This story can be told from two different perspectives, but in either case, it's about love and passion. It's a story about a woman whose passion is rescuing dogs and cats founded abandoned, neglected, abused or hurt, then giving them a safe and secure life. It's a story about how she turned the hunter she married into a passionate advocate for abused and neglected pets, as well. And it's a story about the unique gift he commissioned to commemorate the passion they share. "...Just because I love her," he said.
Karen Key drives country roads from the home she shares with her husband Steve to her long-time job at Keep Covington/Newton Beautiful. On little traveled rural roads, many people drop off or hurl their unwanted pets, unseen by prying eyes. But Karen's eyes stay peeled for sad eyes peering from the grasses, emaciated animals loping down the road, or an injured cat or dog suffering on the right-of-way. "It's not a matter of me finding them," she said. "They just seem to find me. And since we never had children, these are my babies."
She's not afraid to pick up whatever hurt or abandoned pet she finds, then it's off to a vet for medical care or to be spayed or neutered.
When they're healthy, she'll find them a good home, but if she doesn't, they join the menagerie she and Steve have acquired over the years. They've also taken in dogs or cats close to being euthanized at the Newton County Animal Shelter, but she thinks euthanizing is a humane alternative to lives chained to trees, unprotected from the elements, fed and watered sporadically and neglected by owners.
"I can get very angry about the way some people treat their animals, but it does no good to be bitter," she said.
Over the years, Steve and Karen have acquired nine dogs and three cats, all rescues. They've placed many more than that in other caring homes. To mark their 15th anniversary, they installed a pen to hold their rescued dogs until they were healthy and could be taken in. They keep a list of names ready for future rescues.
Steve sees a transformation when they bring these once hopeless animals into their home. "Once they enter your home, you begin to see their personalities. If you spend time with them, they're always ‘talking' to you, trying to communicate, even in their body language. They've taught me so much if you just stop to listen to them. And they've all got a story."
Of Karen, he said, "I'd never been around anyone who loved animals so much. She just has a huge heart when it comes to dogs and cats. And all she's got to do is just treat me as well as she treats her animals." A hearty laugh ensues.
Now this is a husband who listens to his wife. One day, she said she'd like to have a picture of all their pets and Steve jumped to get that done, positioning all the cats and dogs in the back yard where they all sat still while he snapped a photo. Karen liked the photo so much, she blew it up and framed it. Steve quietly did his own musing, thinking the photo would actually make a great painting, one that would include the ones that had passed on. It would be titled: "Homeless. To Heaven."
"That's because any animal that becomes part of Karen's family has gone to heaven," Steve said.
He turned to local gallery owner Carol Veliotis who recommended Rutledge artist Dell Massey - also a pet rescuer - who specializes in animal portraits. "This one was dear to my heart," she said. "You could really see something of their personalities in the photo." She finished the painting, framed it and hung it at the gallery for the surprise.
Now the fun. Steve planned lunch with Karen, but insisted they stop at Van Go's Gallery to ask a question for a friend. He innocently insisted that Karen look at a painting that appealed to him. He said he'd like to buy it; she said they'd have to talk about it. "How much?" she asked Veliotis, standing there with the artist. "It's priceless," she said enigmatically. Slowly, ever so slowly, Karen began to see the faces of pets that reminded her of theirs: "That one looks like Suki," or "That looks a bit like Tebow." And, "Hmmmm, that kind of looks like our barn." A shock of realization overtook her, and finally Steve, grinning ear to ear said, "It's yours."
"I'm still dumbfounded," Karen said. "It's the most romantic thing he's ever done." Steve agrees.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.