Jenny's Story: How a starving and abused puppy from one of Africa's poorest cities came to a farm in England.
It was a Friday afternoon in January 2017 when I found Jenny. I had just walked out of the gates of a school in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, where I had been training new teachers. Along the dirt road, a number of women were sitting outside their houses, washing naked children in buckets of cold, soapy water, or selling various items such as second-hand toys, which they laid out on blankets on the road. Meanwhile, there could be no less than around 30 dogs along the same stretch of road, playing, fighting and dodging hooting motorbikes and cars.
Fifty metres from the school, I caught sight of an emaciated puppy in the ditch. It was Jenny. Her ribs and hips protruded and there wasn’t an ounce of fat on her. She was starving, filthy and full of parasites. Her eyes met mine for a second and she scuttled off into a tunnel to hide away from me. She was clearly petrified of humans and was used to keeping watch and hiding herself when anyone saw her. The ditch was about 1.5 metres deep and it was dry. It was a concrete bed of used plastic water sachets, biscuit wrappers and liquor packets. Realising that this puppy would not survive or escape from this ditch on her own, I stood and watched her hiding from me in the tunnel while I thought about what to do. A crowd of men and children started to form around me. Whispers of: “the white girl wants to take the dog” started to circulate. Children jumped into the ditch and started chasing Jenny and she was squealing. I shouted at them to stop but it was too late, one of them picked her out of the ditch and handed her straight to me in a piece of cloth. She immediately bit my thumb and drew blood.
I was keen to get away from the crowd that had now formed around me and therefore I decided to take her home where I might be able to stabilise her a little before looking for a suitable home. It was clear from her physical condition and mental state, that if I let her go, her chances of survival were almost nil. It was a one mile walk to my house, uphill in 30 degrees Celsius and 90% humidity. She was so dirty that I held her at arm’s length all the way. A caretaker from the school came to help me and, on the walk home, the conversation quickly turned to his idea of him keeping her while I sent him money from the UK to look after her (I am sure, at some substantial profit from his end). I quickly put that idea out of his mind and thanked him for helping me with a gift of 10,000 Leones (£1) before sending him back to school.
At the house, where my Australian flatmate, Christian, also kept a dog that he had rescued in Hungary, I found a shed, emptied out a pile of junk and left her with some water. I called my boss to say that I wouldn’t be able to return to the office that afternoon as I needed to go to the hospital for a rabies jab. At the hospital – the country’s best and most exclusive – the doctor told me incorrectly that “he wasn’t aware of” any post-bite rabies treatment. In fact, there is a very specific course of treatment, taken on the first, seventh and twenty-first days after being bitten by any animal in a high rabies area like Sierra Leone. I went away with some antibiotics and one rabies vaccination which I insisted on being given. Luckily, Jenny didn’t have rabies or we would both have been gonners.
Jenny’s shed was more than 10 metres long. She would retreat into the back corner if anyone came anywhere near the shed. She would growl and, if you walked inside the shed, she would squeal. There is no doubt that she had been abused. On the first day, I threw her a small piece of sausage which hit her, gently on her side. She squealed, as she was obviously expecting it to hurt. People must have been throwing stones at her; I saw people throwing stones at dogs every day.
On the second day, she escaped into the British High Commission next door. I went searching for her, but luckily she returned to her shed on her own. That same day, I managed to get some chicken wire and cordoned off a portion of the back yard for her to keep her separated from Christian’s dog. She ate very little: only enough for survival. I always left her bowl outside the shed, and she would come out for a minute or so to eat a little, and then go back in. She would always wait about fifteen minutes after I had left, and if she saw anyone within thirty metres of her, she would run back inside. Even if you looked over from the balcony, and she saw you, she would run back inside.
On the second weekend, my friend, Bruce, helped me take her to the vet. He wrapped her in a thick blanket whilst she growled and squealed, and tried to bite him. There is only one veterinary surgery in Sierra Leone, with only one vet. It is run by the Sierra Leone Animal Welfare Society, and from the punctured ‘animal ambulance’ decaying in the driveway, it has obviously seen better times. Jenny was full of ear mites, ticks, fleas and worms. Although she was about 8 weeks old, she was as light as a feather. The vet was absent so some assistants gave her a thorough wash and treatment for worms and mange. They sent me home with a high-calorie vitamin paste to put in her food and advised me to come back for her vaccinations when she was a bit stronger.
Apart from her outing to the vets, she stayed in the shed for almost 3 weeks, putting herself in solitary confinement. She ventured out for only a few minutes a day. I was advised by a British dog trainer who works at the High Commission, to ignore her and not talk to her. The idea was: ‘let her come to you, don’t approach her’. After 3 weeks, I was frustrated that there was hardly any progress, but there was a breakthrough. She needed to go to the vets again for further treatment and I was going to have to force her out. I wrapped her in a blanket and she squealed a little but then allowed me to carry her to the car. She was resigned to whatever was going to happen. At the vets, she tried to bite the assistant, however, she was quite calm with me. When I returned to the house, I decided to leave her out on our balcony. She was forced to stay with us in close proximity to her. She retreated to the corner of the balcony, however, when we approached her, she didn’t growl. Over the next few days, we made leaps and bounds. She was walking on a lead by the following weekend.
That was lucky because about a week later, my rental term ended and so Jenny and I needed to move house. I still had the intention of finding her a home. I just wanted to bring her up to good health and then find her somewhere. However, I was struggling. Sierra Leone has just come out of an Ebola crisis, during which, the street dog population doubled to almost half a million in Freetown alone (just under one dog for every two people). A large proportion of these dogs are starving, sick or injured. Many are run over by cars or hurt by humans, who try to kill dogs in the misunderstanding that it will protect them from rabies. Furthermore, only sixteen years ago, there was a very bloody war, plunging people into extreme and endemic poverty. In a country where 52% of adults can’t read and a teacher earns less than £20 per week, dog welfare is not a priority. The attitude is very much: ‘you should help people before you help dogs’. I’d heard that a friend even had his dog poisoned when a neighbour was jealous that the dog was being fed expensive food. The best I thought I would be able to do for Jenny is make her into a ‘compound dog’: find her a group of houses with a common gate and have her as one of the guard dogs. If it could be a compound of Europeans living on it, that would be my preference, as they might take a liking to Jenny and give her attention.
I managed to find a house to move into that had an enclosed fence. One night, after work, I moved all my luggage there, and the following day, I brought Jenny by public transport. She had become used to travelling with me in the over-loaded minibuses and didn’t seem to mind the erratic moves made by the unqualified teenage driver, blaring speakers and occasional disco lights. She always sat on my knee and sunk herself into my chest. The other passengers were usually amused by a white girl on the bus with her dog. Unfortunately that night – my first at the house – I realised that I had made a big mistake. I hadn’t checked thoroughly enough and three of the outside doors didn’t lock. The water pump and generator were both broken, meaning that there was no water or electricity. Moreover, it was the only house on the street without a security guard. I called my boyfriend, Ali, to inform him I would be coming back into town to stay with him until I had the house fixed. Unfortunately, Jenny wasn’t house-trained and there was no outdoor space for a dog at his house. I needed to find somewhere for her. I had a stinking cold, it was 8pm and I had nowhere for Jenny to go. I didn’t want to leave her alone at the new house since it was out of town. I only had one idea: a friend who I had met only a couple of times lived in a flat that had a few dogs on a pleasant compound. I took Jenny back into town, changing minibuses once on the way. My friend seemed ok with having Jenny there so I left her and retreated to Ali’s house, tired, hungry, sick and worried about Jenny.
I took the next day off work and went over to feed Jenny at about 10am. I met the owner of the compound, an expat who seemed pretty easy going and friendly. He said Jenny could stay there long-term and that he would feed her and that the security guards would wash her every week and ensure that she was ok. It was away from any main road and had plenty of European NGO and UN workers living there: I thought it was the best place I would possibly find for Jenny. It was such a relief.
I continued to visit her morning and evening to make sure that she had settled in ok. She was always extremely excited to see me, and had found a new best friend, a dog called Sia that my friend had also rescued from a ditch and was due to take to Denmark. I happened to pass Jenny’s compound on my walk to work and always enjoyed spending a few minutes with her. She seemed quite happy. However, the mood quickly changed. One morning, the security guard came past me and told me angrily that if she makes a mess of the stairs again, he will beat her. The best response I could come back with was that I would have him put in prison if he did anything to her. He then responded with “I challenge you to that”, repeating the sentence over and over again. In Sierra Leone, like in much of the developing world, you can get anything you want with a few dollars paid to the right people, and so I almost certainly could have had him put in prison if I’d have wanted to, however, it wasn’t my best attempt at managing a situation. I was now worried that he was going to actually beat her. I spoke to the owner, and he assured me that the guard would be spoken to, but I was still worried. No-one was training her to do her business in the right place. It had taken me two months to bring her from a shaking wreck to a playful puppy and her confidence was about to be put in jeopardy. Not to mention, the risk of injury: I have seen many dogs with permanent limps because of being beaten or kicked by humans.
About a week later, after she had been at the compound for a month, things came to a head. I had begun to see that the owner, who I thought was a reliable person, was unpredictable and had a tendency to fly into rages and get on the wrong side of people. He also always seemed to be drunk when I was there, no matter what time of day it was. He appeared to have a lot of enemies, and this meant that Jenny was not safe. If anyone wanted to get back at him, they could easily throw some poisoned meat into his compound and kill his dogs, I thought. One day, my friend called me to tell me that the owner had threatened to shoot her dog for dirtying the stairs. Furthermore, Sia had become suddenly aggressive and it turns out, the guards had been beating her. I had also made an enquiry with an Irishman who lived on the top floor and he said that he was having to feed Jenny as she would otherwise not be eating. The following day, I passed by the compound on my way back from work and took Jenny. She walked with me back to my house as the sun set over the ocean in the distance below us, and that was that. As far as I could see, there is nowhere in Sierra Leone where I could guarantee that she would be kept safe from traffic, fed properly and given veterinary treatment. The only viable option was England.
I started making plans. The first step was taking a blood sample that needed to be sent to a laboratory in the UK to be tested for rabies protection. I advertised on Facebook and found a friend who was travelling to the UK and who was willing to take the blood sample in her luggage and post it to the lab on arrival. She told me that on her previous UK visit, she took a cat’s sample for someone else. Jenny’s certificate came back a week later by email, meaning that she would be free to travel after three months.
In the meantime, she started to enjoy life. Because of her playful and loving character, she was a hit with all my friends, and so, when she was strong enough, I started taking her on our weekly camping trips to the beach. It was the only place where she was safe to run free, and I was able to have her off the lead all weekend. She would run and play with the beach dogs, come with me for a short kayak trip or join my group of friends for a gin and tonic as the sun set. At night, I put a towel down on the sand and she lay next to my tent, except one night when it rained and she ended up inside the tent.
The beach was another place that was full of unwanted dogs. One was so full of mange that it had almost no fur and was getting sunburnt. My friend, Bruce, and I paid for the vet to come out and treat the dog and, after one month she had almost all her fur back. It was a timely intervention as we discovered that people were planning to kill her for being unsightly. Two of my other dog rescue attempts were sadly unsuccessful: both died after I had taken them to the vets.
Around the same time, two of my friends, Taylor and Amy, each rescued young puppies from the beach, both of which were starving and sick. They named them Roger and Titch respectively and brought them to Freetown, where they began to thrive and enjoyed a life of luxury at our friend, Tom’s compound. Meanwhile, my flatmate, Jess, had added another dog to our household: an un-weaned five week old called Marley whose mother had been run over outside her office. He vomited worms and slept for the first week, but Jess successfully rehabilitated him. On the weekends, the car was now stuffed with cool boxes full of beer, camping equipment, 5 people and 3 dogs. On one occasion, the dogs were given their own driver, while we made our way to the beach from town by jet-ski and speed boat.
Keeping her safe and in good health was a constant battle. The compound I lived on always had cars coming in and out, and so, I kept her up on the veranda during the day when I was at work. In the evenings, she would play with the dogs downstairs who transferred her their worms, fleas and mange. On one occasion, the staff who worked downstairs somehow hit and injured one of the other dogs, and I was always concerned that the same would happen to her. Several people had commented to me that she was an ‘ugly’ dog as a result of her disproportionately large ears (typical of her Basenji breed which is native to Central and West Africa), and I thought that she might be first on the list for a beating as a result. Furthermore, despite living on a road that wasn’t tarmacked, trucks and cars would come down at great speed, in the assumption that all the dogs would run out of the way, and if they didn’t then it would be their own fault if they got killed. On the main road near my house, there had been at least five dead dogs in one two week period.
There always seemed to be something wrong with her in the weeks leading up to going home. I bought her a second-hand towel off a street seller and gave it to her, rather unwisely, before washing and ironing it. The towel contained the eggs of a mango fly (a type of bot fly) and they embedded into her skin and developed into small bumps. When squeezed, out popped squirming larvae. Then, about 6 weeks before travelling, her personality changed overnight from playful, to subdued and fearful. I was concerned that one of the staff had hit her but it turned out that she had a broken tooth which was giving her pain. After an umpteenth visit to the vet, it was decided that I should try and wait until arriving in the UK since they did not have the correct tooth extraction equipment needed. Jenny had to grin and bear it.
The week for departure arrived. I went to the vet to get Jenny’s final paperwork signed and a tapeworm tablet, obligatory for all dogs entering the UK. Having been a volunteer for 9 months, I was on a shoe-string budget and opted out of the £1200 cost of flying a dog into Heathrow. I found that the cheapest way was to fly to Brussels, take a train and two buses to Holland, and finally a ferry to Harwich, where my mum would collect us for the three hour drive home. For those with a larger budget, the other option would be to take a taxi from Brussels to the UK with your dog, as many dog lovers do (there are even special dog taxi services).
On Friday 30th June, at 1pm, I set off with Jenny, 2 large suitcases, a backpack and Jenny’s 15kg crate for this mammoth journey. The first leg was a speed boat to the airport, where I was charged an exorbitant price of $20 for Jenny in addition to my $40 fare. The boat company had cottoned on to the large number of expats taking dogs out of the country and decided to make a profit from it. At the airport, I was able to check in my luggage, including Jenny’s crate and spent the waiting time with her. When it was time to board, her crate was presented to me again, and I shut her in and watched her being wheeled across the tarmac to the plane. Nine hours later, after a stop in Liberia, we arrived in Brussels and Jenny met me at the baggage hall, looking relatively unfazed. At no point was I asked about Jenny or her papers until we reached the UK border. Luckily I was able to fit all my 70kg on a luggage trolley, which I was able to push directly to the train platform, where Jenny and I boarded a train for Rotterdam, two hours away. We both slept most of the way.
In Rotterdam, it was a fair walk to the bus stop, but we managed with relative ease (carrying the cases first, leaving them with a reliable-looking member of the public and then going back for the dog crate). It was about fifteen degrees less than what Jenny was used to and she began to shiver. From Rotterdam, it was a thirty minute bus ride to the port of Hoek Van Holland where we boarded a ferry. To my knowledge, it is the only sea route between mainland Europe and the UK that allows foot passengers with dogs. Everything was exceptionally well-organised and Jenny was given a kennel in a room which she shared with about five other dogs, including another dog called Jenny who had come to the UK from Spain for the summer. I went to my cabin, where I was able to watch her on Channel 6 of the TV, which was linked to a camera in the kennel room. I was also able to go and visit her during the seven hour journey as much as I wanted and walk her on a designated dog walking deck. This was the toughest leg for her, as one of the other dogs in the kennel room barked continuously the whole way. On arrival, Mum was there to pick us up, having driven three hours already on her birthday, and ready for another three hours on the return. It had been a surprisingly smooth journey from Freetown; Jenny had gladly stayed alongside me all the way and seemed to enjoy the adventure.
And so at midnight on Saturday 1st of July 2017, exactly 5 months after I found Jenny, she completed her journey from a ditch in one of the poorest countries in the world, to a farm in Leicestershire, UK, my home for all of my 34 years. But Jenny’s journey is not yet over. Although, it is one of the hardest things I have had to do in my life, I must find her another home. I travel constantly and am not settled enough at the moment to give her the life she deserves. Over the next few weeks, I will be searching for the absolute best home possible for her, and of course, one that will allow me to visit her whenever I’m home. The driver at my office always called her “Lucky Dog” whenever he picked us up for one of our evening beach walks. The growling wreck I picked out of a drain has turned into a beautiful and kind creature; she is the most perfect dog. She has left behind over a million dogs in her home country in dire need of health care, nutrition and safety.
Sarah Morris rescued a starving 2 month-old puppy from a ditch in Sierra Leone, West Africa - one of Africa's poorest countries - in early 2017. They've been together ever since and continue to travel and adventure around the world.