The pig dog that appeared in our yard one July morning in 2011 connected me to two of the most altruistic people I’ve ever met.
They are Geoff Johnson and Pat Carmody who own, operate and live on a property called Gwydir Park just a few minutes down the road from me.
The property is a no-kill animal refuge, run like a tight ship, groomed and cleaned within an inch of its life and teeming with love for every dog and cat on the place. To supplement its running costs, the pair take in boarders (my dogs included), offers bathing and clipping and have earned a loyal supporter base across Australia because of their dedication to the animals.
Pat and Geoff have not had a vacation in over 20 years. They work on the place 24/7, starting at 4.30am and finishing long after dark. Whatever it takes, purely for the 100-odd dogs and occasional cats that are tied to their gate, relinquished by owners, thrown in rivers, dumped in trash bins, found on the side of the road, unwanted when they become older, forgotten by owners, turned in by do-gooders, shot and survived, claimed from the local councils’ pounds before their weekly cull, or chapters of the animal national welfare organization.
They adopt out about 500 animals a year, and the adoption cost is free. They charge you a fee for the microchipping and vaccinations that are already completed and supply you the paperwork, and that is about $20. But they are fierce guardians of the dogs that live there, and over the years, the pair have developed a keen sense about those who arrive for a dog, and whether they would be not only a good owner, but the right owner for that animal.
Geoff said he has been pressured by the local council and the national animal welfare organization to sell the dogs, because “they reckon that people will look after them better,” he said.
It’s a flawed logic. The refuge has been inundated over the years with purebred dogs that cost owners several hundred dollars, and they end up discarded.
“Fluffy puppies are good. As soon as they grow up…” Geoff began.
“We don’t want it anymore, when it becomes something that we have to brush or something that needs worming or bathing,” Pat said, speaking for the countless owners who dump their adolescent dogs.
“We get another one,” Geoff finished.
“We get another cute fluffy one,” Pat reiterated.
One memorable story was the box of apricot-colored Poodle pups left in a box at their gate after Christmas one year. Unbeknownst to the dumper, all the puppies had been microchipped, and it took little time to find the breeder in Queensland who was furious. The pups had been purchased at about $800 each for a stable of grandchildren, none of whom wanted them, so the irate grandmother gathered them up and left them in the box.
Geoff contacted the grandmother who said keep the pups, and she was sorry she wasted her money on those ungrateful children. She signed ownership over to the refuge.
It’s not always the case. Several dogs are marooned at Gwydir Park because the owner’s original intent to board their dog for a few weeks, has become two years or more and the owners refuse to either come back for their dogs or sign the registration over so they dog might have a new home.
There are so many stories like this, the pair said they have become weathered to them, like the family that boards their dog for Christmas, then never picks it up and comes back months later for a pup. The man who turns over his 18-month-old out of control Kelpie and immediately asks if Geoff and Pat have any puppies.
They also keep the problem dogs, the dogs that would not pass the immediate test for a friendly family dog or requisite three month holding period before they are euthanized in national shelters. Pat said they feel all troubled animals need time, patience and socialization before they are ready for a new owner, and some have been at Gwydir Park for a very long time.
“Basically, if you only keep the ones that you can re-home, you become like a puppy mill; unless it’s saleable, you don’t want it,” Pat explained.
Geoff and Pat know they can’t save them all. Many dogs at the refuge are very elderly, willed to the couple or left by geriatric owners who are moving into nursing homes or have passed away, and living out their days in clean kennels with play time, toys, cudding and companions and a lot of attention from Geoff, Pat and many visitors to the refuge. The pair have a commitment to the old dogs, and will not put any dog down to make space for more refugees.
“I can’t do it. We can only do so much. If I can give an old dog a life until he dies, then we can’t help the others,” Geoff said.
An example of those dogs are Tommy and Cindy. The two were left after their owner passed away and their unique situation means they will stay with Geoff and Pat for the rest of their lives.
Tommy is an old Maltese cross with a walnut-sized benign tumor on his head. Tommy is the eyes sometimes for little Cindy, a Chihuahua in her mid-teens, and born blind. She is a fit little dog, but has eyes like milky marbles. Where Tommy is a worried little man, Cindy is a bold little dog and if she bumps the back of your hand with her tiny nose, immediately begins wagging her tail.
Then there is a tiny Silky Terrier named Doo Doo who is about 18. She is one of the casualties of neglectful owners who abandoned her at Gwydir Park, and refuse to sign over the registration.
Doo Doo is more or less toothless and very old, but has daily love and a warm bed and safety.
These folks are the real deal. There’s much more to their story.
But back to that pig dog.
For those not in the know, a pig dog is a usually a combination animal. They are all mixed breeds, some bred for the kill, others bred for the scent and the holding the pig in place before the human comes in at some specified time to finish the kill. They can be anything, from a Catahoula Leopard Dog/heeler /kelpie/terrier thing to a giant mastiff-y/wolf-houndy/pit bull-y/Bull Arab sort of muscular beast. There is no definitive recipe.
Where I live in northern New South Wales here in Australia, mostly men breed up these dogs to chase down the feral pigs. You see the dogs chained to the backs of utes or in cages and most of them do look intimdating. When hunting, some dogs wear thick, broad leather collars to protect their jugulars. Some also wear breastplates for protection, but not much else.
There are keen pig dog people who starve the dogs to make them more hungry for the chase and the kill. Logically, whatever your views on the sport are, a starving dog is likely a weak dog. Pigs are massive, sometimes upwards of 100kilos or 200 pounds, strong and tusked. They can rip a dog into ribbons and if you peruse some of the Facebook fancier pages, you see the RIPs for single names like Millie, or Digger. Those aren’t human losses.
This dog that turned up outside our house was skeletal, exhausted, gentle, and torn up with dried blood all over him. We live more or less in the bush, and I figured he had gotten lost on one of these hunts a week ago or more looking at the state of him, and he’d climbed out of the creek to find us.
My Jack Russell, Snazzy danced around this giant ghost of a dog, and I approached him warily, then took him by the collar and he wobbled up onto our porch with me. He collapsed on a towel my husband spread out, and I gave him water and a little food, not being sure when he had last eaten. It was gone in moments.
I had no idea what to do with his animal, I did not want to take him to the council shelter, because I know he might not last the week there, and though he was injured, it was superficial, I wanted this dog to have a chance, so I phoned Gwydir Park.
We’d only lived in the area for about three months, and I didn’t know the place except to pass it on the way into town but I did know it was a no-kill refuge.
“Bring him here,” said the friendly guy on the phone. That was Geoff.
So we loaded the poor thing into the back of the truck and drove him over.
Pat was annoyed. Not with us, but the state of the animal, and immediately took him and put him in a kennel. They would scan him for microchip then wash him, treat his wounds and feed him.
Turns out, it was the neighbor’s dog and they live on the other side of the creek. We found out because the guy turned up at our place that evening and said the dog had gone missing the night before during a chase. I said I thought the dog must have been lost much longer than that judging by the state of him, and he could find him over at Gwydir Park.
He did, and I think he left there with his own tail tucked between his legs. Pat educated that young man as to how he would treat that dog in the future.
It was my first introduction to this extraordinary pair. A few days later, we returned and adopted a scruffy dog they called Fugly. Geoff cradled the dog who cleaned him up with kisses and put him in my arms. He had been there for 18 months until the right people came along. His name is Spud.
I met a beautiful dog at Gwydir Park on Saturday. I wanted to take him home but as he was the size of a Shetland Pony, I didn’t know that my husband would take kindly to this new family member who outweighs me by a few pounds.
He had just arrived, and bred to be a pig dog, but dumped at the refuge because he would not chase pigs so despite his sweet nature and gentleness, he was no use to the owner. He is a victim of his size and breeding, but being big as a Merino ram, Geoff said he believed that new arrival would be with them for a while until they can find the right person who would give him a loving home.
Pat and Geoff met many years ago and have been involved with dogs for decades. Pat is a qualified vet nurse and when it comes to dogs or witnessing human cruelty towards them, they have really seen it all. I’d call them warriors for animals, but they do their work objectively. There is no radical yelling about animal rights or animal abuse. These two do rather than talk, and each day is about making the life of a dog, often in extreme strife, a better life.
They began homing dogs for the local chapter of the national animal welfare organization. The dogs were brought into town by organization volunteers to adopt out during market days, something Pat said she was unhappy with. the process did not allowing for proper vetting of prospective owners. But it gave the dogs a chance, and they continued to help.
This went on for a while until the day Geoff received a call from the welfare organization. They stated they no longer wanted to maintain an adoption agency in the area, and asked that Geoff put the remaining 20 dogs to sleep.
That was a red rag to a bull. Geoff said absolutely not, and he would take them all himself, and Gwydir Park, in its own right as a refuge, was born.
It’s difficult to comprehend all of the stories of human cruelty and neglect that Geoff and Pat absorb on a weekly basis. An example:
I should say that Geoff and Pat have lived and worked together for so long, they have a give and take system to tell a story. Geoff begins this one about a King Charles Spaniel who was turned over to them one day by a “man of the cloth”.
“He brought this little dog in here. Beautiful little dog. And he was matted. He couldn’t even go to the toilet, he was that matted,” Geoff said.
“He couldn’t walk properly, he was that matted. He was a long-haired dog. He was that matted his back legs were actually matted to his sides,” Pat said.
“I got him , I sat (the man) down out there, he signed (the dog) over there, and I said to him, ‘Why did you let the dog get into such a mess?’ He said, ‘It’s only a dog,'” Geoff said.
“Well, I just saw red. I said there’s the gate. Get going, if I can have you charged, I will.”
“And he was just full of, you know the Bathurst Burr seeds? Clover burr and Bathurst Burr seeds, and it just matted the whole coat together,” Pat said.
“He used to drag him on the walk down the river in Inverell, and because he was matted, he couldn’t walk, and he used to drag him. And that’s a man of the cloth,” Geoff said.
It is also hard not to imagine their frustration when a dog arrives who has the same collar or chain clamped together with a D-ring that was put on when it was only a pup, and now is practically grown into the dog’s skin. A few have arrived where they had to cover the dog’s head, slip a piece of rubber between the chain and the dog to use an angle grinder to cut the D-ring off the dog, they have become so rusted and the chain is more or less buried in the dog.
Pat said you can immediately spot the dogs who have acclimated to life on a chain.
“You get dogs, some dogs like that. They come in here, you can tell they’ve never been off a chain in their entire life. They walk in circles for the first month, because that’s all they’ve ever done is walk in a circle, because you’ll find, usually, the chain is pegged to the ground. They haven’t even got a kennel, they just walk the length of the chain in a circle. That’s all they can do,” Pat said.
Besides the refuge, Geoff and Pat also vaccinate and microchip dogs at cost for anybody who comes. They have plans in place to open a vet clinic that will provide owners with the basic services of de-sexing animals, vaccinations and chipping all at cost.
Several retired vets in the area have already volunteered their time as well as vet nurses. They are waiting for the right building to come along in the right place and if the one they are hoping for falls through, they will buy a piece of land and erect a prefab building to set up the clinic.
Geoff said there are far too many people who for financial reasons, with the high cost of veterinary care, neglect their animal’s welfare. Sometimes in the case of contagious disease or intact animals, their inattention spreads the problem to others.
Also behind them are countless supporters, businesses and anonymous gifts. Every penny goes into the refugee fund or toward the coming vet hospital.
How Pat and Geoff are able to bear the litany of stories of the animals bring with them is hard to imagine.
“It is upsetting to me, but I’ve got to keep me cool,” Geoff said, adding that sometimes, water buckets around the place are not safe when emotion gets the better of him.
If receiving dogs who have been shot in the head, or used as punching bags, dogs practically left for dead or litters of puppies so starved and dehydrated the pair had to hunt for veins to put in drip lines to keep them alive wasn’t enough, there is one story that moves Pat after all these years.
“This goes back a long time ago, before gun licencing came in, and we did have a rifle,” Pat said,
She said a man phoned at 6am and said he had a greyhound who had eaten rat bait and he couldn’t get hold of a vet.
“I said get out here as soon as you can and I’ve got vitamin E here and we’ll get the rat bait out of it (they have a sure-fire remedy to encourage a dog to regurgitate rat poison) and we’ll get it on the vitamin E, put it on a drip, and hopefully it’ll survive,” Pat said.
“He turned up at five o’ clock in the afternoon.”
“And the dog was bleeding from the eyes, the ears, everywhere,” Geoff added.
The neglect was so cruel, both of them were angered. But there was something else that made the entire situation that much more horrific.
“More to the point, he come from the other side of Inverell (about 50 kilometers away), he had a metal trailer, fully metal, no ventilation whatsoever, and the dog sitting in that since 6 o’clock in the morning, until the time he arrived here that afternoon,” Pat said, her voice incredulous, even after all these years.
And I said, ‘Where the hell have you been?’ and he said, ‘Oh, my meat delivery was due in Inverell and I thought I’d wait and pick it up first.’
“He had it sitting in that trailer, it was 38 degrees (100 degrees Fahrenheit) that day.”
They opened the trailer and the dog tried to stand and collapsed. It was bleeding from its eyes, nose, mouth, and Pat said there as nothing she could do. The dog died right there.
She told the man he had about two minutes to get into his vehicle and leave, which was the time it would take to get the rifle.
Pat said she copes by putting time into another dog when the tough stuff confronts her. After receiving and settling-in a dire cruelty case, she will take one of the dogs out and give it a bath or a clip to take her mind off it. She is fiercely loving of every animal.
Geoff said he tries to blank it out, but it is clear the nature of the animals around him is a balm. He exudes kindness and when he enters each dog’s yard, they will scurry up for a cuddle. He knows all their names and all their stories.
They both do. The pair are endlessly clear-headed about the unending queue of dogs that are abandoned and abused.
This is the first in a series of articles about Gwydir Park. Each week, there will be a story about one of the refugees and their own journey of how they came to be living with Geoff and Pat. Some are for adoption today, some need a bit more time, others aren’t going anywhere.
All of them are worthy.
The first story will be about Maggie, the Boxer-cross who has a bullet in her head.
Check back again for the stories of the Gwydir Park Refugees.