Death Row Dogs

Death Row Dogs

The daughter of a champion, she champions dogs. There’s one she’ll never forget.

by Lisa Bowman

“I got my love of dogs from my mother,” she begins. Her eyes twinkle. “I got other things from my father.”

Stephanie LaMotta saves dogs, because she understands what it’s like to be pinned against the ropes. She pours determination and compassion into her organization, Death Row Dogs Rescue. She has the pedigree for both.

Her father is former middleweight boxing champion Jake LaMotta, known in the ‘40s and ‘50s as the “Bronx Bull,” and whose autobiography “Raging Bull” became the 1980 Academy award-winning film of the same name, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert DiNiro. Her mother was dog lover Dimitria LaMotta, the boxer’s fourth wife.

After she lost a playground fight, Stephanie’s dad taught her to box and of course, he taught her how to throw a mean uppercut. But LaMotta, famous for his iron chin, also taught his daughter how to take punches. These days, whenever and however she can, she takes the blows for lost and abandoned dogs, carrying in her heart one special dog she tried so hard to save.

Rescuing dogs isn’t as easy for Stephanie as it might be for other people. In 1979, while traveling in Vienna with her then boyfriend, drummer Ringo Starr, she experienced terrifying symptoms. Hurrying home to New York, she arrived blind and with her left side paralyzed. The diagnosis: multiple sclerosis, a progressive, incurable disease of the central nervous system. Today, she is in a wheel chair.

But Stephanie’s a champ. In 1989, she founded Death Row Dogs Rescue, which has re-homed 3,000-plus dogs. At the top of the Web site’s “Dogs Available for Foster and Adoption” page is a tribute to an adorable, tongue-lolling dog named Freeway. Stephanie dedicated the page to him because of his valiant heart despite his relentless bad luck.

Death Row Dogs Freeway was named by a kind couple that rescued him from a busy freeway in Los Angeles. Sensitive and sweet, he became the family dog of the couple and their two children. Unfortunately, they fell on hard times and were evicted from their home. Their only choice was to move into a motel, which agreed to take their cat, but not Freeway. Hoping they could turn around their lives quickly, the family asked their veterinarian to board him temporarily.

Freeway was put in a cage, where he waited. Finally, the vet decided to put him to sleep, but when a dog lover learned about it, an SOS was sent out on social media, where Stephanie read about his plight.

“When I saw Freeway’s picture, I thought, ‘Somebody’s got to want the dog.’ And then I thought, ‘Who’s the Somebody who’s going to come forward and help that dog?’ Somebody, I guess, was me.’”

So she called the vet, only to discover that Freeway hadn’t been out of his cage in a year. She furiously demanded to know why no one had taken him out. The vet was cavalier.

“Oh, I don’t want to take chances. He’s a Pit Bull, and you know…” he said.

Stephanie, trying to contain herself, suggested he could give Freeway back to his family, who were getting back on their feet. But first the vet wanted them to pay for the year’s worth of boarding, even though he knew all the hardship the family had come through. He reiterated that he was going to put Freeway to sleep.

“You sure as hell are not!” Stephanie retorted. “I’m sending someone right now to pick him up.’”

She pauses to adjust a pink blanket lying across her lap. Her MS has progressed over the years, especially since a traumatic car accident in 1998. However, her physical challenges hardly slow her down.

Before Freeway was released, he was accused of aggression, labeling him unadoptable. So Stephanie sent him to a trainer for an evaluation. After a week passed without the results, she called the trainer.

He said, “How am I supposed to know? I’ve got 97 dogs here.”

Stephanie asked him to give her back her dog. The trainer replied that he was too busy until the following week. By now, she was desperate to get Freeway back.

“Well, I’m busy, too. I’m busy with my hands around your throat if you don’t give me back my dog!”

That was on a Friday. They settled on a Monday pick up.

That weekend, Stephanie attended a local adoption fair. One dog in particular caught her attention. He was covered with mange and looked very sick, his eyes filled with misery. Alarmed, she asked about the dog.

“And the woman says, ‘Who? You mean Freeway?”

Horrified, Stephanie looked again at the dog. It was Freeway, unrecognizable from the mange and the pus-filled sores that oozed blood all over his shoulders and neck.

He was rushed to the vet. The mange was contagious, and a staph infection had given him a 105-degree fever.

Stephanie pleaded with the doctor to do whatever it took to “fix him up,” no matter the cost. Ignoring the contagion, Stephanie took Freeway’s face in her hands.

“Look at me, baby. You’re going to be okay. I love you. You’re such a good boy.”

After a month and thousands of dollars, Freeway was well enough to be placed with a family, but he began bleeding again.

Stephanie arranged for him to heal at a trusted kennel. She visited him daily, driving her specially equipped car with hand controls, and using her wheel chair or scooter to get around. Freeway was happy. He played with other dogs, the random cat, birds, and even the squirrels, without any signs of aggression.

Then, a lump appeared on his neck. Tests showed cancer, but it hadn’t metastasized. The subsequent surgery appeared successful, however sores appeared again on his back. Cancer was under his skin, and it quickly spread to his mouth and nose.

Still, Stephanie was hell bent on saving him. She and her husband prepared sirloin steak meatballs stuffed with chemo pills. Freeway ate them. He drank water. He maintained his weight. There were no side effects, except that the cancer raged on, unaffected by treatment. When Freeway’s eye began to bleed, the vet sat Stephanie down and urged euthanasia before the cancer reached his brain.

Stephanie refused at first, but Freeway’s other eye began bleeding, and she knew the fight was over. She and a coworker spent two hours with him at the veterinarian’s office that fateful day. Stephanie tried to explain the situation to poor Freeway.

“You’ve got to go ahead. I don’t want you in pain, because you’re a good boy.”

Recounting the story, even 15 years later, she starts crying.

“Freeway just looked at me. I said, ‘Go. I’ll be there soon.’”

Freeway died amidst a flurry of hugs and tears. Stephanie asked the vet to check his vital signs three times.

“I didn’t want him going into the freezer with his heart still beating,” she says with a sad smile.

A warrior with a broken heart, Stephanie stayed in the fight, just like her Dad taught her. That weekend, she constructed the Web site. They’ve since re-homed more than 3,000 dogs.

And Freeway lives on, his gentle face inviting people to love the abandoned dogs that have so much love to give.