02/10/09 — With tears in their eyes ...

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With tears in their eyes ...

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on February 10, 2009 1:46 PM

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Robin Cooper, right, and Kim McCampbell groom two of the more than 50 dogs they have cleaned up since they began their work at the fairgrounds. Many of those seized from Thornton Kennels Friday needed baths and trims.

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Volunteer Betty Harmon sneaks in a snuggle Monday with her favorite pooch, a dirty poodle seized Friday morning from Thornton Kennels by Wayne County animal control. Ms. Harmon, of Raleigh, is one of dozens of volunteers from across the country who dropped everything to rush to Goldsboro and provide care for the nearly 300 dogs

As her cat-printed T-shirt suggests, Betty Harmon usually works with felines at the Safe Haven for Cats shelter in Raleigh.

But when she received an urgent e-mail Thursday night from United Animal Nations, she rushed to Goldsboro to help care for the nearly 300 dogs seized Friday morning from Thornton Kennels, an alleged puppy mill in Wayne County.

Looking after so many animals is challenging, but the volunteers have hashed out a schedule to keep the pups clean and happy.

"We do have a routine. We did spot cleaning, now we're doing trash, soon we'll do food," Ms. Harmon said.

"Then we do cleaning, again," added Louise Woods, a volunteer from Wilmington. "It's overwhelming, but it's fun."

The dogs quickly learned how to get attention from the workers.

"Look, he widdled in his cage after we just cleaned it!" Ms. Harmon exclaimed, pointing out one unapologetic poodle who wagged his tail at her.

The dogs seem starved for personal interaction, but are very friendly, Ms. Woods said.

"There are a lot who just want to be petted," she said.

Seeing the animals in such poor condition is upsetting, but the volunteers try not to let it get in the way of doing their jobs, Ms. Harmon said.

"You just focus on the moment, you focus on what's in front of you here, and law enforcement takes care of the rest," she said.

That focus didn't prevent her from taking a moment to visit with one dog in particular, a charcoal-grey poodle already cleared by the veterinarians.

"This is my boyfriend," Ms. Harmon said, cradling the questionable bundle of fluff. "He does have two eyes, they're just hidden. We call him a dirty poodle, because we don't know what color he is."

Cleaning crates and water bowls, dishing out food and checking on all the dogs is hard work, said Angel Zebraski, a volunteer with the Emergency Animal Rescue Service.

"It's tiring," she said. "You start out with a big adrenaline rush, but by the end of the day, your back hurts from bending down into the cages."

Mrs. Zebraski, who runs a doggie day care and training facility, signed up with EARS after Hurricane Katrina, but this weekend marked the first time she was called out to help with a rescue.

"It's sad to know that someone actually slept at night knowing their dogs were in this condition," she said.

But the physical and emotional stresses had silver linings for the volunteers.

"When they're reaching out for you from the cages. And when they fall asleep in your arms," Mrs. Zebraski said, cuddling a sleepy Pomeranian.

"I would call her Precious, but she doesn't officially have a name," she said about the contented canine.

Even if the judge awards the dogs to Wayne County today, it's not likely Precious will be going home to Benson with Mrs. Zebraski.

"Only if someone adopted my husband. He already warned me, no sneaking dogs home," she said.

As some workers prepared to serve the dogs their evening meal, Cathy Fiddler settled into a barn stall to play with two poodles as they waited for their turn with the groomer.

"It's like they've never been petted," she said, watching one poodle run excitedly around the stall. "They're all good dogs, none of them are crazy, none of them are biters."

Ms. Fiddler also signed up to volunteer in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She drove all the way from Leesburg, Va., where she does humane wildlife removal, to assist in the rescue.

"I love it," she said. "I wish I could take them all home."

Meanwhile, professional groomer Kim McCampbell was putting the finishing touches on one grey and white dog. The wiry-haired mutt didn't have a name before his date with the clippers, but left Ms. McCampbell's grooming table with the newly minted moniker, Oreo.

Ms. McCampbell left her business in Raleigh, Pretty Paws grooming, to spend a few days brushing, snipping and combing the seized dogs. She and other local groomers donated their time and skills to help make the pups more presentable.

By Monday afternoon, piles of multicolored fur were strewn about the aisle as the volunteers clipped their way through more than 50 of the neglected dogs. Oreo stood without complaint as Ms. McCampbell brushed the last stray hairs from his muzzle, sneaking in a scritch here and there.

"It's amazing how good they are. They're loving it. They love us after we groom them," she said.

The impromptu salon treatment wasn't just for looks. Some of the dogs' fur was so badly matted, "it's dangerous," Ms. McCampbell said.

"It's hard to believe people could do this to an animal. We need to get the word out that people don't need to be neglecting their animals like this," she said.