I was supposed to be on a break. I fostered eight puppies back to back last year with the last one leaving right after Christmas. No doe-eyed dog was going to tug on my heartstrings.
But then I heard about a hoarding and neglect case where some 30 doodles were found living outdoors, perched on piles of hard clay and mounds of feces. A local rescue, Releash Atlanta, waded into the mess and scooped up seven of these dogs, putting out a plea for fosters to help. I kept looking at the face of a mama dog curled up with her newborn pup.
What break? The frightened mom and her itty-bitty baby are now decompressing in my basement until their permanent foster takes over next week. They're learning that people aren't terrible, and mama has found that chicken tastes great.
There's something about cases like these that hit animal lovers — heck, most people — with a sickening blow. We can't wrap our heads around the idea of animals, especially pets, living in such deplorable conditions.
The 5 freedoms of animal welfare
Look at the lives of most of the pets you know. They eat quality food, go to the vet regularly, stay cool in summer and warm in winter and want for very little.
These life basics seem like common sense to most of us, but more than 50 years ago the U.K. government wanted to put them in writing. In 1965, the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (which later became the Farm Animal Welfare Council) defined the specific conditions that must be met for animals being cared for by humans. They called them the "Five Freedoms," which cover an animal's physical and mental state. The freedoms were later updated but the gist is basically the same.
These conditions of humane treatment have been adopted by veterinarians and animal-welfare groups including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
The Five Freedoms are:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst, by ready access to water and a diet to maintain health and vigor
- Freedom from discomfort, by providing an appropriate environment
- Freedom from pain, injury and disease, by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
- Freedom to express normal behavior, by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and appropriate company of the animal’s own kind
- Freedom from fear and distress, by ensuring conditions and treatment, which avoid mental suffering
Taking things for granted
These freedoms seem so incredibly basic and that's likely why when an animal neglect case makes headlines, we're all so horrified.
This happened in early January, when hundreds of German shepherds were found living in unimaginably squalid conditions from a suspected puppy mill in two locations in Montgomery and Candler counties in Georgia. Led by New York's Guardians of Rescue, dozens of rescue groups immediately stepped up to help, rescuing more than 300 of the mostly purebred dogs. They found that in addition to being housed in filthy, crowded pens, some of the dogs had sores and had been living like that for at least five years.
"We know that a lot lost their lives fighting simply because they fought for dominance. It was a recipe for disaster every single day," Mike Lawson, an investigator for Guardians, tells MNN. "They didn’t get out, they didn’t go for walks and they had to share the same soil covered with their own feces and urine. There was no protection from the cold and no shelter from the sun on a hot day. Obviously we are grateful they are no longer there."
People from around the country and even in other parts of the world followed the drama on Facebook as all the dogs were removed from the property. Many people donated to the various rescue groups and offered to help foster or otherwise give support to these hundreds of dogs.
While Guardians also is involved with typical, everyday rescues, the group is often called in for these complicated cases.
"When people feel there’s no more hope, that’s when we jump into action," says Lawson, who's a retired FBI agent, like many of the group's investigators.
"There's the sheer number of animals and generally it’s the same typical M.O. in all these hoarding cases: It’s cramped areas, the hygiene is at an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10, and generally the health of the animals is not taken into consideration," Lawson says. "Regardless of how it started, nobody should be keeping so many dogs on any property."
People step up
Rescues and animal shelters save animals every day. They always need donations, fosters and other kinds of support. But when these unimaginable neglect stories surface, they know they can count on people to help.
"We see an outpouring of support from the community for a few reasons," says Kristin Sarkar, founder of Releash Atlanta. "The first is, usually it's a big undertaking that requires a lot of donations, whether financial or just items needed to begin the process of transferring the dogs to safety and it's something everyone can help with, such as donating blankets, crates or leashes and collars."
Sarkar posted the heart-wrenching video above of the doodle dogs being rescued with photos of the petrified pups as they were taken from their filthy pens. Immediately, people started asking how they could help.
"There's also a visual that makes it hard to ignore. We can tell a story all we want, but when you actually see the story, it has a much greater effect. We’ve passed 100 car accidents, yet we will still slow down to look at the next one," she says. "Lastly, a lot of times with cases like this, for the most part, people are good, and they want to help, and what better time to want to help than when the need is so great? Such is the case with these recent hoarding situations."
I've learned this kindness firsthand.
My scared little foster dog was covered with mats and not trusting enough to really be handled yet. I asked a trainer friend of mine for advice and she called her assistant trainer who is also a groomer. He immediately came over on his day off and spent time calmly talking to this frightened pup as he trimmed off these horrible clumps of nastiness. People are amazing.
I fostered one other hoarding dog, Pax. He was petrified when he arrived and had heartworms, so he had a long road to recovery. People donated toys, treats and medical care while he was with me and were very kindly invested in his background and rescue, as well as his transformation. It took five months for him to come around and realize that people can be good.
The doodles and the German shepherds have a long road ahead of them. Thanks to rescues, fosters and the people who are donating for their care, they will now have access to the Five Freedoms. They'll be free from hunger and pain, discomfort and fear, and will be in a safe, loving environment.
It will take a lot of work, but the good news is that eventually there will be happy endings.
"So many people have to invest time, energy, love and money into these dogs to fix them," Lawson says. "These dogs have never been inside a home. They have never taken a car ride. Never been on a leash. Never have had a collar. To put these dogs into wonderful homes, everybody who has taken these dogs will have to put a lot into them. I'm sure, before you know it, you will start seeing some wonderful before-and-after photos of these dogs placed in homes."