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The Devoted Barn Takes in Feral Dogs and Other Hard-to-Place Canines

The Michigan rescue and sanctuary devotes itself to challenging cases of animal abuse and neglect as well as to feral dogs.

Crystal Gibson  |  Feb 22nd 2016


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Dogster_Heroes_award1_small_19_0_0_3_1_01When Lefty, a large 9-year-old white dog with black spots, was removed from his family, he ended up on the news and at animal control. Lefty had been attacked on two separate occasions by other dogs who had crossed through the invisible fencing used by Lefty’s owners to keep him in. Lefty suffered extensive injuries in both attacks.

Following the first attack, Lefty’s owners did not comply with court orders to build a proper fence around their property, so the mixed breed was seized by animal control following the second attack and ordered to be euthanized. A long, highly mediatized battle followed to keep the dog from being put down and, after eight months of living in isolation at animal control, Lefty’s luck changed thanks to Melissa Borden from The Devoted Barn, a rescue and sanctuary in Newport, Michigan, which specializes in working with challenging cases of animal abuse and neglect.

Melissa, along with an animal behaviorist, put Lefty to the test to determine if he was indeed the aggressive dog the media claimed him to be, and he passed his non-aggressivity tests with flying colors. As a result, the court ordered Lefty to live permanently with Melissa. Safe at The Devoted Barn, Lefty is free to live out his life peacefully and surrounded with the love and attention he craves.

Animals like Lefty who have suffered through particularly stressful and, at times, horribly abusive, events need specialized care to move past their trauma and live out happy and healthy lives. Melissa, founder of the 501(c)3 nonprofit sanctuary, along with approximately 25 well-trained volunteers and 10 to 15 foster homes, takes in animals who could not be properly rehabilitated at more traditional rescues and those who are systematically euthanized by animal control.

Melissa Borden, founder of the Devoted Barn, with Lefty. (Photo by Mike Walzak)

Melissa Borden, founder of the Devoted Barn, with Lefty. (Photo by Mike Walzak)

Melissa, a sports medicine trainer and single mother of five, lives on the 53-acre property that has been providing safe sanctuary for rescued horses, pigs, sheep, llamas, and alpacas, as well as cats and dogs since August 2013. More than 200 animals have been placed in loving forever homes after being cared for at The Devoted Barn — animals who were stabbed, shot, intentionally starved, or confiscated from hoarding situations, among other disturbing acts of violence.

The majority of the animals who come to The Devoted Barn are eventually adopted, but those with special medical or behavioral needs that make finding them a new home challenging stay on as permanent residents at the sanctuary. Melissa said that she does not take in dogs with aggression issues.

Melissa started the sanctuary when she realized that she could help both abused animals and kids from at-risk backgrounds by pairing them up and providing a safe place for everyone to heal and grow. Melissa’s daughter, who was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder at 2 years old, blossomed into a well-adjusted child through caring for her horse, Rocky. “It’s a win-win for both animals and the kids,” Melissa said. “The animals teach kids compassion and empathy and give them confidence and positive self-esteem.”

Emma is a permanent resident at the Devoted Barn. (Photo by Mike Walzak)

Emma is a permanent resident at the Devoted Barn. (Photo by Mike Walzak)

Besides helping animals who have suffered terribly at the hands of humans, The Devoted Barn is also one of few rescue and rehabilitation centers that will take in and work with feral dogs. Melissa said that she started working with ferals simply because they are a big problem in the area, and nothing was being done. “I was getting tired of everyone talking about the problem, but no one doing anything,” she said. “It was trial and error at first, but I was open to learning from these dogs. I do believe this is my purpose. They are fascinating to me.”

At first glance, a feral dog might be easily confused with a stray dog, but ferals are very different, having been born in the wild with no human contact at all, usually first or second generation offspring of abandoned or displaced pets who quickly reverted back to primitive instincts to survive without owners.

In some cases, however, feral dogs are also those who were abused and never developed positive interactions with people. These dogs become fearful of humans and do everything they can to avoid them. As Melissa explained, it only takes about 28 days for a dog left to fend for himself on the streets to begin displaying feral behaviors. And despite what many people might think, packs of feral dogs are often too afraid to attack people and will try to hide or shut down completely if cornered.

The Devoted Barn takes in animals (like Miles) who need extensive rehabilitation and are most susceptible to euthanasia. (Photo by Mike Walzak)

The Devoted Barn takes in animals (like Miles) who need extensive rehabilitation and are most susceptible to euthanasia. (Photo by Mike Walzak)

Unsurprisingly, because of the challenges of rehabilitating feral animals, the vast majority who end up in animal control come in absolutely terrified of humans and are immediately euthanized. “When they are in animal control, they shut down in fear, unable to walk. That’s just not adoptable, and animal controls do not have the resources to rehabilitate them,” Melissa explained. “It takes a minimum of one year.”

But The Devoted Barn does not give up on its ferals, and does amazing work with these dogs who no one else will touch. “We have to use their language to communicate with them. We have to earn their trust,” Melissa said. “It’s a long process, but once you have their trust, it’s priceless. To watch a dog go from melting into the floor to being invisible to asking for human attention is amazing.”

Melissa said the feral dog program is one of the The Devoted Barn’s biggest successes, and she is very proud to see many of these once-wild dogs adapt to life in a home and thrive. She also hopes to expand the program by constructing a separate building just for the feral dogs.

Like most rescues and animal sanctuaries, The Devoted Barn is always in need of financial support, volunteers, foster homes, and supplies to continue saving animals who have lived through unimaginable horrors and deserve a second chance at a happy life.

Learn more about The Devoted Barn and ways to help at thedevotedbarn.org, or check out its Facebook page.

You can also visit the sanctuary (6227 N. Dixie Hwy., Newport, MI 48166) on Wednesdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Suggested donation is $10 per person to visit.

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About the author: Crystal Gibson is a Canadian expat in France who teaches English by day and does freelance work by night (and on weekends). She’s written for Dogster.com and Catster.com since 2013 and has been published in Chicken Soup For the Soul. When she’s not traveling, teaching, or writing, Crystal is taking care of her Doxie mix, Pinch, and needy Sphynx cat, Skinny Mini. She can be found on Twitter @PinchMom.