It is January 25, 2006, the second anniversary of the fire that destroyed my home and took the lives of 14 rescued animals. The fire marshal had told me that if I had been home that afternoon, I likely would not be here today.  

  Cleo thenOn the first anniversary of the fire, I wrote a tribute to my lost animals and focused on one dog from a Pit Bull fighter, who I named “Cleo.” (The tribute was entitled “Where’s Daddy’s Baby?” and can be found using most search engines.)*

I am writing this in the morning, because I know that about 3 p.m., the approximate time that the fire started that day, it will take all of my energy to focus on the here and now and the present rescued animals under my care, over 30 of them including five of my survivors and the foster animals.

I don’t believe that “time heals all wounds,” but time allows one to put events in perspective. I no longer relive that tragedy daily or suffer from frequent nightmares about it, although I still greatly miss those I lost. It was a life-changing event and my surviving animals and I were the recipients of the greatest mass outpouring of kindness and generosity I have ever experienced. I received so many cards, gifts, and messages that it was impossible to thank everyone individually and I still hope that somehow my gratitude has been conveyed back to them. I had seen the best of humanity.

Life after the fire was difficult, but made easier by the family who boarded my horse and took me in for five months. During those months, I adopted a Pomeranian, who had been rescued by a woman in North Carolina, and sent to Pennsylvania. I named him “Dandy Lion.” I then moved out on my own, took back my survivors, and frankly, did not do well on my own. If you’ve read my first book “Pieces of My Heart – Writings Inspired by Animals and Nature” then you know that I survived my father’s suicide. Following the publication of the book, I survived a divorce. And now I was expected to survive a devastating fire that not only cost precious lives, but also took nearly everything of family heirloom and sentimental value with it. I was tired of surviving and I became blind to the love and beauty and help around me. I had become angry and bitter, a textbook case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cleo nowWhen the offer came to live with a fellow animal rescuer, where my animals were welcome, I took it, blindly. I was thrust into an animal hoarder situation way beyond my control until that situation exploded. At the beginning, I took an emaciated, blind Pit Bull puppy that had lived for weeks in a filthy crate, with diarrhoea, and I named her “Cleo” in memory of my first “Cleo.” Near the end of that brief residency a network of private animal rescuers and I got as many of the animals to safe havens as possible. Again, I began to see some of the best of humanity.

We watched as the humane authorities first investigated the situation after it was reported and then left the animals there under terrible circumstances for another week, until they raided the premises and seized them. I did not agree with some of the decisions being made and called in the media. Some tried to turn the tide against me. I saw authorities behaving ineffectively and taking credit they didn’t deserve and a court system woefully  unprepared to deliver justice on behalf of those who can never speak for themselves. I saw some of the worst of humanity.

“Cleo” saw nothing – we were the blind leading the blind. Once again, I needed a place to live and I moved to a friend’s house and lived in a cellar room with access to a deck and backyard for my dogs. One evening, while I was on the phone, “Cleo” was stolen off the deck in a town known for its Pit Bull fighting horrors. I was frantic. I called the police and by the next morning had over 100 flyers posted around the town. That afternoon, I got a call from animal control that “Cleo” had been found wandering the streets.

Apparently, her kidnapper discovered she was blind and threw her away. “Cleo” never saw my tears of worry or my tears of relief.

Then the greatest individual outpouring of kindness and generosity I have ever experienced occurred when the woman who had rescued my “Dandy Lion” offered me a room in her home in North Carolina, with enough space for all my dogs and a place for my horse. I moved again, blindly.

“Cleo” saw nothing. She was treated for a severe bacterial infection left over from her former life, she began to thrive, and was spayed. It took her only days to learn the new backyard; at first she spun in circles, finding her perimeters, then she trotted, and then she ran. My Arctic wolf female and her male mixed-breed companion became surrogate parents to “Cleo,” even though the first, “Shania,” cannot abide any other female.

In the evenings, my new host, Betty, and I sat on the front porch and talked, about our animals, about our respective life-changing events, about life, about our animals…about all animals. We fell in love. We were married this past November (with “Dandy Lion” present, sporting a white collar and bowtie).

I was watching “Cleo” through the window this morning. “Shania” was licking the pup’s face and then began sparring with “Cleo” and then using her as a hurdle. Each time she sailed over the pup’s head, “Cleo” did her whirling dervish routine. Then she began to run, as if she was chasing “Shania.” I still marvel at her agility, her ability to find her toys and her sleeping quarters. “Cleo” can see through the darkness when I cannot.

I realize now that “Cleo” and I are a lot alike. At first, I was not seeing clearly. Then I began spinning in circles, for me a downward spiral. I made a few blind, false moves. And then with blind faith I found love, a family, a home, a new life – and like “Cleo,” I stopped stumbling and began to run faster and faster, as if I knew where I was going. I’ve started writing another book and enjoying life again.

After a forest burns a new forest begins to grow from the ashes. “Cleo” and I are both grateful for the love and the chance at a new life, and the view beyond the horizon.


*To read Where’s Daddy’s Baby? Please click here:

Jim's book, "PIECES OF MY HEART - Writings Inspired by Animals and Nature" (includes "How Could You?") is available in the USA, the UK and Europe. For more info and a special fundraising discount, see:

(Written on the second anniversary of my fire in memory of my 14 animals)
Copyright Jim Willis 2006


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