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Lee Benson
Cathy King of Canines With a Cause.

SALT LAKE CITY — At 5-foot-6 and no more than 115 pounds after dinner, Cathy King looks nothing like your typical search and rescuer. She doesn’t wear a hunter-orange vest. Doesn’t carry a walkie-talkie. Doesn’t drive a Jeep with a winch. When somebody’s lost in the mountains or a snowstorm or drove their ATV into a lake, her phone does not ring.

And yet she’s rescued so many people it’s impossible to accurately count them all — and not just people.

Cathy is founder, president and full-time fundraiser for Canines With a Cause, a nonprofit born right here in Utah that operates according to this formula: First, take a homeless dog out of the shelter; second, send it to prison to bunk with female inmates who double as trainers; and third, pair the dog with a military vet battling post traumatic stress disorder.

Talk about your triple rescue. Instead of being euthanized, the dogs are back to being man’s best friend. The inmates have someone to love unconditionally who loves them back unconditionally. And when a vet with PTSD connects with a dog with PTSD, two wrongs amazingly make a right.

“Thank you. You’ve saved my life,” is something Cathy King hears — or, in the dog’s case, senses — all the time. And it never gets old.

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So how’d she get here? How do you go from a job promoting dress designers in Paris, which is what Cathy was doing 22 years ago, to sharing a desk in a rented office in a Millcreek strip mall writing grants?

It began with a cat named Harry.

Harry belonged to Cathy when she was living on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands in fall 1995. Cathy was away at work — by this point she’d left her PR job in Paris to do marketing for a sailboat charter company in the Caribbean — when Hurricane Marilyn hit.

The hurricane, a category IV that wasn’t supposed to find land but did, destroyed a sizable share of St. Thomas, including the house Cathy was renting, and, presumably, Harry.

Cathy was in her car, stunned and shaken, searching for Harry, when she saw a couple on the side of the road with their bags, trying to get a ride.

She pulled over, found out they were on their honeymoon and wished it could be over, and drove them to the airport. After she dropped them off, she noticed crates near the runway that were filled with cats and dogs — pets of people fleeing the island, but because of quarantine rules couldn’t leave with them.

Cathy went into action, contacting an animal shelter in the city still more or less intact, and made arrangements to move the dogs and cats there. After that, she set out to find proper homes for them. Construction workers who flew in to put in power poles — “they were alone, they needed a buddy” — made up her most successful clientele.

“All of a sudden a light went on,” she recalls. “Something about giving them a second chance felt important to me, so I sort of forgot about everything I’d been doing in my life up to that time.”

After two months she flew back to Utah and her part-time home in Park City. She got her real estate license and sold “just enough dirt” to pay the rent. The rest of her time was spent volunteering with Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.

That led to a paid position as executive director with Friends of Animals, the Summit County-based organization that not only shelters animals but also puts them to use as therapy for children dealing with abandonment issues and people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.

Then, seven years ago, after hearing story after story about vets coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD, Cathy had her brainstorm. She’d seen the power dogs had in elevating moods of children and addicts. Why not soldiers?

She made an appointment to see Dr. Steve Allen, the head of the VA Hospital’s PTSD treatment program. It would take time to work out all the kinks — including the sending-the-dogs-to-prison part — but that’s how Canines With a Cause was born.

At any given time, around 50 vets, all of them approved by the VA, are actively training dogs.

Does it help? Pull up a chair and let Cathy tell you her stories — if you have all day.

One of her favorites is about Cameron, the veteran, and Romeo, the dog. Neither was in good shape when they found each other. Cameron went out every night trying to drink away the pain, then woke up in the morning determined to end it all. The reason he didn’t, Cathy explains, “is because Romeo was such a poorly behaved dog, he knew if he killed himself, Romeo would end up back in a shelter and they would euthanize him. So he couldn’t kill himself.” Over time, the two refugees saved each other.

There was the woman Marine who was brutally raped when she was 19. After that she couldn’t be around men, she couldn’t leave her house. When Cathy talked her into coming to a training class in Orem, she pulled into the parking lot and saw the young woman lying on the ground, throwing up.

“I thought I could do this, but I can’t,” she said.

Cathy took her home, but they tried again, on the condition the woman could be next to a window and close to a door.

Flash forward to now. The Marine has moved to Maryland, where she’s a peer specialist who works with other military people suffering from sexual trauma. She’s a body builder and runs marathons and doesn’t go anywhere without her best friend who she’s constantly bragging about on Instagram — a mutt named Fly.

“I’m sure she still has her moments where she breaks down,” says Cathy. “But seeing her progress, and hearing her say none of it would have happened were it not for Canines With a Cause, that’s what makes it all worthwhile. I mean, if you save one life, isn’t it worth it?”

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.

Email: [email protected]