When Harry Morean saw a little white head pop up as he drove by, he knew he had to stop.
The Glencoe resident told his mom, Gina Gottlob, what he found when he did. On the side of the road was a litter of abandoned puppies, all of which had had their heads bashed in except one.
Gottlob is no stranger to this issue, though. Her dogs Roxy and Simon were living across from a farm house in a creek when she found them. It took two months of driving 10 miles to feed them every day before Roxy let Gottlob take her home, and Simon took five.
“It’s very easy to tell when you find these dogs that they’ve belonged to somebody,” Gottlob said. “The trauma that these dogs experience, they all react differently to it.”
Gottlob encounters animals in all kinds of situations after being abandoned, including some with limbs missing and ears frozen off. Many of the dogs she rescued have been attacked by coyotes before she can get to them, she said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever found one that was attacked by coyotes that I was able to save,” she said.
Gottlob said she has found many animals on Yost road, which leads to Glencoe, because of its proximity to Stillwater.
“It generally happens just before graduation,” Gottlob said. “I would have to guess that’s why I’ve found the most around there. … It’s just heartbreaking that the students who do this don’t understand how incredibly traumatizing it is when you take an animal that’s been socialized and cared for and loved and all of a sudden, they’re alone in the middle of nowhere.”
Gottlob and her friend Cindy Beavers spend their summers driving the back roads near Stillwater every day and feeding the area’s stray dogs from food they keep in the beds of their trucks. It translates to about 400 pounds in food each.
Beavers, a mail carrier in Stillwater, said she has seen this problem for at least 10-15 years and in that time has rescued a stray cat who had a broken leg from being hit by a car and a dog with a bullet in his skull that had to be removed.
“There’s been so many I’m not even sure what the number is,” she said. “We’re always running into them out here. … I take in so many and do so much that they kind of all run together.”
The increase in the number of animals near graduation time leads Gottlob and Beavers to believe it’s a result of students’ getting out of school, they said.
“I don’t know if students just can’t take them with them or what, but there’s definitely a whole lot more strays when school gets out,” Beavers said.
Mary Dickey, director of Stillwater Animal Welfare, has worked with the organization for 28 years and said the dumping problem has actually improved since she first came to Stillwater.
“Leash law wasn’t enforced very well,” Dickey said. “Animals ran everywhere. Students kept animals when landlords didn’t tell them they couldn’t have animals. … You used to be able to go around town and see loose dogs everywhere.”
Dickey said this has changed because of the enforcement of leash laws and awareness among the community and landlords.
Ahead of divorce and death, the No. 1 reason for relinquishing animals nationally is moving, Dickey said.
“That includes everybody, and it tends to happen at the end of semesters,” Dickey said. “Whether it’s college or elementary, professors or anybody connected with the university, this is the time of year people move.”
Residents of Stillwater who have proof of a Stillwater address can leave pets with Animal Welfare for free. Dickey and Gottlob said students often feel embarrassed to surrender their pets but it’s preferable to leaving them behind with no place to stay.
“I think there’s a stigma for students to where they think they look bad,” Gottlob said.
Although many people believe the dogs will live a happy life if dropped off at a farm, farmers tend to have their own dogs or fear for their animals’ safety when a stray dog gets near them, eventually resorting to shooting the dogs. When a dog encounters someone shooting at them, it leads them to distrust new people and make them impossible to rehome, Gottlob said.
“If they leave them out of town, then they’re subject to starvation and getting shot because that’s what happens out in the country,” Dickey said.
Dickey said Payne County doesn’t have leash laws or a county animal control, so animals are often seen wandering outside and can’t be collected outside Stillwater jurisdiction.
Stillwater is an “almost no-kill” shelter, meaning the only reason it euthanizes animals is due to health conditions. Because of this, it’s not students dumping animals but people from other counties who think the shelter will be able to care for them better than their hometowns who are the biggest culprits, Dickey said.
“If you bring a cat, they’re just gone forever,” Dickey said. “If you bring a dog, sometimes they’re just so terrified that you can’t even catch them.”
Oklahoma doesn’t have spay/neuter laws like other states, so unplanned litters and puppy mills are a frequent occurrence in the state. However, Stillwater has a city ordinance that states, “Every female dog or cat in heat shall be kept confined in a building or in a veterinary hospital or boarding kennel, in such a manner that the female dog or cat cannot come in contact with a male dog or cat except for breeding purposes.” This has led to a decrease in the number of puppies in Stillwater, but educating people on ordinances such as this is an ongoing process, Dickey said.
A new issue the shelter has encountered is social media’s obstruction of the lost-and-found pets process. People post pictures on Facebook of pets they find and don’t alert Animal Welfare, which then can’t assist in the locating of the owners.
Dickey said social media have also caused people to confuse Animal Welfare with the Stillwater Humane Society, which is next door but doesn’t handle incoming pets.
For students surrendering their pets, Dickey said the shelter would prefer to have the owners bring them instead of having them picked up because it is less stressful on the animal. It’s also best to not “wait until you’re driving out of town,” Dickey said.
Because of the jurisdiction Animal Welfare has, it cannot bring in animals from outside city limits or not within a 10-mile radius of Stillwater City Hall.
Beavers said in situations where the animals can’t be surrendered to Animal Welfare, the best course of action is “anything besides dumping them, my goodness.”
“I can’t understand anyone who would do that,” Beavers said. “It’s just heartbreaking. It’s a fate worse than death, and it is a horrible death to be left out there like that.”