Patsy Topping tells a story about a dog she rescued that brings to mind the first line of E.B. White’s classic, “Charlotte’s Web.” Instead of young Fern asking “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Ms. Topping asks a volunteer at a dog shelter in South Carolina, “What are you doing with that puppy?”
It was a cold December day in 2009, and Ms. Topping, who was on the board at the Walter Crowe Animal Shelter in Sumpter County, had gone to the shelter that afternoon, for reasons she can’t remember. She spotted the volunteer carrying a small puppy around outside, which didn’t seem right.
“I said, ‘It’s a nasty day outside, why are you carrying that puppy around?’” Ms. Topping recalled. “And she said, ‘We’re putting him to sleep because he’s miserable; he came in a few days ago and he fights with the other puppies and he’s not eating or sleeping well.’ And I said, ‘You’re not putting him to sleep.’”
Ms. Topping promptly walked into the shelter and told the director she was adopting the puppy. She knew taking him in wouldn’t be easy; he’d be another dog to care for, joining roughly 40 other dogs she had taken in at her 14-stall horse barn, and there was a high likelihood that he’d have Parvo, a highly contagious viral disease that is common in shelter dogs who haven’t had their shots. She took him anyway, named him Quizno, and stuck him in a stall with a female dog that had given birth to puppies a few months ago.
“I looked in on them, and noticed that the mother dog was sitting on his head, looking at him and growling,” Ms. Topping said, starting to smile. “He never misbehaved again. All he needed was some mother to tell him how you’re supposed to behave.”
Quizno was eventually transported to ARF, where he never really fit in. But at an adoption event a few months later, he finally made the right connection.
“Someone came in with a hound dog, and darned if Quizno didn’t take one look at that hound dog and say, ‘You’re my friend!’” Ms. Topping said. “And they played in the yard together, and the girl adopted him.”
Over the course of more than a decade, Ms. Topping has made it her personal mission to rescue thousands of dogs and puppies like Quizno from high-kill shelters in South Carolina, where the kill rate is often around 80 percent. She’s given them temporary homes in empty stalls at her horse stable, Dixie Hall, in South Carolina, frequently caring for up to 40 dogs at a time to ensure they’re ready to enter a facility like ARF, and has used her large horse trailer to transport them to safety.
On Saturday, August 14, she will be recognized for the tireless work in rescuing more than 2,000 dogs and cats when she receives a Lifetime Achievement Award from ARF as part of the organization’s annual Bow Wow Meow Ball, which is being livestreamed at 7:30 p.m., hosted by NBC’s Chuck Scarborough.
Ms. Topping has an almost endless supply of stories about dogs like Quizno, and it’s clear she loves telling them. She shared them during an overcast week day in early August, sitting in the living room of her home at Swan Creek Farm, the riding stable on Halsey Lane in Bridgehampton that she’s operated with her husband, Alvin Topping, for years, and which is now run by her son, Jagger Topping, and his wife, Mandy.
Joining her in the room were the four dogs she currently owns: Knight, a sandy colored mutt comfortably lounging on a peach colored loveseat; Smoke, a purebred English cocker who was deep in dreamland on a plush dog bed between two sofas; Latch, a female German Shepherd-looking mix with one brown eye and one blue eye, and one ear that was half flopped over, who laid quietly on the floor and barely took her gaze off Ms. Topping; and Christmas, an energetic Jack Russell terrier excitedly wagging his entire body while showing off a wad of paper towel he was carrying around in his mouth.
Ms. Topping became involved in dog rescue in the early 2000s, taking a few dogs out of kill shelters and enlisting the help of friends in South Carolina to find homes for them. In 2009, she became even more deeply involved, when she moved to South Carolina for a longer portion of the year, to help set up her mother in a cottage she owned down there. That same year, when a shelter in nearby Clarendon County closed down, Ms. Topping and a friend took in 81 dogs and puppies in the span of less than two months. Because they could not set foot in the ARF facility until they had a clean bill of health, Ms. Topping took on the task of making sure they were wormed and had their shots before arranging transport up north for them. She would load them in her horse trailer, sometimes meeting an ARF employee in North Carolina, and on some occasions driving them the full distance back to Long Island herself. Knight, the dog on the peach couch, was part of that original group from the shut down shelter. He ended up with Ms. Topping as part of an agreement she had made with ARF, asking them to send back to her any dogs that they could not adopt out.
“I didn’t want animals just languishing at ARF,” she said.
Knight remains largely uninterested in human contact and physical affection, but Ms. Topping said he’s come a long way. He used to bark and growl at any visitors to her home, making it necessary to leash him and put him outside. Now, she said, he’s a house dog, a claim he supported by laying calmly and silently on his post for the duration of a long interview.
Ms. Topping has always loved dogs, from the time she had her first one, a springer spaniel named Bobo, when she was a small child. She had a long and successful career as a horse trainer, taking clients to top level competitions like the Hampton Classic, for many years. As she became less deeply involved in the horse business as she got older, dog rescue became a sort of second act, although it was not something she actively chose. Rather, it was a calling she said she found impossible to ignore once she had an inside look at what goes on in South Carolina shelters.
Ms. Topping first started visiting those shelters when she was looking to adopt dogs for herself, after two dogs she’d adopted from ARF in 2002 had died. She said it quickly became apparent that she was told “blatant lies” from employees at those shelters about the fate of certain dogs. “That dog is out back” was code for “We killed it last night,” she learned.
Ms. Topping took action, and eventually became a board member at the Walter Crowe shelter in Camden, South Carolina, which gave her deeper insight into the way kill shelters operate in South Carolina. Because there are no spay or neuter laws, and because animal control is under the jurisdiction of the local sheriff departments rather than the department of agriculture, there is both an endless pipeline of dogs and puppies, and a tradition of an inhumane approach when it comes to solving the problem of overcrowding.
This is a tragedy, Ms. Topping says, because she has seen firsthand the extraordinary things a dog can do if it’s given a second chance at life. She remembers one of the first dogs she rescued, a female named Ditch — a nod to where she was discovered, out in the wild. After having puppies, Ditch was sent to ARF and adopted by a family on the North Fork with two children who have autism. Ditch made a huge difference in the lives of those children, Ms. Topping said, providing them with emotional support that she said the family therapists claimed made it possible for the children to make progress and attend a regular school.
Ms. Topping handed the reins of her rescue operation to a friend in 2016. It had become too draining, emotionally, physically and mentally, she said, after years of rescuing dogs from death, forming a bond with them as she nursed them back to health if they were sick with Parvo or other ailments, and then having to kiss them goodbye without knowing what the future would hold for them. She is also currently undergoing treatment for lung cancer. But it’s clear her heart is still 100 percent in it, and she carries with her a sense of unfinished business.
Over the last five years, Ms. Topping put a lot of effort into trying to get legislation passed that would help alleviate some of the issues that lead to the overwhelming overpopulation problem among dogs and cats in South Carolina, but she said it has been “almost impossible.”
“Saving dogs for ARF had become mentally, physically and emotionally tough by 2016, but the political scene was even worse,” she said.
Despite stepping back from the physical, day-to-day grind of caring for large numbers of dogs and puppies on her South Carolina farm and coordinating their transport to ARF, it’s clear Ms. Topping still feels called to help dogs in any way she can. She’s still using her contacts to try and rescue unwanted dogs and place them in shelters up north. Despite the fact that she’s rescued more than 2,000 dogs and cats — an astonishing number — and is as worthy a recipient of a lifetime achievement award as anyone could be, she struggles to feel satisfied about what she’s accomplished.
“I won’t really feel pride about it because I didn’t feel like I solved a problem,” she said. “I helped the immediate dogs, but I’d like to give politics one more shot and see if I can do something with our elected officials.
“The hardest part for me is that I’ve saved roughly 2,000 dogs to ARF and placed more dogs on my own in the last 15 years,” she added, “but I’ve failed dogs, and cats, because there isn’t any legislation, so I feel that tremendous kind of failure.”
She paused, letting out a sigh that indicated a long simmering frustration. “I feel like, come on, be more creative, figure it out,” she said. “But the enlightenment hasn’t come to me yet.”
Ms. Topping is certainly her own worst critic. If they could talk, it’s certain that the collection of dogs in her living room that owe their lives to her would beg to differ with that self-assessment. Smoke slept soundly on his dog bed, memories of the days when he was lost for three weeks in a South Carolina pine forest after getting out during a thunderstorm far from his mind. Ms. Topping had nursed him back to health when a friend brought him to her; he was heartworm positive, full of ticks and fleas, with infections in both ears, a cataract in his right eye, and burrs matted up so thickly in his fur that he could barely walk. He’s a sweet dog, she said, and although he’s not particularly affectionate, he’s never more than 10 feet away from her.
Latch, the skittish shepherd mix, laid on the couch with Ms. Topping as she spoke about her frustration that she can’t find the secret to changing the mindset in South Carolina when it comes to animal care. Latch, another of Ms. Topping’s rescues, had gone to ARF in September 2011, but was returned to her by March 2012 because they couldn’t adopt her out. During her time at ARF, she’d managed to escape from a kennel, and then promptly set about releasing a few other friends from their enclosures, earning her name. Ms. Topping claims she’s the smartest dog she’s ever had, but it took almost six years before Latch consented to letting Ms. Topping touch her.
She slowly and gently reached over to pet Latch on her hind end to illustrate the point. Latch awoke and turned her gaze to Ms. Topping. She had a look of trepidation in her eyes, but didn’t move from her post.
“It’s alright, sweet pea,” Ms. Topping said, in a gentle tone. “You’re alright. You’re alright.”