Raisin and the litter of orphaned puppies she nursed until she got sick. Credit: Photo courtesy of Maine Coast Animal Rescue

Midcoast animal lovers have been shocked, in a good way, to find out just how much people want to help a dog who saved six orphaned puppies.

A recent online fundraiser for Raisin, a chocolate Labrador retriever who suffered a life-threatening infection while nursing the puppies, raised more than $10,000 before organizers ended it. The money covered Raisin’s veterinary bills, according to Danielle Blake, president and co-founder of Maine Coast Animal Rescue in Lincolnville.

“This community is just so wonderful and just pulled together,” Blake said. “It gives you renewed faith.”

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But the story is more than heart-warming. It’s heart-wrenching, too. The sad part starts a few days before the puppies were born to their mother, a Great Dane-American Bulldog mix named Merkury.

Merkury was the kind of dog that went everywhere with her owner, Sydni Barham, 31, of Rockport, who was by all reports just as devoted to the big dog, Blake said. Merkury was riding in the car with Barham on the night of April 26, when she evidently swerved on Limerock Stree t to avoid a coyote that was in the road, according to a report in the Rockland Courier-Gazette.

The car flipped and struck two large trees, and Barham didn’t survive the crash. Merkury did, although rescuers initially didn’t know that she had been in the car with Barham. The dog wasn’t found until the next day. She was hiding in the woods, scared, pregnant, and badly injured, Blake said.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Maine Coast Animal Rescue

When Merkury was taken to the vet, she was diagnosed with a back fracture and spinal damage. During the emergency C-section on May 2, she delivered a litter of six healthy puppies and three that were stillborn. Merkury and the puppies stayed with a foster family for just a couple of days until the dog began to show signs of being in pain, Blake said. Then, even though she was nursing her puppies, a hard decision had to be made.

“We had her euthanized at the foster home,” she said.

Barham’s family came to be at the dog’s side while she was put to sleep. It was a hard moment, and it left the group with a dilemma: what to do with the puppies?

“We were in an emergency situation,” Blake said.

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Then she thought of Terrie Kelly, a friend who runs Tucker Brook Labs in Lincolnville. The small, family-owned business breeds dogs humanely and responsibly, treating them as family pets, Blake said. One of her dogs, Raisin, had given birth to just one puppy and she wondered if the nursing mother dog might have milk to spare for the orphaned pups.

She did.

“The mom instantly took to them and loved them and cleaned them,” Blake said.

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But a couple of weeks later, Raisin suddenly spiked a fever and could no longer walk. At an emergency clinic, she was diagnosed with gangrenous mastitis, and despite aggressive treatment, Raisin continued to decline. The vet determined that her only chance at survival would be to undergo a mastectomy, and that’s what Kelly chose to do.

“They didn’t think she was going to turn around,” Blake said. “They had to do an emergency surgery on her, and she ended up surviving.”

Raisin’s medical bills were climbing fast, and when Blake saw that they had topped $7,000, she wanted to try to help.

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“We had reached out to this person who is a wonderful breeder. Her dogs are her pets. We felt semi-responsible,” Blake said. “[Terrie] also had to spay Raisin, and didn’t mind doing so, because her life was on the line.”

When Maine Coast Animal Rescue started a fundraiser on Facebook, Blake and others didn’t have huge expectations. They were hoping to raise perhaps half of the veterinary bill. But something about the story touched people’s hearts. Jenna Lookner, a board member of Maine Coast Animal Rescue, said that many people wanted to help, attributing that to the bond between humans and dogs and also the tragic, specific circumstances of Barham, Merkury and the orphaned puppies.

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“Fewer than a half dozen donations have been more than $100,” she said. “It’s just a huge, diverse group of people that have come together, which to me is one of the most inspiring things that has come out of this. It comes from a place of true compassion.”

As for the dogs, so far, this sad story seems to be on its way to a happy ending. Blake said that Raisin appears to be making a full recovery and is “doing great.” So are the puppies, who are living with a foster family until they are ready to be adopted through the animal rescue. When they are ready, one is spoken for already. It will be given to Barham’s 12-year-old son.

“They are adorable,” Blake said of the puppies. “They’re all walking around with their eyes open, exploring the world.”