Rescue groups care for dogs taken from filthy home in Pulaski County

INDIANAPOLIS - Amber Marks has no idea what she's going to do once Lilith goes into labor. 

As a shelter volunteer for nearly a decade and now owner of German Shepherd Rescue Indy, Marks has helped dogs deliver puppies many times before. Lilith's case is different, though. The young, female German shepherd is feral and untrusting.

"If you put your hand in front of her, she will bite it," Marks said.

Marks is very fond of a dog named Kinset, who arrived at the rescue so terrified of humans, she retreated to the far corner of her kennel and would only face the wall.

A video posted on the rescue's Facebook page shows the dog lying motionless and afraid while volunteers bathed her.



Lilith and Kinset are among six dogs a group of rescuers delivered to Marks' west side shelter on July 3. Three tested positive for heartworm and only three of the six could stand to be touched by humans. 

"I've seen scared dogs at shelters, but when they're flipping like a fish on a leash, you know they have had no human contact," Marks said.

The six dogs were among 31 taken from the home of John Peck in Pulaski County. He'd been a well-known and what many considered respectable breeder of German shepherds for decades.  In the past few years, however, that all changed.

PHOTOS: Dozens of dogs rescued from filthy Indiana home

Tammie Gaffney, who runs a no-kill shelter called "Pawshere" in Lake County, said her father lives near Medaryville in Pulaski County, close to Peck's property. 

Gaffney said Peck, who was in very poor health from an illness, had reached out to her dad at the beginning of July, telling him animal control officers had been to his house and seized all of the puppies and were coming back for the adult dogs on July 9, unless he could find homes for them before then.

Gaffney's father asked his daughter to help.


Rescue mission

At first, Gaffney had only agreed to take a few of the dogs, but when she saw the condition of the home, she pledged to rescue all of them. 

"What I saw, I can't even put into words," Gaffney said. "It was mind-blowing. It was the worst hoarding situation I have ever seen."

Gaffney said Peck signed over to her his rights to the dogs, and she and a group of volunteers from other animal groups in the region began their rescue operation on July 2.

She said they went inside the home and found it covered in animal feces, fleas, beer bottles and trash.

Gaffney said she was unable to find a working faucet inside or outside of the home. The walls and floors were urine-soaked. The stench of ammonia was overpowering.

"The conditions were inhumane," Gaffney said. "They weren't livable for a dog, let alone a human being."

Gaffney said the basement of the home was particularly deplorable. It's where she said she actually saw a rat carrying a dead puppy.

There were boxes everywhere that breeders use to isolate male and female pairs to expedite breeding.

Inside one of them, Gaffney said she found a severely dehydrated female she named Kayla who, despite medical intervention, did not survive the night.

Outside in a pen, rescuers found a 3-year-old black, male German shepherd who was too weak to stand and was seeping blood. They rushed him to a veterinarian's office where he was euthanized.

What Gaffney didn't find, however, were any puppies, which isn't typical for a breeding operation. She figured that must have meant what Peck had told her father was true -- county officials had been to the property and only took the puppies. 

As for Peck himself, Gaffney said he was very ill. She said while she was at his home taking the dogs, she saw someone pick him up in a car on July 3 and take him to a hospital.

LaPorte County Health Department records show Peck died on July 12.

"I am at a loss as to why an animal control officer would take the puppies, but leave the adult dogs to live in that filth?" Gaffney asked. "And why didn't anyone call social services to report Mr. Peck living like that?"

Finding the answer wasn't easy.


Looking for answers

Sheriff Michael Gayer referred questions to Pulaski County Animal Control Officer Sarah Kasten.

Reached by phone, Kasten said she was unwilling to answer questions and said only the Pulaski County Commissioners were authorized to talk about the case and would only do so via email. 

Emails to all three commissioners went unanswered for weeks. Reached by phone, Commission President Larry Brady referred all questions to County Attorney Kevin Tankersley, who said by phone he would talk to Sarah Kasten and respond.

After leaving several subsequent phone messages at his office, Tankersley responded by email on Aug. 13, one month after the initial email inquiry to the commissioners. 

"I spoke with our Animal Control Officer, Sarah Kasten, and she explained that when she inspected the home she found a large number of adult dogs and nine puppies," Tankersley wrote. "The home was in disarray but the adult dogs were not being mistreated.

"It was a large property with a fence and the dogs were allowed to roam freely with ample water and food. Some of the dogs appeared have some medical needs, but it is not within the Animal Control Officer's power to mandate veterinary care for dogs unless the dog is suffering with pain."

"Not mistreated?" Gaffney asked incredulously. "One of the dogs had buckshot in its face and John admitted to shooting it." 

Tankersley went on to write that Kasten "did find that the mother of the puppies was not producing milk and that the puppies were emaciated.  She, therefore, removed the puppies and took them to the shelter. When she left the property, Mr. Peck was alert, aware of the needs of the dogs, and ready to assist in trying to adopt the adult dogs out with Sarah's assistance over the next couple of months.

"Mr. Peck was willing to remove some or all of the dogs with Sarah's assistance, but the situation did not necessitate the immediate removal in Sarah's opinion. Sarah has to weigh the condition of the animals, with the available space at shelters and the time it will take to find suitable homes for these animals. She is very good at her job, and the Commissioners of Pulaski County stand by her decision to allow the dogs to stay with Mr. Peck until other arrangements could be made."

Back in Indianapolis, Amber Marks isn't buying this explanation either.

"Now that all the pictures of the conditions of the home have been revealed, I think we can all agree Sarah is not that great at her job as their attorney expressed," she said.


Moving forward

Marks said even though the dogs are better physically, she has a lot of work ahead of her getting them to trust humans. 

"They don't know what affection is. They're just confused. I think the fear factor is gone, but they don't know what I'm doing," Marks said.

She's been trying something she calls "Cheeseburger Therapy." She buys a bag of cheeseburgers from Burger King and goes into the dogs' kennels and sits nearby while they eat.

Some days, she does paperwork or reads a book; anything to get them used to having humans around. 

"I'm in no rush," Marks said. "It's baby steps."

For every step forward, there are several taken in the other direction. One day, Marks and volunteer Jamie Bradway were nearly giddy after Lilith had stopped nipping at them long enough to take her out of her kennel and give her a bath.

Still high from this small victory, Marks decided to give Kinset a little freedom too. She put the dog on a leash and took her to a nearby dog run, but it wasn't long before Marks said the scared dog had "a total meltdown" and tried aggressively to get free.

Fearing the dog would hurt herself, Marks gripped the leash tightly. Kinset bit her hand. The cut required an emergency room visit and 10 stitches.

Marks hasn't given up, though. She said Kinset's temperament is improving to the degree that the dog is eating from her hand. It's going to take a lot of patience, but Marks believes she is the only who will be left with a permanent scar.

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