She once descended by herself into a dark, hot, stinking crawl space to save a pit bull that charged at her and barked viciously.
But she stayed with the trapped dog and won it over with patience – and by singing.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine …,” Diana Frye softly crooned to the miserable dog in the darkness. The dog eventually became calm enough for Frye to gather the 60-pounder in her arms and carry it up a ladder to a new life.
In the world of animal lovers who network through social media about the dogs they love or want to help, Frye is a doer – a dog rescuer.
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Frye, 54, says she can only hear or read so much about an endangered dog before she has to act.
She has been in the news in recent days for her work to save a starved, severely emaciated puppy left to die in a crate by a trash bin in a Wichita alley. The sweet-faced pup, named Tatum, is now thriving in Frye’s care.
Frye thinks Tatum is a special dog who has touched the city and is the perfect poster pup and ambassador for raising awareness about animal abuse and neglect. Tatum’s Facebook followers are sending messages to Ellen DeGeneres, saying that Tatum’s story should be aired on the entertainer’s talk show.
How did Frye – whose day job is auto shop service manager – become a dog rescuer?
She has loved dogs since she was a little girl, she grew up in a family that worked with special-needs children, and she helps the homeless.
While working as an American Red Cross volunteer after the devastating Greensburg tornado, Frye set in motion a system to reunite dogs with their owners after their homes and lives had been blown apart.
The common denominator in her life: helping vulnerable people and vulnerable animals.
Her identity as a dog rescuer really started not with the pit bull under the house but about four years ago with a pit bull she calls Raymond.
In the dog rescue world, word had traveled about an emaciated white pit bull left out in the freezing cold on Second Street near I-135. She read about the dog’s plight on Facebook one day and into the night.
She couldn’t sleep. By 4 that morning, she was on a rescue mission.
She concedes that her intervention to save Raymond was “a little dangerous.” She would have to go into a yard and free him.
When she found the dog, his bony hindquarters were frozen to the front sidewalk. He whimpered.
She had knocked at the house but got no answer. So she put snow in a cup of coffee and poured the warm liquid to free the dog from the icy grip.
When someone pulled back curtains inside the house where the dog had languished and looked out at her, Frye held up her hands as if to ask, “What do you want me to do?”
It was clear to her, she says, that the people inside didn’t care about the suffering dog.
“That’s when I knew, ‘I am a dog rescuer,’ ” Frye said.
Other people in the rescue community contacted her after she rescued Raymond. She describes him as a “sweet, sweet dog.”
He got a new, loving home where his owners named him Raymond. But his organs didn’t fully recover, and he died six months after his rescue.
“He died very loved,” Frye said.
Helping pit bulls
Raymond was a turning point not only because it gave Frye her identity as a dog rescuer.
“That was the first pit bull I ever got near.”
She knew that pit bulls have a reputation for being powerful fighting dogs. She once saw two pit bulls attack a neighbor. “Almost tore his arm off.”
She had to use a golf club to help defend her neighbor, she said.
Since then, she has walked up on a lot of vicious pit bulls that needed help, a chance, she said.
“You know, they just want off that chain.”
That breed often needs help because it seems that too many of the owners don’t have enough patience or desire to properly care for the dogs, Frye said. They get a dog because it is “cool” but don’t think realistically about what it will take to give the dog a good home.
Sometimes, they’re trying to bring a pit bull into a rental home where the landlord doesn’t want it. So many pit bulls get abandoned.
Down in the hole
Then there was the time she climbed down through a hole in a kitchen floor to rescue the pit bull that somehow ended up in the dugout under the house.
The house was going to be auctioned, and the auctioneer discovered that there was a pit bull under the house. An entrance to the hole had been covered by a piece of plywood on the kitchen floor.
As the dog aggressively barked at her down in the hole, Frye just sat in her portable chair, stayed calm and tried to lure it with food and song.
“I gained her trust, enough to carry her out of that hole,” she said.
“I sing to all the dogs” during rescues, she said. In a sing-song voice, she’ll say, “Are you hungry?” “Are you ready to eat?” Dogs can’t resist food, she said, and they are curious.
“It’s patience that saves most of them,” Frye said.
Frye has been snapped at over the years by dogs she has tried to help. But to her, it is worth it.
“It doesn’t hurt near as much as that dog is hurting,” she said.
“I keep up on my rabies shots.”
‘It wears me out’
And there was the time she learned of a pit bull in far western Kansas. In freezing rain, it languished in a feces-filled pen.
She set her portable seat in the pen with the dog. The stool she takes with her on rescues also can work as a self-defense tool. She uses it as a shield if she needs to ward off an aggressive dog.
For a while in the pen, the dog retreated to a corner. But she succeeded.
The dog lived with her for seven months, and she has become a foster mother for other dogs, always finding them homes.
People approach her.
“I hear you’re the dog lady in the neighborhood,” they’ll say.
In the past five years, her Facebook following has grown as she has helped one dog after another.
Sometimes, when she hears of a dog being abused or neglected, she’ll knock on the door and tell the owners that their dog looks like the one her mother had and that she would “love to have it.”
She’ll start out offering $25 for the dog, just to get it out of harm’s way. And sometimes when she can’t afford it, people help her out.
She uses a diplomatic approach. She tells them they could face fines if animal control gets called in.
“I never get mad at anybody.”
She likes working on her own, Frye said, because organized rescue groups have so many rules to follow. When it’s time to do something, she wants to act.
And there are times, Frye said, when saving abused dogs gets too emotionally exhausting. She gets to a point where she’s seen too much suffering.
“It wears me out more than a 40-hour work week.”
At her home in south Wichita, her dogs are her children.
There’s Sheila, the Lab mix that Frye has raised from a pup.
There’s Mickey, the spry 16 1/2-year-old schnauzer. His previous owners were going to put him down more than two years ago. Now, he trots around. There’s Eli, the malamute/chow mix she bought for $30 from “crack heads” who were peddling the dog on Broadway.
And now, she’s also got Tatum, the pup who has gradually gained weight since a friend spotted the dog in the alley on Aug. 22.
Everyone agrees that Tatum would be dead if Russell Sroufe hadn’t stopped in the alley that day.
Sroufe regularly cuts through the alley, near Maple and Seneca, while running errands. He’s been a friend of Frye’s for about 20 years.
Sroufe loves dogs, too. He has six. He grew up around animals on an Oklahoma horse farm.
When he saw the creature lying in its own waste in the crate left by the Dumpster, he said, “I literally had thought to myself, ‘Somebody has left a dead dog in a kennel.’ ”
But then her “little tail wagged … just barely. … She opened her eyes and looked up at me.”
The sun was beating down on the suffering dog, so he got it into the shade, and gave it some food and water from a nearby business. The dog threw up after being starved for so long.
But, Sroufe recalls, there was “too much life in this baby’s eyes. That’s when I knew I had to call somebody.”
“The reason I called Diana is because I know Diana is like, ‘If an animal is in need of something, we’re going to take care of it.’ I knew if I could get this dog to her … we would get this dog some help.
“She was the first person I thought of.”
Frye made sure that the puppy, estimated to be 4 months old, got emergency care.
And she named the dog Tatum, partly because it means “lucky.”
That first night that Frye kept Tatum in her house, she didn’t know whether the animal would survive through the night. So she stayed with the pup down on a pallet, thinking: At least in its last hours, the dog will be held, will be loved.
And for Frye, it is one more dog saved.
Impact of a rescuer
On Friday, a young woman and man came into Woody’s Automotive at 25th and Amidon, where Frye works in the office and Tatum spends her days as she continues to heal.
The woman said she had read about Tatum and wanted to see her and give her a new chew toy.
As with others who have come to visit Tatum and thank Frye, they signed a guest book.
On one of the pages, someone wrote about the impact of a rescuer:
“Your rescue helps restore my faith in the human race.”