Erin Insinga still has nightmares.

Nearly six months after helping to rescue 20 dogs from a suspected fighting ring in Franklin, the shelter manager of the Delaware Valley Humane Society still tears up at the recollection.

“That night changed me forever — as a mother, as a pet owner, as a shelter director, as a human,” she said. “I’ve been in rescue for 10 years and I’ve never had a case like this before.”

On the night of Feb. 5, Insinga joined shelter volunteers and Delaware County Sheriff’s deputies in evacuating a German shepherd, a Belgian malinois and 18 pitbulls from a barn where they were crammed two or three to a crate, stacked four high.

“I was in shock that night,” Insinga said. “What I saw didn’t register for three days.”

The dogs had no food or water and were covered in feces and urine, Insinga said. Nearly all of the dogs exhibited injuries or scarring consistent with dogfighting activity.

A search of the property yielded a self-propelled treadmill, also known as a slat mill, and spring poles, which are used to strengthen a dog’s jaw muscles and back legs while sometimes encouraging aggression, according to a criminal complaint filed by Cpl. Eric Alexander, the deputy that led the investigation.

“This was my first hands-on dogfighting case,” Insinga said. “It was new ground for everyone.”

Insinga’s longtime friend and pitbull rescue expert Jill Stafford said she still has nightmares, too.

“It wasn’t my first time taking a dog out of a bad environment, but it was the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” she remembered. “There was an overwhelming stench — the farther down the row I walked, the worse and worse it got.”

At the very end of the row, Stafford encountered a dog that would come to be known as Remo.

Remo — meaning “strong one” in Italian — was housed in a makeshift wooden crate with a door made of chicken wire and a barbecue grate for a roof — “probably because he tried to eat his way out,” Stafford said.

While the other dogs were standing and barking, Remo was lying down in the “inches of feces” lining his crate, Stafford said. “He was quiet, just sort of peering out.”

She asked the other rescuers on scene for a few minutes alone with the dog.

“I’m here to help you. Let me help you. It’s going to be OK,” she remembered whispering to the dog.

As she coaxed him out of the crate, “he instantly licked my hand,” Stafford said.

In the darkness of the barn, Stafford said she wasn’t able to see the dog’s condition from inside the crate.

“When he came out, I remember looking down at him and just being overwhelmed with anger and sadness,” she said. “His nails were completely black, they were so infected; his eye was draining — just looking at him, you could tell he’s been through absolute hell.”

A closer examination revealed Remo was completely blind in one eye and could likely only see shapes and shadows out of the other, Stafford said. Chunks of his ears and lip were missing, as were several teeth. The remaining ones were significantly worn down, likely from extensive chewing.

Remo’s face and legs are pockmarked with scars, and evidence of a footlong wound down his back will never grow fur again, Stafford said.

“The dogs were all in bad condition, but age-wise and scarring-wise, he was the worst,” she said. “Unless you have a skilled person to take care of him, this dog doesn’t have much of a chance.”

Stafford said she started stroking the dog, massaging his battered body, “and in that moment, I knew I was going to take him home.”

With the vans full and no place else to put him, Stafford said she put Remo at her feet in the passenger seat on the ride back to the shelter.

“Once we got moving, he put his front paws up on my legs,” she said. “By the time we got there, he climbed up and had his head on my chest and basically went to sleep.”

Because Stafford was fostering another dog at the time, she couldn’t bring Remo home immediately, but visited him at the shelter every day to take him for walks. 

“He chose to trust me,” she said.

The malinois and the shepherd had to be put down because of severe behavioral issues, Insinga said. Six pitbulls were transported to the Susquehanna SPCA in Cooperstown and six were taken to the Broome County Humane Society in Binghamton.

Three out of the six dogs that remained at the Sidney shelter, including Remo, have been adopted, Insinga said.

The other three — Fable, Ferdinand and Frances — are beginning to display “some signs of frustration,” she said. “We call it ‘kennel-crazy.’ It’s heartbreaking to watch.”

“We’re looking for very specific homes for all three of them,” Insinga continued. “It’s a huge liability to release them to people who are not fully aware of what they’re getting into.”

Shelter staff recommend that the dogs go to homes without other dogs, cats and children under 12.

The dogs have seen many prospective owners, Insinga said, “but a lot of people feel it’s really too much to handle — they just feel very overwhelmed.”

“Dogfighting dogs have come a long way,” Stafford said. “Ten years ago, these dogs would have been put down immediately. People are starting to understand now that typically the fighting pitbulls are not aggressive toward people — the Michael Vick dogs changed that perception.”

“It takes time and patience,” she continued. “These dogs don’t need to be rehabbed. They need time to learn how to be a dog, how to be a pet in a home.”

At first, Remo was “scared of everything,” Stafford said. “He didn’t know how to walk through a doorway. He didn’t know what a yard was. He was afraid of the dog bed.”

Nearly six months later, Remo is “exceeding expectations,” she said, displaying no signs of aggression with her two other dogs, Mia and Milo, both pitbull mixes.

“I’ve fostered 40 to 50 dogs and this is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done for one,” Stafford said. “I’m amazed to see where he came from and where he is now — he’s changed dramatically.”

“I haven’t really done anything super special,” she continued. “They’re not super different from other dogs, with time and patience and love.”

“They’re all phenomenal outside the kennel — much more reactive — which is typical of almost any shelter dog,” Insinga said. “I want them all to know that they will find a place. They’re all adoption-worthy.”

Shelter staff rearranged the entire kennel layout to accommodate the dogs, who could not be kept in kennels next to or across from one another, Insinga said. Some of the dogs had trouble in high-traffic areas and had to be moved away from doorways and busy corridors.

“These animals will have a lifetime of triggers. They’re constantly looking for reassurance,” Insinga said. “They’re so eager to please people — it hurts your heart to see that they’re constantly looking for the OK from humans.”

“They’ve blossomed,” Stafford said of the other dogs. “It’s hard for a dog to blossom in a shelter environment — that shows how badly off they were before, that they can live six months in a shelter and blossom.”

“Life goes on — the dogs are still here,” Insinga said. “They’re still fighting a fight. They’re still in a mental prison.”

Insinga and Stafford both expressed frustration at the lack of teeth in New York’s humane laws.

“I think it’s time for humane law to be reevaluated and revamped,” Insinga said. “The way Ag and Market Law is written, there's so many ways to interpret it in favor of abusers. You can’t charge someone multiple times for the same crimes. These dogs need to be treated as individuals.”

The dogs’ prior owner, Nasir Azmat, was arrested and charged with 20 counts of possessing dogs under circumstances evincing an intent that such animals engage in animal fighting; one count of owning or possessing animal-fighting paraphernalia with the intent to engage in or otherwise promote or facilitate animal fighting; and 20 counts of overdriving, torturing and injuring animals by failing to provide proper sustenance.

Azmat pleaded not guilty at a Feb. 27 hearing in Franklin Town Court, where Town Justice Gary P. Arndt ordered him to check in with probation every week until his next hearing, originally scheduled for March 26 but later postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We need justice for these dogs. We need this to be put to rest. That will be the light at the end of the tunnel,” Insinga said.

The case will be prosecuted by the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, but remains in Franklin Town Court for the time being, according to District Attorney John Hubbard.

“The local courts are in the process of reopening and I expect the defendant’s appearance with counsel will be scheduled sometime in August,” he said.

“We don’t want money, we don’t want restitution — this person needs to go to jail,” Insinga said. “He is never going to change. It’s not going to happen. There is nothing right now that stops him from having animals.”

Insinga said she has received complaints from concerned citizens about dogs barking at Azmat’s Franklin property — an eerie reflection of the investigation that led to the discovery of the Franklin 20.

“That’s how it started before, with a dog barking complaint,” she said. “The sheriff’s office knows, but there’s nothing they can do.”

“People need more training in how to handle cases like this,” Insinga continued. “We need a humane officer who can carry (a weapon); who can go into houses. The sheriff’s office should not have to handle these cases on their own. We need more strict humane laws and someone to enforce them.”

Stafford said she hopes to see Delaware and Chenango counties implement animal abuse task forces similar to the one in Otsego County spearheaded by Stacie Haynes, executive director of the Susquehanna SPCA.

“Dogfighting is happening right here in our small communities,” Stafford said. “It’s important that people continue to write, call and put pressure on the DA. This can’t go away.”

Hubbard said he has received nearly 200 letters from local citizens expressing concern for the dogs “and the fact they are very disturbed and heartbroken about the nature of the allegations.”

“I have read every letter, and written to each writer to thank them for expressing their concerns,” he said.

“Everyone’s angry. Everyone’s sick of waiting. We’re all frustrated. We’re all fighting this fight for these animals,” Insinga said. “Dogfighting is a barbaric, greedy situation that breeds crime and domestic abuse — there’s so many things tied in. The people in our community need to see the change right now. Our voices cannot go unheard.”

“It’s so easy for people to say ‘not in our backyard,’ but it happened here,” Stafford said. “I don’t want the community to forget that this is still going on.”

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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