Thursday, June 25, 2015

Down the rabbit hole

We stood hours laying in wait for Dessa and her siblings to come out from the narrow cave under the ground. It was 15 March 2014. She was just a four month old puppy

The kind of cave that Dessa was huddled in was the type of tunnel under the ground that only stray animals know. Did you read the much loved Roald Dahl story, Fantastic Mr Fox? It was quite like the tunnel that Mr Fox and his friends dug and dug to reach the warehouses where the farmers stored their food, except this tunnel wasn't quite so long. It was a small one, just enough for their mother, Shy to give birth to them and stow them safely away until they were old enough to walk. Even though the pups were already four months old, this place remained their safe haven. 

No one could have been aware of this inconspicuous crevice in the ground in the middle of the forest. The entrance didn't look wide enough to contain a rabbit, let alone dogs. If Wee hadn't been stray feeding the dogs here for some time and observing their behaviour closely, we would surely have been nonethewiser. 

A hole, a den, a cave? How best ought I describe this?

If you have been reading this blog, you would know we captured Demi and her brother Dawson in February 2014. We knew they had three more siblings out there. We had seen all five of them playing together when they were much younger. Though we had hoped to get them all, we were unsuccessful. The three of them were growing bigger and more wary. They would soon be out of our reach for good. 

With this long post, let me share with you the story of how the remaining three siblings of Demi and Dawson eventually came to be at Gentle Paws. Diarying it down over here also means we will never forget.

That March morning while doing his stray feeding rounds, Wee caught a glimpse of the three remaining pups in the underground cave. He realised that this was an opportune moment to capture them all. He managed to reach in and loop a leash around the neck of baby Dessa in the nick of time before she slipped deeper into the cave. When he tugged for her to come out, she froze and shrank. The other two puppies were huddled further down and out of his reach.

Reinforcement came in the form of Florence, Feng and I, who were later joined by Choo. The den was dark and visibility was poor. We shone a torch to determine where Dessa lay. We still had that leash around her neck. With the light from the torch, we could vaguely make out that she was huddled just behind a bend in the hole. The path underground wasn't straight. We took a deep breath and considered our options. We decided to make a go for it. We would give the leash one big yank to move the stubborn puppy and hope for the best. 

It worked! Dessa was extricated from the hole, scared and angry. When we tried to carry her, she snapped. We quickly wrapped her in a shirt off our backs and released her into the crate we had prepared. By the time we got her out, we had been at it for around three hours. It was humid, we were beginning to tire but most of all, it was going to get dark soon. There were two more to go.

This is Dessa, fresh from rescue

When I drove Dessa back to the shelter in the crate, Florence told me to grab a shovel. We had no choice but to widen the entrance to the cave. 

When I returned with the shovel, we started to work. We tried to keep our damage to a minimum. When the entrance was wide enough for one of us to slide headfirst into the hole, we stopped. My shoulders were the narrowest which invariably meant I could reach the furthest into the cave. By default, I became the one who would enter the rabbit hole. 

Two of them grabbed my legs as I entered the den gingerly on my back. Another held on to a flashlight so I could see. The underground tunnel was well kept. Although poorly lit, it was clean and dry. The two puppies lay at almost the half way point where the tunnel curved. I reached out, got a firm grip of the two hind legs of the pup nearer to me and gave a tug. 

My view from inside - all I saw were two white furry bottoms

I had both hands on the puppy. I needed the rest to pull me out swiftly on my call before the puppy could react and start flailing. We had always been more a shelter than a frontline rescue team. But we had been teammates for so long. Though Wee had left and the rest of us were pretty much green horns at this, there was a camaraderie amongst us that only time could build. And so we pulled it off! The puppy was retrieved safe and sound. 

We got him into the crate pretty smoothly apart from some minor fear pooping. He was later named Dodger.

Crate was closed quickly. We knew once we lost this one, we wouldn't be able to get him back

Just like that, we had only one more to go. We eventually named this final puppy Den Den to commemorate the den where we found them. As Den Den lay the furthest away, I had to inch a greater distance in to retrieve him. It was narrow and the air was dank. I only managed to get hold of one of his hindlegs nearer to me. Thankfully, he shifted slightly when I gave that leg a tug. That gave me what I needed to reach out for the other leg and pull him toward me slowly. 

I passed Den Den over to Choo once we got him out. By then, Den Den had gotten over his shock and was starting to struggle and snap. Oops! He got a good mouthful of Choo's arm. Lucky for us, Choo didn't let go and we managed to get him into the crate safely. This little one was proving to be quite gutsy! 

Den Den joins Dodger

We tried to restore the underground cave as much as possible before we headed back. Wee returned the next day to tidy up further. Meanwhile, back at the shelter, all the pups were extremely sullen. I guess it had been a long, frightening day for them. 

Very sullen puppies

I looked at Demi and Dawson, their siblings whom we had captured a month earlier. And I look back again at our freshly rescued pups that day. One more month in the wild really did make a difference. These three were much more wary. As it was late, we dry cleaned the pups, fed them and allowed them to finally get some much needed rest. 

That first evening, they refused to look at us

We were lucky we got them. Because puppies in the wild... They come with a host of underlying conditions which if left untreated meant a very low chance of survival. Puppy mortality out there was high. To prove our point, Demi, Dawson and Dessa were all diagnosed with tick fever. At the shelter, the availability of ready treatment, nutritious food and loving care meant they could recover quickly. The same couldn't be said for life in the wild.

A couple of days on, they were clean and comfortable

If you thought that was the end, well we haven't even started. Rescue work only ends with adoption and we were far from it. For the five of them, home was a distant concept. They just weren't lucky. As a result, we were there to watch them grow up and reach their various milestones in life, such as their first vaccination, their first walk on leash and their first major surgery when they turned of age - sterilization

Looking terrified at the clinic for their vaccination

Despite his initial bravado, Den Den turned out to be shy. Shelter living could have made it worse but fortunately, he was the first to be adopted. Life in the midst of a warm and loving family provided him the the stability he needed at a critical time. 

Our handsome lad, Den Den

Dessa appeared the most gentle. Long limbed and slender, she resembled a graceful deer. Yet, when the boys disturbed her, she was not one to refrain from scowling at them with her scariest face. Dessa was comfortable with ladies but was insecure and anxious when it came to some men. She would run into her crate and refuse to eat in their presence, until she felt they were no longer hovering around. Funny if you think about it, because most of us who had a hand in capturing her were females! 

She had a natural supermodel pout this one

Finally, there was Dodger... Who really lived up to his name. This boy was painfully shy of humans. He was comfortable around dogs and would even bully some of them in a group setting. But when a human being were to walk towards him, no matter how meek or harmless we may be, he would scramble away hastily like we had the plague. He loved hiding in a nook that our curved stone bench made against the wall. When organising walks for the kennel during weekends, we tended to miss him out because he did so well keeping himself out of our sight! When we brought him for his first vaccination, I recall the distinct pungent stench of his fear pooping. We used up many paper towels cleaning his bottom, the crate and our clothes! Thankfully, Dodger outgrew that. 

With his funny ways, Dodger grew on you

It was only until this bunch grew much older did they start to get a taste of a warm human home. Den Den, Dawson and Demi were adopted in this sequence. By then, having been at the shelter for some time, it took them quite a lot of getting used to in transiting to a home. We often wish these wonderful adopters could have gotten to our dogs earlier because shelter life does unwittingly alter the personality of the dog in the long run. But we are thankful they managed to find their way to our dogs in the end. Better late then never, they always say.

Den Den's family

As I am writing this, Dessa is on another trial homestay. She has been for a few of those but they weren't successful because of her separation anxiety issues. The potential adopters genuinely liked her but were ill-equipped to deal with her separation anxiety. We hope it works out for her this time round. She's getting better with practice! 

They took a longer time to adapt but adapt they did. See the smile!

As for Dodger, he is still dodging. But we hope that surely isn't going to be the story of his life. There are many things we learnt about Dodger over the course of time. Teaching him to walk on leash wasn't as difficult as we expected it to be. It turned out that when Dodger was ready to let go of his anxiety a little, he really enjoyed his walks outside. While he can be a very skittish dog, he was extremely manageable. When he was afraid, he did not become defensive or aggressive. Instead, he simply grew limp and allowed us to handle him. This was a great advantage because it gave us so much more room to work with him without fearing. Never say never, even for one as determined to dodge as Dodger. Because everybody needs someone to believe in him.

It was clear Dodger enjoyed his walks

If we could turn back time would we have staked out their den for hours waiting for them to emerge? Maybe not. But we gain comfort in the knowledge that having done so, these five pups will never have to lead the life that their mother, Shy continues to lead every day. Since then, Shy has had multiple litters. The forests are fraught with dangers and diseases. Every day is harsh and uncertain. Because she is wary and guarded, we are unable to get to her.

Growing up carefree

For lack of a better word, we call our work "rescue". But I have realised over the years that rescue can only be said to have taken place when adoption begins. As a shelter, we don't rescue dogs - we can only love them and do the best for them until they find a home. We pray Dessa and Dodger will one day, like their siblings, find kind, warm and patient people to be their family. 

And then finally, rescue is completed. 

We have many wonderful mongrels awaiting adoption, including HDB approved ones. Please contact us at for further enquiries. Thank you. 

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