unhappy. Their philosophy comes from these pets, some of whom were beaten and starved and somehow are recovering — playing, cuddling, content.
"They live in the moment," Lewis said, as Teddy, done with his lesson, wet from the lake, stretched out across her lap.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4609.