Lisa & Kenji

By Lisa Burnell

Kenji entered my life suddenly and unexpectedly; the kind of way that can only be fate. I’d opened my phone at the perfect time, scrolled through social media just the perfect amount, and somehow had the perfect algorithms, which brought up his perfect photo.

I drove to view him—I got lost. I emailed about him—it got lost. But as he was moved around from foster home to foster home, weeks of his chocolate-colored coat and tiny flopped ears consumed my mind. And yet somehow (I still don’t know how), he remained unadopted, and soon remained mine.

Although the third pitbull to live in my home, my relationship with Kenji has been different in many ways. He is my first experience with animal adoption, which has introduced me to volunteering in animal shelters, rescue tactics, fundraising, breed legislation, and much more.

Photo by Neil Burton

He is also what I now consider my Lockdown Luck, having adopted him only a few months before covid-19 hit South Africa. These months at home (suddenly finding myself without work and feeling trapped in forced quarantine) with him have given me the reason and the responsibility—the resilience—to keep waking up and to keep trying to overcome the covid chaos.

But mostly, when I adopted him I was suffering with a really badly torn ankle that just wasn’t healing, and without health insurance to have proper treatment, I’d made it worse by not having it seen to. I was living in constant pain and constant fear that I’d never walk properly again. But within 3 weeks of living with Kenji the strangest thing happened: I had no pain.

Feeling completely confused while trying to convince myself it could only be coincidence, I found myself on the Internet typing, “What happens in my brain when I look at my dog?”

The results took my breath away. Article after article revealed the restorative power of animals, the increase in oxytocin in the human brain when looking into an animal’s eyes, the bonding, the attachment…the healing.

I couldn’t stop reading. When one of the search results brought up Mutual Rescue: How Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You, Too, I ordered the book immediately. It changed my life.

Opening my eyes up to a world of multispecies human-animal relations, the Mutual Rescue book introduced me to a field of studies that I’d always had a longing for but didn’t know existed; a world that made sense.

I enrolled back into university and am now completing a Master’s degree with a focus on human-animal studies. Slowly it feels like all the pieces of my life are (finally) falling into place. Kenji rebirthed and reignited who I was always meant to become.

After adopting him, the sound of his little footsteps became my medicine. I am absolutely convinced that it was his presence, and the life that he brought into my home and into my heart, that willed my body into healing itself.

Photo by Angela Riley

I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface yet on the beautiful entanglement that truly exists between humans and nature. I have to believe that we don’t only meet certain animals by coincidence, it cannot always just be chance. Some relationships and some companionships are simply meant to be.

We now foster pitbull puppies until they find their perfect home, the way others did for Kenji. While I feed the pups, it’s Kenji who raises them to be gentle, loving and kind; he shows them how to break stigma. He has forever transformed my life, and knowing him is my greatest joy.

He is my great love story.

Lisa Burnell is a South African documentary photographer with a deep and long love for pitbull-type dogs. Her graduate research focuses on human-animal relations between pitbull-type dogs and humans in post-apartheid South Africa.