LEXINGTON -- At first glance, Turk is just an ordinary dog. He loves his chew toys and sneaking a nibble at the houseplants when his owners aren't looking. He runs around his large backyard and befriends everyone he meets.
Nevertheless, Turk's life was almost very different. When veterinarian Susan Burkhart first laid eyes on the stray pup four months ago, he was sick, tired and nearly dead.
“He was covered with hundreds and hundreds of ticks and he was so anemic and weak it was hard for him to even stand,” recalled Susan Burkhart, the chief of staff at the Animal Medical Center of Ontario.
Burkhart met Turk during a trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands, where she had planned to attend a continuing education seminar. After the seminar was cancelled due to COVID-19, Burkhart decided to go anyway as a volunteer.
She contacted the Turks and Caicos Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (TCSPCA), where representatives told her they would welcome her help with spaying and neutering the massive population of stray dogs on the islands.
While on the islands, Burkhart became fascinated by the stray dogs. Islanders call them "potcakes" because they survive by eating the food that gets caked on to the bottom of pots, which people throw out for them.
According to Potcake Place, an adoption agency for the stray dogs, most grown potcakes are medium-sized and range from 45 to 55 pounds.
“I saw some sick animals and kind of realized what a bad problem they have," she said. "So many of them live on the streets in packs and just kind of scrounge for food and fresh water."
Burkhart was especially taken aback by how tame the dogs were. Despite living in feral packs, most would readily come up to her to be petted and for food.
“When I would drive around and try to feed them, many of them are still real friendly and forgiving even though they’ve been abandoned by people," she said.
When Burkhart met Turk, she knew she couldn't leave him on the island. He'd been brought in to be neutered but was too weak to undergo the procedure.
Instead, Burkhart brought him back to the United States with her, determined to find him a home. The nine-pound pooch was so exhausted that he slept the entire way home, curled up under Burkhart’s plane seat.
Meanwhile, Buzz and Bertha Bishop of Lexington had just lost one of their own furry friends. A mutual friend connected the Bishops with Burkhart a few weeks after her return. Bertha knew the moment she met Turk that he was meant to be a part of the family. He went to live with his fur-ever family the very next day.
“He’s the best dog ever,” Bishop said. “It’s weird to say that he knows how lucky he is, but it seems like he does sometimes. Everybody loves Turk.”
Burkhart and Bishop have become obsessed with potcakes ever since.
“They’re just really interesting, unique, tough dogs. They’re smart and they’re survivors,” Burkhart said.
The two women now tell everyone they meet about potcakes, Bishop added. The pair have become vocal advocates for adoption and are even recruiting others to help with the rescue effort.
In the future, Burkhart hopes to bring more volunteers with her to help transport potcakes back to the United States for adoption.
"Rescue organizations down there are always looking for people traveling back to the U.S. and Canada willing to serve as couriers," Bishop said. "The rescues take care of paperwork, fees, everything ... all people have to do is travel with the puppy in a carrier."
In order to be brought back to the United States, the dog has to have a rabies shot and pass a veterinarian’s exam in order to board the plane. Customs requires a governmental health certificate and veterinary papers from the country of origin.
Nevertheless, you don't have to become a dog courier or adopt a potcake to help address problems of overpopulation and animal homelessness. There are plenty of cats and dogs waiting for a good home at the Richland County Dog Shelter and Humane Society of Richland County.
Burkhart also encouraged current pet owners to make sure their animals are spayed or neutered.
Burkhart will return to Turks and Caicos later this month to conduct more spays and neuters, as well as treat heartworm and tick-borne diseases.
Treating those ailments improve a dog’s quality of life, but also make spaying and neutering procedures safer.
“Spaying and neutering (dogs with tick-borne diseases) was quite a challenge because with tick-borne diseases, they don't have platelets so they bleed like crazy,” she explained.
A GoFundMe account has raised more than $2,000 to help cover the cost of treating the animals.
“A lot of people have pulled together and wanted to do what they could to help. It’s really nice to know that there’s so many people who care," she said.