Former Largo resident writes for the dogs

Former bay area journalist Laura Coffey is the author.
Former bay area journalist Laura Coffey is the author.
Published Jan. 14, 2016

Laura Coffey, a former journalist with the Tampa Bay Times and Largo High's 1988 valedictorian, returned to Seattle from Florida after her mother's funeral. It was June 2013.

Still in mourning, she went back to her work for the website, the portal for the Today Show. One of her regular readers had sent her an email urging her to look into a story on a California photographer involved with rescuing senior dogs from shelters.

"I was hesitant, but I remember this reader told me, 'Seriously, do this. It is a direct connection between people and animals,' '' Coffey recalled during a recent phone interview.

Coffey looked up the photos and considered them both beautiful and sad. Her first thought was to protect herself from more grief, but she pursued the story anyway.

She contacted the photographer, Lori Fusaro, in Culver City, Calif. She learned Fusaro herself had adopted an older dog from an overburdened animal shelter in Carson, Calif. The 16-year-old dog was named Shady. When Fusaro got him home, she renamed her Sunny.

"Their connection was so profound, and she was committed to changing the perception of older, shelter animals. She was the real deal,'' Coffey said. "I approached the story by writing about her.''

It went viral. The women heard from dog lovers across the country and beyond. The Associated Press wrote its own version of the story. After NBC Nightly News aired a segment on Sunny, correspondent Jill Rappaport won a Humane Society Genesis Award.

Fast-forward 2 ½ years. Coffey and Fusaro have seen the release of My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts. With Coffey's words and Fusaro's photos, the book includes 19 profiles of shelter dogs once considered past their prime and the adopting humans who knew better.

There's Chaney, a retired military dog, and Matt Hatala, a former marine. The pair had worked together in Afghanistan until 2011 when Hatala came back to the United States. In 2013, they were reunited in North Carolina at a time when Hatala, who was suffering from post traumatic stress, desperately needed his canine friend.

There's Casey, a vocal, 100-pound senior with weak legs, and her adopted owners, Jeannie and Bruce Nordstrom, the retired chairman of the upscale retail chain. Adopted through the Seattle Humane Society, Casey spends her days on the 15th floor of a condominium overlooking Pike Place Market. Along with the sweeping view, her home is equipped with fresh sod for her necessary potty breaks.

There's Einstein, George Clooney's adopted black cocker spaniel with chronic dry eyes and a thyroid condition who tried to eat his way through the star's Studio City kitchen on his first visit but charmed him anyway.

The book project came to be soon after that first, viral story. A New York agent contacted Fusaro, proposing a project; however, the agent encouraged her to include stories along with photos.

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"Without hesitation, I knew exactly who I wanted to ask, Laura,'' Fusaro said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "She was the first reporter to believe in me and the idea and without her, none of this would have happened. She was truly the catalyst for what would become My Old Dog.''

Coffey, whose resume includes writing and editing stints at the Tampa Bay Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Prague Post in the Czech Republic and the Peninsula Clarion in Alaska, was thrilled.

"It was exciting, I learned a lot through the process. We had to put a book proposal together, and I learned it was much like putting a business plan together,'' she said. "We had to propose an idea and determine a market, and you know, there is this whole awareness, a senior dog rescue movement, that is quite big out there, that did not exist a decade ago.''

There were a few stressful moments. One of the most peculiar was when they realized they would meet in person for the first time when they would start a trek through the Northeast to interview owners and take photos of dogs.

"I was a little nervous about that,'' admitted Coffey. "But we really hit it off right away.''

"I am a total homebody and very shy, so I was a tad worried,'' Fusaro said. "But on our journey a lot of funny things happened. We started jokingly referring to each other as Lucy and Ethel, from the I Love Lucy show. . . It just wouldn't have been the same with anyone else."

Contact Piper Castillo at Follow @Florida_PBJC.