At Donna Forsythe’s James Island home, five Shih Tzus scamper around the living room. Checkers, her first (and with her since 1996), sits in his bed in the corner, uninterested in the others. Molly sits beside her on the couch — she was found two years ago staked up in a driveway in St. George, S.C., with dry eyes, tumors, and matted hair.

After adopting Molly, Forsythe knew she wanted to help other dogs like her, and with a few other Lowcountry Shih Tzu owners, she helped start the Charleston chapter of Shih Tzu and Furbaby Rescue, a national organization that fosters and finds homes for abandoned small dogs. Forsythe soon took in Duffy, who later found a home, before adopting a third, Cinnamon. She’s currently keeping two more, Petey and Nick, until they find new families.

“Nick came to us from a puppy mill in Lexington County,” says Forsythe. “He was just one big mat and sore. We had to completely shave him down. You could tell something was wrong with his mouth, but it wasn’t until we cut his hair that we realized his jaw was completely broken.”

Petey, also a mill dog, suffers from grinding in his hip, a problem Forsythe attributes to likely abuse in the mill. Puppy mills typically consist of rows of cages and pens where breeders keep parent dogs who churn out purebred puppies as quickly as biology allows. They exist all over the country, and are generally legal, so long as water, food, and shelter are provided. Unfortunately, the condition of the parents has little to do with the price their offspring will sell for.

Last November, the mill bust in Lexington flooded state shelters and rescue groups with over 240 dogs in need of medical care and homes. The Oprah Winfrey Show recently did a program on mills, and just last week a mill in Texas was raided and 64 Shih Tzus were seized.

If a judge in Texas rules this week that the dogs can be given to rescue groups, Charleston Shih Tzu and Furbaby Rescue cofounder Barbara Dengler says she’s ready to foster any that need a temporary home and help shuttle others up and down the East Coast to people in their network who can take them. When they arrive, they’re brought up to date on shots, spayed or neutered, groomed or shaved, and placed in foster care.

“We don’t have a lot of foster homes in Charleston, so I’d say the most we could absorb would be around 10,” she says. “I know one has a ruptured eye, and we always get dogs with mammary tumors out of situations like this.”

Forsythe points out that the majority of rescue dogs are pure breeds — that’s where the profit is. Most pet stores have moved away from selling dogs, but Forsythe warns about buying any dog out of a cage, whether at a store or from a newspaper ad.

“Small-time breeders are usually very particular about who adopts their dogs, and they’ll take it back if something doesn’t work out with a new owner,” she says. “They don’t sell them to stores as a general rule because they care about what happens to their dogs.”

Dengler is suspicious of newspaper classified ads that offer different puppy breeds from the same phone number, and the Charleston Animal Society’s Kay Hyman says that she frequently receives complaints about people selling puppies from their trucks outside the Ladson fairgrounds.

“At least 20 percent of the animals we get at the shelter are purebred,” says Hyman. “We got one yesterday that we couldn’t even take because we were so full.”

That’s another problem. In addition to the abuse and tight confinement dogs face at puppy mills, they add to the growing problem of overcrowding at kennels. Moncks Corner’s Doc Williams SPCA has 25 dogs right now, the Charleston Animal Society has 50, and the Francis Willis SPCA in Summerville has over 100. The area’s “no kill” shelter, Pet Helpers on James Island, recently expanded and has about 17 adults — they can keep up to 40.

“If a dog is aggressive, too old, or sick beyond help, we’ll euthanize,” says Sharon Atkinson, manager at Francis Willis. That’s generally the case at any SPCA. “We try to do everything in our power to keep them here until they find a home or foster, and we work a lot with the rescue groups. We’re pretty much to capacity right now, and we’d like to have more foster homes, because we’d love to be a no-kill shelter.”

This week, the Charleston Animal Society launched a “Mission: Orange” initiative that shoots for a 75 percent save rate for incoming animals by 2011, aiming to end euthanasia due simply to lack of resources and awareness.

In Mt. Pleasant, paralegal Claire Cook and law clerk Krissy McKown of Motley Rice are in the preliminary stage of writing legislation to crack down on puppy mills.

“We don’t want to have to keep rescuing animals that are in terrible condition,” says Cook. “We want legislation stating you have to keep the animals in good shape from the start, with mandated veterinary care.”

Until those laws are passed, concerned citizens can research the history of the pets they purchase and volunteer to foster or adopt animals in need of safe homes. Dalmatian, Great Dane, Lab, Golden Retriever, and Bloodhound rescue groups will be at the Kiawah Island’s Pet Expo this Saturday, and the Charleston Dog Show in Marion Square on May 3 benefits local rescues. Cat groups and the Lowcountry House Rabbit Society are also in need of more foster parents.

If the Texas puppy mill bust results in an influx of “furbabies” to Charleston, the Shih Tzu group will certainly need some help. They’re hosting a fund-raiser and awareness event this Friday at the Lost Dog Café on Folly Beach, complete with food, raffle items, and a “doggie fashion show.”

“We’re raising money for our surgical and medical fund,” says Forsythe. “Taking in sick dogs can get very expensive.”

To Forsythe, Dengler, and the other foster families in Charleston, it’s a worthy sacrifice to see an 8-year-old dog take what may be its first steps on grass after a life in a cage. But like every rescue group, they need more homes than they have.

“You can only save so many if you don’t have the space,” says Forsythe, surprisingly composed as five dogs play and crawl across her lap. “We’re always looking.”

See Stratton Lawrence’s blog at for details on the Pet Expo, Dog Show, and Furbaby fundraiser.

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