Fort Nelson firefighters and RCMP officers chipped in help B.C. SPCA workers transport the sick and neglected pups hours away to get medical help

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Those spotted pups in the story 101 Dalmatians managed to make it to safety on their own.

But the logistics of rescue, medical attention, naming and profiling, and finally finding healthy homes for 119 dogs found living in two trailers in Fort Nelson, many of them afraid of human handling, well, it took a small army.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” said Eileen Drever, senior officer of protection and stakeholder relations with the B.C. SPCA. “Some were quite fearful. They have medical issues, and yet they want the loving.”

The Northern Rockies detachment of the RCMP received a call about the dogs on March 12 from a member of the public and alerted the local SPCA branch. Four police officers went to the property with three members of the animal welfare organization.

They’d been told there were 20 to 30 dogs at a property, and the SPCA was prepared for that many. But they discovered 75 in one trailer inhabited by one man — the dogs had to be passed through a window because the door of the unheated trailer was frozen shut — and 44 dogs in another trailer inhabited by at least one other person and perhaps as many as three.

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Three members of Northern Rockies Fire Rescue also pitched in. Chief James Childs had never seen anything like it in his 25 years with the department, he said

“It was definitely a first and, we hope, the last,” added dispatcher Jennie Johnson, who also helped with the rescue.

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Incredible journey

Among the 119 dogs, four were moms with 17 puppies between them, according to the SPCA. At least one more is pregnant, and several more suspected of being so (ultrasounds will determine how many.)

Along with two SPCA transfer vans, fire rescue offered two command pickups, one hauling a utility trailer, to transport the dogs: 100 were delivered five hours away to Dawson Creek, 19 taken four hours away to Fort St. John.

Originally, the SPCA said no charges would be laid, but in fact the investigation resumes March 22.

The 119 terriers, shih tzus, papillons and other small crossbreeds are the largest single rescue/surrender since Drever joined the SPCA 41 years ago, she said.

Every dog has now been named by staff (necessary to keep track of what ailments affected which dogs), and it’s the staff who provide input for the dogs’ adoption profiles after working with them and observing their behaviour.

“It’s amazing, they come in as a number and they leave with identification by having a name and a whole personality, which shines through after they start to feel better,” Drever said.

Staff had to groom or shave the dogs because they were so matted and covered in dried feces and urine. They had dental problems, hernias, nose scrapes, eye issues, nutritional needs and uncut nails.

“They’re so cute,” said Kim Monteith, manager of animal welfare with SPCA. “Some are sociable, they’ll come up and say hello.”

While the dogs are used to humans being around, most were terrified of being touched because they weren’t used to that, she said. Many of the dogs needed sedation before they could be examined.

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“They range from curious, friendly, social, to ‘I’m scared don’t touch me, don’t even come near me.’ To these guys, it’s all new, they’re like ‘Who are you people, what are you, what’re you going to do to me?’”

Hotdogs and chicken cut into bits, not as bribes but as shows of trust, slowly helped bridge that fear.

Their ancient ancestor, the wolf, lives in packs, but these dogs were more like penned sheep, living in a herd. They don’t know what it’s like to have a collar and be walked on a leash. They’ve never trotted down a street or played fetch, never walked up stairs, never heard a phone ring, never gone for a car ride.

They were given adequate amounts of food, but it was dumped in one pile inside each trailer and the dogs had to compete to eat, said one of the veterinarians who worked 12-hour shifts to check the health of the dogs. It took more than 40 hours in total.

“We found scars on their noses and ears from having to fight over food,” Dr. Karen van Haaften said.

The dogs have been dispersed to shelters across B.C. now, including 23 at the Fraser Valley shelter in Abbotsford.

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Why do they do it?

Animal hoarding, alas, is all too common, van Haaften said (cats, in the majority of cases, although in one infamous example five years ago 596 parrots were rescued on Vancouver Island). She couldn’t speak specifically about this case, but said mental illness usually is involved in animal hoarding, that the hoarders usually are suffering as much as the animals, but are incapable of seeing the harm they are doing to the animals.

“It’s upsetting to see these animals suffer, for sure, but in my experience there is not a lot of malice.”

A quick perusal through social media will turn up countless good-news stories about dogs that looked beyond hope when they were rescued, but who grew into healthy, happy members of their adoptive families.

“Right? It’s amazing,” van Haaften said. “That’s what keeps us doing this heartbreaking work. When we’re able to help, it’s so rewarding.”

Donations to help with the sudden cost of the operation can be made online .

The B.C. SPCA hoped dogs would begin being available for adoption on March 22.

gordmcintyre@postmedia.com

twitter.com/gordmcintyre

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