A half-dozen Gainesville firefighters lay pressed to the dirt, peering into a deep hole in an empty lot in the cold, dark night on Tuesday.
They had been there for hours, digging and hunting with crestfallen volunteers behind them worried that their prizes would be lost and die — but at about 8 p.m., when temperatures were dipping below freezing, the last of five abandoned puppies came out of the hole in a firefighter’s gloved and muddy hand.
But while firefighters and volunteers alike celebrated, don’t think the pup was happy about it.
“These dogs came out snapping,” said a laughing Cheryl Love, an organizer of the effort to save the puppies and their mother near Atlanta Highway and a longtime animal welfare volunteer in Gainesville.
The dogs were snapping because they were almost, but not quite, feral — having lived a life outside and away from human care. The mother is a Chihuahua, and the puppies appear to be a mix between their mother and a Jack Russell terrier, beagle or both.
“I think they had been wild out there,” Love said.
Now, they’re being treated at the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia. The mother is heartworm-positive, but the puppies are for the most part in good health.
It’s all thanks to Love, Gainesville code enforcement officer Michelle Castillo, about 20 volunteers and the Tuesday shift of firefighters at Station 1 on Pine Street.
People worked for hours on Tuesday to rescue the dogs, who had been living in the abandoned lot on McConnell Drive.
Castillo first spotted them on Monday. After talking to a nearby resident who had been putting food and water out for the animals, but didn’t own them, she reached out to Love and the Humane Society to get the rescue rolling.
Early attempts to catch the dogs were unsuccessful because of the “really weird piece of land” in which the dogs lived. Shot through with holes and tunnels, the property gave the mother and her puppies plenty of places to hide away from the humans.
But the dogs dug too deep, breaking into a relatively deep tunnel under concrete that put them out of reach.
“I ended up calling the fire department and asking if there was any way they could come out — if they had one of the cameras that could go into the hole to see if they were down there,” Castillo said. “They ended up responding very quickly and coming out … and using the Jaws of Life to pick up this large piece of concrete so that we could start digging.”
And dig they did. For more than two hours, firefighters and others dug into the tunnel on the property to grab the two that had eluded capture on Tuesday.
“There were a few times when we really didn’t think we were going to get them,” Love said, describing the tearful waiting among the other volunteers who had tried to catch the dogs earlier in the day and now stood by to watch the firefighters work.
“It was amazing. They had worked hours,” Love said of the firefighters. “When the first one came up, the firemen were ecstatic — they took pictures, it just really motivated them to go after that last one. And they did, with a vengeance.”
And though it took one of the firemen crawling chest-deep into the tunnel, the last puppy came up at about 7:30 p.m. Tuesday — and came up snapping.
“Had the fire department not come out, they would have been stuck down there,” Castillo said.
But by then, their mother — who stayed near the hole but wouldn’t let anyone get close to her — was nowhere to be found.
“She finally got so scared — and she was so cold, she’s a little girl — and she was freezing and she just disappeared. There was no sight of her, and it was very dark out there, so we left. We cried,” Love said. “The guys didn’t cry, but they sure acted like they hated it.”
But she returned to the property on Wednesday and placed a trap for the dog — and was successful. During the day on Wednesday, the mother Chihuahua was captured and taken to the Humane Society to be reunited with her puppies.
Castillo said that as a code enforcement officer, she normally doesn’t deal with animal rescue cases but was touched by the need to help the McConnell Drive dogs — and for good reason. The formerly wild and homeless animals are now being treated by veterinarians at the Humane Society. Julie Edwards, executive director of the nonprofit, said the mother is heartworm-positive and one of the puppies needed fluids after being trapped in a hole on the property for more than a day, but all are recovering.
They’re already warming to human touch, Love said, and will eventually be adopted out after a period of fostering to help socialize them.
“It’s just saving a life — it’s not a human life, but it’s a life,” she said.