Stray making unlikely journey to Claremont

By Melina Tisopulos

A sweet white dog with black eye patches from Hazelhurst, Mississippi named Bear is currently gearing up to make the nearly 2,000-mile journey to his unlikely “forever home” in Claremont.

While this trip is grand on its own, it is just part of the story behind this beloved stray and the local and national network of support that has rallied around his adoption. Found by chance by Claremont’s Will Ouellette, 19, he and Bear will soon reunite after months apart, and the pup will officially be welcomed into his family.

This story began after Ouellette graduated from Claremont High School in 2021. He deferred college for a year to serve in AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps and traveled to seven Southern states over 10 months to carry out service projects for communities in need. In the spring, he was assigned to Camp Wesley Pines in Hazelhurst to assist with trail maintenance.

During his stay, Ouellette saw a disheartening number of stray dogs roaming the rural area. The camp’s manager had alerted his team, Bayou 3, to a specific stray who had been playing with his puppy.

On the night of March 21, the dog approached their living quarters. With a harsh storm churning outside, they let him in and gave him a bowl of water and some slices of ham. Two of the Bayou 3 members stayed up through the night with the dog, who they began calling Bear.

“The next day we had to go to our worksite. He wouldn’t leave, and he jumped in the car with us, and sat right at the driver’s seat, and we were like, ‘No, we can’t let him go!’” Ouellette said.

Claremont’s Will Ouellette, 19, will soon reunite with Bear after months apart, and the pup will officially be welcomed into his family.

For the next few days, Bear remained loyal to the team, awaiting their return from their long workdays.

“All day he would sit out by our door and wait for us,” Ouellette said.

Worried Bear would grow too attached, their team leader gave them three days to rehome him. Ouellette reached out to his mother in Claremont, Nicole Ouellette, for help. She first recommended taking him to a local shelter, but all were full. The next idea was to transport him to California by airplane cargo. But with such a brief time frame in which to line it all up, this option became far too complicated.

As a last hope, Nicole posted on Facebook asking if anyone had referrals to an animal rescue in the South. Another Claremont resident (and this reporter’s mother), Tara Tisopulos, then put her in contact with her childhood friend Courtney Tennant Paneri, who co-founded American Lab Rescue, a dog saving group based in Connecticut.

With such dire need in the South, American Lab Rescue mainly helps dogs from Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Paneri connected Will with Kristie Weaver, a foster volunteer in Mississippi. From there, Bear was sent to Alabama to be boarded while receiving medical care, including heartworm treatment. In May he was back in Mississippi with Weaver, who has been fostering him since.

Now, months later, he is making his long-awaited move to California. In addition to fostering, Weaver runs Coast to Coast Transport, LLC, which conveys rescue animals to the East and West coasts. She and her business partner are graciously driving Bear from Mississippi to Claremont and will arrive on August 25, when he will be officially adopted by the Ouellettes.

“It will be bittersweet to say goodbye to him, but I look at myself as just a stop along the way,” Weaver said. “And that stop along the way is sometimes a short stop, or sometimes its many months, but I’ve been getting him ready for his family. He’ll have a great life, and most importantly he’ll be out of Mississippi and out of the South.”

The family is very eager to finally welcome their new member. Will is excited to reunite with Bear before leaving for his freshman year at Northeastern University in Boston.

“It feels good. I’m curious to see to see if he’ll remember me, I think he will,” he said. “It’s kind of sad because I leave for college, but we’ll get a week together.”

The Ouellette family is grateful for the support shown to Bear and are appreciative of the out of state help from Paneri and American Lab Rescue, as well as Weaver’s months of fostering. The action taken by those in Claremont has also been touching, they said. This extends to Tara Tisopulos, who organized a fundraiser for Bear’s American Lab Rescue medical and transport fees, and all those who contributed to it. They are also thankful for the generosity of Nicole’s mother, who will host the Coast to Coast Transport partners the night before their return flight, which was purchased through donated Southwest Airlines flight miles.

They hope that by sharing Bear’s story they will bring awareness to the other dogs needing homes in the South, and the organizations like American Lab Rescue that remain dedicated to the cause.

For anyone interested in supporting American Lab Rescue, visit their website at americanlabrescue.com.

Melina Tisopulos is a rising senior at Claremont High School and is the COURIER’s summer intern.

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