It starts on a summer day on the Clark Memorial Bridge, when a puppy was thrown off and into the Ohio River below.
Kelsey Westbrook, a server at Joe's Crab Shack, was among the many witnesses who saw the dog's rescue by nearby firefighters.
Not quite a year later, Westbrook, now 22 and still a full-time student and full-time server, is launching Saving Sunny Inc., a nonprofit animal welfare organization to which Sunny, now almost 2, is lending her celebrity:
Their motto: "Bridging the gap for abused animals."
Westbrook said Kentucky's punishment for animal cruelty is regarded as among the most lenient in the country.
The state has a reputation among animal rights activists that "If you want to hurt an animal, then you should come to Kentucky," she said.
To change that image, Saving Sunny has three missions: enable more police officer training in investigating animal cruelty, build a foster care network for abused animals, and educate people on animal care and reporting abuse.
A launch party and fundraiser for the nonprofit will be held on Sunday at Stevie Ray's Blues Bar, 230 E. Main St., from 4 p.m. to midnight with live blues and jazz music and raffles.
The organization's top priority is raising funds for specialized police officer training, with hopes of eventually funding an animal cruelty division at the Louisville Metro Police Department. While Metro Animal Services' animal control officers deal with daily reports of abuse, police often get involved in the most severe cases, said Metro Police Officer Lisa Nagle, who has become the department's go-to person for such cases since joining the force in January 2008.
Another goal is to set up a foster care network to help both animal and human victims of abuse, and drawing attention to what likely is an underreported factor in cases of domestic violence: pets. Victims of domestic abuse are sometimes reluctant to leave their pets behind, fearing their abuser will harm or kill the animals in retaliation, both Nagle and Westbrook said. Offering a safe place for those pets to stay could help get some people out of abusive situations.
Abused animals, such as fighting dogs, often end up in custody of Metro Animal Services under quarantine and eventually are put down, Westbrook said. Those dogs could instead go into foster care, but those volunteers will need training as well, she said, and Saving Sunny will ensure they receive it.
Like most animal welfare groups, Saving Sunny also is taking on the mission of educating as many people as possible -- particularly in gathering places such as schools and churches -- about how to properly take care of animals and how to report animal cruelty to authorities.
An eventful yearSince they met on July 26, 2009, Westbrook and Sunny have both been through some changes.
Westbrook changed her college major in January from English to liberal studies in animal welfare, combining classes in creative writing, public relations and animal biology. She plans to graduate in December and pursue a career in nonprofit work.
After almost losing her apartment in the wake of all the publicity -- since pit bulls are considered a vicious breed, they often are banned at rental properties -- a new landlord gave them a reprieve. Soon, she plans to move to a new home with a yard for Sunny, her other dog, Nala, and her own foster dog, Miles.
Westbrook and a friend found Miles wandering in Old Louisville covered in fleas and ticks and suffering bad cases of parasites and mange. After receiving proper veterinary care, including neutering and microchipping, and staying in a loving home, Miles -- who loves playing with Sunny and Nala and curling up with people -- is ready to be permanently adopted, she said.
A German shepherd, Nala was abused as a puppy and has "gotten a little more confident," with Sunny around, Westbrook said, "which is a cool transition to see. ... They're best friends."
Meanwhile, Sunny is working on her Canine Good Citizen certification at the Kentucky Humane Society and just finished behavior training. She's healthy and "still has puppy energy," Westbrook said, and has "filled out to "about 65 pounds of solid muscle," and is quite a ham, well aware of her celebrity status.
"She's really resilient," Westbrook said.
They've been walking by the river, and Sunny doesn't seem to have any anxiety there."I always wonder if she remembers it, but I doubt she does," Westbrook said.
'Only a misdemeanor'A man was arrested in September for allegedly throwing Sunny off the bridge and was charged with second-degree animal cruelty, but he was cleared after two continuances in February due to a lack of evidence, according to the Jefferson County Attorney's office.
"I think I would like people to know that it was only a misdemeanor and that nothing really happened," Westbrook said. "It would have been a felony if she had died from the fall."
There are limited felony charges for animal cruelty cases, said Nagle, who was involved in the investigation of Sunny's case and is serving as an advisor to the board of Saving Sunny.
"The way the law works in Kentucky, you have animal cruelty first (degree), which is dog fighting and a felony," said Nagle. The torture of a cat or dog is a misdemeanor, Nagle said, unless it is a third offense or the animal dies or sustains serious physical injury -- then it becomes a felony.
Second-degree animal cruelty is a misdemeanor and is the charge for a range of crimes, from neglect, like not providing food and water and veterinary care, to intentionally inflicting pain or suffering, according to Nagle.
"I've seen some extreme cases," said Nagle.
She hopes support from Saving Sunny might help Metro Police, working closely with Metro Animal Services, better investigate and prosecute as many animal abuse and cruelty cases as possible.
Nagle believes officers could benefit from specialized training, particularly in the area of dog fighting, where investigations operate much like narcotics investigations, with the added element of the dogs -- victims, but victims trained and often bred to be violent and aggressive.
Nagle said she wants the public to know that "dog fighting is happening in Louisville," and police need the public's help in alerting officers to where the activity is taking place.
"All kinds of criminal activity" frequently accompany a dog-fighting ring, of which she said there are an estimated 100,000 to 140,000 in the U.S.
Pit bulls are the "breed of choice" now, Nagle said, because they have a high pain tolerance and an "undying desire to please their owner."
"All they want is love and companionship," she said.
Signs of dog fighting or someone's involvement in it, Nagle said, are more than a couple of dogs in a back yard, dogs on heavy chains or housed in cheap blue barrels. Another warning sign is seeing someone with a lot of different dogs -- with one dog one week and a different dog the next week.
"It boils down to the owner," she said. "You can take any dog and make it mean."
Update June 6, 2010 6:53pm - The following article is by Andrea Uhde of the Courier-Journal:
Rescued dog has starring role in Saving Sunny group's launch
Before she ever sat down, Barbara Dutschke darted toward a white-haired dog sunning itself on the patio at Stevie Ray's Blues Bar downtown on Main Street on Sunday.
"I've got to pet him," said Dutschke, a dog lover who has two of her own.
Dutschke, of the Highlands, was part of an early crowd of about 40 animal lovers visiting the bar late Sunday afternoon to support a new nonprofit animal welfare organization called Saving Sunny Inc.
The group, named after the female pit bull that was thrown off the Clark Memorial Bridge last July and survived, held its launch party and fundraiser from 4 p.m. to midnight.
"This is our first fundraiser, so it's kind of a test," said Kelsey Westbrook, a server at Joe's Crab Shack who adopted Sunny after she witnessed the dog's rescue from the Ohio River.
Organizers were asking for a $5 donation at the door, and shirts and raffle tickets also were for sale. The night also featured performances by blues and jazz bands.
Saving Sunny aims to raise funds to help train and equip police officers to respond to animal cruelty cases and, eventually, to fund an animal cruelty division at the Louisville Metro Police Department.
Its goals also include establishing an "eyes-and-ears block watch" for animal neglect, promoting and supporting responsible pet ownership, and having a safe place for confiscated animals and animals belonging to victims of domestic violence.
Also, the group's flier says it aims to work with judges and prosecutors on the links between crimes against animals and crimes against people, and ensure "sensible charges and sentencing in crimes against animals."
The group's motto is "Bridging the gap for abused animals."
Westbrook said Kentucky's punishment for animal cruelty is seen as among the most lenient in the country -- information Dutschke said she was shocked to learn.
"How can that be?" Dutschke said. "I hope the organization can get going and change the laws."
Constance Johnson of Clifton said she plans to volunteer for the organization by educating students about animal cruelty and responsible animal care.
"I think (Saving Sunny) is going to fill a gap in terms of promoting education around animal cruelty issues," Johnson said."Sunny helped to shine a spotlight on an issue that people care about but is hard to look at," she said.
The guest of honor arrived fashionably late, wearing a backpack full of treats and doggie bags, her tail wagging as she dashed around the room greeting people.
Sunny posed for a picture, sat still long enough to eat a treat, then scurried under a table to check for leftover food.
Sunny had been playing in the yard since 9 a.m., but at 5 p.m. still had enough energy to last for hours.
"Can you imagine someone throwing that dog off a bridge?" Keith Burkhardt, one of the group's board members, said as Sunny attempted to drag the man holding her leash through the bar.
Westbrook said her dog is "a fan of people. She knows she's a celebrity."