By Courtland Milloy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2010; 6:21 PM
Willis, the long-lost Clumber spaniel, was in just about the worst pickle a dog could be in: Lost, hundreds of miles from home, he had been put on the equivalent of death row at the Tri County Animal Shelter in Hughesville, Md.
Picked up by animal control officers in Charles County on Nov. 20, he was taken to the shelter, where unclaimed strays are euthanized. Shelter workers scanned Willis for an identification chip, but the one that had been implanted beneath his skin was not detected. So, a photograph of the haggard 7-year-old was put on the facility's "at-risk" list, which means a lethal injection could be imminent.
What happened next to Willis might strike some as just a series of improbable coincidences, or merely another example of the power of the Internet. Karen Martin thinks it was much more.
"The perfect timing, having so many people in the right place at the right time, people willing to go all out to help a stranger and her dog, is beyond comprehension," Martin told me. "It's nothing short of a miracle, as far as I'm concerned."
Willis was her dog. Four days before Christmas last year, the pooch went missing from her back yard in Portsmouth, Va., turning her holiday into a nightmare. She spent nearly a year intensely searching - posting "lost dog" fliers throughout the neighborhood, visiting shelters, contacting animal rescue organizations. She had all but given up hope of seeing him again.
Willis, meanwhile, had gotten himself to the Washington area. No one knows how or when he arrived. But once he was picked up and taken to the shelter, he quickly made a friend. Amy Howard, the animal rescue coordinator at Tri County, had placed Willis on the at-risk list - not to hasten his destruction but in hopes that someone might see his photo and be willing to adopt him and provide him with what she called a "forever home."
Otherwise, she might end up being the one called on to administer the lethal injection.
"There are certain animals that I grow fond of that, sadly, I can't take home," Howard said.
The shelter's at-risk list includes a photograph of each dog in danger of being euthanized and as much background information as the shelter staff can muster. The list is e-mailed to animal rescue groups and other dog lovers.
Terry Walker, an office manager for a veterinary hospital in Calvert County, was on her computer at home when the list arrived. She said one dog in particular stood out - a sad- looking canine that only someone with an extensive knowledge of dogs would recognize as being of the rare Clumber spaniel breed.
Walker just happened to be one who knew.
"Where most people like to read novels, I read books about dogs," she said. "You just don't see Clumber spaniels in animal shelters."
After a quick Internet search, Walker found an organization called Clumber Spaniel Rescue of America, clicked on the mid-Atlantic region and forwarded the dog's photograph to the three contacts whose names were listed.
On two of those e-mails, the photo attachments Walker sent could not be opened. The third e-mail wound up in the spam folder of Sally Day, who was at home in Washington Crossing, Pa.
Day had been up late on her computer killing out potentially harmful e-mails. Usually, she just deletes them without looking. But this time she didn't.
"A voice said, 'Open it,' and the hair stood up on the back of my neck," Day recalled. "The e-mail was from a stranger, and there was a photograph attached. I instantly thought I recognized the dog. I said, 'Oh, my God, that's Karen's boy.' "
Turns out, Karen Martin and Sally Day are old friends.
Day, who also owns a Clumber spaniel, said she called "100 times" until Martin, who had been asleep, picked up the phone. Day e-mailed her the photo, which was fuzzy, and the two analyzed it late into the night.
Martin had gotten Willis as a pup, trained him to be a show dog and spent nearly three years with him wowing judges at kennel club competitions throughout the country. But there was nothing regal about that dog on death row. Except the eyes. Martin would know those eyes anywhere.
Day and Martin frantically called the shelter, leaving messages for Howard, trying to get through before Willis was euthanized. Howard got the messages in plenty of time. Willis, the long-lost Clumber spaniel, was about to go home.
Martin wanted Willis out of the shelter immediately, so Day telephoned Sue Carr at the national Clumber rescue organization for help. Carr called Judy and Gary Wollin, members of a cocker spaniel rescue group in Maryland, and they agreed to pick up the dog.
The Wollins bathed and fed Willis. And when Martin arrived at their home later that night, her eyes welled.
Somehow, Willis had journeyed more than 200 miles from home, and the time away had taken its toll. He had a fever, an injured eye, a respiratory infection and a skin allergy that made him itch so badly that he had scratched and chewed off patches of hair from his shoulders to his tail.
After several visits to a veterinarian, however, he's on the mend.
Martin, who now lives in Williamsburg, says she expects this Christmas to be as joyful as last year's was sad.
"I once heard Katie Couric refer to blessings as a 'God wink,'" Martin said. "That's how I feel, like God winked at me."
Amazingly, Willis is still winking, too.