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'Trooper' blesses owner who works to see pets blessed

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SUN CITY CENTER ­— Every year pets are blessed by priests and ministers around the world on Oct. 4, the day that St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and ecology, is honored.

Bette Erikson holds her best friend, Trooper, who got his name because of the trials he had obviously endured before they met.
For residents all over South County, this has become a community event as Linda Cardamone and Stephen Cooksey, owners of the Three Legged Poodle pet specialty shop on Imar Drive in Sun City Center, open their doors (and patio and parking area) to about 150 pets and their owners each year.

Dogs, cats, birds (and any other house pet) come on leashes and in cages with owners of many religious denominations and are prayed for.

But the event is not sponsored by a religious denomination. It is spearheaded by the Unity Community of Joy, a nondenominational spiritual fellowship led by Dr. Betty Martin-Lewis, a licensed Unity teacher, who leads the Sun City Center Unity group. Those who belong to Unity describe it as a nondenominational spiritual organization instead of a religion.

“There are many volunteers that make the pet blessing possible, but one stands out who has worked tirelessly every single year behind the scenes and is the real driving force behind this annual event,” said Carol Oschmann. “Bette Erikson runs around soliciting food from local restaurants, pulls together volunteers to gather tables and chairs, signs up her friend Gari for music, and does all the publicity.”

I met with Bette, who has worked the event for four consecutive years, just to get a few facts about how she got involved, and was told a story that fully explains why she cares so deeply about how animals are treated.

“We (in Unity) are very spiritual. Many of us also belong to the metaphysical group,” Bette said. “We believe everything happens for a reason, and everything in the Universe is connected.”

The former New Yorker has had many things some others would call supernatural happen in her life.

“For instance, my whole life, I was told that my father had died in an automobile accident,” she told me. “Yet when I was 50 years old, it was like I was reborn. My younger sister found out that our mother had broken ties with not only her family, but our father’s family too, and that my father was really still alive.”

He was living in Denmark and the two made several visits back and forth and met each other’s families. “We had two wonderful years together before he died,” Bette said. “The timing was just right.”

The timing of her best friend Trooper coming into her life was also just perfect, she said.
The Rev. Tracy Wilder, rector of St. John the Divine Episcopal Church, blesses pets of every denomination when they are brought to the annual Blessing of the Pets. The event is held around the time of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and ecology, which falls on Oct. 4.

“I had this wonderful Maltese, Bella Mia, from the time she was small enough to fit in my hand until she was 11 years old,” she said, showing me photographs of her long-haired white furry friend. “I loved her dearly but she got so sick there was nothing we could do. I lost her Sept. 3, two years ago. I said I didn’t want any more pets. I didn’t want to lose another friend.”

But June 9 of that same year, after going without a pet for nine months, a friend who volunteered at the C.A.R.E. no-kill animal shelter in Ruskin called her and said they’d found a pitiful dog that had been badly abused and the shelter was full. “She asked if I would just foster him until they could find him a home,” Bette told me.  

The dog had been so badly beaten and possibly burned, that he had no hair and his tail looked like a pig’s tail, short, curly and bare.

“He looked so pitiful and sickly, and when I picked him up, I said, ‘you’re a real trooper to have gone through so much and not only survived but still be so friendly and loving’.”

Bette kept him as a foster “parent” and told C.A.R.E. she hoped whoever adopted him would keep the name Trooper because of what he had been through without it killing his loving spirit.

Slowly, Trooper began to fill out, get his hair back, and got healthier and healthier. Now it showed that he was a Maltese.

Bette showed me the photographs of the two dogs- Bella Mia and Trooper- and it was easy to see how much alike they looked.

“I couldn’t give him away. He was sent to me for us to love each other,” she said.

And so Trooper stayed, and was blessed Oct. 4 at the Three Legged Poodle by the Rev. Tracy Wilder of St. John the Divine Episcopal Church that has sanctuaries in both Ruskin and Sun City Center.

“Of all the invitations I sent out with stamped self-addressed return envelopes, Father Wilder was the only one who responded,” Bette said, so she said she knew that too was meant to be.

The priest had been holding pet blessing ceremonies at St. John the Divine every year, but this year decided to show his full support of a community-wide event by only holding the one at the Three Legged Poodle, which many in his congregation attended as well.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Bette said. “It is wonderful when people of all beliefs come together in unity.”

Trooper didn’t comment for this story. But his smiling eyes have a look that says he knows his owner is right.

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