A man named Jean Luc Levesque had lived by himself in the bush north of Cochrane for years. When he retired from the Ontario Northland Railroad he took in dogs no one else wanted. Some dogs were taken to him and some he found himself. He was well known in the area and was known as, "The man at train stop number 26". The only way to reach his property was by train and since there is only one Polar Bear Express, that meant being dropped off at 9 am and waiting for the train's return from Moosonee at either 10 pm that night or the following day.
Over the years, Jean Luc had accumulated close to 200 dogs. In the beginning, he just took females but in the end he somehow had five or six males. Most of the unwanted dogs given to him would not have been spayed or neutered and he could not have afforded that many procedures himself so his colony of dogs grew. Several people had complained to the SPCA about the number of dogs he had. Even the best of intentions can get out of hand and that is what was happening at "Mile 26". The Ontario Northland Railroad had reported to the SPCA that on too many occasions, “Dogs had been hit by the train as it passed” and other individuals were concerned that adequately managing over 100 dogs was simply too much for one person. The SPCA did not share the concerns of others so year after year Jean Luc was left to do the best he could with a growing number of dogs.
On May 21, 2010 Jean Luc died when his cabin caught on fire. The train had stopped to offload supplies and the conductor saw him running in and out of his cabin while it burned all around him. Authorities were notified and Jean Luc was found outside, lying face down in the dirt with an armful of puppies. He had tried to save as many litters as possible before they perished inside the cabin. His body was burned badly. The cabin fire started a bush fire so planes had to fly overhead to drop water bombs in an attempt to extinguish it. Close to 200 dogs were being terrified by fire and traumatized by planes dropping water bombs on or near them. Even then, the SPCA did nothing.
I heard of Jean Luc's death and waited to hear what needed to be done. Originally the SPCA said they would go in to the property but since it was a long weekend they decided to wait until the following Tuesday to do so. We had been told that the dogs had separated into two packs - one friendly and one feral. The feral pack was attacking the others now that there was no one to stand in their way. Because the friendly dogs were in mourning as well as feeling fear they would have shown weakness to the more wild dogs. Bears had been seen coming in so many of the dogs were mere prey to them as well. The train had always meant their master's return or food being brought in so when they heard it they instinctively ran to greet it. The problem was that it no longer slowed at their stop so when they stood on the tracks, as they always had, they were hit and killed. All this was taking place and still the SPCA saw no need to go in immediately.
There are two accounts of what the SPCA did do however. One is that on Tuesday May 25th a representative of the SPCA and an OPP constable flew over the property to observe the dogs. Another is that they actually went up by train and walked the property inspecting both the buildings and dogs. Both accounts are suspect though, since people at the site didn't see them and weren't aware of a plane flying overhead. Whatever the case, the SPCA determined that all the dogs and all the puppies were feral so there was no reason for a rescue effort. Rescue organizations that had been waiting to help as back up were told the matter was now an investigation and that no information would be shared and no action taken. All the while, the dogs waited.
I had been angry for days and was not prepared to work on the assumption that all the dogs and puppies were feral. I needed to know for sure. We were being told that the location was isolated and access so limited that it was impossible to do an independent rescue. The OPP would only fly in with the proper authorities and that was the SPCA. The train could get us in but we would have to stay all day and into the night before it came back to take us out. The possible risk of waiting while surrounded by feral dogs and bears was not advisable but nor was giving up.
I suggested talking to the railroad guys to see if they had any suggestions or speaking to hunters to see if they would accompany us in as protection on ATVs. I had unknowingly lit a spark under two young women who remembered the days when they were carefree and reckless and this caused them to wonder why they were hesitating to be bold now. (I must confess that when I used the term "we" I didn't actually mean them or me - I mostly meant the railway guys and the hunters.) The next day I was told that my two young friends, a man with a gun, the son of Jean Luc and four others were going in. The railroad had agreed to use their rail truck to bring the dogs down to a rescue stop if we set one up down the tracks. My job was to be there to receive the dogs, assess them, re-crate them, and send them south to Cochrane. There they would be housed in a helicopter trailer that had been loaned to us for the mission until they could be directed to whatever rescue organizations could take them. In the end we had:Pet Save in Sudbury, Clarington Animal Services in Bomanville, All Heart Rescue in Powassin, N.O.A.W.S in Iroquois Falls, ARK in Kapuskasing and Moosonee Puppy Rescue in Bracebridge ready to accept whatever dogs we were able to get out.
On May 30th we packed up the trailer with crates, towels, dog food, medications, collars, leads and anything else we could think of that we might need. We really were going in blind - not knowing how many we could get out and what conditions they might be in. I arranged for Wendy, Misty, Ryan and Ellen to take care of our dogs for a two-day period and a friend named Alan packed his trailer and we set off up north. It is a six hour drive and on the way I realized Paul, my husband, was having trouble breathing. His chest was congested and his lungs hurt. We ended up in the emergency department of the New Liskeard hospital. He was given medication and antibiotics and we were on our way again. I already had a torn tendon in my shoulder so it was a toss up as to which one of us was the weakest link in the expedition.
We stayed in Cochrane Sunday night but none of us could sleep. Wondering how many dogs had managed to survive and just what they were feeling kept me awake. I didn't know how quickly they would trust us or if we could convince them to even try. If we came out with just one dog though, that was enough for me. At least we would know what the situation was and not simply have accepted the assumptions of the SPCA.
Monday morning we met the other rescue workers at the train station and we were all nervous. Eight of them were going into a property that had experienced fire; bear attacks, feral dogs and death. They would be dropped off at 9 am and would have to wait until 9 pm to come out again. It was cold and raining that day which somehow seemed fitting. After seeing the train off, Paul, Alan and I drove north to set up a location where the dogs would come off the rail truck. Here they would be assessed, treated and re-crated before being driven south to Cochrane.
In order to get as close to stop 26 as we could we had to cross the Abitibi River on a barge then follow the railway tracks as far north as we could. When we could drive no further we stopped and unloaded the crates. We had plenty just in case. We arranged collars by size and sorted through the leashes. We filled water dishes and had them at the ready. We looked up the tracks and waited.
Finally the rail truck arrived and I saw crates with dogs sitting up proud and tall in them. I cried when I realized how many there were and offered silent appreciation for the remarkable creatures we call dogs. Then it was all action. We had to get them off the rail truck and send up more crates to the rescue workers. A note that had been sent down told me 26 dogs had run to greet them and I knew then the dogs had expected us. They trusted we would come and we had.
Whenever we spoke to a dog in a crate we would hear a thumping sound. It was a tail wagging and I wondered how they did it. How did they sustain such spirit and how could they forgive us for taking so many days to get to them.
A dog I named Stillwater on sight walked out of her crate as soon as I opened the door. She turned her head in the most graceful movement of submission I have ever seen. Every move Stillwater made was like a dance. I knelt in the mud and put my forehead against hers. There was a connection between us and we both acknowledged it. I made her a promise in the rain that day - I told her she would never be alone or afraid again and she believed me. After receiving love and attention she was happy enough to just lie under the trailer. We attached a rope to her collar just as a precaution but the look in her eyes told me she knew she had no need to run.
The dogs now had to be transported back to Cochrane to be held in the helicopter trailer until it was determined which rescue organization would take which dogs. Only eight crates would fit in the trailer at one time so Alan left with those and Paul and I cared for the dogs still with us.
The rail truck came out again with more dogs and in the midst of it all I wondered, once again, how the SPCA could not have responded to their need. They would never know our sense of accomplishment because they had forgotten their purpose and it seems they have come to prefer avoidance. We encouraged each dog to come out of its crate and while some resisted at first, they all settled down quickly and accepted that we meant no harm. What was remarkable to me was how the dogs respected one another. We didn't have to worry about one dog getting too close to another or any kind of nastiness. This was a high stress situation for them and even though they had relationships with one another they could have reacted out of survival instinct but they didn't. Their bond was too great. We put collars on them all, offered water and food and tried to walk them a bit before putting them back in their crates for the second leg of their journey.
I had made up some puppy formula prior to leaving home so I was able to feed the ten pups that had not been weaned yet. I had to hold their heads over the plate and dip their noses into the liquid to encourage them to lap it up but in no time they were eagerly consuming what was offered. After the last rail truck departed we loaded up the dogs and made our way back across the Abitibi River to Cochrane.
All the dogs were together once again in the helicopter trailer and it was time to decide which dogs went where. There was no sense of sadness in splitting them up because we all knew they were lucky to even be alive. They would now begin lives absent of fear and near anonymity. Jean Luc had meant well but no dog can reach its full potential or be adored when it is one of two hundred.
All in all thirty-one dogs were rescued that day. Our friend Alan transported eight dogs to All Heart Rescue in Powassin and one puppy named Abby after the Abitibi River. We brought down three dogs for the Clarington Animal Shelter and Stillwater was one of them. I had tried to convince myself she needed to stay with me but with four dogs of my own already and more rescues to come I thought it wouldn't be fair. The shelter said they had foster homes for the dogs so I felt she would be well taken care of. We took ten puppies that would stay with us as well.
This really had been a leap of faith for the rescue organizations that had agreed to take these dogs sight unseen. We knew they had been through the loss of their owner, fire burning all around them, feral dog attacks as well as bears. We could have been sending them nasty or wild dogs. These animals had not known many people in their lives so it was doubtful they would be socialized or trained in any way. We all just did what we could because the dogs needed us to. All of us, other than the SPCA that is.
I got reports from the rescue organizations the next day and it was amazing what a difference twenty-four hours had made. The dogs had been agreeable and grateful when rescued but they had also been unsure and overwhelmed. All they had needed was one safe and comfortable night to come into their own. All the dogs were eagerly friendly, affectionate, walking well on leads and optimistic about what would come next. The only tell tale sign of what they had just been through came at 6:30 am in Cochrane. The dogs that were still in the helicopter trailer waiting for Pet Save in Sudbury to pick them up reacted strongly when they heard the train whistle. They howled and fought the containment of their crates. One dog did break free but didn't go far. The train, to them, meant their master returning and it was clear they still hoped for that. I am sure a train whistle will always trigger a memory in these dogs and perhaps just a moment of sadness.
On Monday May 31st we celebrated the number of dogs we had been able to save but on Tuesday, June 1st we thought of the dogs that had been left behind. The rescue workers who had gone onto Jean Luc's property had seen the faces of these dogs and knew there were more that could come out. They just needed a bit of time to trust. Knowing the difference one night had made for the dogs that were out made it impossible to ignore the ones who continued to wait. Several more rescue attempts were made and twenty-nine more dogs were rescued. The ONR workers brought one puppy out after hearing it whimper and cry while they were working nearby. They had looked for it several times but were unable to find it at first. Finally they went in and vowed not to leave without the pup. They found him hiding, all by himself, in a wood pile. We drove north to get him and his name became Woody. Several more adults came out on subsequent rescues and one was an older dog with half a leg and part of a paw missing. He had been disabled for quite some time but still he was gentle, affectionate and loving. He went to Powassin and was named Lego.
Heidi Pratt and Pam Armstrong are the two young woman who initiated and organized the rescue efforts and without them a total of sixty dogs would have died. All the people and organizations that were involved with saving the dogs of "mile 26" did so simply because it was the right thing to do. We shared one vision and rallied into effective action with twenty-four hours notice. No one needed their ego or to be boss. Seems like the dogs brought out only the best in us all.
The SPCA will go into people's homes to remove animals in distress but they seem content to ignore animals standing on railway tracks that are starving, confused, terrified and at great risk. A pattern of SPCA behaviour has been established on more than one occasion and I find it intolerable. I now know many of the "Mile 26" dogs they left to die and it is unforgivable. I fear nothing will come of it though. People will continue to donate to the organization and it will continue without impact or awareness. I believe the dogs expected us to come for them and that they had faith in us. I believe we owed it to them not to let them down. I do not, however, believe in the SPCA.
Three of the dogs that came out after the main rescue were sent to us. They were all pups and two of them had burns on their skin from the fire. It just shows how close they all were to it. The fur around the burns was completely black. We named these pups Cinder and Ash and since they were older than the others they were placed in their forever homes after just a week in rescue care.All the Mile 26 pups have been placed and Stillwater came back to us from Clarington Shelter. The foster homes they thought they had fell through and she was depressed in the shelter. As soon as I heard about it we went to get her. I had not been able to stop thinking of her and had always felt she was meant to be with me. In rescue work though, we have to ignore many of our more emotional feelings because they simply aren't practical. Once Stillwater and I sat forehead to forehead again though we both knew she had come home. As it turned out, she had needed to come back to me because she was pregnant. On July 25th Stillwater delivered six pups and they all have their mother’s gentle spirit. Their names are Forest, Miles, Dusk, Grove, Tulip and Morning Glory. The universe sends you what you need if only you let it.
Stillwater now attends public speaking and fund-raising engagements with me and she knows when I am about to tell her story. At these times she will come to me from wherever she has been in the room and gently stand to put her paws on my shoulder. She looks to the audience and they know she asking for their help. Stillwater represents all the dogs that are still waiting, in whatever situation they need rescuing from, for she know what it is to hope.
In total 60 dogs were rescued. Gardiner found a wonderful home where he is very much appreciated. Five of the females were pregnant so there is now a new generation that will continue the legacy of “Mile 26".