This desolate property is strange and unnerving, a reckless spot of scrubland in eastern Arizona. The big rig for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is being carefully negotiated into position as I follow the lead team on foot. Dry silt shifts beneath our feet. The cold wind whips our hair. There is no water out here—it must be hauled in—and I am already feeling thirsty.
Scattered across the terrain, we find dogs. Some are wandering; some are chained to trees; many are locked in dilapidated vans filled with feces. Their numbers increase as we approach a few broken down trailers and a multitude of haphazard chain-link enclosures. Soon we are surrounded by dogs. Dogs of every conceivable size and color. Dogs in every direction. All their buckets are empty. I hear there are dead bodies, too, and one trailer stuffed with cats. In all my years of animal work, I have never experienced such a surge of sympathy. Hoarding paper dolls and old clothes and stacks of who-knows-what is fodder for television shows. Hoarding living beings is beyond comprehension.
As my first deployment with HSUS’ National Disaster Animal Response Team (NDART), I am here to assist with the transport and care of what will turn out to be 228 animals—dogs, cats, geese and one skinny pig—that have been enduring inadequate resources far too long. (I cannot show photos, but see video at http://bit.ly/g3urlj and http://bit.ly/e47hA5.)
The operation is enormous and logistically complex, and I am impressed by its execution. Alongside HSUS are many skilled partners: sheriff and deputies, police officers, veterinarians, animal handlers and documentarians. It is calm efficiency that facilitates the seizure.
At intake tables set up on-site, each animal is given a number and a veterinary check. Some arrive with mangy skin, fractured bones and open, untreated wounds. But when I squat to peek into the carrier of a tan shepherd mix, my reaction is visceral. Brown eyes are sunken into her distorted face. Muscle wasting, the horrifying effects of malnutrition. Emaciated, we write on her form, but the word cannot fully describe the agony of her skeletal frame.
“You’re going to be okay now,” I tell her, knowing she is only hours from her first gut-revving meal. But I cannot linger. There are 150+ dogs coming behind her, others in her same condition. I must move on.
After the animals are processed, they will be carried in the big rig to a temporary shelter assembled and run by the outstanding corps from United Animal Nations (UAN). Once the legalities are settled, HSUS will drive them to adoption agencies throughout the region and they will be given another stab at happy living. I am giddy with the idea of that shepherd, contentedly plump, frolicking over grass with a squeaky toy.
It will take several 15-hour days to get all these animals secured and address their medical needs at the shelter. The labor is intense. My service is voluntary and I am only here for a week, but HSUS professionals do this work every day. Funded by donations, they travel tirelessly to rescue victims of puppy mills, fighting rings and hoarding cases like this one. Seeing their dedication first hand, I am ever grateful for their commitment to animals in need. And I am honored to support their efforts.
I am now a big fan of PetSmart Charities, too. They have delivered a semi-truck full of supplies—all the kennels, food, leashes, blankets, bowls, etc.—$60,000 in aid for these animals. And I’ve learned their Emergency Relief Waggin’ is always on the go, carrying life-saving materials around the nation and relocating adoptable dogs from overcrowded shelters.
In the days to follow I will work with so many amazing people and come to recognize most of the dogs we are confiscating today. I will stop to visit the tan shepherd regularly. She will eat, small amounts at first, and I will see her eyes brighten. I will assist with veterinary exams and paperwork. This week will unfold like an origami of rewards and when I depart I will know a deeper compassion. But alas, I get ahead of myself.
Another load of dogs has arrived at the intake tables to be ferried from this starving land. I must get back to the task at hand.