ST. PETERSBURG — Eric Gonzalez revved his dirt bike down a wide path deep in the Everglades near Miami when he saw the shape lying on the ground off in the distance.
It was gray, not moving. Sort of like a rock, he thought.
As he got closer, the horrifying details came into focus — the scarred face, the mangy skin, the maimed body. "I wasn't even sure if it was a dog or not," Gonzalez said.
And he didn't know if it was alive.
Gonzalez had stumbled upon a scene that has become common in the Everglades: abandoned pets that have a hard time coping in the wilderness. In recent years, numerous rescue groups have popped up dedicated to saving them, including one on Facebook called 100+ Abandoned Dogs of Everglades, Florida. The desperate pleas for help along with photos of sad-looking dogs are enough to make even the most jaded person want to do something.
For Gonzalez, that desire to do something came naturally. He'd done this before.
He stopped his bike and went to pick the dog up to move it from the road. To his amazement, the little dog's tail started to beat back and forth. "I couldn't believe this thing was still alive," the now 28-year-old St. Petersburg resident said. He picked it up and moved it to a safer spot, returning shortly after with water and hamburgers from McDonald's.
That, as it turns out, was the beginning of a long, happy friendship between Gonzalez and Mili, a possible Jack Russell-chihuahua mix that takes her name from the veterinarian who helped save her.
The day Gonzalez found Mili, in 2007, she had likely been out in the woods about 10 months. The then 1-year-old had a horrible case of mange, a broken leg that had healed on its own, conjunctivitis, scars on her face and open wounds.
The vet bandaged the dog's leg and gave Gonzalez a number of prescription drugs.
Slowly, Mili made her comeback. The scars healed, she regained use of her leg and her short brownish-red fur sprouted back.
Most of all, she's happy. "When you see a dog who is that messed up and still happy, it's quite the sight," he said.
Gonzalez is no stranger to picking up strays from the Everglades, and says he has picked up at least two there. "I stopped dirt biking because I was tired of collecting dogs," Gonzalez said. "I couldn't do it anymore."
But he was glad he picked up Mili.