When someone knocked on the door of her family's Pueblo West house in the early hours of Nov. 10, 2013, Cheryl Gonzales expected bad news - an accident in the neighborhood or someone in trouble needing help.
She was right, only the tragedy had yet to occur.
Gonzales recalls hooking her fingers through Blue's collar to restrain the dog - a neglected and euthanasia-bound pit bull recently deposited in her care by a family acquaintance - before opening the door. She quickly closed it when she saw two would-be intruders wearing masks and brandishing semi-automatic weapons. The gunmen opened fire, shooting six times through the closed door and striking her twice, in the chest and arm, before running away.
"Basically, they thought they killed me," said Gonzales, 35, who underwent multiple surgeries over the following days, including open-heart and the removal of her spleen, stomach and a lung, before spending "about two weeks" in a coma. When she awoke, Blue - the dog she'd been rehabilitating, luckily uninjured in the thwarted home invasion - was foremost on her mind.
"I don't know why, but for some reason, I needed Blue to be there. He wasn't even really my dog, he was a foster, but he was all I could think of, my little pity case at the moment, and bullet or not I had to finish what I started."
That's what Gonzales did over the next 18 months, as she and Blue healed together.
DETAILS: Visit Harley's Hope online at www.harleys-hope foundation.org or call 495-6083.
"He was with me every day in the hospital and people would come up to him and he'd help them through their situations," she said. "I could grab his collar and use him to roll over. No training at all, 11 years old, and he knew what to do."
Her doctor noticed the positive changes and suggested Blue be her therapy dog.
"You're not allowed to have pit bull service dogs. Blue might be one of the first," Gonzales said.
In late June, Blue was attacked and mauled by a loose dog while Gonzales walked him near her home. Her husband, Tommy, rushed him to the vet, where the couple learned though Blue's injuries were extensive and severe, he could be saved.
Life came at a price, though. One beyond the Gonzales' reach.
"We just paid rent. There was no money to keep him overnight in the hospital. We don't have the money like we used to and we're adjusting to that now because I'm disabled," said Gonzales, who stayed home that day to research emergency financial assistance for pet owners.
Harley's Hope still seems part mirage, too good to possibly be true.
"I called places about emergency funds and everybody denied us, but I figured I'd hit 'em all day, won't sleep, whatever I have to do for this guy. I would have made the kids sell Popsicles to make the money," said Gonzales, a mother of three whose love for animals inspired her to run a one-woman shelter when she lived in rural Nebraska and eventually to pursue a career as a veterinary assistant. "I hit the button to apply for a (Harley's Hope) scholarship and within two hours of Blue leaving the house for the vet, they called me back. I've worked with this kind of network for 20 years and nobody ever gets back to you that fast."
Providing a safety net
Cynthia Bullock knows the power of the animal-human bond. She and her husband, David, started Harley's Hope Foundation five years ago after losing their dog to cancer.
"Like a lot of rescue dogs, Harley had issues but we fell in love with her and had her for eight years," Bullock said. "It was just the experience of getting that diagnosis and going into the tailspin - Where do I find services? How do I pay? - that inspired us to help others who are struggling to get through it."
The Colorado Springs nonprofit can arrange emergency foster care for qualifying pet owners experiencing a temporary crisis - situational or financial, such as an unanticipated hospitalization - that puts them in danger of losing their animals. Since late 2010, the organization has provided services to about 1,700 pets both through direct assistance programs and by providing low-cost and free preventive health and training services. The group also holds an annual pet health fair in partnership with the Colorado Springs Area Veterinary Society.
"Harley's Hope is a safety net organization. We're the antithesis of a rescue. We focus on programs to keep animals in their homes," Bullock said. "We don't want to see someone lose their pet and we don't want to see that animal become homeless because of that temporary crisis."
In addition to providing proof of financial need, pet owners applying for scholarships first must qualify their animal for assistance. Harley's Hope needs to know the money - up to $500 per animal - isn't being used in a hopeless scenario.
"With Harley, we knew we were not going to get a happy ending. Most cases now must come with a hopeful prognosis," Bullock said. "Whether it's veterinary or behavioral training, we need to know that it's something that can be fixed."
So far this year, the group has helped keep more than 70 animals with the humans who love them. Bullock currently is fostering two dogs for their owner, the victim of domestic violence.
"She's in a safe house so the dogs have been hanging out with us for about two months now," said Bullock, who is a member of the affiliate faculty in the Masters of Nonprofit Management program at Regis University in addition to running the foundation "full time, and then some." "Once she settles, she'll be able to take her dogs back. She didn't want to lose them on top of everything else."
When Tommy Gonzales collected Blue from the vet in the days following his attack, the couple discovered their blessings were twofold.
"They said it was one of the worst, if not the worst, dog attacks they'd ever seen. His whole chest was ripped completely open, he had two tubes in him and he probably had 50 external and internal stitches, but they saved him," said Gonzales, whose dog was treated at Mesa Veterinary Clinic in Pueblo.
Aside from the $100 deposit paid on intake for an initial diagnosis, she said, "we walked out of there without even a bill. It was so amazing. Everybody should know that there are places like this out there."
Thanks to Harley's Hope, Gonzales has her hope back.
"It was nice to see that not everyone is not what they seem. No one's ever contacted me back so quickly and been so honest," she said. "And out of all this wretched luck, I got Blue, and he's just a buttercup."
As soon as Blue is healed, Gonzales intends to take their gratitude on the road.
"We're going to come up to Colorado Springs for an event and show what you (Harley's Hope) did for him," she said. "I don't like to leave the house much after the shooting, so it's a lot for me to say that, but I mean it. Just call, and I will be there at the drop of a dime."