With three senior rescue dogs already living in their house, Richard and Elizabeth Howell of Phoenix hadn't planned on adopting a fourth dog.
They changed their minds after watching a Facebook video of Chi Chi, a golden retriever with no legs.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about her,” Elizabeth Howell said. “So we reached out to the organization that posted the video and the rest is history.”
Chi Chi was found in a trash bag outside of a dog-meat farm in South Korea with her four paws bound so tightly together that flesh surrounding the ties had begun to rot.
She was taken to a rescue organization and was scheduled for euthanasia. But the staff considered Chi Chi's ever-wagging tail as a sign that she wanted to live.
In January 2016, veterinarians in Seoul amputated all four paws and portions of Chi Chi’s legs to save her life. The next issue was finding a home with owners willing to take care of a dog with such severe disabilities.
"When the woman that runs the rescue organization in Korea got Chi Chi, she knew she wouldn’t be able to adopt her out in South Korea,” Howell said. "Dog ownership is a rather new thing over there, and if people do have dogs, they’re small ones — not Chi Chi’s size ... They’re especially not open to the idea of a dog with special needs.”
The family was already connected with the Beagle Freedom Project on Facebook, an organization that rescues dogs used in laboratory testing. The Howell's two beagles came from the group. When the organization posted a video of Chi Chi, the Howells were hooked.
“The Facebook group posted a video of [Chi Chi] just a day or two after her amputations,” Howell said. “She had that big cone on, and she was just wagging her tail like ‘Here I am, ready to move on with my life!’ She was on my heart from that point forward.”
They were the only people who asked about adopting the disabled dog, they said.
“We knew that we would have to sacrifice lots of things — time, some money, freedom to do things you would normally do,” Richard Howell said. “We took a big risk, but we ultimately came to the conclusion that, if not us, who else was going to do this?”
Chi Chi made her long journey from South Korea to the Howells' home in Phoenix in March 2016. With the help of her purple prosthetics, Chi Chi moves much like an average dog. She sprawls out on the couch she’s not allowed on, creates an orchestra with her squeaky toys, and comes running at the sound of a dog-treat bag being opened.
Since Chi Chi arrived at the Howells' home, she’s become quite an internet celebrity. TheDodo, a popular animal website, heard about her story and filmed an episode for its Facebook series “Comeback Kids,” which features stories about animals and their recovery from rough beginnings. Since the episode aired in September, it has gotten over 21 million views and has been shared over 370,000 times.
Chi Chi has been featured on television stations across Arizona and even graced People magazine.
“We get so many messages from people all around the world that talk about how she and her story impacts them,” Elizabeth Howell said. “Everything from people struggling with their own thing — whether it’s depression, or their own illness, you name it — and they talk about how Chi Chi gives them a different perspective on life. Messages with people saying things like ‘I haven’t smiled since my mom passed away, and then I saw Chi Chi’s video and I smiled again.’”
The Howells decided to register Chi Chi for therapy dog training, and said they quickly discovered she was a perfect fit for the job.
She passed her final training last month and received her therapy-dog certification.
“Last weekend, we went and visited with a woman who was hit by a drunk driver over the summer and had to have her leg amputated,” Howell said. “She just started crying when she saw Chi Chi. It was like this immediate bond of understanding. She was really touched at how happy Chi Chi seemed, and how she just seemed to accept that ‘this is what it is and I’m going to make the most out of it.’”
Howell said the patients that meet Chi Chi are overcome with an understanding of perseverance and determination.
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Local resident Amanda Amiel stumbled upon a Facebook video about Chi Chi and convinced her husband, the director of the Lake Pleasant Post Acute Rehabilitation Center in Peoria, to invite the internet-famous dog to his clinic. He was on board right away.
“When the patients met Chi Chi, the joy in the room was palpable,” Amiel said. “There was one woman there who was also an amputee and had recently lost a golden retriever, so it was a double whammy for her. She said that if Chi Chi could do it with four legs gone, she could do it with one.”
Although admittedly entertaining, the Howells said that their recent-found fame was never their priority when they adopted Chi Chi.
“At the end of the day, she’s just a happy dog. She gets up every day and lives her life, and none of this affects her,” Howell said. “She’s just really, really special.”