It's often said in rescue that we don't know an animal's past, but we know that animal's future.
This was the case with five Lhasa apsos whose owner was referred to Critter Mama Rescue, Inc. in Ruskin, Florida, in February. The dogs' owner met the group's founder, Robin Roberts, and several volunteers in a parking lot because he said his landlord didn't know about the dogs and he didn't want to get caught with them.
"The concept of having five adoptable, well cared for Lhasas sounded fine," Roberts, whose group helps people who can no longer care for their animals due to illness or hardship, told The Dodo.
Roberts soon found out this was not to be the case. Roberts and a Critter Mama volunteer, Connie Phoebus, watched anxiously as the owner reached into his van and pulled out the first dog.
Sequoia could barely walkRobin Roberts
"We gasped in horror," Roberts said. "These creatures didn't have faces or feet. They literally could not walk or see. The stench drifted across the parking lot and hit us hard; smelling of urine, feces and filthy dogs."
Sissy beforeRick Chaboudy
Roberts decided to reach out to Rick Chaboudy, executive director of Suncoast Animal League (SAL) in Palm Harbor, Florida. Robins chose SAL because it's a larger rescue than Critter Mama and better equipped to handle the complex needs of these dogs, four female and one male.
Chaboudy has assisted local authorities with hoarding cases and seizures, but the Lhasa apsos were the worst case of neglect he'd ever seen in his 30 years of rescue.
It took hours to remove the urine and feces-caked mats from the dogs.Rick Chaboudy
When Chaboudy picked up the dogs, he, too, was overwhelmed with their stench and appearance. Chaboudy took the dogs directly to Clint Wilson, groomer and owner of Island Dog Outfitters. Wilson is also involved in rescue and volunteers his grooming skills for dogs in need. Wilson, Chaboudy and volunteers worked until the following morning.
Once the fur was clipped away, parasites and skin conditions were revealed.Rick Chaboudy
"The mats on these dogs were so thick, one of the dog's ears was stuck to her head," Chaboudy told The Dodo. "Feces and urine were caked into the mats, but their feet were the worst. The dogs could barely walk due to having 2 inches of matted fur between their paws and the ground." Poking through the fur were toenails overgrown by 3 or 4 inches and twisted in several directions.
"We removed between one and a half pound of mats from the foot of one dog alone," Chaboudy said.
Toenails were overgrown by 3 to 4 inches.Rick Chaboudy
After the dogs were groomed, they were examined by a veterinarian. It was obvious these dogs had never had any vet care. They were all loaded with internal and external parasites and had skin, ear and eye infections. All were malnourished, suffering from severe dental disease and luxating patellas.
All that links them to their past is a 2004 sales receipt for a puppy in the amount of $949 from a pet store in Florida, which the owner gave to Roberts. A breeder in Iowa was listed on the pedigree. There is no doubt this was a puppy mill dog whose life started out rough and just got worse. The vet determined none of the dogs were under 10 years of age. Two of the females appeared to have been repeatedly bred.
The first week's challenges included learning how to walk again after being freed from the mats between their feet.Julie LeRoy
The dogs were treated for their external conditions and underwent surgery to remove decaying teeth and to get spayed and neutered. While being spayed, Helen, the dog from the pet store, was found to be suffering from pyometra, an infection of the uterus. Lilly had mammary tumors removed that later proved to be cancerous. Sequoia had a hole in her cornea. All of them had to have teeth removed. All of them are partially or fully blind. And it was all documented and streamed live on SAL's Facebook page.
Once they recovered from their surgeries, the Fab Five began attending SAL events. They were featured on the local news, they interacted with people and they learned to trust. Every day, fans of the Fab Five awaited updates about them. Well wishes were posted to the page from as far away as Scotland and the UK.
Chaboudy once described the dogs as "as prisoners of their own bodies, trapped inside their armor-like fur, formed out of neglect and filth." But thanks to SAL, these senior dogs would spend their golden years knowing love and comfort.
Sequoia no longer hides from the others.Suncoast Animal League
Just six weeks after they left behind a life of horror, they were ready to go home with their new families. On April 2, a fundraiser was held to offset the $6,100 in vet bills the dogs had racked up. At the fundraiser, Chaboudy introduced each adopter while he tearfully let go of his Fab Five, one by one.
Rick says goodbye to Sissy as he hands her over to her new mom, Gloria Phillips.Suncoast Animal League
Sissy is the poster child for the Fab Five. The videos and photos of her being groomed showed the magnitude of neglect these dogs suffered. Sissy was adopted by Gloria Phillips, who waited a long time to adopt again after losing a dog very special to her. "I knew, it's time," Phillips Told the Dodo. "I told myself, 'You're ready.'"
Yvette and Jim Klausch adopted Achilles. Yvette Klausch told Chaboudy, when she submitted his adoption application, "I can guarantee you he'll never have another bad day in his life."
Yvette and Jim Klausch with AchillesJulie LeRoy
Gloria Scott, who has several animals with special needs, adopted Helen. Scott previously adopted a dog named Ranger from SNARR, who won people over with his deformed legs and had his own following.
Gloria Scott with HelenSuncoast Animal League
Lilly went home with Kim Tutsch, where she'll live with her rescued dachshund siblings, Hershey and Wiggles. Although Lilly's tumors were cancerous, Tutsch remains determined to give Lilly the best life possible.
Kim Tutsch with her fiance and LillyJulie LeRoy
Mila Miller was overwhelmed with emotion as Chaboudy handed her Sequoia. She and her husband Ryan, have four cats at home, including one who is 15 years old.
Mila and Ryan Miller adopted SequoiaJulie LeRoy
Miller always wanted a dog and felt an older dog would be a perfect fit.
Mila Miller posted this picture to SAL's page to show everyone how Sequoia was doing.Mila Miller
Chaboudy knows he will receive updates and alumni visits from the Fab Five. In the meantime, SAL is busy with 24 shih tzu and Maltese dogs taken in from a hoarder, some newborn puppies, a full shelter and weekends packed with adoption events.
The impact a group of rescuers made on these dogs' lives was inspiring.Julie LeRoy (poster by Suncoast Animal League)
Suncoast Animal League is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations to operate. You can donate here to help.
You can also donate to Critter Mama Rescue here.