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Saying the name Ethan around Louisville is likely to garner an emotional response.

Few people achieve a level of fame that makes them known to the public by simply one name. But Ethan the dog has done just that in 2021, becoming one of the city’s beloved internet sensations.

The Kentucky Humane Society’s social media pages are plastered with updates about Ethan’s day-to-day life. Each post regularly gets hundreds of reactions. Some get thousands.

But just one month ago, Ethan was on the verge of death. On Jan. 29, the severely malnourished dog was dumped at the entrance of the Kentucky Humane Society (KHS) main campus.

Courtesy Of Kentucky Humane Society

When Ethan was found outside of the Kentucky Humane Society, staff feared he was going to die.

“We initially thought that he was not alive,” said KHS veterinarian Dr. Emily Bewley. “But once we realized that he was still breathing and had a heartbeat, then we dropped everything and got right to work starting to put IVs and trying to get him warm and rehydrated.”

Bewley said Ethan was extremely dehydrated, and likely had no access to water for days. His fur was covered in filth, and he had ulcers on his joints from lying motionless for a prolonged period of time.

A dog Ethan’s size should weigh about 80 pounds, but he weighed just 38 pounds when he was found. Bewley said he had the lowest possible body condition score, which uses a nine-point scale to measure an animal’s health.

“He was the thinnest you can be and still be alive,” she said. “I initially did not think that he was going to pull through. A lot of it depends on their own kind of will to survive… But I was not optimistic. I would have given him like a 10% or 20% at that point, just because of the severity of his condition.”

John Boyle

Ethan weighed just 38 pounds when he was found, less than half of what would be a healthy weight for a dog his size.

Treatment was touch-and-go at first. Neurological problems caused Ethan to lose control of his head and leg movements. Bewley worried he had brain damage or organ failure, which could’ve been fatal.

But Ethan kept getting better. Two days after being found, he wagged his tail for the first time. Four days later, he gave KHS staff a bigger surprise.

“Once he was released from the ER that night, myself and one of my technicians were here, and he walked by himself,” she said. “And at that point [I thought] he couldn’t possibly have, but he just got up and walked.”

Ethan put on 20 pounds in the first week of treatment, and another 10 the following week. After two more weeks of IVs, blood tests and physical therapy, Ethan transitioned to overnight foster care.

Jeff, a KHS employee, jumped at the opportunity to take Ethan home.

“He has such a nice, sweet disposition,” Jeff said. “He has a great relationship with all the other animals. To go through what he went through and come out on the other side with such a beautiful personality, it’s just really pretty incredible.”

Ethan was initially cautious with Jeff’s other foster dogs, and he wasn’t vocal. But it wasn’t long until Ethan reached another milestone. He barked for the first time.

Jeff said Ethan is well-behaved and intelligent, and that he’s taken to his new routine well.

“It’s really great to see how far he’s come,” he said. “Not just physically, but his mind needed time to heal, too. And on a day to day basis, you could see that [cognition] coming back to him. And you could see his personality start to come out.”

Ethan’s journey has captured the heart of the internet. KHS even started selling Ethan-themed merchandise on their website.

Bewley, his vet, said his rise to local stardom has been remarkable.

“I think he is just such a large dog that it was so profound, the weight loss,” she said. “And I think with COVID, people needed something to hold on to and hope for, and pray for and wish for. And it’s been a kind of an underdog story.”

But Ethan’s story isn’t unique. Thousands of animals are neglected or abused throughout the country every year.

Bewley said stronger animal cruelty laws could prevent extreme cases like Ethan’s. That’s why KHS is backing a bill from Kentucky State Rep. Chris Freeland, R-Benton.

House Bill 57 would expand the current law by specifically defining what qualifies as torture of cats and dogs and make each offense a Class D felony. The language of the bill includes abandoning an animal in a restraint, thus preventing it from escaping to get food or water on its own.

Freeland said Ethan has become the face of the bill, which he now refers to as Ethan’s Law.

“A lot of times it’s just a lot of legal words and jargon, and it’s hard sometimes to put a real face on what the ask is,” he said. “I think Ethan does a good job… There’s a lot of Ethan’s out there that never get stories, and no one ever knows about. And that’s why I think this bill is important.”

The Animal Legal Defense Fund ranked Kentucky 44th in its 2020 assessment of state animal protection laws. Kentucky had previously been listed as the worst state several years in a row.

Ethan’s Law, which has 47 co-sponsors, could improve the state’s position by making it easier to prosecute offenses. Freeland said he’s confident it will pass, if it gets a hearing during this legislative session. But he’s unsure if that will happen given the focus on COVID-19.

“I’m probably not someone who is an animal activist in any way, but I do think this is a common-sense need in our state,” Freeland said. “And really, it’s sad that you would even have to bring something like this to the floor to even be voted on. Because it’s just common decency that you wouldn’t intentionally put a dog or a cat in a cage or tie it up to a tree for weeks until it dies. But right now, it’s really not even punishable in Kentucky, other than a slap on the wrist if they ever catch the people who do things like this.”

Courtesy Of Kentucky Humane Society

Ethan has reached his goal weight of 80 pounds and continues to improve.

The name Ethan means strong and enduring in Hebrew. That’s why KHS staff chose it. And so far, he’s living up to his name. Last week, he reached his goal weight of 80 pounds.

And his story will get a happy ending. On March 11, Ethan will become an official member of Jeff’s family.

“My family fell in love with him the first time they saw him just like I did,” Jeff said. “It’s at the point where there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for him, and we couldn’t imagine him not being there in our lives in some way shape or form. He’s just that special.”

KHS will share video of the adoption ceremony online. Jeff said he plans to create Instagram and Facebook pages for Ethan so he can continue sharing updates with the public.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.