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Rescued from Squalor

A house full of dogs saved by The HSUS and partnering organizations provides a glimpse into the delusional world of animal hoarders

All Animals magazine, July/August 2010

  • View a PDF of this story here. The HSUS

  • Some dogs in the Mississippi home had been breeding, exacerbating an already overcrowded situation with the addition of new puppies. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

  • Mange had caused many dogs to lose their fur and scratch themselves raw in their attempts to stop the itching. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

  • HSUS field responder Rowdy Shaw and a staff member from the Mississippi Animal Rescue League carry armloads of puppies away from the filthy home where they were found. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

  • This dog was rescued from the muck in Mississippi and traveled north to receive medical treatment and rehabilitation from the Washington Animal Rescue League in the nation's capital. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

  • The same dog after arriving at the Washington Animal Rescue League. Large-scale rescues would not be possible without assistance from groups that take in the animals, treat them, and place them with new families. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

by Carrie Allan

The blue lights of a sheriff’s black cruiser blaze through the early spring drizzle, flashing a signal of caution to any cars approaching the modest, ranch-style house on this rural road in Preston, Miss.

Such passersby are infrequent; the road is isolated, the piney woods around it stretching into the distance. But if you were to be driving by this morning, you would see a small woman—middle-aged, blond, perhaps once pretty—standing in the driveway between two officers from the sheriff’s department. She is crying, pleading with them. Her face is crumpled and exhausted. The officers have their hands on her arms, restraining her.

Like a river moving around a boulder in its path, a half dozen grim-faced emergency responders in dark blue rain jackets and rubber boots divide and trudge past the officers, heading toward the woman’s house.

If you saw this from the road, from a distance, what would you feel? Confusion? Pity for the woman, who is crying as though her heart might break?

Look again: Several loose dogs circle around the front yard, wandering onto the road. More dogs move slowly about in pens in the side yard, some peering out from ramshackle hutches of plywood. The only sounds are the rain, the low voices of the officers, and barking—some close by, other howls fainter, farther away, from the woods behind the house.

Many of the dogs don’t look quite … right. From a distance, it’s hard to say why.

Come closer. Get out of your car. Wear shoes you don’t care about; every few steps, there are piles of dog feces. There is also trash everywhere, and shoddy fencing made of plywood and rusted metal wiring, and a busted-up sofa in the driveway that has been mauled and shredded by the dogs. Chunks of its yellow, weather-stained foam litter the yard.

The sheriff has opened the plywood gate to allow the responders deeper into the property. As they pass the officers and the woman they’re restraining, she says to them in a low, choked voice, “Please, go away.”

But the responders here today—from The HSUS, United Animal Nations, and the Mississippi Animal Rescue League—have a job to do, and that job requires balancing their pity for this woman with pity for the animals she’s been keeping. Up close, their need is clear: There are more dogs in a front pen, thin, mangy dogs slinking around nervously, many with eye infections, some with open wounds, many with limbs that look bloody and scabbed—a sign that their skin has become so itchy from mange that they’re chewing on themselves to try to make it stop.

Their discomfort is hard to witness, but there are signs of even more dismal fates. In the backyard, where more dogs are penned, a strange fragment catches the eye; its flash of white stands out against the brown of everything else. It’s partially embedded in a pile of feces, but on second glance it’s not hard to identify: It’s part of a dog’s jawbone, the teeth gleaming up from the mud.

From one of the pens, another small pack of nervous dogs watches the goings-on. The water in their kiddie pools, seemingly intended to serve as drinking stations, is dark green and slimy. But the most unsettling thing in this pen is a dead dog, its body wet with rain. It’s obviously been dead for some time. Something—the other dogs? the rats running freely around the property?—has eaten most of its back legs and face away. Its fleshless muzzle is agape, the sockets of the eyes empty.

Some of the responders are putting on respirators now, preparing to enter the house.

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