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A dog's tale: Butter/Benji lives on his own for years after 100 animals removed from farm (w/video)

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Butter lays in his bed on Tuesday at Great River Rescue. The terrier mix was recently rescued after he was abandoned in a 2012 dog hoarding case in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 3
Cassandra Torkelson of The Retrievers holds Butter/Benji after catching him Jan. 16 near Grant Valley Road. The dog had lived near an abandoned farm there for four years, slipping the grasp of rescuers. (Submitted photo)3 / 3

BEMIDJI—The dog with two names curls into a green blanket, still as stone with big brown eyes.

His kibble and water fill their bowls to the brim, untouched the last few days, since he arrived. Someone has stuffed peanut butter inside a toy ball on the floor, but he has not touched even that. Fried chicken might not break this comatose.

The kennel to the left holds Rizzo, a big black dog that presses a wet nose against the cold door. The kennel to the right is empty. And in between we have this quiet dog, this little brown dog, snugged in the back of his kennel, locked in a staring contest with the world.

The shelter's file says this dog is 5 years old, a terrier mix. He was rescued and sent here Jan. 16. His condition, after a few days, hasn't improved.

Brandon Mustful, executive director at Great River Rescue, said it's not unusual for a dog like this to enter a shock beyond shy, to have his face go blank and his body stop like an old watch.

Mustful steps into the kennel, walks toward the dog, extends an arm slowly. He lowers his hand, petting and then scratching around the dog's ears.

Yeah, Mustful said. A dog that has lived like this one, a dog that has been plucked like a wildflower and carried to a place he doesn't understand, a dog like that sometimes acts like this.

You just hope he comes out of it.

Butter

If there were a most-wanted list for dogs, he would have been near the top.

Animal control officers for years had seen Butter poking around the woods on Grant Valley Road, always too smart to enter their traps, always a few feet outside their reach, a flash of brown running through their hands like water.

It's hard to count the abandoned or runaway dogs living here or anywhere else. Some leave home for a day or two and then return as if nothing happened. Some don't survive their little adventures, and some are taken in by strangers, adopted on or off the books.

Mustful said he gets about eight times as many phone calls reporting lost dogs as found dogs. "Where they all end up," he said, "I don't know."

But this dog's curly coat was suspiciously clean, a white streak stretching across his little belly, which appeared to be growing, because someone appeared to be feeding him.

Those who pursued Butter say he was gentle, used to people, not the kind to nip your pants leg. He was easy to find, too, always near the same abandoned farm.

He just wouldn't come when you whistled.

Photos of the dog spread on Facebook, reaching a St. Paul nonprofit that corrales lost dogs.

"We don't reach out to pull in cases," said Brian Torkelson, case manager for The Retrievers. "This one tugged at our heartstrings."

Brian and Cassandra Torkelson, his wife and rescue partner, went on a couple stakeouts.

Late morning on Jan. 16, they parked the van on an unplowed road and went to work on the trap.

"Here comes Butter," Brian said. "Standing at the front bumper, staring at me as we're setting up."

But the trap was spacious. The door was powered by electromagnetism. They had fried chicken. Butter crept into the cage as if pulled by gravity.

The door snapped shut. He lunged hard against the back wall, spinning in violent circles.

Brian said that part is always hard, knowing what the dog doesn't and maybe never will.

Slipping

Carol Schmidt used to like sitting back and watching the TV in her little Grant Valley mobile home, 50 or so dogs huddled at her feet.

This had been her father's farm, a place to spend summers as a girl, running in the open grass. Carol, 67 now, made a home here as a young woman. She spent 45 years here, happy ones, before things started to get bad in January 2010.

"My dad," she said.

Some deaths leave a void. Joe Metzner's left a gash.

Carol's father was 97, but even then she didn't expect him to go. They had 15 dogs back then and could handle them pretty well. Then Joe died. Carol's health slipped. Some dogs weren't fixed.

She started buying 44-pound bags of kibble that seemed to evaporate when she got back home. "They were nice and fat," she said. "I always fed them."

Carol said she tried to get rid of some.

By January 2012, according to stories that ran in the Pioneer, 107 dogs lived on the property, counting Carol's and a friend's.

There was Peaches, light brown. And Beauty, deep black. There were big dogs and small dogs. Old dogs and puppies.

And two cats.

Benji

The little brown dog was always a little shy, escaping to a hole in the floor when the puppies tumbled around him, licking his face. His father was a miniature dachshund, his mother a terrier. Benji was the runt of the litter, and though Carol looked after him, shy and small were bad things to be in a place with so many.

One day authorities conducted a welfare check, and soon sheriff's deputies were at her place, looking around and jotting down notes. She told them she cleaned every day, but after they left, they filed a report detailing unsanitary conditions at the home.

A week or so later Carol was in the hospital. A Pioneer headline read: "Group removes 107 dogs." We missed one.

Benji escaped to his hole in the floor. Authorities couldn't catch him. He was about a year old.

Benji was still at the farm that summer when Carol, who was living in a foster home, found out.

Once a week, most weeks, she packed a sandwich lunch, some kibble and some table scraps. She waited at the bus stop.

Benji was always happy to see her.

Even when Carol came in a friend's van, Benji knew the vehicle and ran toward it.

Carol has seen him less lately because the breast cancer leaves her too weak some days.

She lives in an apartment now, on her own except for Ella, a feisty Chihuahua she had to adopt after she saw the little dog in the newspaper. Ella was her mother's name.

She knows she once had too many, knows the perception it created. She's happy with one now, but that little brown dog won't stop chasing his tail in her head.

For a long time, the day when Carol would adopt Benji always hovered on an imaginary horizon. She would think about it when she visited him at the hole in the floor.

When that home was demolished, she would think about it when she visited him under the porch of a storage mobile home that was spared, where he slept in a barrel she had filled with straw.

"He just wanted to stay out there," she said, "until I came home."

Recovering

The dog is eating again. He has shed the green blanket and hangs around the front of his kennel. The attendants take him out to play.

"He's right on track," Mustful said, "considering the circumstances."

Mustful doesn't know when the dog might be removed from quarantine and put up for adoption. He's been here a week.

Carol would recognize this dog. She had never known him to be so scared and so still.

She last saw him almost two weeks ago, she thinks, because the weeks bleed together like that.

She said she fed him, talked to him, went home and felt a chill.

"I curled up in a blanket," she said. "I didn't want to move."

Carol has saved a bone and his favorite kibble. She said this week she would stop by the shelter, after her chemotherapy, if she felt strong enough.

To Mustful's knowledge, she hasn't been there.

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