On an operating table at Texas A&M University, the fluffy body of 11-week-old Cherie lies as motionless as an afghan rug. A doctor watches her ailing heart thump on an X-ray monitor and calls for a scalpel. Her caretaker, Robin Pressnall, prays.
Researchers here have pioneered a $2,000 heart operation that could save Cherie, and Pressnall is more than willing to pay for it. She doesn't care that Cherie is a dog. Or that if she survives, she'll go up for adoption.
Because Cherie -- white, wide-eyed and jovial -- is a lucky breed of lap dog known as a bichon frise.
In 1998, Pressnall founded Small Paws Rescue, a dog foster group that resorts to extraordinary measures to save the poodlelike animals. Small Paws rescues fewer dogs than groups dedicated to more common breeds, like Labrador retrievers, but thanks to aggressive fund-raising, Small Paws now ranks above all others in paying for expensive surgeries.
"Once you have loved a bichon, there is no way you could stand by and see anything bad happen to any of them," says Pressnall, who runs the group from her house in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "They just have an ability to wrap you around their fingers."
Pressnall's deep pockets have made her a perfect client for A&M's College of Veterinary Medicine, where Dr. Sonya Gordon developed a new way to repair patent ductus arteriosis -- the most common heart defect in dogs, especially smaller breeds. Small Paws has funded more than 20 heart murmur surgeries on bichons, flying them to A&M from around the country.
"Small Paws has an impact on the quality of life on not only the dogs we work with," Gordon says, "but also the people who get those dogs later."
With 800 volunteers and even more supporters, Small Paws rescues 600 bichons a year on a budget of about $500,000. Finding new homes for the snuggly pups is the easy part, Pressnall says. Raising money for the heart operations -- each financed through individual fund-raisers -- can be nerve-racking.
Before Pressnall left with Cherie for College Station, she sent members an emergency e-mail. "I told them her chest sounded like a Hoover vacuum cleaner that needed to go to the shop two years ago."
But as the surgery approached, the Small Paws bank account contained only $300.
Work began anyway. Gordon cut a slit in Cherie's leg, inserted a catheter and guided it through her femoral artery with an X-ray camera. Deep inside Cherie's chest, the catheter released a spring and a burst of fibers that caused a blood clot to form in a gap between her aorta and her pulmonary artery.
In a matter of minutes, Cherie was cured.
The dog woke up on a padded table, next to a yellow teddy bear. Pressnall posted photos on her Web page. And like it always has, the money trickled in.
To understand Small Paws, it's necessary to understand why people love small dogs. Elise Winslow Kelly, who runs the Houston-based dog apparel business Haute 2 Trot, describes the lap hounds as four-legged crack, especially for women over 30.
"This little god appears, and it fills a void in your life that nothing else could ever fill," she says, "except booze, smoking and sex. And that's why it's a healthy addiction, and it's great because it spreads the love, and that's what it's all about."
Pressnall says what motivates many Small Paws members is something stronger than addiction: God.
"This is not just an animal rescue organization," says Pressnall, a devout Baptist and former real estate broker. "I feel like God is using the dogs. I feel like he is using them as little ambassadors of love and hope to reach out to people who may not have any more love or hope in their lives. That's what we're really about."
She believes God chose her to start Small Paws. And to prove it, she cites what she says are numerous Small Paws miracles.
Four years ago, for example, Pressnall received a call from Sheryl Street of Dutch John, Utah. Screaming into the phone, Street said a wildfire was approaching her house, and the bichons were in the car, but she didn't know what to do because she couldn't take her horses with her. Then the phone line went dead.
Pressnall immediately sent her members what she calls an Emergency Stop Drop and Pray Request, an online call to prayer. Street told her later that when she drove back down the country road to her home, everything was black. "Except there was a circle of green completely surrounding her property," Pressnall says, "and her horses were standing in the field eating." Her home had been saved.
The Internet spread the story and, within a few months, membership nearly doubled.
Prayer is a big component of Small Paws, but when it comes to raising cash, it's still all about the dogs. Hundreds of photos of bichons adorn the Small Paws Web site. There are bichons in birthday caps, bichons sleeping on their owners, bichons in laundry baskets. Baby bichons, arthritic bichons and recently pregnant bichons.
Many of the photos come with requests for money, payable via credit card online. Philanthropists can help fund dental work for a bichon, chemotherapy and, of course, heart surgery.
Claudia Kawczynska, editor in chief of Bark magazine, says Small Paws is part of the increase in the popularity of breed- specific rescue groups. But she says Lab Med, which focuses on Labrador retrievers, is the only other group she knows of that regularly funds big-ticket dog surgeries.
"I think it is absolutely marvelous that they are willing to do something like this," Kawczynska says of Small Paws, "and that they actually have the financing to do it, too."
However, Daniel Borochoff, president of the Chicago-based American Institute of Philanthropy, is critical of how Small Paws uses emotional and religious appeals to raise funds. Many elderly people live alone with their dogs, he says, and they could be vulnerable targets for exploitation.
"People have to be really careful, because they are making you so emotionally charged you can't think it through," he says. "They may not be scam artists, but charities need to be careful in how they ask people for money for what they want to do."
In a quiet Spring neighborhood, the recently rehabilitated Cherie rounds the corner from Heather Heywood's kitchen at a full sprint and leaps onto her overstuffed chenille couch. "There's Cherie," exclaims Heywood, her new foster mom. "There's the riot wild woman!"
Cherie will live with Heywood until Small Paws finds her a permanent home. Dexter, Heywood's growling dachshund, doesn't seem happy about this, but Heywood is ecstatic.
"She's just a rotten girl," Heywood says as Cherie tries to dig a hole in her Persian rug. "Rotten, rotten, rotten. Yes you are!"
Until two years ago, Heywood ran a dachshund rescue group. Dexter is a remnant of those days. But then bichons changed her life.
Heywood was driving through The Woodlands last year when she saw a wet, skinny, dirty dog limping along the sidewalk. She drove it to the vet, cleaned it up and took it home.
On the first night, she realized Bentley was special. "He just had this fun-loving personality," she says. The dog would stand on its hind legs and do "his little bichon wave," she says. "That was just all too cute."
A few months later, Heywood spent two weeks in bed, virtually paralyzed by rheumatoid arthritis. Bentley slept with her, and when she needed something, she says, the dog sensed it and ran to her husband. "He saved my life," Heywood says.
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Heywood appreciates Small Paws because the group places dogs and humans on equal footing. "There are groups that would put a dog down for a heart murmur," she says. "But you wouldn't put your mother down for a heart murmur."
Heywood says her mother doesn't look favorably upon her views.
"She hassles me all the time and says, 'You treat your dog as well as your kids.' She's being pessimistic about it, but I take it as a compliment."
"Do I love my dogs as much as my kids?" Heywood asks, pausing to think it over. "It's pretty close. I mean, if it came down to a decision, I'd probably take care of my kids first."