PALM HARBOR — The yapping echoed down the sidewalk. Charcoal-colored fur balls, remnants of a late-night grooming, floated like tumbleweeds outside the headquarters for the Suncoast Animal League. Inside, dogs and cats in crates were everywhere.
Executive director Rick Chaboudy was bleary-eyed Thursday morning. The day before, he and volunteer Clint Wilson had driven a U-Haul truck to Walton County to pick up 32 dogs confiscated from a puppy mill in DeFuniak Springs.
The adult dogs were used as breeder animals to create what has been dubbed "designer breeds,'' including malti-poos (Maltese-poodle mixes) and shih-poos (Shih Tzu-poodle mixes). "Actually, some of the dogs, and we haven't determined yet how many, are pregnant right now,'' Chaboudy said.
The transport to the Panhandle town, six hours in each direction, was a result of a phone call Chaboudy, 61, received on Tuesday from Terri Ensign of VIP Rescue, a small poodle rescue group in Clearwater. She was notified that a puppy mill with about five dozen dogs living together as one big pack had been raided by law enforcement.
"We knew we could take about 21 of the dogs but no more. We don't have a physical location like Rick does,'' Ensign explained. "I called Rick because he has a great base facility and a good outreach of volunteers.''
Getting the dogs to Palm Harbor was the easy part, Chaboudy said. "Although the drive was stinky, the bigger challenge is getting the dogs taken care of and into homes now. Their coats are matted and most of them are petrified of people because they have not been socialized.''
Another challenge for Chaboudy was that Ensign's call came a day after he had dispatched league volunteers Sam and Jeanne Carrell to meet a rescue crew near Tallahassee to pick up 24 dogs and puppies taken from several overcrowded shelters in Alabama.
But Chaboudy said he never considered refusing to help Ensign.
"The sad part of this story is that there is a need for rescues like this at all,'' Chaboudy said. "We took in 32 of these designer dogs, and for all intents and purposes, they had been tortured. It's beyond being about the puppies that are bought for $1,200 at pet stores that come from the puppy mills. It's about the adult dogs that are being bred at these places.''
When Chaboudy and the dogs arrived at the shelter at about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, more than 25 volunteers as well as other animal lovers who had heard of the rescue mostly through social media were ready to help care for the dogs.
Volunteer groomers were set up to cut the dogs' fur, shaving snarls off of the dogs' coats. Once cut, other volunteers swiftly bathed the dogs in tubs. After the baths, veterinary technicians examined the pups for infections and provided vaccinations.
Shelby Betancourt, one of Suncoast Animal League's office assistants, and her daughter, Amber, a Tarpon Springs High School student, were two of the helpers who stayed throughout the evening.
"I collected the foster paperwork. My daughter sat with the dogs in the crates, to help them relax,'' Betancourt said. "The outpouring of love for the animals was overwhelming, and it was such a good experience for my daughter to have.''
The dogs will be neutered and spayed and will spend the next few weeks in foster homes until they are deemed ready for permanent adoptions. However, some dogs, like Sean, a Maltese-poodle mix, will need to stay at Suncoast Animal League for several more days.
"Sean needs extra care," Chaboudy said. "He's got several giant (fur) mats. One mat is so heavy that it feels like an extra ear on his head.''
And what about the other dogs the Carrells delivered on Tuesday night?
"Once our volunteers knew about the poodles coming in right behind that delivery, they quickly got to work moving those 24 out to foster homes,'' he said. "Our volunteers have been wonderful.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4163. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.