Monday, March 8, 2010

Tyler's story: An apology, a warning, and a Plea

Many of you read and responded to the story of Bishop, an abused pit bull who bit me at a Big Fix event back in October. Today's blog will be much longer than most, because I want to ensure I leave no details out. I feel I must apologize to those of you who donated for his care, I must warn everyone in rescue to do in-depth research before leaving an animal in another's care, and I must ask everyone to help the hundreds of animals at a “sanctuary” not receiving the care they so desperately deserve. I have heard stories of things far more grossly neglectful occurring, but I'm only going to share things I have experienced first-hand and can confirm.

When I sent out a plea for a place for Bishop to stay for 3-4 months while I worked on rehabilitating him, I was directed to SARA Sanctuary in Seguin, and their founder, Tracy Frank, agreed to grant me this somewhat out of the ordinary request. Like I said before, I was terrified of Bishop, but I spent four afternoons sitting outside of his kennel at ACS trying to get him comfortable with me (and moreso, me with him). I decided one of the most important things to erasing his memories of his past life was to give him a new name, and that was the moment that Bishop died and Tyler was born.

On Saturday, December 12th, his time was up at ACS and I had to take the next step. I picked up a bag of chicken jerky to give Tyler partly as a treat and partly to give him something to chew on besides my face, and headed down to ACS. Some people tried to convince me to put a barrier up between the back and front seats of my car (hi Shawna!), but to get Tyler rehabbed, I needed to show him unquestioned trust. What kind of start would that have gotten us off to?

When Debbie Allen opened his kennel at ACS and told me “he's yours, go get him,” my joy in knowing he was going to be one of the very few pit bulls to walk out of ACS was quickly overwhelmed by my fear of what happened the last time I was face to face with him. I reached down to take off his old big, thick collar with the hook from his chain still attached, and replaced it with a new, smaller one. Tyler seemed like he knew where we were going, and he quickly dragged me down the hall, out the door, and to my car. I went to get into the front seat, and he beat me there; I opened the back door and lured him back, then quickly jumped into the front seat, and off we went.

The first half of the drive, I carefully balanced using enough force to keep him out of the front seat with not using so much force to make him think I was going to hurt him. Other than his determination to get into the front seat, he was being very good; he spent much of the trip (after he realized I wasn't going to let him up front) with his head on my shoulder. It was very sweet; yet, at the same time, he was terrifyingly close to my jugular! We arrived at SARA safely after the longest hour of my life, and were greeted by a few loose dogs circling the car; Larry, Axle, and Candy. When Tyler saw them, he started lunging at the windows on all sides, and my fear was renewed as I thought I was going to get mistakenly caught in his rage. Tracy Frank came out and cleared the others away from the car, then directed me towards Tyler's new pen.

We talked for awhile, and I let her know that anyone who chose to venture into his pen should do so very carefully. I wanted to make him completely trusting of me, and then we'd work on other people. I promised to come out as often as I could, and I promised to feed him when I was there; since I couldn't make it every day, though, someone else would obviously have to feed him from time to time.

The next few weeks went very well. I had plenty of time off of work due to a reduced manning holiday schedule, so I went out 2 or 3 times a week for the first few weeks. Tyler was making tremendous progress, and by the beginning of January, I was comfortable enough to sit down on the ground with him. He'd never sit still with me, but he would allow me to pet him all over. I made very sure to keep Tracy apprised of his progress, so she'd know what she had on her hands.

After the holidays ended, I was back to only being able to go on Saturdays. I had asked for permission to go one evening a week and maybe Sundays when we had adoption events or other things on Saturday, but my request was ignored. I went every weekend up until January 23rd, the day of Big Fix part 3; I couldn't go that day because I was tied up. I went out on Monday the 25th, but the gate was locked, so I turned around and drove back home. When I returned on January 30th, I noticed that Tyler had lost a little weight, but since many of the dogs out there were often coughing, I assumed he had caught something and didn't have his normal appetite, so it wasn't much of a concern. I then also had to miss the following week.

When I returned again on February 15th, I took a friend with me that was interested in meeting Tyler because she was considering fostering him. I felt completely safe taking her into his pen with me, because by now, I trusted him entirely. As we walked into his pen and he greeted her, we both noticed immediately how much weight he had lost. Tracy and Hector (an employee) came over while we were in there, and we let them know just how great he was doing with my friend. Hector then asked me to empty his water bowl so it could be refilled, and this is when I first realized that Tyler apparently didn't receive any care at all if I wasn't there. His water bowl much more closely resembled a mud bowl; it wasn't just dirty water, but thick. Tracy later explained this away by stating “ I did observe him running and jumping into his water tub almost constantly. Saturday was unseasonably warm, so no doubt Tyler would have been jumping in it to cool off. I find this pretty odd, considering the high temperature that Monday was 58 degrees; and, since I was there around noon, the temperature hadn't even crossed 50 by the time I got there. Unseasonably warm for Minnesota, maybe, but San Antonio? Even if she meant it had been unseasonably warm at any point in the two weeks leading up to it, the high temperature for the year to that point was 70 degrees; hardly “I need to jump in water to cool off” temperatures.

I also noticed that Tyler's food bowl was completely empty. I really wasn't sure when the last time was that he had been fed, so I decided then he was coming home the next weekend if things hadn't changed. I filled two bowls up for him, and left him with at least 3 days worth of food (at least, 3 days worth for a dog being fed regularly and not being starved). The last time I was there, Tracy told me that Tyler had jumped out of his pen, and he had scars on him from the other dogs. She didn't think I needed to build a fence extension, though. When she told me this back on January 30th, I should have realized it as the first sign of a problem, because Tyler had NEVER left his pen while I was going out more often and leaving him with full food bowls every time. I believe he was so hungry that he was willing to climb out of his pen and into another dog's pen to get food.

When I returned on February 20th, Tyler's bowls were empty, again. He had lost even more weight. I grabbed his food bowls and went to the bin where I had always gotten dog food from in the past, and when I opened it, I noticed a few bags of cat food on top. I moved them aside, and found more cat food underneath. I kept digging, all the way to the bottom, and found nothing but cat food. I went and found Hector and asked where the dog food was so I could feed him, and Hector hesitated momentarily and told me “just leave his bowls outside, I'll fill them up and feed them.” This was an enormous red flag for me, of course. I wasn't able to take him home that day, though, so after I left I sent Tracy an e-mail asking if I could come back out for him on Sunday, a day they're usually closed. She told me I could come out, so I went out to get him on Sunday.

When I arrived on Sunday, I wanted to confirm what I had suspected yesterday, so I looked in the bowl of another dog (since Tyler's were, of course, empty). I was hoping that someone had just put the cat food in the wrong place and they weren't actually feeding cat food to the dogs. I looked in Jane's bowl and sadly found cat food in her bowl. Later on I would ask Tracy about this as well, and she told me “ If that happened, then I guess it happened. I don't think anybody was badly affected by a little cat food. I am not aware of any illegalities of a dogs eating cat food. I later spoke with a vet about the dangers of feeding cat food to a dog, and he told me that it could cause kidney failure; yes, feeding it to them once isn't going to hurt, but just the fact that she's willing to do it at all causes enormous concerns for me in regards to the rest of the dogs there. Anything you're willing to do once, you're willing to do over and over again.

I brought Tyler home and started feeding him puppy food to help put some weight back on, and he ate like... well, like a dog that had been starved for weeks. 36 hours after I brought him home, after he had eaten about 20 cups of food, I took him to get a weight on him. He weighed in at 45 pounds, and I think it's fair to say he was approximately 43 pounds when I brought him home, before he ate so much. Nine weeks earlier when I took Tyler to SARA, he weighed 58 pounds. That weight loss absolutely cannot be explained away by saying “he ran around constantly” at SARA (Tracy's words, again), it can only be explained by sickness or starvation. Judging by the fact that now, two weeks after picking him up from SARA, Tyler is back up near 60 pounds, there is only one conclusion that can be drawn: whether it was intentional (which I don't believe it was) or because of absolute neglect, Tyler was starved at SARA. There is absolutely no excuse for his condition. The only thing more appalling than his condition? The fact that Tracy Frank refuses to accept responsibility for it – in fact, she refuses to admit there was anything wrong with him the day I brought him home. Have a look at this picture, and judge for yourself.

Because of my concern for the other animals there, I called a friend of mine, another Dogs Deserve Better rep in Texas, and told her about the conditions since she had taken a few dogs out there as well. Although Tracy initially refused to release these dogs, insistent upon keeping them in this “sanctuary” instead of allowing them to go into foster homes, she eventually relented and allowed Elizabeth to pick her dogs up. As they were driving away, Elizabeth began to look at her dogs, and noticed a few ticks. Not surprising, due to SARA's environment; however, the more she looked, the more she saw. There were so many, she stopped at Wal-Mart on her way home to get tick spray, and spent some time in the parking lot with her mother picking and spraying ticks off of these poor dogs. A week later, ticks were still falling off; hundreds in total. And these were very friendly dogs; how bad must it be for the other dogs that Hector is afraid of? Jane also had a cut on her eye, which we had pointed out to Tracy a week earlier to make sure it was treated; it hadn't, and by the time Elizabeth got her back, the cut had become infected.

In my opinion, what this breaks down to is the fact that Tracy has way more animals at SARA than she can possibly care for properly given her small staff and struggling financial situation. By animal care standards, there should be a minimum of ten minutes spent on each dog each day, just taking care of the basics like food, water, and cleaning up waste. This would require 6+ full-time employees on staff everyday, and Tracy doesn't have anywhere near that taking care of the animals. Oh – and these 6+ staff members would be meeting the needs of the dogs only. This doesn't even take into account the 600+ other animals; goats, horses, donkeys, cats, chickens, geese, and pigs (and possibly others, I'm not sure).

I won't delve further into this because I don't know much more, but I do have a list of questions.

1) How many hours a week is there a certified veterinarian on site?

2) Does every dog receive heartworm and flea prevention?

3) Are the livestock receiving the proper worming medications they need?

4) Who decides when an animal should be euthanized? (I ask this one because when I was asked to watch the place for a night, I saw more than a few dogs in terrible shape and miserable). Are dogs ever actually euthanized?

5) How often are there fights? (quite often, I know this). How often are dogs severely injured in these fights? How many die?

Now that the story has been shared, I want to put out a plea for help. The animals at SARA sanctuary deserve much better care than they are receiving, and I am asking all of my readers to go to SARA's website and demand this. Demand answers to the question I posed, and demand answers to any questions you have yourself. If you're a donor, be aware of what exactly you're donating to; demand open record-keeping, demand accountability on every dog that has ever died on site.

We all need to demand that Tracy immediately cut intake off. The fact of the matter is, until Tracy finds a way to properly take care of the animals she has, every single new animal that comes in is coming into a bad situation, and making the situation worse for those already there. If you have room to take dogs from SARA to lighten the load, contact Tracy and offer to do so; I don't know if she'll say yes, but we must try.

I think SARA is a great concept, and I think Tracy had good intentions; however, it's very clear that she's taken on much more than she can handle, and Tyler is very strong illustration of this. Luckily for Tyler, he had someone going out to check on him; most of the others don't have anybody on the outside concerned about their well-being.

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