On the night of January 20th, my friend Margo was doing her rounds for C.H.A.I.N.E.D, a local organization that is committed to getting dogs off chains and properly housed through owner education and supply donations. Margo was dropping off straw and dog food donations for some families in the area around Greenfield and Joy Rd when she saw a man tossing bits of bread to an animal. Anyone who has spent time doing animal rescue in Detroit has seen any assortment of animals kept as pets: ducks, donkeys, horses, chickens. Margo has seen it all and was pretty much prepared for anything.
What she wasn't prepared for was seeing an incredibly emaciated seven-year old American Bulldog named Blanca. Her hips stuck out like a dairy cow, her ribs and vertebrae were showing. After talking to the man, she found out that he and his wife and two kids were on food stamps and so Blanca was getting fed Wonderbread and leftovers when there was something left for her. Margo had an extra bag of dog food in her car and gave it to the man and his wife. The dog approached with a full-body wiggle tail. When Margo could see the dog up close, she was even more shocked. This girl was imminently pregnant.
Margo explained to the owners that it was just too cold for her to be out. The temperature that night was in the single digits and if the pups were born, they would surely freeze to death. The couple said Blanca could stay in the basement, but it was still cold down there. Margo gave them a comforter she used to protect her car upholstery from her own dogs for Blanca to lay on. She also gave them her phone number and told them to call if they needed more supplies.
Less that three days later, Margo got the call that Blanca was in labor. Margo brought over a plastic wading pool and more blankets, then returned home. Margo wasn't familiar with whelping and called Melissa Borden, one of the founders of Devoted Friends Rescue, Inc and the writer of Shawn's Journey. Melissa called one of her volunteers, who talked Margo through setting up the whelping area. Margo answered the owner's phone calls throughout the night, passing along information she had learned. Over the night, ten puppies were born.
Within hours, one of the puppies started crying. The owners, not knowing how critical the first few hours are, waited to call. Margo called Melissa, who then called me to ask if I would come drive with her to check on the pups.
By the time we got there, it was too late for the littlest one. The owners made it clear that they wanted to keep Blanca but would be willing to let Devoted Friends place the pups. Melissa B. and I got baseline weights on all the pups, swabbed navels with alcohol prep pads, adjusted the pool so it wasn't directly on the concrete. This was the first time Melissa and I had actually seen Blanca. I had flashbacks of everything that can go wrong with an emaciated momma dog. We quietly identified the four pups that were the smallest and least responsive, and we prepared ourselves for the inevitable bottle feeding that was to come. We made a supply run, getting puppy wet food and dry kibble along with Nutracal for Blanca, more blankets, formula, and items for the puppies.
When we returned to weigh the puppies the next morning, not a single one had gained weight. One had even lost weight. A quick physical exam of Blanca showed she was not able to keep up the milk production necessary for nine puppies. We pulled the four littlest pups. Margo, Mallory, Panda, and Bernard came with me to be bottle fed, and Melissa put a call-out on Facebook searching for one or two newly-whelped momma dogs that would be healthy enough to take on two more pups.
FIDO Rescue answered the call. One of their newest additions, Jewel, was of similar size to Blanca and just had four puppies the day before. I drove out the hour and a half to Ann Arbor in white-out snow conditions to drop of Mallory and Margo. When I got there, I was surprised to find Jewel's foster mom Pam was a woman who I knew -- we had even been roommates while on a disaster deployment for HSUS's National Animal Disaster Response Team (NDART) in 2010.
Panda and Bernard stayed with me for almost a week while Melissa and Margo went back daily to weigh and assess Blanca and her five remaining pups. When they all gained weight for five consecutive days, we placed Panda back with her brothers for twelve hours. If all gained weight overnight and Blanca seemed responsive, the plan was to return Bernard as well.
As it turned out, all the puppies gained weight but Bernard just couldn't hold his own. He couldn't really find a nipple and when presented with it, he wouldn't latch. Margo, Melissa, and I decided to take rotating four-day tours of duty bottle feeding little Bernard.
After a few more days of weight gain, we decided to schedule home visits every three or four days. On Wednesday, February 8th, Blanca was shaking her head a lot and appeared to have the beginning of an ear infection. By Saturday, she was lethargic and depressed. Melissa, Margo, and I packed up the pups and Blanca and headed to an Emergency Vet.
The vet confirmed a severe infection in both ears. Blanca's ear canals were obliterated from scar tissue and consequently so narrow that they could hardly clean them. After four mini-sessions over two hours, Blanca's ears were professionally cleaned. During that time, bloodwork showed Blanca was anemic, her white blood cell count was elevated, she had a completely deteriorated cross cruciate ligament on her rear left knee and her right knee, now burdened with all the weight from limping, was damaged. Her muscles around her hips were so atrophied that it was causing curvature of her spine. And she was heartworm positive. The vet gave us ear ointment and antibiotics and sent us out the door.
Melissa, Margo, and I drove Blanca and her pups back to the owner's house. We were all very quiet. What were we going to do? Blanca's owners had been so responsive to all our efforts for care and education. They fed her like we said, checked the puppies, called or sent a text message if they thought something was wrong. They had grown up in a culture where street dogs were friendly but no one really had a pet. Dogs were fed scraps and all were skinny. The mother had fought her way out of abject poverty, living for two years on the streets and squatting in abandoned houses. Now on government disability due to a horrible car accident, this family was on a limited income that barely paid for the tiny two-bedroom home in a neighborhood of burned out houses. Blanca's family loved her, but they certainly didn't have the money to care for her.
That night I couldn't sleep. Where do we even start to help Blanca? And what about the health of those pups? How could we pull the surrendered puppies and just leave Blanca there to die? What is the most pressing health concern and how should treatment be prioritized? I needed more information, so I called my friend Lou out in Maryland. She is a vet tech with a ton of shelter experience and an NDART volunteer. She listened to me in her calm, assessing way, asking questions and easily dissecting the facts from my venting and emotions. Lou helped me prioritize and get out of my emotionally defeated state and back in the mindset of an animal rescuer.
When the owner called the next day saying the puppies were crying and Blanca wasn't interested in taking care of them, I knew it was bad. When I got there, the pups were chilly and the blankets in the whelping area were wet. Blanca was laying on the concrete floor six feet away from the pups by the heater. For the first time in two and a half weeks, she did not wag her tail at me. I changed the blankets and fed the pups. After a quick assessment of Blanca's condition I could tell she had mastitis and some kind of respiratory wheezing and cough, I explained to her owner everything that was wrong and why she was so sick. The owner cried and asked if Devoted Friends could take Blanca, too. "I just want her to get better," she sobbed. "I don't want her to die here, like this. I didn't know she could get so sick."
Linda, a co-founder of Devoted Friends, made some quick calls and a connection at Always Hope said they could take the six pups. Melissa B. came and we put the pups in a carrier to take to the foster. Then I drove Blanca to my vet where he confirmed she had mastitis and respiratory infection or possibly a cardiac issue from the heartworms. Rather than take diagnostic measures, my vet suggested just maintaining critical care. "X-rays can come later," he said. "Right now she just needs to eat, rest, and get hydrated." Blanca got IV fluids, antibiotics, steroids, and a B12 shot.
I set Blanca up in the guest bedroom and took my dogs next door to my in-laws. I sat up with Blanca half the night, listening to her wheeze, cough, and whimper. Around 1:30 AM, I remember thinking, "This is it. She is going to die right here in my arms." Her labored breathing fell into a quiet rhythm and I fell asleep with my hand on her chest, feeling her heart beat and counting her breaths.
At 5:30 in the morning, watching Blanca still sleeping, I imagined Miracle Max (Billy Crystal's character from The Princess Bride) chastising me. "Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive." I laughed out loud and Blanca wagged her tail then covered my face in weak, sloppy bulldog kisses. She slept most of the next day and I hand fed her wet food rolled into meatballs and syringe fed her warm water.
Today, Blanca ate small meals at breakfast, lunch, dinner and a little bedtime snack. She is also drinking on her own again. She explored the yard a little this afternoon, trotting down Ollie and Marshall's paths in the woods. She followed me around while I did dishes and laundry and cleaned the house. She had an afternoon nap on Ollie's dog bed. After dinner, I gave her a new stuffed toy and she carried it around and even invited me to play with her. She has decided it is bedtime again and has gone upstairs on her own to the guest room to sleep on the comfiest bed of all. I am confident she's going to pull through this setback. I don't know what is next for her, but I know she is loved.
Special Thanks To:
Devoted Friends: Melissa Borden and Linda Muiter-Carmean
Fido Rescue: Amanda Wdowicki and Pam Laird (and Jewel!)
Margo Schmidt (with C.H.A.I.N.E.D)
And the countless people who shared and networked our calls for help