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04/22/2004 Archived Entry: "Sometimes it really is animal "rescue""

SOMETIME IN MARCH THE SQUATTER WENT TO SLEEP IN HIS TRUCK with a Dean Koontz novel on his chest. Sometime in April, a neighbor finally noticed. And by the time a sheriff's deputy opened the door of the truck, the squatter had been asleep so long in the sun that his head fell off and bounced on the ground.

I live in a quiet little town in a quiet little county. But as Debra commented when I told her about this (after last year's rescue of animals from a murder site), "Stephen King would like your neighborhood." (And so, for that matter, would Dean Koontz.)

The squatter had at least eight dogs. Nobody's sure. They're hard to spot and hard to count, let alone to catch, as they dart into the woods or hide in one of the horrifically trash-filled hulks of vehicles on the property. But that's where our little group of rescuers comes in. And that's where animal rescue really becomes, really and truly, rescue.

Sensible dog writer Jon Katz has pointed out that American animal lovers have become obsessed with the idea of "rescue" because it makes us feel heroic. We no longer adopt animals from the pound. We rescue them from the pound. A group like the one I belong to is no longer an animal welfare group, but an animal rescue group, etc. And in a lot of circumstances, he's right. The term rescue is more drama than truth when you just pick up a stray off the street or adopt a Fido from a clean, modern low-kill shelter.

But I'll tell you, there are times. And this is one.

Mange, open wounds, bacterial infections, yeast infections, eye infections -- and those, apparently came before several weeks of being unfed. ... Frightened animals, showing long signs of abuse, cowering at the edges of our sight, hungry but too terrified to come forward. ... And over the whole scene, the miasma of corpse, even though the corpse itself is long gone. As the days get warmer, the "aroma" gets more pungent and penetrative.

Amazingly, only one of the dogs appeared to be starving to death when we were called in. She was already almost bald and completely covered with sores and in obvious pain from some other terrible thing. So starvation was just the final, back-breaking straw. Didn't make it, that poor babe. But the others, stronger than she, must have been scrounging food somewhere. We've now captured five, and although they've probably been eating nothing but garbage for several years (thus all the skin conditions and opportunistic infections), they've at least been eating.

They've also been in the truck cab where the squatter's body lay all those weeks. (Oh, thank you, Mr. Coroner for leaving the door open when you left.) And so we stand in the clearing amid the corpse-reek, spreading food for the shy critters. And then when we catch one we carry the corpse-reek out with us on the dog's fur until the heroic staff at the vet's office washes it away. Then we come home and throw all our clothes in the laundry and wash our hands with Clorox and sink into a bath.

Fortunately, this has mostly been the project of two other volunteers, who -- amazingly -- have asked almost nothing of anybody. I've gone out and helped a couple of times. But those two volunteers and the vet have been real heroes. Real rescuers.

Still, just being at the site is a strange experience.

The reek is bearable because you can sometimes get upwind of it or hope for a cool, wet day when it's less powerful. But old vehicle hulks, piled several feet high with trash, rodent droppings, rotting food, and just general misery are harder to take because you know they're the way the man lived, not just the way he died. The pathetic sad-eyed dogs hiding in all that rubble are harder still to bear.

And somehow, that Dean Koontz novel lying in the mud next to the truck amid the coroner's blue gloves and breathing filters ... somehow that just seems like the most unendurably sad thing. Seeing that hardbound book there, splayed open and face-down in the dirt and reeking like everything else around it reminds us that the squatter -- for all he was a loser, an alcoholic, maybe a druggie, and an unintentionally cruel abuser of dogs -- was a guy with a life who went to sleep one night trusting he'd wake up the next morning and having no idea what horrors he was going to leave behind him.

Posted by Claire @ 10:30 AM CST

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