At age 3, Azalea had spent her entire life inside a cage when police found her. The chocolate-colored toy poodle was emaciated and suffering from knee dysplasia. She had never known the joys of romping in the grass and being bowled over by other dogs.
One month later, Azalea has shed her old life and her former name, too. Her owner, Patricia King, calls her Katie.
Police officers found more than three dozen dogs and cats living in squalor in a Snellville house April 7. A local nonprofit animal adoption agency and a Roswell veterinarian are helping those formerly sick and starving animals find caring homes.
"At first she was very withdrawn and didn't know how to walk well because she had been in a cage all her life," King said of Katie.
"She stands with her back humped up, and she wet on the carpet a couple times because she doesn't know she is supposed to go out. She didn't know what my other dogs were. She hid and cowered back from them."
In her first week with King, Katie has gained 3 ounces. After a hard afternoon of playing outside her Carrollton home, Katie retires to King's bed for a long snooze. King built a ramp from the floor to her bed so the almost 3-pound poodle can climb up.
"She has done a complete turnaround in a week," King said. "She gives kisses and puts her front paw on my knee if she wants to eat or go out."
Katie was one of 19 dogs, 25 cats, four flying squirrels and a chipmunk found at the home of 57-year old Sylvia Simmons at 2673 Hewatt Road in Snellville. Police officers obtained a search warrant and entered the home April 7 after neighbors complained about odor around the property.
Inside, officers found 19 cat carcasses and a dead raccoon in a plastic bag in a freezer on the back porch. A forensic veterinarian on the scene said it appeared the cats had died of starvation or dehydration. Officers said they saw some of the animals roaming about loose feeding on the bodies of dead cats.
Investigators also found paperwork stating that Simmons had recently adopted about 15 feral cats from a rescue agency.
Simmons was arrested on animal cruelty charges. She was released from jail the next day on $10,000 bond and awaits indictment by a grand jury.
Gwinnett County Animal Control impounded the animals and turned the squirrels and chipmunk over to the Department of Natural Resources.
"The chipmunk has been released into the wild," said Connie Haynes, wildlife technical assistant. "Three squirrels have a release date. One is too malnourished and they are trying to get his health back. We are making sure that their condition is good enough that they can survive in the wild."
When Dennis Kronenfeld read about the case, he called Gwinnett County Animal Control.
In 2002, Kronenfeld, together with his wife JoAnn and friend Mary Springer, co-founded the Society of Humane Friends, a nonprofit Lawrenceville-based pet adoption agency.
The group rescues unwanted or abused cats and dogs from veterinarians, animal control agencies and people who find abandoned pets.
"We get a lot of the sick and the lame," Kronenfeld said. "I have three-legged dogs."
Society of Humane Friends sponsors a program in which cats are spayed for $30 and dogs for $50. They also participate in a capture-spay-release program that allows feral cats to run wild without overpopulating.
All rescued animals are spayed or neutered, dewormed and vaccinated. Cats are tested for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus. Dogs are tested for heartworms and treated, if they test positive.
After receiving full medical treatment, the adoptable pet either remains in Kronenfeld's or Springer's home, is taken to the society's Lawrenceville shelter, or is fostered out to one of seven families associated with the organization.
"I have, right now, two dogs of my own, four foster and 25 cats between home and the office," Kronenfeld said. "Mary has more. I have an 18-year-old cat a man brought here right before he went into a hospice. The cat is incontinent and poops all the time, everywhere. But I promised him I would take care of his cat and not put it down, so we clean up cat poop."
Some pets remain in foster care for years while volunteers work to find them homes. The pet's picture and biography appears on the organization's Web site at www.petfinder.org. Every Saturday and Sunday from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., volunteers carry an average of 15 cats and dogs to Petco on Ga. Highway 124 in Snellville for adoption day
Their hard work matches an average of 70 loving pets with caring owners each month.
"They adopt out more animals than any other agency in the nation that works with Petco," said manager Steven Nager. "They are here two days a week, rain or shine, and it's a busy store, so they have a good location."
From near and far
Some prospective pet owners find their perfect companion on the Society of Humane Friends' Web site and travel from all over to claim their new friend.
"A lady came from Asheville, North Carolina, to adopt a blind dog with a broken jaw," Kronenfeld said. "People who adopt our pets have to sign a contract giving us right of first refusal if they ever want to get rid of it. We have taken pets back five years after they were adopted. "
The Rev. Gill Babeau, a priest at St. Bridget of Ireland Catholic Church in Stamford, Conn., used his vacation money to fly down and pick up a 3-pound, 10-year-old toy poodle rescued from the Snellville site he renamed Bertha Bell.
"My mother's name was Bertha, and Bell because she's a Southern belle," said Gill, 71, who also serves as the chaplain of the local pet crematory. "I lost my brother and my dog two weeks ago, and I have an irregular heartbeat. I went to the doctor after I got Bertha Bell and he said it was the first time in eight months that my heartbeat was normal."
The adoption fee for a dog is $150 and $85 for cats.
"That sounds like a lot, but it doesn't even cover our costs," said Kronenfeld. "Some have to have extensive medical treatment. We hold two rummage sales per year and do other money-raising events to fund the program."
In some instances, like the Simmons case, animals need rigorous veterinary care for severe illness or injury.
"Their teeth were rotting in their heads, some you could push out," Springer said of Simmons' dogs. "Their ears were infected, one was blind and two had to have their jaws wired."
To date, the society has adopted out seven of Simmons' dogs. Five poodles and two Shar-Peis rescued from the Simmons home were vicious and had to be euthanized, Kronenfeld said.
Dr. Melinda Merck, of the Cat Clinic of Roswell, is rehabilitating Simmons' cats and helping find homes for them.
"They are very sweet and responsive," Merck said. "One is blind in one eye and partially blind in the other. One cat has pneumonia and is eating on his own now. Fur Kids and Good Mews took several. So did Persian Rescue. Gwinnett Animal Control is good about trying to get them out to no-kill organizations and let them have a chance."
Kronenfeld said cases of abuse might be prevented if more pet owners will spay and neuter their pets.
"I ask people if they've spayed or neutered their pet and they say, 'No, it's purebred, it's cute, we want a litter,'" Kronenfeld said. "Well, nationwide they say most of the animals at shelters are purebreds. Go to the shelters and rescue a pet, don't go to puppy mills. It would break your heart when you go to the animal shelter and see the dogs and cats put down every day."