In 2009, a man stopped his car on the Clark Memorial Bridge that connects Louisville, KY and Jeffersonville, IN and threw a red, female Pit Bull over the bridge into the Ohio River. Kelsey Westbrook – a server at Joe’s Crab Shack at the time, which is located by the Ohio River – heard an extremely loud noise and ran outside to see what caused the commotion. It was then that she noticed a dog bobbing in and out of the water.
Kelsey, along with others, ran to the river bank, yelling in an attempt to garner the dog’s attention, hoping she would be attracted to the noise and swim over to the shore. By some stroke of luck, a search and rescue boat was already in the Ohio River, and after a call to 9-11, the search and rescue team was able to safely bring this dog to shore. Kelsey ran to the dog, wrapped her in towels and immediately took her home. Miraculously, the dog had no injuries.
Next up was a new name for her, which came easily to Kelsey. Her name would be Sunny, a moniker that highlighted her happy and trusting disposition despite what she had been through.
Kelsey and Sunny near the Ohio River
In 2010, after spending large amounts of time at Louisville Metro Animal Services and feeling overwhelmed by the number of Pit Bull-type dogs languishing and dying in shelters, Kelsey Westbrook and Maureen Keenan decided to co-found an animal rescue that would focus on the exact kind of dogs they were often seeing in the shelter system. There was no question that Sunny would be their driving force behind this rescue, and so began Saving Sunny, Inc.
Saving Sunny is the largest Pit Bull rescue in the Louisville, KY and southern Indiana area, but what makes them unique is the fact that they not only advocate for Pit Bull and Pit Bull-type dogs, but for humans as well.
When a man in the Louisville community suffered a stroke, Saving Sunny put out a call to action, asking the community to help this man care for his dog, Rosa, as he lived on the second floor of an old Victorian apartment and his mobility was now limited. Volunteers came in abundance, not only ensuring this man’s dog was given daily walks but also doing his laundry.
Saving Sunny didn’t stop there. They helped this man secure new affordable housing, which Saving Sunny made accessible for him by building an ADA wheelchair ramp. They also built a new fence in his backyard so that it would now be dog-friendly allowing his dog to experience, for the very first time, her own yard.
Rosa in her new home
In 2014 and with the help of a grant from Best Friends, Saving Sunny opened up a Community Dog Resource Center (CDRC) in Louisville’s Portland area, a lower socioeconomic neighborhood. While brainstorming with Best Friends, Saving Sunny:
…expressed the desire to find a way to reach out to underserved and lower income communities who [they] perceived to be overlooked by the rescue community and also seemed to surrender pets at a higher rate. [Saving Sunny] talked [their] way into ‘Can we slow the flow coming into shelters?’
Saving Sunny volunteers at one of their Community Dog Resource Center events
With the addition of the CDRC in the Portland area, data from Louisville Metro Animal Services shows a significant reduction in intake from the Portland neighborhood zip code area. Saving Sunny is extremely honored to have been able to build “so much mutual trust and respect with Portland residents” and to show others that “good loving homes, no matter the economic status of that home, are always better for pets than going to a shelter.”
One of Saving Sunny’s successful events for the residents of the Portland community
Every year since 2011, Saving Sunny has hosted Pitty Fair, a Pit Bull-positive festival complete with artists, non-profits, vendors, food trucks, music, adoptable dogs, and of course, Pit Bulls – lots and lots of Pit Bulls. Maureen, co-founder of Saving Sunny, told BarkPost:
“We started Pitty Fair…with the plan to have a community-based event that both raised awareness about the beauty of Pit Bull-type dogs and [to give] Pit Bull families a place to bring their babies and feel a sense of community and celebration.”
Sunny in all of her glory at Saving Sunny’s fifth annual Pitty Fair
As an artist who has been a part of Pitty Fair for three different years, it is absolutely one of my favorite days of the year and basically heaven on Earth. The happiness and love for Pit Bulls and their families is palpable and is evidenced by the continual growth of the event. Last year, Saving Sunny hosted their largest Pitty Fair to date, partnering with St. Joseph’s Children Home, and are looking forward to next year’s festival with excitement.
The booth for my art advocacy project, The Re51lient Project, at Saving Sunny’s fifth annual Pitty Fair
Saving Sunny also works to change animal welfare laws in Kentucky, which ranks 50th in the United States for animal welfare. They are making the community aware of Senate Bill 116, which seeks to prohibit Breed Discriminatory Legislation in Kentucky, and are encouraging Kentuckians to call their Senator and express their support for Senate Bill 116. They were also a part of “Pit Bull Dogs Are Family,” a local campaign that showcased photographs of Pit Bull-type dogs and their families which were then featured on billboards and buses throughout Louisville.
(L to R) Eric Elliott, Juicy and Bianca Lewis were one of the families chosen to be a part of the “Pit Bull Dogs Are Family” campaign
(L to R) Bridget Pitcock, Jack, Meg Hancock and Tucker, another family chosen to be a part of the “Pit Bulls Are Family” campaign
Sunny, the little red Pit who has been the furry inspiration and driving force behind Louisville’s largest Pit Bull rescue and everything above, was recently diagnosed with oral sarcoma. A mass in her mouth was found, requiring almost immediate surgery. Surgeons were able to remove about ninety percent of the visible mass, however, CT scans show that the mass reaches laterally into Sunny’s face behind her eye. Sunny’s mom, Kelsey, is currently exploring options for Sunny as they await additional diagnostic results.
With all of the good that Sunny has created within the community, the Saving Sunny family decided it was their now turn to aid in “saving Sunny.” Jess Amburgey, a volunteer with Saving Sunny, created a GoFundMe page for Sunny and her family with a goal of $5,000 in order to help Sunny’s family with her treatment and as a strong show of support and love for this dog who has impacted so many. Jess told BarkPost:
“Kelsey and Sunny have helped so many animals and people better their lives[,] it was time we stepped in and did the same for them.”
Sunny’s mom, Kelsey, and Sunny, the dog who started it all
If Sunny’s GoFundMe exceeds its goal of $5,000, the extra funds will be donated to Saving Sunny unless there is an unforeseen expense with Sunny’s treatment.
We all know that when someone we love is impacted by sickness, difficultly or anything else unexpected, the effects are more than just financial. Families also become strained emotionally and physically. For that, Saving Sunny also began something else to help Sunny and her family through this undoubtedly difficult and emotional time. A hashtag, #SunnySavedMe, is allowing others to share their stories and photos of how Sunny has positively impacted their lives.
(L to R) Clay, Miles and Willow, two furballs and one human, are all involved in Saving Sunny and support Sunny
When asked what #SunnySavedMe means to Maureen, she told BarkPost:
“Your question asking what Sunny means to me reduces me to tears. Anybody who has met Sunny will understand when I say that there is something rare and divine about the heart and spirit of that dog. She is a force of nature driven by such pure love and joy…. She is a survivor of terrible abuse who knows no feelings other than love for everyone. Sunny is my inspiration and she is the heart and soul of the organization, the community, and the family that has become the center of my life. She helped me find my way.”
(L to R) Captain, Wes, Seth, Tiffany, Madelyn and Sydney on Seth and Tiffany’s wedding day
(L to R) Jay and Luna, both supportive of #SunnySavedMe
So far, the response to both Sunny’s GoFundMe account as well as #SunnySavedMe has been incredible. As of seven hours of the GoFundMe campaign being live, already $1,440 has been donated. Posts of both photos and comments of #SunnySavedMe have filled Saving Sunny’s Facebook page announcement of Sunny’s current health.
And for me, this article is my #SunnySavedMe. Saving Sunny has given me a place in our community to celebrate and exhibit my art advocacy project, The Re51lient Project, at their incredible annual Pitty Fair. They were how I began to hone my love of photographing dogs, as well as writing outlandish, funny and attention-grabbing dog biographies for adoptable dogs. They have comforted me, we’ve shared belly laughs and tears, I’ve even won a Saving Sunny Pit Bull sweatshirt by sharing their Facebook post for their second annual Divas Unleashed, a night celebrating some of the area’s fiercest drag queens to raise funds for Saving Sunny. Because, yes, Saving Sunny rocks and actively advocates equality for all, not only our beloved blockheads.
Saving Sunny is so much more than just a Pit Bull rescue group, yet everything that they are is because of one Pit Bull, Sunny. Sunny’s mom, Kelsey, wrote in a heartfelt Facebook post:
“Sunny blew into my life like a freight train, quite literally falling from the sky. She immediately forged a monolithic presence in our community, wiggling into my heart in a matter of moments, changing the course of my life immediately. I will forever be indebted to her for the souls and experiences she has given me. She saved me, and so many others, in every sense of the word.”
If you would like to help Sunny and her family, check out their GoFundMe. If you’d like to leave Sunny a note of encouragement or share your own #SunnySavedMe, please go to Saving Sunny’s Facebook page.
We’re all pulling for you, Sunny. We all love you. And most importantly, we are all thankful for you saving us.
Featured image via Jess Aburgey