They say the first life Zero saved was his own.
He was a month old and alone on the side of a Texas highway. The abandoned Great Pyrenees puppy limped on a broken ankle. His shaggy, distinctive pelt was lost to mange. That’s how Laura Martinez and her family found their dog, nearly three years ago.
The vet told them Zero didn’t have a chance and advised the family to put him down immediately. But they couldn’t do it. Martinez’s children were already attached — plus, they all thought they spotted something special in the young animal. Today, Martinez says that decision is the reason she’s alive.
“We were meant to find him,” she said in an interview. “And what he did was what he was meant to do. That’s the only thought making it any better.”
Of course, she didn’t know any of that when they brought Zero to his new home, well before a gunman opened fire at a child’s birthday party and forever changed their family. All they knew back then was that their new pet needed their help.
The kids named him Zero, after Jack Skellington’s spooky ghost dog in Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” So sick in his young age, he was spectral — yet fiercely loyal. But later, after Zero clawed his way back to health, more at peace with the world of the living than that of the dead, the family began calling him something else: “Zero the hero.”
It’s Martinez who likes to say that Zero saved his own life. But really, it was her — and her large family — that rescued him when he needed it most. A few years later, Zero did the same for them.
On March 10, Martinez’s daughter was celebrating her 12th birthday. Their house was full of youngsters, more than a dozen, ages 5 to 15, and the mood was jovial. Out front, Martinez was grilling hot dogs and hamburgers, Zero lounging at her feet, and her stepdaughter and two sons mingled beside her. Yet, when a longtime family friend pulled up to her driveway, she expected trouble.
Martinez had confronted the young man, 17-year-old Javian Castaneda, the day before, telling him she suspected that he had broken into her house and stolen cash and some jewelry. Police said Castaneda and the family started arguing in the driveway. Martinez asked him to leave, but he lunged at her and hit her in the face, she said. One of her sons started to fight back, but Castaneda pulled out a gun.
“None of us knew he had a gun,” Martinez said, recounting the years Castaneda played on her sons’ football teams and slept over at her house.
By Martinez’s count, Castaneda fired at least nine times. His first shot hit the garage door. At the crack, Zero sprung at Castaneda. Martinez, momentarily stunned, watched her dog jump.
“How did you know to do that?” she remembered thinking at the time.
Then, Martinez said, Castaneda shot Zero in the chest. He kept firing, hitting one of Martinez’s sons in the foot. Zero got back up and leaped at Castaneda again, biting at his arm.
“Zero just did it instinctively,” Martinez said. “I guess he just knew that when that thing hit him, it hurt.”
Castaneda shot Zero in the ear, she said, then hit her stepdaughter twice in the back. Zero pounced a final time before taking another bullet in the stomach. Martinez ran toward her dog and Castaneda shot her in the leg and fled.
“I can honestly tell you there’s no way we would be here without Zero,” Martinez said. “The reason why all our wounds are below the waist is because every time Zero jumped up … it kept him from being able to aim.”
Days later, the Harris County Sheriff’s Department arrested Castaneda and charged him with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He is in jail with a $90,000 bond. Martinez, her stepdaughter, and her son are all home recovering from their wounds.
After the shooting, another of Martinez’s sons and a neighbor took Zero, who then appeared paralyzed, to the vet. Martinez said she wanted to accompany them but had to be rushed to the hospital for treatment of her own injuries.
This time, the family had no choice. They put him down that day.
Now, two weeks later, Martinez is tallying the costs. Hospital bills, future surgeries, time she’ll miss at work driving for Lyft. She’s raising money to try to cover the damage. And her family is reeling from Hurricane Harvey, which flooded their home a year and a half ago. The kitchen cabinets still need replacing.
But the biggest loss, she said, will always be Zero — who won’t be lying under her feet, or snuggling next to her in bed, or waiting for her to get out of the shower.
Instead, he’s memorialized in their front yard, with signs that remind the family and the world of a dog who has earned his nickname more than once: “Zero our hero.”