In 2009, Donna Smith Lawrence and her husband saw a TV news report about a puppy that had been found with severe burns on her body, her ears burned off, a broken jaw and teeth. The North Carolina hairdresser told her husband she wanted to adopt that dog. It was an astonishing statement — especially in light of the fact that Donna herself had spent weeks in the hospital recovering from a horrific pit bull attack by an abandoned animal in her neighborhood.
The Lawrences nursed the puppy they called Susie back to health. Infuriating many, the man who had so cruelly burned and beaten her was sentenced to probation only. At the time, North Carolina law did not criminalize animal abuse. Donna and Susie got busy — and today the state has “Susie’s Law,” which makes animal cruelty a low-level felony.
On Thursday night (10/30), viewers will have the chance to see Donna and Susie, now a certified therapy dog, being honored at the 4th Annual American Humane Association’s Hero Dog Awards on the Hallmark Channel. The celebrity-studded award show features compelling story after compelling story of amazing canines. Susie’s and Donna’s story of triumph and forgiveness brought tears to the eyes of many in the audience in the Beverly Hilton Hotel ballroom.
Susie, however, seemed to enjoy basking in the adulation and glamor. She looked divine in a purple tutu and a strand of faux pearls for the formal event. “She’s kind of used to it,” admits Lawrence with a smile. “She was just a little star, just standing up there on stage, just taking it all in. She didn’t seem to mind at all. That’s kind of her trademark, pearls and tutus,” she adds.
Susie’s rise to fame began with the campaign to get her animal cruelty law on the books. She and Donna visited communities across the state, manned booths at events to get petitions signed, answered questions. Eventually, they took their case all the way into the state house in Raleigh. “We took her right up in front of the Senate and the House and let them see first hand what animal cruelty looked like. I think that’s what really made the powerful difference, ’cause it’s one thing to talk about an animal being abused but when it’s someone marching the animal right up in front of you, you can’t deny it.”
Susie’s abuser wouldn’t have been penalized even to the extent that he was if the assistant district attorney on the case hadn’t thought of prosecuting him on grounds of attempted destruction of personal property. Susie had belonged to the abuser’s girlfriend. “If the girlfriend had shown up in court and said, ‘I don’t care that he burned my dog,’ he would have got nothing,” says Lawrence. “I think her parents kept her away because of all the publicity.” Not surprisingly, Susie’s abuser has gone on to other incidents of trouble with the law.
Since news broke of Susie’s Hero Dog win, Lawrence has been deluged with emails. “I get emails from people who want to get the laws changed in their states: How can I do this? We want to do this here. People just want this epidemic of animal abuse stopped. And that’s how we stop it — to make it a national movement to stop animal cruelty. There are states that have great laws, but others don’t. North Dakota and South Dakota don’t. North Carolina was in the top five worst; the laws hadn’t been changed in 100 years. Alabama has pretty good animal cruelty laws now. Because of a dog that was burned that was named Gucci, they have a law called Gucci’s Law. That dog passed away.” Lawrence and Susie continue their lobbying efforts even as the pooch does her humanitarian work, visiting children, the aged, the disabled, always with her silent message that there can be a bright future even for those in despair.
Susie’s story is not only of victory, but of healing. After her pit bull attack, Lawrence, understandably, had a dread fear of dogs. Susie, she says, “got me over that. I felt God was saying to adopt her and ‘I have great plans for you. From this day forward you will no longer be afraid of dogs,’ and I haven’t been. It’s like Susie opened my eyes to where I don’t have to live in fear. Because, you know, she trusted humans again after what happened to her. I thought, ‘If she can trust humans, I can trust dogs.’ So, you know, she really helped me overcome that fear.”
These days, Susie keeps a full slate of public appearances — and there will be even more now that she is the Hero Dog Award winner of this year. There’s already a movie about her, “Susie’s Hope,” that stars Emmanuelle Vaugier. It fared well on the festival circuit, had a small theatrical run, and can now be found on Netflix, at Walmart, Best Buy and other outlets.
“It’s a really good movie and everybody’s loving it,” Lawrence lets us know. “And it’s a really good tool for the work we’re doing.”
A documentary for 2015 is also on the way. Oh, and Susie has a little toy line of her own – including plush therapy dogs that feature the pit bull mix’s trademark pearls and instead of ears, furry little nubs on their heads.
At age five, she is happy and healthy.
Lawrence adds, “I’m glad Susie won because of what she represents.”