Shelley Mamott, Staff Writer
This heartwarming story of an inspiring Black Lab named Pepper, rescued and adopted by Sheryl Hogan-Mueller of Sheryl’s Den Animal Rescue in N.J. won this year’s ‘Rally to Rescue’ stories contest.
Sheryl Hogan-Mueller was on the phone in her kitchen hearing about a shelter in West Virginia that was opting to euthanize a group of dogs due to a lack of manpower during bad weather. Upset by what she had heard, she called one of her many devoted volunteers, Debbie Eliassen to share the news. Compelled to do something, the two agreed they would to drive to West Virginia to save the dogs.
With bad road conditions and more and more snow falling as they drove, they finally made it to West Virginia after a 7 hour trip. The next morning, after brushing a night’s worth of snow off the car, they picked up the dogs from the shelter.
Their extraordinary response to save the lives of those 15 dogs would also end up saving a Labrador Retriever named “Pepper.”
Forty minutes into their slow drive home, they saw a peculiar scene unfold along the highway ahead of them.
"A car abruptly stopped at the side," Hogan-Mueller says. "Out of curiosity, we watched to see what they were doing. We saw them open a door and throw something out."
It was Pepper.
Upon recognizing it was a dog that had been thrown out, they pulled the car over. The Labrador was malnourished, afraid and injured.
"It took 15 to 20 minutes to get close enough for Sheryl to slip a lead onto Pepper," says Eliassen. "She was so afraid but didn’t run from us. I’m not sure Pepper could have run in her condition, but she seemed to understand we wanted to help."
Adding Pepper to the group of passengers already in their car, they decided that Hogan-Mueller would foster her until she was adopted. With a host of physical ailments determined by a vet, it was Pepper’s emotional condition that grabbed Hogan-Mueller’s attention even more.
"Physical wounds heal," she says. "The hardest part to heal was Pepper’s emotional wounds. I worked months to get her to look at me and trust me. The slightest move caused her to run upstairs. We couldn’t touch her."
Spending hours at a time talking to Pepper, Hogan-Mueller gradually gained enough trust to touch the dog. Slowly, Pepper began to trust her husband, Paul Mueller, and their son, Ryan Mueller as well.
Being unable to bear the idea of her “mama’s girl” experiencing more uncertainty after it took so long to win her faith, the Mueller family decided to adopt Pepper. Estimated to be about 5 or 6 years old, she is a mellow companion who greets visitors with a gleaming eye and an eager bark.
"We had to teach Pepper how to play," says Hogan-Mueller. "She had no idea what to do with a ball or chew toy. She wouldn’t carry them or play fetch. She still would rather be around people than play with our other dogs, ‘Misty,’ a Catahoula mix, and ‘Casey,’ a Saint Bernard."
Pepper is now healed of all her physical and emotional wounds and is happy to welcome all dogs entering Sheryl’s Den Animal Rescue, as she assures them that they too will be fine now.
"It can’t be explained. What was meant to be happened," Hogan-Mueller says. "Pepper was meant to be with me forever."
The urgent mission to rescue those shelter dogs, which received forever homes, brought the right people to the right place at the right time, despite being a long way from home in dangerous weather. It brought 16 dogs’ salvation, and fulfilled Hogan-Mueller and Pepper’s destiny.