By Jackie Gladfelter Devereaux
WARNING: This story and the photos that accompany it graphically portray dead and dying dogs which may be too gruesome for some readers. People under 18 are advised not to read this story or look at these photos.
SKY VALLEY – Bernadette Schwenn, 64, a longtime resident of Sky Valley, was arrested on Monday, July 1, 2013 on charges of animal cruelty. She lives in a makeshift shanty with no water, no electricity and a large pack of Queensland Heeler dogs that receive little or no care.
OnApril 14 2013, Kitty Pallesen, a local resident who has fostered and helped place many homeless animals over the years, received a call from a concerned neighbor that something may have happened to the woman living up in Fan Canyon and that the dogs may need help.
Almost everyone in Sky Valley knows Schwenn because they have seen her hitchhiking over the past 10 years. Even Pallesen has given her rides on occasion, getting to know her only by her first name, Bernadette. After getting that fateful phone call, Pallesen took immediate action and stayed on the case.
“I went up that day (Apr. 14) and did not find her, but found so many dogs with no food or water visible. I continued to go up every day afterwards delivering water and food. I did not know if the woman was dead or alive. I did not know her last name or how to contact her. I started calling different agencies trying to get help for the dogs,” Pallesen said.
“I did not know what else to do while I continued to deliver supplies every day. I could not tell from one day to the next if anyone had been there. The water and food bowls were always emptyand it was hard to get an accurate count on the dogs.
“In the beginning, I counted 20 or 22 dogs at the camp near the road. I did not know there were even more living in an upper camp area not visible from the road.
“One night a friend of Schwenn’s stopped by with a jug of water when I was there filling bowls. He had not talked to her for a long time. He said he did not know where she was or have any contact information for her. Before he left, he said he did not understand why something had not been done a long time ago about the situation with the dogs, and that over the years Schwenn had been personally responsible for ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of dead dogs.
“I called the local animal control, the ASPCA, the Humane Society, PETA, Animal Samaritans, Supervisor Benoit’s office, and every place I could think of. Nobody called back,” Pallesen said.
“I took up a collection at the Sky Valley Parks chapel trying to raise money for a bigger water container, because hauling up individual jugs was physically difficult. I inquired at the Sky Valley Fire Station to ask if they could deliver water, but found out their tanks held chemicals added to fight fires and were not suitable to deliver water for the dogs.
“On May 1, while making my nightly delivery to the dogs, I found an older female laying out in the sun, too weak to stand, too weak to get a drink of water or move into the shade. I brought water to her, but she couldn’t drink it. She was breathing really hard. I picked her up to take her to a vet for help. She trailed blood the whole way to the car and into the exam room. She was so emaciated that her spine stuck up high above her body.
“The veterinarian said that she likely either had a dead puppy still inside of her or she had a massive infection. In either case, she was too weak, too infected, too far gone to be saved. The only option I had was to humanely end her suffering. I stayed by her side, held her, whispered to her, and cried for her through to the end, just like she was my own dog,” Pallesen said.
This dog’s death was a turning point for Pallesen. She knew she had to do more.
Finally, Schwenn showed up at the camp. Pallesen who had been worried about her asked if she was okay. Schwenn said she had been gone “for a few days,” but everything was fine. She remembered Pallesen from the past hitch hiking rides.
The quest to find help for these dogs became agonizingly slow and painful for Pallesen, but more so for the dogs. She knew the excessive summer heat was comingand the dogs needed help fast.
Pallesen was finally able to contact Rita Gutierrez, Field Services Commander for the Riverside County Animal Services and the Humane Society in Washington D.C., along with various rescue groups throughout California for help.
The Home Owners Association of Sky Valley put the Dog Camp problem and their uncontrolled breeding and deaths at the top of their list. Other neighbors suggested shooting the dogs when the pack runs by their ranches or trapping them for euthanasia.
“When the pack comes out of the canyon and runs through the ranches out of desperation for food and water, even the puppies run with them, barely able to keep up. When the pack makes a kill of a rabbit or whatever else they can find, even the starving puppies try to eat. This is the most dangerous time of all for them. They get shredded in the midst of hungry frenzied kills by the adult pack. Some get killed instantly. Some crawl away to die slowly,” Pallesen said.
“Some puppies have been taken in by area residents, but there is no way of knowing how many have never been found. These little survivors barely hanging on to life are gruesome discoveries.
“I had one (dog) show up at my ranch two years ago. He had more than 20 bite wounds, four broken ribs, and a collapsed and bruised lung. After thousands of dollars and a long recovery time, he made it. This puppy was a Queensland Heeler like Schwenn’s, not the normal type ofabandoned dog usually found dumped in the desert.
“Like all the other puppies in Sky Valley who look just like him, this was almost certainly a puppy that got attacked by the hunting pack and left behind to die.
“I kept taking up water and food every night for the dogs and tried to help Schwenn whenever I saw her. She never turned down my help. It doesn’t appear she drivesand I couldn’t figure out how she could consistently get food and water in the quantities needed to care for over a dozen dogs and pregnant and nursing females. From the main road it is over a mile away back into her camp. Schwenn needs a walker and is it apparent she has difficulty walking.
“The upper camp area where the outcasts live can’t be seen from the road, has abandoned vehicles and other debris. During my visits to care for the animals, Schwenn did not always make it back before dark, and it appeared physically difficult for her to walk up to the upper camp area. These dogs were in worse shape than the ones in the lower camp and were at her mercy.
“At every opportunity, I kept talking with Schwenn about what was she going to do. I was worried about her and the dogs, especially the pregnant females. The place seemed out of controland the excessive heat was coming.
“I asked if she would let me finds homes and agree to spay the females. Amazingly, she agreed to release some of the younger dogs and to spay some of the females,” Pallesen said.
Pallesen contacted Simi Missing Pets, an animal rescue group from Simi Valley, and made arrangements for some of the younger dogs to be delivered to ranches in Northern California, Oregon and Washington. However, Schwenn ultimately reneged and refused to release any dogs to a rescue group.
“Schwenn specifically expressed concern about one of the older male pups, Big Red. He was getting big enough to be perceived as a threat to the adult pack leaders. She was afraid he was going to get hurt or killed. I put this out on the Internet and got dozens of offers to take him, but they all lived far away. With Schwenn’s permission, I started bringing local people one at a time up to the camp to see if I could place some of the animals and get them out of there, but it was too little too late.
“While Big Red and three other young dogs got adopted after lots of work catching them, approximately 40 newborn puppies in five separate litters were born over a three and a half week period,” Pallesen added.
The extreme heat had arrived in late Juneand more devastation hit the Dog Death Camp.
“Right before the heat hit, I was in a panic of how to keep the dogs alive. As the temperature rose, I saw them fighting for space under the old cars and any tiny bit of shade they could find. I bought and arranged for the delivery of straw bales and 4×8 sheets of plywood to construct an extra shade place for those dogs packed under the cars. Someone else arranged for delivery of frozen two gallon water bottles that could be shuffled up every morning to place under the shade and cars.
“Schwenn said no to this because the wind would blow the plywood off. So, I talked someone into hauling up enough water to set posts to attach the plywood and a rescue group from Arizona volunteered to come and construct it. We were trying to think of everything to save the dogs and newborns from the heat.
“So many people were now involved from all over the country trying to help. I made more than 50 phone calls and 100 emails a day. I got emails from people all over the country saying they couldn’t sleep at night worrying about these dogs.
“There is only a limited amount of shade at the upper camp, underneath the three cars and a few tarps. This is all the shade that the dogs and puppies have. When the mothers had their puppies, I never saw them leave their litters, because once they left their spots, even for a drink of water, it was too hard to get back in. There were always fights under the cars for these coveted spaces.
“This forces the other dogs, especially the younger ones, out in to the blazing sun and heat for the day. They can die trying to make it back. Newborn puppies were crying and squiggling everywhere and getting out in to the sun themselves. I found a place that would take the nursing mothers and newborns in to an air conditioned space and out of the heat, but Schwenn would not let them go. Then the temperature up in that canyon on Saturday, June 29, 2013 climbed to 127 degrees. That was the temperature in the air, the ground was even hotter. The puppies were laying on that ground.
“I just wanted to take them with every inch of my being, but I was scared of Schwenn. She had told me that she called theSsheriff on one person who tried to take puppies and save them. I heard that she went to MIT and that she knew how to use the legal system to file lawsuits against people.
“I called television stations, anyone, anywhere, everywhere trying to get help,” she added.
“One of the calls I got on Saturday, June 29, while temperatures were reaching 130, was from a rescue group from the 29 Palms Marine Base. They called to say they could go up to the camp at 2 p.m. to do first aide, hydrate, and get the newborn puppies out. I begged them not to do that at that time of day, saying they had to come earlier, because it would scare the older dogs out in to the desert at the very hottest time of the day. I still am concerned about that above anything else. I am concerned that well-meaning people reading this may try to find the camp and rescue the dogs. Scaring those dogs into the desert during the heat would be certain death for them,” she warned.
“Also, since animal control had communicated to me on June 28th, that they were going up in the morning time to confiscate the newborns before the bad heat hit, I didn’t think it was critical for the 29 Palms Marine Base volunteers to go. Even though they may not have understood why I didn’t want them to go at 2 p.m. saying ‘Let me get this straight, you are asking us not to get the puppies out so the older dogs won’t die?’ and me replying yes, I have come to understand the pattern of the dogs and how they try to survive the heat.”
More than 25 puppies died slowly over a five day period, Pallesen said fighting back tears.
“As I walked to the upper camp that night to deliver water, it was deathly silent. Every night for the past five nights, I could hear them crying during my approach. I had a moment of hope that they would be all gone and that Animal Control had come for them. When I reached the upper camp, they were all laying there dead.”
“When I found their little bodies lying all around on the ground, I called the Sheriff and Animal Control to come right now to see them. They didn’t come. That night Schwenn called and left me a message that all the puppies died because Animal Control bought parvo there. She buried them before Animal Control could get there the next day.
“Letting all those puppies die slowly that way has haunted me ever since. If I had picked even one of them up, it could have been a felony charge against me. So, did I do the right thing? In my heart I will never know. I have a son, dogs of my own, and an 88 year old mother to take care of. If not for that, I would have gladly traded my well-being to save their lives.
“Their deaths and what I saw is forever burned into my mind and soul. I am heartbroken beyond description, devastated that there was no help in time for them, and just angry that there is no protection for these innocents without a voice – angry that according to existing laws more cannot be done…just angry, so angry, and so sad. I tried for so long to get help. It did not come,” Pallesen said.
After the massive puppy death toll, only 14 newborns were rescued from the camp and taken to a safe house.
“It was the most devastating moment of my life. I fell apart. My legs buckled. It is a scene I will never be able to erase from my mind. I had made so many urgent calls, knowing what was coming.
“After her arrest, Schwenn called me saying I was no longer permitted on her property,” Pallesen added.
“Combining the numbers from animal control, neighbors, my own observations, and those of Schwenn herself, the death toll in the past three months is more than 30 dogs,” she concluded.
“Schwenn is believed to have lived in that canyon in those condition with unaltered dogs for 17 years. The question no one wants to think about is just how many dogs’ deaths could that add up to? Her friend’s estimate of “hundreds and hundreds” might be way too low,” she said.
The older dogs remain suffering every day. There are more pregnant females ready to give birth any day. Schwenn is scheduled to have her day in court on the arrest for animal cruelty on Tuesday, Sept. 3,, 2013, but many hot days of summer are between now and then and she could ask for a continuance of the trial as she has on other legal matters.
“I just don’t want anyone to forget. There are many dedicated people and agencies working together tirelessly behind the scenes to rescue these dogs, doing everything humanly possible within the law, but know this: If a person lets their dogs die this way, it is only a misdemeanor. In my opinion, this is wrong. The laws need to change,” Pallesen said.
Animal Control and other agencies are bound by these laws. “We the people must change them. We are the voice for those who do not have one. It’s up to us. We can say, NO, this is absolutely not acceptable and force our laws and elected officials to pursue more protection for the animals.
“In the meantime, for Sidney, Brownie, Bolt, Wolfe, Angel, Billie Jean, Luna, Lucky, Thelma, Little Red, and the other unnamed younger dogs who might still be suffering at the camp, we need to do more to help to protect them right now,” she concluded.
An account for the Schwenn Dogs has been established with The Animal Protectorates (501c3 status pending). All funds received flagged for the Schwenn Dogs will be utilized for: Schwenn dogs veterinary care, boarding and rehoming as applicable, as well as any related legal expenses.
All inquiries to be directed to Shelley Rizzotti, Attorney-At-Law, 3500 W. Olive Avenue, 3rd Floor, Burbank, CA 91505, 818-641-1692 x 1