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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”