Tracey Wickham with her blind rescue dog Jemma, 12.
Tracey Wickham with her blind rescue dog Jemma, 12. Jerad Williams

In dog we trust - the unbreakable bond between pet and owner

TRACEY WICKHAM AND JEMMA

Former swim champion Tracey Wickham has had it pretty tough, so it's only fitting the dog who rescued her had a hard time of it as well.

Jemma, the black toy poodle, was one of 244 dogs seized from an illegal puppy farm in Wondai, in the South Burnett, in 2009. It was a notorious case for the Queensland RSPCA, sparking the biggest fostering exercise in the organisation's history.

If that wasn't bad enough, four-and-a- half-year-old Jemma was blind and, being unfit for sale, was a designated breeder, confined to a cage for her entire life, churning out litters of puppies and never leaving the cage to toilet, walk on grass or feel sunlight.

Tracey met Jemma when she and the dog she was caged with were put in short-term care with a neighbour of Tracey's mum in Brisbane.

"I was staying with mum at the time and I would go over there to see them,” Tracey says. "She was so timid. I'd be over there six times a week, spending time with them, and I could see her slowly coming out of her shell.”

None of the dogs could be permanently rehomed until after court proceedings against the property owners. By then, it was a major operation as many dogs had given birth while they were in foster care or in the shelter.

There was a huge strain on RSPCA resources to vaccinate, desex and rehome the dogs and their puppies separately so Jemma and her cagemate remained with their foster carer for a while.

It was at a time when Tracey was at her lowest. In 2007, she lost her 19-year-old daughter Hannah to cancer and was struggling with grief. She would sometimes take the dogs for a walk or sit with them to get them used to human contact.

"I just felt so sorry for Jemma,” Tracey says. "Some of the foster carers ended up taking the dogs permanently but mum's neighbour couldn't.

"Mum and I had talked about me taking Jemma. I'd just lost my 14-year-old Maltese Daisy but I didn't have a permanent place to live and Jemma was blind. I didn't know how I'd need to care for her and it didn't seem fair to drag her around.”

On the day her mum's neighbour had to take her back to the RSPCA for rehoming, she got to within 3km of the old centre at Yeronga and turned around to come home again. She couldn't do it.

"So that's how I ended up with Jemma,” Tracey says. "I really think we were meant for each other.”

Taking on a traumatised, blind dog was the project Tracey needed.

"She was sensitive around men or men's voices,” Tracey says. "Even today she just shakes uncontrollably when she hears men's voices she doesn't know. I don't know what must have happened to her.”

Tracey was so worried about her going back to a cage at the RSPCA to be spayed and microchipped, she organised for the procedures to be done in as short a turnaround as possible.

"That first night after her operation, she slept on my chest so she knew she was safe,” Tracey says. "She'd just been through so much already.”

The same could be said for Tracey.

Jemma was there through the next setback in Tracey's life, a fall on a wet floor at a Brisbane hotel that damaged her lower back. To date, Tracey has had three spinal fusion operations and struggles to walk and perform daily tasks.

It's a long way from the spritely teenager who was a swimming sensation well ahead of her time. At just 13, Tracey was selected for the Australian swimming team for the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

In 1978, at 15, she broke her first world record in the 1500m freestyle. Later that year she won the 400m and 800m freestyle at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton and set world records in both events at the World Swimming Championships in Berlin. Both records stood for a remarkable nine years.

She didn't compete at the widely boycotted 1980 Moscow Olympics but returned to swimming for the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, where she won gold in her pet 400m and 800m freestyle events before retiring.

She has been awarded an MBE, an Order of Australia medal, is in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame and the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

But life for Tracey did not go the way anyone would have predicted. After a bitter divorce, she was beaten so savagely by her new partner, she was hospitalised. But nothing hurt as much as Hannah's death.

Tracey struggled to find her feet again, battling depression and a dependence on prescription drugs. She fought to overcome both, only to be felled by the accident that plunged her into financial hardship as well - her pain preventing her working.

Through it all Jemma has been her constant, "a delight”, Tracey says, "the best thing she could have done”.

Poodles are renowned for their intelligence and, from the start, Tracey was amazed at how quickly Jemma adapted.

"I've had lots of moves in the eight years I've had her and she can stake a place out in no time,” Tracey says.

"I don't know whether she counts steps or how she does it but she gets her plan in her head of where things are and she doesn't forget it.

"I put mats down near stairs so when she walks on them she knows the stairs are next. She knows how many stairs there are, where her basket is, where the food and water are, where the couch is, where the bed is.

"She knows so many words. I've never known another dog like it. I can say 'No' or 'Danger' and she won't take another step.”

Today, Jemma loves her freedom. She runs in the park and is great friends with Kimmi, a dog Tracey and Jemma took in "by default” when a family member couldn't keep her any more.

"Kimmi absolutely knows Jemma is blind and keeps an eye on her,” Tracey says. "She'll run off to get her when they're in the park and sneak her treats because she knows she can't see.”

The tight-knit threesome are soon facing another move, this time back to Brisbane to be near Tracey's mother, who's having cancer treatment.

Tracey is facing more major surgery too in a bid to give her more movement and try to relieve some pain. It's not guaranteed but Tracey feels she has little choice. Her rough patch seems far from over.

"I'd live in a tent before I parted with my dogs,” Tracey says. "Jemma came to me at my lowest point and was the best medicine I could have had at that time.

"I really think she was waiting four-and-a- half years in a cage for me to come along too.

"She was a blessing for me and I changed her life forever as well.”

Reuban Karius, 14, of Marsden, with his dog Burt, an 18-month-old bull arab cross. Both suffer from epilepsy and are best mates.
Reuban Karius, 14, of Marsden, with his dog Burt, an 18-month-old bull arab cross. Both suffer from epilepsy and are best mates. Glenn Hampson

REUBAN KARIUS AND BERT

The Karius family spied Bert on the Animal Welfare League's website and pretty much fell in love with him instantly.

"But we thought we'd sit on it for a week,” mum Leishae Karius says.

The next weekend the family visited the AWL's Coombabah shelter and couldn't see the bull arab/cattledog cross until they spotted a pen with his name on and found him hiding behind his bedding.

"That was it. We fell in love and said we'd like to adopt him,” Leishae says. "We found out someone had taken him home earlier but returned him to the AWL so that broke our hearts.

"Apparently he was a bit of a Houdini and liked to escape.”

But Bert wasn't like that with the Kariuses and was settling in well when, after two weeks, he rolled off the bed one evening.

"He was having a seizure on the floor and we thought 'what's going on?',” Leishae says. "Our oldest boy Reuban has epilepsy so we knew how to handle it.”

Bert had a cluster of five seizures that night and was coming to disoriented and distressed. The next morning he started to aspirate on his saliva so they packed him into the car and took him to the vet at the shelter.

After running tests, Bert was diagnosed with epilepsy and the vet advised them it might be best to choose another dog but Leishae says that was never an option.

"I can understand why the vet said that,” she says. "But our son Reuban was diagnosed with epilepsy at 10 so that wasn't the message we wanted to send.

"We knew Bert had been at the shelter a long time and someone else had returned him. We knew it would be hard for him to find another home now.

"What would happen to him? We just couldn't do that.”

Reuban, now 14, started showing early signs of epilepsy at five but wasn't formally diagnosed until 10.

"It was a long process but we've been dealing with epilepsy for 10 years now,” Leishae says.

"I was blown away actually. It never occurred to me that a dog could have epilepsy. What are the odds of that happening?

"So, this is our life. We have two epilepsy babies in the house now.”

Reuban and Bert have formed a special bond. Both of them take their tablets morning and night and the family is vigilant in keeping an eye on the signs - for both of them.

"I've done a lot of reading on epilepsy and now canine epilepsy as well,” Leishae says. "Bert is in the age group of the condition coming on.

"It might have been triggered by him being rehomed or the change in environment. Epilepsy is symptomatic so it's another rung on the ladder for us.

"Bert is a gorgeous boy. He's just got a beautiful nature and so gentle. He and Reuban have that bond. We couldn't imagine life without him.”



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