EAST MANATEE — One day, more than a year ago, a skinny, frightened pit bull tip-toed out of the woods behind the 12 Oaks Plaza at State Road 70 and Interstate 75 and froze under the gaze of a hairdresser on her break from nearby Supercuts.
Who knows why, but at that very moment a connection was forged between the skittish 2-year-old dog — eventually named Poke — and Kristen Pondillo, the hairdresser.
Try as she might, Pondillo and others could not get close enough to Poke to capture her so she could get medical care.
When anyone got close in fact, Poke would run back into the woods where, it is assumed, she lived a homeless existence, hidden under trees, nursing her wounds from abuse.
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Undeterred, Pondillo and her fellow cosmetologists at Supercuts, including Caroline Nylan, Carolyn Bologna and Angela Cedeno, fed Poke dry food daily out of a Tupperware bowl in the hope that one day the dog would surrender to compassionate humans.
The signal for feeding was a whistle from Pondillo and the dog would poke its head out of the woods and come running, thereby earning her name.
It got to the point where Poke would take food from Pondillo’s hand. But the dog still would not let the hairdresser pet her.
On holidays, when the shop was closed, Pondillo came to the woods, whistled, and Poke came running to get fed.
The women of Supercuts, who fed the dog on Pondillo’s days off, called many animal services and organizations, but because Poke was so skittish, no one felt comfortable helping.
But Pondillo didn’t give up.
She enlisted Manatee Sheriff’s Office Deputy Tim Eason, who routinely handles animal cases. Numerous times, Eason tried to shoot a dart with a tranquilizer into Poke, but every time he pulled up in his car, the dog sensed something was different and ran into the woods.
One day, six months ago, Poke came out of the woods with her collar completely imbedded in her neck. Her neck was split open.
A sense of urgency gripped Pondillo and a scheme was hatched.
Pondillo went out one day and Eason parked away and cautiously walked up behind the dog.
Either Poke had an off moment or she was ready for help. A dart found its mark and before she could retreat to the woods, she fell, knocked out by the anesthesia.
Mary Anne McDevitt, of Bradenton-based Safe Haven Animal Rescue of Florida, chokes up when she talks about the dog. She eventually joined with UnderDog Rescue to help get medical assistance.
Poke’s teeth had been filed down and the nerves exposed, McDevitt said. She was, in the dog fighting world, a “bait dog,” McDevitt said.
A bait dog is a dog chosen to encourage other young dogs to fight. They gnawed on Poke and the dog’s teeth were filed down so that she could not retaliate.
Someone donated $1,500 so the first round of dental care could be performed, eliminating the pain the dog was in, McDevitt said.
Poke still has more than $1,500 worth of dental work that needs to be done, McDevitt said.
Poke also has been treated for heart worm.
Two weeks ago, Carla Hebert, of Lakewood Ranch, agreed to foster Poke until she finds a forever family, McDevitt said. Hebert has renamed her Pokey.
“She started out as timid and shy, afraid of people and other animals,” Hebert said. “Now, she is a low maintenance dog that plays well with most other dogs and is housebroken. She takes time to get used to people, but once she does, she will play. I saw her playing with her reflection in the mirror the other day.”
About a month ago, when Pokey was in the animal hospital for treatment, Pondillo went to see her. Pondillo stood far away and whistled.
Pokey lifted her head and looked all around.
Pondillo tried to approach her but Pokey was not ready and backed up. Pondillo realized the dog still needed time. What broke Pondillo’s heart is that she couldn’t adopt Poke.
“I wanted her really bad,” Pondillo said. “But I live in a small townhouse with no real place for her to run and it wouldn’t be fair to her.”
When Pondillo got the news that Poke had found a foster mom, she said she was beyond happy. Even though she couldn’t foster the dog, she felt as if she had.
“We all felt peaceful about it,” Pondillo said. “We were all thrilled and so happy. We had all felt she would die in the woods.”
Those interested in adopting Pokey are requested to contact McDevitt at (941) 224-0307 or (941) 742-3972.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.