January 12, 2010
Walkin’ Wheels for Rocco
NDG panhandler needs $3,000 for dog’s surgery
Justin Durrell sits in front of the SAQ on Sherbrooke Street West with his dog Leila. PHOTO JUSTIN GIOVANETTI
“It’s not that easy to get an apartment when you’re already on welfare, and then the landlord sees you walk in with two pit bulls...”
If you live in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, chances are you’ve seen Justin Durrell.
He is often found panhandling on Sherbrooke Street West, between Hingston and Beaconsfield Avenues. Many of the locals are friendly with Durrell, bringing him hot coffee from the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts or stopping to pet his two pit bulls, Rocco and Molar, who are always by his side.
Both dogs are popular with NDG residents, often licking the hands of people who stop to chat with Durrell, before returning their heads to their master’s lap.
Lately, Rocco has been noticeably absent. That’s because on Christmas Eve he took a bad fall while playing with Molar, tearing three ligaments in one of his hind legs. Now, Rocco is unable to walk and members of the community are coming together to help pay for the expensive surgery he needs.
“The vet told me that it would cost about $3,000 for the operation, plus another $400 for the Walkin’ Wheels that Rocco needs after the operation,” said Durrell.
Ever since he heard the news, Durrell has been going out in temperatures as low as -30 degrees Celsius to beg on the streets for Rocco. Despite residents who have expressed worries about his health, Durrell said he needed to raise money for his dog’s operation. Local animal group, Eleven Eleven Animal Rescue, heard about the story and volunteered to help.
“Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of giving money to someone begging on the street, so our website is another way to help out,” said Caroline Ross, founder of Eleven Eleven Animal Rescue. The group has so far raised over $400 online.
Rocco’s accident came at a bad time for Durrell. Born in Montreal, he had a difficult childhood spent in the foster care system. He then struggled with poverty as a young man and lived on and off the streets across Canada.
Those hard years on the street were marked by one constant: his beloved dogs.
“Rocco and Molar were my best friends,” said Durrell. At times, he even chose to remain on the streets rather than part with them. “It’s not that easy to get an apartment when you’re already on welfare, and then the landlord sees you walk in with two pit bulls […] but I would never get rid of my dogs.”
Durrell sometimes went without food to feed his dogs. The two loyal companions also protected him during his often-dangerous life on the streets.
Things seemed to be turning around for Durell when he returned to Montreal. A friend who was moving away let him move into his apartment. But his newfound sense of security was threatened when his roommate developed a serious respiratory illness and could no longer be around animals. He was faced with a choice: get rid of Rocco and Molar or head back to the streets.
At that moment a guardian angel stepped in to save him.
Natalie Darveaux happened to be running errands one day when she met Durrell and spoke with him. He told her his story and Darveaux was so moved, she invited him into her home until he found a new place. She then worked tirelessly to help him find a new apartment.
Once Durrell was successfully settled, she continued to check in on the young man, bringing him food and used clothing. She even bought Christmas presents for him, which included a rubber ball for Rocco and Molar.
Soon after, Rocco collided with Molar while playing with a ball, resulting in his injury and devastating both Durrell and Darveaux.
Since then, Durrell’s familiar face has greeted locals with a new slogan. “Can you please help me? This is for my dog,” he asks, handing out flyers that feature pictures of Rocco and his story, along with all the information donors need to know about Eleven Eleven and the website.
The neighbourhood has responded. Many local businesses have begun displaying Rocco’s poster in their windows and handing out flyers to clients.
The story has also been noticed throughout the city. CBC’s radio show Homerun featured it during a holiday show and Ross reports that she is receiving press inquires about Rocco at Eleven Eleven.
Recently Centre DMV, a 24-hour animal hospital in Lachine, offered to help with free veterinarian consultations and a substantial donation from the DMV Foundation. The foundation can only help a select number of animals a year, but according to DMV Board President Nathalie Simard, Rocco and Durrell’s story touched everyone at the animal hospital.
Despite the aid, more money is needed to help Rocco get back on his feet. “People just don’t know how grateful I am. This dog means everything to me,” said Durrell.
Given the history that Durrell has already shared with Rocco, it’s no surprise he feels that way.
At press time The Link learned that Walkin’ Wheels will donate a dog wheelchair for Rocco to use during his recovery.
Eleven Eleven’s website is at elevenelevenanimalrescue.org.