Camp Collie: Town pulls together to take care of 170 Alaska dogs seized at border

Posted: Sunday, February 09, 2003

The collie in Pen 71 carefully nudges her gleaming steel food bowl, just enough to tip some of the kibbles to the ground. She noses the nuggets into a small hole in the dirt floor and pushes wood chips over them.

"A lot of the dogs bury their food as soon as we feed them," Barb Mercer shouts over the cacophony of 170 dogs from Alaska celebrating the arrival of breakfast in the cavernous 4-H building. "They hadn't been fed in so long, they want to save it."

This is Camp Collie in Shelby, Mont., a farm community on the windswept High Plains. Mercer is one of the army of volunteers who have cared for these animals since Halloween night, when U.S. Customs officials discovered them crammed into a reeking truck trailer at the nearby Canadian border crossing, soaked in urine and feces.

With animal cruelty charges pending against the dogs' owners, this town of 2,800 has the difficult task of caring for the canines, mostly collies, and 11 cats. But what could have been an expensive, unpleasant legal obligation has turned into something else in Shelby - a point of immense pride.

The townspeople, and many others for hundreds of miles around, brought food. They brought straw for bedding. They sent cash. And they came in droves - day after day, week after week, for more than three months now - to walk, feed, groom and clean up after the collies.

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For more on Alaska dogs being cared for in Montana, check out Camp Collie.

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"It's for these guys. I love these guys," said Kerry King of Lethbridge, Alberta, looking out at a sea of collies. She makes the 100-mile one-way drive four times a week to help out.

Customs officers were shocked when they opened the trailer belonging to Athena Lethcoe-Harman, 40, and her husband, Johnathan Harman, 49. The animals were filthy, cold, emaciated, dehydrated, sick and cowed, officials said. One dog was dead.

Lethcoe-Harman, a nationally known collie breeder, told officials they were moving her operation from Nikiski, Alaska, to Arizona. Border authorities referred the Harmans to county authorities for prosecution under state animal cruelty law. They face 181 misdemeanor counts. Responsibility for the dogs, as evidence, fell to the county sheriff.

The stench and filth were so bad that crews wore hazardous materials suits the next day to unload the animals' cages at the fairgrounds.

"You'd pick a cage off the top and water and urine would fall on you," said Richard Stockdale, who brought a trailer load of supplies that first day the 159 miles from Kalispell, where he is animal control officer. The state Livestock Department quarantined the animals because of possible disease and parasites.

Sheriff Donna Matoon knew immediately that caring for the dogs indefinitely would be a huge job, one her small community couldn't afford. She called for help.

The Humane Society of the United States, the Cascade County Humane Society in Great Falls, the Lewis and Clark Humane Society in Helena, the Montana Animal Care Association, the Helena Kennel Club, and more, all mobilized for the rescue operation. The American Working Collie Association arrived almost immediately - and had to restrain its members across the nation from traveling to Shelby until requested.

"Presently the wonderful people of Shelby are doing an excellent job of caring for the animals," President Jean Levitt said on the AWCA Web site, which carries almost daily updates.

Teams of eight AWCA groomers came to Camp Collie twice, and spent hours bathing and combing each dog and cat. The grooming was no luxury: It was a matter of life or death for many of the animals, Levitt said. The matting of filth on some was so heavy it was tearing their skin; three dogs had to be shaved.

The AWCA has spent thousands of dollars for equipment and veterinary bills; brought in dozens of volunteers from as far away as Florida; arranged donations of food and equipment from major companies; and provided expertise almost from the first day.

The AWCA also provided special collars, leashes, and stainless steel food bowls and water buckets for every dog - and a chew toy for its pen.

"We provided - and will continue to provide as long as the dogs are in custody - all the supplies requested of us," Levitt said. "If we can get them donated from manufacturers we will, and if we can get a discount we will. We will pay for everything we can't get any other way."

Veterinarians Hardee Clark of Shelby and Kelly Manzer of Great Falls have carried much of the load for professional care. Not one more dog died, even one that needed major surgery, under the care at Camp Collie. No major illnesses remain.

But the bulk of more mundane day-to-day work fell to volunteers, who continue to show up every day. Marie Hellinger drives 24 miles from her farm east of Shelby, several times each week. Cindy James and Monica Crummett drive 82 miles from Great Falls, usually at midweek. So do Chuck and Sally Cerny, and Bob Miller and Wendy Davidson.

"We come on Tuesdays and Wednesdays," said Chuck Cerny as he filled water buckets with a hose. "That's when there are fewer volunteers."

The dogs are housed at the county fairgrounds, in the huge 4-H Barn. The 4-H Club set up sheep pens, 4-foot steel and wire cubicles that hold two dogs each.

A plastic-enclosed area in the even bigger main room holds more pens, and still another shelters seven collie pups born in the first few days. Across the way is the sick bay, where a few dogs are being treated by veterinarians. Propane heaters keep the building warm.

The volunteers work within a closely documented system set up by the sheriff's office to ensure all the animals and all the chores - down to dog-poop duty - are done and documented.

Feeding time is 9 a.m. Bowls of food readied the night before are put in all the pens. Empty bowls from the previous day are removed.

In a steamy wall tent inside the 4-H Barn's huge main room, Meredith Beckedahl and Mayme Ober, both of Shelby, wash and sterilize the empty bowls and buckets five mornings a week, sometimes more.

"There is a Camp Collie smell," Beckedahl said. "It gets on your clothes. We wash our hair when we get home."

After breakfast the dogs are taken for walks. Each dog has a numbered tag on its collar. Deanna Smith, who runs the operation, methodically logs each animal and its volunteer companion in and out as they go for walks. Every volunteer must provide photo ID.

While the pens are empty, other volunteers rake the wood shavings out of the cage, spread lime on the dirt floor to kill odor and parasites, and put in fresh shavings. Wheelbarrow loads of the old go out a back door, building a mountain that eventually will be trucked away.

"By now we've got it down to a science," Hughes said.

Volunteers say they have seen dramatic improvements in the dogs since they've been at Camp Collie.

"You can't believe how much stronger they are now than when they first came," Bob Miller said as two big males towed him toward the field.

At first, some of the sick and fearful dogs snapped at the people trying to help them. That's over now.

"Sometimes we'd say, 'Better stay away from that dog because sometimes he snaps,"' Hughes said. "But with the kind of volunteers in Shelby, that would be a challenge, and they'd just say, 'Oh yeah?"'

Costs to Toole County have been "very low" because of the volunteers, the sheriff said. A fund at a local bank has hovered at about $70,000, with donations constantly replenishing what is spent.

Officials hope the support they received continues, because the dogs are likely to be here for months more. The first trial for the Harmans, who have denied they mistreated the dogs, ended in a hung jury.

Prosecutors say they will try them again.

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