PORT RICHEY — Zachary Mitrovich is trying not to cry. "I've got to keep my head clear," he said, "and stay focused."
Mitrovich, 19, has had Mara since he was 6. He and his mom moved to Port Richey from New York and the adjustment was tough. He needed a best friend. So he and his mom went to the pound. The dogs were barking and going crazy — all but one, a red and white Beagle mix who just stared out from the cage. She had been picked up at a gas station, where she had been begging for food. When Mitrovich walked to her, she put her paw up as if to say, "I've been waiting for you. Let's go home."
Mara went from a scrawny little thing to a chunky, cuddly 50 pounds. She was unlike any other dog Mitrovich had met. When he was upset, she would come to him and put her head on his lap, such as when his dad died and his grandfather was in hospice. And when he was 13 and out gardening, a snake was poised to bite him and Mara jumped in and grabbed it. The snake bit her in her hindquarters and she still walks with a limp because of it.
"Mara really loves me," Mitrovich said.
And she proved that during these past few years, as Mitrovich has battled illness and his mother, a former nurse, has had to be on disability after three car accidents and being diagnosed with Lupus. Mother and son struggle, together, and might lose their Port Richey home because her disability payments aren't enough to cover the mortgage and taxes.
A year and a half ago, Mitrovich became very ill. He is 6 feet 2 inches and athletic; a lover of cycling, kayaking and other endurance sports. But he started dropping weight — he wasted down to 120 pounds — and no matter how much he ate, he couldn't put any back on. His muscles atrophied and he was so tired. Doctors couldn't diagnose it at first. Mitrovich was supposed to be going to college and, instead, he thought he was dying. The doctors eventually said that he had a virus that drained his testosterone.
They put him on medicine and he is feeling better. During all of this, Mara consoled him while he cried. And when he needed to fight the fatigue and get up and go to the gym, to try to build back his muscle, she barked until he got out of bed.
As an animal lover, Mitrovich never passed up a stray animal. Since he was a young child, he's reunited at least 20 lost pets with their owners. He's never accepted a reward, because he always thought it was just the right thing to do — and if his dog was lost, he would hope someone would do the same thing for him.
Now, he's banking on that karma.
On the morning of April 21, Mitrovich left for the doctor's office to get blood work done. His mother, Joan Holden, 52, woke up and let out Mara and their other dog, Buster, a 5-year-old French Bulldog. Their back yard is fenced in. But when Holden came back a few minutes later to let them in, the dogs were gone. Somehow, the back gate was open — Mara could have done that, or maybe some stranger during the night opened it.
Buster came back as soon as Holden called for him. But Mara was gone. Mitrovich came back a little while later to see a scrawled note from his mother taped to the front door:
Because of her disabilities, Holden can no longer drive or walk very well, but she pushed herself to keep taking steps as she went all over the neighborhood, crying and calling for Mara. Mitrovich found his mom and brought her home. And since then, he has been looking for Mara, who had a collar on but is not microchipped. He's made 600 color fliers — asking people to call him at (727) 862-5501 if they see Mara. He has posted them in high-traffic areas — red lights, drive-throughs, grocery stores.
"Everywhere you go," he said, "I want you to see Mara's face."
As he sat on his front porch Wednesday, two different neighbors asked if he had found Mara yet as they passed by. Things like that make Mitrovich feel good.
"It comforts me," he said. "There are some people like me, who care about other people in the world. It doesn't make it seem like one big, bad place."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4609.