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Reuniting old friends

A woman visits with the Yorkie she reluctantly gave up.

By JUSTIN GEORGE, Times Staff Writer
Published December 16, 2007

Phyllis Birnbaum embraces Max, once hers but now cared for by Nicci Bennett, a Yorkie Rescue volunteer from Valrico.
[Kathleen Flynn | Times]

LARGO - He'd either sit in a pouch under her walker like a stuffed toy or lie across her chest like a scarf.

She was 76, and he was 77, in dog years. Max was good with widows, having lived with one before, and Phyllis Birnbaum needed footsteps around her empty home.

She made him homemade chicken and rice. When it was time to rest, he pulled off her socks.

But Max had eye problems, and Phyllis had a failing heart.

She had inherited him from a woman down the hall and promised to keep him as the neighbor neared death.

Seven years later, Phyllis couldn't always get out of bed, and when she did, she worried she would trip over Max as he scurried under her feet. Sometimes she shooed her cheerful companion away.

She knew she had to give him up.

* * *

Phyllis found a woman whose Yorkie had just died, so her home seemed like the perfect place.

She said, "God bless you," when Phyllis gave her Max. But one day the woman asked Phyllis to watch Max while she went to California. She never returned.

Everyone had offered to take the dog, but Phyllis wouldn't give him to just anyone.

"He was very important to me," she said, "like a child."

Kids might roughhouse and break his back, she worried. He weighed just 3 pounds. He was a one-owner dog. She wanted someone who would treat Max like he was his but recognize that he was really hers.

She hadn't always been this way. Decades ago, she and her husband gave away a toy poodle and never looked back.

She had earned a nursing degree after she had children and had stuck IVs in her husband's arm each night so he could put on a tie and run his electronics business until he died of stomach cancer. Her son urged her to give up Max and move on. But Phyllis couldn't.

When she learned United Yorkie Rescue investigated new homes, she tried once more to place the dog. A volunteer arrived with paperwork.

Phyllis was confronted with a choice. The organization wanted her to sign away her rights to visit or even know who adopted him.

She would no longer have any claim to Max.

* * *

On a rainy June day, Nicci Bennett, a Yorkie Rescue volunteer from Valrico, carried Max to the car. An insurance adjuster, she had no kids and owned disabled dogs, including one whose feet were gnawed off in a puppy mill. She's flown to Montana for rescues and has been on the Today show.

She would be Max's temporary owner. That was the plan. She knew he would be snapped up fast once she posted his picture on United Yorkie Rescue's Web site.

She drove home and told her husband how Phyllis had sobbed handing over her dog, his tuxedo Halloween costume, bed and an envelope.

In the envelope, the woman who lived on Social Security had put $80, all the spare cash she had.

* * *

Six months went by. Phyllis now lived in the Royal Palms of Largo, where there were periodic announcements, as on cruise ships, about dinners served downstairs.

A little porcelain Yorkie stood outside her door.

One day recently, she wrapped a Yorkie coffee cup in tissue paper and tucked it in a purple gift bag. She told everyone at the retirement center that she expected company.

She had been getting the e-mails three times a week. Sometimes, there were pictures of Max. In one, he wore pajamas.

Bennett, 38, never could bring herself to post the dog's photo and description on the Web. Instead, she gave Max the home Phyllis had wanted him to have. She has spent $1,800 on his medical bills, including bladder stone surgery and eye exams.

"Silly question, but is Max really doing well?" Phyllis wrote Bennett last month. "You haven't sent pix of him for awhile."

That's when Bennett got the idea to take Max for a visit.

Waiting, Phyllis glanced at a picture of Max on a table.

"I don't know how he'll act," she said anxiously. "He could be mad at me."

A knock came.

Instant recognition.

He licked her face. Her eyes welled up. She put him in her walker. He laid on her chest.

Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or

[Last modified December 16, 2007, 00:43:29]

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