For more than a year now, Tanisha Degenhardt has been keeping her eye on a stray dog near where she lives in Alberta, Canada.
Last year, the dog had puppies, and Degenhardt -- who is only 23, but has been working in animal rescue for 12 years already, and is founder of a group called Education Not Euthanization -- captured them, got them medical care and got them homes.
Mom, however, stayed scarce.
A few weeks ago, Degenhardt's mother noticed the momma dog standing on top of a hill, away from her usual pack. It seemed odd enough that the women got worried something was wrong.
They came back the next day, and found the doggie with three young puppies. The dogs face so many dangers there -- disease, violence, starvation and bad weather, among them -- the pair became determined to collect the puppies and, if possible, their mom.
They searched around for the dogs' den and discovered they were in for a much more challenging rescue ahead than they'd first anticipated.
The mother dog had found or dug a deep hole, approximately a foot wide and 7 feet deep, according to Degenhardt, into the side of a hill.
It was clear that there were some puppies inside.
Degenhardt tried to get in, but couldn't fit. She went to the store to pick up some food, thinking that capitalizing on the pups' hunger might do the trick. It did, at first -- three puppies were lured out, by dog food on a stick. More seemed as if they would follow until the third rescuee began to holler, "and scared the other puppies back into the hole," Degenhardt said. "They refused to follow the food anymore."
There was just one thing to do: send her thin 13-year-old brother, Ty, into the hole. Only that didn't quite work, either.
"He tried to wiggle his way into the hole but even his tiny frame was too big and the hole was too deep," Degenhardt said.
So the family gathered shovels and began digging, and digging, and digging some more.
Four hours later, Ty could fit into the hole. He extracted a whole lot of puppies. It had been a nine-hour operation.
There were seven puppies in all. It took several days just to get the burrs off of their fur. They had fleas, worms and ticks, and were covered in dirt, but were, remarkably, otherwise healthy.
The puppies were terrified their first night. All seven huddled together, scared and shaking. By the second day, after baths and dewormings, they were getting braver, cleaner, more energetic.
"Day three is when they let you pet them without shaking or running away. And by day five when you came into the house they all ran to greet me," says Degenhardt.
Over the next few weeks, the puppies got vetted and socialized. They got to be great friends with Degenhardt's permanent dog, Diesel.
And then, as of this week, they all got adopted. It was a little rough, giving them up like that. But, worth it.
"They will forever hold a piece of my heart inside every single one of them," Degenhardt said. "I'm honored to be the first step in their journey to a new life and I know each one is with the perfect family. But it is bittersweet and many tears are shed."
Making it a wee bit easier is that in one case, the perfect family turned out to be Degenhardt's. Her mother decided to adopt the smallest of the pups. The doggie's name is Tiny, now.
(Plus, she's got a little klatch of orphaned kittens on her hands now, that someone who found them alone outside just gave her.)
Of course, this isn't the end of the story. There's someone who is still unaccounted for.
"Their mother is still out there," Degenhardt said. "Still at large."
So next week, a new rescue mission is in the works.
Degenhardt and some friends have plans to go out and try again to bring the mother dog in from the cold.
"She has successfully eluded all attempts to trap her but we are not giving up," Degenhardt said.
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