One Big-Hearted Guy, 99 Little Dogs
As a former bodybuilder with a bald head and countless tattoos, Bobby Humphreys knows that others often make assumptions based on his physical appearance. “We all judge each other,” he says. “We all stereotype.” But underneath his intimidating exterior lies a huge heart. Humphreys has dedicated his life—and his Maryland home—to providing a sanctuary for abused and abandoned Chihuahuas, a dog breed judged and stereotyped even more often than Humphreys himself. The whole thing started with heartbreak and a Chihuahua named Lady.
Humphreys’ wife had just moved out, and he was at the lowest point of his life. “She left me after 17 years of marriage for one of my teammates on my competitive bodybuilding team,” he says. “I didn’t see it coming.” Even though he had been earning a good income as a high-end hardwood flooring contractor, he kept turning down jobs, unable to do anything but lie on the couch and contemplate suicide.
“The only person on the planet that I felt cared about me at all was my friend Connie. She just wouldn’t go away,” Humphreys says. She kept showing up, displaying a sixth sense for knowing whenever he felt particularly depressed. “She saved my life.”
A few months later, in April 2017, Connie asked him for a favour: she had to move temporarily into a place that didn’t take dogs and needed a place for her Chihuahua, Lady, to stay. Though reluctant to house the little dog, who had a reputation for hating everyone, especially men, Humphreys nevertheless agreed. Within a few hours of Lady’s arrival, she draped herself across his lap, and they became fast friends. “As low as I was feeling about myself, it was really Lady that made me feel like I was worth something,” he recalls. “Here’s a dog who supposedly hates everybody, and all of a sudden finds me special.”
Humphreys was smitten. Knowing that Lady wouldn’t be staying with him permanently, he decided to find his own “lumpy looking” dog like her. Uninterested in “a cartoon-looking, purebred, cute, and cuddly dog,” he eschewed the Chihuahua breeders and turned instead to Craigslist. What he kept finding were dogs that were unwanted and neglected, dogs that likely would have ended up in shelters or been used as bait dogs for much larger fighting dogs.
He chokes up as he describes one such bait dog, Lucy, who became his 12th Chihuahua. The couple who found and rescued her—all torn up, with broken ribs and holes ripped into her everywhere—weren’t allowed to keep her in their apartment. Humphreys’ desire to save abused creatures like Lucy became an obsession, almost an addiction. “I’m looking at Craigslist all the time, but I’m not looking for cute dogs. I’m looking for keywords like ‘fear biter’ or ‘aggressive’ or ‘free to good home.’”
“You can be a big tough guy and be a softy on the inside with a small dog.”
After spending a lifetime living with Labrador Retrievers and Rottweilers, not to mention endlessly ribbing his “tough-guy friends” for “carrying around a little pocketbook dog” belonging to their girlfriends, Humphreys suddenly found himself surrounded by tiny Chihuahuas. And, he realized, “You can be a big tough guy and be a softy on the inside with a small dog.”
Once word got out that Humphreys was rescuing Chihuahuas, people from across the country started contacting him. “I get inundated with emails and messages. Can you save this dog? Can you save this dog? Can you save this dog?” It pains him each time he can’t say yes. “I realize I can’t save them all, but they keep getting thrown in my face.”
In October 2018, his home officially became Big Guy, Littles World Sanctuary. It now houses 99 Chihuahuas along with one easygoing cat, Mowgli. “He’s bigger than every Chihuahua here,” Humphreys says, describing Mowgli as lovable, lazy, and chill—useful traits for a feline forever outnumbered by so many noisy and energetic canines.
On a typical night, Humphreys and his girlfriend share their bed with the 20 tiniest and most delicate animals. Each morning, the first task is to deal with messes made during the night. “Let’s face it,” he says, “these guys are not holding it.” The reusable pee pads go in the washing machine. “Nobody’s wiping up with paper towels. We don’t have a bunch of trash that I’m putting in the dumpster.” Then a large machine that Humphreys likens to a Zamboni takes care of the porcelain-tile floors—he sacrificed his beautiful hardwood floors when his home became a dog sanctuary—and he uses the machine to spot-clean throughout the day as necessary.
“By nine o’clock we’re feeding everybody,” he says. About 30 of the dogs get a separate feeding, catering to their various special needs, and within an hour the dogs are all relaxing inside or playing outside. No matter what the weather or the time of year, the doggie door stays open. Humphreys’ small team of staff and volunteers ensure the dogs are never left unattended. “There’s so many medical needs and medical conditions and behavioural issues. You really have to be there,” he says. “A seizure could happen.”
Over the past half a dozen years, Humphreys has developed deep empathy for the breed that has taken over his life. “I know everything that annoys them,” he says. “I can tell their barks from the other room.” And he’s definitely heard all the criticisms commonly lobbed at the tiny, misunderstood creatures: they’re unhealthy, they’re yappy, they bite a lot. “Well, think about it. You look like Godzilla to them. I mean, how would you feel if some 50-foot giant came and towered over you?”
He’s become particularly skilled at determining what each individual dog needs in order to excel. “I push them past their comfort zone, but I never break their trust,” he says. “I’m always there to catch them.” He gestures to Nugget, cuddled on his lap, and explains, “She’s only got two and a half arms.” With his love and encouragement, she learned to walk up stairs and to swim laps in the pool. “Now she’s as independent as can be.”
He’s also developed a foolproof system for introducing each new rescue to the pack: bring one friendly but persistent Chihuahua with him when picking up the newcomer, then let that old pro help the newbie bond with Humphreys during the car ride or plane trip back, snuggling and sharing food. “By the time we get home, we’re friends,” he says.
A three-pound, larger-than-life Chihuahua named Thor was the expert at this task, but ever since Thor’s passing, Humphreys has been forced to experiment with others in the mentor role. He gestures to the dog on his lap. “Nugget, for example. She’s a sweetheart,” he says, “but she’s a jerk to new dogs.”
A large shoulder tattoo commemorates Thor, whom Humphreys still refers to as his best friend and his alpha. Other dogs’ names and pawprints cover most of one arm. “I didn’t think this through very well,” he admits. “I’m gonna run out of space someday.” Emotion overwhelms him as he talks about all his past dogs: “Their lives meant something to me, and I don’t want them to be forgotten.”
Many animal-rescue groups have been suffering financially recently, amidst the global pandemic and skyrocketing inflation. Humphreys funds his sanctuary by selling hemp-based CBD health products for dogs and humans, which he developed. Plus, he has big plans for the future: set up sanctuaries in each state and establish a national organization to regulate everything to do with the pet industry, from toys to food to veterinary services. Most people who work with animals have good intentions, he says, but there are still far too many bad players in a largely unregulated industry. “Maybe 300 years from now, if I can do this, maybe my name will outlive me, and I can make a difference.” Though, as people keep telling him, each time he rescues a Chihuahua, he makes a difference for that one animal. “In some small way, I am making a change.”
Despite their bad reputation—Chihuahuas are the second-most euthanized breed, trailing only pit bulls—they have much love to give. “I’ve never experienced the love from an animal that you get from a Chihuahua,” Humphreys says. “Even the biggest, toughest guy loves a puppy, and Chihuahuas are just puppies that never got any bigger.”
Problems only develop when the dog isn’t given enough attention or socialized properly. “A lot of times a Chihuahua is a one-person dog. They love you but they hate everybody else, including family members. You have to socialize them.” Humphreys’ heart melts each time a fearful new dog arrives at the sanctuary and, after being treated with love and kindness, learns to trust people.
“I’ve changed my entire life. I’ve gone from sad to good, and there’s a happy ending, even for me.”
Humphreys, too, has had to learn how to trust. “I spent my whole life being beat down by somebody.” He grew up being told he’d never amount to anything, then was betrayed by his wife. The Chihuahuas have taught him something important: “That I’m not as bad of a person as I thought I was.”
Thanks to the Chihuahuas, he found his calling in life, met his live-in girlfriend through his organization’s Instagram page, and was able to offer his friend Connie a place to both live and work, helping care for the dogs. “I think I’m doing the right thing, and maybe if you do the right thing, you’re rewarded,” he says. “I’ve changed my entire life. I’ve gone from sad to good, and there’s a happy ending, even for me. I’m complete. I’ve got the dogs. I’ve got my beautiful girlfriend. I’ve got my best friend. I’ve got everything now, so I couldn’t be happier.”