“Last Mutt Standing”: Dogbomb inspires the world through his courageous battle against ALS

by Patch O'Furr

Dogbomb: Not your ordinary canine is a 2011 profile of a fandom-loved personality written by Kijani Lion. Kijani himself gets love here for bringing excellence to furry news (see his 2016 interview). By request, his Dogbomb article was reprinted with a plan for a fresh 2018 update. It was delivered with this note. (Your fluffy editor – Patch) 

In my 6+ years of journalism this was the most challenging, emotional yet inspiring piece I’ve ever written and I’m very happy at how it turned out. At the bottom I added an additional Q&A with Dogbomb and his friends and also some links. I chose the headline “Last Mutt Standing” as a homage to his favorite artist Jimmy Buffett and his single “Last Man Standing,” I know Dogbomb will appreciate that. I really look forward to seeing this online and it was my honor and pleasure to share the uplifting story of a true inspiration to many in the fandom and beyond! (- Kijani)

Dogbomb (Tony Barrett) and Trip E. Collie share a laugh at Biggest Little Fur Con (BLFC) in Reno last May. Barrett was diagnosed with ALS two months prior and said this would be his last appearance at BLFC. Photo courtesy of AoLun

“Last Mutt Standing”: Dogbomb inspires the world through his courageous battle against ALS

 By Kijani Lion

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but sometimes you also can’t tell a mutt to lie down, even in the face of the most grim diagnosis. For Tony Barrett – affectionately known as “Dogbomb” in the furry fandom – giving up was, and never will be, an option.

After experiencing gradual loss of muscular function about two and a half years ago starting with his feet and lower legs, then progressing into his hands, neck, back and throat, Barrett was officially diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in early 2018. The disease kills motor neurons, effectively blocking the nerve path to the brain that makes muscles work, rendering them weak and eventually unresponsive.

“Walking is becoming extremely difficult, and my swallowing and speech are rapidly worsening,” Barrett said. “With ALS, each day is slightly worse, and it becomes difficult to plan for the future. What is easy today may be impossible in a week or a month, and that’s just frustrating.” 

A CADILLAC AND A CRY

The reality of Barrett’s situation hit him in March earlier this year, when his doctor gave him the diagnosis that he had “one to three years to live.”

“I felt absolutely desolate,” Barrett recalled. “I remember walking to my car, sitting in the driver’s seat, and having a good cry. Once that was over, I began to focus on what I needed to do next.”

Always one to imbibe in the occasional adult beverage, particularly in needful times of intense personal reflection, Barrett walked across the street and ordered a Cadillac margarita along with a big lunch. After a second helping of liquid courage, he realized that his plan of action involved leaning, literally as well as figuratively, on the people in his life that were close to him. “I began to call friends, to tell people the news, and to hear their thoughts on the subject, Barrett said. “I owe them immense gratitude for keeping me happy and moving forward.”

One of those people is Barrett’s lifelong friend, Greg Sabala. High school buddies and water polo teammates in their freshman year of 1977, Sabala said Barrett showed a quiet confidence, and humility, that was unmatched among his peers.

“Even though he was competitive and his athleticism (earned) him a starting position on the team, he was never rude or bragged about it,” Sabala remembered. “We quickly became friends and continued to encourage each other in everything from athletics to dating.”

As positive as Barrett was after his diagnosis, it hit those close to him especially hard. Sabala’s initial reaction was shock, as Barrett is “one of the healthiest and most athletic people” he’d ever known. They had run numerous 5k and 10k races as well as half marathons together, with Barrett always emerging victorious.

The news sent shockwaves throughout the fandom, particularly among those who have been fortunate enough to get to know the easygoing and friendly ‘Dogbomb’ over the years. Zarafa Giraffe, who has been good friends with Barrett since 2011 and roomed with him at Biggest Little Fur Con (BLFC) in Reno earlier this year, was devastated.

“I cried for two days,” Zarafa admitted. “To have this particular disease hit someone in such good physical shape, for someone who physical activity was important to, was awful.”

Another friend, Trip E. Collie, was “shocked and mortified” that ALS could strike someone as healthy, active and well-rounded as Barrett.

“Here was a man who had given so much to so many people,” Trip said of Barrett. “From many years of work caring for animals, to sharing his playful spirit by suiting in public just to make people smile.”

Trip, who like Barrett is a veterinary technician, knew he had to do something to make what would almost certainly be his friend’s last BLFC extra memorable. He worked with con chairman Tyco and went through great lengths to organize an unforgettable get-together in Reno, consisting of a beer-tasting and social hour, combined with a giant surprise group photo that more than 60 fursuiters attended, each signing a giant banner emblazoned with the words “WE LOVE YOU DOGBOMB.”

While hidden by fursuit masks, there were undoubtedly few dry eyes among the attendees as many warm embraces and supportive words were shared that afternoon, centered upon love and support for one of the biggest inspirations in the fandom.

“(The event) was perfect and his face spoke volumes, Trip recalled. “I was doing my best to make this con special for him and at that point I knew I had succeeded.”

Barrett, who later traveled to Anthrocon in July for his final furry convention, said that while the experience of his “farewell tour” was emotionally draining, he wouldn’t trade the experiences, and the hugs of encouragement, for anything.

“I seriously had no idea that my little contribution to this fandom had affected so many people, and I was often moved to tears at the stories of how my experience as a public fursuiter impacted so many lives,” said Barrett, humbled to his canine core. “The support that I received is something I will never forget, and I can’t thank everyone enough for the love that was showered on me.”

More than 60 fursuiters showed up for Barrett’s surprise photo at Biggest Little Fur Con lat May in Reno. The event, organized by Trip E. Collie, also featured a beer tasting and social hour. Photo courtesy of AoLun

POWER OF POSITIVITY

When faced with what is essentially a fatal diagnosis, a common and understandable response is adopt a “woe-is-me” attitude, and in Barrett’s words, “crumble mentally.” The 55-year-old made certain that he would never give up on life, and live every day to the fullest.

“I have made a conscious decision to be happy and positive, no matter what,” said Barrett, adding that he isn’t completely immune to reality and has the occasional down day. “I made a promise to myself to always find a smile and to count my blessings at every opportunity.”

Barrett’s overwhelmingly positive attitude has been on display ever since he joined the furry fandom back in 2009, to be part of a group of people he called “neat, pleasant, exciting and creative.” Soon after, he got his original Dogbomb fursuit commissioned by Beastcub Creations and starting making the Newport Beach area of southern California just that much more fun, interesting… and fuzzy.

He captured and journaled his outings walking along the pier and the surrounding area near his hometown of Costa Mesa, making ordinary strangers smile while engaging with a walking, talking dog. Barrett’s compassionate storytelling gained a large following on FurAffinity and social media, and posts such as his emotional “Courage on Two Wheels,” where he details an encounter with a young woman named Sarah who had cerebral palsy, caused many a furry and fursuiting fan to shed a tear.

“I hope sincerely that I’ll be remembered as a nice person,” said Barrett when asked what kind of legacy he wants to leave for others. “If I inspire an act of kindness, or help someone to smile in a dark time, then my mission on this earth will be accomplished.”

That inspiration has carried over into the fandom, which has rallied behind Barrett in his fight against ALS. Just in the last several months, furry artists have made stickers, T-shirts and art commissions all in an effort to raise funds to beat the disease. Fursuiters were showing up to participate in ALS walks around the nation, which traditionally take place in late summer and early fall.

By Barrett’s estimate, over $8,000 has been raised in his name to beat, in his words, the “stupid disease” that affects tens of thousands of people, with approximately 5,000 new diagnoses each year.

“That makes me feel loved in a way that’s hard to explain,” Barrett said. “The vast majority of this money has been raised by furries, further reinforcing my belief that the fandom contains the biggest hearts and the greatest folks in the world. I can’t thank everyone enough for their kindness and generosity; there are no words to describe how happy this makes me.”

Barrett, as “Dogbomb,” interacts with a woman named Sarah on the Newport Beach pier back in 2010. Sarah has cerebral palsy and Barrett’s time with her is well-documented in his FurAffinity post, ‘Courage on Two Wheels.’ “When I held my paw in her hand, her eyes danced,” Barrett said.

A CHAMPION FOR ANIMAL CARE

While he has portrayed an anthropomorphic animal for the better part of the last decade, Barrett has dedicated his life to the care and well-being of his four-legged counterparts. He has been a registered veterinary technican for the past 23 years, and has inspired many of his co-workers as a manager of a local animal hospital for which he is still employed.

Monica Serrano, who refers to Barrett as her “work husband” at Dover Shores Pet Care Center, is one of those people. Along with being an incredible teacher, Serrano said that her mentor’s approach and demeanor has left a lasting impression on everyone at the clinic.

“His approach to veterinary medicine has always been calm and loving, he always knows how to get the job done right,” she noted. “When nobody else can work with a certain pet because they might be fearful, all it takes is for him to just be alone with the dog to get it accomplished.”

Case in point was a rescue dog named Sender, who came from a group who rehabilitates hard-case Mexican street dogs and adopts them into homes in the United States.

Sender, a dalmatian mix, had already been adopted and returned three times. Nobody wanted to give him a chance. Until Barrett got his turn, and got the opportunity to channel his inner Cesar Millan.

“He was deeply neurotic and didn’t trust anyone, including himself,” Barrett explained. “It took six months of hard work before he started to come around. Now he is the greatest source of happiness in my life… loving and funny and always surprising, and keeps me constantly entertained. I’m so lucky to have him.”

Nowadays, Sender, who somehow earned the moniker “Meatbubble” online and in social media, is always by Barrett’s side when he and his friends go on their many adventures, such as kayaking or boating in sunny Southern California. But it was another dog, Rodger, who get the credit for Barrett’s trademark character, “Dogbomb”.

The German Shepherd mix, who has since crossed the Rainbow Bridge after 14 years as Barrett’s companion, was re-created in fursuit form by Beastcub back in 2011 to commemorate his canine friend.

“We shared so many adventures, and I swear he had a sharp sense of humor,” Barrett said of Rodger. “He was there when I bought my first house, got my first real job in the veterinary field, and helped me through more than a few personal struggles.”

While Barrett is certainly appreciated and admired by everyone he comes in contact with, perhaps the best example comes from his workplace. While other vet clinics may have forced him to retire due to his ailments from ALS, he still clocks in every day at Dover Shores, and serves as inspiration for the rest of the staff. The clinic even had special handrails and other equipment installed in the clinic for Barrett to aid his mobility, making working with ALS a bit more manageable.

“I believe he is the best coworker I could have ever asked for,” Serrano praised, adding that whenever she feels tired or lazy she thinks of Barrett and ‘pushes through’. “We will all miss him tremendously once he’s no longer working with us. Our clients love him not only for his gentle and caring manner towards the animals but also because of all his knowledge which he has so graciously shared with us over the course of his career.”

Barrett poses for a selfie with Sender (aka Meatbubble), a hard-case Mexican street dog that Barrett helped rehabilitate for six months and is now his loyal companion. “He is now the greatest source of happiness in my life,” Barrett said. Photo courtesy of Tony Barrett

FULL SPEED AHEAD

When you ask people in the furry fandom about the character they know as “Dogbomb,” the word “inspiration” often comes up. For most of the last seven years, he has been inspiring others to put on an animal costume and brighten the days of complete strangers in public. Today, he continues to motivate people by chronicling his day-to-day struggles as the disease progresses.

But one thing that Barrett absolutely will not tolerate is a pity party, because while he may have ALS, ALS does not have him. Although the last few months have consisted of practicalities such as liquidating his material possessions and getting legal affairs in order, he has decided to remain captain of his life’s vessel and go full-speed ahead for whatever time he has left.

Before ALS, he admitted he obsessed over his finances, trying to squeeze that extra half-percent of interest out of investments in order to save for retirement. Today, his priorities have greatly realigned.

“Now, those (financial) concerns have disappeared, the only thing that I want to do is spend quality time with my loved ones, and spoil the heck out of my dogs,” said Barrett, who has done a lot of both since his diagnosis. “The future has been greatly compressed for me, and my long term goals are now measured in months, not years.”

To meet some of those goals, he started knocking some things off his “bucket list.” There was the trip to Maui with his closest friends, culminated by watching the sunrise from 10,000 feet at Haleakala, of which Barrett wrote a chilling, emotional account on his FurAffinity page. Then there was what he said would be his last boating trip at Lake Havasu at the end of September, a full three months after his doctor predicted he’d be confined to a wheelchair. Instead, Barrett was speeding down the waterway with the vivid hues of the Arizona sunset as the backdrop, almost as a metaphor of Barrett’s life.

Even at home, his determination and willpower is on full display. He still does house chores, yard work, walks his dogs (albeit with the occasional fall), and maintains his independence. Sabala was recently over for a visit and saw Barrett having trouble getting a bike down off a hook in his garage, and offered to help.

“He sternly said ‘no,’ then he said, ‘I need to keep doing things on my own because if I can’t then I might as well give up,'” Sabala recalled. “Such determination and commitment to maintain a sense (of) normalcy while struggling to walk, stand, talk and drink is impressive, commendable and even heroic. It’s inspiring.”

Barrett, however, shuns the idea that anyone would even consider him to be a hero. He’s just a guy playing the cards life dealt to him, and he’s gotten very good at playing a rotten hand.

“Bad stuff happens, it just does, and that’s okay,” he said when asked what his best piece of advice for others would be. “The only thing we can truly control are our own actions and reactions. If you meet challenges with a smile and a positive attitude, you’ve just beaten the universe at its own game.”

With unwavering support and love from friends near and far, within the furry fandom and far beyond, we can rest assured that Barrett will be fighting ALS until his last breath, or much more hopefully, a cure can be found.

Until then, as the caption reads on a particular T-shirt design by an artist named Kayla and MakerFur that has raised hundreds of dollars for research to beat the disease:

“ALS can kiss my fuzzy butt!”

Kijani Lion is a freelance journalist and a former award-winning reporter and editor for a chain of community newspapers in the Seattle, Wash. area. He is also an avid fursuiter and founded a 501(c)3 nonprofit for character entertainment that attends local community and charity events, most recently attending the Seattle ALS Walk, an event that raised $160,000 for research, care and outreach, in Dogbomb’s honor. You may contact him regarding this story on Twitter or Telegram @kijani_lion.

Barrett (second from left) and friends Duncan Miller, Greg Sabala, Bill Shrieve and Mark Jones prepare to take off down Lake Havasu. Barrett has owned a vacation home there for years, saying “It’s my retreat and escape from real life.” Photo courtesy of Greg Sabala

Additional Q & A with Tony “Dogbomb” Barrett (DB) and his friends, Greg Sabala (GS), Monica Serrano (MS), Trip E. Collie (TC), and Zarafa Giraffe (ZG):

Q: The landscape of the furry fandom has changed pretty significantly since we first talked for the original article 7 years ago. What has been the biggest difference you’ve noticed and how does it bode for the future of the fandom?

DB: The fandom has become more diverse in terms of age and gender, in my opinion. When I first joined, it seemed to be skewed in favor of males in their early 20s, but now we have a bloom of different folks joining and I think that’s terrific! We have to be mindful of these changes, however, to keep viable and to retain the original spirit of inclusiveness that we all love. Also, I have seen a great increase in the number of non-profit groups doing fantastic volunteer work and that really makes my heart happy. We have been given a special gift; the ability to use our imaginations to create a better world. To share that with others, and to brighten the lives of those that are less fortunate, speaks to a higher calling. I am so proud of everyone that uses this fandom to spread love to those in need.

Q: I know you’ve mentioned taking part in clinical research studies for ALS, how has that been going?

DB: I am enrolled in a study that harvests your stem cells, does some chemical magic to them in a lab to make them behave like working motor neurons, and then sticks them back into your spinal fluid. The thought is that with enough happy stem cells, the disease can be arrested. I am in the very early stages of this study, and I don’t have the first stem cell harvest until October, with a re-implant date sometime in November (of 2018.) This is a double blind study, so 50% of the participants will get a harmless placebo, but that’s how scientific research works. I am so glad to be DOING something to fight this stupid disease, and if I’m in the placebo group that’s OK. There is no treatment and no cure for ALS at this time, so being involved in forward progress means the world to me.

Q: Is there anyone in particular you’d like to give a shout out to, who have been instrumental in their support through your ALS battle?

DB: There are a TON of folks that I’d like to mention here, but the list would stretch several pages.

Here’s a few: My lifelong friends Greg, Don, Duncan, Bill, and Mark. My boss Dr. B and my work wife Monica. My brother. The amazing Mama Ryuu for getting the ball rolling with those wonderful Dogbomb stickers. Empty Set for his art and music and love and support. Ethan Staghorn for checking in on me when I need it most. Maker Fur and KaylaMod for the T-shirts. Trip E. Collie for organizing the event at BLFC. All the wonderful folks that are planning to participate in ALS walks this fall. Every single person that took the time to say hello at my last conventions. And my silly mutts for the companionship and patience at the snail’s pace adventures to the park… There are a lot of others, and I think you know who you are and how much I appreciate and love you.

Barrett was able to scratch off an item on his “bucket list” when his friends took him to Mount Haleakala in Maui earlier this spring to watch the sunrise from 10,000 feet. From left, Greg Sabala, Barrett, and Bill Shrieve. Photo courtesy of Greg Sabala

Q: As you look back on nearly a decade of fursuiting, what is your best memory from your time as a fuzzy, walking, talking mutt?

DB: As we know, furry conventions often take place in major cities, often in the downtown area. These big cities usually contain a large homeless population. A few of these folks are on the streets of their own volition, but many are there because of mental illness, or another situation beyond their control.

I enjoy fursuiting outside the convention more than I do in the controlled confines of an “expected” outcome. As you get away from the con, and out into the public, the interactions have the potential to get better and better. After three or four miles of walking, the convention is a memory and is absolutely unknown to the public at large. No one knows what the hell a giant talking dog is doing in their midst!

This is where the magic really happens for me. I went out alone 99% percent of the time, which is something I DO NOT recommend anyone else doing. I knew the risks, and they were worth taking in my situation. After venturing away from the con for the first time, I couldn’t help feeling like a hypocritical idiot as I sauntered by desperate, hungry people looking for their next meal in my $3,000 dog costume. The disparity of life was too painful to continue this kind of fursuiting. So, at the next convention, which was FWA, I armed myself with a few hundred bucks in five dollar bills, and began to give a little to people in need. Was this a wise choice? Did it do any good? Probably not, but it made me feel less guilty.

I was a talking dog giving away hugs and fives. I got very good reactions…

Anyway, one lady stands out as someone special. She was perched on a street corner, yelling at the traffic light and waving here ratty purse at passersby. I will admit I thought about crossing to the other side of the street, but plucked up my courage and sidled up to say hullo. She turned and looked at me with a horrified stare, but I wagged my butt and offered her a paw and she broke into the biggest smile.

I put both arms out and she FELL into my hug. We embraced for a long time, and when she pulled away she was crying. “You look just like a dog I had when I was a little girl,” she said. “I haven’t thought about him for years. Those are good memories. I need to think about him more often!” she giggled. There was a bench nearby and we sat and had a nice chat. Life had been cruel to her, and she suffered from delusions and voices in her head that taunted her night and day. I told her that as her dog, I wanted her to get help, get off the street, and give another deserving mutt a good home. She promised she would. I stuffed a few bucks into her hands, explained that I loved her and that I’d be watching her journey.

She said that was the first nice thing someone had done for her in years, and it made sense that it came from a dog.

I left her to find her way with tears in my eyes. Did my pep talk do any good? Did she find health and peace? I have no idea, but I tried, and that made me realize that the effort is what really matters. She probably helped me much more than I helped her! I have no delusions that I’m some sort of furry saint. I’m just a sweaty, middle aged guy who likes attention wearing a dog suit. But that suit made me want to be a better person, and that’s an amazing gift. Make the effort. Be kind to everyone you meet. It matters.

Q: If you could have dinner with any other 3 people (dead or alive) who would they be and why?

DB: I would love to have dinner with my dad, Jimmy Buffett and my lovely ALS doctor Namita Goyal. The conversation would be hilarious, interesting and educational. Three very smart people who I think could really shed some light on how to proceed given my current circumstance. We’d definitely have Mexican food. And margaritas.

Q: What is it about Tony that enables him to stay so positive in the face of such a grim diagnosis?

GS: He has a lot of close friends and tons of fans, so that helps. People are traveling from around the country to come and visit him. He hates the attention but loves the interaction. We try to keep him laughing and we are spending as much time with him as possible including group trips to Hawaii for vacation and to a Jimmy Buffet concert as bucket list items.

We listen when he wants to talk and celebrate successes when they occur. He completed a 5k on 4th of July surrounded by a dozen friends and crowds of strangers cheering him on. We shared high-fives when he got his new leg braces that greatly improve his ability to walk. Wins are few these days so we celebrate them.

I think that the main thing that keeps him positive is his willingness to fight through this disease. He wants to keep doing all the things he’s always done for as long as he can. He doesn’t sit around and cry about it (maybe on a rare occasion). I tell people that “he has ALS but ALS doesn’t have him.”

Barrett recently completed the Huntington Beach 5K on July 4, a race he had run annually for more than 25 years. Due to the complications from ALS, he had to use a walker, but crossed the finish line triumphantly without it. Photo courtesy of Greg Sabala

MS: Tony is an incredible human who has always looks at things in a positive manner, I believe he got this trait from his parents. If he was to sit there and feel sorry for himself that wouldn’t get him anywhere but being sad and upset when instead he could be doing what he is, which is making the best of what he has and enjoying his life as much as possible with the people that love him.

ZG: I honestly don’t know how he stays so positive. I don’t know that I would act with such dignity and equanimity. What makes it so amazing is that he doesn’t realize how special he is, and how unusual his reaction and handling of the situation has been. I think it’s just part of his core being, it’s who he is.

TC: I really believe Tony is strong both in who he is and how he approaches life. He strives to live his life to the fullest and to be a beacon of light to others. His compassion and stories have gained him many friends. When he does feel down or weak he turns to those friends both close and far to help him get back up and carry on. His common phrase these days has been “ALS can kiss my fuzzy butt” and I honestly think he takes that to heart. He fights back against it every step of the way to live life the way he wants to. He also speaks openly online about what it is like to deal with it on a daily basis. I think he does this both to collect his thoughts regarding it all as well as to make others aware. While many would have long since quit their job, he is still working at his veterinary hospital to the best of his ability and was even looking into donating a kidney to help save another life… he (is) looking to maximize what he could do now for others. That selflessness and caring is not something you will see often.

Q: What kind of legacy will Tony leave on the world around him?

ZG: That he was someone filled with essential goodness, and even in the face of one of the worst things that can happen to a person, he handled it with incredible dignity and grace. That is why he is so inspiring. All the other problems that the rest of us have in life pale in comparison to what he is dealing with. And yet he is still so positive, still trying to be kind to others, and has no idea how special any of this is. His response, when complimented, is a puzzled “I’m just a dumb dog.”

TC: I know of Tony primarily through the fandom. However, I know his impact definitely reaches beyond it. He makes people smile through public fursuiting. He has many stories singing in bars with people as well as just walking along the beach/piers and interacting with people. Even more than that, he is beloved at his veterinary hospital. Many places would have forced him to retire. Instead he is still treasured there by his boss and coworkers. He is a very giving person and a supremely positive example for others to follow. I think he will leave a strong legacy of what we should all aspire for in life: to support and help each other while making people smile along the way.

Donate to ALS research and patient care (ALS Association): http://www.alsa.org/donate/