You just can't miss Buckshot.
Whether he's among dozens of dogs, at a gas station or visiting nursing home residents, the monochromatic pit bull mix always gets a second look.
Buckshot's custom-made wheelchair is certainly the first thing people notice. But it's the dog's story, surprising speed and perseverance that hold their attention.
"Most people are really inspired when they see him," owner Karen Wilkins said. "Some people will say, 'Oh, poor baby.' But that poor baby has a better life than most dogs who can walk."
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Buckshot lives with Karen, 64, and her husband, Dwane, 51, at Maranatha Farm, a nonprofit animal rescue organization in Ridgeland that provides care for injured and mistreated animals. The Wilkinses founded the organization in 2006, and 46 dogs are currently awaiting adoption at the 10-acre property.
Karen and Dwane found Bucky, as he's known around the farm, two years ago with an air rifle pellet lodged in his spine. After surgery, the dog's lower half was left mostly paralyzed, leaving the Wilkinses to find a way to keep Bucky mobile. Dwane came across custom-made wheelchairs for dogs online, and figured he could make one himself. So he did.
In addition to getting Bucky back on his feet, Dwane's homemade wheelchair was the start of Maranatha Farm's Freedom Wheels ministry. With the help of a few volunteers, the Wilkinses make custom-fitted wheelchairs for handicapped animals and provide them at no cost. Pet owners are only asked to pay for shipping -- if they can afford it -- and send a photo of the dog using the wheelchair.
Those photos line the walls of Dwane's workshop at Maranatha Farm, where he creates wheelchairs for dogs large and small. It's a team effort: Dwane makes the frame; volunteer Brandon Waring of Bluffton and his son create the metal parts; and Karen wraps the frame with padding and sews on straps. Dwane, who works as a truck driver for Jasper County, estimates they've made 70 wheelchairs in the past two years.
"We build every bit of ours," Dwane said. "We don't have the overhead so we keep our costs down."
Commercial dog wheelchairs cost several hundred dollars, sometimes more depending on a dog's size. Providing the devices for free can mean the difference between life and death for some dogs, Waring said.
"People just have their dogs put down when they're crippled, and they don't have to," Waring said.
ON A ROLL
Dogs can require wheelchairs for a variety of reasons, including hip dysplasia, injuries and old age. Dwane said it can take time for a dog to get used to a wheelchair, but most adapt quickly and even learn to use the chair to their advantage. Bucky and Spencer, a wheelchair-bound Jack Russell terrier mix who also lives at Maranatha Farm, sometimes use their lightweight chairs to pin down other dogs during rough play, Karen said.
The four-leggers move fast on two wheels, whizzing up and down the farm. They charge head-first into the wading pool, wheelchair and all. They compete for attention and treats -- and usually win. Spencer, whose owners live in Columbia and visit him monthly, is one of the loudest dogs on property.
When he isn't playing at the farm, Bucky keeps busy with public appearances. He's in high demand at local Boys & Girls Clubs and senior care centers. Through tears, Karen recalled a time when the "Goodwill Ambassador" comforted an elderly man at a nursing home who lost his wife the night before.
"If I take him to a nursing home, every room wants Buckshot. (People) can empathize with him because he's overcome an obstacle."
WORTH THE COST
Over time, Maranatha Farm's wheelchair design and assembly have evolved, making today's model far different than Bucky's original, which was made out of PVC pipes and duct tape. (That chair now nostalgically hangs on a wall in the workshop, and Bucky is on chair No. 5.) The latest generation of wheelchair frames are made out of aircraft-grade aluminum, and the parts are welded together. The wheels cost $30-$60 each. Waring said it takes about two days to make one wheelchair.
"It's kind of like making a quilt," Karen said. "There's so much that goes into it you have to do the best you can."
It's an expensive mission for the rescue organization, which, like most nonprofit groups these days, is struggling financially. Karen, who works as a bookkeeper, said she and her husband put $24,000 of their own money into Maranatha Farm last year. They took in $40,000 in donations and adoption fees, and have received one grant -- compared to six last year.
But the need is there, Karen said, and she and her husband of six years are happy to make a difference.
"It blesses us," she said. "We feel it's a Christian ministry. Someone needs to do it, so we do it. ... It makes our life more meaningful. Every single day I'm able to do something that helps someone, whether it's a person or an animal."