Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The long road back: happy endings for some dogs in animal-abuse case

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In the summer of 2010, Manitobans watched in horror as 64 dogs were rescued from heinous conditions on a Gull Lake property.

The dogs were found crammed into two small cabins and encrusted in feces and blood. Most had severe injuries, some with open wounds and tumours and many with urine burns on their paws from standing in their own waste.

They had been deprived of light, exercise, fresh air and human contact and were constantly fighting each other in a battle to survive. There was evidence puppies born there were being eaten by other dogs.

Dr. Erika Anseeuw, the Winnipeg Humane Society director of animal health, said the dogs were living in "dog poop eight inches deep" and the smell of ammonia was so strong, firefighters had to wear full breathing apparatus when they removed the dogs.

Peter Chernecki, 63, and his wife Judith, 62, pleaded guilty last April to seven counts under the Animal Care Act and Regulations. They will be sentenced Oct. 22. They will face maximum penalties of six months in jail and/or $5,000 fines and a five-year prohibition of dog ownership.

Winnipeg Humane Society officials said it was one of the worst cases of animal abuse they had ever encountered.

Of the 64 dogs seized, 34 were euthanized immediately because they were too sick, injured or mentally shattered to be saved.

The humane society and other local shelters worked together to find homes for the remaining dogs as they became adoptable. A group of dogs, dubbed the "Lucky Seven," had survived physically but would never be adoptable unless they received special care to deal with their many mental and behavioural issues.

When we last saw the seven -- on Sept. 25, 2010 -- the WHS was loading them onto a chartered flight paid for with $10,000 in donations from Manitobans and heading to Dogtown, USA. It's part of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, a famous no-kill shelter and rehabilitation centre for animals located on 3,700 acres in Angel Canyon near Kanab, Utah.

So, nearly three years later, with that history of horror, what future could there be for the Lucky Seven?

Tamara Dormer, a lead dog trainer at Best Friends, said three dogs were adopted, two continue to live at Dogtown and two died there while being treated for health issues.

A lab cross named Hammond and a shepherd cross named Catalina are the two that remain. As with most dogs rescued from hoarding situations, both are wary of human contact but good with other dogs.

"Both of these dogs, if you try to reach out for them or pet them, they duck away from you. They are not comfortable with human hands offered towards them and they don't enjoy human touch, really," Dormer said, noting both go on leash walks and have come a long way with positive daily contact with staff and volunteers.

'He's just the sweetest dog'

One large yellow lab cross had scars on his face and fear in his eyes when he was rescued. We knew him as Oliver, like the pickpocket of Charles Dickens fame, and he stole our hearts.

These days, the big guy is named Zoraster and he's livin' large under the West Coast sun with Therisa and Bill Friedrichs, a California couple.

"This sweet boy, I just thought he needs to have a good home for the rest of his life. Oh my gosh, he's just the sweetest dog," said Therisa.

"It was heartbreaking to read about what happened to him. To me, he's made a complete 180-degree turn," she said, noting Zoraster gets walks every day, spends time in their large, fenced yard and lays on the couch whenever he wants.

"You'd never know, other than the scars on his face, that he had such a horrible, horrible beginning."

'He doesn't understand toys'

Zoraster spent two years at Dogtown, where he received therapy and special care. He would have lived his remaining years there if Therisa and Bill had not opened their home to him.

They met Zoraster in September 2011 during their first volunteer visit at Dogtown.

They went back last September and adopted Zoraster as well as a female chocolate lab named Tango who is deaf (not one of the Lucky Seven).

Zoraster, believed to be around eight years old, doesn't know how to play. Therisa and Bill are trying to help him learn. After years of living in a feces-filled prison and fighting for scraps of food, he doesn't know what to do when someone tosses a ball for him.

"It's like he doesn't understand balls and toys," Therisa said. "He'll chew on one but then he just walks away."

In his first few months at their home, he kept trying to sleep in a closet because small spaces were all he knew.

"He doesn't do that anymore. He stays right out in the open with everybody," she said, noting he had a big breakthrough during Easter weekend when they hosted about 20 family members. Zoraster worked the room, letting anyone pat him.

"I look at the scars on his face, it just makes me want to cry," Therisa said. "My sister sent me this little thing she found about how scars are a sign that you're past that and you are healing. That's what he's doing.

"In the hoarding situation, they had to fight for everything. We were told there were some shelves that some dogs could get up on but you had to be high up in the hierarchy to get one of those spaces. That's just a symbol for how far he's come. Zoraster, you don't have to fight for anything anymore. The world is yours."

'Everything scared him'

Buddy was a day away from joining the Lucky Seven on the plane to Dogtown. Then he got really lucky.

That's when Barb Sypulski came into the Winnipeg Humane Society building and adopted the approximately five-year-old shepherd cross.

Buddy was a victim of severe neglect -- he was overwhelmed with fear and had to be shaved to treat sores that covered his body.

"He was the last one. I took him for training at the humane society later and they told me he was put out to be adopted, but he had regressed so much that if I hadn't adopted him, he was going to be one of the dogs going to Dogtown," said Sypulski.

Barb was already accustomed to caring for dogs with special needs. Her previous dog was also fearful and handicapped, needing a cart to walk.

"(Buddy) would curl himself in the tightest ball he could to sleep in the corner. He'd never lie stretched out like he does now. I started taking him for walks right away and the wind scared him. Everything scared him. It was hard to even get him to go out; he wanted to stay in the house all the time."

Still fears people

Sypulski said the changes have been gradual and take daily effort.

"After about six months, I suddenly noticed his tail was curled up. I took pictures of it, because he always walked with his tail tucked down, but it was up, like he was happy," she said.

Buddy still fears people -- men more than women. Just the presence of Sypulski's 20-year-old son, Matt, who lives in the home, would cause Buddy to shrink away.

"It was just this past January that he actually would go up to Matt, stand next to Matt and let Matt pet him," she said. "It took over two years of living here and it was with kulbasa and treats every day and trying every day."

He has come a long way, but Buddy, like Zoraster, doesn't know how to play. Years of living in the hoarders' dark buildings with no human contact and fighting for survival had stolen joy.

"I hoped he would just be happy and relaxed, and he is that now, but he still won't play at all," she said.

"He'll chew bones. I'll give him a little peanut butter in a Kong (hollow rubber toy) but he won't play ball. He won't even watch the ball go by. That's something I wish I could help him to do, for his sake."

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2013 A6

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