When an exhausted rescue dog named Jordan Knight made it to his foster home, the little dog stood quivering over his new bed that first night. Newly shaved of his dirty, matted hair, Jordan was clean and calm as he swayed back and forth in a corner of the warm house. Jordan — one of more than 600 dogs removed from a South Georgia puppy farm — was finally safe, but he wasn't quite sure what to make of his new life.
His foster mom captured the moment on video before comforting him.
Releash Atlanta, the rescue that took him in, explains what's going on:
Let this sink in... he is beside a dog bed but has no idea what to do with it but he’s completely asleep. He has likely lived his entire life sleeping like this, learning to get comfortable standing, which is why even their toenails grow straight out versus curling. This is what pure greed did to this dog. He is so unfamiliar with a home and his surroundings that he’s living as if he was still in those cages piled on top of other dogs just trying to stay alive and get comfortable any way he had to.
It's just one snapshot of the beginning of recovery from a horrific situation.
It all started on Feb. 28, when hundreds of dogs were surrendered by a breeder to state agricultural officials, who were on the property for a routine inspection. Reason Craig Gray, 58, of Nashville, Georgia, told them that he needed help and needed to surrender all the dogs in his possession, according to The Berrien Press.
Berrien County Sheriff Ray Paulk said crews began the major undertaking of removing the dogs, working through the night. They didn't finish until two days later. The dogs were handed over to more than two dozen licensed, nonprofit rescues throughout Georgia and Florida.
The nonprofit group USA Rescue Team said they led the operation to remove the dogs from the premises. "There is not one person or one rescue that can take total credit for placing these pets in a better place," the group posted on Facebook. "It took so many people and everyone came together for one main cause. The pets are in a better place today and our hearts are full of joy!"
Cellphones and photos were not allowed on site while the dogs were being rescued, according to reports. But as the dogs made their way to foster homes, photos and stories started to spread across social media. The dogs had dirty, extremely matted fur and many had difficulty even standing.
As the images were shared, people learned more about the horrifying lives these animals had led.
"These dogs have been living in crates their whole lives — one tiny crate stacked on top of another. They're matted, covered in feces and have never been held or walked," posted the Atlanta Humane Society on Facebook.
The dogs are slowly learning to trust, experiencing a real home and caring people for the first time. But many don't know how to walk on grass (see the video above) — or how to walk at all. They urinate and defecate in their crates and on top of each other because that's what they've been doing their entire lives. Most will have a long road to rehabilitation.
"They have never known a quiet life of love outside of a cramped cage," wrote the Humane Society of Valdosta Lowndes County. "We would also like to thank the volunteers that were at our building through the night who spent hours cutting out matted fur, giving baths, and loving these poor dogs. They were shockingly trusting and calm as if to say 'thank you for saving me. I know you are here to help.' Please say a prayer for those pups as they set out to find a new life."
The legal situation
People in the rescue community and on social media were both incensed and heartbroken that animals could be treated like this ... and that the breeder was not initially arrested.
"So heartbreaking. Makes me cry. I really don’t have the words to say how this makes me feel," Kimi Walters commented on Releash Atlanta's Facebook page.
When the dogs were first removed from the property, the breeder was not charged. But then on March 7, a week later, Gray was arrested for bringing back another 85 dogs and puppies to his property. According to the sheriff's office, Gray moved the dogs and puppies during the voluntary surrender last week, then brought them back after the other dogs were removed.
"There are numerous charges pending on Gray, and as the investigation continues to unfold, there is no way to tell just how many charges will be filed," Sheriff Paulk said, according to the Berrien County Sheriff's Department. "Due to the extent of this operation and as many documents and veterinary reports that are currently being inspected by the Sheriff’s Office, there is no way to know at this time how many charges there will be."
Gray's business, Georgia Puppies, made national news when the dogs were removed from his property.
"There are many questions yet to be answered and one huge one is how this licensed pet dealer was allowed to have an operation with this many beautiful creatures to be able to populate to the point of being out of control and inhumane," Paulk said.
It's clear these puppy mill dogs have led terrible lives, but in cases like this, there are other victims that may not be so obvious.
Because rescues had to make room for 700 dogs, their fosters and budgets are stretched thin. That means they no longer have room for waiting dogs in shelters that also need rescue. In addition, these puppy mill rescues will need to stay in foster care for longer than most dogs and will likely need more medical attention.
"The ancillary victims are the shelter dogs," according to a post from Angels Among Us, a rescue that took in 40 of the dogs. The group put out a plea for more fosters to volunteer and for funding to cover the additional costs of the rescues.
"That's space for 750 dogs in rescues that are gone. And funding for so many more. The average dog from this puppy mill rescue costs as much as three or four healthy dogs. We can't and won't ignore the shelter dogs and cats."