The Rescue Rollercoaster: Regrets & Victories

by Sue Bell, Executive Director

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in animal rescue knows the deep feeling of regret. It comes with the work:

  • Regret that you cannot do more.
  • Regret that you left an animal behind.
  • Regret that you took an animal in.
  • Regret that you ever got into rescue.
  • Regret that you did not get into rescue earlier.

Yet, with these continual feelings of regret, come equal feelings of victory. It makes life in rescue one heck of an emotional rollercoaster.

I’ve felt lots of regret and some wonderful feelings of victory these last few weeks. Friday, September 13th brought to a close our 8 year effort to shut down a hoarder who has brought great suffering and neglect to hundreds of animals.

It was exactly 8 years ago, in October 2005, that we first met Annette Thompson on her property in rural Goochland County, VA, just outside of Richmond. That day a Homeward Trails team of 12 wonderful people stepped with me onto the Thompson property.  We were heartbroken to find dozens of chain link kennels filled with more than 350 dogs and puppies. I remember the barking, the despair, the odor.  It was totally overwhelming.

I also remember immediately regretting that I had not followed up on a call Thompson had made to me nearly a year earlier.  At the time HT was a new rescue and I was unclear about what Thompson’s wanted. So, I didn’t do anything to help her.  I kept thinking that If I had, I could have helped these animals sooner. However, I also remember feeling a tremendous sense of victory and pride that we now had a committed team of people to help the animals.

Eight Years and Over 750 Animal Rescues

From that day forward, HT worked tirelessly to remove animals from Thompson’s property and provide  them with proper care. Simultaneously, we also worked to stop Thompson from taking in more animals.

Saving the animals was our priority. It required raising money to buy Thompson food for the animals that remained on her property.  It required numerous trips to deliver supplies, assess the animals and continually remove as many as we could.

And, each and every, time we left Thompson’s property, I was filled with regret and remorse for the unlucky animals we left behind. Hardest were the winter months, when I drove away knowing the long, cold nights would bring suffering to so many animals. Yet I also felt a small victory knowing we were leaving Thompson’s with a van filled with dogs on their way to better days.

Along the way we lost many supporters for this effort. Fellow rescues bowed out claiming they did not want, in any way, to support a hoarder. Some of our own volunteers left HT stating they did not think Homeward Trail’s money and time should be spent helping these dogs.

At times I regretted getting involved, especially since it was a lonely place being the only rescue trying to help hundreds of the hoarders dogs, many of whom needed expensive care. Yet each time we got another dog off Thompson’s property and into a warm bed I felt victorious because one more life was made better. And. with each animal taken, I felt a stronger conviction that Homeward Trails could not give up on this effort or these poor animals — until the very last one was safe.

Reaching Out for Help

After years of working with Thompson and demanding that she not take in any more animals, it was clear our good faith agreement had fallen through and it was time to reach out for help. Thankfully, a small group of nearby rescuers and animal advocates joined our efforts and we addressed the problem together. I immediately regretted not having reached out sooner. Yet I also felt victory at having asked, and received, help from my colleagues.

Our effort was a true lesson in patience and perseverance as we navigated the bumpy road of Virginia’s blurred legal system as it pertains to protecting animals. We were misdirected, misguided, dismissed, and turned away. But we kept coming back.

Days and months passed with no movement. It literally seemed as if there was no way to win our case and get help for the animals. We made many mistakes along the way. We regretted all the time and efforts spent that when nowhere.

Finally we got our day in court. We presented our evidence, called our witnesses and made our case. And we were victorious! Thompson was convicted of six counts of inadequate animal care and fined $450 for the misdemeanors related to preventable diseases and poor housing for dogs. We had won, or so we thought…

Since Thompson was no longer permitted to foster or have animals as part of her defunct rescue, we assumed Goochland Animal Control would remove the remaining 100 animals on her property. Wrong.

Instead, it issued her two kennel licenses for 50 dogs each and allowed her to legally transfer ownership of the animals to her personal property. Really?? A woman convicted of animal neglect and someone who had been operating a nonprofit rescue, which had failed to meet the state requirements, was allowed to own 100 dogs? How could this be?

Flash forward two years. Despite our efforts, more than 130 animals still remained in dismal conditions on Thompson’s property. I was filled with regret at not having pressured Animal Control and the County Board of Supervisors in Goochland more strongly to rectify the situation immediately after the court decision.

A Second Chance

In April 2013, Thompson’s home caught on fire. She appealed to the public, via the media, asking for help in the form of money and supplies for her “hundreds of rescued dogs.” She was misrepresenting herself to the public as a nonprofit rescue and the media was playing right along. We at Homeward Trails immediately sprung into action. We contacted the media, imploring them to collect the facts. We contacted the appropriate state authorities, Animal Control, and the Goochland Board of Supervisors demanding that something be done. And it worked.

Media coverage quickly became more accurate. The public and authorities demanded answers. Within days the authorities went on the property and confiscated 5 dogs in such deplorable condition they needed to be euthanized immediately. Thompson was charged with 5 counts of animal cruelty, each of which carried up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. We immediately offered to take the remaining dogs off her property. She refused.

After several continuances (something we had grown accustomed to over the years), we grew anxious for the trial to start as cold weather was upon us.

It was a total of four months after the Thompson fire when I received a phone call, in early September 2013, and learned that the case was close to settlement. The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office had successfully negotiated a deal with Thompson’s attorney prohibiting her from owning or possessing any companion animals. The deal also prohibited her from being involved in any rescue activities.

Thompson agreed to the settlement. Homeward Trails had 72 hours to find homes for the remaining 60 dogs, 3 cats and 6 kittens on her property. Victory. Victory. Victory. Our dynamic HT team was on-site immediately and Thompson legally signed all the animals over to Homeward Trails. It took 8 years, but finally we had full control over the dogs.

So Glad We Persevered. We Made a Difference.

So, on September 13, 2013 — almost 8 years after we first stepped foot on Thompson’s property — Homeward Trails removed 35 of the 55 animals from the Goochland property and arranged for them to get the care they so desperately needed. We were incredibly grateful to several of our local shelter partners who stepped in to take dogs into their shelters.

Days later, Homeward Trails would travel back to Goochland to remove an additional 11 dogs and several cats and kittens. We were shocked, and pleased, by how well some of the dogs made the transition. And, we had immediate regrets that we had not taken them off the property years earlier, knowing that they had suffered for so long. It was heartbreaking (and yet victorious) to see them getting their first bath, having their first walk and chewing on their first bone!

HT now has more than 20 dogs and 6 kittens in our system and we are working hard to find secure placements for the final 4 dogs oh Thompson’s property. Overall, the animals are doing very well and adjusting to life with love, regular food, medical care, and long walks in the sun. Others will face months and months of rehabilitation before they can trust humans and adjust to a normal life.  Our amazing volunteers and donors are making it possible for these animals to finally get what they deserve.

And so we take a moment to reflect on this long, difficult journey with regret for those animals who died on the property or shortly after they were removed due to the years of neglect they suffered. We reflect on the regret we feel for those in power at many levels who did nothing all these years to stop the suffering earlier.

But mostly, we will bask in the warm feelings of victory and accomplishment, knowing that we have made a difference in the lives of more than 800 dogs and cats saved from Goochland. If we had quit when the going got rough, or when the naysayers told us to stop, these animals surely would have perished.

We know we can do better than that. And Homeward Trails always will.

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