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 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.


mips said...

Was any of these dogs a Peke? If so I would love to let her know that I probably have one and she is safe. mips1970 yh

Maureen said...

I came across this post randomly and was so surprised to read it. I adopted a dog from a local shelter in March, 2012. The paperwork noted that the original rescuer was Lisa Welborn. I wish I could tell rescuers such as Lisa how much the work they do really means. You *are* appreciated. Despite the broken state of my dog, she has found her forever home with a family who loves her the way she is. Thank you, rescuers.

Jason Strong said...

So amazing! I never saw this story, but just from reading this I'm blown away by this amazing lady. I love reading about random acts of kindness like this. Animals have feelings as well, and deserved to feel loved, and this inspired me to do better at helping animals in my community who are suffering from neglect and abuse. Thanks for sharing this!

Jason |