The Man Behind the Mutts

Zach Skow was dying of liver disease when he was 28 years old. He had delusions of other kinds back then, but not about his own mortality. He had abused his body with alcohol and drugs since he was a teenager; he existed in a haze of using, selling, and lying his way to his next retreat with the substances that were stealing his life. The raw reality of end stage liver disease meant his organs were losing function; time was against him much like the voice that had raged in his head since his downward spiral began. 

The war of angry words in Zach’s consciousness mocked him with incessant reminders of worthlessness and fear. This emotional turmoil held him hostage when interacting with others; drinking and drugs masqueraded as the anecdote offering false courage. The spell of his addiction meant Zach drove and worked drunk; no space was safe from his destructive pattern.  Zach fantasized about ways to end his existence, but perhaps a purpose yet to be realized blocked his ability to ever enact this desire. 

When he was admitted to Bakersfield Memorial hospital, he was given 90 days to live without a liver transplant and would have to remain sober for six months to receive it. Zach’s organs continued to shut down, he was swollen with a yellow hue to his eyes and body. He was poked, prodded and withstood the intensity of various medical procedures. Barely existing within the walls of this environment, Zach’s father took matters into his own hands. He broke his son out of this hospital and found a way to transition him to Cedar Sinai as a comprehensive transplant patient. Several weeks into this medical odyssey, Cedar Sinai released Zach to the Tehachipi, CA, home of his father so he could essentially prove his sobriety and fitness for the potential transplant.  The odds of Zach being ready for a clean, healthy liver in four months were slim. His dark night of the soul continued. His will to live waned.

Arriving to the mountains with his dad, Zach was a shadow of his former self; 140 lbs. of atrophied muscle, bruises, scars, blisters on his feet- all signs that tauntingly announced his recovery was still in doubt. A seizure-filled, painful withdrawal from opiates, administered to him in the hospital, resulted in trips to the emergency room. If Zach had figuratively looked up, he would have seen rock bottom; and yet the intimacy and bonding with his sole caretaker, his father, escalated to new heights.

Weakened, and broken, one fate-filled day, Zach looked at himself in the mirror, where the agony of his current life reflected at him through hollowed eyes. Soul crushing experiences had challenged his dignity, and the dam of emotion broke as tears washed his soul for a new day. He noticed some other beings in the frame of that mirror. His rescue dogs, Tug, Marley, and Buddy wagged their tails expectantly and vigilantly in unison. These trusting dogs only held love for the man they saw as king and leader of their pack. Zach had led the large dog foster program at the Humane Society years before, fanning the embers of his advocacy for the toughest, and hardest to place dogs. He felt a kinship to the animals deemed less desirable by society; creatures whose emotional scars were planted so often by no fault of their own.

Zach’s dogs became his teachers and his inspiration.  He summoned the strength to begin daily walks and write in his journal. His pups didn’t let him wallow or stagnate in the house; their needs became the vision Zach would need to see his way out of his darkness. The animals could have cared less about his past failings, or current condition. He was their world. Despite infection and physical draw backs, walking the dogs became a vital motivational practice that led to road trips, and visits to parks and playgrounds. The haven for Zach’s most profound healing shifted from his environment to his mind- with this transformation, he dared to dream again.

As with many of the best opportunities in life, Zach began to save more and more dogs organically as his passion for this work deepened, and soon, the idea of founding a rescue organization was born.  Marley, his Rottweiler pit bull mix, had shown great leadership in reigning in dogs, and instructing them about the rules of being in a pack. With him by his side, Zach founded Marley’s Mutts in the spring of 2009.  He felt confident he could serve more homeless, often abused, physically and mentally challenged dogs, subsequently placing them in well-matched forever homes. In Zach’s words, “Marley’s Mutts means life.”

Zach’s conscious recovery process included making a radical change in his diet, it became low salt, and flush with vitality-infused smoothies; he ate lots of vegetables, fruits and chicken.  Accountability stirred with his commitment to AA meetings; as he became cleaner and clearer.

Zach’s body, mind and spirit became aligned with his life’s purpose. Marley’s Mutts has saved thousands of dogs to date. Their focus on community outreach sets a gold standard in addressing the needs of individuals and populations with the gifts rescue dogs bring. Prison inmates gain life- affirming and recidivism ending skills as dog trainers through the Pawsitive Change program. Marley’s Miracle Mutts utilizes rescue therapy dogs to assist those in need of comfort, social enrichment, and those in addiction recovery programs. Zach is humble in his own accomplishments, and though he has received awards for his work, he prefers to focus on the contributions he and his team and volunteers at Marley’s Mutts can make in the world.  “I live to find the potential in the throw aways. I very much felt like a throw away human.”

Serendipitously, in August of 2016, on the anniversary of the day he was first admitted into the hospital with his fatal disease, a fibrosis scan revealed his liver was no longer cirrhotic. Restoring normal liver function was a banner of the miraculous conspiring to give Zach a greater voice. This inclusion in a 1% of people in his original condition, revitalizing a dying liver,  was recently confirmed by another scan. Back surgery in 2015 was a feat that has left a challenging impact on most everything he endeavors to do, but he is centered, grounded and works with this condition in a positive way.  He wears his vulnerability like a second skin. He relates to the struggles of others while using his message and painful memories to enhance lives. Gratitude fuels his day’s connections and interactions.

Destiny called once more in the most unexpected way. Zach never thought he would marry or have his own family, but when he met Heather, he fell in love immediately. No stranger to the dog rescue community, Heather, a beautiful, compassionate woman, has made a home with Zach, adding her own magical touch to the rehabilitation and fostering of many of the neediest yet deserving dogs that have passed over the threshold of Marley’s Mutts. Only one thing could more powerfully shadow the darkness of Zach’s prior fear, despair, and pain. Light. It came in its purest form with the birth of their baby, girl, Shiloh Rain in April, 2018. It took him many years to discover, he was born to nurture.  Zach now feels like a passenger in a greater life plan; he is thankful for his dream team of supportive friends, family, and spiritual guidance that is woven into the fabric of his being.

-Caryn Casey

www.caryncasey.com

Posted in Blog.