You could say that Rex the Dog, the hero German shepherd who on Feb. 21 took at least two bullets protecting his 16-year-old master, has a few flaws.
What hero doesn't?
But when it was all on the line, when Javier Mercado was alone, hiding and terrified in his family's Des Moines home while intruders forced their way in, Rex did what every nucleotide of his DNA told him to do.
He defended his owner, the boy with whom he'd slept every night since he was a pup just about three years ago.
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The cops found Rex sitting in a corner of the parents' bedroom upstairs, "very bloody, quite injured," says Jan Magnuson, of Des Moines animal control. In that same room, Javier had hidden in the walk-in closet.
Magnuson is the one who saved the dog's life. She and an officer used two "capture poles" with an adjustable cable that goes around a dog's neck, guided Rex down the stairs and placed him inside a kennel. Then Magnuson rushed the bleeding animal to a vet.
Magnuson and Rex were honored by PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. If Rex could read, he could see that he got a "Heroic Dog Award" from the group.
But about those few flaws.
Magnuson knew Rex from previous times she had been called to the residence.
"We had multiple complaints. Running loose, no valid dog license, aggressive toward neighbors," she says.
Rex never bit anyone, says Magnuson, but he did run at large and charge at people "and bark and growl." She suggested that they neuter him.
But Magnuson also says Rex is a brave, good dog. The family says that since the complaints, Rex has been leashed and that any barking is more of a warning to protect his owners.
In this home invasion, says Magnuson, "He was protecting his home and his family. I am thrilled that he survived. To be honest, when I first saw him, I didn't think he'd make it."
Javier is the son of Julia Cadena, an interpreter at a health clinic, and Francisco Mercado, a crane operator. He has two older brothers who also live at home, one in community college, the other a barber.
Most weekdays, Javier is by himself at home. He's in 11th grade and taking online classes except for one day a week. "I just felt it'd be better for me," he says.
His mom said that going online, she read that German shepherds were good pets for kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"Javier has ADHD. We wanted to get a dog that was at the same energy level," she says.
That Wednesday, Feb. 21, at around 12:20 p.m., he was feeding Rex and a Pomeranian that belonged to a girlfriend of one of his brothers.
"I heard a really loud banging on the door," says Javier.
It was the kind of noise that you just feel is ominous.
He texted one of the brothers, "Victor, is that you knocking on the door?"
"I'm at the gym," was the answer.
Javier looked out one of the upstairs windows. He saw a guy standing at the door. He saw a Dodge Charger.
He texted and texted his mom:
"Please wya" (shorthand for "where're you at?")
"Come home now."
He texted his dad:
"Come home now."
Parents at work can't always answer right back when they hear a ping on their smartphone.
Cadena was at the front office at work and heard the pings but thought it was like other times, her son being hungry and wanting Mom to send him some food.
His dad called back, but Javier was on the line with 911 and kept declining his dad's calls.
By then he had seen the first guy and another man go around to the back of the house.
"I heard the sliding door just shatter," says Javier. "I grabbed the closest thing to me. A screwdriver, a little thing, about 8 inches long."
He hid in the walk-in closet.
The family had moved to the four-bedroom rental house only seven months ago. Javier struggled to remember the exact address for the 911 dispatcher. "She finally figured it out," says Javier.
He could hear Rex barking at the men (the Pomeranian made himself scarce until it was all over).
Javier could hear the robbers break things. He could hear them kicking down doors inside the house even though they weren't locked. Later the family would find mattresses that had been stabbed and ripped.
The mom says that the suspects took Javier's laptop, a 32-inch TV, "shoes, clothes a lot of electronics, like a PlayStation."
Javier heard one of the guys yell about 77-pound Rex, "Get the dog! The dog bit me!"
Javier could hear Rex run upstairs to the bedroom in which he was hiding.
The door to the bedroom was open.
Javier heard four gunshots. Either two or three of .22 caliber bullets hit Rex. One bullet went through his neck; he also was hit in the rear left leg, breaking it and requiring a surgical pin and screw, and the right front leg, perhaps by the same bullet.
"He cried every time he got hit," says Javier.
He could hear police sirens. The robbers were quickly gone.
Javier had been on the phone to 911 for 53 minutes by the time it was all over.
Des Moines Police Commander Doug Jenkins says they "hope to have a resolution soon" to the case.
Meanwhile, the family has moved out of the house.
"I can't live there anymore," says Cadena, not after what happened. The family is staying with her in-laws in the South End until they find a new place.
Meantime, they're trying to decide what to do with the remainder of the $62,221 in GoFundMe donations that 2,400 people sent in when Rex's plight went public.
The fund was set up because there was an initial $800 vet bill as Rex was stabilized right after the shooting, and a $10,276 bill for the surgery. The family could come up with $1,700.
There is some $51,000 left over.
"We're trying to figure that out," says Cadena.
Javier is now seeing a psychologist to talk about all that happened.
Even Rex has a pet psychologist, as the German shepherd is jittery when seeing strangers. He wears a cone-shaped collar to prevent him from pulling at 17 staples from the operation.
The physical prognosis for Rex is good, says Cadena, even though his neck has bullet fragments that couldn't be extracted. She says Rex might face the knife again after he's sired a litter.
Javier was asked if Rex took the bullets because the dog felt love for his owner?
"Yeah, he did," he answered.