Shalimar Oliver has heard from people familiar with the Hertford County, North Carolina, breeder for years. As an animal crimes case manager for the Humane Society of the United States, she’s listened to their stories of heartache and processed their complaints before sending those complaints to local law enforcement. She’s talked with pet owners who purchased puppies suffering from health issues and people who saw dogs living in poor conditions on the property firsthand.
In May, Oliver stood in front of the North Carolina house. Years of work had culminated in this moment. Our Animal Rescue Team, local law enforcement and Orange County Animal Services were there to rescue the 114 Australian shepherd mixes living on the property.
After police officers served a search and seizure warrant, the team entered the property. Oliver took a second to process the scene. “This is a case I’ve been working on for quite some time,” she says. “Once we got there, it kind of just sunk in that that was the reality. Every story I’d heard previously, every picture that was painted, it all made sense.”
Responders found dogs—including nursing mothers and puppies—living in unsanitary, hazardous conditions inside the home, yard and outdoor pens. A veterinarian immediately noted that many of the dogs appeared very thin and some were severely emaciated, with visible ribs and protruding hip bones. They saw dogs drinking from a pool of “electric” green water, as rescuer Justine Hill describes it, and found bodies of dead puppies in a freezer. Some dogs suffered from eye and skin conditions, such as missing fur. A dog sitting in the living room appeared pink due to severe hair loss and irritated skin. Hill says it was heartbreaking to see her and imagine how uncomfortable and itchy she must have been feeling.
Responders first removed the sociable dogs, such as the puppies who ran right up to them. The team worked slowly to build rapport with the more fearful dogs before removing them. Many of the fences had holes, and the timid dogs kept slinking out of reach. Trained to rescue animals while causing the least amount of distress possible, the team adjusted its approach depending on each dog’s behavior.
Once every dog was removed from the property, Oliver felt a surge of relief. Local residents also exhaled. Sheriff Dexter Hayes noted in a May press release that the property had been “a source of great concern,” adding, “We have already heard from members of the community who are grateful to know this is the start of a better life for the dogs rescued here today.”
Rescuers transported the dogs to a safe, confidential location to receive continued veterinary care. It was there that animal care staff discovered that at least 30 dogs had pellets or BBs embedded in their skin. Several dogs were diagnosed with sarcoptic mange and many had tick-borne illnesses. And the number of dogs quickly grew as pregnant dogs gave birth to puppies in the days following the rescue.
In a nod to their Australian shepherd roots, every dog was given an Aussie name. Oliver, who is Australian herself, helped compile a long list of options. The pink dog with missing fur was named Breezy, meaning lively and cheerful—a name well suited to her lovable spirit. A dog with thick, matted fur hiding his tiny frame was named Dinkum—slang for “authentic” and “genuine.” And a red dog found in a small crate in the kitchen with her five puppies is now called Mama Roo.
At press time, most of the dogs had gone to shelter and rescue partners, on their way to find loving homes. None of this would have been possible without the hard work of the sheriff’s office, prosecutor’s office and community, Oliver says. “Given the awful situation, it was a fantastic experience seeing everybody come together and accomplish this.” She hopes this rescue can have a ripple effect on law enforcement agencies across the country, encouraging them to take animal cases seriously.
At the temporary care facility, the dogs enjoy small daily joys such as sniffing the fresh air and eating frozen treats. Routine treatments such as baths and grooming go a long way in soothing their irritated skin. Slowly, their fur is growing and their bodies are filling out.
Hill sees the transformation in their eyes as well. “You walk onto a property and you see these dogs in such poor condition, and their eyes alone tell their story. You see a sadness, you see a loss,” she says. “When you can see that light come back to their eyes, [it’s something] you just never really forget.”
After five weeks working on the ground, Oliver finally arrived home in early June. Still, she’s already planning her next visit to see the dogs. “You have no idea just how thrilled I’ve been since [the rescue],” she says. “It’s just been one of those things that I think is going to stick with me forever.”