SHIRLEY — It’s hard for Brian Pryor to look away sometimes.
Sitting in the living room of his Shirley home on a recent afternoon, he watches his big, black German shepherd. As he chats, shares stories, Pryor’s gaze rarely leaves the animal he’s called his partner for the past seven years.
Moments like these are numbered, and Pryor knows it.
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The Shirley police chief was forced to retire his K-9 officer, Charon, after learning the dog has cancer. In late March, town officials were told the animal — Shirley’s first and only K-9 officer — had about two weeks to live.
The diagnosis put Shirley’s K-9 program in flux: Charon’s medical bills — some $13,000 to date — depleted the donation-funded account that supports the town’s K-9 program, leaving no money to cover the cost of training a new four-legged officer.
Now, town leaders have started an online fundraiser, hoping the community will show their K-9 program the same support it has in the past: Shirley collects about $2,000 in donations annually to cover Charon’s everyday expenses; in 2015 alone, the community pulled together nearly $14,000 to cover an emergency surgery the dog needed.
Roughly half of that $14,000 pot was leftover when the dog was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, Pryor said; that allowed the department to fully fund the second round of medical bills.
But the town will need $3,500 to send Charon’s replacement — a black German shepherd named Justice that was recently donated to the department — to Texas for training on top of the few thousand dollars they traditionally raise to cover other expenses.
It’s a bittersweet time, Pryor admits. When he first learned Charon was sick, he debated for a few days whether to continue the K-9 program at all, too heartbroken to consider replacing the dog that had been at his side for years.
But K-9 officers are an invaluable police tool, Pryor said, reminiscing on the thousands of emergency calls he and Charon handled together.
Charon came to Shirley in 2010 after Pryor raised some $6,000 to start a K-9 program to the police department, purchase the dog and have him trained. Charon is considered a “utility” dog and is trained to apprehend suspects as well as conduct vehicle and area searches.
Because the little town straddles the Hancock-Henry county line, Charon and Pryor often were called out to assist with investigations in both counties, and into Madison and Shelby counties as well as a part of the Indiana State Police Department’s methamphetamine team.
At work, Charon has aided Pryor with countless traffic stops, drug probes and searches for suspects. He’s also become an unofficial ambassador for the small department; he visited local schools with Pryor to help youngsters learn more about police officers and the work they do. He was a fixture in Shirley Town Hall, eagerly greeting any visitor who came through the front door and accepting a pat on the head or belly rub from each new friend.
At home, Charon quickly became a member of the Pryor family, said Becki Pryor, Brian Pryor’s wife. They affectionately started calling him “Bear” because of his size. They learned his quirks and characteristics, that tennis balls are his favorite toys and yogurt bars are his favorite treats.
In November 2015, Charon had his first medical scare: the dog had emergency surgery to correct a flipped stomach, and the community raised nearly $14,000 to cover the bills.
Though Charon made a full recovery and was back to work faster than anyone imagined, he got sick again some 15 months later.
A biopsy determined Charon had cancer in his blood vessels that was spreading quickly. There is no cure, and treatment would only prolong the inevitable.
The vets, guessing Charon had just a few weeks to live, sent him home to be spoiled and loved for the rest of his days — some of which are better than others, the Pryors say.
There are nights, Brian Pryor said, when he sits up late just watching his dog, afraid that any moment will be his last. Other days, Charon is playful and happy, as if he could live forever.
Now, the couple’s phones ring and buzz regularly with phone calls and text messages from friends checking in on Shirley’s four-legged friend, Becki Pryor said; it seems as though everyone is as concerned about Charon as they are, she said.
They’ve found some comfort in the 6-month-old German shepherd that will soon fill Charon’s spot on the department.
A few weeks before the Pryors learned Charon was sick, a friend came to their front door with a dark-colored pup curled up in his arms.
Justice originally was intended to be a family pet, the Pryors said; but her rambunctious nature will make the perfect police dog. After much consideration, Brian Pryor decided to let her carry on Charon’s good work once he’s gone.
If the department can raise enough funding, Justice will head to Texas to be trained by the same company that trained Charon.
Donations can be made at GoFundMe.com by searching for “Justice K-9 Officer Shirley, IN” or can be mailed to Shirley Town Hall, 409 Main St., Shirley.
Pryor has no doubt the community will rally, just as it always has for its favorite four-legged friend.
“He made such a great impact,” Pryor said. “He’s more than just a dog.”