Before he spent mornings chewing on stuffed toys, Henry the dog worried about surviving predator attacks, finding food and living through bad weather near an abandoned mine in Kentucky.
His capture and journey to Minnesota took a year and a half, six trips south and thousands of dollars, but his rescuers with Minnesota-based Safe Hands Rescue say the effort to save the smiley, golden dog was more than worth it.
"It's like the rescue story of my lifetime," said Safe Hands executive director Lynne Bengtson.
The nonprofit's goal is to eliminate pet overpopulation largely in impoverished Harlan County by bringing shelter dogs from Kentucky to Minnesota — a state with less poverty and established animal welfare practices — for adoption, encouraging spaying and neutering and changing the culture surrounding dogs as pets. They've been at it for 15 years and the shelter's euthanasia rate has gone from 98% to less than 10%, Bengtson said.
The story of Henry and his pack has captured people's hearts, inspiring a short film, apparel bearing the phrase "Never Give Up — Henry" and Facebook posts liked by hundreds of people.
"I love following his journey and applaud each and every one who has helped and never gave up on him," wrote Mary Kempe after Bengtson posted a recent Henry milestone.
Henry's saga began in the spring of 2019, when staff and volunteers from Safe Hands (safehandsrescue.org) made their regular visit to the shelter in Harlan County, which is among that state's poorest counties.
A woman brought in a litter of puppies from a pack of dogs who lived at an old coal mine 30 minutes away. She couldn't catch the adults, she said.
Bengston drove to the mine, hot dogs in hand, and was greeted by seven friendly but scared dogs. "Their spirit was just broken," she said. "You just wanted to put a bubble of protection around them."
The Safe Hands crew asked Becky Burgess, a local retired woman known as Miss Becky, if she would feed the dogs while they were gone. They assembled a large pen, hoping the dogs would become comfortable with it if Burgess fed them there.
Months later, the Safe Hands team visited a third time and caught their first dog, a friendly male they called Yellow Boy. He's now Bengtson's pet.
"That dog never looked back," she said of Yellow Boy. Two other dogs weren't as lucky, one dying of a possible heart ailment and another hit by a car.
In October of 2019, Safe Hands caught three of the four remaining dogs but couldn't nab Henry. The rescue doesn't travel to Kentucky during winter, which meant Henry would be without his beloved pack at least until the snow melted.
"It was both a happy moment of catching the other three but a heartbreaking moment of leaving Henry," Bengtson said.
The group set up cameras and a high-tech trap designed by the Retrievers — an all-volunteer Twin Cities group that finds lost dogs — so Henry could get used to it. They enlisted Burgess to check on Henry over the coming months.
Burgess did more than that. She drove 57 miles every day to feed him homemade rump roast, cheeseburgers and sausage. She prayed he would stay safe.
"My life revolved around him," she said.
Eventually, Henry ate from her hand, but it was still hard to get him in the trap.
During the year he was alone, Henry was forlorn and frightened. Cameras caught his howl as he mourned his lost family. "He was always looking over his shoulder," Burgess said.
COVID kept the Minnesota team away from their more regular visits to Kentucky. Finally, around Thanksgiving of 2020, Safe Hands staff returned. They were able to catch Henry in two hours.
Courtney Raney, a volunteer on that trip, said she always knew they would catch Henry, but she was surprised it happened so quickly after such a long wait.
Though she had to stay calm, "It was probably the most emotionally driven moment of my life," she said.
Burgess said she "may have fell to my knees when I saw him. I just lost it."
The crew returned to Minnesota, where Bengtson has been fostering Henry. Gaining his trust and showing him how to be an inside dog has been challenging.
"It's critical for people to know that it's not all sunshine," Raney said.
The early days were hard, Bengtson said. Henry wouldn't let anyone touch him and couldn't be left alone. The nights were the worst — he would bark and howl until Bengtson was nearby.
She couldn't get any sleep, she said, so volunteers had to watch Henry for an occasional night.
But things are improving every day, she said. Henry sleeps through the night now and was recently neutered, she said.
The rescue recently learned of two of Henry's health problems — hip dysplasia and a lower jaw that is much shorter than the upper one.
The jaw problem may be fixed by shortening his teeth, she said, but both hips require surgery.
Even so, Bengtson said she's overjoyed to know Henry is safe. Sometimes she stares at him in disbelief that he's here, she said, and she may adopt him.
"He's just the sweetest and gentlest soul," she said. "I don't think that he will ever leave my house, leave my family."
Erin Adler • 612-673-1781