TAMPA — Who's a good boy?
Nothing like a new love to heal a lingering heartache, and it didn't take Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi long to melt when she first saw Luke's baby photo. A few months ago, she welcomed the gigantic, slobbery, sweet-faced St. Bernard puppy, a gift from her boyfriend.
"I still get calls and e-mails from people all over the country, wanting to see if I want to adopt their dogs," Bondi, 43, said. "Now I can say, 'Sorry, but I've got one now.' "
It's been awhile, but many remember Bondi's last St. Bernard experience, which left her heartbroken. In September 2005, nine days after her first St. Bernard, Donovan, died of cancer, she saw a news clip on pets left homeless by Hurricane Katrina and caught a glimpse of a sad, skinny St. Bernard sitting in a Clearwater shelter.
She rescued him, named him Noah, and spent thousands treating his heartworms, eye infection and other health problems.
Then Noah's original New Orleans family, the Coutures, came forward, wanting the dog back. The family sued for custody, and after almost a year of legal wrangling, Bondi gave back the dog.
She still keeps in touch with the Coutures and learned that they recently evacuated, pets in tow, when it looked like another hurricane was headed toward them this past summer.
Bondi was content knowing Noah — called Master Tank by the Coutures — was safe.
"Really, that's all you can ask for," she said.
Despite the sad memories, earlier this year Bondi found herself longing for puppy love again. Her boyfriend, Greg Henderson, wanted a small dog. But Bondi kept looking at photos of St. Bernards, remembering Donovan and Noah.
She and Henderson also wanted to rescue another dog and spread the word among area shelters. But St. Bernard puppies, which can sell for $500 to $1,000, rarely turn up at shelters.
One did arrive at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shelter in Largo, but the puppy had a microchip with incomplete information. It made Bondi nervous to take in another dog whose owners might be looking for it.
After months of searching online and in shelters, Bondi and Henderson finally connected with a St. Bernard breeder in California, who shipped a 12-week-old puppy to them in October.
Now, at about 22 weeks, Luke weighs about 80 pounds. He's big, even for a St. Bernard, Bondi said, and could be 200 pounds full-grown.
So far, true to his breed, Luke never growls or acts aggressive. Instead of chewing his toys, he herds them into a pile, keeping them out of danger. And when little dogs growl at him, he whimpers.
An investigator who works for Bondi gave Luke a stuffed lamb that goes, "Baaaaahhh!"
Luke thought the lamb was hurt, Bondi says, and it upset him so much, she had to take it away.
Bondi takes Luke to PetSmart for the $9.99 puppy grooming special, which he'll get until he's 6 months old, regardless of his size.
On a recent afternoon, the PetSmart staff doted on him, circling around as he got a bath, blow-dry and a brushing.
Bondi looked on, proud and smitten.
"You know, after Noah, I couldn't even look at another dog for like a year," she said. "I'm finally at the point where looking at him" — she pointed to Luke gazing back at her from across the grooming room — "only brings back good memories."
Emily Nipps can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.