Rescues come in all sizes and shapes. Some make the news and some don’t. Some do, because of the groups involved, or perhaps because of the people or animals who did or didn’t survive it. Some rescues, for various reasons, people keep quiet about. Sometimes because there are no survivors and sometimes for reasons hard to explain or understand. This is the story of how I came to be the rescuer of three Siamese Fighting Fish, more commonly known as ‘betas.
It was probably two and a half years ago that Nancy and I went with a local veterinarian and county sheriffs to the scene of an elderly woman’s passing. She had been a hoarder, mostly of garbage and animals, and had previously been shamed by the media for her care (or the lack of it) of her animals. Nothing was actually done to improve the situation, but the newspaper’s harsh and critical words had stung. Therefore when a major medical condition occurred which totally prevented her from getting up from her bed, she did not lift the phone to ask anyone for help with her animals. She let them die. And within a few days, she died also.
The body was removed from the house and the living conditions were noted by the authorities. A local veterinarian was contacted regarding deceased animals on the property. Thus it was that our little group of four, the veterinarian, Nancy, a neighbor lady, and myself, were met by county sheriffs who told us there were multiple dead dogs in several of the smaller buildings on the property. One sheriff said he had dumped dog food in some of the pens in the dark the night before in hopes there were animals left alive to eat it, but from the look on his face, we knew he feared the worst. Then they stayed with their vehicles, talking quietly. I didn’t hold this against them. I knew they felt helpless. When a tragedy occurs involving people, they know what to do. They call for back up, make arrests, call the ambulance or the coroner and leave. When the victims are animals and there is no one to arrest, the feeling of helplessness must be overwhelming. This was most likely something their training had not prepared them for.
We didn’t know what to expect as we walked through the few remaining piles of snow and across the garbage strewn property to the first small shed. We had assumed there would be survivors, but no barks or whines greeted us. The first small shed dashed our hopes and the reality of the situation hit us. There were several dead Chihuahuas and/or Pomeranians lying in a small filthy wooden pen inside the shed. Only one was still alive, barely, but alive. His grey filmy eyes appeared to be blind. Another shed harbored several more small dead bodies. We took pictures for documentation, proof that such atrocities do happen, even in our little county, and put the bodies in garbage bags and laid them to the side of the driveway. More small dead dogs lay in the barn in a large stall converted into a dog pen. No food, no water, no sign of life. Only small furry bodies, who, the vet assured us, had not actually starved to death but had died first from lack of water. She meant to help us feel better, I think, to know their suffered had been days and not weeks, but the mental picture of her crawling around on her hands and knees in the stall pulling dead dogs out of dog houses and out of dark corners and stuffing them into garbage bags is not one I will ever forget.
There were survivors outside the barn. Goats and ponies, able to eat snow for water, stood and watched us as we walked through the tuffs of rabbit fur and chicken feathers of others who had not survived, to pat them and assure them that help would come for them. We checked every shed, every old camper, every dog crate, every dog house, determined to document the dead, but silently praying to find survivors. All we found were a few ancient remains of those who had died locked away in dog crates and had apparently been long forgotten. Then we walked towards the house.
A cat greeted us on the porch. The sheriffs looked at us with pity in their eyes. We went inside. From the home owner’s perspective, it may have been home sweet home. From my perspective it was a garbage dump.
The garbage, which was everywhere, was chest high on me, and I am of average height. Piles of garbage to the point that there was but one trail leading through the middle. At first we didn’t see the dogs, we were so caught up in the horror of the filth and moldy food and cereal boxes and piles and piles of meaningless trash. Then our minds adjusted to the task at hand and we began our search. We found two dogs, one in an airline crate stuck between piles of trash and the other one in a Rubbermaid tub with an oven rack over the top, barely visible within the enormous collection of trash. They were alive!
We (single file in the trail between rooms) were now hopeful. If the two dogs in the living room had survived, perhaps there were more. We searched under beds and in closets. We shoved aside piles and bags in desperation, hoping against hope to find signs of life, but more than anything we were determined not to leave anything still living to die there. We found nothing. We congregated in the narrow trail in the kitchen to compare notes. The veterinarian glanced quickly through the cupboards, checked the refrigerator and quickly slammed the door shut as disgusting smells drifted out. Then she opened the oven door. A black swarm of flies came buzzing up from off the (rotten) baked chicken carcass into her face in their mad dash to freedom and she screamed. It’s funny now, but it wasn’t funny then. It was like being in a real life ‘house of horrors’.
We agreed there was no place we hadn’t searched and that it was time to go. We moved single file to the front door and turned and looked back, wanting to escape the nightmare, yet hesitant to leave, eyes searching for some unnoticed area we might have missed. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of movement. A feeling of panic overwhelmed me as I tried to find it again. What had I seen? What poor creature had we missed? Then I saw it again. Nearly buried among the piles of filth and clutter on the kitchen counter were three small square fish bowls, green with slime and algae, each containing a single, barely visible, Beta. Renewed with hope after nearly missing the fish, we went back through all the rooms again, hoping against all odds to find more survivors. We found nothing more.
We put the beta bowls in a bucket, the cat in a crate, and the three living dogs in other crates and into my pickup. The old blind dog went directly to the vet clinic, and, sadly, had to be euthanized. The cat and the other two dogs went to the Sanctuary, where they were eventually adopted into good homes. Body bags containing the remains of 27 little dogs went in the back of my pickup and I took their remains to Spokane Humane Society for cremation.
I took the fish home. Betas (also known as Siamese Fighting Fish) do not care for company and cannot be kept together. So I gathered up three gallon jars and put aquarium rocks and water in them and introduced the fish to their new homes on my kitchen counter. One was yellow, delicate looking with long, lovely, fan-like fins and tail. One was downright scary looking, having apparently gotten the worst of it in a fight, or perhaps all-out war? His fins and tail were missing and all that remained were the long spikey lines the fins had been connected to. We named him ‘Spike’ and expected him to die any minute.
He surprised us by filling out the areas between the spikes with new fin tissue. He never looked quite normal, but was a drastic improvement considering how frightening he looked when he first came to live with us. Whether or not they appreciated my efforts I cannot say, but I assumed they must have found their clean new residences pleasing. Spike and the yellow beta lived in their pickle jar fish tanks for a year before passing on, within a week of each other, to that great river in the sky. The third, a beautiful blue beta with long graceful fins, resided in his fish bowl with live plants and snails for company for another year and a half before he died.
And so my fish tale has ended. While it may not have been the usual rescue story, and in truth may have been downright depressing, rescue does come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes where you least expect it. That death can come to those who least deserve it and that life can sometimes survive in the most disgusting of conditions may not be the sort of stuff fairy tales are made of, but are facts of life none the less. Never turn a blind eye, thinking someone else must be taking care of it because maybe they aren’t.
Remember that hoarders are human too, and that hatred, disgust, and negative media attention seldom converts them to a different way of thinking. Often, as in this case, it only serves to alienate them and make them hide the problem better. It is said one catches more flies with honey than vinegar. A kind word and a helping hand are not always appreciated, but sometimes they can go a lot farther than you’d think. Regardless of how you choose to handle a situation you don’t approve of, remember that when wee ones are involved who cannot speak for themselves, that your voice in standing up for them may be their only chance, their last chance. Don’t let them down.