Bandit: A Love Story
by Jack Leslie
Like most people involved in the rescue world, I am frequently overwhelmed by the enormity of the obstacles we face. For every dog we save and place in a loving home (no easy task, I might add), thousands of unwanted dogs are euthanized every day in city and county shelters – not to mention the plethora of dogs living on the streets or suffering abuse and neglect at the hands of their “owners.” However, every now and then, a situation presents itself that reminds me why we keep on doing what we do. Such is the case of Bandit, Chad and Kiera.
Two years ago in early summer, I got a call from another rescuer asking if I could do her a favor and drive to the Downey Animal Shelter to “pull” a little Pit Bull puppy. The puppy already had an adopter lined up, so all I had to do was provide transportation. Although going to any shelter is never a picnic, the Downey shelter has a particularly bad reputation as being an older facility with a high kill-rate. As I drove down the 105, I vowed to myself that I would simply retrieve the puppy and not look at any of the other dogs hoping to be adopted. Anyone who has visited an animal shelter knows how hard it is to walk down those aisles, passing cage after cage containing all those dogs with pleading faces, knowing most of them will never make it out of there alive.
However, when I arrived at the shelter, I discovered that someone had already adopted the puppy earlier in the day. I immediately broke my own promise when I noticed a funny-looking little puppy with bright ebony eyes and black, wiry hair. The next thing I knew, Bandit was riding home with me in my car. There was just something about her bright, inquisitive expression that I couldn’t ignore – not to mention her ridiculously long jack-rabbit legs. In addition, I knew that, statistically, black dogs have a really tough time getting adopted and are usually over-looked because people think they seem scary or they aren’t cute enough.
Although I already had a lot of dogs at my house, I decided that I could foster Bandit until I found her a permanent home and could even take her to work with me during the week. Bandit was an instant hit in the office, and she always got a lot of attention during our walks through Beverly Hills. People who stopped to pet her were repeatedly shocked when I told them that this cute little pup was a stray who had been picked up by Animal Control and taken to a shelter. This prejudice against shelter dogs – that there must be something wrong with them – is something that rescue advocates constantly have to battle.
As usual, I did email and FaceBook blasts, sending Bandit’s story to friends and colleagues, hoping that they would pass them on to others who might be interested in adopting her. One of the first responses I received was from Chad Damiani, a writer, who had seen Bandit’s pictures and liked the look of her. I had been working with Chad and his writing partner, JP Lavin, on a movie idea, and JP and I had already bonded over our love for our dogs. According to Chad, after he forwarded the pictures to his girlfriend, Kiera, she replied, “I’m in love.”
As Chad tells it, “Kiera and I had been looking for a dog for a couple months. She owned a home in Woodland Hills and I’d moved in the year before. Neither of us was in a rush to get married. We looked at getting a dog as cementing our commitment. Kiera joked that Bandit was ‘her ring’.”
That weekend, I arrived with Bandit at Kiera’s and Chad’s house, with an eager Bandit in the front seat. Chad had tried to emphasize that this was strictly a meet-and-greet, and that they weren’t ready to commit yet. However, as soon as they met Bandit, I knew that they were sold. I told the couple that although Bandit was just about perfect, the one aspect of life that she had failed to grasp was potty-training. I could take Bandit outside for an hour, but as soon as she got back inside, she would relieve herself on the floor every time. True to form, Bandit took a tour of Chad’s and Kiera’s backyard, re-entered the house and promptly pooped on a rug. Despite this accident, I left Bandit with them that day, and she never left their sides again.
That’s not to say that everything with Bandit was smooth-sailing. This is how Chad describes their first few weeks together: “She was a character from the very first night. We took her for a car ride and she tried to jump out the window. Then she cried in her crate until we let her into the bed. She crawled under the covers, slept all the way at the bottom. I never really had a dog growing up. I was terrified she was going to suffocate – or that we’d roll over and crush her.
She did take her sweet damn time getting potty trained. But part of that was on us for not knowing how to do it. We used wee pads inside the house. She would step on them with her front paws, then pee on the floor right next to them. One time, Kiera took her for a walk while I was doing yoga. When they got back, Bandit was so excited to see me, she ran up to me and peed on my mat.”
As much as Chad loved Bandit, it was the bond that developed between Kiera and Bandit that was truly magical. Chad told me that, “If I’m being honest, as much as I loved Bandit, the responsibility and sacrifice she represented scared me in the early days. I’ve never been great with change. But Kiera bonded with Bandit immediately. She’d chop up cheese and hot dogs and take her for long walks in the hills. She gave her baths and hugged her a hundred times a day. Bandit would just look at her like she was her entire world. It’s a fond memory, but a sad one. Watching Kiera care for Bandit made me love them both even more.”
You may be wondering why Chad describes these memories as “sad,” or why I haven’t quoted Kiera in this story. The unhappy truth is that Kiera passed away last year after a courageous battle with cancer. Although some people may consider a dog to be cold-comfort during such a traumatic struggle, Chad describes Bandit’s presence during Kiera’s illness as being something incredibly profound. I’ll let him tell you about the experience in his own words.
“The last two years have been the most trying time of my life. When Kiera was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her journey to the end was nothing but heartache. We never experienced even a brief remission. Kiera handled it all with a grace, strength and hope that defies reason. But even though she battled with dignity, there are no words to describe how it feels to watch someone you love systematically robbed of all the pleasure that make life worth living.
When I look back at that time, the only good thing to come from it was our decision to get Bandit. Even in our darkest times, she was a source of joy. In the earliest days of the diagnosis, we drove to Houston for a particularly aggressive treatment. We made the mistake of giving Bandit part of a Slim Jim and she kept ripping bombs through the night. We laughed until we cried. We’d spend hours teasing Bandit with tennis balls. There was a 90-pound golden retriever named Hopper in our apartment complex – its owner also a terminal cancer patient. Watching them play together was sometimes the only 20 minutes of the day that I didn’t feel like a vice was squeezing the air out of my lungs.
When we returned to Los Angeles, Bandit gave Kiera a reason to take walks and try to keep up her strength. And when she became too weak to walk, Bandit would sleep next to her all day. Near the end, Kiera was spending most of her time in the hospital. She talked a lot about missing bed time at home. The three of us would go to sleep together and Bandit would snuggle up next to her. If I was working late, Bandit would bark at me until I came to bed.
We were able to get Kiera home for her final hours. The last thing she said to me before she drifted into a coma-like state was “It’s bed time!” with a huge smile on her face. The next night, it was just Bandit and I in bed with her when she died. When her breathing slowed, Bandit knew it was the end. She snuggled up hard against me and whimpered. Comforting Bandit was the only thing that gave me the strength not to cry out.”
These days, Chad seems to be doing okay, thanks largely to Bandit and her unconditional love. As he tells it, “I have a lot of pictures and knick-knacks and memories. But the only time I feel connected to Kiera is when I’m with Bandit. It was just such a beautiful thing to watch Kiera care for her. It’s like I feel all that love coursing around inside of Bandit.
It might sound strange, but the things I love about Bandit are the things I loved most about Kiera. The playful personality. The combination of her being wildly bold and suddenly shy. The fact that she wears all her emotions in plain view and is incapable of artifice. The feeling of being loved completely and unconditionally.”
I don’t think that even the biggest cynics among us could hear Bandit’s story and not be touched by it. How can you not view this little black dog as being anything but an angel who appeared to Kiera and Chad just in time to guide them through the biggest challenge of their lives? Whatever one’s religious or spiritual views (or lack thereof), the fact that they met Bandit when they did conjures up thoughts of fate, destiny, kismet, or, perhaps, some sort of divine intervention.
For me, their story helps to personalize the many statistics that tend to overwhelm us. To many people, Bandit could have been just one more depressing statistic – another unwanted dog that fell victim to our over-crowded animal shelters. Instead, however, she has enriched and changed lives and will continue to do so during her many dog-years here on earth.
Chad Damiani is a screenwriter working out of Los Angeles. Along with his writing partner JP Lavin, Chad has written and/or developed feature films and television projects for Robert Zemeckis, Brett Ratner, Bryan Singer, Eli Roth and others. He also performs longform improv with CAT BATH! — the house team for a bimonthly show called Catsby!. http://twitter.com/CATBATHIMPROV