By Jenny Neyman
Word of 35 malnourished dogs — including two litters of puppies and a pregnant female — being rescued from a 10-by-20-foot room in a trailer home just outside Soldotna city limits Aug. 11 is melting the hearts of animal lovers in the area and beyond, motivating many to pitch in to help cover the costs of food, shelter and veterinary care for the dogs and find them new adoptive homes.
To those who live in the neighborhood, the situation is all too familiar, and though there’s pity for the animals there’s frustration, too, that the problem has been going on for as long as it has — 20 years, by some accounts. And that there have been no resources with which to deal with it, until a group of concerned dog lovers decided to step in and do something themselves.
“Not only are these dogs in a safer, healthier environment, but it’s also making the community come together. A lot of people turn a blind eye to something like this. ‘It can’t happen in Soldotna.’ ‘Oh, it doesn’t happen here.’ Well, it does happen here. Here you go, this is the proof. And unfortunately, living in Alaska, we don’t have the resources that the Lower 48 has,” said Tabitha Walker, one of the rescuers.
Walker had heard about a situation of dog neglect in the Knight Drive area of Soldotna a year ago when she was volunteering at the Kenai Animal Shelter. Reports varied — the couple had 40 dogs, 70 dogs, as many as 100 dogs at one time or another over the years. They weren’t being fed regularly and were alternately crammed into a small room in a small house, put in a backyard with inadequate fencing or just roamed free, often forming a pack that marauded the neighborhood looking for food. The story Walker heard was as gruesome as it was attention-getting: The pack was eating a dead dog in a neighbor’s yard.
She made several trips to the home during the next few months, knocking on the door and driving by hoping to see someone outside to which she could talk. No answer and no contact made. Until recently, that is, when she saw a post on a pet-related Facebook page from a neighbor concerned about the very thin, seemingly starving dogs. The post went viral, quickly generating hundreds of comments, several from other neighbors adding their observations — dogs chasing cars, nipping at people and harassing other pets, dogs so thin they looked to be starving to death, one dog strapped with strips of duct tape apparently as a way to address an injury to its hind legs.
Over the course of the forum a few people discussed getting together some dog food and supplies, bringing them to the house and trying to talk to the owners. One volunteer, Cierra Conklin, knew the owners and offered to make contact. She, Walker and Krista Schooley brought the donations to the house and spoke with the owners. What they found seemed to them to be animal hoarding — a love of dogs gone awry — but not willful neglect.
“Once we made contact with the owners they were very willing and very grateful for the help that they received,” Walker said. “I know there’s a lot of animosity against these owners. But if you actually take the time to maybe go over there and knock on the door and say, ‘Here’s a bag of dog food.’ You will find that these people are very caring.”
The owners are dog lovers, Walker said. Their situation got started similarly to how the current one has progressed — the owners have hearts that would melt over dogs in need. They’d take in abandoned pets, unwanted litters of puppies and whatever strays came their way. They couldn’t say no and didn’t know where to stop, Walker said. It got to the point where they couldn’t feed all the dogs regularly, much less pay for basic vet care or to spay or neuter the dogs. They gave some to new homes, but without stopping them from reproducing, there were always more dogs always on the way.
“They started out with good intentions rescuing dogs and it just got overwhelming for them,” Schooley said.
The evening of Aug. 11, a handful of volunteers took 35 dogs that the couple was willing to surrender to Alaska’s Extended Life Animal Sanctuary in Nikiski, the hope being they could adopt out as many as possible. Walker said that when she first saw the dogs she expected at least a few would have to be put down, but she’s been pleasantly surprised that they all seem like they’ll be OK. Equally surprising was how friendly the dogs were.
“Every single one of these dogs that she let us take from the home, they might be thin because she couldn’t afford to feed them all constantly the way that we feed our animals, but the one thing this family has done with these dogs, they have treated these dogs amazingly. Every single one of the dogs we took out of there has an amazing temperament. None of them are terrified. None of them are vicious,” said Patricia Stringer, another volunteer. Even the pregnant female and mothers of the two litters of puppies were fine being handled. “That temperament only comes from a human working with them and them being socialized.”
Each dog was relinquished with a strip of cloth tied around its neck bearing the animal’s name and age.
“So we would know exactly who was who. And they answer to it,” said Sue Whipp, with the animal shelter.
“If you have doubts about these dogs, go out to Nikiski and ask to see these dogs. Play with them. They’re definitely very social and friendly. They were very well loved,” Walker said.
The puppies and a few of the “teenage” dogs have been taken in by Alaska Dog and Puppy Rescue out of Palmer. They are still available to adopt and can be viewed on the organization’s Facebook page. The rest are at the animal sanctuary in Nikiski. Such a large influx of dogs is a burden on the shelter, a nonprofit organization run by just Whipp and Tim Colbath out of their home. The focus now is on gathering donations for the dogs to be cared for until they can be adopted. Dog food, bedding, blankets, towels and the like can be dropped off at the shelter on Coral Street in Nikiski, in a bin in the entryway of Petco in Soldotna, or can be picked up by calling Walker at 398-2581 or Schooley at 252-2081. Monetary donations to the Kenai Veterinary Clinic are requested to help pay for health services for the dogs, including being spayed or neutered.
“We can’t beg people enough to call Kenai Vet and make a donation. We’re talking at least being spayed, neutered, shots, dewormed and getting a vet check — about $500 a dog and you have 35 dogs, and one mama still pregnant,” Walker said.
Walker and others also are soliciting donations from local businesses to use in an online auction, which can be found on Facebook at Online Auction For Knight Drive Pack. Volunteers also are needed at the shelter in Nikiski, to help care for the rescued dogs, as well as the other animals already at the shelter.
“The animal sanctuary has taken a large hit with this one. It’s a huge burden for them, but the community seems to be really stepping up on this one, too,” Walker said.
At a community meeting held Thursday evening outside Kaladi Brothers on Kobuk in Soldotna, some people came just to drop off giant bags of kibble or to set up a time to go help out at the shelter. A group of visitors from Florida heard about the dogs and donated a significant amount of bedding to the shelter.
“It’s definitely been a big community effort. I think all the dogs are going to end up being placed here pretty quickly,” Walker said.
But some are wondering, where does the effort end? What will keep the situation from developing just as it has before? Neighbors say that people have tried to intervene in the past and the couple has at times surrendered some of their dogs, but they just kept getting new ones.
“For all of us hardworking people, why do we just want to be funneling money down a money pit? I’m all for getting spays and neutering for stray dogs but this has gone on for generations with this particular household. For over 20 years. We’ve seen this continually over and over and over, so where does the help stop?” asked a resident in the Knight Drive area who attended the meeting Thursday. “It’s honorable, if you want to take care of them, that’s great. But in my opinion, it’s just reinforcing their bad behavior.”
It’s a good question, Walker acknowledged.
“It’s frustrating, I understand that. If everybody forgets about the owners, in one or two years we’re going to be right back where we are. And I don’t think any of us want that,” she said.
They plan on continuing to work with the owners, Walker said. The owners still have eight to 10 dogs at the house. Most are elderly dogs, pets the owners have had for years and years and didn’t want to give up, and there is one pregnant female. As long as a good relationship remains with the owners, Walker and Schooley plan to keep working with them about remaining dogs — bringing food and supplies, finding homes for the puppies when they’re born, putting up better fencing in the backyard to keep the dogs from roaming the neighborhood, getting at least the females spayed and ensuring the owners don’t just replace the dogs they’ve given up with more.
“I will speak with them and be very firm. I can try to reason with them logically, ‘OK, you had to give up 35 dogs because you couldn’t feed them, you couldn’t feed yourself. You couldn’t give them proper medical care. So with more, are you going to be able to feed them, vet them and still be able to feed yourself?’” Walker said.
What’s different about this time and this effort, the volunteers say, is that they’re in it for the long haul.
“We are going to be working continually with the owners,” Walker said. “I know people are frustrated and it’s hard for people to believe that this will get better. It’s going to take a couple months, as we work with them they gain our trust and we gain theirs. But without resources we have to do this. There are two options. Two options and that’s it. There’s the option to take care of the dogs that have been surrendered and forget the owners, and wait for it to happen again in a couple months. Or there can be people that want to see this stop and help the owners.”
But the response is predicated on the owners being willing to allow people to intervene. They have to agree to give their dogs up. They have to agree to let their remaining dogs get spayed. They have to agree to not get more. There are no guarantees that will continue to happen. And the only recourse if the owners don’t go along with the plan, is that the volunteers stop helping them.
“The other thing we don’t want to do is enable them, at all,” Schooley said. “There has to be goal setting. If they don’t follow certain things we’re asking for of course we’re not going to help them anymore.”
“The day that they tell me they no longer want my help, I’ll walk away,” Walker agreed.
But where will that leave the dogs, and a neighborhood long since tired of the situation? Possibly right back where it started, Walker acknowledged. But she doesn’t see any other options than to try and help.
“We can’t go in and demand the rest of the dogs. We can’t force them to do anything. We want to keep that open, good communication so we can get more out of there,” Stringer said.
The reality in the Kenai Peninsula Borough is that there aren’t other means with which to deal with a problem like this, said Denise Cox, with the Domestic Animal Protection League.
“If this is not the right solution, what solution do you folks have?” Cox asked at the meeting Thursday. “The troopers will not help, the borough does not help. So what do we do?”
Cox’s group is the one behind a measure that will appear on the municipal ballot for borough voters Oct. 7, asking whether the borough should undertake limited animal control powers for the purpose of domestic animal rescue and care, and whether a 0.02 percent mill rate should be levied on property outside of incorporated cities to pay for that function. The vote is advisory only, but its outcome will indicate to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voters’ wishes in the matter.
Currently the borough has no animal control powers — no animal shelter and no personnel to check on reports of abuse or neglect. Incorporated cities in the borough, including Kenai and Soldotna, have animal control powers and could be called upon to intervene in a situation like the one in the Knight Drive area. But Knight Drive forms a boundary line of the city of Soldotna, and the home in question lies just outside city limits. The city’s shelter doesn’t take in animals from outside Soldotna. The shelter in Kenai is more open to animals from outside Kenai, but it will euthanize animals if it’s over capacity, as an influx of 35 dogs would cause it do be.
The ballot measure proposing that the borough take on animal control powers wouldn’t generate new rules regarding animals in the borough, such as requiring leashes or limiting how many animals someone can have. But it would fund personnel who could investigate and respond to a case like the one in the Knight Drive area, Cox said.
State code prohibits cruelty to animals, a law that Alaska State Troopers could enforce. But the reality is that, compared to the rest of their workload, complaints about animals don’t rank high on troopers’ list of priorities, Cox said. Several people have called and reported the owners over the years, for dog hoarding, for neglect, for their dogs being a nuisance in the neighborhood, to no avail. Some at the meeting Thursday wanted all of the owners’ dogs taken away, and for them to be restricted from having any more. Currently, that’s not going to happen, Cox said.
“What a lot of you want done we can’t do because we don’t have the legal backing of the troopers and (district attorneys),” Cox said. “And that’s why we want to change (borough code).”
“I think this is a really good example of why we need Prop A passed,” Walker said. “Right now state troopers would have to go out there, and that just hasn’t happened. If something was in place they (borough representatives) would be able to confiscate the animals, even if the owners weren’t willing to give them up. It’s not actually proposing animal control — not for leash laws or licensing or to cite you for a loose dog — more like animal care. They would be called out for abused or neglected animals.”
Until that happens — if it happens, as the assembly and borough voters have considered and rejected this issue before — the community approach is the only one available.
“I’m not only trying to help the dogs and help the owners, but I’m trying to help the neighborhood heal, and that’s what it’s about,” Walker said. “We have to stand together, not only to make this community better, but the world for our kids and grandkids. Doing acts of kindness, standing together — it’s what will make everything better.”