The story behind the scenes in Harney County


Nestled in the southeast corner of Oregon, the town of Burns is one of Oregon’s jewels. Here, on the sweeping vistas of the high desert, you can see a variety of breathtaking wildlife — bighorn sheep, Kiger Mustangs, waterfowl, and all manner of birds. The residents are nice folks, and the place is chock-full of fabulous outdoor activities such as stargazing, birdwatching, and hiking in many nature preserves.

One thing Burns DOESN’T have is an animal shelter. Like many other rural areas in Oregon, Burns has nowhere to take unwanted companion animals. All impounded or stray companion pets end up at the only vet in town where, after three to five, they are euthanized.


This is how a thorny problem began for a Burns man and woman who began taking in some of the unwanted and stray dogs in their town. They started out with kind intentions, but the situation quickly became untenable. Soon residents were dumping off their unwanted former furry friends at all hours.

The couple obtained bones from a nearby butcher to feed them, and as the number of dogs grew, so did the enormous piles of bones. The population grew to exceed 200, reproducing at an alarming rate. 

As happens so many tragic times, the couple was overwhelmed. Friends of the couple’s grandkids reported the situation to the sheriff and the Oregon Humane Society came to the rescue. OHS took 90 of the dogs to the Portland shelter, gave them medical attention and socialization, and starting placing them.

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With the shelter at capacity, Melanie Epping, founder of the companion animal rescue group “Harney County Save a Stray,” was called in. Epping jumped into the fray and began the arduous task of rounding up the rest of the dogs. She was especially concerned when she learned that about 15 had wandered off the property and been shot by neighboring ranchers concerned for their livestock. Time was of the essence, and Epping and her small band of volunteers gathered about 80 dogs, re-homing them with other rescues, shelters, and boarding kennels.

The sheriff, Dave Glerup was helpful throughout. He received some pressure to shoot the remaining canines, but he refused to cave and stayed the compassionate route. Spot spoke to Sheriff Glerup about the situation, and he had this to say: “I have never shot a dog in my life and am not going to start now.”

The job of capturing the dogs was formidable, but Epping and her group have received a lot of help —from caring locals, Pasado’s Safe Haven, and the South Pacific County Humane Society. They even received advice from the famed Utah-based group, Best Friends Animal Society, on how to work with these type of dogs.


When asked for her thoughts on the ongoing rescue effort, Epping said, “I feel real good about it. It has taken a lot of work and a lot of patience. These dogs only want to be loved. Our first trip to the property was sad, but you don’t let it get to you. What can you do, but help these poor creatures and the folks trying to help them?”

Epping says the smell of pileup of bones and feces was not exactly pleasant. Some of the dogs were kept in 8 x 12-foot pens, walking atop a mountain of bones and excrement.

Despite the awful lives they had led the dogs were happy and SO appreciative of the care and love they were finally given. Epping offers a poignant story of a peculiar trait many of the survivors manifest. Cody, a dog she took home, is no exception. He will gather together boots, cat and dog toys, blankets, and all manner of items, and put them in a big pile in his own special place. Maybe like people, this is a way of gathering, in case he experiences future privations like those he’s faced in the past.

Most of the dogs were Australian shepherd mixes. Like most canines, these dogs just want to be part of a pack, where their basic needs are met and they receive love. There are about 30 dogs currently left at the property, and Epping could still use donations (the group is working on getting their 501(c)3 C. Donations pay for vet care and fuel to transport the dogs.

Connie Theil is a freelance writer, master landscaper, and lifelong animal advocate and rescuer. Preciously she served on the Multnomah County Animal Safety Advisory Board, and years ago she and her son helped eradicate greyhound racing in Oregon. Connie has recently returned to Spot, and we're thrilled to have her back! Contact Connie at