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Rescuing disabled dogs in their hour of need
August 2023 Simon Williams
First some context about dogs and the LGBTQ+ communities: it's August and high summer in the northern hemisphere of the world so it's the season for many LGBTQ+ Pride festivals. They just wouldn't be the same without our fabulous rainbow-flag festooned dog shows.
Prizes at these festivals will likely be given for the cutest rainbow-collared dogs, a wonderful sight - highlighting the love shown by many in people in the LGBTQ+ communities for our favourite animal friends. So August is a great seasonal time to reflect on how humans care – or sadly when some don't – for those dogs who have disabilities such as blindness, deafness, missing limbs or those who need palliative care.
As we all know, dogs are rightly loved, adored and relied on by people around the world. For thousands of years they've lived alongside us, participating, enjoying, supporting and defending us in the human journey, even influencing our history.
As you probably know, dogs are descendants of wolves when around 20,000 to 40,000 years ago we started hanging out together and wolves began to be tamed by our ancestors, human hunter-gatherers; since then, it's been a historic journey -on one part of love, affection and loyalty and another, sadly, of exploitation and cruelty.
They've loyally followed us wherever we go and what we do – whether we indulge in good or bad activities on our part. But as with many other mammalian domestic pets such as cats, rabbits and rodents, they also face abandonment, commercial exploitation and worse.
It's a sad fact that even in the West - so whether the UK, North America or in much of Western Europe, many disabled dogs are discarded like empty soft drink cans, chucked in the rubbish bin by their former owners; the owners simply lose interest or the dog has a health condition or disability that makes it difficult to sell them or more expensive to adopt. While rescue centres help immensely, they can be overwhelmed: euthanasia or dumping the dog on the street can be the other ending. This leaves only the most determined dog lovers and voluntary activists and some charities to pick up the tab and rescue them.
The cruelty happens under our noses. While many commercial breeders care for their pups, whatever their health, some of the more unscrupulous ones discard them if they don't meet desired retail value – only because they have a disability; these dogs are dumped at a rescue centre or, even worse, on the street.
This often happens because the individual dog may not fit their breed's ‘qualities' in the judgement of the breeder. So they don't match the popular (and appropriately price-tagged) appearance or behaviour for that pedigree breed. A dog's having a disability does not necessarily mean the dog is inherently unhealthy.
Added to this, some buyers (and breeders) of genuinely healthy dogs find they just can't cope with the disability, for example incontinence, so the dogs are let loose or dumped at a rescue centre; the disabled dog is lost in a very scary world and doesn't understand why or where they've ended up.
You may have noticed that dogs with disabilities are not that visible on the street in the UK and other parts of the West. This is because they are often put down and, perhaps subconsciously, society chooses to turn its eyes away. In other parts of the world, the life stories of abandoned or disabled dogs are more visible and so on the face of it more shocking. But that doesn't mean any part of the world is better or worse.
In the UK, there are many dogs with disabilities who, overall, are still relatively healthy and emotionally resilient but have been farmed out to animal rescue centres with poor prospects of finding a loving home. If they are unlucky, and no home is available they will often be put down as many rescue agencies do not have the capacity to care for them in the long-term.
This scenario could happen just because of a cleft lip or cleft pallet or some unusual appearance or, alternatively, a more serious health or mobility issue such as a heart problem or their having a missing a limb or their recovering from traumatising experience. Yet, in themselves, many of these dogs would still be able to live happy lives if they received the right recuperative care and a loving home.
Alongside this, some dogs don't live as long as they should do because of health characteristics inherent in their breed; for example, the breathing airways of some bulldog breeds are restricted causing respiratory difficulties and can affect life expectancy. In the case of Great Danes, the largest pedigree dog in the world, there is a risk of what is called ‘Spot x Spot' breeding. This can happen when a Great Dane puppy has two copies of a gene called Merle (Homozygous Merle). This comes about because of poor breeding practices. Great Danes are likely to suffer from hearing and sight problems. According to the some experts ‘Double Merle' Great Danes are likely to suffer from hearing and sight problems and in extreme cases total blindness and deafness.
To put this all in perspective, according to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 21 dogs are euthanised every day in the UK because they have no home, they have a disability or they just don't match the qualities that a breeder would like to promote or market. Thankfully some are rescued and find loving homes, but for some it's too late. Tragically, rescue agencies find they have no alternative but to put our best friends to sleep when there is no other option or their health has deteriorated to the point where it would cause inexcusable suffering.
According to a 2019 estimate from the American Society for the Protection of Animals around 390,000 dogs are euthanised every year in the US by rescue centres who sadly can't cope with the volume of rescued dogs.
So it was a privilege to chat to Ali Baker-Murphy who for around seven years has run a non-profit Sussex-based, dog rescue, fostering and re-homing service called 'Hearing Hearts' for dogs with disabilities. Ali has been in animal care for many years and with her partner Ian and her colleague Sara, specialise in rescuing puppies from litters who have disabilities.
Often these pups would not be attractive to breeders for sale or to buyers or even for no fee adoption at rescue centres. Ali and her team care daily for large numbers of dogs at any one time, working out of her family home. Ali is also a huge supporter of the LGBTQ+ communities and has a gay adult son and daughter.
So when I turned up in June at Ali's home in West Sussex, I was greeted by what seemed to be around a dozen dogs of all shapes, sizes, sounds and ages; some were excited and welcoming to me as a stranger, some, understandably, were more timid.
They range from towering Great Danes, one who came from Georgia USA and has been a resident for seven years, to a petite Chihuahua, other dogs of mixed heritage and different breeds. All the dogs live with a variety of disabilities, from those with sensory impairments such as deafness or blindness to those who have mobility or traumatisation conditions. To receive such a warm welcome by most of the ‘pack' was quite heart-warming experience.
Ali's home is immaculate and well-presented; the house has a large garden for the dogs to roam around. With the more mobile dogs, Ali and team will take them on trips out into the nearby beautiful Sussex countryside for regular off-lead walks including on the South Downs, a National Park.
Some of the puppies Ali adopts permanently, some the team foster until a new home can be found; all this depends on the circumstances and needs of each dog. I realised that Ali knows what she's doing. I asked for some examples of how the dogs are helped and how the team works and the challenges of the work.
"We specialise in taking in young puppies who have disabilities from the litter but we also take in other dogs in need", Ali explains.
"If there's a disabled pup who needs fostering, we'll foster them, train them, reassure them and then we have pool of volunteers who can consider if they can help and give the dog a home."
"Yes, so sometimes I adopt the dog myself if the circumstances are right; these dogs become permanent members of our family."
I asked Ali why she does this work voluntarily, "I've always been an animal lover and I'm in the fortunate position of being able to help; my reward is that when I take the dogs on walks to roam around in the nearby countryside, I see their love and enjoyment of life.
"They're ‘normal' dogs again and they love you for it – they've been given a chance to live the lives they deserve."
Ali explained that even what may appear to some to be a purely cosmetic deformity such as a cleft lip can have serious health effects for a young puppy.
"A cleft lip or pallet makes it more difficult for a young puppy to suckle from their mum with obviously dangerous consequences.
"We'll feed the pup every hour and half or so by tube for around three to four weeks to make sure they receive the right feeding pattern that they would usually have if they had been born and able to suckle with the mum."
I asked Ali for some stories whether sad, happy or a mix of both. Note that some of these stories may be distressing. Ali outlined three examples of the dogs that the team had helped in recent years:
"A dramatic example of what we do is when took in, all the way from Shanghai, China. Her name was Charlie Girl. She was possibly a Pomeranian - Chai cross-breed."
"She had lived on the streets of Shanghai on a little piece of waste ground and only survived by the generosity of people who fed her occasional scraps of food. A local family took her in asked for a long-term home; I volunteered a home for her in the UK and over she came when she was about two or three years old."
"She was a beautiful dog", Ali explained, "Understandably she was quite feral when we took her in but she became a big softie once she got used to us and her new home."
"Sadly, eventually, her eyes disintegrated and buy the time she arrived in the UK her eyes had been removed by vets. She passed away recently after leading a happy later life."
Another international cruelty rescue case: Ali explained that the Balkans in Eastern Europe have a high level of homeless and stray dogs. Please note that what is described may be distressing. It concerns a little dog, a Jack Russell called Sara. She was rescued from Romania and brought to the UK after being beaten by the roadside at a campsite housing an itinerant community.
"A local dog-loving woman, Lela, was driving past this campsite when she saw a group of men beating a small dog black and blue.", Ali explains.
"The dog was hung by her neck. Leila heard the dog screaming so she slammed her breaks on the car, parked and boldly went over to investigate."
"Lela realised to her horror what was happening and just flatly offered to take the dog away. Surprisingly, they agreed. They threw Sara to the ground like an old rag".
Ali said that Lela immediately bundled Sara into her car and drove to the nearest vet, "The vets found that the attack had broken the dog's hip. They tried for ten months to save her leg but in the end they had to amputate. So I offered to take her in and adopted her."
"She's understandably still scared of humans but she is slowly becoming more confident with the people she knows which is rewarding to see."
Tipsie Two Shoes
Tipsie is a dog who has what vets call a ‘bilateral rear amputation' in other words she is a dog who has had both back legs amputated. Again, Tipsie was sent over by animal rights activists in Romania and Ali decided to adopt her.
Ali said, "Tipsie's disability meant that I had to find a way to give her some mobility so I started a crowd fundraise account on Facebook for a specially designed wheel chair."
"We managed to raise £600 which covered the cost of the dog wheel chair and now she can travel around and enjoy her life in the safety of our home."
While I was chatting with Ali, I got to know the dogs and in some cases became instant friends; some of the dogs kept coming over and greeting me, sitting close by, kind of joining in the chat with us with sounds of appreciation –including some of the more timid ones. It was a moving experience.
My takeaway from meeting with Ali and dog family is that we should be very grateful for people like her and her team. Their work tells us that with our best friend the kinder side of humanity can prevail.
If you're interested in finding out more about Ali’s work, you can reach her and the team on Facebook.