Akita Rescue Society of America


New Beginnings

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New Beginnings...

(This article appeared in the July, 1992 issue of DOG WORLD Magazine. At the time, it was written on behalf of the work of ARSA but ARSA was not the only rescue involved in saving the Kansas Akitas. Margie Rutbell and Kathy DeWees of Delaware Valley Akita Rescue (DVAR) worked tirelessly to rescue many of these Akitas. DVAR was responsible for bringing the plight of these Akitas to the attention of the Akita community and for supplying needed donations and information to the humane societies.)

I stopped scratching Tootsie's chest for a moment and looked closely at her fur as we sat together on the grass in the California sunshine. Her coat glowed with health and good care. Gently licking my wrist, Tootsie reached her big head under my hand and signaled her desire for more petting. I remembered that cloudy February day a year ago, when I waited for her plane to touch down at Burbank Airport. This was a mercy flight with the first group of Akitas rescued from a puppy mill in Kansas, shipped to the Akita Rescue Society of America. Tootsie was the first Akita I had ever seen with her tail tucked between her legs! Dull-coated and thin, she hid behind her kennel house if anyone approached. Now she was sitting by my side, asking for attention and responding with affection.

Tootsie was one of 77 Kansas Akitas given sanctuary by our organization after their rescue from the Akusa Kennels in Centropolis. For 15 years the Akita Rescue Society of America had been rescuing Akitas. We had grown into a nationwide organization with eight chapters, but had never undertaken a rescue of such major proportions to extend our rescue operation into Kansas, where 124 Akitas had been rescued from a puppy mill. The dogs were being cared for by six humane societies, from Wichita to Kansas City, while the Kansas attorney general's office pursued cruelty and licensing violations against the owner of Akusa Kennels.

The dogs had been without food or water for an unknown period. Housed in-groups of eight or more, the Akitas had been eating the rats that swarmed through the kennels. All the dogs had rat bites on their legs and most had severe fly-bite damage to their ears. Perhaps trying to escape the nightmare of their existence, many had damaged footpads and broken teeth. The dogs were living on mounds of feces; dead rats and maggots littered the kennels.

Puppies were found suffocated in feces, while adults had festering, open wounds. Nearly every Akita had some degree of injury from fighting for food or trying to protect the puppies. Ripped ears and torn muzzles were common. Some were missing tails, a few had portions of their tongues bitten off and one female Akita was missing her entire tongue. Severe skin problems and internal parasites added to their misery.

The temperature was 92 degrees the afternoon of October 4, 1990, when the commissioner of livestock conducted the raid. For the next 13 hours, these Akitas were pulled from their kennels on control sticks, muzzled and sedated. They were photographed, videotaped, examined by a vet and then put into crates or trucks for transport. Fifty of these dogs were hog-tied like livestock and put into cattle transport trucks. Many hog-tied dogs arrived at the shelters with deep rope burns on their legs and chests. One young female appeared to have both hips dislocated during the procedure. Six dogs from this group died soon after arriving at the shelters.

Preparing to help the Akitas when the court released them, we began a large fund-raising effort. Combining the mailing lists of ARSA and ACA, a letter soliciting financial help was sent and a special Kansas trust fund was set up. There was a good response from Akita owners nationwide; the plight of the Akusa Kennels Akitas had touched the hearts of many.

Initially, we did not know anyone in Kansas who could visit the humane societies and give us some idea about the temperament of the Akitas. A week before the puppy mill raid, I had installed a modem in my computer and joined GENie (General Electric's Network for Information Exchange), an on-line service. One bulletin board on GENie is Pet Net, a nationwide network of animal lovers. Bruce Thomas, an ARSA volunteer in Yonkers, NY, had already established a category for ARSA on GENie. We sent out a call for help in Kansas and received an immediate response from Gary Gilberd, a Poodle fancier in Topeka. With guidelines supplied by ARSA, Gary began working directly with two of the humane societies to help these Akitas. He became one of our most important tools to salvage the dogs. Members of the Heart of America and Sho-Me Akita clubs soon joined Gary in Missouri. Visiting and working with the individual dogs, the long process of socialization began.

Phyllis Graves, an Akita breeder in Oklahoma, traveled to Wichita to evaluate 64 Akitas. Meanwhile, our rehabilitation team working in Topeka and Kansas City gave us an accurate picture of the temperament and needs of the Akitas. The dogs lacked socialization and training but appeared to have sound temperament. Some older Akitas may have been former pets given away to the wrong homes,since these dogs did not appear fearful, simply starved for affection. The young dogs that were born and raised at the puppy mill were extremely fearful, shy, and needed a great deal of work. Only four Akitas from these two shelters were deemed unsalvageable and scheduled for euthanasia, three for temperament and one for hip dysplasia. Phyllis reported from Wichita that four Akitas would not make a successful transition into a home. Parsons Pet Center and Aunt Em's Pet Center in Ottawa had small numbers of puppies or well-socialized adults.

The group of Akitas housed at the Lawrence Humane Society were scheduled to be turned over to Johnson County Humane Society while Lawrence underwent a planned renovation. This presented a new problem since Johnson County did not use kennels, but had a network of foster homes with few available spaces. Most of these Akitas suffered from severe medical or psychological problems, making foster homes impractical. ARSA offered to fund the cost of boarding these Akitas at veterinary clinics in Olathe and Overland Park. Tootsie was in the group of females sent to Overland Park for treatment of her foot. When taken from Akusa Kennels, her right rear foot was swollen to four time's normal size. Her foot had been caught in wire and all but one toe had been chewed off. Unable to use her foot, her face ripped and bleeding, Tootsie was nursing two surviving puppies when she was rescued. Her puppies went into a foster home.

Serious skin problems were still afflicting many Akitas. Nancy Baun, an ARSA volunteer in New Jersey, was given the job of getting a dog food more suitable for Akitas shipped to the shelters. Within a week, a truck with 6,000 pounds of Natural Life Dog Food arrived at the shelter in Wichita, donated by Michael Guerber, the company president. ARSA hired a local trucking company to disburse the food where it was needed. Purina donated 2,000 pounds of its premium food to the shelters in Northeast Kansas, while ARSA shipped vitamin/mineral supplements and large boxes of Christmas cookies for every Akita. When food donations ceased, ARSA purchased food for delivery to the shelters.

On December 28, 1990, the attorney general's office released the Akitas and ownership of the dogs reverted to the Kansas commissioner of livestock. The dogs were sold to the humane societies and would be available for adoption after their spay/neuter surgeries. Dr. Sophia Kaluzniacki, an Akita breeder/veterinarian in Tucson, volunteered to fly to Wichita and conduct all the spay/neuter surgeries without charge. Her offer was accepted. Sophia spayed 29 females and neutered 16 males during the two days she worked in Wichita.

Judy King, an ARSA volunteer in Phoenix, was asked to take on the job of arranging transportation of the Akitas. Dogs were going to ARSA chapters in Florida, New Jersey, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Virginia, Georgia, Ontario, Canada, and our newest group in Missouri. Arrangements were made with a major airline [United] to fly the Akitas to any destination for $50 a dog. Large numbers of crates for shipment were sent to Kansas from ARSA chapters. As soon as the dogs settled in their new kennels, the crates were immediately shipped back to Kansas for another group of Akitas.

Gary and his team of Akita fanciers in Missouri transported dogs weekly to the Kansas City Airport. At one point Gary borrowed a flatbed truck. With crated Akitas securely strapped on top, he transported them through Topeka to the airport in Kansas City!

It took ARSA more than a month to move the Akitas out of Kansas and into ARSA kennels and foster homes. Tootsie and two other females arrived at Burbank Airport on February 1, 1991. As I saw her plane touch down on the tarmac, I was struck by what an achievement it was for so many people nationwide who worked hard to get these Akitas to safety.

Many of these former victims have already found homes, but most of them remain with ARSA volunteers while they are socialized and trained. Sydney, a young white male, was a questionable Akita from Wichita. Within 24 hours of his arrival at ARSA-Central States in Missouri, Sydney was giving licks to everyone who approached his kennel. King, another extremely fearful, shy young male, now hesitantly approaches people for hot dogs at ARSA-Mid-Atlantic; Oscar from Wichita quickly found a home through ARSA-Florida. One day, fearing the children were in danger while they played in their pool, Oscar grabbed one child by his bathing suit and pulled him to "safety!" Maggie, one-year-old female, had already been bred in her first heat at the puppy mill. Fearful and shy, she spent the first two months cowering from human contact in her kennel. After accidentally biting her tongue, we learned that Maggie had vWD, a genetic bleeding disorder.  At her foster home outside Los Angeles, Maggie now chases ARSA's Kay Lee around the yard inviting her to play, acting like a puppy for the first time in her life.

Tootsie touched the hearts of every one who heard her story. This courageous Akita had bravely faced pain and suffering most of her life, but her injured foot required expensive reconstructive surgery. Once again, a group of Akita breeders stepped in to help. Marcia Erwin in Indiana heard Tootsie's story and started the Tootsie Foot Fund, raising the money for her surgery. On August 8, 1991, Tootsie's injured foot was amputated. The surgeon created a soft tissue prosthesis then grafted a dorsal pad, creating a viable new foot. During her long recovery period, Tootsie spent two months in my home as a foster dog and is now a permanent member of our household, where she continues to gain confidence and security.

Few purebred rescues have an opportunity to work with victims of puppy mills. As the dogs learn about their world, we are learning about their unusual problems and discovering ways to help them. We have often found it impossible to place the dogs directly into homes with unprepared owners. A knock on the door, a phone ringing, the refrigerator motor or washing machine is frightening to a dog that has never experienced these sounds.

Many of them are not used to petting or touching and must be gently forced to accept this interaction without fear. Food is a great incentive to learning for these formerly starved dogs and we use treats as a reward for appropriate behavior. (My big breakthrough with Tootsie was accomplished by introducing her to the joys of a Big Mac and ice cream!)

Once the dog feels comfortable with a human visiting inside the kennel which is its sanctuary, the dog must be brought out for yard work. The process begins again in the larger environs of a yard or exercise area. Controlled leash work was important at this stage just to get the dog to accept handling outside the kennel. At the same time, it was important to begin teaching some basic obedience to help build confidence and self-esteem. The next step is careful, slow introduction into a house, allowing the dog a quick exit. Constant verbal and physical reassurance was important through this phase. Outside walks for socialization was the most difficult for these Akitas. The sights, sounds and smells of the outside world were very frightening for the animals, though most were more willing to accept it if they had a confident dog along for security. The most unresponsive young adults did not progress in kennels and needed the quieter though more intensive work of a foster home.

Working to overcome their fear of humans, especially any person with an object in hand approaching their kennel takes infinite patience and time. Homes where the Kansas Akitas are alone in a yard while the families are at work have not worked out for these dogs. They are used to the constant companionship of other animals and need homes with a companion dog or retired adults. Placing these Akitas in foster or permanent homes with a well adjusted, confident adult dog has worked well. The Akitas depend on the resident dog for guidance, security and companionship.

We have had to be very selective in placing these Akitas. Their adopting families must continue their socialization and rehabilitation, and progress can be slow. Yet it is very gratifying to watch them gain self-confidence and flourish. Nine-month-old Tamar was placed with a nine-month-old male Akita in Illinois. Happy to have a friend, the young male offered Tamar his toys. Shyly, Tamar took each toy and carefully hid it in her bed. As she grew more secure in her new home, she brought the toys back to a common area and offered to share them with her new friend. Today, they play together and share everything.

In Japan, where Akitas originate, they were designated a national monument, an integral part of Japanese historical culture. In Kansas they were turned into just another cash crop. The investigation and licensing of puppy mills and catteries in Kansas is under the control of the commissioner of livestock. In early 1990, the Wichita Eagle-Beacon claimed there are about 3,900 commercial breeders in Kansas. To date, the state has licensed only 1,000 of these. About 200,000 puppies and 100,000 kittens are exported to pet stores from Kansas every year. Mothers who never escape from their inhumane living conditions bred these puppies and kittens. The Akitas were the lucky ones. An untold number of other purebred dogs are still forced to live in filthy wire cages with inadequate food. The animals lack human companionship, exercise and are never bathed or groomed. They suffer from fleas, flies, mange and internal parasites. Many of these breeding dogs also suffer from genetic diseases such as epilepsy, hip dysplasia and other diseases that exacerbate their misery. Bred at every heat until they no longer produce large litters, they are at last rewarded by death.

The national media have begun to focus attention on the substandard, unlicensed commercial breeding facilities in Kansas and other Mid-western states. Twenty-two years ago, legislators in Kansas admitted their puppy mills were substandard, cruel and inhumane, but little progress has been made toward correcting the problem. Puppy mills flourish. The American Kennel Club continues to register dogs from puppy mills without conscience, claiming it is not within its power to end this horrible exploitation of companion animals.

Is there any solution? The Humane Society of the United States is directing a public education campaign against purchasing purebred dogs from pet stores that receive their puppies from these puppy mills. HSUS is asking the public to boycott these pet stores. Real hope for change lies with the public. Demands for federal legislation to control and monitor puppy mills must come from the public. The public outcry against these "kennels of shame" must continue.

(c) Barbara Bouyet 1992

                                  FROM KANSAS to CALIFORNIA

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Her face had been torn by another female while Tootsie protected her puppies at the Lawrence Humane Society. Under the care of Johnson County Humane Society, she received some veterinary care  
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What remained of her foot was open and infected. She did not receive veterinary treatment for her foot while in Kansas.
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Following surgery, Tootsie wore her colorful vet wraps with pride. She was recovering physically and developing mentally in my home.
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This healing took nearly 2 years. Tootsie--a Treasure.