Norah Kerr, 4, is sick, but still works saving dogs

Carmen George
Fresno Bee

Four-year-old Norah Kerr and her black lab, Sadie, are a super dog-saving duo.

The teamwork is obvious at Fresno Humane Animal Services last week, as Norah makes sure Sadie is interviewed for this column, too. With an arm wrapped affectionately around Sadie’s neck, the little girl whispers a number of questions into her beloved dog’s ear.

The black lab says — via Norah the dog interpreter — that she enjoys playing catch, that Norah’s birthday is coming up soon (in April), and that she loves dogs.

Their shared love of dogs is powering a new project: Norah and Sadie’s Cans for Canines. Aided considerably by Norah’s mother, Amanda Kerr, Norah and Sadie are collecting recyclables to exchange for money that’s donated to Fresno Humane Animal Services to transport dogs in that shelter to no-kill shelters in areas where adoption rates are high.

“I rescue all dogs,” Norah says, “so they have homes and families.”

Sadie is also rescuing Norah. She’s a service-dog-in-training. Norah has spina bifida, a neural tube defect; Dandy-Walker syndrome, a brain malformation; and 3C syndrome, which affects the brain, heart, and causes subtle facial abnormalities.

“She’s actually missing part of her brain,” her mother says, “but you would never even know because she’s just amazing.”

At Fresno Humane Animal Services, Norah is talkative and active, bouncing happily around Sadie and dogs at the shelter.

“She’s kind of like a puppy, she’s so cute,” says Brenda Mitchell, board president of Fresno Humane Animal Services, with a giggle. “That’s a big compliment coming from me.”

This is a good day for Norah, her mother explains. About a month ago, her little girl woke up paralyzed from the neck down. Norah spent four days in the hospital before her mobility returned. Her legs also sometimes abruptly give out while walking, an occurrence that’s fortunately lessened since a recent back surgery. Norah is typically hospitalized at least twice a year, and has doctor’s appointments and therapy at least three or four times a month.

Scary as all this can be, her family remembers that Norah’s symptoms are small compared with what they could be. Most children with Norah’s diagnosis are born in a vegetative state, with little mobility, her mother says.

“This is a kid who, when we were pregnant with her, they (some doctors) told us to terminate pregnancy because she would never have any quality of life with her diagnosis,” Amanda Kerr says, “and she’s one of the most empathetic, giving kids I’ve ever met in my life. What would the world be if we had listened to what we were told to do?”

Norah says her dog helps her feel more “brave.”

After adopting Sadie in August, the first question Norah had for her mom was, “Why are there still dogs at the shelter?” Intent to find more of them happy homes, Norah and Sadie’s Cans for Canines was born to raise money for the shelter, which housed around 5,600 dogs over the past year. The Kerr family holds monthly drop-off events for recyclables and they pick up recyclables from homes.

Through these efforts, Norah has donated $400 to the shelter since starting her campaign two months ago. The money enabled two large-breed dogs to be transported to a no-kill shelter in Oregon.

Norah’s goals: “Number one, I really want to save 100 dogs. Number two, I want to be a dog saver. Number three, I want to feed dogs.”

“She’s the perfect antidepressant,” Mitchell says of Norah. “She gives you hope, and hope is hard to find nowadays.”

Norah is major inspiration for staff at Fresno Humane Animal Services.

“The hard work can really wear you down and sometimes you can really feel like, ‘Why? We’re never going to get anywhere,’ ” Mitchell says, “and then we look at the animals and then we look at Norah and we say, ‘Yeah, we can do this. We have to! How can we fail, because of them and her.’

“She’s darling. It’s impossible not to get inspired when you meet her. It’s just so sweet, her heart, and mom is doing such a great job raising her. We need more kids like this.”

Amanda Kerr hopes Norah and Sadie’s Cans for Canines inspires many others.

“I encourage anybody to find something you are passionate about and express that to your children,” Amanda Kerr says. “Teach them compassion, teach them forgiveness, and teach them how to give to others. That’s what it’s all about. We’re lacking a lot of that these days, and it’s never too young.”