By Andrea McCann
Set afire and left for dead in 2011 at 8 weeks of age, a boxer/mastiff mix rescued once by an animal shelter and a second time by a Zionsville woman, now has an opportunity to become a celebrity on the TV show, "Chicago Fire."
Dempsey, now 2 1/2 years old and a resident of Zionsville with public educator Eileen Orban, is one of three finalists in a Top Firehouse Dog contest sponsored by the NBC series, which airs at 10 p.m. on Tuesday nights. Voting is now open at Today.com/TopDog for the public to choose one of the three finalists to make a cameo appearance on the show. Voting ends at 3 p.m. Monday, Sept. 30, and the winner will be named Wednesday, Oct. 1.
Already, Dempsey and Orban have made one TV appearance. They and the other remaining contestants were featured on "The Today Show" Tuesday, Sept 24.
"It's been a whirlwind," Orban said, explaining they arrived in New York Monday and returned Tuesday. "'The Today Show' paid for airfare and hotel."
But there were a few highlights: Orban said rocker Sting passed them in a hallway and spoke to them, and Dempsey got to potty in Central Park.
"I took a picture for his vet," she added with a laugh. "And I have a picture of Kathie Lee (Gifford) petting him."
Orban found out about the Top Firehouse Dog contest when her chief left a flyer on her desk. Then a friend emailed her and said she should enter Dempsey. So she did, she said, never dreaming they'd get this far.
"He is unique, but you never know what they're going for," Orban said.
Dempsey has a tragic, yet heartwarming story. After being intentionally burned, he was saved by the New Castle Animal Shelter, Orban said. Taken to a veterinarian for treatment, it was discovered he had parvovirus, a deadly canine disease. Orban said it's amazing he wasn't euthanized from the start, and then he survived his burns and parvo simultaneously.
It's clear why he was named after heavyweight fighter Jack Dempsey.
About four to six weeks later, Orban adopted the little fighter. A school teacher by trade, she teaches public education for the Pike Township Fire Department, 4881 W. 71st St., where she's been almost six years. The department has about 140 firefighters, she estimated, and five fire stations. Now they have a mascot in Dempsey.
"I saw Dempsey's story on the news," she said. "He was burned and abandoned at 8 weeks of age. I thought it would be a good teaching tool to show kids if fire can do this to him, it can do it to them."
She said lessons with Dempsey are also about animal cruelty and accepting others. In addition to be a teaching assistant, Dempsey is a blood donor.
"He's a universal blood donor," Orban said, explaining that IndyVet has a blood donation program, and pet parents can get perks for allowing their pets to be donors. "Dogs have six different blood types, and he's universal. He's a very multipurpose pet."
The burn injuries Dempsey sustained melted his toenails to the bone, so he has no nails. His toes had to be debrided so he could walk without discomfort, so he's missing toes and has very little pads. He also suffered burns to his legs and belly, and he lost part of his tail.
Yet now, fire, heat and other potential triggers never cause a reaction in the canine.
"He's had 10 surgeries," Orban continued. "His latest surgery was (Sept. 19). One of his front legs was plated."
She said tendon damage from the burns left him unable to stand or walk properly, so he has plates in both front legs. One plate had to be replaced when the leg became infected. Orban said Dempsey moves slowly and gingerly, and his veterinarians' goal is to get him walking without pain.
Two doctors at IndyVet have sponsored Dempsey, according to Orban, donating $10,000 and their services. They also helped her raise more than $13,000 to cover the remaining costs.
"Despite all that he's been through, he has a loving, sweet soul," Orban said.
She said she can't help but wonder sometimes if saving him was the humane thing to do — he required a wagon to move him around when he was smaller, and now he needs a customized "stroller" to help him go longer distances — but his affectionate nature and the good he does clears those doubts away.
"When I see him with kids at burn camps, it validates what we did for him," she said.