Inside Barn 21, Stall 15, three female English shepherds seized from Shady Lane Kennels sit together in the corner. Volunteer Angie Randak kneels in the straw nearby, keeping them company to help them get used to human contact.
When she first met the dogs, they panted and paced along the perimeter of the stall, but because of Randak's quiet demeanor and calming tone, they have warmed to her.
"I got them to take food out of my hand," Randak said.
A veteran of animal rescue, Randak said she plans to volunteer as much as possible, and is looking forward to socializing some of the more timid dogs.
"It's difficult they have to stay here for legal reasons, because they would socialize a lot quicker in homes," Randak said.
The dogs are still the property of Linda Kapsa, a Ballantine breeder, who raised English shepherds and pugs.
Some 200 dogs and other animals were seized by the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office during the execution of a search warrant Dec. 30. The sheriff's office and Humane Society officials suspect the dogs were neglected, but no charges have been filed.
The dogs are considered evidence and are being housed at MetraPark, where they are being cared for by 50 to 75 volunteers.
In Barn 21, Stall 13, Randak has a favorite.
After kneeling in the stall, Randak is recognized by a dog that comes over and gives her a "hug." The dog leans into Randak, nuzzles her head into her chest and sighs. The two have formed a bond, but Randak is trying to remain unattached.
"You kind of have to build a little wall inside, and some of them break through that wall and those are the ones I still remember," Randak said, recalling her animal rescue work in New Orleans.
Thursday, Tony Barone, owner of Bark Busters dog training, led a dog-handling course for volunteers. The course taught volunteers how to socialize the dogs.
"When you first start working with these dogs, it has to be the same person every day," said Catherine Schaeffer, manager of the temporary shelter. "You don't want to flood them with too many people. They've already had way too many people."
Ideally, one volunteer will socialize up to six dogs while other volunteers will help feed, water and clean up after them, Schaeffer said. Once trust is established, other volunteers can help. The goal is to have the dogs accustomed enough to people that they can be exercised on a leash and groomed.
This week, the dogs also were separated, with males in one barn and females in the other. Previously, in order to limit fighting, the dogs were kept in the same social units that they were in when they were confiscated. Because they are microchipped, all the dogs and their placements are tracked by computer, Schaeffer said.
Volunteer work duties are being streamlined, the dogs are calming down and their health is improving, Schaeffer said.
"Even the chickens (taken during the seizure) are putting on weight," she said.
Newly built fence panels allow sunlight and fresh air into the stalls. Tractor and Supply Co. in the Heights offered a 25 percent discount on supplies for the project, Schaeffer said.
Puppies to prison
At the end of one barn are two puppy stalls that are equipped with heat lamps and chew toys. Energetic puppies from several litters scamper like droplets of water on a hot skillet.
Seventeen of the puppies have been placed in the Prison Paws for Humanity Program at the Women's Prison, where inmates socialize puppies and teach basic obedience. The outcome of the court case that is mounting against Kapsa will determine whether the puppies will be available for adoption.
Another two litters of puppies are being cared for at Big Sky Pet Center. They're too young to stay in the unheated stalls at MetraPark, and five are battling infections on their umbilical cords. After eight days of care, veterinarian Rob Bruner is pleased with their progress. Some of the wounds on the 4-week-old puppies were the size of quarters.
"I can't imagine they would have lived through that - so young and in the fecal material and muck they were in," Bruner said.
Several dogs that needed immediate medical care are well enough to go to MetraPark when stalls became available.
"Just getting adequate food or water is going a long way," Bruner said.
One dog, a reddish Labrador retriever mix that was seized during a first search warrant execution on Dec. 11, has developed what Bruner calls "happy tail." The dog has been nursed back to health, except that she continues to wag her tail so much that the end of it has developed a sore and needs to be wrapped in a bandage.
Six dogs in the first seizure had parvovirus, and two have since died from the disease. The remaining four are quarantined and being successfully treated.
None of the dogs at MetraPark have tested positive for parvovirus, Bruner said. However, the highly contagious virus is airborne and an outbreak could easily occur. Every day Bruner checks all the dogs at MetraPark for signs of sickness, and has yet to find any that display symptoms of the virus.
"At this time we don't have any diseases causing problems at the Metra," Bruner said.