Escaping hell: After life in a cage, how does a dog adjust?

These are some of the 715 dogs recovered from a breeding operation in Berrien County over the past two weeks. The dogs, matted, and covered with feces, had been packed into wire cages for most of their lives. CONTRIBUTED BY ATLANTA HUMANE SOCIETY

These are some of the 715 dogs recovered from a breeding operation in Berrien County over the past two weeks. The dogs, matted, and covered with feces, had been packed into wire cages for most of their lives. CONTRIBUTED BY ATLANTA HUMANE SOCIETY

The 715 dogs taken from a Berrien County breeder over the past two weeks represent one of the worst cases of abuse and neglect that some rescuers have seen.

Multiple dogs were stored in 3-by-4-foot wire cages, sometimes packed so tightly that they couldn't lie down. Many of those dogs had lived in those cages for years — in fact, for their entire lives.

Because they lived standing in their own urine and feces, they developed tumors between their toes, according to rescue volunteers, and the pads on the feet of some dogs were “burned off.” The cages were also stacked two and three high, so that the urine and feces from those above spilled onto those below.

The coats of most of the dogs were so matted with feces that they had to be shaved. Some dogs with skin conditions didn’t need shaving because their hair had already fallen out.

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How well can animals that have been through this hellish existence adjust to living outside the cage?

"The ones we have were completely and totally unfamiliar with the feeling of grass, the beep of a microwave," said Kristin Sarkar, of Releash Atlanta, whose network is fostering 12 of the dogs while they look for permanent homes.

Releash posted a video of one of those dogs, a poodle nicknamed Jordan Knight, trying to fall asleep standing up. It was a dog accustomed to being so crowded that he couldn’t lie down. The video has been viewed 1.3 million times.

Angels Among Us Pet Rescue, based in Alpharetta, took in 40 dogs, and "some of them would not come out of their crates for days because they were so scared," said board member Tiffany Powers.

The first step for these animals is medical and dental care. Many have tooth decay. Then comes a long period of adjustment. “They are learning to know human touch, something they never knew before,” said Powers.

A mix of small dogs, including Shih Tzus, toy poodles, teacup Yorkies, Chihuahuas, Lhasa apsos, pugs and Pomeranians, were removed from the Berrien County property, where the breeder, Reason Craig Gray, operated a business called Georgia Puppies. Berrien County is about three hours south of downtown Atlanta.

Gray, 58, was charged with six counts of cruelty to animals and is being held in the Berrien County Jail, according to Sheriff Ray Paulk. A cash bond was set at $10,000, Paulk said. “We’re still investigating,” Paulk said Monday. “There are going to be more charges forthcoming as the investigation continues.”

The next step for most of these dogs is placement in a foster home, where they can “decompress,” said Powers, “to give them the space they need to go through this on their own.” The 40 dogs rescued by Angels Among Us have been placed with experienced temporary owners, who have the patience to care for traumatized animals, she said.

About 24 nonprofit rescue agencies collaborated to take care of the dogs seized from Gray’s property. Most of the agencies were from Georgia and Florida, but at least one came from as far away as Ohio.

They will all be looking to place those dogs with permanent families. (The Facebook page of the Berrien County Animal Shelter of Georgia offers a listing of the rescue agencies that participated.)

Some of the animals may suffer from long-term health problems. Powers said there was evidence of muscular atrophy and skeletal issues for some of the dogs. “Many of them didn’t know how to walk.”

They are also susceptible to disease. “They come down with parvo (parvo virus), kennel cough, giardia, parasitic infections” and eye and ear infections, said Jessica Rock, director of legal advocacy and law enforcement for the Atlanta Humane Society.

Rescuers said some of the dogs didn’t survive.

The emotional recovery can also be a long process. Some of the animals will immediately respond to their newfound freedom, while others won’t. “I totally see it run the gamut,” said Rock. “Some dogs, they know you’re there to rescue them, their reaction is ‘my life starts now.’ Some, even weeks and months into rehab, are still cowering in a corner and fearful of human touch.”

Tim Hill, a volunteer with the Humane Society of Valdosta/Lowndes County, coordinated the transportation of the dogs from Gray's property to the Berrien County Animal Shelter, and said he could see some of the dogs immediately responding to a friendly face. "As soon as some of those dogs were rescued, they were reaching out for affection."

Sarkar was optimistic. “I think with enough time and patience — and some will take a whole lot longer than others — they can all recover,” she said.