The claustrophobic cave was pitch black and crawling with bugs. It was difficult to tell how far back the burrow went, but there was definitely something living down there. And as the rescuer felt around in the darkness, his hand closed in on something that was unmistakably alive.
The start of this cavern crawl began, however, at quite a different locale: a funeral. The members of California-based non-profit animal rescue group Hope For Paws were laying one of their colleagues to rest. That person was their beloved friend and fellow animal enthusiast Lisa M. Ashe.
During Ashe’s send-off, the Paws team received a very important call. They were needed to help some young creatures that had been spotted in a potentially dangerous situation. “In honor of Lisa’s love of animals, we headed to the location to save them,” Paws’ rescue video explained.
The recording, which was uploaded in March 2017, followed the team to a rocky embankment near an active train yard. In fact, it turned out to be a familiar location to them, as they had been trying to capture three elusive feral dogs at the site without success.
The women who called Paws had been feeding the stray dogs during that time. Apparently, one of the dogs had given birth to a plethora of pups. Moreover, the little creatures were all living in a tiny cavern, hidden in the train yard, since their birth six months previously.
Initially, the puppies were hesitant to come out. Indeed, it is likely that they had never ventured far from their cave. They seemed quite hungry, though, and when the Paws team offered them some cheeseburger, they couldn’t resist. Six pups followed their noses to the irresistible smell’s source.
The temptation was enough for Paws team member Lisa Arturo to pick up the first pup without a fuss. “[She] held the puppy up to show the others he was okay,” the official rescue video’s captions recounted. Unfortunately, the others weren’t so easy to wrangle.
Some background disturbance scared the curious canines, and as a result, they retreated further back into the cave. Moreover, further attempts to coax the fur babies out of hiding were unsuccessful. So, to save the puppies, the rescue team were only left with one alternative.
Hope For Paws’ co-founder and active rescuer, Eldad Hagar, volunteered to go into the cave after them. Hagar began digging a narrow rut through the tunnel using a metal dog bowl as an impromptu shovel. Fortunately, the pups were still in sight.
Despite the claustrophobic conditions, Hagar wriggled into the tunnel as far as he could. Sure enough, at the back of the cavern a trio of puppies were cuddling up together in fear. And while they may have been out of the rescuer’s reach, they were still in range of his gentle leash.
As adorable as puppy spelunking sounds, it proved quite a challenge. Hagar had to loop the leash around each of the pups’ necks and pull them out of their hidey-hole. What’s more, the crying canines had had so little human interaction in their lives that, initially, even being held terrified them.
“They don’t understand what we’re doing there. For all they know we’re predators trying to hurt them,” Hagar told The Dodo in March 2017. After receiving fuss from their rescuers, though, the poor pooches realized what they’d been missing, and their crying stopped.
As each pup was pulled from the cave, they were cleaned up and held until their heartbreaking cries abated. Hagar went into the cave three times, and after each excursion he brought a puppy back. But the rest of the babies had retreated after hearing their siblings’ cries.
“I crawled in six feet and then there’s a left turn that leads to a larger chamber,” Hagar explained. “I was able to get three, but then the rest were in that chamber and they were so deep. Because the turn was so sharp I couldn’t get any equipment back there.”
The Paws team refused to leave any puppies behind, though, and Hagar got a shovel and dug himself a new entrance to the tunnel. “It took hours and hours because we had to go slow and try not to shake the earth,” he said.
But soon, the rescuer’s determination paid off, and he made a hole large enough to crawl into. “I just had to feel around and grab for body parts,” he explained. “And once I had a tail, [I had] the other rescuers pull me out by my legs with the dog.”
Now although Paws had been told that there were eight puppies in the cave, Hagar went in one last time as a precaution. And to his surprise, as much as everyone else’s, he came out holding puppy number nine! It is likely that this was the first time the smallest puppy had ever stepped out of the cave.
Next, the puppies were cleaned up and given the best of care, helped by their foster mother, Olive. They even had an unexpected connection to a past rescue dog. Yes, Paws had recently taken in a male called Tank from the train yard area, and in fact, his similar coloration proved more than a coincidence.
Apparently, Tank was the fur babies’ father! Meanwhile, Paws’ rescue video had a final message for its viewers: “This rescue mission isn’t over. We are still actively trying to save their feral mother. People have been trying to catch her for five years without success!”
In the meantime, the dogs are happy, healthy and looking for new homes. And to honor the late Lisa M. Ashe, each letter in her name was used as an initial for one of the puppies. It’s a beautiful tribute, and no doubt she would be proud of the new life that her colleagues are giving to these nine perfect pups.