Several years ago, Virgil was grieving a beloved dog who had passed away, and he wanted nothing more than to find a way to honor him. So he started volunteering at a shelter near his home in Maryland, and quickly realized there were a lot of animals that were going unnoticed and not getting any exposure. “People only saw the animals if they went into the shelter, and there were not as many visitors as you would hope,” says Virgil. “Since I was walking the shelter dogs all the time, I’d start to sneak pictures of them and post albums on Facebook. If people weren’t coming to the animals, I was going to bring the animals to them.” Over time, those pictures gained more and more attention, inspiring people to visit the shelter and adopt.
Now Virgil and his team of fellow volunteers regularly do photo shoots for many shelters, rescues, and organizations including Senior Dog Sanctuary, Stand Up for Pits, Show Your Soft Side, Tara’s House Animal Rescue, Lucky Dog Animal Rescue, and Rescue Dogs Rock, giving a much needed spotlight to dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, birds, snakes and more. “I try to help where I can, and I lean toward animals that need a little more help to get adopted. If it’s doable, I’ll never say no to an animal that needs help!”
Virgil’s own pack of rescues includes six dogs, each coming from a background of abandonment, abuse, or neglect. But despite their troubled histories, the pups all get along and truly love each other. “They are my lifeline. They give me purpose. I don’t know what I’d do without my babies!” says Virgil, who fosters dogs, too.
BABY BELLA, age 3
When this blue pit bull was abandoned at three months and was in need of a stable home, Virgil decided to foster her. After about a month, Baby Bella did a trial adoption in a potential forever home, but was sent back to Virgil after a week because the person wasn’t ready to take on another dog. “When she came back to me, I was like, you’re not going anywhere!” Virgil describes Baby Bella as the matriarch of the pack, a sweetheart who always welcomes in new dogs to the brood, and is always licking them. “She’s truly one of my blessings.”
NINJA BEAR, age 13
Virgil met this little Yorkie at the first shelter he started volunteering for. “My friend came in to adopt a dog and Ninja Bear peed on her. My friend decided not to adopt him, but I thought it was so funny—I had to take him.” The pup loves being on people’s laps, jumps on the other dogs’ backs, and sleeps on Virgil’s head “like a toupee.” His stealth behavior inspired his name: “I call him Ninja Bear because you won’t know where he is, then you’ll turn around and all of a sudden he’s there.”
SWAGILICIOUS SWAGGY, age 3
This English bulldog had a rough past, first at a breeder who mistreated her and then in a home where she was neglected. A friend of Virgil’s adopted her and spent thousands of dollars to nurse her back to health, but unfortunately not all the dogs in her house ended up getting along. That’s when Virgil took Swaggy in. “She’s super affectionate and so cute—just like a teddy bear. And she loves to give hugs. She’s like a little kid who’s always reaching up. You just have to get down to her level, and she’ll give you the biggest hug and it just feels so right!”
BABY GIRL MAPLE, age 2
This American bully came from a scary situation where she had suffered abuse, including being tased. Initially she was afraid of Virgil, and he kept her in her own room where he would spend time with her, still careful to give her space. “I would just lie on the bed or sit and work on my computer. Eventually she started warming up to me and started playing with toys.” Today although still apprehensive when she meets new people, she’s a total “cuddle bug” when she gets to know you. Her best friend in the pack is Super Cooper—they love to play together and she’s very gentle with him. “I named her Maple because I was inspired by the fight going on in Canada over BSL [breed-specific legislation] at the time I adopted her.”
DOZER DEVITO, age 3
This English bulldog/beagle mix was found by a realtor in an abandoned home. Virgil remembers vividly the moment he first saw Dozer in that house: “The utilities had been turned off, and Dozer was in a ratty, rusty cage in a dirty boiler room. The moment we let him out he started doing dive rolls and running around like crazy.” After Virgil decided to foster Dozer, a couple adopted the dog but gave him back two weeks later. Again, Virgil found himself not wanting to let go of a foster pup. “He’s got the biggest smile and he loves to snuggle at night. He’s crazy for food and he’s especially close to Swaggy—they look like Mr. and Mrs.!”
SUPER COOPER, age 1
Virgil got this Boston terrier from a family who had bought the dog from a puppy mill but then changed their minds about keeping him. Certain he could find a family to adopt the dog, Virgil soon realized Super Cooper would be another foster fail. “He’s the glue that holds the pack together. And he’s the one who got Maple to break out of her shell,” says Virgil. “Plus with those big googly eyes and how he just loves giving kisses—he’s not going anywhere!”
In October, Virgil was named Humanitarian of the Year by MCPAW Montgomery County Partners for Animal Well-Being to honor all the time, effort, and love he puts into helping rescue animals. We at RescueMen USA are very grateful to him, too—he photographed Mike Ruiz, Matthew White, and the Baltimore Bully Crew for our 2017 calendar, and Lee Suggs, Lawrence Tuitt, and Conner Lambert for the 2018 edition!
“There are so many amazing animals out there who need homes. With the help of my amazing team of volunteers, we’ve photographed over 1,700 of them in the shelter alone and I fall in love with every single one. People are missing out on all these treasures in the shelters! All rescue animals want to do is make us happy. They’ll steal your heart if you just give them a chance.”
FUN FUR FACTS
Funniest thing your dogs do?
Even though I have a king-size bed, it feels like a twin because they all have to sleep right next to me. And they like to sleep with their heads toward my feet, their butts toward my head. And then Ninja Bear keeps my head warm!
Favorite thing to do with your animals?
I love taking them to the beach. My dog Shogun loved sand boxes, so when he was close to passing, I took him to the biggest sand box and watched him jump up and down in pure joy. That bucket-list idea led my friends and me to start Super Pups where we photograph terminally ill dogs doing their favorite things in super-hero capes. It’s a way to celebrate the dog’s life, give him joy, and give the person a tangible memory in honor of their beloved pup.
What have you learned from your animals?
All of my dogs are different breeds—literally from small to tall like the Verizon bars. They all love each other and they all get along. And they love everyone—it doesn’t matter who you are! They inspire me to stay open like them.
How do you inspire others to rescue?
I’m always inspired by the magic and love that my team and all the volunteers bring. Sometimes people are scared of taking action so I like to remind them that nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something. And together, we can do a lot!
• story by Julie Ulrich