Theresa Strader has spent her life working with rescue dogs, and she thought she’d seen how bad it could get. When she arrived at a Missouri auction of breeder dogs in early 2007, she realized how wrong she’d been.
Strader had been involved with dog rescue for years, and regularly received news and updates from several groups around the United States. She went to the Missouri auction after receiving an email from an Italian Greyhound rescue group that had learned that 50 of the dogs were to be sold by a breeder going out of business. The group was looking for help to make sure the Greyhounds ended up with the rescue instead of with another breeder or puppy mill.
Strader agreed to help and drove to the sale from her home in Peyton, Colorado. She had told the rescue that she might be able to take in three dogs. Instead, after witnessing the conditions at the facility and realizing how the animals had been living, she returned home with 13 dogs in various states of poor health, and the National Mill Dog Rescue began.
“I took my first step into that building, and the rest is history,” Strader says of the noisy and chaotic auction site, filled with ill and frightened canines. “Those 13 dogs were the education of a lifetime.”
Strader was particularly moved by a tiny, badly injured dog named Lily, a seven-year-old Italian Greyhound labeled #251. The frightened dog had mammary tumors, and years of neglect had led to serious dental issues that resulted in the loss of all her teeth as well as her bottom jaw rotting away. “She was looking right into my eyes, right into my heart,” Strader says. She saw the same condition in several of the dogs at the auction, but told the rescue that no matter what else happened, Lily would be leaving with her.
Once Lily (top photos) was in Strader’s care, she was spayed, her mammary tumors were removed, and she received surgery to repair some of the damage done to her face. She continued to have difficulty eating and was never able to run, but she was cared for until she died in 2008 at eight years old — half an Italian Greyhound’s normal life expectancy.
The National Mill Dog Rescue has become Lily’s legacy. Strader started the non-profit organization dedicated to adopting puppy-mill dogs in February 2007, working out of her home. A puppy mill, as defined by the Humane Society of the United States, is a breeding facility that produces large numbers of purebred puppies. The pups born at these mills are sold to the public directly, either online or in person, or to brokers and pet stores. They are often malnourished and have received inadequate medical care. They also suffer symptoms of over-breeding and lack of proper socialization. Many mill dogs are bred until they are no longer medically fit to do so. That’s where Strader and her team of volunteers come in.
NMDR contacts breeders directly to offer her services, collects the dogs that they no longer want, cares for the animals, gets them proper medical care and finds them loving homes. The response was slow to start, beginning with some local media interest, but has grown steadily. “It’s truly been an amazing journey of people who really just care,” Strader says of the NMDR volunteers she calls family.
Strader spends a good portion of her time in contact with puppy mills; she has worked out arrangements with several facilities to take in dogs that are no longer useful for breeding. These are canines that would otherwise be killed or simply let go to fend for themselves, she says. National Mill Dog Rescue never pays for dogs; they just pick them up from the breeder and agree to care for them and find them permanent homes.
Many of the dogs require medical care; NMDR has built a two-room veterinary facility to reduce the medical costs required for each dog to about $100 to $120. This helps keep the vet bills manageable because all of the work is done by a staffer and on site, bringing the cost per dog down by hundreds of dollars. “It literally saved the organization,” Strader says.
National Mill Dog Rescue maintains a kennel on Strader’s property, and she spends few days a week doing simple tasks like feeding the dogs, playing with them and giving them exercise, cleaning the facility, and making sure the animals are healing well and on their way to adoption — a point that nearly all of them eventually do reach. “We’ve learned that about 80 percent of them are ready to be someone’s pet in three or four weeks,” Strader says. “Every time a dog walks out the door to an adopted home, that’s our paycheck.” It’s a reward for their work. A few other dogs require longer-term care, and only rarely is one so traumatized by life in a puppy mill that it can’t adapt to a new home.
Much of Strader’s time involves keeping the operation running. “If I answer my phone or turn my computer on, my entire day is over,” she says, adding that she gets 200 to 400 e-mails every day. She struggles with the fact that the work she puts into communication efforts enables the National Mill Dog Rescue to save more animals but takes her away from being with them.
NMDR goes out about once a month to rescue dogs from breeders who are giving them up to the organization. As often as she can, Strader goes along. She considers these trips her break from the hard work of keeping the organization going. Leaving a breeder with a vehicle full of newly rescued dogs to care for takes her back to her organization’s beginnings and recharges her batteries for all the work ahead.
Today, NMDR has rescued more than 5,200 dogs from across the United States, thanks to donations, dog adoption fees and volunteer efforts. The organization has five members on its board of directors and more than 900 volunteers around the country. The group has partnered with the North Shore Animal League in New York, and recently brought on a director of organizational development to keep the group moving forward.
“A lot has changed in five years,” Strader says. “I’ve seen a lot of horror in people, but I’ve also seen a lot of good.”