It’s been five years and while I still think of it often, even now it feels a bit unreal to me. How could we have really shut down the largest commercial puppy mill in our state and probably in the country and one that had been in operation for over 50 years? Really?’
When I try and describe what led up to the raid on that mill and what happened during it, I find myself talking about the people even more than the animals. About how our country’s largest rescue groups came together to help us simply because they were asked (it wasn’t quite that simple but almost). About how volunteers in all forms rallied to our emergency shelter site within what seemed like minutes upon hearing of our need. Of the four women from Florida who drove thousands of mile through the night to help clean cages. Of the donations that flooded in from around the country for weeks after and of how animal rescue organizations seemingly overnight arrived to take most of the nearly 1000 dogs into their organizations. And about how hundreds of people stood in line down the street vying to adopt the animals we kept locally. Five years later it is still astonishing to me in countless ways.
There are funny unremarkable events that are remarkable in my memories too.
I remember the man who brought lunch for all the volunteers at the warehouse that was our emergency shelter. He’d commandeered the kitchen at the North End Tavern and made chicken, baked beans, corn on the cob and packed each meal into its own container and delivered them to us. As I stuffed my first decent meal in days into my mouth and chatted with him and while I wouldn’t recognize his face if he walked up to me today, I remember his words as if he said them to me yesterday….“I just wanted to help you and say thanks for helping save those dogs. I couldn’t do what you’re doing but I can cook.” As occurred so many times during that stressful week, I burst into tears.
Funny and sort of interesting that the predominant memories are not only those of the truly heroic rescuers and volunteers but also those that did things like that gentleman. The woman in New York who sent a small box with a note “I don’t have much money but wanted to help in any way I could. Hope you can use these.” Within the box was a small bag of treats, one tennis ball, and a package of dishtowels. I was as grateful for her gifts as I was the tractor trailer load of supplies that came from PetSmart.
My chiropractor Heather McCarter offered to help and the next thing I knew she was there giving adjustments to very tired and sore volunteers in the midst of barking dogs. One of the experienced rescue people from Canada remarked that he had been involved in many such missions but having a chiropractor on site was a first!
The memory of Dr. Jim Davis, who had been retired from his veterinarian practice for quite some time, joining in the effort is another strong memory for me. In particular one evening something happened after most of the volunteers and volunteer veterinarians had left and we needed a vet and Dr. Davis was back in a flash to help. I would later learn after his passing from his wife Sally that he had remarked to her that this event too was one of the most rewarding of his life.
Of course there are dog memories too. Throughout the rescue I met, handled, held, photographed and examined many of the 973 dogs and puppies as we took them from the mill, checked them into our emergency shelter, cared for them for a week and then again as each left us. I felt incredibly responsible for not only their rescue but for their lives. Silly notion that I could accept such responsibility but in my overly emotional state that’s how I felt. As such I made it a point to say good bye to each and every one of them. When the first left I cried. When the last left I cried. And when Sunshine left I sobbed like a baby.
Sunshine represented to me the epitome of the puppy mill dog. She was a breeder and had obviously had many litters. She was so laden with puppies that she could not walk without her belly rubbing the ground. She looked and acted much older than her estimated years of 6 or 7. Her life had certainly been nothing more than years of churning out litter after litter for profit in the tiny cage, in the stinky building that was the only home she’d ever known.
She was so pitiful and noticeably uncomfortable, she was the first to be removed. Equally concerned for her condition our transport driver, Kara Seaman, put her in the front seat of her truck. Before long she’d have a name and be heading home with Kara to foster. The following night she’d have her babies….in freedom! Certainly the first litter of puppies she’d delivered outside a cage and the last litter she’d ever have! Her babies would NEVER know the life she had led.
On the day she was to leave, I stayed with her much that morning as if I was trying to make up for all that I had missed and would miss of her life. When I handed her and her puppies over to the rescue and warned them that they would hear from me repeatedly wanting updates on Sunshine and the babies, I realized that in my heart Sunshine had come quickly to represent ALL the dogs we had rescued and be the example of ALL that had suffered with her in the mill.
Updates I would get and by far one of the sweetest was that Sunshine’s foster family had named all of Sunshine’s puppies after flowers….Rose, Violet, Daisy and Lily. Well why not….it takes the sunshine to make the flowers grow. And when months later I would hear that each had found homes and that Sunshine too had found her own very special forever home, I somehow felt this relief that ALL of the rescued dogs must be home too.
There is rarely a day that I don’t have some cause to think of the dogs of Whispering Oaks or to think of that time in my life. I’ve not been the same since and know that many other people feel changed because of what they saw, felt and experienced during those days.
The overwhelming memory and feeling that lingers with me and I long for again, is this sense of oneness with everyone involved. This place and time where all worked together towards the same goal with the same dedication and caring. It was like nothing I had ever felt before or since.
And while it was a time filled with stress, excitement and exhaustion…every single person was there for one reason and one reason only. To help in any way they could. Although certainly we were a blessing to those dear animals what a blessing they were to all who shared in their rescue together. It was life changing and not just for the dogs.
To all that helped tirelessly, I thank you again. To all we saved, I still think of you often and wish you the best life has to offer.
10/9/20 Update: I have stayed in touch with Sunshine’s adopter all these years and on Tuesday of this week I received a message from Jennifer. “I just wanted you to know that we had to let Sunshine go yesterday. She’s been slowly going down the last month and this weekend it was really bad. She was having trouble walking Sunday, her vet gave her a steroid shot and prescription in case it was a problem with her back but she wouldn’t eat and barely drank. I held her all Sunday, Sunday night and Monday. She has always loved sitting in the sun, Monday was cool but sunny so we sat outside in the sun with her wrapped up in her favorite blanket. Sunshine has given my life so much meaning and I can’t imagine life without her. I know important she was to you so I wanted you to know.”
While it impossible not to feel a sadness and heaviness from her passing, I know that she knew nothing but love from the time we removed her from the mill. She felt it in the truck as Kara waited for us to load dogs to go to the shelter. I know she knew it in her foster home as she cared for her babies. And certainly in her forever home with Jennifer. I will always feel especially grateful for each of the special people in her life and all that helped us save her and all the others.
A video story about our rescue may also be viewed A Rescue Story
Categories: Animal Neglect and Abuse