Many who have rescued a pet can identify with the feeling of wanting to know the animal’s history, but clues about the life a stray has lived up to that point are often few and far between.
Shirlee Verploegen didn’t have many answers to her questions about what her dog, Wiggins—whom she adopted after Hurricane Katrina— experienced. But, she decided to write a fictional account of what the dog could have gone through based largely on his personality and her research into the South.
A story of adventure, struggle and love:
Although the “beautiful dog of about five-five pounds with a thick coat of brindle-colored fur,” in the book is very similar in description to her actual pooch, Verploegen gave Wiggins a name change to Buck for the fictional adventure.
“Buck: Heroic Dog Story of Adventure, Struggle & Love” begins with Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast in August 2005, and 2-year-old Buck and his human family living in Gulfport, Mississippi—ill-prepared for what is headed their way.
Separated from his family soon after the hurricane strikes, Buck survives flood waters, being shot at by a farmer, and other perils in the search for a safe home. Buck’s affability and adaptability and a number of chance happenings lead Buck to people who care—with the question becoming not whether he will find a home, but, rather, which of the multiple homes claiming him is the right one for this special dog.
Verploegen adds even more depth to the narrative by interweaving cultural and historical information about the South.
“I researched Mississippi history so that it would lead me properly through the state and it also gave me another aspect for the book that could be of interest to the South; the cities are real; the people ‘could be’ real,” she relates.
Verploegen says some of the book was also based on horror stories she had heard about Hurricane Katrina while spending time with her husband who worked with FEMA in affected areas for three years after the hurricane.
Losing her beloved dog in real life slowed down the writing process, however.
“I started it while I still had my Wiggins. When he died, after some serious mourning, I decided to finish it. The span of time was over about three years; but there were lapses when I let it sit dormant.”
The real Buck, a.k.a. Wiggins:
Like the dog that the character Buck is based on, Wiggins himself had a tough go of it for a while after Katrina hit— even being shot at—until getting the chance to lead a remarkable life after finding a forever home with Verploegen.
Wiggins was actually named after the Louisiana town he was adopted from after Verploegen got a call from workers at the FEMA office there. They asked her to come check out a dog who was hanging around befriending staff during the day and sleeping outside the door on the mat at night. Although friendly and cooperative, the canine—a cattle dog and German Shepherd mix—was in need of veterinary care due to gunshot pellets just below his skin, as well as testing positive for heartworms.
Like the Buck character based on him, Wiggins may have managed to keep going against the odds because he kept trying until he found people who realized his potential.
“I think his character with people was the number one strength that got him in many doors,” Verploegen says.
She also notes that his demeanor was calm, but he had a great deal of self-confidence, as well as a great sense of direction, and perhaps even a sense of humor under a somewhat gruff exterior.
“He almost looked threatening at first glance but was far from it,” she recalls. “Many times he surprised me with this antics.”
Wiggins’ combination of traits has made him the subject of not one, but two, books. Prior to writing, “Buck,” Verploegen penned a nonfiction children’s book, “Wiggins, A Katrina Love Story.”
“The first book was real information about poor Wiggins right after I rescued him,” Verploegen relates.
The author and pet lover states she had fun sharing the children’s book and Wiggins with schools in Mississippi and Louisiana, as well as at book signings at festivals.
“Wiggins was the star,” Verploegen says. “I taught him how to hug children—put his paws up on their shoulders—this went over so well with a gymnasium full of kids; I sent them all home with a book.”
No shelter at the shelter—saving other animals’ lives:
Verploegen also credits Wiggins with helping save other animal lives.
“When I was in Wiggins, Mississippi, the mayor wanted us to walk in his festival parade and many people were kind to us,” says Verploegen.
She soon found out, however, that Wiggins, Mississippi, did not have a proper animal shelter. The existing “shelter” had six dogs— all of whom were sick—and cats were shot and killed.
“I was horrified and brought out the television station and newspaper, and made a stink about it for the locals to know,” Verploegen relates. “Two sweet local people helped me put the dogs in my van and I transported them to the Gulfport Animal Rescue.” Unfortunately, two of those dogs were so sick that they had to be euthanisized.
Verploegen then went back and helped form a committee to work on fundraising for a facility that would provide proper shelter and care for animals.
“At this point the mayor was willing to help us,” she relates. “Five years later, when I was in California, I received a call that there was now a new shelter and, because of Wiggins and his visit to the city being somewhat responsible for starting it all, they painted his picture on the wall.”
The past, the present and the future:
Although Hurricane Katrina took place almost 15 years ago, the effects will likely never be fully documented. At least 1,833 people died in the hurricane and related floods, and countless lives were negatively impacted. According to CNN, at their peak, “hurricane relief shelters housed 273,000 people.” And, The Atlantic reports that “over 600,000 animals were killed or stranded.”
Although the book is fiction, “Buck: Heroic Dog Story of Adventure, Struggle & Love,” is a poignant, sometimes heartbreaking, reminder of how some people and animals were likely similarly affected, and it also serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of being prepared for natural disasters to prevent failing people and pets to the same horrific extent ever again.
“Treat them like family,” says Verploegen when asked how to help keeps pet safe. “Proper IDs, chip, and protection with the family like you would your children.”
Verploegen, who lives in Tennessee, is a retired director of retail for an entertainment company. She has a foster cat and two dogs.
With two books about Wiggins, readers may wonder whether another may be in the works.
“I think it depends on how well this book does,” Verploegen relates. “I’m sure there is room for one more.”