Just as I summoned the courage to smash the window, distant headlights and the rumble of an engine interrupted me. I flattened myself belly down among waist-high dead weeds. A security light cast a pale glaze over the renovated red barn and surrounding area, me included. I prayed my form melted into the landscape. A chorus of spring peepers from a nearby swamp camouflaged the pounding of my heart, but I wished my hiding place wasn’t ten feet from the kennel’s door.
A car pulled into the circular driveway and parked behind a grove of blue spruce. Did I trip a silent alarm? The last thing I needed was to explain to my grandmother why her sweet, law-abiding granddaughter was in the county jail. Doors opened, and I heard rock music mingled with voices and laughter. Through the weeds, I could see teenagers. Four of them. They were sitting on the hood and leaning against the fenders, sipping beer and eating pizza. The kennel was situated on an old homestead where trees and overgrown flowerbeds outlined where a house once stood. The seclusion made it a perfect party place for underage drinkers.
I worried the partiers would attract the police and panicked when a young man stumbled in my direction. He stopped so close I could hear his stream of urine drenching the weeds, and his feel-good sigh of emptying a bladder of spent beer. If there had been a breeze, I would have been sprinkled. I gagged at the pungent smell. It felt like the intruders stayed for hours, but, in fact, it was thirty-four minutes. Thirty-four minutes of my face pressed into musty dry weed stubble, anxious about slithering snakes seeking my body heat and grateful that mosquitoes had not yet hatched. When they drove away, the teenagers left behind a grease-stained pizza box, empty Budweiser cans and me, a nervous, frustrated wreck.
Brushing dirt and dead grass from my sweatshirt and jeans, I got back to work. My first tap on the double-pane window with the ball peen hammer was too timid. The second whack shattered the glass, and it echoed like carillon music as it fell to the concrete floor inside. The nearest neighbor was a half-mile away, so I didn’t worry about the noise. Wearing leather gloves, I snapped the leftover shards of glass from the window frame. I stepped on a weathered crate, leaned inside and dropped my backpack and a dog carrier to the concrete floor. Hoisting myself onto the windowsill, I paused to take several deep breaths to calm my nerves. I expected sirens, but all I heard were muffled barks and singing peepers.
Fumbling in my backpack, I retrieved my flashlight and put away the hammer. I switched on the light and its beam pierced the darkness and led me to the metal door that opened into the kennel. When I turned the doorknob and pushed it open, frantic barking assaulted my ears and a hot stuffy stench made me gag. The dogs were frenzied by my midnight visit, and they ricocheted around their wire-mesh cages. The flashlight’s narrow shaft of light cast dancing shadows. Not much had changed from that morning. The hodgepodge of dogs were still trapped in filthy pens.
“Take me with you, take me with you,” they begged in a doggie language I knew too well.
“Sorry guys,” I said. “I’m looking for my dogs Cody and Blue.”
At the end of the first row of pens was the closed door that hadn’t been part of my earlier tour. Inside, six German shepherds were corralled in a pen. They jumped about, barking with excitement. None wore collars. They looked well fed and somewhat mannered. In the murky light they all looked alike, but one jumped a little higher and yipped a little louder.
“Sit,” I commanded, trying to be heard above the ruckus.
The dog I had raised from a pup obediently sat on his haunches. I opened the gate and Cody sprang forward, not waiting for an invitation. His tail wagged with such force he lost his balance. It was a struggle to keep the other five shepherds from dodging out as well.
“It’s so good to see you,” I said, ruffling his face between my hands and kissing his cheeks. “Where’s Blue?” It was a game we played. Like a typical beagle, Blue would get on the hot scent of who-knows-what and be gone. Cody and I would track him. We searched the rest of the building. We found a room of caged cats that hissed and squirmed when we disrupted their sleep.
Another door led to the interior of the original barn with its wooden cathedral ceiling. It had a stuffy unused smell. I swung my flashlight around the room and saw a Winnebago Motor Home, a shiny red speedboat and two snowmobiles on a trailer. Whatever Gary Jarsma is up to, it must pay well.
Near the door were bags of cat and dog food, cat litter and stacks of dust-laden boxes. In one corner were bales of straw. I wondered why the bedding wasn’t in the dog cages. As I turned to leave, I noticed a cardboard box of collars. I picked one up. It was worn leather with two metal tags attached to it; one was a dog license and the other a bone-shaped tag with a name and telephone number stamped in the shiny metal. I stuffed it in my pocket. I searched for Cody and Blue’s collars but didn’t find them. Most of the collars had tags. I grabbed a handful of them, jammed them inside my backpack and returned to the office. If Blue had already been sold, maybe I could find a record of where he had been shipped. There were three tall file cabinets. Piles of papers were strewn across the desk. In the corner was a copy machine. I flipped it on. As it hummed its warm-up tune, I grabbed what looked to be the most current pile of paperwork and set it in the automatic feed tray. Cody stuck to my side. He had no intention of being left behind.
In one of the cabinets I found a file labeled shipments. The top paper had the previous day’s date and listed eight dogs that were sent to Southern Michigan University. I scanned the remaining papers and kept all the ones dated after my dogs went missing. My dogs–already I thought of them as mine. Maybe Cody was mine, but Blue belonged to my son. Always had. Always would.
As the papers copied, the constant barking of the caged canines made me wonder what their fate would be. I didn’t know any more than what the volunteer at the animal shelter had whispered to me that morning when I checked the shelter for my lost dogs.
“Look at Kappies Kennels,” she had said. “He’s a licensed animal dealer who sells dogs to research labs.” Before I could ask any questions, the shelter director walked into the room and the volunteer scurried away. I introduced myself and asked about my missing dogs. He had me fill out a lost dog report and suggested I come back at least every other day to look for them.
“By law we only have to hold dogs for four days if they come in without a collar or microchip. Did your dogs have collars or were they microchipped?”
“They weren’t microchipped. They had collars, but the information on the tags is wrong. I wrote it on the report.”
“Collars can come off. We’ll keep an eye out for them, but we get busy. You need to walk though the kennels and look for them on your own. You also need to put up some lost dog posters. An ad in the Lost and Found in the newspaper would be a good idea, too.”
I thanked him for the suggestions and assured him I would check back at least every other day. He didn’t mention dogs being transferred to an animal dealer.
“By the way, my name is Sam Grensward,” he said. He read my report as he led me to the kennel area. “You must be Anna’s granddaughter.”
“So how did you lose your dogs?”
“I didn’t lose them. Someone took them from Grams’ fenced-in yard.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
“I don’t know. All I know is the gate was closed, but the dogs were gone.”
“Maybe you didn’t close the gate and they pushed it open.”
“I don’t think so. The gate latches automatically when it swings closed. We checked. It works fine.”
Sam didn’t have an answer for the obvious theft of my dogs. He led me through the maze of kennels, and I didn’t find Cody or Blue. Since Cindi had already told me they didn’t have any beagles or German shepherds, I wasn’t surprised. He ushered me to the door.
“Remember to come back.”
The comment didn’t warrant an answer.
I recalled a green and white sign for Kappies Kennels tucked among towering blue spruce trees in the yard of an abandoned farm on Kirby Road. I drove there as soon as I left the shelter.
A middle-aged man greeted me before I could even get out of my car. He turned out to be the owner, Gary Jarsma, a balding, haggard looking bone-thin man with John Lennon wire-rim glasses.
“I’m Alison Cavera, and I’m looking for a couple lost dogs. A German shepherd and a beagle.” His stare made me feel guilty. Guilty for looking for my own dogs. “They disappeared two days ago from my grandmother’s house near Pearline.”
“I don’t think I have any shepherds or beagles, but you can look after you fill out a visitor’s form. Wait here. I’ll be right back.” He turned and walked through an open garage door into a pole barn where I could see him talking with a young man. A couple minutes later he returned and handed me a clipboard and pen.
“If you don’t mind, just fill this out.”
The form asked for my name, address, telephone number and what type of animals I was looking for. He waited as I filled in the answers. When I finished, I handed it to him.
“They have collars, but the information on the tags is old. I just moved here.” He wrote a note on the form, and then asked for my driver’s license.
“Security. If you want in, I see your license.”
I retrieved it from my purse. Jarsma compared the license data to what I had written. He scribbled my Chicago address next to Gram’s address. He handed the license back to me.
“Follow me,” he said, leading me into the pole barn and through a one-desk office. I scurried to keep up with him. As he swung open a heavy metal door, I was assaulted by a musty stench and the uproar of excited animals who sounded like they had been caged too long. He pointed to an aisle.
“Go ahead, take a look.”
In the first pen a brownish-black terrier leaped and bounced off the front of its wire-mesh run. Next to it was a shepherd mix. Then a black lab-like dog with white paws who danced in circles. There were puddles of urine and piles of feces on the cement floor. In each pen there was a grimy food bowl and a coffee can partially filled with water.
I held my breath and hurried to the end of the aisle as Jarsma followed close behind. In the last pen five reddish-brown puppies tumbled over each other in play. Jarsma guided me around the corner and pointed to another walkway with pens on both sides. More dogs, some two and three to a pen. I didn’t look too closely. All I wanted was to find Cody and Blue. I didn’t.
“I didn’t think we had your dogs, but if any shepherds or beagles come in I’ll give you a call,” Jarsma said as he walked me to my car.
“What do you do with these dogs?”
“They’re used in medical schools, veterinarian schools, research labs. They’d be put to sleep at the shelter. Might as well use them to find a cure for cancer or something.”
“But aren’t they pets?”
“Not any more.”
I got into my car and headed home. On the way I listened to the messages on my cell. One was from Cindi Owens, the volunteer at the shelter. She wanted me to call her at home. I pulled to the side of the road and called her.
“Hi Cindi? It’s Alison. Did you find my dogs?”
“No, I just wanted to tell you that if you go to Kappies, don’t tell him what kind of dogs you’re looking for. I’ve heard that if he has your dog, he’ll hide it in a back room so you can’t find it.”
“I just came from there.”
“Did you find them?”
“No, but why would he lie?”
“He gets about $600 per dog. It’s big money out of his pocket if he gives you your dog back.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“I’m just telling you what I heard.”
“Where does he sell them?”
“Wherever he can. There’s a couple research labs near Kalamazoo, and several universities buy from him.”
“Teaching. Research. Testing.”
“Isn’t that illegal?”
“Jarsma is licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture and has a Class B license. It means he can get animals from random sources and sell them wherever he wants.”
“Shelters, pets people no longer want, other dealers. The county has a contract with him. Jarsma disposes of the bodies of euthanized animals in exchange for his pick of live dogs and cats. He’s in here two or three times a week, checking out what we have.”
“Do you think he steals dogs?”
“Nobody has proved it, but a lot of people suspect it. I’ve heard he doesn’t ask questions when people bring him dogs. He pays $50 apiece. Some guys steal dogs for spending money. And in this bad economy, people who can’t afford to keep pets are looking for new homes for them. Anybody who is a halfway decent liar can get as many free-to-good-home dogs as he wants.”
She added that two other people had been in the shelter in the last week looking for beagles. “I bet he has an order for beagles.”
As I hung up, I recalled my visit to the kennel. I could see Jarsma talking to a teenage boy and then coming out and having me fill out the paperwork. I had already told him what kind of dogs I was looking for. Could that young kid have been hiding Cody and Blue as I filled out the search forms? I recalled seeing dirty empty kennels, which was odd when some kennels held several dogs. Damn him.
As I finished copying the files, I felt a twinge of guilt at rescuing Cody and leaving the other animals behind. Then it came to me, like an early-morning insight you get when showering, I couldn’t take the other dogs with me, but I didn’t have to leave them in this stink hole. I already planned on rescuing the adorable pups.
Back at their pen, two of them cuddled on a filthy orange blanket while the other three sniffed my ankles when I stepped inside their kennel.
“Come here you cute little babies. Where’s your mama?” I said, as one by one I plopped them into the carrier. With the puppies safe and my backpack stuffed with papers, I looked around and took a moment to think of any clues to my identity I was leaving behind. I wore gloves so I didn’t leave fingerprints. I did a mental count of the tools, and they were all accounted for. Maybe the pizza box and beer cans would help cover my activities. At the least, they would be misleading.
I propped open a side door. With Cody tagging along, I squeezed open the clips holding the cage doors shut. It took about 20 minutes to open all the kennels. With the fresh night air beckoning, the dogs ignored me and raced to freedom.
In the cat room, I opened a window before swinging the cage doors open. The cats hesitated. I caught a brown tabby and perched him on the windowsill. It didn’t take him long to leap to freedom. Next I sat a calico in the window. The other cats watched as she disappeared outside. I helped two other cats onto the windowsill and left before they jumped. I could only hope the rest of the cats would escape after I left. I felt confident the fresh air and night sounds would entice them outside.
As I hiked to my car, parked on a two-track dirt road that ran alongside a nearby cornfield, I could see dogs sniffing around the yard and a couple cats dodging into a neighboring hay field. I had to hustle and get cruising before a vehicle came down Kirby Road and spotted the menagerie of animals.
One dog clung to Cody’s side, and when I opened the car door he hopped in the back seat while Cody assumed his navigation post in the passenger seat. The newcomer’s big brown eyes pleaded with me not to evict him from the car. I didn’t have the heart to order him out. I put the carrier with its puppy cargo in the back seat, along with my backpack. As I drove away, dogs and cats were everywhere. Run. I thought. Run as far and fast as you can.