Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Puppy tails

Swan River animal-rescue group in a league of its own

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It's extremely difficult to say no to Sherry Martin.

I know, because I tried.

When Martin asked me to be the guest speaker last weekend at the Swan Valley Animal Protection League's annual fundraising banquet, I knew just what to say.

I said no, partly because I hate getting off the couch, but mostly because I was sweating bullets at the prospect of driving to a remote northern community all by myself.

Some people might have accepted that and moved on, but Sherry Martin is not "some people," so the devoted animal lover and bookkeeper for Keystone Air Service Ltd. twisted her boss's arm and persuaded him to fly me to Swan River and back free of charge.

So there I was on Saturday afternoon riding shotgun in a Piper Navajo twin-engine aircraft piloted by Cliff Arlt, the kind-hearted president and founder of Keystone Air, dropping out of the clouds into Swan River, a picturesque community of about 4,000 people, 500 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg near the Saskatchewan border.

Minutes after our wheels hit the tarmac, Martin whisked us off to a small farm on the outskirts of Swan River the league and its small but hardcore group of volunteers has turned into a shelter for abused and abandoned animals.

After climbing out of her car I was immediately greeted by an incredibly enthusiastic black Labrador cross that entwined herself around my legs, demanding some seriously intense petting.

"This is Tess," a beaming Audrey Sercombe, a silver-haired league volunteer whose family farm has been transformed into an elaborate maze of dog and cat pens, said of the hound wrapped around my legs.

"She was found under an abandoned house with a litter of pups," Sercombe said as older dogs and pups poked their noses out of their pens and howled with excitement. "We had to literally cut the floor apart to get the puppies."

It took a few more days to corral the elusive Tess. "We had to use a live trap to catch her about five days later. She was so thin and had open, weeping sores," Sercombe recalled.

It was something of a minor miracle Tess wasn't shot while running wild in the woods around the remote community.

"People thought she was vicious, but she wasn't. She was just guarding the pups she had. Tess is here permanently. I adopted her."

Then, waving her arms in the direction of a dog run that used to serve goats, and several pens and outbuildings, which at any given time may house up to 25 dogs and 10 cats, she added: "I try not to adopt them all, but it's hard."

Founded 25 years ago, the Swan Valley Animal Protection League, powered by volunteers and surviving strictly on donations, rescues and finds homes for about 150 animals, mostly dogs, in a typical year. They have a network of about 10 foster homes.

It's a volunteer-run, no-kill operation. They refuse to euthanize an animal unless it is gravely ill and has no chance of recovery. What that means is they are overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded.

"We live on a shoestring," Martin confided on the warm fall day. "The vet bills each year are phenomenal because you're dealing with dumped and abused dogs and cats with a lot of special needs... The vets have given us a break on the price, but it's still tight."

They don't have a million dollars in their bank account, but they definitely have a million heart-breaking stories to share. There's Zoe, a gentle Rottweiler cross, who was narrowly saved from a trailer fire a couple of years ago.

"We see a lot of negligence and abuse," Martin said as Zoe sniffed my hand. "One dog, a four-year-old Akita cross, had been chained up her whole life on a chain about five or six feet long. When we got her, she was very protective of her food because she wasn't fed much.

"She'd been shot in one eye by a pellet gun and viciously teased by kids. She's just a wonderful dog... Ninety per cent of the time they just want love."

Martin began volunteering with the league a few years back, helping to walk some of the 27 German shepherds seized from a nearby farm. Her daughter adopted one of the seized dogs.

Not long ago, an area woman was stricken with cancer and couldn't care for her two dogs while undergoing chemotherapy and surgery.

"She had made the decision to euthanize her dogs because she didn't want them to end up in a shelter and then be euthanized because nobody adopted them," Martin said. "We offered to keep her dogs for as long as she needed.

"A year later, she was able to take her dogs home. There was a lot of crying going on when she came to pick up her dogs. That probably wouldn't happen in the city."

As hard as it is to rescue animals in an urban environment, there are special challenges in remote areas.

"We don't have the resources you'd have in the city," Martin said. "Our shelter is on a farm and you have to plow through the snow in the winter. We do everything by hand: shovelling snow, raking pens and building fences and doghouses. We do it all ourselves and most of us are in our 50s. It's tough."

One case made headlines last winter. A mother and daughter were working outside when they stumbled on Pardner, a one-year-old shepherd mix, "curled up on a hay bale, covered in frost and starving, near death."

The women cared for the dog, who had been shot in the face, then turned him over to the league, which looked after him for a month, aided by the local vet, before a tearful Martin took him to the Winnipeg Humane Society for more delicate surgery.

The humane society's vet performed four operations to repair damage to Pardner's skull. The dog, with a bullet lodged permanently in his throat, was recently placed in an adoptive home.

"We knew this dog could be saved," Martin said. "He was so friendly despite what he'd been through. All dogs deserve a second chance."

At Saturday night's banquet, the highlight was an emotional slide show of hundreds of animals like Pardner who are alive today because of some special people in Swan River.

When it comes to saving animals who need a second chance, it's nice to know some people just can't say no.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2013 D5

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