GREENVILLE – Sometimes a man rescues a dog, and sometimes a dog rescues a man. Mike Bates, of Greenville, was working as a call center manager when the darkness began to encroach on his life.
The Bradford High School graduate suffers from a congenital disease called retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition that eventually leads to blindness. Bates says he has lost all vision in his right eye, and he has only a little remaining in the left.
He started to lose his vision when he was a senior at Shawnee State, where he was majoring in business administration with an emphasis in accounting. The former star baseball player suddenly found limitations set on his life. He went on to the working world and was a call center manager who even had the opportunity to travel to India to set up a call center and then to Panama to do the same. Eventually, though, he couldn’t get through a work day. In 2008, he lost his driver’s license.
“People say it’s like looking through a straw,” Bates said. “But when I look through the straw, it’s like there’s a milk jug on the end of it.”
But last year, a ray of light shone through. Bates got in touch with the organization Guide Dogs for the Blind, based in San Rafael, California, and was approved for a service dog.
Bates was paired up Sagan, a beautiful and spirited 18-month-old black Labrador which was then close to graduating from his training.
The organization flew Bates out to San Rafael for two weeks of his own training last July.
“It was 12 hours a day,” Bates said. “He (Sagan) already knew the basics, but I had to learn how to handle him.”
Bates learned how to command Sagan, how to teach him where he needed to go and how to treat him so he keeps his mind on business when he is out working to guide Bates.
Since getting Sagan, Bates said he’s getting out into the world more again.
“When you start to lose your sight, it limits what you can do,” Bates said. “And it can be hard, probably especially for a man, to get past the ego and ask for help. I’m a single guy, 35 years old. I was always out doing things. You get frustrated because you can’t do things without help, and what you can do takes three times longer to do it.”
Now, Bates is able to get out on his own, enjoying a lunch at Danny’s or a cup at The Coffee Pot with relative ease. Frequent destinations have a word associated with them, so Sagan knows exactly where to go.
“He gets in that harness and out the door, and he’s ready to work,” Bates said. “We go out the front door and I say ‘coffee, coffee, coffee!’ and boom, he’s off to The Coffee Pot.”
Bates said getting around with Sagan is about “three times faster” than using his cane. He calls Sagan a “track star.”
“It took some getting used to,” Bates said. “He likes to tug me along.”
Guide Dogs for the Blind also provides Bates with the equipment he needs for Sagan, as well as maintenance medications and reimbursement for vet bills. When he got the equipment – harness, leash and the like – they mentioned that the leather leashes retail for about $75, though the organization gets them at a discount for about $25.
That gave Bates an idea.
“I know some people who work in leather back here,” Bates said. “And when it came to making the leashes, I figured I could do that.”
So Bates decided to experiment. He gets a tanned hide, and the provider cuts it into strips for him. Bates cuts the leather and does the braidwork and attaches the hardware.
“I can make about 35 from a hide,” Bates said. “The cost with the hardware comes to about $10 or $11 each.”
Bates saw making leashes as a way to give back to the community. From his first batch, he donated 20 leashes to Bark Animal Rescue in Greenville, and he’d like to donate more to local organizations.
He said he would like to find a retailer to sell some of the leashes so he can finance donating the rest.
“If I can sell 15, I can donate 20,” Bates said, explaining how the retail price of 15 leashes from a hide would cover his costs for the 35 made.
Bates said he wants to encourage people to support Guide Dogs for the Blind, which operates as a nonprofit providing assistance dogs to the visually impaired at no cost to them. He also wanted to help support animal organizations that rescue abused, neglected or homeless pets back home.
To donate to Guide Dogs for the Blind or learn more about the organization, visit the website at guidedogs.com.
For information on Bark Animal Rescue, visit the website at barkanimalrescueincofdarkecounty.com. A fundraiser and adoption event is planned for Jan. 31 at Darke County Pets and Supplies, 200 Martin St. Upcoming fundraisers can be found at the website as well as information on donating to the group.
Reach the writer at 937-569-4354 or on Twitter @RachelLloydGDA. Join the conversation at facebook.com/Advocate360 or visit our website at www.dailyadvocate.com.