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After December Rescue, Dozens of Neglected Animals On the Way to Recovery

Rescued from neglect in Dunlap, Tennessee, 51 dogs, 10 cats, one goat and one pigeon are getting a second chance

All Animals magazine, March/April 2015

by Ruthanne Johnson

Gandalf's "super sweet disposition" won the hearts of rescuers, says rescue team member Ashley Mauceri. He has since gained weight and continues to recover. Photo: Kathy Milani/The HSUS

For rescuers on the scene that Friday in late December, the images are not easily forgotten.

As they approached Geoffrey Peterson’s vacant home, surrounded by towering desiccated weeds, four large shapes suddenly lurched at the windows. “The windows were so covered with feces and grime that I couldn’t see the dogs,” remembers HSUS state director Leighann Lassiter. “I could just hear them barking and bouncing off the glass.”

Inside, a maze of narrow paths wound through stacks of books, small appliances and piles of garbage and animal waste. Stuffed in among the junk were cages with dogs so skinny you could count their bones. A goat watched rescuers through a tractor tire-sized hole she had apparently chewed in the drywall. As lead veterinarian John Mullins watched, the goat nibbled pages from a book. “There was nothing for her to eat … other than drywall and books,” says Mullins.

Bags and cans of pet food were everywhere, but each dog’s bowl sat empty. One gaunt shepherd mix hung his head toward the place where he hoped food might come. Another dog had pried his crate’s bars apart with his head and nearly gotten stuck.

A tipster had contacted The HSUS about emaciated dogs being taken to vet clinics around the Chattanooga area. The HSUS brought the case to the attention of the Sequatchie County Sheriff’s Office, which began an investigation and obtained a search warrant.

  • Photo: Kathy Milani/The HSUS

  • Photo: Kathy Milani/The HSUS

Rescuers found more dogs behind closed doors, in bedrooms, bathrooms, closets and even outbuildings. They discovered cats, too, like one pair huddled together in the only clean corner of their crate. In one bathroom was a pigeon. “He was so skinny,” Lassiter says. “It was the first time I’d seen a bird just sit there and shake. It was pitiful."

But there was worse: five dead dogs in the freezer. The image, says detective Paul Howard, will stay with him. “One puppy was wrapped up in a towel and had two bows tied around it like a Christmas present.”

One by one, the animals were documented for evidence and gently scooped up by HSUS rescuers, volunteers and law enforcement officers. The goat was led from Peterson’s abandoned house on a leash. “She was just so happy to be outside,” Lassiter remembers. Animals in noncritical condition went to Humane Educational Society and McKamey Animal Center, while those who needed extra medical attention went to Animal Care Center of Ooltewah, where Mullins works.

All, Mullins says, are on the road to recovery. The pigeon and dogs are gaining weight. They are no longer anemic. And the dogs’ urine burns from living in their own waste have healed. The despondent shepherd mix, now named Gandalf, gained nine pounds in the first two weeks. On Christmas Day, volunteers bathed and visited the dogs. One woman even made felt-covered toys for them.

At Humane Educational Society, the cats have come a long way since that first skittish day. A consistent routine—including gentle touch and talking to them throughout the day—is helping them become more social, with a few now gladly accepting cuddles.

Over the next weeks, more dogs were rescued from other properties connected to Peterson, who has been charged with four counts of aggravated animal cruelty, one count of animal cruelty and felony possession of morphine. Though he’s out on $10,000 bond, he cannot own or in any way deal with animals. He’s on a lot of people’s radar now, Howard says. “They will be watching him. We will be watching him.”

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