Chi Chi, a three-year-old golden retriever, is energetic and loving. She likes squeaky toys and carrots and cuddles with her owners, Elizabeth Howell, her husband and their daughter.
But Chi Chi is no ordinary dog: She’s a quadruple amputee who walks with four custom prosthetic legs. And her story of redemption — one that began in misery at a South Korean dog meat operation and now continues across the world in the Howells’ comfortable Phoenix home — has earned her a strong online following, as well as a growing one in her in own community.
Chi Chi, who Howell says is a “blessing every day in our lives,” finished a therapy dog training course last month and now regularly visits a veterans center, an assisted-living facility and special-needs students at an elementary school.
It’s a remarkable transformation for a dog who was left in a trash bag outside a meat market in early 2016. Her legs had been bound with wire, leaving bones and tissue exposed. The rescue group that found her was going to euthanize her but had second thoughts after rescuers saw her wagging tail and positive spirit, Howell said. Instead, they decided to amputate all of her legs, and they gave her a name: Chi Chi, after a Christian motivational speaker from Australia, Nick Vujicic, who was born without limbs.
“They decided there was something special about her and that she wanted to live, so they decided to try and save her,” said Howell, 46, a former technology consulting executive. “There was something about her that touched them, too.”
Kelly O’Meara, senior director for companion animals with Humane Society International, said an estimated 2.5 million dogs are slaughtered for consumption each year in South Korea. Activists say the centuries-old practice of eating dog meat is falling out of favor among younger generations, but slowly.
“It’s the only country that commercially raises dogs on farms,” O’Meara said. “The larger breeds are the ones you will often see . . . for slaughter and consumption. It’s due to the mass: There’s a larger carcass for meat.”
Two months after it found her, the Nabiya Irion Hope Project, an animal welfare group in South Korea, sent Chi Chi to the Animal Rescue Media and Education (ARME) group in Los Angeles, where both organizations believed she stood a better chance of adoption. Howell said she saw one video of the dog and “couldn’t get her off my mind.”
“I watched it multiple times just sitting there. I didn’t know what was going on or what her story was, but I knew something awful had happened to her,” said Howell. “It was really her eyes that got me.”
The Howells, who have owned eight dogs in nearly 24 years of marriage, decided they wanted to make Chi Chi their next. ARME drove her from Los Angeles to Phoenix in March 2016. Six months later, she was fitted with custom prosthetics that allow her to walk and run.
After a short but traumatic lifetime of abuse, Howell said, Chi Chi was reticent to interact at first. But that changed in a matter of months. Now, Howell said, the dog is free to trust humans “without any fear or risk to her well-being. That’s been amazing to watch her grow and watch her transform into this dog that now can’t wait to visit people and meet new people.”
So far, Chi Chi’s biggest fan base is virtual — more than 45,000 followers on her Facebook and Instagram accounts. Howell said her hope, though, is that Chi Chi’s greatest impact will be at schools and that she will teach young children to be kind.
“Dogs aren’t judging. They love everyone the same. Somehow dogs can just reach a person in ways humans can’t,” Howell said. “Is that compassion? Understanding? I don’t know. But it’s really special to be able to see. I can’t tell you how many people meet her and just start crying.”