A few dozen of us congregated early Tuesday and listened to instructions at the local sheriff's department. Some of us were volunteers, others were local shelter staff and trained rescue organizers. Law enforcement accompanied us out to protect us from the person who should have been protecting her dogs. Throughout the day, one of our number would shake her head and wonder aloud: how? How had it come to this?
"This" was a four-letter word we grappled with for almost 12 hours.
"This" meant a year-old double-wide trailer bought to house dogs that I'm sure were rescues, of a sort, and the obvious mental break that happens when someone's good intentions go horribly awry and love turns crazy.
"This" was an enormous yard, newly fenced, six feet high, meant to keep in the dogs she thought she was protecting. A yard devoid of grass or flowers, littered with bed springs, blankets ripped to shreds, empty cans, trash. No food. No water.
"This" was a smell so severe, so nasty and vile, that law enforcement officers gagged and spat at the far end of the lawn. The odor hung like an aura for at least a few dozen feet from the house, a sickening combination of rotting meat, diarrhea, molasses (maybe licorice?), decaying vegetation, dirty dog, earth and piss.
"This" meant fear, and hunger, and illness. Fleas, scabs, sores, blood, urine and feces, bite scars, open wounds, wild eyes. Toenails yellowed, twisted, and so long they pointed in different directions. Saggy leathery nipples. The dogs' skin was in such bad shape that many of them looked like hyenas, nearly hairless save little patches here and there. For cataloging purposes, veterinarians had to guess at the color of some of the dogs. Occasionally, a fight would break out, the sound like a drum set tossed down a long flight of stairs. The snapping, yelping and growling of those about to be saved.
Neighbors across the street pulled out lawn chairs. The beautiful country setting glared in stark contrast to the suffering of those dogs. With lush pink azaleas in view, the first of the dogs were pulled out of the house around ten. One was dead. Another had to be put to sleep immediately. One neighbor tilled his soil for a vegetable garden. A dog's head and a number of bones were pulled from the house to be used as evidence.
We counted four flat-screen TV's inside, one of them at least 50 inches, furniture that had been beautiful at one point. "Hey," I said, while walking through the kitchen. "I've got that same Crock-Pot." We laughed a little. That Crock-Pot was sitting on the floor of a kitchen covered in the bodily fluids of over a hundred dogs. The urine in the house had created an ammonia haze so thick, that even though we wore masks coated on the inside with menthol rub, our eyes watered and stung. "Let me get your picture," one rescuer said. A few of us posed there amid the filth and ruin, and one of our number asked: "Are we supposed to smile?"
As the day wore on, the dogs became harder to catch. The first ones out were those too sick to fight or still friendly despite their surroundings. After the house was mostly cleared, we had to start bringing in the dogs from the back yard. They circled in giant loops, barking, hiding in holes they had dug. One woman swung a bent curtain rod over her head in circles as she walked the perimeter of the fence, which drove some dogs to the "sanctuary" of the house. After half a dozen had rushed in, one of us would lean up against the back door to keep the dogs inside, so they could be cornered and captured. When all but the last 30 or so were crated and transported, animal control officers came in to grab the rest. Using poles fitted with wire loops, they brought out dog-after-dog on the ends of those poles. The animals twisted and snapped. Some bit their tongues and bled on their emancipators.
As each dog was placed in a crate, sometimes two or three at a time, a quiet calm would settle on him. The worst was over. Some napped, some whined a little or howled occasionally. A few wagged their tails. These little pockets of peace floated down throughout the day. Kind words softly spoken. Cigarette breaks peppered with good-natured teasing. Hand shakes and smiles between two new comrades-in-arms. Compliments, thank-you's, small offerings of water or crackers, and the knowledge that we were all there together with the same spirit of love and giving.
As the last few dogs were loaded into vans, trucks, and a horse trailer, one of our number said she wanted to check out some garbage bags at the front of the lawn. The neighbors reported the homeowner had been home at one point and carried out heavy-looking black lawn bags from the home, maybe twenty of them. A lot of it looked like trash. But we suspected worse.
I offered to help go through the trash and was told it could be bad. Really bad. I didn't want her to have to look through that garbage by herself. We armed ourselves with sticks and poked through a few bags. Mostly cans and household rubbish. Inside several of the trash bags, we could see large dog food bags which, upon inspection, seemed unusually heavy. I opened one dog food bag and saw a flash of fur, a scurry of white maggots, shiny wet muscle and a foot. She had put dead dogs in the empty dog food bags. The second one was worse. What was left of the dog sloshed inside the bag as I moved it and the smell made me turn away and violently gag.
Pictures were snapped and our remaining crew members stood around dumb-founded. After bravely holding open bags of dead dogs for photographing, the woman I had gone to help told me she needed to go back to her vehicle and cry for a bit. I went and sat by a crated female dog that I checked up on throughout the day. Number 76. A nondescript blackish, brownish girl with crusty skin, fleas, curled toenails and clear chocolate-colored eyes. I talked to her and sang to her. I told her about how much better her life would get. She just listened and looked.
We picked up our empty water bottles and potato chip wrappers, folded up a big blue tarp that had hidden the bodies of the deceased, put away the Band-Aids, pens, stethoscopes, cameras and leashes. We poked fun at each others' sunburned cheeks and how much we stank and joked about the cigarettes or beer we'd need at home. I took two crated dogs in my car back to the shelter: numbers 76 and 109. They scratched and shook their way through the first few turns out of their old neighborhood, but a few miles down the road, their heads started bobbing, and they closed their eyes. I played Tom Petty's "Wildflowers" for them, a hopeful lullaby on the way to shelter:
You belong among the wildflowers.
You belong in a boat out at sea.
Sail away, kill off the hours.
You belong somewhere you feel free.
Some of these animals will be put to sleep today. That decision is not made lightly but is based on the physical suffering of that dog or the danger it poses to those who would care for it. The majority of them will be patched and soothed, rehabilitated and placed into loving homes, pending the outcome of the legal issues. Last night, Southern Pines Animal Shelter took in about 60 of these dogs, one of which only had three legs, and gave them respite on cool green grass with food and clean water, dog treats, head scratches, and sweet spoken "good nights."
People tend to rally around events like this one. Some get angry at the owner of the dogs...some become angry with the rescuers and law enforcement. And this story is sad, for sure. But the sad part of the story is over for these 117. Today their bellies are full and they will start to receive the medical attention they need. More appropriate now is concern for the animals out there that have not been rescued yet. They are out there and so desperate that they're eating each other.
You can help! Even if you aren't in a position to physically assist in rescue operations, you can donate monetarily to the local organizations that every day help neglected, unwanted, lost and abandoned animals. It costs about a half a million dollars a year to operate Southern Pines Animal Shelter (a non-profit organization that took in 5,000 animals in 2012) and most of that money comes from donations. Without donations, we could not remain open and we would not have been able to send vans, experienced employees and volunteers, and supplies to help with this rescue operation. We would not have the facility to house and care for sixty dogs this week. Donate to Southern Pines Animal Shelter by visiting our web site at www.southernpinesanimalshelter.org. We are being financially assisted by the Humane Society of the United States for this particular rescue, but we continue to need financial support to keep our doors open for next time.