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Family makes a paws-ative difference

The Johnson family poses with several of their pets. Shaniya holds Zoey, a paralyzed Pom; Shantae holds Ray; and Scott and Kristina corral Finnigan the miniature pig who is too busy checking out a caterpillar to look up. Finnigan has her own Facebook page, finnypiggles. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal1 / 4
Finnigan the miniture pig randomly races around Kristina Johnson's back yard from time to time. She is one of several pets at the Johnson household, including a partially paralyzed dog and cat who need to wear diapers in the house. There are also several chickens and a pair of goats. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal2 / 4
A rooster stands on a shed step and looks over his shoulder in Kristina and Scott Johnson's back yard. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal3 / 4
Kristina Johnson talks to her partially paralyzed Pom, Zoey, after a short walk around the back yard. Zoey is paralyzed from the back down and needs to wear a diaper as she has no bladder control. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal4 / 4

What started out as a fostering situation of an injured Pomeranian dog five years ago led to a special new "family" member.

Cloquet's Kristina Johnson, who is the veterinary assistant at the Friends of Animals Humane Society, had volunteered to foster Zoey until she healed. The young Pom had a back injury they believed was caused by being thrown against a wall by a boyfriend of a previous owner. If Zoey did not heal, she was to be euthanized.

The sad, flea-ridden pup was paralyzed from the middle of her back and her hind legs dragged uselessly behind her. Johnson had to keep her in a diaper as she could not control her bowels either.

Fast forward five years and Zoey has become an important part of the family. Johnson's oldest daughter, 21-year-old Shaniya, hopes to take Zoey with her when she moves out.

"She taught me that you can stay positive in a bad situation," said Shaniya thoughtfully. "She doesn't let being paralyzed slow her down."

While Zoey does have a wheelchair harness she can wear to help her get around, the sassy Pom prefers to pull herself with her front legs and no wheels. She doesn't realize she is handicapped as she happily chases the family's chickens in the backyard of their country home. The chickens squawk and flutter away from the excited little dog.

It is definitely an animal friendly home.

The family miniature pig, Finnigan, likes to see what the excitement is about and eat any chicken food she can find. After rutting around with her little shiny pink nose and examining a few things in the yard, Finnigan raced wildly back to Johnson, with her leash flying behind her and her bell on her harness ringing vigorously to announce her fast approach. She will grow until she is 5 years old and reach about 100 pounds. Pigs do not have fur like dogs and cats, but coarse, bristly hair. When Finnigan gets a little older, Johnson said she will need to trim her hooves as they grow.

Finnigan walks nicely on the leash and sometimes will come when her name is called, unless she is interested in something else, Johnson said.

Two years ago another "special" pet entered the Johnson family as a temporary foster. Ray was brought to the shelter as a young kitten. Her back legs were wobbly and she had potty problems also, requiring a diaper at all times. They don't know what happened to the little girl, but are guessing someone pulled her tail too hard and caused permanent nerve damage. As she grew her hind legs stabilized, but Johnson needed to stimulate her bladder three times a day in order for her to urinate.

"I take the ones nobody else wants," said Johnson. She quickly added that she does not want to take any more special needs pets at the moment.

Now Ray is a lanky young adult with a plush beautiful coat and bright green eyes.

"She acts like a normal cat," said 18-year-old Shantae affectionately. "She sits funny like an old drunk guy. She's a special kind of brat."

Ray travels with the family in the motor home when they go on vacation as she cannot be left alone for any amount of time. The laid-back cat takes it all in stride, according to Johnson.

So does her husband, Scott, who did not grow up with pets.

"They keep us busy," Scott said.

While Scott says he does not have a favorite, his wife and daughter say Ray likes to snuggle with him. Although when Scott was looking for Finnigan in the woods near their rural Cloquet home, one of the chickens followed along behind him. Johnson said that particular chicken often follows her husband around in the yard. They also have a pair of goats and two rats in their menagerie. The couple will celebrate 21 years together this year.

Johnson grew up with a variety of pets over the years including dogs, cats, gerbils and a ferret. The ferret was a compromise as her parents did not want her to get her first choice, an iguana.

"Animals have always been my passion," said Johnson.

Johnson originally began as a volunteer at FOA in 2004, then was hired as an employee in 2006. She gives vaccinations, examines the animals when they come into the shelter, gives them medications when it's necessary and occasionally takes one home.

Over the years Johnson has dealt with a variety of animals and animals with issues at FOA. She remembered when she first began at the shelter, they required all pit bull terrier dogs to be euthanized, even puppies. That rule was changed many years ago. Johnson remembers when a rottweiler without hind legs was brought in.

"It was so sad, he was a sweet dog," said Johnson.

Then there was Kobe, who caught local dog lovers' hearts a few years ago when his story made headlines around the state.

Johnson thought an iguana that came in was cool, but was less thrilled with a surrendered tarantula, as were most of her coworkers. There have been plenty of rats and several batches of mice that have called FOA home temporarily over the years.

Recently there was a large orange and white male cat residing in the front of the shelter who had feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and was missing part a hind leg. He was a friendly fellow who was adopted fairly quickly.

"That was really exciting," said Johnson. "It's tough enough to place FIV cats and he had a missing leg."

Currently there is an influx of kitten litters. Johnson estimated there are roughly 60 adorable kittens at the shelter now.

Less often wild animals are brought to FOA before they are sent on their way with wildlife workers. Johnson has seen raccoons and rabbits pass through the shelter and even a dove and a seagull.

"I like fixing the ones who are broken, whether it's injured or mentally broken," said Johnson.

She told of a dog that had been roaming wild for several years in Cloquet, outsmarting and dodging the humans trying to catch her. The black labrador retriever was very fearful of people and would cower and shake when anyone came near after she was caught. Johnson worked with the fearful dog for several months until it was adopted. While it did stop cowering and shaking, it was still shy when it left the shelter.

"It was so rewarding seeing her come out of that," said Johnson. "She slowly started trusting us."

Johnson and her husband decided to expand working with animals to opening a pet boarding business four years ago. Mutty Trails keeps them busy, in addition to their own pets. While the majority of their clients are dogs, they have also boarded cats, rats and a rabbit.

"I would do it again and do not have any regrets," said Johnson of her special pets.

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