Sarah’s Story

by Marion Churchill

In early October 1992, I received a call from Wanda Falkingham, a brave and gentle soul who made her daily rounds in Camden feeding homeless dogs and cats. She had done so for more than 25 years. On this day, she informed me that she had been feeding a particular white poodle for about six months. “The dog lives in an abandoned house on York Street,” said Wanda. “I leave food around the back of the house, but never see the dog close up.” Although, the day before she thought that she may have gotten a better look. “Now I’m concerned because the dog has lost all of its fur.” Her voice trembled as she told me that the dog would probably not survive the winter.

Soon after our conversation, I set out with a friend to inspect the abandoned house on York Street. “Look through this opening, you can see the dog,” my friend said. We spotted the dog peering out at us through one the cracks in the building. It was well into the evening and the light had begun to fade. “It’s strange to see a dog even resembling a poodle here,” I noted. “I don’t know, sure doesn’t seem right.” It was clear that two people would not be able to retrieve and contain a dog in a broken-down building with cracked floors and numerous escape routes. “We’ll just have to leave the dog. Won’t be cold enough anyway.”

The following day I drummed together a rescue party of five and made the usual arrangements with a local vet clinic. Back on York Street each of us had their special assignments: Georgeann, Shirley and Helen would guard potential escape routes and Newt and I would climb into the building.

The wide-open decaying floors inside the house proved to be quite an obstacle. In order to walk across, we had to literally press up against the walls. “Be careful. If you fall to the basement it’s all over,” said Newt. To make matters worse, we kept stumbling over an unimaginable assortment of trash. With my flashlight I searched each room on the lower floor. “Here, here, up here. I’ve found dog,” I heard Newt yelling. We found the dog on the second floor in what might have been the master bedroom standing in front of a broken window.

We stared at the dog in disbelief and horror, truly a sight we had never before seen. The dog’s condition had deteriorated to a point that it seemed impossible that she was still alive. She was shaking pitifully, her eyes red and set deep into her scull; her head was covered with mange so crusted and thick that it may indeed have looked like curly white fur from afar. The rest of her body was flaming red and naked.

She eyed us, then the window, as if to jump, then made an attempt to flee by seeking refuge in a hallway closet littered with discarded old clothes. This may have been her sleeping quarters for the last six months. The dog scratched around in the dirty clothes as if to lay down. She was clearly weak and perhaps ready to give up, but then bounded out as a final effort to escape from us.

Our desperate and iron-clad determination to help this dog had allowed us to stay reasonably calm. Still, my hands were shaking as I clumsily tied my home-made noose around her neck. The dog responded with a struggle and an attempt to bite, but she was too weak to keep it up for long. “OK, little one,” I said in hushed tones. “Don’t worry. No one will hurt you. No one.” Our soothing words and gentle encouragement seemed to help calm her as we led her down the stairs.

The other three rescuers were standing by the building’s gaping hole that we had climbed into. “We’ll slide the dog through,” Newt shouted. “Hold on to her.” She was incredibly frightened, shaking ever more desperately and all attempts to calm her now seemed to be in vain. The only remedy would be to rush her to the veterinary clinic as fast as we could.

But instead of finding relief and comfort at the clinic, we found hostility and indifference. “I cannot believe this,” said Helen. “Marion made arrangements, and now we’re told that the dog can’t be treated or boarded here?” It seemed that the veterinarian had no expertise to treat the dog or wasn’t remotely interested in getting involved. “My advice to you is euthanasia,” the vet said coldly.

“That’s it?” exclaimed Shirley. “This dog was abandoned and left to die in Camden, and now she’s being abandoned again?”

Our group was devastated. We had an emergency in our van and no place to go. “Let’s see who we can get a hold of,” said Georgeann, while punching numbers into the cell phone. We sat with the dog in the van calling various animal hospitals and left messages for rescue groups. “I have a couple of hospitals now that will see us, but there’s no boarding.” It certainly looked bleak. The hours had gone by and two members of our rescue party had to leave. They bid farewell and wished us much luck.

“You have to explain the extent of the dog’s condition,” I said to Helen who had taken over the phone, “otherwise we’ll get there and might get turned away again.” It took four more hours to find an animal hospital that would treat and board the dog. The hospital was well over an hour away, but a solution had finally been found and we were thrilled. The dog had stayed with us in the van during the entire time. She had taken some water, nothing more, but she seemed a little more at ease now. A good omen we said, nodding approvingly to the dog.

The staff at Steinbach’s Veterinary Clinic in Blue Bell, PA, welcomed us with open arms. They received our devastated rescue as if she were our beloved family member. Procedures were started immediately, phone calls were made, and opinions exchanged. I watched with tremendous relief as the dog trotted alongside the veterinarian down a long hallway to be placed into intensive care. She stopped and turned somewhere halfway down the hallway to look back at me. “I’ll be back for you,” I whispered. “I told you not to worry.”

Two days after her rescue, my husband and I made the decision to adopt the dog from York Street, whom we now call Sarah. And after six weeks of hospitalization and intensive care, she finally came home.


2002 Marks Sarah’s 10th Homecoming Anniversary

Sarah turned out to be a Newfoundland, a breed of dog known to rescue humans from drowning. Compassion for Camden was founded because of her immense suffering and heroic recovery. She gave us that final push to forge ahead and initiate a solid plan to improve the plight of Camden’s dogs and cats. Sarah touched many lives during these past ten years, animal and human alike. She was the star on Philadelphia’s Primetime television documentary and so many other TV shows and newspaper interviews. She inspired articles to be written all over the country, was welcomed in Camden’s Council Chambers, and encouraged others to become active for animal and human issues.

As I write this and look back to that experience in my life, I should tell you that a few years after Sarah’s rescue and quite by chance, I met the person who once had Sarah. The North Camden woman had followed the news coverage and approached me during one of our mobile humane education sessions in her neighborhood. She told me of a puppy she had bought in a local bar and that she had named the puppy Bud. She went on to tell me that the dog was eventually stricken with a distressing case of mange which she was unable to cure with home remedies.

At the time, I was uncomfortable and shaken by the news and the discovery of the former caretaker. Though, over the years I haven’t dwelled on it or given it much thought. But, it’s these few words that will always remain with me when she told me that Sarah “ran with wild dogs.”

Sarah touches my life every day. If it can be done at all, it will be — because of her — that home remedies may be administered in conjunction with attainable veterinary care, and tragic tales of “wild dogs” from the mean streets of Camden will come to an end.