Five days after arriving in Colombia, Fiona Barry and Keith Ward met a rescue pup called Gracie, who gave them paws for thought, says.
When Dublin couple Fiona Barry and Keith Ward embarked on their dream of travelling the world, neither of them could have envisaged what the trip would have in store for them.
Leaving their jobs, they set off on an 18-month trip backpacking through South America and then onto South East Asia.
However, four months in and just five days after arriving in Colombia, their travels took an unexpected turn thanks to a Golden Retriever called Gracie.
On arriving in Colombia, Fiona and Keith found themselves staying in the pet shop area of Bogota.
For dog lovers like the couple, it should have been a delight, however it was far from idyllic.
“We pulled up in a taxi to our apartment and there were three glass cages stacked on top of each other, each filled with puppies who were only about six weeks old,” says Fiona.
Along the stretch of street there were 15 to 20 other pet stores.
“The majority of these shops had puppies and kittens stacked in glass Perspex boxes,” says Keith.
“None appeared to have any water or food bowl in them. Some were positioned outside of the shop on the path where the sun would shine in on top of them for the majority of the day.”
After just a couple of days of experiencing the cruelty that the dogs and cats were enduring, it became too much for the couple.
One particular golden puppy captured their hearts.
“We had seen Gracie on October 5 and it was that day when I watched her urinate and drink it to keep herself hydrated,” says Fiona.
“After walking past her for two days and seeing her deteriorate, we went and rescued her.”
Due to the harsh conditions Gracie had been living in, it became apparent very quickly, that she was an extremely sick girl.
After a trip to the vets, then to the animal hospital, they were told that Gracie had a very high fever, intestinal parasites, that she was infested with fleas, and was extremely dehydrated.
After three days in the hospital, the couple brought Gracie home only for her to have to go back again as the parasites were still causing her problems.
Though things seemed to turn around when Gracie left the hospital for a second time and was reunited with her sister Uimhy.
“The day we rescued Gracie, we were asked if we wanted to also buy her sister,” says Fiona.
“We knew it would be too much to take on both pups so we hoped due to her upbeat personality someone would take her.
"Nine days passed and we knew before long she’d become a street dog, so we rescued her too.”
Despite being called Uimhir adó (Uimhy for short), she is far from second best.
The foursome then moved up to the mountains of Bogota, a place where the puppies could have space to play and bond.
“They were in their absolute element up there and they would wake us at 5am for breakfast so they could begin their day’s adventures.
"They were as thick as thieves the two of them, and anything one did the other was soon to follow,” Fiona adds.
Unfortunately this was to be the calm before a rollercoaster of emotions for Fiona and Keith.
After a few days Gracie became extremely ill and a visit to the vets confirmed Gracie had Parvo, aka the puppy killer disease.
“My heart was broken,” says Fiona. “They immediately tested Uimhy whose results also came back as positive.
"Keith and I broke down, he was trying his best to console me as I lay on the floor, but he too was struggling.”
Over the next four days, Gracie received treatment for the deadly disease, however, Fiona could see that “her spirit and light had faded”.
On Sunday November 3, the couple paid their daily visit to Gracie at the vets.
As it was a Sunday, they couldn’t stay for long so reluctantly left, with the promise of updates.
Sadly at 3.30pm that afternoon, they were told to come to the vets immediately. But it was too late.
Gracie had lost the biggest battle of her short life.
“The one moment I wanted with her was gone. It was robbed from both her and I and the beautiful innocent and defenceless puppy who spent the majority of her short life alone, died the same way,” says a heartbroken Fiona.
The light through the darkness of their heartbreak has been Uimhy.
Unlike Gracie, medication has helped Uimhy fight Parvo. Just as they promised Gracie a life in Ireland — they brought her ashes home with them — Uimhy made her way home with the couple.
As Columbia is a high-risk country, a stop-off for 21 days in Canada was necessary for Uimhy before she could enter Ireland.
For Fiona and Keith, the guilt of having to buy Gracie and Uimhy in order to rescue them, along with leaving dozens of other animals in the pet stores, played heavily on their conscience.
Despite being ‘nobodies’ in a country thousands of miles from home, they decided to take action.
“We set up a petition on Change.Org called ‘Ban the selling of puppies and kittens in shops in Colombia’ which currently has over 6,500 signatures from people across Ireland, South America, and North America,” says Keith.
Next on the agenda was to address the situation with authorities in Bogota.
Unsure of where to start, they contacted the Irish embassy there. With the advisement of the Irish ambassador Allison Milton, they contacted the Department of Agriculture in Colombia.
They were shocked to find their demands had not fallen on deaf ears.
“We saw an animal welfare page on Facebook who announced, along with pictures that a number of pet shops [including Gracie’s one] had just been raided by the Department of Agriculture,” says Keith.
“We couldn’t believe it. In one of the pictures was the owner of the shop who sold us Gracie and charged us even more for getting her sister.
“These people make a living on the suffering of animals, so to see this person being flanked by police and vets was a small but very rewarding victory.”
Another obstacle was the high cost of vet bills. Being on a back-packer budget, they knew it wouldn’t stretch so they took the hard decision to set up GoFundMe page.
“It was never our intention to set up a GoFundMe. Both of us still feel a little bit awkward asking for money but the sheer cost of everything left us with little option,” says Keith.
The couple were blown away by the generosity of the public.
They raised their goal of €12,500 that was needed to cover the cost of Uimhy’s medical bills and to bring her back to Ireland.
On arriving back to Dublin with Uimhy, the couple were greeted by Fiona’s family with a furry surprise, a rescue golden retriever pup called Sophie.
“They rescued Sophie to help Uimhy settle in to her new home in Ireland,” explains Fiona. “The two are now best of friends.”
To follow Fiona, Keith and Uimhy and Sophie’s travels. check out Instagram @blanktrails.