I Can’t Fall Apart Yet

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In 2017, Bailing Out Benji has rescued over 300 dogs from puppy mills across the Midwest. While our Iowa team typically handles the mill releases, breeders in Nebraska started reaching out as well. Our wonderful Nebraska volunteers handled these pick ups and got the dogs to their foster homes with our amazing rescue partners. Since this was their first time seeing a puppy mill up close, our team leader Dana wanted to document her experience.


I Can’t Fall Apart Yet 

©Bailing Out Benji , Dana Thelander


Dear Community,

I’ve met and interacted with demons, with humans that have no soul. With my stomach turning, heart pounding, and throat threatening to close up, I did it with a smile on my face and with commonplace chit-chat. Ears ringing and eyes attempting to take in my surroundings, but not able to fully comprehend that such a place existed, even though I know they do. Tens of thousands of them in our own backyards.

Smile. Breathe. Chat. Smile. Breathe. Chat. Lives depend on it.

I can’t fall apart yet.

If I’d met them in a restaurant, or a church I would have liked them as neighbors, as regular people, as part of my community, and it hits me that you can’t always recognize the soul-less among us. My mind continues to battle with itself trying to find the best in everyone, but knowing better. After spending years mending the broken pieces and the trails of their evil – I still can’t wrap my mind around it. I really don’t want to allow the acceptance seep into, and damage MY soul.

I can’t fall apart yet.

I pulled up the country road with my son. I pulled up the country road with my partner in a van in front of us. I pulled into the driveway, stepping out aware of the faces and jagged breathing of our tiny little army of 3. I recognize that faces have paled a bit, jaws are set, lips are formed in tight little smiles. In a cinematic moment the barking slowly seeps into my brain, increasing in volume as my consciousness allows the sound to assault me. Frantic dogs literally climbing up the chain link sides of their kennels. Eyes filled with desperation, all of them looking at me. Dozens and dozens of chain link cages.

We are standing in the middle of a HSUS Horrible Hundred Puppy Mill.

I can’t fall apart yet.

Work to be done. Get to it. Get the ones we can take loaded up. Consult how to move 3 -100 pound dogs out of a kennel that they’ve never once been out of in almost a decade. See the fear. Watch as they’re grabbed by their ears, necks and tails and strong-armed into crates in the van. No kind words. Can’t give ourselves away. No time to evaluate the ones we are loading but out of the sides of my eyes I see that there are a couple bad eyes, a crooked jaw, missing fur, an infected fly-bitten nose, a broken tail, a mama being pulled away from her pups that are being kept to be sold. We only get the older, ill and spent, all the others are being sold to other breeders. Maybe a few others will get out into rescue, but most will be sold to start their misery over in the same conditions, different location. In a different neighbors backyard. Collect the paperwork. Smile. Breathe. Chat.

I can’t fall apart yet.

The vans are loaded with terrorized animals. Get out. Pull away. Fast, but not too fast. When you’re running from the devil you have to be cool about it. Don’t give yourself away. Don’t think about the ones left behind. Throat closing up, eyes blur and yet I don’t cry.

I can’t fall apart yet.

Look into the back to eyes wide, panting and pacing, small whimpers. Now come the first kind words they’ve ever heard- unrecognizable to these precious souls. We drive only so far as to feel safe and make sure there is nobody around. Recollect ourselves and start to evaluate what needs to be addressed immediately. Take pictures for the people at the other end waiting to collect them into loving arms. We get each dog fresh water, knowing that we hadn’t seen any in their kennels. Making sure each one of them has a fresh, clean blanket in the crate. They don’t know what they are but these are the first steps. Kind words, fresh water, comfortable accommodations for the long drive out of hell. Texts and phone calls, ETA’s confirmed. Hand-offs begin. More driving. I see the tension and devastation in my son’s eyes and yet he continues on. Although he is an adult I contemplate that he is still too young to face this kind of evil in our own backyard – but pray his generation will be the one to end these horrors. I know we cannot rescue our way out of this national obscenity, but he will go forward and educate his circle.

I can’t fall apart yet.

My son and I arrive home after dark with one passenger left and we welcome her into our home until she can be transported to her new foster family. A family that is willing to take in a dog that has lived in a Midwestern outdoor, gravel bottomed kennel for 8 years and been bred almost to death. It takes incredibly patient and loving people to rehab a mill dog and guide them through their journey getting healthy, learning to trust and be a dog. These are the people I surround myself with. People with amazing, bright shining souls.

Our house guest is the one that the miller chuckled with a smile and said “Yep, that ones in heat and he’s been goin’ at her hard for a week. She even went down in the back yesterday and could hardly walk. She’s full for ya.” I felt such an immediate compassion and love for this sweet girl, so…

I can’t fall apart yet.

The next days are filled with foster conversations, additional transport planning, vet reports, illness reports, evaluations, next steps and fundraising. Getting a mill dog to their best level of health is not a quick nor inexpensive trip to the vet. Spays, neuters, dentals which usually mean the loss of most of their teeth, antibiotics for infections, salves for skin conditions, too often surgeries performed by specialists.  

I spent hours and days with my girl cutting out mats, mats that limited her mobility and held infection and filth tight up against her skin. I did the best I could and then called in the professionals to do the final trimming and help with her first bath. Trying to find a food that she would eat, letting her hide but showing her that she didn’t need to. Introducing her to grass. Introducing her to a leash and coaxing her to walk because she really had no idea what I wanted from her. The distrust in her eyes was heartbreaking.

Smile. Breathe. Kind words. Kind hands.

And then I have to let her go. To the foster family who will be another lesson in love and trust.

I have to use this sadness, anger and disgust to fuel my days and nights. Turn it onto itself until it comes out as love and passion. To educate one more person.

I can’t fall apart yet…

…because within days of sending my sweet girl to continue her journey to her happily ever after, the message comes in from another breeder…

“I have ten more you can have. But they need gone by Friday.”