Seattle journalist Laura T. Coffey resisted when a reader suggested she write a story about a Los Angeles photographer who took pictures of older dogs in animal shelters in an effort to increase their chances of getting adopted.
It was the summer of 2013 and Coffey’s mother had recently died. The story sounded too sad to tackle. Who wanted to read about old dogs waiting out their last days in crowded animal shelters — even if some photographer was trying to help them?
The reader persisted. Coffey reluctantly pitched the idea to editors and eventually called the photographer, Lori Fusaro, whose pro bono work with the animal shelters had caught the attention of the persistent reader.
Coffey and Fusaro clicked over the phone. Coffey did a feature story about her for TODAY.com, the website of NBC’s “TODAY” show, a story Coffey says she “wrote in a total fog,” still grieving the death of her mother.
No one, least of all Coffey, anticipated the reaction to the story that ran with the heart-grabbing headline “No Dog Should Die Alone.” An online photo gallery of some of the senior dogs Fusaro had photographed accompanied the story.
The story and photos were “shared and shared and shared,” says Coffey.
NBC Nightly News did a segment based on Coffey’s story and The Associated Press did a version of the story, which “had a crazy international reach.”
Sunny, the senior dog that Fusaro rescued from a shelter after one of her photo shoots, was featured in newspapers around the world, says Coffey.
“I would have never guessed that writing this one single story would have had such an impact,” says Coffey.
Then, a literary agent approached Coffey and Fusaro about a book on senior dogs rescued from animal shelters. That conversation led to “My Old Dog,” a book perfectly described by its subtitle “Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts.”
The book is anything but sad.
“It conveys how meaningful and happy it can be to rescue a senior dog, how life changing it has proven to be for people from all walks of life, of all ages,” says Coffey. “It debunks the myth a little bit that it’s too sad to do. It’s surprising how much it has meant to people.”
Coffey and Fusaro traveled all over the country to meet senior dogs and the people who took them in. “My Old Dog” is a collection of 19 different stories of dogs and their humans and Fusaro’s photos of them. The youngest dog featured in the book is 7; the oldest, 18. There are a variety of sizes and breeds. There also are a wide variety of human rescuers, from the rich and famous — think actor George Clooney and Jeannie and Bruce Nordstrom — to a Marine who spent a tour of duty in Afghanistan to a 75-year-old widow.
While the stories all are uniquely inspiring, there is a common thread: joy — joy that the dogs and humans have each other. It’s difficult to know who is helping whom the most.
The book also includes tips for having a happy, healthy senior pet; tips on training a senior pet; ideas for how anyone can help reduce the number of aging animals in shelters; and a resource guide for connecting with organizations around the country whose mission is to help.
Coffey will be in Homer next week to talk about the book, which was released last fall and is now a national best seller. A program organized by the Friends of the Homer Public Library, the Homer Bookstore and Homer Animal Friends will begin at 6 p.m. Sept. 1 at the library. Books will be available for sale and signing.
For Coffey, the Homer event will be a homecoming of sorts. She and her husband, Michael Wann, met in the summer of 1995 while both were working in the egg room of the Icicle Seafood plant on the Homer Spit. They married in 1997 and now have an 8-year-old son, Tyler.
“Homer is such a magical place. It’s where everything began for us,” says Coffey. “It’s really something for us to go back.”
Homer art and memorabilia cover walls and bookshelves in their Seattle home — including a framed travel story about Homer that Wann wrote for The San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper in 2001.
Just as she has done in other presentations, while in Homer Coffey hopes to encourage those thinking of adding a pet to their family to consider adopting a dog over the age of 6 or 7 instead of thinking a puppy is the only option.
For the most part, older dogs are house-trained, calm and easy to be with, she says. They end up in shelters not through any fault of their own, but because of some life upheaval — financial pressures, an illness or death in the family, the loss of a home.
Across the board, the human rescuers featured in “My Old Dog” would agree: “Seeing a dog feel so relieved and grateful and content is the best thing ever,” as Coffey writes.