We participated in our first puppy mill rescue on March 17. Since so many of you have been so generous with your help and support in the wake of the rescue, I thought I would share my experience with you.
I got a call about 10 a.m. from Jerry Dominachek, the executive director of the Humane Society in Sioux City, asking if we could help rescue a number of dogs from a puppy mill near Nashua. A commercial breeder was prepared to voluntarily close down his operation and relinquish about 300 dogs. Jerry thought we would need to go Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning. About 11 a.m., he called back to say we needed to be there by 3 p.m.
By sheer chance, we have recently partnered with our local Community Emergency Response Team, so I had a ready group of volunteers I could call. I sent one e-mail, and by 12:30 p.m., there were six vehicles and seven volunteers and shelter staff headed for Nashua.
Volunteers who participated included Margo Wardell from Nestle Purina and her mother, Marty; Diane Happel; Patty Holmes; and Ginny Settell; I; our shelter manager, Mary Ann Foster; and Tammy Grove went representing the Humane Society of North Central Iowa. Jerry gave us some good advice about participating in the rescue. No crying, no facial expressions of any kind, treat the owners with respect, don't make any comments about the condition of the facility or of the dogs, just go in, do the job, get the dogs out and go home.
We got a little bit lost and didn't arrive at the breeding facility until about 3:30 p.m.. There were several other shelters already on site. Tom Colvin, executive director of the Animal Rescue League in Des Moines, was coordinating the activities on site, and he told us to look around and choose the dogs we wanted to take home.
If you didn't know this was a puppy mill, you would never have guessed. It looked like any farm; a house and a number of barns and metal buildings. Only one little barn had any outdoor runs; most of the dogs were being kept inside in cages.
Some of the cages weren't too bad, as cages go, but most were very small. Most were bedded with wood shavings, most had food, although it, too, was full of wood shavings. One of the buildings was a semitrailer storage unit with no windows at all and little cages lining both sides, with just a walkway in between. There was a beautiful big chow sitting in one kennel. I think she was sitting because the kennel wasn't big enough for her to lie down. Most of the wood showed signs of being chewed. The dog food being fed was a generic brand you can purchase from any grain elevator; high on fiber but not enough nutrition for breeding dogs or puppies. There were no toys, no blankets, even for the females with puppies, no place for most of the dogs to go outside. They were living their entire lives in 2-foot-by-3-foot boxes.
There were so many dogs! Huskies, Labs, pit bulls, boxers, shih tsus, corgis, Italian greyhounds, Maltese, beagles, poodles, Dachshunds, Schnauzers, Jack Russells - and lots of "designer dogs." I heard later that there were 277 dogs on-site when the rescue began. Some of the dogs were surprisingly friendly. It made us wonder if they had been family pets at one time, before their lives took such a nasty turn. (The only way to absolutely assure your family pet doesn't end up some day in a puppy mill is to have it spayed or neutered. If you had seen what we saw, you'd do it tomorrow! With the current market for "designer dogs" that are not AKC registered, no dog is safe)
There was a female Brittany spaniel with a litter of puppies. She'd been bred to a boxer so that they could call the puppies "box springs." Unfortunately, there's a real demand for puppies with funny names. There were other dogs that were mixes of something; it was hard to tell.
A lot of the dogs were in pretty good shape, all things considered. By the time we got there, I suspect a lot of the healthiest dogs had already been removed. Some, especially the poodles and schnauzers, were filthy and matted. The boxers were so thin you could see every rib and every vertebrae in their spine. Many had visible skin conditions, and many had the bloated stomachs associated with serious worm problems. But many of the dogs looked pretty good. Tom Colvin said that as rescues go, this was a pretty good one.
I think we were all very nervous. It was the first rescue for all of us. I was so proud of everyone involved. We kept our thoughts to ourselves, and worked quietly and quickly to choose dogs and get them loaded.
Some we took because they seemed pretty healthy; some we took because they broke our hearts. Probably the worst cases are the boxers. I have a boxer at home, and she's a happy, crazy, funny dog full of fun and love. These boxers would not stand up straight, or make eye contact. They cowered and froze when we touched them. Both of the females are just ending their estrus cycle, so they could be pregnant. I hope not, neither dog has the health or resilience necessary to successfully deliver healthy puppies. We're keeping our fingers crossed.
We took some poodles that were just as bad, and had the added issue of filthy, matted coats. Some had big sections of hair missing, and red, raw sores where they had either been fighting, or just trying to chew off their mats.
When we got home, about 8 p.m., we set up a temporary shelter at the Fosters'. They have a huge enclosed shop area at their home, and we used every crate, cage, exercise pen and kennel we could find to house our rescues. When we counted, we had rescued 40 dogs.
We finished up about 11 p.m., and went home both exhausted and exhilarated that we had saved so many. It's the beginning of a new life for the dogs. They'll learn that humans can provide love instead of pain; that the world has sunshine and fresh air just for them, that toys are meant to be played with, and that a human touch can be enjoyed, not feared.
If you'd like to help, please consider a financial donation. All of the dogs are going to require spaying and neutering, many of them have health issues, and our shelter is going to be overwhelmed with the extra expense of caring for them.
If you'd like to foster a dog, please call the shelter or stop out and ask to fill out a foster agreement. But remember, these are not puppies, they're adults. They're not used to humans, they're not housebroken, and they need lots of love and attention. It will take months of very concentrated work to turn these frightened and abused dogs into happy, healthy house pets.
Whatever it takes, it will be worth it. Tomorrow will be a better day for every one of these dogs. There is hope for them, finally. They get a new life. We get the satisfaction of knowing we made a real difference.
Life is good.
Laurie Hagey is the executive director of the Humane Society of North Central Iowa.