An anonymous tip led police to a residential property, where they found dogs who were scarred, underweight and flea-infested, living outside with scant shelter, staked to chains thick enough to tow a boat.

On that day in late May, Gaston County Police Department officers removed two severely emaciated dogs, but with no search warrant, they had to leave the other dogs behind. It wasn’t an outcome the officers were willing to accept, says Janette Reever, Humane Society International’s program manager for animal crimes investigations. “They couldn’t sleep knowing the dogs were out there.” 

Two weeks later, warrant in hand, officers returned to the property, accompanied by members of our Animal Rescue Team. While the rescue team freed the seven remaining dogs from their chains, detectives gathered the evidence that would lead to a raft of dogfighting, animal cruelty and drug charges against the owner. 

The rescue team transported the dogs to an undisclosed shelter. While the case against their owner progresses, the dogs are reveling in attention from their human caretakers, air-conditioning and soft beds. “It was a drastic change in their demeanor just being given flea meds,” says Laura Koivula, HSUS director of animal crimes and investigations. “They go outside and play every day. They’re visibly happier.”  

Photo of a Gaston County detective comforting a dog during the rescue.
Gaston County detective James Brienza comforts Gertie during a rescue at a suspected dogfighting operation.
Brent Clark
AP Images for the HSUS
Photo of an HSUS rescuer comforting a dog.
Rescuer Laura Koivula prepares to remove Hazel from the property.
Brent Clark
AP Images for the HSUS

Among them is a dog the team named Hazel. While her face is covered in scars, Hazel has a sweet disposition and likes other dogs, Koivula says. And there’s Gertie, who was so terrified she had to be carried off the property. At the shelter, Gertie is slowly coming out of her shell, revealing a timid but gentle personality. 

HSUS North Carolina state director Gail Thomssen hopes the case’s publicity will result in more dogs being rescued: Gaston County detectives have already received dozens of tips on suspected dogfighting operations, she says.

It was Thomssen’s first time on a raid of an alleged dogfighting operation, an experience she describes as both fascinating and heartbreaking.

“It’s fascinating how the whole investigative process breaks down,” Thomssen says. “Heartbreaking to see dogs in that situation, but at the same time heartwarming to see them taken off those heavy chains and to know they would never live on those chains again.”

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