Denali, Gentle Pit Bull Mix Who Survived Against All Odds, Named Safe Havens for Pets Ambassador

Photo by AWI

Washington, DC—On Valentine’s Day, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) is proud to name Denali, an American Staffordshire terrier mix with an unshakeable loving spirit, as the inaugural ambassador for the Safe Havens for Pets Program.

AWI works to spread awareness about the link between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence, while providing resources for domestic violence survivors, advocates, and social services professionals. Safe Havens for Pets offers a one-of-a-kind, searchable database of sheltering services that can help individuals who are experiencing domestic violence seek safety for themselves and their companion animals.

In 2018, Denali was reportedly targeted in a horrific act of retaliation in connection with a domestic dispute. The dog’s then-owner poured a chemical accelerant on Denali (her estranged husband’s favorite dog) and another dog, locked them in cages, and set the Tampa-area house on fire.

By the time firefighters could rescue Denali from the flames, she had sustained third-degree burns on more than 35% of her body. The other dog, Esco, survived with less severe injuries. The owner was later sentenced to eight years in prison.

Karey Burek, an animal care technician and volunteer with Suncoast Animal League in Palm Harbor, Florida, drove a crying, terrified Denali to the hospital. There, Denali spent more than two weeks in the intensive care unit fighting for her life, followed by two more months wrapped in bandages.

Buoyed by an outpouring of community support, Denali not only survived — she thrived.

Denali was adopted by Burek and is now a certified therapy dog. She visits shelters and children’s hospitals to provide comfort and encourage resilience among domestic violence survivors and young burn victims. She still displays scars on her brindle-colored coat, yet the eight-year-old wags her entire body when meeting new people, wears floral crowns and a goofy expression for Suncoast fundraisers posted on Instagram @denalisnewlife, and demonstrates the healing power of the human-animal bond.    

As a Safe Havens ambassador, Denali will be regularly featured on social media @safehavens4pets and in future humane education programs.  

“A symbol of strength and bravery, Denali brings awareness to the plight of abused animals and serves as an inspiration to survivors of interpersonal violence,” said Claire Coughlin, coordinator of AWI’s Animals & Interpersonal Violence Program. “We are thrilled to introduce her as the new face of Safe Havens for Pets.”    

Media Contact Information

Marjorie Fishman, Animal Welfare Institute
[email protected], (202) 446-2128

The Animal Welfare Institute ( is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. Follow us on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.