Dumpster Puppies find homes for the holidays, thanks to Nevada shelter

Puppies left to die in Susanville, Calif., Dumpster are nursed and socialized into family pets

Dumpster Puppies — that's what they were called.

Deserted. Left for dead.

But not anymore. Call it a Christmas tail.

Seven in all, the pups were found in late October in a trash container outside a RadioShack in Susanville, Calif. They were the size of hamsters, no more than 2 days old, with their eyes still shut and their umbilical cords still attached.

Cold. Hungry. Helpless.

But just in time for the holidays, these pups — Bacall, Gabe, Chief, Michonne, Bindi, Bogey and Piper — have been adopted into good homes, animal activists announced.

When the four females and three males were found Oct. 29, they were taken to the Lassen County animal control office. Officials knew it would be a 24-hour-a-day job to keep the pups alive.

So who ya gonna call?

"They called us," said Melissa Shaw, an adoption specialist with Pet Network Humane Society in Incline Village, Nev., near the east shore of Lake Tahoe. "We're a small shelter, and we are able to do around-the-clock care. And that's what these puppies needed."

Word had gotten out about the nonprofit Pet Network after it helped save a litter of puppies found in July 2013, stuffed inside a box in an Incline Village trash bin.

Those were the original Dumpster Pups — 10 Doberman mixes. Four died, but volunteers saved the six others and found them homes.

So Pet Network had experience with desperate situations.

"We knew what to do," Shaw said. "We drove two hours to Susanville and got those animals. There wasn't much time to lose."

Shaw recalled the moment she laid eyes on the shelter's new wards. Each weighed less than a pound. Their immune systems were weak, susceptible.

"They were extremely small. Most of them were all black, and some had little spots of white," she said. "We later determined they were a mix of German shepherd, black Lab and golden retriever. But that first day, they were muted little creatures, just clinging to life."

Shelter workers recognized the irony at once: Puppies are normally the epitome of cuteness, but this story was tragic. They had been left to die, dropped with the day's trash.

They weren't just cute, however; they were fighters.

"At first, they weren't even little balls of fur yet," Shaw said. "They had short hair. They looked like hamsters, but with these little scrunched-up faces."

The pups were fostered out to shelter volunteers around Incline Village. Surrogate parents, if you will.

"One by one, we had to instruct [the puppies] in everything their mother would have done," Shaw said. "At first, just to get them to go to the bathroom, we had to rub their tummies."

Two foster parents took two pups each and kept them full time. The three others — Chief, Gabe and Michonne — were taken home by Pet Network employees at night and returned to the office during the day.

"With puppies that young and no access to mother's milk, we had to improvise," Shaw said. "Luckily, we have great foster families who took them home for round-the-clock care — night feeds, all of the stuff you do with an infant."

The pups were fed a puppy milk formula mixed with water.

Every two hours.

"We used baby bottles with the smallest nipples," Shaw said. "Those got bigger as the pups grew."

Staffers worked to socialize the puppies and wean them from the bottle and onto solid food. Soon, the pups were up and about.

"At the office, you'd hear these little whines. You'd go looking for them and most times they were hard to find. They liked to curl up under their blankets."

They would surround a stuffed toy wolf to sleep.

"Gabe would sleep between the legs, like he was just weaned," Shaw said. "He wanted that extra cuddling the other pups wouldn't provide."

People let the pups teethe on their fingers and wiped milk mustaches off the pups' whiskers.

"They took over the shelter," said Brittney Schilpp, a fundraising and outreach coordinator. "People lined up to see them. They became very socialized."

The dogs made news. Locals scrambled to adopt them. Reporters stopped by with cameras.

Pet Network says that it cost about $1,000 per puppy to nurse them to health — and that it was worth every cent.

Kaelan Wolford and her family would agree. She and her husband, Jack, wanted a puppy for their children, Makena, 8, and her brother, Koa, 4. They were afraid that a dog with a history of kennel life might have been mistreated and untrustworthy.

Then Jack Wolford saw the story of the Nevada puppies online.

The shelter said there was a long waiting list. But Kaelan Wolford said: "Just because you have a lot of families in line doesn't mean they're the best family. We're the best family."

Chief came home with the Wolfords a few days ago.

"It's just unbelievable," Kaelan Wolford said. "We went right out and got him a bed and toys. He's so cute. I sang him a song and he fell asleep in my arms tonight. He's like a little baby."

The kids think they have a celebrity puppy, she said.

"When I tell them the story of Chief's early days, they go, 'Ohhhhhhhh.' They wonder why anyone would ever do that. It's a lesson for them, that not everyone in the world is good."

But Chief isn't in danger anymore.

Jack Wolford said his children "haven't left him alone since he's arrived. He's a great little new member of the family. My son is happy that he's no longer the youngest."

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