A New Pair Of EyesA New Pair Of Eyes: Foundation Gives The Gift Of Sight

Human InterestPetsFidelco Guide Dog FoundationCharityDog (animal)

BLOOMFIELD -- Ross and Zeva are a loyal, loving team in every step they take and every endeavor they try.

Riding the rails to Grand Central Station and hopping the subway downtown in New York isn't a problem for this pair.

"She gives me security, safety, mobility and independence. She is my eyes," said Ross Kirk, gently petting Zeva on the head.

Earlier this month Kirk, 61, made a visit to Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation. As soon as he sat down, Zeva laid down at his feet.

She never took her eyes off him.

"When she's in harness, she's a working dog," Kirk said.

The yellow sign on her back reads: "Do Not Pet Me. I'm working."

Eliot Russman, CEO and executive director of Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, said that the message is so important.

"When a dog is in harness, it's working," he said. "Its attention is solely on its client. There should be no distractions."

Requests by others to pet, feed or play with the dog are declined by Kirk.

He has utilized the services of the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, the only guide dog school in New England, since 2008.

Kirk was a field director of human resources for a life insurance company in New York from 1980 before he retired because of disability in '96.

That was because of two detached retinas that occurred in 1995 and 1996. "They just happened," he said. "I cannot see out of my left eye. I have minimal vision in my right eye."

He primarily used a cane for mobility after that. But through the encouragement of the Naugatuck Lions Club, he said, he went to Fidelco.

Kirk's first dog, Keafe, was paired with him from 2008 until early in '10, when tragedy struck.

"We were walking the same route near my Waterbury home, when a rottweiler got lose and attacked Keafe," Kirk said.

Keafe no longer could be Kirk's seeing-eye dog, more because of emotional issues than physical ones.

"When in harness, it's extremely rare for a dog to go back being a fully functionally guide dog after being attacked," Russman said. "The dog remembers what happened when it was in a harness, so it's focus would not be solely on the client. It's safety first, for the client, the dog and the community."

Kirk said losing Keafe, who was later adopted by a trainer at Fidelco, was like putting a dog down. "The animal wasn't ill, but I had lost him. It was very emotional," he said.

Kirk went back to his cane for about eight months.

During that time, Zeva was being trained. Russman said it costs about $45,000 and takes about two years to breed and train a guide dog, which usually works 10 or more years.

A dog is given to a client at no cost. Over 1,300 guide dogs have been paired with clients in 35 states and four Canadian provinces since 1981, the year that the foundation began training its own Guide Dogs.

There are currently 260 working teams, including more than 50 in Connecticut.

Late last year, Kirk and Zeva were teamed.

"At that moment, I had the same emotion as when I lost Keafe," Kirk said. "It's the trust. I put 100 percent of my trust in Zeva, just as she trusts me."

In addition to Fidelco, Kirk said he has been greatly aided by the Connecticut Board of Education and Services For the Blind, which provides educational and rehabilitative aid.

Kirk often visits the Waterbury YMCA, where he swims one mile. He and Zeva also go to New York once a week. They are taken by a Connecticut Paratransit bus to the Waterbury train station.

"I used to work in New York and I still meet friends, go to the theater and have a couple of eye doctors there," Kirk said.

Last month Zeva had an eye examination by a veterinarian in New York. "She passed with flying colors," Kirk said.

Kirk says it's all about the caring.

Zeva works well in New York, but not all guide dogs can do this. Russman said certain dogs work better in the country than in the hectic pace of New York.

Zeva and Kirk were matched well. "It's like putting on a wonderful pair of gloves," Kirk said. "Very comfortable and right."

After a day in New York, Zeva and Kirk get on the subway to start the trip back home. Kirk finds a handicapped seat.

"It has a wider space and Zeva lays down," Kirk said. "I wipe her paws down with what I call 'Doggie wipes.' Twice I've had to take gum out, and in the winter there's slush."

Out of harness, Zeva is a regular 2 ½-year-old German Shepherd. "She has her toys and plays," Kirk said.

As for her birthday on Aug. 4, Kirk said, "She loves ice cubes and I'll pulverize her dog food and put it in ice cubes; it'll be her treat."

Russman, looking at Zeva and Kirk, nodded his head.

"He gives her love and caring in return for what Zeva gives him," Russman said.

Asked what's next for he and Zeva, Kirk said he's planning on taking his first airplane trip since he has been blind. Europe is a probable destination.

"The world is out there, and I removed the word 'can't' from my vocabulary a long time ago," Kirk said. "Until it's proven I can't go, I go."

With Zeva at his side.

To donate to the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation visit: http://www.fidelco.org/

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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