When Keith Roark, a blind Vietnam veteran, learned that his Seeing Eye dog was losing her vision because of cataracts, he refused to have Lottie, a German shepherd, put to sleep. Instead he began a campaign to find a family to adopt her. “She served me faithfully for eight years,” he explains.
After the Associated Press reported in May on his search, Roark was flooded with more than 800 offers. A divorced father of five, aged 17 to 24, Roark mortgaged his home in Decatur, Ga. and spent $1,500 interviewing applicants around the country.
One woman offered to fly man and dog to Dallas in her husband’s private jet, but Roark declined. “I felt that anybody that rich would be too socially involved to devote the proper attention to Lottie,” he says.
After narrowing the list to 10 finalists, Roark canceled a visit with a Las Vegas couple when he learned they lived in a condominium—not enough play area for Lottie. He left Lottie for two days with a Phoenix couple, but the frosty reception he received at the airport restaurant convinced him it would be a hardship to keep stopping off in Phoenix to maintain his visitation rights.
Front-runners from the outset were a San Antonio couple, Denise and Michael Pirtle, both 27. Mike, a maintenance crew chief in the Texas highway department, thought Roark would “go for somebody with more money or a bigger place.” Denise, who had herself lost a German shepherd five years earlier, bombarded Roark with twice-weekly letters (“Lottie would be our life,” she promised) and phone calls. Finally Roark brought the dog to San Antonio for a tryout. “Her sympathy for me and Lottie seemed absolutely sincere,” the 48-year-old Roark says of Denise. “She seemed to understand what I was going through.”
The Pirtles have a 15-month-old daughter, Stephanie, and a year-old dachshund, Muffin, but they were undaunted. To care for Lottie, Denise promised Roark she would drop out of San Antonio College. During the dog’s two-day trial visit, Denise telephoned the edgy veteran hourly at his hotel to report on their progress.
Roark, who was accidentally blinded in 1969 while serving in the Air Force, left nothing to chance. The terms (set down in a notarized document) governing Lottie’s transfer to the Pirtle’s modest, two-bedroom ranch house are as stringent as any contract ever signed with an adoption agency. The Pirtles must feed Lottie nothing but Fit & Trim dog food precisely at 5 p.m. and stir an egg into the meal three times a week. Each day Lottie must get a vitamin pill, a grooming session and a two-mile walk or equivalent yard play. The Pirtles also promised never to leave the dog alone for more than an hour without a sitter, always to bunk her inside the house and to walk her exclusively on their left (Seeing Eye dogs are trained that way).
“I’ve got three hours on the plane to sit and cry,” Roark said as he handed over the leash for the last time. Now equipped with a new Seeing Eye dog, Roark will stop in San Antonio frequently as he travels the country as president of the National Organization for the Rights of Guide Dogs, which he founded. The Pirtles’ contract also requires them to ship the body back to Roark when Lottie dies. He has already bought her a burial plot.