As animal control officers pounded on the door to the small, one-story home in Knoxville, Tennessee, invisible fumes wafted up their noses, down their throats, and into their lungs. It was ammonia, the suffocating by-product of waste and decay.
No one answered. The officers muscled the door open. Blocking them was excrement, half a foot thick. Through the small crack, the officers could see filth, a couch covered in cardboard, and a television. Cheers was on.
Light streamed into the dark space, illuminating the eyes of countless dogs. The dogs rushed toward the officers. They were frenzied, crawling on top of one another, growling, snapping, and fighting for freedom. The officers yanked the door, trying to close the gap, but dogs squeezed through. Two pushed past the officers and raced off. Officers tackled two more and secured them. They pushed the others back in.
The owners were home. That was obvious. The officers continued to pound on the door and shout through the crack. The fumes were overpowering and unbearable; one officer suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized.
Finally, an elderly woman came to the door. She stepped outside and stood on the lawn, looking shocked and embarrassed as she watched officers don protective suits and breathing apparatuses to enter the home. One by one, the dogs were noosed with poles and dragged out of the house. Seeing sunlight for the first time, the dogs squinted and pulled back. They were emaciated, some with just hide over bones.
As each dog was brought out, it was numbered.
One … Two … Ten …
Morning gave way to afternoon. Forty … Fifty …
Darkness began to fall. Sixty … Seventy-five.
The elderly woman and her brother, who lived with her, were charged with aggravated animal cruelty. They were put on probation and agreed to counseling and unannounced home inspections.
The dogs were taken to Young-Williams Animal Center, where veterinarian Becky DeBolt and a team of others treated them for mange, anemia, worms, and dehydration. Most had extra toes on their hind legs; some, a pronounced underbite.
These dogs sure have a short family tree, DeBolt remembers thinking.
This was especially true for dog number 16, who looked like a cross between Gomer Pyle and a vampire bat. The brown spaniel trembled, her ears back and tail tucked, as volunteers shaved her matted fur. By the time they finished, the dog was bald except for her head, her paws, and the tip of her tail.
“She looked ridiculous,” DeBolt says.
Three weeks later, number 16 and 48 other dogs had been nursed back to health. The rest were in such bad shape, they were put down. But important questions remained. Who would adopt a dog that couldn’t stand being leashed or repeatedly threw up from fear? Could the dogs be house-trained? Allow themselves to be petted and cuddled? No one at Young-Williams knew the answers, so they asked the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) for help.
When ASPCA animal behaviorist Kristen Collins walked into Young-Williams, her presence set off the dogs. Their barking was deafening. She walked past run after run, eventually coming to the one occupied by dog number 16. The Gomer Pyle spaniel was asleep in a tight ball on top of a larger dog.
“She didn’t even look like a dog,” remembers Collins. “She looked more like an Ewok from Star Wars. I’d never seen such a pitiful-looking animal.”
Dog number 16 lifted her head. Her eyes focused on Collins.
No, she told herself. Don’t even think about it. No.
No turned into yes, and a few days later, Collins carried the spaniel to her car for the ten-hour drive home to Illinois. She named her adopted dog Toefu, symbolic of the spaniel’s extra toes.
For a year, Toefu’s entire world had been walls, squalor, and other dogs. She’d never even seen grass. So Collins drove Toefu, along with Juno (the pit bull she’d adopted years earlier from a vet tech) and Wink (a Border collie from a shelter), to a secluded park. Toefu fearfully plastered her body to Juno’s. Slowly, she lowered her nose to the ground and inhaled the fresh scent of grass for the first time. Her entire demeanor changed—her tail shot up, and joy seemed to course through every cell of her body.
Collins helped Toefu overcome other anxieties. She was petrified of cars, so each day, Collins placed dog food closer to her car. Soon, Toefu climbed into the motionless vehicle to eat. Then she tolerated a ride around the block. Collins did the same with the other things Toefu feared—the blender, the vacuum, umbrellas, even small children.
In just a year, Toefu was behaving like a typical dog. Each morning, she woke, exploded out of her crate, and wiggled her entire body with enthusiasm. Whenever Collins opened the back door, Toefu raced outside, scooped up a deflated soccer ball with her teeth, and fiercely shook it back and forth as the ball made loud thwapping noises. When she wanted attention, she’d bound up to Collins, place a paw on Collins’s chest, and lightly tap her face with the other paw.
Phase one of Toefu’s restoration was complete.