The Die Off
Snow crunched under his heavy boots as Keith Benning walked toward the abandoned trailer. With each breath, a plume of white fog hit the air. The coldest, darkest days of winter had arrived. The die off had begun.
It was January in North Dakota on a remote square of land, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. If the forecast was true, the area was about to plunge into the deep freeze. Wind chills of thirty to fifty below zero were expected for another week, maybe longer.
With the deadly cold bearing down, every minute that passed was now life or death. If Keith didn't find them soon, they might not make it another night. Just before dark, he received a message.
There's a litter of puppies under an abandoned trailer. I threw food out, but I'm worried they’re going to freeze. I haven't seen them in a few days. Can you help?
That message and an address was all Keith was told about the situation. Only he knew something else. If he didn’t go, who would? In a conversation with Keith, he recalled what someone said to him just a few months earlier.
*A guy at work told me to stop, now. That people had tried to rescue animals in the past but everyone gave it up after six months. They all burned out. I remember telling him we were going to build an animal shelter. He laughed and told me, “I give it a year.”
Whoever said that didn't know Keith. Looking away was not an option. He would prove not only to be fit for the job of rescuing animals, but would get the job done in a place no one else had succeeded before.
I asked him about the first dog he remembered taking into his home. That was when he told me about Grace, a stray that had been living on the streets and eating garbage to survive. Someone messaged Keith about a group of kids who were throwing rocks at her. Here, animal overpopulation is a problem so longstanding, that to some, hungry dogs eating out of the dumpsters have become wallflowers, a thing to shoo away. But to Keith and his wife**, they were not invisible. They were animals suffering, and when someone or something is suffering, you help.
They took Grace in, cared for her, and eventually found her a permanent home. Keith didn’t know it at the time, but she was the start of a new way of life for him. He had no intention of becoming the Dog Rescue Guy. He never imagined that four thousand animals would go through his hands over the next four years.
I followed my then wife up here for a job. At first it was like, what the hell did I get myself into? I walked into my house one night after work and found a pit bull standing on the kitchen counter eating out of a flour bag. You couldn't contain them all. Any area that could have a dog, did, and then some. We used sheets of plywood to separate the rooms. We'd have to move one board of plywood to get to the next area, then the next and the next. In the beginning, with a one bedroom house and no garage, dogs were in the living room, kitchen, hallway, basement, bathroom, anywhere and everywhere. I rigged up doggy gates and wood boards to separate them the best I could. Oh, and the house was all carpet too.
They kept every rescued animal safe until they could find it a home. After just a few months, the amount of work and responsibility became immense. They were housing nearly a dozen dogs at any one time. It was clear why no one had kept at it before. The problem was far greater than Keith realized or could manage. Calls and messages came in at all hours of the day and night. On the night he received the message about the puppies under the trailer, he was already overwhelmed with human calamities. There was nothing he could do for the puppies until after his shift. He hoped they would still be alive.
I had been at work since six in the morning. Domestic, child sexual assault, vehicle pursuit, stolen property, everyone wanted to be a jerk on that Thursday. I was supposed to be off at 6 p.m. but I was still at work at eight. I took the message and told the lady I would try and get over there. There was a girl in Bottineau that had offered to help with the rescue the week before so I reached out. She had never rescued before. I didn't have a choice so I connected the two and hoped for the best. Around eight-thirty [the volunteer] called and said she couldn't get to all the puppies but could see that two were dead, frozen. She was upset, confused, and scared. This wasn't supposed to be what rescue is like. Rescue was supposed to be like the commercial where you save the cold dog and squeeze it in your arms. This scene was just utter despair.
Home from work, Keith changed his clothes and rushed out to help. When he pulled up the trailer was not a residence, but a dilapidated shack that had long been abandoned. It was held up by crumbling cinder blocks and four feet of packed snow. A collapse seemed imminent.
There was no way under the trailer except a small opening where the momma dog had been crawling in and out. The snow was packed so tight I went around to the other side and found the smallest drift and started to dig. I wished I had brought gloves or a shovel, but you always think of that later. I dug and dug until I could get under the trailer.
First one dead puppy, then another then another. Momma was curled up in the middle of the trailer with one puppy near her. I hoped it was alive, but I couldn't get to it. The ground was frozen three feet deep and no matter how much I clawed at the dirt, I couldn't get under the cross beam of the trailer. I pulled out my knife and stabbed at the ground, but the blade didn't break past the first inch. As I backed out I saw how unstable the whole thing was. I went to the other side and dug again. I clawed and shanked the ground until I was able to exhale everything in my lungs and make it under. All dead. Six puppies, about four months old, all ribs, a short life of being cold and hungry. Mom was huddled up in the dirt, defeated that she hadn't saved them.
I hooked a leash on her but she didn't want to go. She wanted to stay with her babies. I had to drag her out a foot at a time. My shirt and flannel rode up as I backed out and I could feel a pile of dried dirt rubbing on my stomach. I pulled and she pulled back until I felt the snow on my skin which meant we were almost out.
So where do you take a stray who is near death and has just lost all six of her puppies when there is no shelter, no humane society, no animal control and no help?
You take her home.
*As denoted by different formatting here and throughout the book, these select passages are Keith's writing. Minor punctuation and grammatical changes have been made but have not altered the original message.