Two puppies are brought to our Thursday afternoon Outreach by a child of no more than six.
The pups have a fever, inflamed eyes, a watery discharge from the nose and a yellow, jaundiced appearance to skin, gums and ears. We are flummoxed. The signs are confusing. The boy tells us the pups have been vomiting. He makes motions to show us. The puppies’ bellies are distended. Could this be worms? Distemper? Biliary?
We take the pups and send the child for his mother, granny or aunt, or whoever is waiting at home for him.
His mother arrives. Her expression is sour. “The pups are very sick,” we tell her. “We must take them to the vet. Can you come with us?”
We ask because there’s a good chance these sick pups may have to be euthanized. We need permission from an adult to put pets to sleep.
She points to the boy. “He can go,” she says. She walks away.
Dr Barker diagnoses the problem immediately. “Hepatitis,” she says, conclusively.
This is a surprise. “I don’t think we’ve had a pup with Hepatitis before.”
“I’m sure you have,” the doctor says. She explains this is an acute contagious disease targeting spleen, kidneys, lungs, liver, the lining of blood vessels. The liver is inflamed. Cells have died. It’s serious. One of the pups is very sick and should be put to sleep immediately. We explain this to the child who starts sobbing uncontrollably. His mother’s phone rings endlessly.
Dr Barker sighs. She prescribes antibiotics, anti-inflammatory meds and eye-ointment. The pups will have to be monitored carefully. On the way home, we stop at SPAR for tins of palatable soft food.
There is no-one home in Malema, where the boy lives. We leave the six year old with the sick puppies, meds and food.
Next day, the very sick pups dies. A day or two later, the other shows signs of recovery.
A week passes. The same boy with two friends, slightly older, arrive at Outreach. He’s carrying the puppy we saw last week. This pup’s eyes are brighter. His yellow tinge has faded. His gums are pinker.
“Good,” we tell him. “Your puppy is much better!”
The boy’s friends hold two pups. These pups are desperately underweight. Both are hairless in patches with typically bulging bellies from untreated worms. One has weepy eyes. A dry nose.
“Are these yours?” we ask the boys. They point to the other child, the one we know.
Hearts sinking, we ask, “How many puppies do you have?” His face is blank. “How many of your puppies have died?” He holds up 3 fingers.
We decide there’s a good chance these pups have also contracted the Hepatitis Virus.
“Can you go and fetch your Mom, please.”
She is annoyed. Hands on hips. Frowning.
“These puppies have to go to the vet. You can see how sick they are. Can you come with us?”
She calls out to the boys. ”No,” she says, firmly. “You not taking them.”
“They not my dogs.”
Calmly, we say; “Do you know it’s against the law to refuse medical treatment for sick animals?”
She answers the pups belong to her partner and he will beat her if anything happens to his dogs. Each of our volunteers, in turn, tries to talk sense to this woman. She is not interested. Her frown is set in stone.
She leaves the field and the three boys, clutching the puppies, run after her. The pups flop like rag dolls in their arms.
Next morning, after a sleepless night, one of our volunteers calls me.
“I’m going to the house. I know where they live. I’m going to talk to that woman. We can’t just leave those pups in that state. They need help.”
The house is abandoned. The mother is working. The children are at school. The pups are nowhere to be found. Our volunteer knocks on the door and peers through the windows. A neighbour asks if she needs help.
“I’m looking for three sick puppies.”
The young man leads her to the back of the house. There is a dirty locked cage. The sick pups are trapped inside, distressed and crying, covered in their own filth. No food, no water. The man struggles to open the bolt. Finally, it breaks.
“Take them,” he says. “They suffering.”
A different vet is on call. He doesn’t think it’s necessary to put the pups to sleep, despite their condition. He believes with care and medicine, there’s a chance they can recover and survive.
Our volunteer takes them home for a warm bath. Exhausted, they fall into a long sleep. When they wake, the medicine has begun its work. They eat small meals and sleep deeply again.
That evening, our volunteer receives angry phone calls from the woman who asks where the pups are. She says her partner is threatening to beat her because the pups have been taken. She also calls me.
She is screeching so loudly it’s impossible to hear what she is saying. A man’s voice is bellowing in the background. “You bring those puppies back now!”
“These pups are sick and I’m sorry but…” The call is cut-off.
Later, an officer from our local SAPS calls our volunteer. The woman has opened a docket, a restraining order to stop her partner beating her.
She wants the pups returned immediately.
Next morning, we visit the Police Station early and open a case of cruelty against the owner of three sick, vulnerable puppies denied vital medical treatment.
We describe the locked cage. The filth inside. No food or water. The duty officer is sympathetic. Painstakingly, he fills in details on the charge sheet.
“I hope you’re not giving these pups back?”
“Never,” we say, fervently.
Our volunteer has five dogs of her own. Despite this, she agrees to foster the three puppies who are too weak and fragile to be placed in private kennels.
Released from their cramped prison, the pups stretch their skinny legs. They discover the taste and touch of soft grass. Their noses twitch as they inhale the smells of soil, shrubs, feathery weeds. They lie, basking in sunlight. The other dogs are gentle. They observe the pups curiously and stay close, watching.
The pups start lapping clean, fresh water from a bowl. They eat soft food mixed with pellets. Two pups have regular warm baths with medicated soap to help cure their mange. We give Dectomax injections to kill mange mites. Slowly, hair sprouts in naked blotches on their skin.
The puppies are vaccinated, treated for fleas and dewormed.
“They’re looking much better,” the vet says. “I think they’re going to make it.”
At the time of writing, the three pups are bursting with energy, life and love.
Once their mange is cured, we will have them adopted into loving homes. We are thankful these three precious souls are too young to remember the life they once had. Thankful they’ve learned to know joy, safety and the warmth of a soft, comfortable, human lap. This is nothing less than they deserve.