Catherine Toft, a professor in the College of Biological Sciences, is an expert on population ecology — the complex relationships that bind plant and animal communities. And for the past 16 months, she and others in the UC Davis community have bound their lives to those of nearly six dozen needy dogs.
The dogs were found living in horrible conditions in September 2004 in outdoor kennels at a home in Esparto. They were collies, like the TV-show dog Lassie, but their world was a far cry from Lassie's idyllic farm life. The Esparto dogs were malnourished and sick. They lived in their own waste and their front teeth were worn to nubs from biting at their insanely itchy skin.
Yolo County animal-care officials called Toft, who is known locally for her expertise in situations in which people obsessively "hoard" more animals than they can care for. Toft already had four collies of her own, and was busy in the way that every UC Davis professor is busy, with teaching, research and mentoring graduate students. But she could not refuse so many desperate, miserable dogs. So the expert on life-support systems and communities set about creating just that for the collies — a network of people who would house, feed, clean up after and exercise them; give them medical care; and, when there were a few minutes to spare, supply soft words and loving pats.
Just days before Christmas, Toft was busily caring for about two dozen of the dogs that are still living in steel and concrete kennels on campus. She walked from cage to cage, letting one or two dogs at a time out into the common center runway, distributing sweet talk and donated dog food, and giving a running commentary on the condition and personality of each dog.
Lucy Lee, Toft says, is "bright and perky, smart as a whip." Arthur has a painful congenital hip deformity and is awaiting surgery. Honree, who is "cuddly and needy," curls back her lips when she is happy. Jack is very sweet and would make a good agility competition dog. Otis, "all scarred up" from fighting his kennel mates in the old days, is too unstable to go to a public adoptive home.
And BeeGee is a big boy with a dark saddle of fur who is completely blind and is prone to bumping gently into the backs of people's legs. "He hates going back into his run," Toft says, so she lures him there by holding an Alpo chunk in front of his nose.
Toft's tale of how she became guardian today of 71 dogs goes back several years. She had long been active in local collie rescue and adoption programs.
In 2002, she became interested in the problem of animal hoarding, after she was part of a team helping a county sheriff's department in Montana. U.S. customs agents there had found a couple moving from Alaska to Arizona with a trailer carrying more than 170 animals — mostly collies, with a few dogs of other breeds, plus some cats. The border agents discovered the animals when they saw urine icicles hanging off the trailer.
For about 10 years, Toft says, animal hoarding has been recognized as a psychiatric disorder, and Indiana just passed the first statute recognizing hoarding as a "special case of animal cruelty."
"Hoarding arises from mental illness," Toft says, "and is a tragedy for the dogs as well as the hoarder, who does not perceive that the animals' environment and condition have deteriorated."
So, when the neglected collies in Esparto were discovered in September 2004, the authorities turned to Toft for help. She, in turn, called on Tracey Louper, a Woodland dog trainer and friend, to be her "managing partner."
"We began by housing the dogs in sheep pens at the county fairgrounds in Woodland," Toft recalled. "Several dozen fantastic volunteers kept that triage center going for two months until we could devise a long-term plan."
Then the UC Davis community stepped in. Campus veterinarian Lon Kendall offered Toft and Louper space in two kennels and time from his student interns to socialize the dogs. And, she adds, "the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital has given them the best possible medical care."
Since the neglected dogs were first discovered, eight have died. Three dogs are in the "hospice and critical care ward" — Toft's house. Twenty-three others are in foster homes in Northern California.
And since Dec. 5, when the original owner legally forfeited his rights to the dogs, Toft and Louper have sent 14 to rescue groups that will "re-home" them with adoptive families in Northern and Southern Cali-fornia, and British Columbia.
The last 23 are still living at the UC Davis kennel, "which is wonderful, it's clean and safe," Toft said, "but it's not a home."
Soon, about a dozen of the dogs will be headed to states like Colorado, Wyoming and Montana for adoption.
For her part, Toft will not reveal the largest number of dogs she has ever cared for in her own home: "I don't think I'm going to tell you. Too many. Let me put it this way: I know I am not a hoarder. Because having that many dogs makes me nuts," she jokes.
At the same time, though, she adds, "Every one of these lives is equally valuable as long as they have a wish to live. Teddy, for instance, has liver failure and is a walking skeleton — but he hasn't given up. The dogs have been our inspiration."
HOW TO HELP THE DOGS
Catherine Toft and Tracey Louper still need help caring for their collies. They need another dozen or so foster homes, to get the last collies out of kennels and socialized with humans for a month or so before they are matched with adoptive homes or sent to other rescuers.
To learn more about the collies and how you can help, see www.theroadhome-dogs.org.
“They need time and love and help getting used to being in a home,” Toft says. “We need foster homes with people who have some basic dog knowledge and the ability to work with dogs that really don’t know anything.”
And, of course, they need money. All the dogs must be spayed and neutered, at $140 apiece. Some have serious medical needs: Three need hip replacement surgery (veterinarians are donating two). One puppy is in kidney failure and also needs a complex neutering surgery. Many are being treated for residual skin and bowel problems from the stress of their Esparto lives.