Director of Rescue and Response
HSUS Animal Cruelty, Rescue and Response Team
Meet Sára Varsa at the 2015 Kansas Animal Preparedness Conference. She will be presenting sessions, sharing her experiences and offering great pet disaster response and preparedness tips! Read her story, one of her many motivations for the job she does!
In August of 2010, the HSUS was asked to assist in Montana with the humane removal and care of about 95 dogs from a relatively remote property. We knew little about the situation except our expertise was needed as there were no resources in the county for humane rescue and care. The deputy was compassionate and concerned for not only the animals, but also the owner. I remember driving on scene through a picturesque field of sunflowers after traversing a long dirt lane. Nothing could have prepared me, however, for the reality of the life of “Jack” and his pack.
Jack lived in the primary residence with about 80 of his dogs. It was no more than 2,000 square feet on three floors, with no electricity or running water. All of the dogs ate, slept, and lived in the house with the exception of four of the oldest canine residents. We met Jack outside, as he was cooperating with the deputy and would remain on scene, to talk about what to expect during the day and initially assess our plan. A colleague and I asked to enter the house with Jack, and he agreed. As we were following him onto the screened in porch he picked up a large and long stick and then he opened the front door waving it in front of him to gain access.
My co-worker and I were completely taken aback. The cacophony and what can only be described as a sea of dogs were lunging towards the door. We asked Jack to back out and shut the door. When he retreated, with us in tow, I started to see more clearly the scars on his face and hands. He explained that he entered the house with the stick to get the dogs away from the door and then would throw feed on the floors for all of them to forage. The dogs, all medium to large, were some sort of Australian Shepherd mixes. Jack lived in the house with all of them, and they had self-sorted on the three floors into their own sub families. They ranged in age from a few weeks old to in their teens. Mountains of feces were in the rooms of the house and the ammonia was so strong, our respirators were barely offering any buffer. Jack’s “refrigerator” was a toilet tank in the bathroom that he used to keep peanut butter and bread.
Throughout the day, as we removed dogs Jack had seen, and some that were 5 and 6 years old that he had never named or seen before, but lived in his house, I learned about his estranged family, the sorrow he carried as he mourned his lost wife, and the deep love and affection he had for all his dogs. I was so touched by his concern for their well-being, which led him to keep them inside (so they would not be harmed by other wildlife or people), and his particular affection for “Joy”, one of his original dogs. He would go days without eating, so they would be fed. He implored neighbors to continue to provide resources for their sustenance, although he was obviously not able to manage their veterinary and other needs. He believed he was serving them to the best of his abilities and went without more often than not. I saw our team of experts there to care for the animals and provide for their rehabilitation and eventual placement, and I wondered, what would happen to Jack? Who was there for Jack? When he would be met with the silence of his home the night we left, whom would he have to turn to for the resources he required to begin to live humanely?
As we were loading up the final dogs after a long, hot, and challenging day, we unloaded all of our sleeping bags, food, drinks, and other comfort items. We told Jack that we needed to make room on the rig and that these needed to be left behind, and we hoped he could find a use for them in his daily life. While driving back down the winding road through the glimmer of yellow and gold, I was forever changed. Jack has never left me- I think about him almost daily. That experience made me eternally grateful for my friends and family, and for the life I get to lead. We are so compassionate with animals that are victims of trauma and, as people, we sometimes forget to lead with that same sentiment when it comes to each other. I try to carry the lessons I learned from Jack, which are too numerous to mention, with me in my daily life and hope that I am making a small difference in not only the lives of the animals we rescue, but also the people that are affected by or join us in this work.