By Anna Cooke for The New Barker dog magazine
Robert E. Vierck was a Vietnam Veteran, having served in the United States Navy from 1964 to 1968. During the last few years of his life, he lived on a sailboat behind the C. W. (Bill) Young VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg. Life on the water brought him some joy. The proximity of his floating home to the VA Medical Center provided easy access for his medical needs. His only family was Arrow, a dog, who lived on the boat with him.
Ron Bittaker, co-owner of Paws Inn Paradise, a dog daycare and boarding facility in Pinellas Park, Florida is known for his big heart, especially when it comes to dogs and veterans. It’s not unusual for the folks who work at the VA Medical Center to call on Ron when they have a special situation that involves a dog. Sometimes it’s to provide temporary boarding for the dog while the veteran undergoes surgery or some other medical treatment that requires a brief stay in the hospital. Other times, it may be long term, for when a veteran is in the care of hospice.
Ron graciously and unceremoniously provides this as a service to the men and women who have served in the military. More often than not, many of the veterans who need this type of assistance are not in a financial position to pay for boarding. Keeping families together and dogs out of shelters are two priorities for Ron and his staff. Many people who work or volunteer in dog rescue already know this about Ron.
When Mr. Vierck was unexpectedly admitted to the VA hospital, he left Arrow behind on his boat. After being called by the VA, Ron took his dinghy out to the sailboat to assess the situation. Arrow was the boat’s protector and did not take kindly to a stranger floating around the perimeter.
Every day for three weeks, Ron returned to the sailboat to feed Arrow. “I just put the food up on the boat, never actually boarding the boat.”
The day after a line of storms moved off the Gulf across the Tampa Bay area, Ron anxiously visited the sailboat, only to find it capsized. Arrow was still on the boat, unharmed. Ron put in a call to Boat US, then determined that Arrow would need to be sedated in order to safely remove her from the boat. She was still guarding her home.
Arrow willingly took the hotdogs. Then Ron and his nephew Andy waited for the drugs to take effect. “Once Arrow was out, we lifted her off the boat and immediately took her to Medicine River Animal Hospital, where she was seen by Dr. Shauna Green,” said Ron.
In the meantime, Boat US was on its way to the scene of the capsized boat with not one, but two boats to assist. It took a total of six hours to bail out the water and finally right the boat. Sadly, the weathered old boat had seen better days. Boat US refused to take any money for their work when they found out about the its owner.
Ron received word that Mr. Vierck was in hospice. Arrow was being well cared for by the Paws Inn Paradise staff, an obvious relief to Mr. Vierck.
The hospital does not allow dogs to visit patients, unless they are certified therapy or service dogs. An exception was made for Arrow after Ron made a few phone calls. Mr. Vierck was happy to see his dog and Arrow made it clear to everyone that the feeling was mutual. She smiled and wagged her tail the whole time.
The following day, Ron received word that Mr. Vierck had passed away. He listed Ron as his family. “He actually had a son with whom he was estranged, and we sent a certified letter to the son’s last known address in Washington state. We never received a response,” said Ron. “I made a promise to Bob that we would take care of Arrow and find her a good home.”
Eventually, Arrow was adopted by a Clearwater family. Soon after, as a companion for Arrow, they adopted Jesse, another sort-of celebrity in her own right. At only eight weeks old, Jesse was discovered injured and abandoned in an Orlando Home Depot shopping cart. Racing 4 Rescues fostered and nursed her back to health.
Recently, Ron recalled his memory of that experience with Mr. Vierck. “We went from being complete strangers to becoming good friends, brought together by a need to help his dog.”