Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Day, 2012

Today is Christmas Day.

I'll be leaving for my mom's house in a few minutes. She survived colon cancer this year, and I'm so happy to have her for one more Christmas. I'm looking forward to watching everyone open their gifts, and chatting at the kitchen table over a ham dinner. But I cannot leave before addressing my best and most important family. That is you, my Facebook family.

This year at Christmas, I am surrounded by the squealing, scurrying, bouncing and wrestling of a bevy of puppymill dogs. As I look down, I see Holly, the little pug with an awful eye injury, standing with both paws on my leg. I lower my hand to scratch her hear and she begins to play, chewing on my fingers.

One week ago, she ran from me and urinated in fear when I picked her up. That is the change we have made in her life.

Likewise, China, another pug from the auction who would not come near anyone. She lays beside me on my bed with her chin resting on my knee. No small thing, what we have done here.

Caesar and Misha, two French bulldog puppies, are learning to bond and socialize. They are young enough that we're overriding the dog aggression they leaned at the Mennonite puppymill where they lived. Their parents, who are five and six years old, must be separated from the other dogs. But I see subtle changes in them, too. They came here with no eye contact or reaction to humans. Now they look for me, meet my gaze and their tails wag when I pet them. Somewhere, there are one-dog homes waiting for them where they can love and be loved for the first time in their lives. The years spent as livestock are over because of you.

Biscuit and Cookie, two Shiffon puppies bought at the auction, arrived like little lumps without expression. Now both have such personality! Cookie actually barked for the first time yesterday! Biscuit plays with the other pups and with toys. They are so young, they will not even remember their lives before rescue. Clementine, the English Bulldog, has had her physical problems repaired and is in a wonderful foster home. January 19th she goes home with Audra, and RN who cried telling me about her Bulldog, Luke, who had passed away. Audra is spending Christmas visiting her family so she'll never have to leave Clementine alone again.

So many wonderful people. This is the family I love and need most of all. This is the family who, instead of saying, "Can't you get rid of some of those dogs?", says "We love dogs. We understand. We want to help." Only a certain kind of people know what I mean. I'm privileged to know so many of them, and so fortunate that God gave me a purpose.

This Christmas, I received the greatest Christmas gift I have ever gotten in my 54 years. I walked into an auction barn and left with 20 dogs, every dog I had physical space for and a need to rescue. Many beautiful pugs, and a few other dogs with physical issues I knew would go unattended should they enter the world of puppymills. Four more followed on Monday. My auction buddy left with six more still. The grand total was 30 dogs snatched from lives of misery. We did this together. Every one of you who sent money, who spread the word, who offered to accept the dogs into your rescues afterward, who lent your support in so many ways has made a difference for these animals this Christmas.

We still have a ways to go, but we will get there. Every dog here will be made well.Every dog here have a loving home. So I want to thank you. Thank you for the opportunity, thank you for this incredible gift, thank you for all you do to ease suffering and lift up the least among us, the most powerless. Thank you for enriching my life and being my ROCK!

If these dogs could talk, they'd thank you, too. For them, you have closed the door on a world of misery and opened up a whole new world of love, comfort and freedom from pain. Words cannot begin to convey this miracle for them.

With heart full of gratitude, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, as good and hopeful as the one you've bestowed on every rescued dog.

Merry Christmas, and may 2013 be just the beginning for you, too.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Sadie & Sharon
When my sister died in 1995, I lost the person I loved most in the world. She was beautiful, smart and funny, but the gift that made her really remarkable was her ability to accept people as they are - it's a gift bestowed upon almost all animals, but few human beings. When Sharon died, she left behind two young-adult sons, a Golden Retriever and a 15 year-old cat named Lucy. Everyone had a place to go but the cat. I had two dogs of my own, but i took Lucy home with me and gave her a doughnut bed on my sofa where no one was allowed to harass her. To her credit, she made the adjustment and lived two more years before passing on at the age of 17 from renal failure. When she died, we buried her in my mom's back yard. I remember digging the hole in the rain one awful, chilly day, tears running down my face, sobbing the whole time. Losing Lucy was like losing my sister all over again.

Six weeks ago, I got a call from a shelter volunteer in central Illinois that caused me to revisit this sad chapter of my life. The volunteer had been contacted by a woman who, coincidentally, was also named Sharon, about a mama terrier mix with five puppies. Sharon had neither the room nor the means to keep them all and had asked if the shelter would accept them. Wanting better for a nursing mother and her pups, the volunteer contacted me. Which is how I came to be sitting in a Target parking lot in Shiloh, Illinois on a day that took the pugmobile's air conditioner to task.

Sharon pulled up in an older, faded blue Chevy Impala with a mashed front fender. She was, I estimated, in her sixties, a plain, country woman who immediately hugged me. I asked her where the mama and pups had come from.

"My cousin died all of a sudden. He had three dogs. We found homes for the others, but nobody wanted this one because she was pregnant." I looked inside to see a small black mutt with one eye covered in mucus and five puppies gnawing at her. "She's a real good dog. Everyone told me to give the pups away, but i just can't do that. And I don' want this to happen again." She began to cry. "I miss my cousin so much. I'd really like to keep her. I just love her! She's a real good dog. Housetrained. Follows me everywhere."

"What's her name?" I asked.

"Sadie," she answered. "Thank you so much for takin' her." 

Over my years of rescue, I have seen a lot of family members who, on the death of a pet-owning relative, can't beat a path to the local pound quickly enough. I was pretty impressed by Sharon. Most of the time, when I meet people from rural areas, they're dumping dogs or selling them, or simply allowing them to breed freely. Here was a countrified lady with no money and no fancy education. Yet she was truly trying to do the right thing for these animals. She cared. 

"Do you think I could get her back after the pups are weaned?" she asked. "She's a real good dog." I looked at Sadie, who in turn eyed me with suspicion, and I looked at Sharon wiping away tears. I could see how hard this was for her.

"Well," I answered, "she'll have to be spayed and microchipped.  That's the law in Illinois.You will have to reimburse us for those, but we can probably get her vetted and charge you our cost." I gave it some thought...about a heartbeat's worth. "Yeah, I think that'll work."

"How long will it be?," she said brightly. "Do you think I could come and see her?" She sounded almost childlike."I'm really gonna miss her, she's such good company."

"It might be best to wait - we don't want her upset. But here's my number. You can call about her anytime you like."

Sharon wasted no time - she called that night, wanting to know how Sadie was settling in. She reminded us that Sadie loved her chewy bones in the evening, and we gave her one that Sharon had sent with her.

Watching Sadie with her bone, and the five little rat puppies snuggling beside her in the cuddler bed beneath my computer desk, I thought about the tenuous threads connecting us to the people we love. Sharon missed her cousin, who had clearly been a force in her life. Taking in his pets, despite her limited resources could not have been an easy thing to do. But it was the right thing to do. I admired her, and understood why she had done it. Every well-loved pet, I thought, carries a little piece of the person who loved them. Shared grief, too, is a powerful bond.

I thought back to when my sister, Sharon, was alive and the relationship she'd had with her cat, Lucy. When Sharon arrived home each day after work, the first thing she did on opening the door was sing out, "Where's my Loooooooooo-ceeeeeeeeeeeee?" I can still hear it. Lucy, the fat black-and-white feline diva, would come bounding toward her meowing excitedly, wrapping herself in and around my sister's ankles, all the while gazing up at her adoringly with big yellow eyes. Lucy always made my sister laugh. I remembered Sharon's delight at the mischievous way Lucy would lay in wait around a corner for her silly puppy to walk by, then POUNCE and send the pup scurrying for cover!

Lucy, who slept on Sharon's bed every night - she who rolled rapturously in sprinkles of catnip, something which always evoked joyous gales of laughter from my sister.

So many wonderful memories. Good happy memories that crept up in after the pain.

The other Sharon called several times over Sadie's hiatus with me. I think she would have called more had she not been afraid she might annoy me. Most evenings, Sadie would sit on the floor next to my bed and stare at me for awhile. There was always a question in those eyes - I know I'm going home, but when?

Finally the day arrived when mama's pups were weaned. Sadie was able to be spayed. I kept her one more night after the surgery, just to be certain she was recovering properly, then called Sharon. She met me that same afternoon back in the same Target parking lot as soon just as quickly as I was able to get there. Sadie marched around the van to Sharon and sat squarely in front of her, eyes locked, tail thumping madly. She was going home. She knew it.

I asked them to pose for a final photograph. Then I went over instructions for Sadie's suture removal and microchip registration. I gave them four bottles of artificial tears and some antibiotic ointment for her dry right eye, along with Sadie's records in an envelope. Because Sharon had been willing to pay for Sadie's veterinary care despite the financial hardship, I charged her nothing. Being able to ensure that doing the right thing pays off for the doer is a gift all it's own.

After I delivered Sadie, I thought a lot about my sister and her Lucy. I thought about the threads connecting two people long after one of them has left this life. Those threads might be a place, an object or a well-loved pet. The way we treat those treasures says a lot about who we are.
Of course, pets have souls. Somewhere my sister, who now looks just like her high school senior photo, is sprinkling catnip for a happy black-and white cat with huge yellow eyes. Sometimes my eyes well up with tears of joy just thinking about the moment when I get to see them both again. It's coming.
One day, I'll get all my dogs back, too. I'm counting on it.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Bucket

There are many aspects of rescue. Not every person can make turn their home into a dog shelter. Some are more able and willing to transport. Others donate much-needed funds to keep rescues afloat. Still others are able to foster one or two dogs. Each of these things is important. But no dog can be rescued without a place to go. So the small rescues who truck the filthy, smelly, frightened puppymill survivors back and forth to the vet, clean up their messes, live with them 24/7 until they are deemed adoptable, if ever - we are the line. We are the people who cannot look into those eyes filled with pain and say, "Sorry, you'll have to be euthanized because I have no room and no one else will take a blind, heartworm positive pug that has never lived in a home". Instead, we say "Yes, I'll make room for you." Why do we do that? We do it because:
  1. Some human somewhere is responsible for the mess you're in. It's not your fault.
  2. We've weighed your death against the inconvenience having you in our home would cause us. You won.
  3. If we refused you, we would have to face ourselves tomorrow knowing we were selfish and you paid the price for it.
So, once again, we take someone elses mess into our home.

Messes like this  - the blind, heartworm positive pug we'll call Jimmy - one do not get adopted quickly. And while he is here, another mess comes in. And another. Then two more. Soon you have 12 messes in your home. There is no line at your door waiting to adopt any of them. Few people are willing to foster puppymill survivors - they crap everywhere and walk through it. They stiffen up like boards when you pick them up - IF you can catch them. So they stay right there with the compassionate person who could not turn them away. A year later, Jimmy and the others are still there - posted for adoption, yes, but there has been no one willing to commit to them.

This brings me to a tale of two rescue people we'll call Linda and Ellen. Both are basically good, caring people with good intentions. Linda has been doing hardcore rescue for many years. She is one of those caring people who takes in the rejects no one else will touch. She has, like most of us, dumped tons of her own money into rescue dogs. She has been to dog auctions with me where I've seen her cry openly over the awful state of the animals there. I've seen her scrape the bottom of her wallet to buy beagles with embedded collars because they did not sell there and she could not leave them.

Ellen has been on the outskirts of rescue, doing some transport, a little fostering. She has started her own brand new rescue, and I wish her the best in this endeavor. When I did a petfinder search, they had no animals for adoption yet. But she is taking a huge step toward serious commitment to rescue.

Ellen and Linda have been friends for years. But a problem arose when Ellen picked up a pug named Frank from Linda to foster in her home. The pug's nails were too long. He had ear mites, and had not had a heartworm test. Frank was also still very frightened of people. He had been in rescue for a year - why was he still so afraid?

Ellen was angry over what she viewed as "neglect". She decided that Linda had too many dogs to properly care for them. Ellen gave the dog to her veterinarian for placement and refused to share any information with Linda about where Frank was or what had happened to him. Frank was gone, and no longer Linda's concern.

Linda did not see this incident in the same light. She posted stolen dog posters everywhere with Ellen's name on them. She contacted an attorney and threatened to sue Ellen. The two friends were friends no more.

My involvement came about when Ellen applied to adopt a pug puppy from me.  Ellen's references were excellent. Even Linda said that, despite the alleged theft of Frank, Ellen took very good care of her pugs. So I placed a puppy with Ellen, and waived the fee on another pug who had an ongoing health concern (I did inform her of this). The placement seems to be going well and I have no regrets so far. My pugs were fully vetted. Might she find some flaw with them? She might. I process a lot of dogs. Doing rescue in the midwest is like trying to turn back the ocean with a bucket. Yes, the pup had been wormed twice. Does this mean she has no parasites? Not hardly. Some parasites are rather stubborn. Even vets don't catch everything.

Which brings me back to Frank the pug - he of the long nails, ear mites and no heartworm test.

Long nails are a nuisance. Unless they had grown into the pad, they don't represent a health threat, at least nothing that five minutes and a set of nail clippers cannot remedy.  Likewise, ear mites are everywhere and, unless they have a severe case with noticeable discharge, they're easy to overlook when you are running a rescue alone. A squirt of ivomec in each ear - Ouila! No more ear mites.

The absent heartworm test - now that is a real concern. Heartworms can and eventually will kill a dog if not diagnosed and treated. Every dog over six months of age should have a heartworm test prior to placement.

But now comes the real question: Do we throw out the baby with the murky water?

Linda is a rescuer who has saved hundreds of pugs. Ellen seems to think that that absent heartworm test gave her the right to abscond with Frank the pug, and that Linda should not be doing rescue at all.  But is Ellen ready to step up and open her home to the 54 puppymill survivors Linda would have taken this year? Has she thought ahead to the point of wondering where those pugs will go if Linda is not around to take them?

I do not always agree with every other rescue person's way of doing things. But before I disagree in a major way, I ask myself this question:

Would the dogs be better off without her?

I can think of only three instances in 17 years where the answer was "yes".  In Linda's case, there is no doubt in my mind that every one of those dogs who has ever crossed her path is the better for it. It' a pity they cannot speak. I'm quite sure they would agree.

As for me, I once fostered a pug for Linda in an emergency. On reviewing his paperwork, I could find no documentation of a heartworm test. I knew my friend was, like me, the family caregiver. Her father was in the hospital, her grandmother was ill, I knew she had a plate chock-full of responsibility. I know she has the "rescue heart".

I took the pug to my vet, got him tested (negative), placed him, and sent Linda the check and contract. I never mentioned the missing heartworm test because it was an anomaly and I considered it incidental to the enormity of the task at hand. Besides, she would have done exactly the same for me.

You see, I do NOT want to lose a terrific rescuer because she missed a drop with her little bucket. The fact that she is out there bailing matters far more.

And for those out there who have yet to lift a bucket, please view those of us standing against the tide with a kind heart and a generous spirit. We all make mistakes. I have made a great many, done many things I wish I could take back. It's a long difficult process we call "learning".

But we're trying.

In a world where so many care nothing at all, please give us some credit for that.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Midwest's Madonna of the Mills Goes To Jail

SHEMP, a blind puppy purchased & given to IL-MO Rescue, NFP by Lisa Welborn

Many of you have seen the HBO documentary, "Madonna of the Mills". The subject, a woman named Laura, acts as an intermediary between puppymills and rescues, saving literally thousands of dogs from lives of suffering and neglect.

How many of you are aware we have our own Madonna of the Mills right here in Illinois?

I met Lisa Welborn of Granite city about a year ago during a large-scale organized puppymill rescue at a horse barn in Missouri. It was one of the more inspiring things I've seen in rescue. Professional rescuers from all over the country were there, volunteering their services. Lisa pulled up later in the afternoon in a rented van filled to the rooftop with dog carriers. Those in turn were filled with filthy, stinking, frightened, excited dogs. People poured out to unload the crates. In one of those crates was a terrified, difficult elderly pug no one really wanted - old puppymill males are among the toughest dogs to place. He came home with me. I've never forgotten that Lisa was the one who gave him that opportunity.

I knew the moment we met that Lisa and I were kindred spirits. Lisa is my age and, like me, she has a full-time day job. Rescue consumes most of her free time. She is the most self-effacing, unassuming person I know. She began calling me occasionally on Saturdays when she came back with a load of puppymill survivors. Often, she would give me a puppy, something I never got anywhere else. Shelters only call me if there is something wrong with a dog, "wrong" meaning sick, expensive or unlikely to be adopted. Puppies are a favor to small rescues - they help raise the funds we need to vet the old, the blind, the heartworm positive. It was months before I discovered she was paying for these puppies with her own money. She would not take anything from me. Even when I got her a gift card as a small "Thank You", she was so annoyed I almost felt bad I had done it. Lisa is a boon to little rescues like mine that are constantly struggling for funds. She is one of the kindest, most generous human beings I  have ever known. Smart, quick-witted with a terrific sense of humor to boot. I liked and respected her immensely.

So you can imagine my shock when I opened an email and saw her face in a mugshot.

"Lisa Welborn charged with animal hoarding" read the headline. I felt sick. Too many uneducated persons confuse rescue with hoarding. It can be disastrous - even fatal - for the rescuer and the animals in their care. It was a full day before I could reach Lisa to find out what had transpired.

Lisa had arrived home to the smell of gas. Suspecting a gas leak, she immediately left the house and called the gas company, AmerenIP.  Inside the house were about 25 puppymill survivors awaiting transfer to the organized rescue effort where they would be cleaned, vetted, vaccinated and treated for any problems, then transported to waiting rescues in the northern U.S. The Ameren workers went inside, found damaged gas lines and, saying nothing to Lisa, called the police. From that point, the situation escalated to a farcical mess: Although a licensed rescue was present and ready to accept the animals into a safe, protected environment, one Napoleonic officer from the Madison County Sheriff's Department insisted they impound the terrified dogs and prosecute Lisa as a hoarder.

"Having handcuffs put on you is a sobering experience," said Lisa. With her characteristic wit and humor, Lisa reported that "the other criminals were very pleasant" although laughter erupted on hearing her charges.

Among the dogs confiscated were Lisa's own personal dogs, and four cats. Like most of us in rescue, a few unadoptables were resigned to permanent residence. These traumatized dogs are now in Madison County Animal Control, a far cry from the nurturing environment to which they had become accustomed.

One report stated "Authorities discovered 25 dogs and 5 cats inside the home and saw the animals did not have proper vaccinations. The home was filled with pet feces and urine." Calling this a gross exaggeration is a definite understatement. A lie would be more accurate. Yes, they had hit it just right. The dogs there had been picked up a few days earlier. They were still smelly. As for vaccinations, anyone rescuing puppymill dogs will tell you they don't ever have rabies vaccinations and are not housetrained. Puppymillers vaccinate for genuine threats like Parvo and Distemper. A dog in a rabbit hutch is not likely to contract rabies. In a few more days they would have had all required vaccinations and been on their way to health and rehabilitation.

But the fellows from AmerenIP apparently saw no reason to speak directly to Lisa about the situation. They simply called the cops.

Lisa has hired a good animal rights attorney. Lisa is not licensed. She is not a rescue, per se. Lisa falls into a gray area, the layover between dog Hell and dog Heaven. All the small licensed rescues who know and work with Lisa think highly of her and have offered their services in any capacity needed. I'd be more than happy to testify on her behalf. All her neighbors, with one exception, had nothing bad to say about Lisa. They all knew what she was doing, knew that wretched dogs would come in for a week or two, then leave all at once. Lisa has helped most of those neighbors at one time or another with a sick dog, or a stray they found.

The one exception? You know the type. A retired man who, lacking gainful employment, appoints himself the neighborhood snitch. When God asks him "What have you done to make the world a better place?", he'll stand there looking stupid because keeping a manicured lawn and waxing your car every week don't count.

The worst thing of all is the thousands of puppymill dogs who will never get that taste of freedom, never experience happiness, a soft bed, a squeaky toy. Love. Not many people can do what Lisa did. I used to do it, before I realized that I would get killed if I kept it up. My sister once told me, "Everything you think shows on your face". Not a good trait when you are dealing with scum. I had to quit. I deeply admire Lisa Welborn for having the strength to face those puppymillers, smile at them, and be their "friend" because she knows it literally means the whole world to one little dog.

As for AmerenIP, I called today and switched my billing to Direct Energy (1-888-307-2650 or www.directenergy.com/20SAVE). I will save on my bill and take a little something away from them. What they did in their ignorance was pretty awful.

As for law enforcement, perhaps it would be best if they left issues involving animal counts over the city ordinance to their state departments of agriculture.These are the bodies which normally regulate animal shelters and rescue. They have been educated in the differences between rescue and hoarding. The Madison County Sheriff's Department clearly has not.