Tuesday, July 14, 2009


by Barbara Berkowitz  

This is Lucky's tale... but it's more than the story of a homeless dog from a little village near Desnogorsk, Russia who found his way to America. It's also the story of the people on opposite sides of the world - in Russia and the U.S.A. - who came to care about him and each other. How easily we humans find comfort and friendship in one another, even when our governments cannot.
Meet Lucky's heroes...

Ben Herman was the smartest four year old I ever babysat, though his two brothers were no slouches either. At his fifth birthday party in his family's backyard in Los Angeles, California, he was busy trying to share his new found passion for mathematical fractions with his little guests, while they were consumed with his play gym. All these years later, I find two things rival his extraordinary intelligence - his humor and his humanity. 
While other people saw rescuing Lucky as a pipe dream, he saw it as a possibility. So, Ben sent a message about Lucky and Wolf to the entire Russian Service of Radio Free Europe and one journalist, Vladimir Abarbanell, answered...
I've never had the pleasure of meeting Vladimir but hopefully, one day, Nikki and I will host him and his wife when they visit America. I know he dreams of showing her this country.  
Vladimir and I communicated over eight months by E-mail, thanks to his capacity for the English language. I, on the other hand, know less than a dozen Russian words which got me into hot water last summer when I meant to say "thank you" (spaciba) to somebody and inadvertently called her a "dog" (sibaka.) You can imagine how easy it would be to make a mistake like that, right? Really, because this woman was hopping mad and she was a big woman! 
Nikki and I came to trust Vladimir. When he wrote something, we could rely on it. His word was gold. And for those of you who believe the eyes are the windows of the soul, look at his photo and I think you'll agree this is one deeply kind man. When I think of the effort that went into coordinating Lucky's rescue it is dizzying. Vladimir never burdened us with its challenges.
As luck would have it, he knew a woman in Desnogorsk who was willing to help and her name was Eugenia...

Eugenia Prishletsova is the press officer for Desnogorsk's main claim to fame - The Smolensk Nuclear Plant. I believe she is a smart, self-confident, successful woman. I also believe she is a busy woman, so, her willingness to be the hands-on-rescuer of both Lucky and Wolf leads me to conclude that Eugenia is uniquely generous of heart. It was she who visited Katerina and Natasha (their names are the only two I've changed to honor their privacy) to ask them to identify Lucky and Wolf, after which she retrieved both dogs and delivered them into safe keeping. I know her efforts included veterinary care and I also know she never asked me for a dime. Eugenia gave an on-air interview to Radio Free Europe explaining the details of the actual rescue which I will post on this blog as soon as it is translated into English.  
As luck would have it, a colleague of hers, Nina, in the PR department, had a husband who was willing to keep both dogs until they were ready to come to America. His name was Sergey...

Sergey Kosenkov hosted both Lucky and Wolf until Wolf's determination to return to his pack was too great to ignore. I imagine Lucky must have missed his old friend when they sent him back.  
We think of Wolf from time to time and hope he is managing to be well. 
If one picture is worth a thousand words, this would be it. The affection between Sergey and Lucky so moved Nikki and me, we immediately wrote Vladimir and told him we didn't think it would be right to separate the two. We thought Lucky, having finally found a caring friend, would be traumatized to leave him and Sergey might not fare so well either. Vladimir reassured us that Sergey was holding Lucky as a gift to my daughter and had a big dog of his own, (who, like Wolf, had taken Lucky under his wing.) He also spoke with an animal expert from a Russian Dog Association who told him if Sergey had been Lucky's first owner it would be traumatic to separate them, but chances were he would remember Nikki's smell and be at home with us. Wouldn't you know it... he was right.


Illia Tochkin is technical director for Radio Free Europe in Moscow. It was Illia who facilitated the last piece of the Russian rescue puzzle. Illia's jeep (and heart) was big enough to transport not only Vladimir and himself to Sergey's home in Desnogorsk, but able to accommodate Lucky on board for the long ride back to Moscow.
(It bares mentioning when I offered to send Illia money for his gas and expenses, he graciously refused.) Once back in Moscow, Illia would host Lucky for a night or two before he and Vladimir could show him to Delta Cargo, Russian Customs and the vet at Moscow's airport. If all went as planned, Lucky would be on his way to us the next day.
Because Vladimir and Illia's work schedules were full they planned Lucky's departure from Desnogorsk on a holiday, May 11, the last day of the big Russian festival that celebrates the end of WWII. They call this day "Victory Day," and for different and obvious reasons, now we do, too. 

Vladimir wrote, they shot photos and video from the time they arrived in Lucky's village to the moment they put him on the plane... looking forward to receiving and posting them. 

Delta team members represented their airline with decency and downright warm heartedness. They treated Lucky like a king. Not only did they call us the moment he touched down in Atlanta, Georgia after the first 11 hours of his journey, they also video taped his welcoming committee and made sure he would be well cared for by putting him in the hands of Dandie Kennel for walking, feeding and a night of R&R.  
When Lucky arrived in L.A. the next day, May 15, 2009, two Delta Cargo members approached Nikki and me - "We know Lucky's famous," one said, "can you tell us what he's famous for?" I couldn't tell them it was because he had a big, funny, happy personality because we didn't know that yet. I could have told them it was for inspiring a miracle of a rescue, but I didn't . Instead, I told them his story from beginning to end. They listened, nodding and smiling and when I finished one of them said, "Y' know, Delta's got a name for this operation, we call it From Russia With Love." That's when I realized what Lucky was famous for.. touching the hearts of strangers never destined to meet, and turning them into one big family. Lucky's family.

(If you're unfamiliar with how we found Lucky scroll down a page to "Lucky's Journey From Russia To Beverly Hills.")

Monday, June 29, 2009


  Last summer my daughter Nikki and I traveled to Russia to visit her younger sister, whom we'll call Katerina to preserve her privacy. It seemed everywhere we went there were homeless dogs. Being dog lovers, our hearts went out to them, especially since they were friendly and gentle. In Moscow, near the Kremlin, we bought a sausage from a street vendor for a particularly hungry looking black lab. Nikki knelt down to feed the big guy and no sooner had he gobbled the food up when an off duty soldier jammed the butt of his rifle down on the ground right next to the dog's face, startling the two and sending the dog fleeing.
  By the time we got to Desnogorsk, Katerina's home town, an eight hour bus trip from Moscow, we were aware of the public's general antipathy toward these dogs. This did not dissuade Nikki from reaching out to pet any and all of them who came within her range. Natasha, Katerina's aunt with whom she lives, reared back, mortified, to discover Nikki's hands on affection with the animals and tried everything, including dragging her away by the arm, to put an end to it. Nikki, a polite but fiercely independent seventeen year old was not happy with Natasha and disappointed in her sister who thought dogs were dirty.  
After a day in Desnogorsk, Katerina and Natasha took us to their country house, a ten minute bus ride into what appeared to be very modest farm land. There, at the end of a dirt road, was an emaciated black dog with red eye brows. He was so skinny, his ribs poked through his fur, and he was so frightened he cowered when we came near. We would be there only two days but in those two days, we were determined to feed him enough food to last a lifetime. (Okay, nobody said we were thinking straight, but you try looking into the eyes of a starving animal and see how clearly you think.)  
At lunch that afternoon, whenever Natasha and Kat weren't looking, we filled our pockets with food until by meals end, we had squirreled away an impressive supply of cheese, sausage and bread. Explaining we needed to walk off the generous portions, we excused ourselves from their table, made a quick exit out the front door and speed walked up the dirt road to the desperate dog. Too afraid to come near us, he watched from a couple yards away as we spread the rations on the road before him. No sooner had we put the last morsel down than a pack of four more homeless dogs converged on it, eating every last bit. Our timid friend held back letting the other dogs have it all.  
We couldn't wait for the next meal so when we got back to the house we made a full confession. We needed food to feed a hungry dog! By now Natasha and Kat, were beginning to understand the principal behind "if you can't fight em, join em," and gave us a sausage and a thick slice of bread. This time we ran up the road to the dog and guarding the food with our lives made sure our hollow-eyed friend ate every drop.  
When we turned to go, Nikki whistled and much to our surprise, the dog followed! As he followed, he came to life - his tail wagged and he started to prance. First by our side then behind us, in front of us looking back up at us and all around us... over and over again. He was happy!! I remember thinking this would probably be the only time in this dog's life he would feel like a dog should feel! We decided to give him a name and chose "Lucky" because we knew this dog who was going to need luck.
In our two days there we not only fed Lucky but another dog my daughter named Wolf. ("Wolf" because he looked like a Wolf.) Wolf was far more aggressive than Lucky and it seemed to us he had taken Lucky under his wing out there in the wild. The two were friends though Lucky was clearly subservient to Wolf who from time to time would show his authority in what looked like a one-sided dog fight - Lucky on the ground on his back, Wolf lording over him. Both dogs came to Natasha and Kat's little yard, grateful for our food and affection.  
When it was time to leave, Wolf walked the several miles alongside Nikki, to the bus stop. When the bus arrived he tried to board it with her and when that wasn't possible, he sat back down in the road and cried. I couldn't bear to watch. Three days later, on another bus to Moscow we passed that bus stop and who do you think was still waiting where we left him... Wolf.
Back in the States Nikki and I couldn't help but think of our two friends. How would they survive with so little food. We called Natasha and Kat and asked if, at the end of their meals, they had any garbage, would they please feed it to Lucky and Wolf. They agreed and we felt relieved, but only briefly. Natasha closed up her country house by late fall and no one would be there with even scraps. 
Weeks passed and by late September came the dreaded realization that winter would soon be here. Russian winters are ferociously cold and brutal and without shelter, it didn't seem likely Lucky and Wolf would survive. One night as Nikki was trying to fall asleep and thinking about the dogs again, I suggested in what quickly sounded overly optimistic, "Why don't we try to rescue them?!" Nikki loved the idea and while I told her I couldn't promise anything I would try my best.  
The next day I considered all my prospects. Natasha and Kat would not have the money, where-with-all or willingness to manage such a considerable feat. I needed to start from scratch. I asked everybody I knew if they knew anyone planning a trip to Russia. No one did. In stores, if I heard someone with a Russian accent, I'd ask if they knew any way we might find help. No one did. I called my friend Ben who I used to baby sit when he was four and told him the story of Lucky and Wolf. "Gee," he said, "I'd really like to see those guys make it, but how can I help?" I said the same thing to him I said to everyone else, "I don't know, Ben, I just needed to ask." "Let me see what I can do," he offered sympathetically, as he hung up the phone.
Three days later in an E-mail Ben wrote, "Holy sh*t, I think we might have something!" Ben works in Washington, D.C. as counsel for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and had E-mailed all the employees of Radio Free Europe to ask for their help. One remarkable Russian journalist in Moscow responded. His name was Vladimir and he knew a woman in Desnogorsk named Eugenia and yes... they would help!  
With Natasha's permission Eugenia showed up at her door soon after and asked her to identify Lucky and Wolf. She did. I don't yet know how Eugenia managed it, but she successfully gathered up both dogs and brought them to the home of Sergey who offered to host them through the winter and long rescue process. Lucky was grateful to be in a home but, sadly, Wolf was not. Too dominant, he wanted back to his pack and so they released him.
Seven months later, on May 15th 2009, Nikki and I waited breathlessly at Delta Airlines Cargo in our home town of Los Angeles, as crew members gathered around to watch what Delta employees from the CEO down had helped host and been anxiously anticipating. An airline van pulled up within yards of our intimate crowd and there secured safely in the vehicle was the most beautiful dog kennel you ever did see... Lucky had arrived!   
  ................. To be continued