AUBURN — It started with a Christmas gift, a set of wine bottles with hand-painted labels featuring pictures of the dogs rescued from Michael Vick’s dog-fighting operation.

Months later, Cassie Lang and her boyfriend, Chris Manson, had not only dedicated time and savings to the Utah sanctuary caring for Vick’s dogs, but they had also formed their own charity to help dogs in Maine.

Now, their Auburn-based Pack Life is focused on educating the public. One day, they hope to have a sanctuary of their own.

“Eventually, we’d like to get a place that has a lot of land and start small. One dog at a time. That’s always been our motto, help save one dog at a time. And if it leads to something bigger, that’s awesome,” Manson said. “And if not, at least we know we’re helping to save one dog at a time.

Lang, 25, always had dogs growing up. She dreamed of becoming a veterinarian until she realized she couldn’t deal with blood. She got a job in insurance instead. 

Manson, 26,  fell in love with dogs when his family inherited his uncle’s springer spaniel. A few years ago, he got Sherwood, a chocolate Labrador retriever. When Manson’s relationship with Lang became serious, they adopted Ace, a black Lab.

“They’ve literally become our lives,” Lang said. “Our dogs are like our children.”

So when Manson spotted the wine set with pictures of Vick’s dogs, he bought it for Lang for Christmas. The set also came with information about Best Friends Animal Society. Lang and Manson volunteered at Maine shelters, but they weren’t familiar with the Utah sanctuary. 

They went online to check it out. And fell in love.

The 25-year-old shelter cares for about 2,000 dogs, cats, rabbits and other animals on a 33,000-acre ranch. The animals are never euthanized unless they suffer from a painful terminal illness. Medical problems are treated, no matter the cost. Traumatized, aggressive and badly behaved animals are rehabilitated with help from an extensive staff. Unadoptable animals live out their lives in the sanctuary.   

Best Friends is featured in the National Geographic Channel show “DogTown.”

Lang and Manson sent Best Friends $50. Then, with an invitation, they decided to go there for a few days to volunteer. 

But they didn’t want to go empty-handed. Over the next few months, the couple raised $2,000 from friends, family members, area businesses and perfect strangers. They put in $500 of their own and paid another $1,500 in travel expenses from their savings.

In July, the couple spent several days working with the dogs at Best Friends. Lang called the place “magical.”

“It felt like we belonged,” she said. 

The couple had always talked about creating their own dog charity some day. While raising money for Best Friends, they decided that “some day” was now. This summer, they established the nonprofit Pack Life. 

In the short term, Pack Life will appear at Woofstock 2009, Strut Your Mutt and other animal shelter events to teach children about the best way to treat dogs. 

“That’s where it all starts, with them,” Lang said.  

In the long term, they want their own animal sanctuary. Something magical like Best Friends.

 Have an idea for a pet feature? Contact Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or e-mail her at [email protected]

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