Many who have rescued a pet know that feeling of wanting to know more about the animal’s back story, but clues are often few and far between, especially if the animal was picked up as a stray at a shelter or rescued after being found lost or abandoned.
Shirlee Verploegen didn’t have all of the answers about her dog Wiggins, whom she adopted after hurricane Katrina, but she decided to write a fictional account of what the dog could have experienced based largely on his personality and her research into the South.
“Buck: Heroic Dog Story of Adventure, Struggle & Love”:
Although the “beautiful dog of about five-five pounds with a thick coat of brindle-colored fur,” described in the book is a very similar description to her actual pooch, Verploegen gave Wiggins a name change for the fictional adventure. “Buck: Heroic Dog Story of Adventure, Struggle & Love” begins with Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast in August 2005, and Buck the dog and his human family living in Gulfport, Mississippi—ill prepared for what is headed their way.
After being separated from his family, Buck teams up with a couple of other dogs, also now homeless because of Katrina. As they search for a safe place to live, they experience numerous adventures. Through unexpected twists and turns, Buck, a two-year-old dog who has only known one kind of life and routine since he was a pup, manages to charm the other dogs as well as many humans with his bravery and adaptability.
In “Buck,” the dogs’ troubles and adventures are not the only ones likely to keep readers engaged and turning pages, as Verploegen also details what happens to Buck’s human family and others who Buck encounters in the aftermath of Katrina.
In doing so, the author also interweaves information about life in Mississippi.
“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.
As for Buck’s tales as a lost dog, Verploegen says they weren’t hard for her to imagine given what she learned from hearing horror stories about Katrina. Verploegen says that her husband worked with FEMA after the hurricane for three years, and that she also spent a lot of time in affected areas.
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:
While, in the book, Buck is a miraculous dog, the dog the character is based on appears to have had a remarkable life as well.
Prior to writing, “Buck,” Verploegen had already 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.
Wiggins was actually named after the Louisiana town he was adopted from by Verploegen after she got a call from the FEMA office there asking 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.
“Mixed breed dogs are often more street smart than purebred dogs,” Verploegen explains when asked what traits she thinks helped Wiggins survive the darker days. “Genetics do have a little to do with it.”
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. Many times he surprised me with this antics.”
Overall, like the character based on him, Wiggins may have managed to keep going against the odds when some people recognized his affability.
“I think his character with people was the number one strength that got him in many doors.”
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:
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.”
She said that she then found out that Wiggins, Mississippi did not have a proper animal shelter and that the six dogs there were mostly sick. The man who cared for the area shot all cats.
“I was horrified and brought out the television station and newspaper and made a stink about it for the locals to know. Two sweet local people helped me put the dogs in my van and I transported them to the Gulfport Animal Rescue; two had to be put down right away.”
Verploegen went back and helped form a committee to work on fundraising for a proper shelter.
“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 Katrina took place almost 15 years ago, Verploegen’s book is often a poignant, sometimes heartbreaking, reminder of the importance of always being prepared for hurricanes and other natural disasters to prevent failing people and pets to the same horrific extent ever again.
“Treat them like family with proper IDs, chip, and protection with the family like you would your children,” is Verploegen’s answer when asked what people can do to help protect their pets.
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.”