After losing her friendly and mellow dog, Annie, to cancer in January 2013, Dharma May decided to volunteer at the Villalobos Rescue Center in Louisiana for a week last summer — although she wasn't sure she could adopt another dog.
"It was something I felt I needed to do to honor Annie's memory," May said of the Bully Boot Camp, which required 10 hours of shoveling poop, cleaning kennels, walking dogs and other chores throughout the day in 98-degree heat.
The 47-year-old business teacher at River Ridge High School and director of the school's FBLA chapter cannot not talk about Annie without tearing up. Annie died of cancer suddenly at age 13. "A couple of months before she was fine," she said, choking up.
But the boot camp turned out to be more than a therapeutic experience for May in her time of mourning. "It was cathartic," she said. "Doing all that hard work helps you process emotions."
The tour of duty at Villalobos also turned out to be fateful. May instantly connected with Franco, a pit bull/American Bull Dog mix (she approximates because of his size). The dog, oddly enough, was brought to Villalobos's attention by actor Jada Pinkett Smith — but May wasn’t ready to adopt a new dog into her home last summer. Though Franco was twice the size of Annie, he had the same easygoing spirit.
May couldn't get Franco off her mind. Months later, she returned to Villalobos, ready and excited to reunite with the amiable grey and white male and take him home. Her poignant segment airs tonight on Animal Planet's Pit Bulls and Parolees at 10 p.m. The program, if you haven't seen it, unites humans and dogs who've been misunderstood, been through the mill and need a second chance.
In the episode, star and boss of the Louisiana rescue camp Tia Torres isn't sure if Franco is the best fit at first. May met Torres only once during her boot camp orientation.
The TV appearance, though exciting for May, is a blip compared to the life-changing experience she had at Villalobos. In addition to meeting Franco, she encountered parolees, like Earl Moffett, who turned their lives around, and she befriended volunteers from all over the U.S. — several, coincidentally, happened to be teachers too.
"Though he could never replace Annie, he helped me open my heart again," May said of Franco. "He's 100 percent an inside dog," she added. "He's a little spoiled, has a crate, a spot on the couch, and is doing wonderfully."
May's experience working at Villalobos inspired her to start a project for Pasco County Animal Services, enlisting her Future Business Leaders of America in turning in hundreds of volunteer hours and helping dozens of pets find homes.