Traveling hundreds of miles to rescue dogs from death isn't anything new for volunteers with Batavia-based Casey's Safe Haven Horse and Dog Rescue. They routinely drive to southern Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee to pick up dogs from those and other states, including Alabama. They are brought back to the Fox Valley for adoption.
And the volunteers are used to seeing dogs in sad condition: afflicted with mange, infected with heartworm, malnourished, skinny, crippled, blind.
But a dozen volunteers, mostly from Kane and DuPage counties, went to Tennessee two weekends ago with a different mission: to rescue a rescue.
They gave a makeover to the Hardeman Adoptable Animals shelter in Bolivar, so it will be better able to give some dogs a second chance at life.
"They (the Hardeman volunteers) are a very big, wonderful group of people on the front lines," said Kathy Schweisthal, a South Elgin resident who founded Casey's in 2012 with Sue Balla of Westmont.
The no-kill Tennessee shelter is located at the Hardeman County landfill, just down a hill from the county's animal-control facility. The shelter pulls dogs from the at-capacity county pound that are due to be euthanized. The shelter offers the dogs for adoption locally and through other rescue groups.
And while the Hardeman folks are doing the best they can with what they have, conditions at the shelter were not ideal.
"I think the people who went down there, we were so overwhelmed" by the need, Schweisthal said. About two dozen of its kennels needed repairs. The whole place needed cleaning and painting. There's no enclosed space for dogs to run around freely, and volunteers don't have time to play with them.
"They are too busy trying to keep them clean and keep them fed," Schweisthal said. That means the dogs are in their kennels most of the day.
The volunteers did the cleaning and painting. They also bathed the dogs, removed ticks and fleas, and clipped their nails. They brought $800 worth of supplies, including dishwashing soap, bleach and paper towels.
"It was an eye-opening experience. We had no idea the conditions we were getting into," Schweisthal said.
Casey's also took home nearly two dozen dogs from the shelter, plus some dogs that were transferred by an Alabama shelter. The dogs included one, Roman, that has never lived inside a house and is just reveling in being able to sleep in a bed and play with people, according to Sue Wasilas of Batavia, who is fostering him.
It also included a mother German shepherd with seven soon-to-be-weaned pups. They are staying at the Batavia home of Lynn Flanagan, who adopted a dog from Casey's last fall, and joined the rescue group in April.
Casey's prides itself on taking any dog for rescue, not just the best-looking, most-likely-to-be-adopted ones.
It has fostered more than 500 dogs. Dogs are obtained from rescue organizations and stay with foster families until they have received full veterinary care. Their stay can be as short as two weeks; it can be several months if the dog is pregnant, or if it needs heartworm treatment.
The group pays for the veterinary care and food while the animals are being fostered, as well as spaying and neutering. It charges an adoption fee, but also relies on donations and fundraisers. Big Bowl Restaurant and its chef, Mark Bernard, are one of the corporate sponsors.
The biggest need, Schweisthal said, is for people willing to foster a dog.
But even if you can't take in a dog, you can volunteer with the group, she said, in other ways such as publicity or fundraising.
"Don't do nothing. Do something," she said.
Schweisthal said helping the Tennessee shelter was personally rewarding, so the group probably will do a shelter makeover again. It fits in with the Casey's philosophy: Do whatever it takes to keep dogs from being unnecessarily euthanized.
"That is our simple goal," she said.