This is a story about a man and a dog.
It’s also a story about the devastation of COVID, the anticipation of the holidays, and the dedication of the heart.
Reacting to a news report that he read Friday, Wilfredo Vega on Saturday drove from his South Daytona home to Orlando to adopt Tonka, a 7-year-old pit-bull mix who had spent 216 days at the Orange County Animal Services shelter.
Had the dog gone five more days without adoption, Tonka would have set a probable record for days spent at the shelter, officials said.
“That just broke my heart,” Vega said.
Vega, 46, a father of four and owner of a South Daytona auto repair shop, has spent much of 2020 in heartbreak. His mother, Carlina Rosa, died during the spring of COVID-19. She was 81.
She was admitted into a hospital on May 7, Vega said. Her oxygen level worsened to the point that she couldn’t hold a conversation that lasted more than two minutes, he said. She died on May 14.
Through last week, Vega said, “I didn’t even want to celebrate the holidays, because everything reminds me of her.”
Vega said his mother raised him and his three siblings to do the right thing. So when he read about Tonka, he drove more than 90 minutes to claim him.
It didn’t go well at first. Tonka failed to connect with the man who came to save him – and actually nipped him on the shirt while they were playing together at the shelter, Vega said.
Across from Tonka’s pen sat a female pit bull with whom Vega did connect. From her pen, that dog locked eyes with him and wagged her tail, he said.
“And I was like, no, no,” Vega said. “I turned away because I was like, ‘I’m here for him.’”
A daughter who volunteers at the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando convinced him to give Tonka time.
Orange County Animal Services took in Tonka on April 15, after the dog’s owner moved and abandoned him in the backyard of an Orange County home, the shelter said. The shelter said Tonka was adopted and returned twice, once within hours.
The dog had undergone a rough seven months, but he would come around, Vega said his daughter told him.
Vega said he bought Tonka some tennis balls and a bed, and he says he’s feeling a connection building.
“He’s been phenomenal,” Vega said. “I think everything’s going to work out great.”
In the Vega home, Tonka joins six parakeets and two cockatiels that Vega said he rescued from a shelter.
Unlike the birds, Tonka can go for walks, which Vega says he plans at least twice a day.
“Having him, it seems like I’m a little more energized,” Vega said. “I'm definitely going to be putting up my Christmas tree. I'm definitely going to spend time with the family for the holidays. So, he's helping me just as much as I'm helping him.”