by Penny Ronning
Minnie, an English shepherd, was born into the environment of a breeder/hoarder. At the time Minnie was born, approximately 200 dogs, numerous cats, birds, horses, goats, and chickens also lived on 10 acres of land in a rural country setting in Montana with their owner.
On December 30, 2008, in freezing temperatures, the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office conducted a 10 hour raid on the breeder. During this time approximately 189 dogs were seized by means of catch poles, rakes, shovels, whips, and/or whatever means were deemed fit by the authorities to catch and crate as many of the dogs as possible.
In the breeder’s ill attempt to hide puppies, Minnie and her litter mates were placed in a hole in the ground under the breeder’s trailer in which she lives. Hearing whining, one of the deputies discovered the puppies…well, all but Minnie.
Minnie was so small she was not seen when her litter mates were removed from the hole.
Along with 20 plus other intact dogs not caught during the warrant’s 10 hour time period, Minnie was left behind. Late into the night, the breeder heard 8 week-old Minnie whimpering and Minnie was finally removed from the bitter, bitter cold, damp, dark hole in the ground.
For the next 9 months, while the breeder’s animal cruelty case journeyed through the court system, Minnie, the other dogs left behind, and the puppies born after the raid would travel between the breeder’s home and the home of one of the dog breeder’s six children.
In July 2009, a plea agreement was reached between the breeder and Yellowstone County and the fate of all the dogs – those seized and those left behind – eventually rested with a district court judge.
The judge turned over the seized dogs to a specialty breed “rescue” group to place the dogs for adoption and gave the breeder 60 days from sentencing in which to find homes for the dogs left behind or a rescue group to take on the placement of the dogs.
As of 12:01 AM October 10, 2009, all animals not in compliance with the judge’s order remaining on the breeder’s property were going to be seized by the State of Montana and presumably killed.
As a lifelong dog lover when I heard the news of the raid on the breeder’s property I was horrified by the images I pictured in my mind of the dogs’ living conditions. When a call for volunteers to help socialize and clean/feed the seized dogs was announced I signed up immediately.
For the first 5 ½ months of volunteering every day, 7 days a week, 4 – 8 hours a day, I participated in the name calling of the breeder. I showed her no mercy with my words. No one did.
My heart began to trouble me.
The truth is that at the time of the raid the dogs were not in the condition most often seen in the news. The truth is that, physically, the majority of the dogs were in fairly good condition in relation to how many there were. Mentally/emotionally, the majority of the dogs were not socialized and fit the description of a “fearful” dog, but physically, the majority were not what is most often pictured in the news when it comes to animal cruelty cases.
The county removed approximately 13 dead dogs from the breeder/hoarder’s property on the day of the raid. Four of the dogs (puppies) had died from parvo and were in a plastic bag that had been set apart from the live dogs so the parvo would not spread. The other dogs had died from wounds related to farm life and injuries from other dogs.
During the 8 months the seized dogs, chickens, and cats were in the county’s custody 69 animals died horribly violent deaths and some of the dogs seized during the raid were never accounted for.
Yes, my heart began to trouble me. Something was terribly wrong with what was occurring.
I began to feel bitterness toward my own words of condemnation I had spoken. The understanding that God had not called me to judge the breeder/hoarder, but instead to show her grace and mercy began to grow within me.
The understanding that the breeder was not “simply” an irresponsible, cruel breeder, but a woman who suffers with the mental illness of hoarding began to take root in my mind and in my heart. I began to educate myself on this specific mental illness and realized just how clearly the breeder fit the most common description of a hoarder.
According to an article published in 2000 by The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC), a study of 54 animal hoarders concluded that “most cases were female (76%), a large proportion (46%) were 60 years of age or older; most were single, divorced or widowed; and almost half lived alone. The most common animals involved were cats (65%) and dogs (60%).”
The study also estimated that based on the data collected, there are 700 to 2,000 new cases of animal hoarding every year in the United States.
That was 10 years ago.
In my research, I learned that in 10 years while the number of hoarders has increased, awareness of the illness and its treatment has not kept up with the pace.
In America, we seem to need a cowboy wearing a white hat and a cowboy wearing a black hat. But what happens when everyone involved is wearing a gray hat?
What happens when there is not a bad cowboy, just a bad situation?
Late September in 2009, I contacted the breeder to ask if she had dogs remaining on her property and if so how many. She had 34 dogs and 4 horses that needed to removed from her property by October 10th or they stood to be killed by the State of Montana.
With less than 2 weeks, myself, two other volunteers who had also been working with the seized dogs, and a small handful of big hearted, animal loving people placed 34 dogs, 4 horses and 1 goat in adoptive and foster homes. (It was at this time Minnie came to live with me in her forever home.)
The breeder was compliant with the judge’s order by October 10, 2009 and continues to be. She is on 20 years probation and is required to attend mental health counseling through a county run program.
To know an English shepherd is to know one of the most unique relationships between humans and dogs. English shepherds are one of the rarest and most intelligent breeds of dogs on the planet. When seen, most people mistake them for Border Collies. While Border Collies were originally bred to herd first, guard second, English shepherds were bred to guard the farm family first, herd the animals second. Purebred English shepherds develop a strong bond typically to one person and become intensely loyal to their human.
As it has been said with so many rescue dogs, “they pick you” – Minnie picked me. And she continues to each and every day.
Minnie has a unique personality for an English shepherd in that she seems to understand that she has a story to tell and that her job is not to herd, but to be heard.
In her truly charming ways and with her oh-so-wise eyes, Minnie draws people to her; and because of this gift Minnie now serves as an ambassador in bringing awareness to the public of the mental illness of hoarding.
To learn more about hoarding, please visit The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium.