The license plates on the vehicles outside the temporary animal shelter in Charleston tells the story of compassion in action.
Inside the facility, 101 dogs are visibly more calm and patient than when most saw them for the first time under what officials are now calling “puppy mill” conditions last week.
The dogs have drawn national attention since law enforcement and the SPCA of Bradley County discovered more than 240 dogs at the Candies Creek Road residence of Rebecca Van Meter.
Van Meter has since been charged with one count of cruelty to animals.
More than half the dogs were taken in within hours of the discovery.
The remainder were transported to their new home, where volunteers are now working around the clock to ensure their physical and emotional well-being.
When the call went out for help from the SPCA, the Humane Society of the United States showed up with friends and supplies.
The shell of a former discount store has now become the gateway to a better life for the dogs who had lived in small, filthy cages and now suffer from a multitude of medical conditions.
First things first, the HSUS brought in a plethora of cages and supplies.
“Those came from PetSmart Charities,” said Stephanie Twining, HSUS public information officer. “When you shop there at the checkout and they ask for a donation, this is where it goes. It helps us out tremendously.”
She added that even when HSUS leaves, the supplies will stay behind and can continue to be used by local organizations such as the SPCA of Bradley County.
The HSUS is footing the entire bill for the space and the expenses of volunteers, including motel rooms.
Three local veterinarians — Dr. Ashley Elsenback, Dr. John Mullins and Dr. Eric Miller — are giving their time to give the dogs examinations which rival the most thorough a human might go through.
Each dog is followed by meticulously detailed paperwork which includes the medical findings and treatment being given by the vets.
“The exams cover tests for heartworm and infections and determine if there are any contagious problems,” Twining said. “They also get their vaccinations.”
The dogs will ultimately be handled by HSUS-approved rescue organizations and shelters which will perform the appropriate spay and neuter procedures before they will be put up for adoption.
“Even at that point, some may not be immediately available for adoption,” she said.
Twining said when the call comes in for help of this nature, HSUS gathers its resources and finds out who is available to get to the site.
“We usually have about a week’s notice, but we didn’t have it for this,” she said noting similar time frames have to be overcome for natural disasters.
Twining herself volunteered for a rescue shelter made necessary by Hurricane Sandy.
“We can respond very, very quickly. We have the trucks. We just have to find the facility,” Twining said.
There are cases in which the HSUS remains in place for a matter of months. In Bradley County’s case, she said it would be a couple of weeks.
“We also immediately have someone who handles the placement program and she starts making calls to groups we are in partnership with and have agreed to help us out,” Twining said.
Touring the facility with Twining is constantly interrupted with “Isn’t he cute?” as the dogs sometimes vie for attention.
Many give the appearance of being relaxed and even those being handled by the veterinarians give no signs of panic.
“They really do know when they are being taken care of and being rescued and that they are in a safe place,” Twining said. “They are petted and walked and spoken to as much as we can. That’s one of the things most people don’t think about is the emotional part. There is an emotional side of this for them as well as us. They do sense they are on to a better life.”
The scale of the Bradley County issue is made even more astounding when Twining said most of the puppy mill calls the HSUS gets involve 50 dogs or less, which is one-fourth that of the total initial local animal crisis.
Taking care of that many animals takes an army of volunteers and they are here.
“We have amazing volunteers [who] will come in at the drop of a hat,” Twining said. “Red Rover is a partner that when we put out the call, they’ll show up.”
Debbie Cronin is from Marietta, Ohio, and wears the “Red Rover” shirt.
Cronin sits on the floor holding one of the dogs and gets an appreciative lick in the face.
“This is emotional for us,” she said. “But, how could you not want to do this? I have a dog at home and every time I leave I’ll say, ‘Sorry, but I’ve got to go help one of your friends.’”
Christine Kotowski, HSUS volunteer, hails from Detroit and calls what she does “a passion.”
“I do a lot of rescue work back home and started with the HSUS because it’s about being part of the solution,” Kotowski said. “When you see things like the 101 dogs being taken off that property, it’s like you are seeing in them the last day of that, and on to a better life.”
She said there are good days and bad days
“All the bad you see makes you want to do more,” Kotowski said.
Bradley County commissioners got a briefing Monday from both the SPCA director and the HSUS state director.
“We have seen some dogs that are going to need some serious attention,” said HSUS state director Leighann Lassiter.
Lassiter said the organization has had to dealt with 24 puppy mills in the last six years.
She noted a state law designed to protect against these circumstances is scheduled to expire next year.
“The Senate Agriculture Committee voted against extending the Commercial Breeder Act, which provides state oversight of mass-breeding kennels,” Lassiter said. “Without a law to require licensing and minimum standards of care, dogs in puppy mills will continue to suffer. We are urging lawmakers to put the law back in place during the 2015 legislative session.”
She also said the HSUS is reaching out to the rescue organizations who were first on the ground to help with any needed supplies.
Lassiter said the SPCA would be provided with documents to give to those who are considering adoption of any of the dogs.
“People need to know they are not pets yet. They don’t know how to be pets. They’ve lived in a cage. They’re used to laying in their own filth and feces and eating where they do these things,” she said. “These are very different animals than those you would typically adopt in a shelter. These dogs have very special needs and it is challenging to take them into your home.”
She said they did not want people to make “an emotional, reactionary decision” about taking these animals.
“They really need to know what they’re doing and make a responsible decision,” Lassiter said.
“We will make an announcement when they are available for adoption,” said SPCA director Bobbi Anderson.
Commission Chairman Louis Alford, who visited the shelter during its setup, said, “If you want a heartbreak, go see these animals.”
Seeing the volunteers do their good works elicits just the opposite reaction.