Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Remote rescue

It takes a village to save dogs, one that stretches from the North to Winnipeg

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It takes a village to rescue a dog.

And that "village" includes kind-hearted local residents, a team of dedicated volunteers and a patient regional airline, especially when the dogs in need of rescue are roaming a remote northern Manitoba community.

Consider the tale of Scribble, Scrabble and Doodle, three hard-luck young hounds who were running wild on Wasagamack First Nation, about 610 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

Their story began last November when Manitoba Mutts Dog Rescue, Manitoba's largest dog-rescue group outside of the Winnipeg Humane Society, got a call from a Wasagamack volunteer about three malamute-husky crosses, all brothers, in dire need of rescue.

"They were probably 16 weeks old," recalls Colleen Holloway, public relations and marketing team leader for Manitoba Mutts, a two-year-old non-profit group whose network of about 200 volunteers rescues and finds foster homes for abandoned, surrendered and abused dogs throughout the province.

"Frigid winter temperatures were coming up and their chances of survival were slim. They're not scary, wild attack dogs. They're young and impressionable and could easily be brought into a family environment."

On the upside, a determined local resident agreed to round up the trio and transport them to the airport for a Perimeter Aviation flight to Winnipeg.

"It sounds easier than it actually was," Holloway says, in what proved a remarkable understatement. "The airport's on an island and you can only get to it over ice. The ice roads were too weak in November to get the dogs to the airport."

On Dec. 22, after the ice firmed up, a Perimeter plane was slated to fly the animals to safety, but the dogs missed the flight for some unknown reason.

The thing is, it is far from easy to synchronize the capture of three stray dogs in a remote area with the arrival of a plane that can't sit around forever waiting for unco-operative canine passengers. "It took about one to two weeks each time to round them up and get them to the airport," Holloway noted.

By the time another flight was set up in early January, tragedy had struck -- one of the three dogs had been hit and killed by a car during the Christmas holidays. "It's hard because they could all have been saved on the 22nd," the rescue spokeswoman says. "It increased our urgency to rescue them as soon as possible."

At this point, the two surviving brothers were dubbed Scribble and Doodle. "When you name a dog, emotional attachments get that much greater and we were ready to do anything to get those dogs out," Holloway said, during an interview.

Over the next six weeks, however, the one thing they didn't have was luck.

On one occasion, with the dogs ready to roll, the Wasagamack volunteer's snowmobile broke down. The next rescue bid was shut down by a fire at the local nursing station.

"On a third occasion, the plane was coming in but our volunteer was literally stuck at work for four days by the weather," Holloway said. "A fourth time, his phone died and he didn't get our call that a plane was coming."

In late February, when the plane arrived, there was another cruel twist -- one of two special airline crates for carrying the dogs was damaged, so only one brother, Doodle, was able to board. Four weeks later, he was adopted in Winnipeg.

With Doodle gone, things were looking bleak for young Scribble.

"It turns out Scribble goes back to the town to wait for the next plane and we found out he has a girlfriend," Holloway recalled. "Her name was Scrabble, and she had a small brood of four-week-old puppies. As soon as you know pups are involved, it's a critical rescue and every day counts."

With rescuers racing the clock, the news got even more grim -- the puppies didn't survive. "It could have been frostbite; it could have been hypothermia; they could have been prey or they could have been sick," the rescue spokeswoman says, sighing.

"It breaks your heart. It starts to eat away at your hope that it's all going to work out. We rarely see a rescue effort take five months to co-ordinate."

In Winnipeg, Manitoba Mutts volunteers were on standby. In Wasagamack, at the end of March, Scribble and his girlfriend, Scrabble, were still waiting and the ice road to the airport was deteriorating.

"The clock was ticking very loudly at this point," declares Holloway, also a marketing co-ordinator at the University of Manitoba.

Then, on April 5, with hope fading and the ice road access to the remote airport soon to be closed, Manitoba Mutts finally got the call it had been praying for.

"They've boarded the plane!" the caller chirped. "They'll be there in three and a half hours."

With that news, in the middle of the work week, the volunteers scrambled to get someone to the airport. "It's not like picking up a FedEx package," Holloway chuckled.

In Winnipeg, the first stop for the dogs -- "They were spooked and terrified" -- was an emergency foster home, where they were fed and bathed after volunteers spent an hour coaxing them into the home.

Later, it was off to the veterinarian for a checkup, and finally to permanent foster homes to await adoption and learn how to live in a house as opposed to running free in the wilderness.

"They had to learn what leashes and linoleum and carpets and furniture and squeaky toys are. They wanted to be outside."

How has life turned out for these hard-luck hounds? It was love at first sight for Scrabble's foster parents, who couldn't wait to adopt her. And just over a week ago, Scribble found an adoptive family, too.

"They're healthy and happy and adjusting to family life and very glad to have that entire adventure put behind them," Holloway says. "We're thrilled with how it all worked out."

But while Scribble and Scrabble and Doodle got their happy ending, it's back to the grindstone for Manitoba Mutts, a village of volunteers that survives month to month on donations and is forming partnerships with northern communities to solve the problem of dog overpopulation through mobile spay and neuter clinics.

"Our volunteers actually had tears of happiness and relief that Scribble and Scrabble made the plane. But this is just one story. We fly in about 15 to 20 dogs from northern Manitoba and Nunavut each month," Holloway says.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 7, 2013 C5

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