Christa Lombardo was sure she'd found the perfect dog -- a female border collie mix -- when she looked into a kennel at the City of Buffalo Animal Shelter in May 2006.
"I liked the border collie intelligence and the ability to learn, and I had grown up with female dogs," says Lombardo, a City of Buffalo firefighter.
With a black mask around each eye, the medium-sized dog "looked like a panda," Lombardo says. Her long, thick fur was stained and still a bit matted, "more yellow than white," but she was well-fed and safe for the first time since being taken from a drug house in a bad neighborhood. Lombardo and her mom took the dog into the fenced exercise area, where the happy dog wagged her tail and frolicked around and squatted several times to urinate, the typical female posture.
Lombardo's father, former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Michael Lombardo, came over on his lunch hour to get a look at the dog, and everybody agreed that Mollie would be a fine pet. Christa Lombardo went to City Hall and bought a license for the dog, paying the extra fee to register an unspayed female.
After completing the paperwork and paying the adoption fee, Lombardo took Mollie to her grandfather's house in Clarence, to show her off and give her a good bath.
And there Lombardo got a surprise. "I was washing her, and I said, 'Wait a second! This is clearly not a female!' " His secret out, let loose in the yard, the dog immediately started lifting his leg to urinate. Lombardo says, "I was laughing, saying to him, 'You squatted to pee, you hid your parts, all to get adopted!' "
Lombardo called the shelter and said, "I was there just about an hour ago, and adopted Mollie -- and it's not Mollie anymore." She says, "They offered to take him back, but of course I was already in love with him." So City Hall was called, his paperwork straightened out, and Sam was legal and properly registered under his correct gender.
There were a few more surprises for Lombardo as she got to know Sam, whose border collie lineage could be mixed with some American Eskimo or Great Pyrenees, giving him a full, thick, glossy white coat and a tail that curls over his back.
A few weeks after being adopted, Sam opened the refrigerator door and pulled out an entire turkey dinner. He opened every container that held food, leaving no teeth marks, eating what he wanted and leaving the rest. "I had to put a child lock on my fridge," says Lombardo.
Sam was extremely anxious about and protective of his food, once snapping at Lombardo when she tried to take a chicken bone from him. But slowly, he has learned that he has plenty of food and doesn't have to fight for it. "Now, I can take food from his mouth," she says.
A few months after adopting Sam, Lombardo walked into her house with a mallet in her hand, which she had been using outside. Sam "ran away and hid in the corner," she says. A few weeks later, he reacted the same way to the sight of a dart gun. "So he has seen a hammer and he has seen a gun and he knows that they can hurt him," says Lombardo sadly.
Sam also has trouble breathing through his nose, a problem his veterinarian says was probably caused by repeated blows to the snout. "But other than that, he's perfect," Lombardo says.
In Lombardo's house, Sam joined two cats -- Blaze, an orange male tabby, and Rescue, a black female -- who were living in a house in Springville that was burned by the local volunteer fire company for training. Lombardo's father found Blaze outside before the burn began; Rescue and another kitten fell from a ceiling after the fire was started. Rescue was soaking and singed, and both cats have kidney and liver problems, caused, Lombardo says, "by being barn cats born to barn cats without proper nutrition." Yet the two have had a good life. "Fifteen years later they are still here!" she says. "People say, 'Remember those little kittens you found?' and I say, 'Yes, I still have them!' "
At first, the cats were not happy to see Sam, who chased them. Now they live happily together, even cuddling up to sleep occasionally.
But the story doesn't end there. Two years after adopting Sam, Lombardo spotted a female dog who looked just like him at the City of Buffalo Animal Shelter. She scooped up Dancer, but due to her busy work schedule, asked her parents to keep her for a few days. One thing led to another and her parents couldn't give her up. The dog, now named Bella, "is smaller, so she may have been more American Eskimo than Great Pyrenees," says Lombardo. "Her circumstances were similar to Sam's, but she has hip problems -- they think she was kicked a few times."
Bella moved to Delaware with Lombardo's parents, and the two dogs, who shared similar grim beginnings, enjoy playing, running on the beach together during visits.
Back home, Sam is happy and protective of Lombardo. He is dedicated to warding off the letter carrier daily and needs a few minutes to get used to a visitor before demonstrating his repertoire of tricks for a treat.
Lombardo says, "Sam knows where he came from, and he is very loyal to me, very protective of me and very grateful."