by Wendy Hunter
Wendy Hunter is a volunteer with the Animal Rescue of Fresno. ARF shares with KRL their animal rescue adventures every month.
Hope is patience with the lamp lit. -Tertullian
People will do just about anything for their pets. You know what I’m talking about: You dress your dogs, coddle your cats, baby your birds, and pamper your ponies. You feed them filet, serve them salmon, shell their seeds, and core their crab apples. They snooze on your sofa, nap on your lap, squat on your shoulder, and nuzzle your neck. They’re spoiled rotten, and you know it. But the world’s a scary place. Would you rescue Fido from a flood? For sure. Would you scale a spruce to save Simba? Certainly. Protect Polly the parrot from predators? Positively. Battle bad guys for Black Beauty? You bet.
But if your own life was at risk, you might think twice. Would you take a bullet for them? How about a knife? This is the decision that ultimately led to the demise of Mary Lara, a Fresno resident, back in September of 2014. In trying to save her pets from what she perceived as a dangerous situation, she lost her own life. It was a crime that shocked our community, and left Lara’s many pets temporarily without a home. Animal Rescue of Fresno was a part of this tragic tale back then, and more recently, we found ourselves linked to it once again. But this time, it came like a bolt from the blue, proving that a lot of hope can result in one little miracle.
You may recall Mary Lara’s story, and her altercation with neighbor, Laquandra Kinchen. Kinchen was walking down the street with her Pit Bull and two small children. As they approached Lara’s driveway, she confronted Kinchen, concerned the dog was posing a threat to her cats. An argument ensued and quickly escalated to physical violence, when Lara hit the Pit Bull with a metal rod. The incident then took a deadly turn: Kinchen pulled a knife and attacked Lara. After stabbing her 14 times, Kinchen fled with the children, and was quickly picked up by her husband, Thurman Ligons. And just before driving the getaway car from the crime scene, Ligons punched a witness in the face, who had attempted to intervene. During the mêlée, the Pit Bull was set free, and later found at the Ligons’ residence. When ambulance crews arrived at Lara’s home, the wounded woman was found in her driveway, without a pulse. Lara was rushed to Community Regional Medical Center, where she died shortly thereafter; she was 56 years old.
Laquandra Kinchen was ultimately sentenced to 12 years in prison for the death of Mary Lara, while Thurman Ligons was sentenced to three years in the Fresno County Jail, after pleading no contest to being an accessory after the murder.
Mary Lara had spent the better part of her life caring for animals. She adopted many dogs and cats, and also fed strays in the neighborhood. At the time of her death, she had an estimated 18 cats and seven dogs. As the terrifying event was broadcast over the news, many people were horrified and saddened for the pets. One of those people was Lynea Lattanzio, the founder of The Cat House on the Kings. Lattanzio contacted Lara’s family members, along with Animal Rescue of Fresno, and coordinated a group effort to save Lara’s animals. Volunteers were able to load up the ARF van with the six smaller dogs, and then take them to our facility. They received veterinary care, including spay and neuter surgeries, and given all the love and affection we could muster. It was obvious they would need special attention, due to the traumatic ordeal they had just been through.
One of these dogs was Duchess, a cappuccino Chihuahua/Terrier mix, with soulful chocolate eyes, and a perpetually coiled tail. Regrettably, Duchess was a dog that never really showed well at our rescue. She was adopted and returned, and missed several opportunities to go to Oregon for many of our Heaven Can Wait trips. It might have been her painful past, or the fact she was competing with so many other dogs in the yards, or that she just wasn’t given the chance to shine. ARF’s journey with this sweet girl might have begun with bloodshed, but it would end with tears of joy. It was a storybook ending we thought would never come true. In hindsight, though, I think Duchess knew it was just around the corner. All she had to do was be patient.
Mary Lara was the owner of Duchess’s parents, when they had a litter of adorable puppies. At just three months old, Duchess was adopted by newlyweds, Brittany and Anthony Gaytan. Anthony is a Fresno native, and knew Lara through friends and family. Brittany tells me that as a pup, Duchess loved stuffed toys and her Winnie-The-Pooh blanket. She was fond of going for walks and also knew tricks, like sit and stay. In April of 2014, the couple took a trip to Brittany’s home state of Wisconsin. Unfortunately, their stay ended up lasting much longer than they had expected, and the Gaytans were forced to return Duchess to Lara. In August of 2014, they finally returned to California, and immediately went to see Duchess, where they enjoyed a heartwarming reunion. Just two months later, Mary Lara was killed. The pets who meant so much to her, were suddenly left homeless. When ARF took in Duchess and the other dogs, it seemed that Anthony and Brittany would easily be able to locate their beloved pet. However, this is where the Gaytans got thrown a mean curveball, and a strike out in the ninth: three years of extra innings.
When Brittany and Anthony inquired as to Duchess’s whereabouts, they were told by authorities to check the SPCA. But they were unable to find her there, and soon were sent on a wild goose chase from shelter to shelter. Amazingly, nobody they talked to even mentioned ARF, and they were unfamiliar with all the rescues here in town. Additionally, because Duchess was not microchipped at the time, this may have led to some confusion. Frustrated at the runaround, Brittany assumed that at some point, she must have been adopted. She looked at every dog that came across Facebook, on rescue and social media websites, and anywhere else she could think of. Never losing faith, Brittany continued searching for several years, hoping to see her lovely dog once again.
On January 22, 2017, while browsing Petco’s website, Brittany saw a familiar face pop into view. Was that really Duchess? Yes, it really was Duchess, and I was right there with her. Every other Sunday, my cohort in rescue, Mindi, and I take several dogs to Petco (Clovis & Herndon) for adoption. We set them up in playpens, let them show off, and hopefully find them good homes. We started taking Duchess with us on these excursions, so she had a chance to display her true personality and sweet disposition. Mindi usually takes a live video, spotlighting the dogs, and posts it on our Facebook page. When Brittany showed the video to Anthony, he instantly knew it was Duchess.
The Gaytans promptly called Animal Rescue of Fresno, and set up a meeting. With puppy pictures and other proof of ownership in hand, the Gaytans rushed over and were finally reconciled with the missing piece of their family puzzle. According to Brittany, “Duchess didn’t recognize us right away, but as soon as we started talking to her, she got happy and gave us kisses.” Brittany continues, “Duchess was always a daddy’s girl, so she went crazy sitting on Anthony’s lap, and rubbing her scent on him. She still remembered to put her forehead into our chests, and it was amazing!”
The Gaytans tell me that Duchess has settled in nicely, and loves her affectionate brother Loki, and sister Luna. The Gaytans’ daughter, Nevaeh, is thrilled to have Duchess back home, too. Some people believe that Duchess never found her forever home, because she was so ordinary looking: your basic brown dog. Others think it was her shy nature and wariness of strangers. But for the rest of us, we know Duchess never found a family because she already had one; she was only waiting for them to find her. And just like the Gaytans, she never lost hope. Kleenex, anyone?
Check out more animal rescue stories in our Pet Perspective section and check back every month for another animal rescue adventure from ARF. Advertise in KRL and 10% of your advertising fees can go to a local animal rescue.