Puff the Dress-Wearing Duck Wants You to Remember that 'You Are Lovable'
It was love at first sight for Puff the Duck and Ashley, who first found Puff when she was just an itty-bitty duckling.
"I had just lost two very important loved ones back-to-back. I was feeling down so I decided to stop in to the local feed store to see the baby ducks that they had for spring. I love animals and I thought the sight of them would cheer me up," Ashley tells PEOPLE.
Ashley quickly locked on to Puff, one of the weaker ducklings getting pushed around by the others. When the owner of the ducklings told Ashley that they didn’t expect Puff to live much longer, Ashley decided to take her home and give her a chance.
Under her new mom's care, she thrived. For the first few weeks, Ashley carried the baby bird in a baby carrier strapped to her chest, forming an unbreakable bond with the sweet creature.
"Puff was so weak and tiny, she had a lot of special needs at first, so she was very slow to learn. I had to teach Puff how to fly and how to swim," Puff's mom remembers.
Though earthbound herself, Ashley turned out to be a great flying teacher. After several lessons in the yard, which consisted of Ashley running back and forth on the grass flapping her arms, Puff took off.
"I was running and she was beside me, and she flapped really hard and flew — she flew so hard that she flew out of the yard two houses down. I busted out crying. I knew my baby had just flew away forever," Ashley says.
But mom isn't always right: shortly after her first flight, Puff returned to Ashley and has stayed by her side ever since.
This companionship means the world to Ashley, who was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease in 2008.
"I'm constantly in and out of the hospital. I get treatments at a cancer center every four weeks that take six hours and they take a lot out of me. I have a specialist for every organ," Ashley says of her debilitating disease.
While it would be easy to feel down with all of these health woes, Ashley stays cheery and optimistic thanks to Puff's cuddly company.
"Puff is very kindhearted, she likes to sit with me while I receive my breathing treatments. She doesn't mind the machine noise. She loves to cuddle. She a very good hugger and loves to snuggle and get her feathers rubbed. We watch TV, talk, she just learned to play with toys. She will stand by me and sleep but she always keeps one eye open keeping an eye on me," Ashley says.
Puff is so watchful of her mom that she has begun to sense when one of Ashley's health flare-ups is coming, before Ashley herself even knows.
"Puff can sense when there is something wrong with me — even before I show any symptoms. All of a sudden, she'll get extra talkative or agitated just before my flare-ups start," the animal lover says, adding that Puff, like a true soulmate, hurts when Ashley is hurting too.
"Puff often will demonstrate 'sympathy symptoms,' when I am feeling especially ill. It is really quite remarkable. It took us a little while to figure it out though — as at first we interpreted her actions as signs that she was sick."
While she is a mama's girl, Puff does manage to separate herself from Ashley's side for another woman: one of Ashley's two dogs.
The duck adores both Mimi La Rue and Lulu, but has taken an extra-special liking to Mimi the pug.
"Since Puff thinks of Mimi as her best friend (or as part of her flock), she follows her everywhere, and will even let Mimi eat out of her dinner bowl (while she is eating!)," Ashley tells PEOPLE in an email interview. "Puff quacks when Mimi barks, and throws a toddler-like fit if Mimi has to go outside."
She likes to dress up, hang out with dogs and cuddle through a Bravo marathon. Basically, Puff makes duck ownership seems like a dream — but Ashley wants Puff fans to know that caring for a pet duck is not easy work.
"Through my experiences with Puff, I have realized that to properly care for a duck requires a lot more work than most people realize. Not only are ducks really messy, but they love to dabble in water and mud or whatever else they see. Get ready to change their water source all the time," she cautions.
Instead of racing out to get ducks of their own, Ashely hopes Puff's fanbase, which includes more than 6,000 social media followers, finds happiness in her beloved pet. It is all the positive messages Puff inspires that make the bird even more magical to Ashley.
"I can't begin to express the feeling I get when I communicate with someone who has struggled with an illness or is in a current battle of an illness or just simply having a bad day but they saw a picture of Puff and it made them smile. This warms my heart!"
Through Puff, Ashley has learned to love herself and the life she has, even if it comes with complications.
"Puff has changed my life in so many positive ways. One of the most important being that she has shown me a love that I never know existed. Puff has shown me how to trust again, when I never thought I could. I am not sure what I did to deserve her, but I am so very grateful to have her in my life and I will cherish every moment I get to spend with her because they are precious," Ashley says.
Adding, "What I want people to learn from Puff and I, is it's okay to be yourself because, no matter who you are, you are lovable."