When Ayla Manzer brought her rescue pup Maple to the dog park for the first time, she was worried she’d get left behind, relegated to the bottom of the pack.
Maple's front legs were deformed at birth, curling up half as long as they should be, meaning she mainly scoots around on two legs instead of four.
New custom-built wheels made her park-ready for the first time earlier this year, allowing her to bear the weight of the front half of her body on the wheelchair and pedal with her back legs.
Inside the park gates, Manzer, of Sanford, said Maple sped off bounding around doing laps with the other dogs. Manzer said her fears were unfounded. The other dogs didn’t seem to notice what humans had labeled as a handicap.
“No dog has ever treated her any different,” Manzer said. “The dogs don’t see anything wrong with her.”
That's a mentality Husky Haven of Florida, the Central Florida-based group that first rescued Maple, is hoping to transfer to humans: physical disabilities don't tell the whole story.
"Disabilities are only seen by us humans. (Dogs) just adjust. They don't see that they have a disability, only we see that they have a disability," said Francia Vogini, president of Husky Haven of Florida.
To get their message across, the rescue is forming a group of special-needs huskies called the “Handicapables.” Some are missing limbs, others their eyesight, but in the end, Vogini said they’re all happy dogs living their best lives.
Maple, deemed sweet as syrup by her adopted parents, is a founding member.
“I just want to show people with our Handicapables that just because they might look different doesn’t mean they’re not living their best life, doesn’t mean they have any mental issues,” Manzer said. “I want to show people that they can live just as perfectly as anyone else. And I feel like that translates to people as well.”
Vogini, of Altamonte Springs, said the goal of the group is to go into schools and teach children that animals and people with disabilities are just like them: happy, loving and eager to be included at the dog park – or playground.
The group is hosting its debut community outreach event from noon to 3 p.m. on Sunday at Spill in Winter Springs featuring Maple, her tripod foster brother Dallas and four other "handicapable" huskies.
Vogini said her rescue has seen an uptick in the number of disabled huskies needing homes in recent years. In part, she said she blames that on “Game of Thrones” and backyard breeders looking to capitalize on the breed’s popularity without regard to genetics.
She said before the show gained popularity, her rescue used to save around 50 huskies a year. That number is now up to 300.
Dr. Hailee Hobson, with Luv-N-Care Animal Hospital in Longwood, helps care for the huskies rehabbed through the rescue. She said over-breeding is an ongoing problem.
“It’s hard because (the breeders) continue doing it even though there are these types of cases,” Hobson said.
When Manzer had a genetic panel done on Maple, she said she had a startlingly high number of identical genes, which could explain her birth defect.
Other times the deformities just happen, leaving the animal’s fate up to their humans.
Two or three decades ago, Hobson said, in most cases animals without use of their limbs or with born without limbs all together would be put down, as there were no alternatives to help provide them with an acceptable quality of life.
Now, with advances in animal prosthetics and wheelchairs, there are options to help the animals live healthy happy lives.
Maple rolls around with a wheelchair built custom for her by Eddie's Wheels in Massachusetts. The company says it builds an average of 30 animal wheelchairs a week granting the gift of mobility to dogs, cats or even goats.
Leslie Grinnell, co-founder of Eddie's Wheels with her husband, Ed, said they started fashioning pet wheelchairs 30 years ago when their 80-pound Doberman named Buddha abruptly lost the use of her hind legs.
Euthanasia was not an option, she said.
“It was necessity being the mother of invention,” Grinnell said. Her husband, an engineer by trade, got to work designing a pair of wheels to get Buddha back on her feet, and they’ve been refining their system ever since.
They have chairs for animals without back legs, and special ones for those, like Maple, without front legs.
Grinnell said she has the best job in the world.
“You get to get hugged every day. You cry every time you see a dog take its first steps in a cart and see their tails wag,” she said. “It’s a good day when you can make a dog happy.”
Veterinarian Len Lucero also got creative when a woman called him asking to put a pig down because it was born without use of his hind legs. Instead, Lucero took the tiny piglet home and started brainstorming.
Soon, he fashioned a functioning wheelchair out of Legos pieces and the pig, famously named Chris P. Bacon, was on the move.
Chris P.'s story soon went viral, earning him more than 120,000 followers on Facebook, a book deal and a custom-built wheelchair built out of materials more sustainable than Legos.
“Thank goodness for companies that are making these devices that ease their lives and makes life for these pets so much better,” Lucero said.
Chris P. found his happily ever after napping his days away in Sumter County, while Maple found her pack wheeling around with her husky sister Zulu in Sanford.
But Husky Haven of Florida said it has many other special needs dogs still looking for homes -- some that will be mingling at the Handicapables event this weekend.
Maple, they said, serves as their poster child for success.
Manzer and her boyfriend Dakota Sillox first saw a posting about Maple on the rescue's Facebook page. Meeting her in person, they said, sealed the deal.
“She is filled with so much love and joy,” Sillox said.
As their fans have come to know, Maple loves to give hugs and kisses, counter surfing, and get strapped into her wheelchair.
“She loves her wheels. She gets so excited when we bring them out she howls,” Manzer said with a laugh. “Anytime she gets to go in her wheels and see people, she’s happy.”
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