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In an instant in February 2007, Theresa Strader’s future path became clear.
As a volunteer helping rescue dogs from a Missouri puppy mill that was going out of business, Strader walked into a building and found herself choking back tears. The dogs looked frantic running around in their cages, wanting attention but then retreating fearfully if people got too close.
It was the first time the longtime rescue volunteer had seen a puppy mill in person. She stopped in her tracks just a few feet into the building, and she and her 14-year-old daughter felt sad and shell-shocked. “The smell, the darkness of it all—it was so overwhelming,” recalls Strader, a nurse who lives near Denver.
The group Strader went on to found later that year, National Mill Dog Rescue (NMDR), “was born right in that moment—right then and there,” she says. She recalls thinking, “I know what I’m going to devote the rest of my life to, and it’s gonna be to put an end to this crap, this hell.”
Strader found further motivation in the next building, where the mill operator—who was auctioning off 561 dogs—housed most of the 49 Italian greyhounds up for sale. “Iggies” or IGs, Strader says, are “hyperactive, crazy, happy, loving, get-in-your-face, under-your-blankets, follow-you-everywhere, curl-up-like-a-cat” dogs, and she’s rescued and placed many of them over the years. She’d volunteered for the rescue and driven 700 miles from her home in Colorado after receiving an email from an Ohio group looking for help with a group of Italian greyhounds in need.
In the second building, each little cage had a male dog with two or three female dogs, to keep the females pregnant as often as possible. In the row of cages at eye level, Strader spotted a dog whose tag identified her as No. 251.The terrified IG was plastered in a back corner of her cage, sitting on her haunches, looking like she wanted to get as far away as possible. Their eyes met, which Strader says is unusual; many mill dogs are too frightened to make eye contact. Strader could see that her lower jaw was missing. In that moment, Strader says she sensed the dog talking to her: Please help me. Strader put a purple star next to the dog’s listing in her auction catalog, and told her volunteer group leader that she wasn’t going home without No. 251.
Though she’d planned on pulling just two or three dogs, Strader wound up loading 13 into her van: No. 251, whom she named Lily, along with eight other Italian greyhounds, two dachshunds, and two papillons. She drove all night because she couldn’t leave the dogs in her van overnight in February, and no hotel would allow 13 dogs. Along the way she kept thinking that people don’t know about the reality of puppy mills, and she needed to help spread the word. “These are the parents of those little cutie-pies you see in the pet store,” she says, “and this is not right.”
Her five-acre property south of Denver with chickens and dogs wasn’t really ready for another 13 canines, but Strader, with the help of her husband and a close rescue friend, got NMDR off the ground. “When this all started, it started here at my house,” she says.
Colorado is a state full of dog-loving, volunteer-minded people, and the rescue grew quickly. Today it has about 1,400 volunteers, including 300 to 400 that Strader considers very active. A few years ago the group opened a kennel a half hour’s drive from Strader’s home, and she says people “flip out” when they see how clean the volunteers keep it.In its six years, the group has rescued about 7,500 puppy mill dogs, animals it adopts out or sends to other rescue groups around the country. Strader has developed relationships with mass breeders in several Midwestern states, who relinquish dogs they consider surplus to NMDR. The group typically houses about 100 dogs at the kennel, while a similar number are in NMDR foster homes. NMDR goes on puppy mill rescues at least once a month, Strader says, saving a monthly average of 120 to 140 discarded dogs, about half of whom are transported to its rescue partners.
Though Strader was introduced to the industry by way of a dog auction, nowadays her group rarely buys dogs—most of its rescues are the unwanted castoffs of puppy mills or animals seized in raids. Occasionally, NMDR buys dogs who are considered unmarketable—keeping bids low enough to avoid infusing money into the industry. If it costs a breeder $20 to enter a dog in an auction, for example, and you never go above a $20 bid, the breeder makes nothing, Strader says.
Strader has earned plaudits from the media (including a story last fall in People), but she’s quick to attribute NMDR’s success to its volunteers, who clocked 27,600 hours last year. “I will take credit for putting it on its feet, and really that’s about it,” she says. “It’s the work of a lot of people who care every bit as much as I do that keeps it going every day.”
“She’s quite an impressive person,” says Michelle Cascio, manager of The HSUS’s Emergency Placement Partner (EPP) program. “… Some of these breeders won’t allow anyone else on the property but Theresa.”
In February 2011, NMDR assisted The HSUS when a breeder in Missouri suddenly decided to relinquish 54 dogs. The HSUS didn’t have time to deploy its rig, Cascio explains, but within 24 hours of being contacted, Strader sent a driver to pick up the dogs. Earlier this year, the group assisted The HSUS by accepting four of the least social malamutes from a rescue in Montana.
Puppy mill dogs typically arrive at NMDR fearful and suffering from physical problems that range from rotten teeth to pus-filled uteruses and mammary tumors. But Strader says her work with NMDR has taught her how strong the dogs are, both physically and emotionally.
“The truth is, there’s a lot of misconceptions, even in the rescue community, about what it is to rehabilitate a mill dog,” she says. “The great majority of these dogs, I would say eight out of 10, are ready to move on with life. They’re forgiving, they’re resilient. … You get them feeling well, their ability to move on is astounding.”
Her dog Lily is a prime example. Despite many health issues and extreme fear, Lily over time became a loving and much-loved family pet. She died in May 2008, and her picture now adorns the NMDR van.
“The misconception that mill dogs are unfixable is absolutely wrong. You’ve got to give them more time,” Strader says. “… They deserve a life.”