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France Turcotte and friends
France Turcotte and friends

Rescue Rollercoaster


I look down, and there is a 5-month-old Mastiff resting at my feet. Lily is completely blind. It is not an unfamiliar day for me. For the last 10 years, rescue has become a part of me. I do not think I could have escaped rescuing animals – it was just my natural path to follow. The dogs always come first. I come a distant second.  

When they first meet me, some people say I look unhappy. Honestly, I think my face carries all the pain I have witnessed over the years. When you rescue a dog that was sodomized by her owner, I admit, it leaves a wrinkle or two. But I manage to smile and make myself forget. Rescuing Mastiffs is no different than any other breed – it’s about saving a dog’s life and making her future a little brighter – but it does harden the heart. We are a small, private sanctuary, rescuing close to 100 dogs in the last eight years. That number still surprises me, because every life we save matters. Our sanctuary is about quality, not quantity, and dedicated to dogs in need of medical assistance and rehabilitation. Most of them stay with us for many months, some even years. Others, like Lily, will never leave and make the sanctuary their forever home.  


Lily’s blindness was entirely preventable. But it’s not the rescuer’s job to judge, only to rescue.


When a Mastiff is waiting in a municipal shelter, size matters. The kennels are often small and the shelter crowded. The other factor is the chance of adoption. For these reasons, Mastiffs are often given high priority on the euthanasia list because of their low adoption rate. Response time is everything for us. We must be fast to answer emails, respond to phone calls and arrange transport for pick-up.  

One day, I learned that a private shelter had a Mastiff-Boxer mix. I confirmed by phone that I was leaving for the three-hour drive to rescue him from his fate: the gas chamber. The gas chamber is still legal in Quebec and is preferred as a cheap method of controlling the dog population. It’s also a very lucrative one: Private shelters get paid for gassing dogs, so why bother with rescues?  

As I parked and exited my car, I could feel the bad energy – that place always felt to me like walking through molasses. I suddenly noticed how quiet it was – there was no barking. When I walked in the shelter, one of the staff members threw a red collar at me. “You’re too late,” she said. I fell to the floor as fast as the collar did. I was not only too late for him, but for all the others – all the kennel doors were open and empty.  

I drove home holding that red collar in my hands, asking why. I am still waiting on an answer. I never went back there, and months later the facility closed. There are few days that go by without me thinking of that dog who lost his life for no reason.  

Some dogs come right to our front door, surrendered by their owners. The reasons have become unimportant to me. I have heard many, if not all, the excuses in the world. I do not have the luxury of caring about why; it’s about what we can do to help this dog right now. My heart smiles knowing that I created this sanctuary for the dogs to have a place to come to. I see tears, I witness heartaches, and I understand. Others just tie the dog to the door handle and leave. I understand that, too. In rescue, every day is a rollercoaster – you never know what is going to happen. When you get a request to rescue, either from a shelter or an owner, it’s the same: You do not know what to expect. There is always a surprise – a medical issue or behavior trait that arises. Some purposely omit some information, I assume because they are afraid we will refuse the dog. If they only knew that we rescued a dog from the Ottawa Humane Society knowing she was in the last stages of death.  


Duchess was proof that it’s the quality, not the quantity of time left to a dog that matters.

Duchess was proof that it’s the quality, not the quantity of time left to a dog that matters.


It was Valentine’s Day. Stomach cancer had consumed a beautiful crinkle-nosed Bullmastiff named Duchess. The owner could not handle death, so we had to take over that task. For 14 days, we loved her as much as we could. She would carry her stuffed rhinoceros around and chew bones like everything was right in the world. We could see every rib on Duchess, and we knew every day was a blessing. When the day came, we went for Subway. We sat in the car together sharing our sub as two best friends would. As she took a bite, I took the other. Her nose covered in mayonnaise, she enjoyed every bite. Then I cried the tears the owner was supposed to cry. But I took that role with pride because Duchess needed someone to cry for her, and I felt so privileged that that person was me. Do I question why I was the one to escort her out of this life and not the owner? In fact, it was an honor.  

In Quebec alone, there are more than 1,000 puppy mills still in operation. The largest puppy-mill seizure in Canadian history was PawsRUs, which operated for years in the next town over, only 30 kilometers from my sanctuary. On that day in September 2011, 527 dogs were rescued to safety. Once at the emergency shelter, many puppies were born, bringing the total to more than 600 dogs. Our sanctuary welcomed 14 dogs for medical and psychological rehabilitation. Standing in the emergency shelter, it hit me. The wave of pain from the sound of more than 500 barking dogs was overwhelming. It took my breath away. These dogs were shattered and broken. Once we took them to the sanctuary, the work began. We depend on volunteers to help with daily chores and care of the dogs. They are the heart of our sanctuary; I could not do everything alone.  

I walked into the nursery to check on Tara and her five Great Dane puppies. Tara had given birth at the emergency shelter and was welcomed here with her five puppies when they were six days old. We had noticed that one puppy had a deformed back leg. Nina, as we had named her, was struggling. Many vets told me to euthanize her, that she would never have a chance. When that happened, I would tuck her back in her basket, walk out, and go find another vet. We somehow found a doctor who believed in Nina’s strength and our commitment to her rehabilitation. Nina had her rear leg amputated at nine weeks old. Today, she runs full speed and is a happy, tall, beautiful 3-year-old girl.


Nina the Great Dane puppy was born into rescue: She’s always known life as a three-legger.


Soon, with the 14 Paws RUs rescues, we began to realize we were dealing with dogs that had just been let out of jail. They didn’t even know they were dogs. Bear, a young Bullmastiff, would not sleep. For days, he would stand there, leaning against the wall. I could see him on the surveillance camera just sitting there in the corner. So I tiptoed into their sleeping room, and there he was standing in the corner, snoring. He was sound asleep. Bear was simply trying to save his clean space – his kennel at the puppy mill was soiled with months of feces and urine. So he kept one small corner clean so he could sleep. At the sanctuary he continued this behavior for months. We also learned Bear was mostly blind from untreated eye infections. Again, a human was entirely responsible for his condition. It was not Bear’s fault.  


Bear lost his eyesight from eye infections that were left untreated.


Willow, an older Olde English Bulldogue, was one who mimicked Bear’s behavior. To conserve her clean space, she came up with a witty plan. Every time we fed her, she ate, then turned around and immediately defecated in her bowl. She knew I was going to take it away, so it was ingenious on her part. Again, she did this for months, until she realized she was going outside every hour. I can’t imagine having to sleep in you own feces and urine – animal or not, it is not a natural thing. I hated the PawsRus puppy mill and what it had done to our babies.  

Lucy, a small English Bulldog, was the one who stayed with us the longest. She was like a block of cement. She would not move or make eye contact. If you dared pick her up, she would defecate and urinate in synchronicity. She wanted to be invisible. She would silently take all the toys and herd them to her cushion. When you would try to take one away, she cried – a cry that would tear your heart in a million pieces. Lucy had her puppies taken away from her over and over again, and it seemed like for her, those toys were her puppies. She needed them there with her. We complied.  


Lucy the Bulldog had to learn how to be loved after spending her life in a puppy mill.


I remember the first really sunny day of spring. I brought Lucy out, she walked a few steps, then looked up straight at the sun and closed her eyes. I wonder what that might have felt like for her: the warm blanket of the sunshine on your face and the feeling of it for the first time. We sadly take it for granted. She stood there for minutes, immobile, just taking it all in: freedom. I think that moment is where Lucy felt her freedom, her little moment of happiness. When she tilted her head, I notice her right eye had watered from the sun’s blinding rays. I prefer to think that was a tear.  

Lucy and her Bulldog friend Billy could spend the whole day just lying belly up in the sun. As if they never want to move again. I guess this is where we can’t fully understand the joy it brings to them, as the sun has always been there for us. But for them, coming out of darkness for the first time, I guess it truly is something amazing. It has taught me to cherish the sun and my own freedom. My mother used to say to never mind about the little things, but puppy-mill dogs have taught me that life is all about the little things.  

Billy is an Olde English Bulldog – imagine the gentlest soul colored by dark brindle hair, his sweet, loving eyes buried in a mountain of wrinkles. Billy is a senior dog, and spent most of his life confined in a small kennel, only to be used as a breeding machine. His old body is a witness to his past. His legs atrophied, causing him to be in a squatting position for the first few months after his rescue. He couldn’t really walk or run, jump or play. Cookies would drop to the floor if offered, his eyes looking up at me, confused and lost. But slowly, he got better and began to trust me. Hugging him endlessly was my favorite moment of the day, anxiously awaiting the slightest return of my love. His breath was awful and reminded me of the poor-quality food he was fed, and the neglect he suffered. We removed 14 of his teeth, rotted deep into his infected gums. Ulcers were hiding painfully under there, too. The day I saw his tail wag was a moment of glory.  Like it had never wagged before, now he was making up for lost time.  

We call Billy our retired playboy because he was a charmer. One night, around 2 a.m., doing my last rounds at the rescue, I was sitting on the floor with him. Behind me was a full-size mirror glued to the wall, and I leaned my back gently against it. Billy came up to me in his regular fashion to steal his goodnight kiss. When in my arms, I felt his breathing stop; the tail stopped wagging abruptly. I stroked him and asked what was wrong. He let out a sigh and I realized, as his head lay on my shoulder, that he could see his reflection in the mirror. So I gently turned myself with Billy still staring at himself, and I rested my head on top of his. He was lost in his own world at that moment. His head tilted from side to side, closely analyzing his features in an almost human way.  

He went closer to the mirror as I whispered to him: “Do you see how beautiful you are? That’s you, baby, that’s you!” I cried with tears running down my cheeks. He looked up at me in the mirror as if to acknowledge that he understood. “Look at how beautiful you are, sweetheart!” I cried for the first time since their arrival. As I held him in my arms I would like to think, that night, we cried together.  

None of the dogs were aggressive, they were just scared. They wanted to disappear and become invisible. They didn’t know about human touch, love and attention. It was too much: We had to take a step back, give them space, and eventually they all came out of their shells. The transformation reminds me of the butterfly coming out of his cocoon, from a gray, hidden soul to this colorful, beautiful, delicate soul that shines a thousand colors. It makes all the work worthwhile. Our 14 butterflies all have been adopted to loving homes.  

As some dogs from the puppy mill were slowly leaving for adoption after four months of rehabilitation, Nala came along, in January 2012. It’s hard to believe that anyone in their right mind would deliberately create such a situation for a dog.

The local SPCA workers found a Boxer-Pitbull mix female with her puppies in the back of one of their trucks behind their shelter early one Sunday morning. It was -25 C (-13 F). Someone had put the pregnant dog in the box of the truck, leaving her to deliver her puppies and die in the freezing, icy weather, unprotected and abandoned. Four of her puppies had died. She was struggling to keep the other four alive. As they rushed her inside, she gave birth to a ninth puppy. I was called that same afternoon. By 3 p.m., Nala was snuggling her five puppies on a warm, fluffy white blanket under the heat of our lamps. It didn’t matter how hot it was in the nursery, she would take the small blankets and roll up each puppy as if to place it inside a croissant and then put it under the heat lamp. Once all five were rolled up like weiners, she would stand there and just stare. I would unroll them, reassuring her that it was OK. Her mouth had lost all its skin from licking, possibly when desperately trying to revive her deceased pups. Her puppies had frostbite blisters, as did she. Nala was a good mother.  


Nala was fiercely protective of her puppies after being abandoned in bone-chilling cold.
Nala was fiercely protective of her puppies after being abandoned in bone-chilling cold.
By 2 a.m., I was still on the phone answering calls, as the story had made national headlines. Donations came pouring in for Nala and her family from all over Canada and the United States as far as Florida and California. All five puppies were adopted and Nala is living like a princess in a loving home.  
Sometimes there are scars we cannot explain. Nala’s scars we could. Nobody was ever charged in connection with Nala being abandoned in that truck. My wish is that for only five minutes, the dogs could talk. I feel I could maybe heal them better if I knew. Do what you can with what you have, so we do just that. Dogs are resilient, almost as they seem to forgive and forget. My human heart is not so forgiving; I guess that is my own battle. I feel like I need to carry their pain with me, so they can move on without it.  
I am thankful I got over being angry when I was a young adult. I decided to let go of the anger a long time ago so I could focus on the needs of the dogs. They need us there in the moment; it would be easy to blame someone else for their condition because someone is responsible. I truly don’t care. It is the only way I found I could rehabilitate dogs. If I pity them because of what happened to them or start making excuses for the way they look, act or behave, I would be wasting my time, and the dogs would stay stuck in that rut and never progress. We are positive, sunny, happy and look toward a better day than yesterday. I challenge them to be better every day.  
Often people ask me why I was not a vet. I could never euthanize a dog. I can’t even install a microchip for fear that I might hurt them. I am that healer who wants to fix things and make them better. I knew I could never succeed in fixing humans. In the end, I am doing what I love. I could never find the same joy in breeding, being a vet, having a doggie daycare or being a dog trainer. I am a fixer. I am a rescuer.  

About the Author

France Turcotte founded Valley Mastiff Rescue in 2008. Surrounded by dogs from early childhood, her first job was in a boarding kennel, which is where she saw her first Mastiffs, and fell in love with the breed. Her Quebec-based sanctuary welcomes Dogues de Bordeaux, Neapolitan Mastiffs, Bullmastiffs, Mastiffs and Bulldogs, and will also help related Mastiff breeds in need. Certified in canine nutrition, Turcotte’s other interests include natural and alternatives medicines, herbalism, the healing power of food and canine behavior.


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