The Dog Behind ‘Starfish’

By Shira Levin

The inspiration behind my first independent feature film, “Starfish,” was the life and death of Tyler, the rescue dog that my husband fell in love with while working at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which most of us know as the ASPCA.

Tyler had been abandoned in an apartment with only a bowl of water. When rescued, he had pneumonia, needed blood transfusions and had to have his remaining decayed, infected teeth extracted. He had cataracts, which limited his vision to light and dark, and he was deaf. His age was approximated to be 10, but it was hard to know since he was severely malnourished. His mouth was lopsided and his tongue stuck out on one side because there were no teeth to hold it in.

For three months, my husband, who was working as a veterinary technician, would come home and tell me about Tyler. Something about this dog touched him deeply.

I supported his desire to adopt him and bring him home to join our family, which consisted of me, and our first dog, Boo Radley, a lovable and adorable 7-year-old cockapoo. His first minutes in our apartment, in spite of being blind and deaf, Tyler headed straight for Boo’s bed, lay down and claimed it as his own. Luckily, Boo had three other beds, but we replaced the one his brother had stolen out from under him.

For me, it was NOT love at first sight. I had to decipher his needs, and in the beginning was often anxious about his health. It took me time to understand the wild, hysterical reactions he had when we came home after being out for a while. He howled and moaned and screamed and ran frantically in circles, unable to be calmed. It was a bit scary to watch and I irrationally feared that if he had teeth he would bite us.

I was clueless, until one night when I picked him up from doggie day care. He recognized my scent, then ran around the room barking excitedly. The day care staff was surprised to see this normally quiet dog so stirred up. It finally dawned on me that this was Tyler’s way of expressing his joy. His happiness. His relief. He was no longer an abandoned, mistreated dog. He finally had a mom and dad who would always be there for him and would always return.

Less than a year later, Tyler had eye surgery to remove his cataracts. He regained his sight for a time and the experience inspired me to write the screenplay “Four Eyes.” The plot involves a carefree bachelor who reluctantly agrees to take care of a “special needs” dog until after his eye surgery, when a new owner can hopefully be found. The dog ends up changing the man’s life.

I know from experience that it is not unusual for animals to change people’s lives. After Boo joined our family my husband left his previous career to become a vet tech, (which later led to meeting Tyler). He also became more social, since having a dog, particularly living in a city, forced interaction with other dog owners, or those who found Boo irresistible. I believe Boo opened my husband’s heart in a profound way.

The dog in “Four Eyes” was based on Tyler, who required a great deal of medical care. Despite all he went through, including numerous medical issues, nothing changed his gentle and affectionate manner. Slowly, he wormed his way into my heart. I fell in love with this sweet, funny-looking, small white dog who clearly possessed an indomitable spirit and pure soul.

A few things about Tyler: He hated baths and cried within minutes of being in the water. He hated haircuts, so I had to cut his hair when he slept. He ran around in circles at mealtime. He eagerly walked outside no matter the weather. He could be held and cuddled for hours. He loved all food, although his chronic colitis restricted what he could eat. He brought smiles to the faces of strangers who saw him walking down the street and elicited questions and interest. He was adored.

Five years after he came to our home, we had to put Tyler to sleep. I was grief-stricken. Although I’d lost many people in my life, including my father, I had never lost a beloved pet or was there for the last beatings of a heart. I cannot ever forget his last moments lying on my lap as he peacefully left this earth. A piece of my heart went with him. I let out a primal scream, which felt like King Lear’s cries after the death of his youngest daughter.

Not too long after Tyler’s passing, I began another screenplay, which became “Starfish.” It’s about grief and healing and also about friendship, family and the strong bond between dogs and humans. The story focuses on a woman grieving the death of her rescue dog and her father. Her life unexpectedly alters when she is reconnected with her 14-year-old niece. The strong dog/human connection, along with other relationships and events, contribute to the gradual opening of the woman’s closed heart. You don’t need to be an animal lover or pet owner to like or relate to this film, but it probably speaks most strongly to those who are. I know that some people cannot fathom the depth of emotion experienced by the loss of a pet.

“Starfish” is dedicated to Tyler. You can see some images of him in the film along with Boo, who plays the role of “Isaac,” an important character in the movie. The movie is currently being shown at film festivals around the country. Ironically, the film premiered in New York City four days after we said goodbye to our beloved Boo, who was 17 years and 2 months old. But that’s another story.

“Starfish” will be available on Indieflix, https://www.indieflix.com/ at the end of the year or in early 2019.

Visit Starfishfilms.strikingly.com and ShiraLevin.com.