Denali attends her Be Mine Gotcha Day Celebration on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022, at Salty Paws in Dunedin. Denali sustained severe scarring on her back and head after being intentionally burned with gasoline in a 2018 arson fire in Pasco County.

Rescued from abuse, this Pasco County pup now comforts other survivors

Denali brings awareness to the plight of abused animals.
Denali attends her Be Mine Gotcha Day Celebration on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022, at Salty Paws in Dunedin. Denali sustained severe scarring on her back and head after being intentionally burned with gasoline in a 2018 arson fire in Pasco County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Denali brings awareness to the plight of abused animals.
Published Feb. 18|Updated Feb. 20

As Denali emptied her second bowl of ice cream, 8-year-old Connor Pigott’s fingers combed her brindle hair, careful to avoid the scar tissue on her back.

The gesture didn’t distract the 55-pound American Staffordshire terrier mix from finishing her creamy treat. The occasion? It was Denali’s “Be Mine Gotcha Day,” celebrated with a party on Saturday at Salty Paws in Dunedin.

Connor Pigott, 8, of Oldsmar, visits with rescue dog Denali, at left, while Camille Hebting’s dog, Sprout (center) of Clearwater, lays a kiss on Denali’s owner, Karey Burek of Palm Harbor, while attending Denali’s "Be Mine Gotcha Day" celebration on Feb. 12 at Salty Paws in Dunedin. Denali, an American Staffordshire terrier mix, sustained severe scarring on her back and head after being intentionally burned with gasoline in a 2018 arson fire in Pasco County, Burek said.
Connor Pigott, 8, of Oldsmar, visits with rescue dog Denali, at left, while Camille Hebting’s dog, Sprout (center) of Clearwater, lays a kiss on Denali’s owner, Karey Burek of Palm Harbor, while attending Denali’s "Be Mine Gotcha Day" celebration on Feb. 12 at Salty Paws in Dunedin. Denali, an American Staffordshire terrier mix, sustained severe scarring on her back and head after being intentionally burned with gasoline in a 2018 arson fire in Pasco County, Burek said.
Michelle Bimle prepares a scoop of blueberry lactose-free goat's milk ice cream for Denali at Salty Paws in Dunedin.
Michelle Bimle prepares a scoop of blueberry lactose-free goat's milk ice cream for Denali at Salty Paws in Dunedin.

By noon, a parade of pets was lining up for portraits in front of the shop, which sells canine-friendly, lactose-free treats. The owners had agreed to host the event to raise money for the Suncoast Animal League, a nonprofit, no-kill animal welfare agency.

Kristi Johnson, of Clearwater Beach (center) purchases a serving of ice cream for her mini Aussiedoodle, Sydney.
Kristi Johnson, of Clearwater Beach (center) purchases a serving of ice cream for her mini Aussiedoodle, Sydney.
Kristi Johnson’s mini Aussiedoodle, Sydney, left and Debi Fonshell’s Labrador-Golden Retriever mix, Daisy, enjoy their bowls of lactose-free ice cream during Denali's celebration.
Kristi Johnson’s mini Aussiedoodle, Sydney, left and Debi Fonshell’s Labrador-Golden Retriever mix, Daisy, enjoy their bowls of lactose-free ice cream during Denali's celebration.
Money fills a donation tub during Denali’s Be Mine Gotcha Day celebration. A portion of the proceeds from the event were donated to the Suncoast Animal League which assisted with the rehabilitation and the adoption of Denali.
Money fills a donation tub during Denali’s Be Mine Gotcha Day celebration. A portion of the proceeds from the event were donated to the Suncoast Animal League which assisted with the rehabilitation and the adoption of Denali.

The event might have seemed like a casual excuse for dogs and their owners to mingle, but for Denali’s adoptive mom, Karey Burek, it carried a deeper message about abused animals and a reminder to all that Denali has survived.

In 2018, a previous owner poured an accelerant on Denali’s back and neck before setting her house on fire during a domestic dispute in Lutz.

Firefighters found Denali locked in a crate and the house engulfed in flames. They rescued the dog, but the accelerant had caused third-degree chemical burns over 35 percent of her body, Burek said.

Related: Lutz woman covered dogs with gasoline before setting fire

Burek was volunteering that day with the Suncoast Animal League. She transported Denali into the care of Tampa small-animal surgeon Sylvia Lee. Denali would spend 17 days at an ICU with a 50 percent shot at survival.

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Burek supervised 65 days of bandage changes and eventually adopted Denali on Valentine’s Day in 2019. Community donations covered her $24,000 vet bill.

Denali receives medical treatment at BluePearl Pet Hospital in Tampa after sustaining severe injuries on her back and head from being intentionally doused with gasoline in a 2018 arson fire in Pasco County.
Denali receives medical treatment at BluePearl Pet Hospital in Tampa after sustaining severe injuries on her back and head from being intentionally doused with gasoline in a 2018 arson fire in Pasco County. [ Photo courtesy of Karey Burek ]
Denali receives medical treatment at Pasco County Animal Services in Land O’ Lakes after sustaining severe injuries on her back and head from being intentionally doused with gasoline in a 2018 arson fire in Pasco County.
Denali receives medical treatment at Pasco County Animal Services in Land O’ Lakes after sustaining severe injuries on her back and head from being intentionally doused with gasoline in a 2018 arson fire in Pasco County. [ Photo courtesy of Karey Burek ]
Denali visits with Dr. Sylvia Lee while receiving treatment at BluePearl Pet Hospital in Tampa after sustaining severe injuries on her back and head from being intentionally doused with gasoline in a 2018 arson fire in Pasco County.
Denali visits with Dr. Sylvia Lee while receiving treatment at BluePearl Pet Hospital in Tampa after sustaining severe injuries on her back and head from being intentionally doused with gasoline in a 2018 arson fire in Pasco County. [ Photo courtesy of Karey Burek ]

Burek and Denali are now a therapy team who visit schools, clubs and assisted living facilities. Denali moonlights as an airport therapy dog at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. But their most rewarding service, Burek said, is weekly visits with victims of domestic violence at a local shelter.

“For me to tell Denali’s story and for the survivors to see that there is hope and love beyond the abuse, it blows my mind,” Burek said. “It’s really heartwarming.”

Doggie biscuits fill display racks during Denali’s Be Mine Gotcha Day Celebration on Saturday, Feb 12, 2022, at Salty Paws in Dunedin. The dog friendly ice cream shop offers lactose free concoctions, cookies and treats for doggie birthday parties, ice cream socials, breed meet ups and fundraising events.
Doggie biscuits fill display racks during Denali’s Be Mine Gotcha Day Celebration on Saturday, Feb 12, 2022, at Salty Paws in Dunedin. The dog friendly ice cream shop offers lactose free concoctions, cookies and treats for doggie birthday parties, ice cream socials, breed meet ups and fundraising events. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Yeti, a Great Pyrenees, gets a kiss from her owner, Georgia Pappas, of Tarpon Springs, while posing for a picture with Dorky Daisy Photography during Denali’s Be Mine Gotcha Day celebration on Saturday, Feb 12, 2022, at Salty Paws in Dunedin.
Yeti, a Great Pyrenees, gets a kiss from her owner, Georgia Pappas, of Tarpon Springs, while posing for a picture with Dorky Daisy Photography during Denali’s Be Mine Gotcha Day celebration on Saturday, Feb 12, 2022, at Salty Paws in Dunedin. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Copper, a Shih Tzu which belongs to Lisa Freeman, of Tarpon Springs, wears a party hat while attending Denali’s Be Mine Gotcha Day celebration on Saturday, Feb 12, 2022, at Salty Paws in Dunedin.
Copper, a Shih Tzu which belongs to Lisa Freeman, of Tarpon Springs, wears a party hat while attending Denali’s Be Mine Gotcha Day celebration on Saturday, Feb 12, 2022, at Salty Paws in Dunedin. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“Denali has been such a force in the community. Everyone rallied around her while she was fighting for her life,” Burek said. “They absolutely love and adore her. Three years after she was rescued, she still has that kind of draw in our community. People see her as an inspiration and see that she is paying it forward through her therapy work. She hasn’t lost her spirit or love.”

Denali finishes off a scoop of blueberry lactose-free goat's milk ice cream.
Denali finishes off a scoop of blueberry lactose-free goat's milk ice cream.
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