WESTBROOK, Maine — Our story begins nearly two years ago. The Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland got the call, as it so often does, that animals were being seized by the state and would need to be brought to the shelter for care.
Three Great Danes arrived at the shelter on a cold January night. What quickly unfolded with these dogs would play out over the course of two years, complicated by a pandemic.
Patsy Murphy, executive director of the ARLGP, has been there countless times when dogs were brought in from a seizure.
"Receiving Great Danes on a cold dark night, where they have no leashes, they have no collar, they are not socialized and they are huge. I remember looking into the horse trailer and seeing this one dog who had gotten loose and his eyes were just so fearful. He was just staring back at us. He had no intention of getting off that horse trailer. Didn’t want to be handled, didn’t want to be touched," she recalled.
The dogs were evidence in an alleged abuse case, which meant they’d be in the care of the refuge league foster families until the case played out in court. As if that weren’t enough, two of the Great Danes were pregnant. In a matter of days, three Great Danes became eleven.
"So now imagine, we’ve got all of these Danes and we’re asking people for HEEELP!!!" says Patsy with a bit of a grin. "What I didn’t know is that there was a pandemic looming. And that the rules of the game would change. And that our capacity to care for these animals would be stretched to the max. Had no idea. Had no precursor. Had no inkling."
Ellen Berube jumped at the chance to foster Bessie, one of the eight pups. "We had fostered, I think we were in the double digits ... before Bess came to us. And most of them were small, you know, young puppies, smaller dogs, and we have a dog of our own. Ann gave me a call and said, 'We have a Great Dane.' And I said, 'I’ll stop you right there.' I said, 'Well, when should I come in?' and she said, 'Well no, I have to tell you about the details. It’s not your typical week-long commitment.' An I said, 'It’s okay, I’ll be right there.'"
"So, I stretched the truth and told my boyfriend it would probably be a week or two, and we went and picked Bess up, and that was almost two years ago! So, the rest is history," she recalled.
Ten families volunteered to foster the Danes. Mary McCarthy and Lisa Littlefield had owned Great Danes in the past but never fostered. They took home one of the pregnant females. Seven days later, that momma gave birth to six great Dane puppies. The other pregnant female had two puppies.
"I wanted to keep every single one of ‘em. And so did Lisa!" said Mary.
To open their hearts to almost three hundred pounds of dogs ... takes a really special pair of ladies.
Mary put it this way: "We don’t consider ourselves that. We’re just normal people. We’re the lucky ones."
The case surrounding these dogs dragged on, bogged down in the courts by the pandemic. The Danes all settled into their foster homes and became family members. All the while, everyone wondered what the outcome would be. What would happen if, after two years in their foster homes, these dogs ended up going back to their original owner?
Patsy Murphy said the dogs helped to keep them positive.
"So we started talking about resiliency and we started talking about what do we do as an organization to help facilitate whatever the uncertainty, whatever the ambiguity is in this case. We worked really hard on that. And we looked to the dogs to teach us, I’ll be honest with you. Man, they taught us resiliency."
Just a few weeks ago, the Danes finally had their day in court. Ellen Berube wanted a front-row seat.
"I actually took the day off from work and drove to the court case, I couldn't help myself. They announced that she was giving up custody, so, I tried not to cry, holding my breath, but I was so thrilled," she said.
Mary McCarthy felt the same way.
"I was like walking on air. I could not believe it. These are our babies, they’re not going anywhere, they’re staying with us," McCarthy said.
Ellen Berube gets emotional when she talks about how Bessie has changed their lives. "We can’t really imagine life without her. She’s imperfect, but she’s ours. We never thought it would end up this way? But I’m so glad it did. She’ll be taken care of for the rest of her life.
Ten of the Danes are staying with their foster families, and one of the pups who has some special needs is available for adoption.
There is one more happy ending: Liam Hughes is director of the Animal Welfare Program for Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry. He is one of the folks on the front lines when animals are seized from horrific conditions.
Hughes came to the refuge league the day videographer Kirk Cratty and I were there to do our story. While he sees the animals at the outset, he rarely sees them in the new chapter of their life. He came on this day to see those Danes he had pulled from a difficult situation nearly two years earlier.
"Most of the time when we’re seizing animals, these animals are broken. They have not had proper socialization, they have not had proper medical care. That’s the worst day for them ... But usually, the day after is normally their best day," he said with a smile.
Hughes got to see Eleanor, one of the female Danes he had seized, with her new Moms and got to meet Ladybug and Bessie, two of the puppies from the litter.
To learn more about the work of the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland, click here.