Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dogs rescued from neglect won't suffer any longer

This dog spent his days in the darkness of this dirty shed. Note his nose poking out from the bottom left corner of the yellow door.

Even the sweetest day of the year doesn’t give dedicated rescuers in the field pause from heartbreak.

While many people celebrated love with their heart throbs on Valentine’s Day, I was consoling a New Orleans animal control officer whose heart had been torn apart. You met 22-year-old Melanie Fenwick last week. She’s the red-haired rescuer who came upon three dogs existing on a trash-strewn, derelict property.

The place is like so many others that litter the post-Katrina wasteland. Buildings that were submerged under dirty floodwaters are moldy, tattered shells.

In this case, two three-year-old pit bulls were being housed in dark, dilapidated sheds. The third, a five-month-old puppy, was clamoring to escape from the cab of a junked pick-up truck.

During one site visit, Melanie found a dog tethered on a heavy chain next to a burning pile of debris. There wasn’t even a bowl of water to quench his thirst as he sat breathing in the toxic fumes.

Melanie and her partner Travis Causey hoped they could orchestrate a happy ending to this story. They instructed the dogs’ guardian to make changes towards improving their welfare.

“Those pictures were not the worst ones,” said Fenwick, referring to the photographs posted to the blog story, Officers help dogs living in dismal conditions, February 10, 2009.

There isn’t a happily-ever-after ending for these dogs.

On Friday, the case went to court. The owner struck a plea bargain. He agreed to relinquish his two older dogs to the Louisiana SPCA. In exchange, some charges were dropped – a neighbor had spotted one of his dogs roaming at large, and none of them had rabies vaccinations. But the neglect charges stuck, and he pled guilty to three counts. One for each dog.

Now the fate of the two dogs turned over to LA SPCA had to be decided.

Prospects for pit bulls needing homes are grim at best, hopeless at worst. Most shelters I visit are overloaded with them. Many shelters won’t even put them up for adoption, fearing liability to their organization, or mistreatment of the animals. Pits are often euthanized upon arrival. Some organizations will consider adopting well-behaved pit bulls if the dog -- and the potential adopter -- pass rigorous assessments.

Louisiana SPCA does place pit bulls. But tragically, the dogs rescued in this case have several strikes against them. They aren’t babies anymore. At three years of age, people will look right past them and gravitate towards the plentiful puppies. And they tested positive for heartworm. The mosquitoes nurtured by the steamy climate of the bayou carry the parasites. The disease is expensive to treat and requires weeks of quiet rest. It’s not practical to offer this peaceful convalescent environment in the shelter’s chaotic setting.

And the pit bulls seized have other marks against them -- significant scarring to the skin that might be viewed as battle scars.

“We don’t want them fought, and we don’t want people coming into the shelter thinking, ‘Oh, this is a good fighting dog,’ ” Melanie said. “Nothing with scars goes up.”

The dogs were scheduled to die soon, this past Friday or Saturday perhaps. I don’t know if they are still alive. If they are, their time is coming. Possibly as you are reading this. Take some comfort in knowing that, unlike how they were treated in life, their deaths will be handled with humanity and compassion.

If you feel compelled to act and memorialize them, there is something important that you can do. Educate someone you know who is thinking of breeding their companion animal. Whether they own a pit bull or another type of animal, you will be saving lives. There is an epic overpopulation crisis. There are simply not enough homes. It’s time for all of us to act.

Back in New Orleans, the sheds where the dogs lived in misery have already been torn down by the landlord.

“His house really shouldn’t be inhabited,” Melanie said. “He didn’t have a proper place to put the dogs.”

Melanie won her case. But she’s frustrated. The win begets a loss. Unlike people who minister to human beings, animal rescuers aren’t just tasked with saving their charges. In many cases, they are also responsible for deciding who lives, and who dies.

Melanie consoles herself with the knowledge that their last few days at the shelter will likely be the best times for these dogs. And like most rescuers I meet, she’s more worried about the dog going home than the ones scheduled to die. The five-month-old puppy will be returned to his guardian this week. Melanie will be back to check on him soon.

“I care about the well-being of the dogs,” she said. “It’s good that they’re not going to spend the rest of their lives on the end of a chain. They won’t have to live through that again. At least they’ll have shelter and food until the end."

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