EDMONTON - She was a young, homeless single mom trying to raise a family of five, but true to the spirit of the season there was room for one more.
Esperanza had been badly injured when she was hit by a car, but the young shepherd-cross with the thick white coat was still managing to care for her newborn puppies — and a kitten — when she was found on a central Alberta reserve.
Criss Gerwing, who runs a small animal rescue group, discovered the dog earlier this month and couldn't believe it when the canine led her to her blended brood.
"I cried because she was in such bad condition with her leg, but she was obviously nursing her puppies and this kitten," Gerwing told a media outlet.
Gerwing took the entire family to the Edmonton Humane Society, where veterinarians thought they'd have to amputate the mother dog's bad leg.
But local vet, Dr. Milton Ness, volunteered to do a special surgery that saved Esperanza's hind quarter.
He calls her a "special soul." Shawna Randolph at the humane society couldn't agree more.
"She is such a sweet, sweet dog. She has such a wonderful personality," Randoph said.
"It's amazing when you think about it. You have this dog who is just so giving of herself, caring for these newborn puppies and the kitten, making sure they were cared for even though she was obviously in a lot of pain."
Jacob the cat was already four months old and shouldn't have been nursing at all, so humane society vets weaned him and he's now being cared for by a staff member.
But he's brought to the shelter every day to visit his adoptive mom and her babies. His canine step-siblings are too young to pay much attention to him — their eyes are barely open — but Esperanza is always excited to see Jacob and gives him lots of baths.
"He's actually acting more like a dog than a cat," Randolph said. "Kittens are very rambunctious and playful, but he just wants to hang out. As soon as he gets to the dog family he's ... cuddling. And even with his (human) foster mom, he follows her around like a dog does."
Esperanza's background is a mystery. No one has come forward to claim her, yet she's well socialized. She's only about one, but has had a definite taste of freedom — she loves to be outside and run around. It's not clear how long she may have been on her own or when Jacob came onto the scene and turned on his feline charm.
The devoted mother is recovering well. She and her pups will go into foster care after the holidays until permanent homes can be found for them. But the humane society ideally would like Esperanza and Jacob to be adopted together.
Randolph said their story is especially heart-warming at this time of year.
"It's all about family, isn't it, at Christmas time, and here you have the ultimate family."
And Esperanza's name bodes well for her and her furry family's future — it means "hope" in Spanish.