On a late summer day, Sheri Lee sits next to a plastic enclosure filled with two litters of puppies near the front door of PetSmart.
While one of the younger puppies tugs on a sleeping older one, trying to engage it in play, a woman walks up to inquire about the animals. All are dogs that Lee has rescued off the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations.
“Both parents look like they’re about three-quarters German shepherd,” Lee says of the smaller puppies to the potential adopter. “I think there might be some heeler or something else. I’m not real sure.”
The mother of the older ones is about half pit bull, Lee said, but she hasn’t a clue about the breed of the father dog.
“I would guess on the two black ones probably some border collie or something, and I was thinking boxer” for a blond one, she said.
On this day Lee is where she usually can be found on weekends. She’s sitting in the very public spot that draws animal owners and animal lovers, hoping to secure new homes for the unending supply of canines she collects under the banner of Rez Dog Rescue.
The 50-year-old Billings woman is immersed in the world of reservation dogs. She finds them — mostly puppies but some adults — nurses them back to health, when necessary, and cares for them at her home until new owners can be found.
Her motivation is simple.
“If I thought that I let a dog die, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night,” she said.
Though she spends endless hours at the task, it only fills her off hours. Lee works full time in sales and customer service at Lumen FX, a lighting agency in downtown Billings.
She started doing dog rescue about eight years ago. Neither reservation has an animal shelter to care for stray pets.
She began by helping Charlotte Heinle in Hardin, who headed up Help Every Pet. When Heinle moved to Wyoming, Lee created Rez Dog Rescue.
Pets have always been part of her life.
“I was raised by my grandparents, and we grew up to love animals,” she said about herself and her siblings. “I’m a dog person. I like both dogs and cats, but dogs are my thing.”
She owns four dogs of her own — all reservation dogs that she adopted — and her roommate has one dog. And Lee often fosters dogs and puppies at her home near the Rimrocks that she has found on her tours of the two reservations.
She finds the dogs in different ways. Sometimes she gets calls to come pick up litters of puppies.
A couple of times a month, Lee drives through the reservation towns — Crow Agency, Lame Deer, Lodge Grass, Busby, Dunmore, Pryor — looking for strays. She drives around in her White Toyota 4Runner with the license plate "DOGMAW."
She offers to take older dogs and have them spayed or neutered and then return them to their owners.
“If I see some puppies, I’ll go up and ask the people, explain what I’m doing and ask if they’d like me to find homes for the dogs,” Lee said. “And if they say no, that is what it is.”
A couple of teachers in Lame Deer and Lodge Grass also bring litters of puppies they find to Lee. The animals are not initially as cute and cuddly as the ones on display.
“They usually have a lot of fleas, and tick season was terrible this year,” Lee said. “They’re usually very, very wormy, malnourished, and about 50 percent are mangy.”
Lee does everything necessary to get them into good health. Then she takes them to a vet to get them spayed or neutered, vaccinates them and puts them up for adoption or they are adopted through Billings Animal Rescue Kare (BARK).
She makes them available on petfinder.com and at PetSmart. To help cover the cost of caring for the dogs, the puppies go for $150 and adults range from free to $100 each.
Lee is working to secure a nonprofit status for the organization. She gets financial donations from some people, and BARK and the Billings Animal Shelter donate excess dog food.
The animal shelter gave her a truckload of food and a month later, she had to buy more because she’d gone through it all. Most goes to feed the dogs on hand, but Lee also drops off bags of food to dog owners on the reservation when she makes her regular drives to pick up dogs.
In addition to donations, Lee has people who offer to foster puppies and adult dogs. She’s always looking for more volunteers.
Lee figures that for every female dog that is spayed, that’s at least 100 puppies that won’t be born. But she knows her job will never really be done.
“Just when I think I’ve got the numbers down, I come home with 18 dogs in my car,” she said. “So I think it’s just a never-ending battle.”
Lee also knows that the work is necessary. But it isn’t always easy.
She talked about a dog that she rescued from Lodge Grass that wasn’t eating or drinking. So Lee took it in for a checkup.
“The vet did X-rays and sedation and its jaw was shattered,” she said. “Somebody must have kicked its face, and it had to be put down.”
Most of the dogs are hardy, though, Lee said. They’ve been able to survive without much care, and because they’re mixed breeds, they don’t deal with some of the genetic issues that purebreds face.
Most are smart because they come from herding-dog stock, she said. And the older dogs are especially grateful to find homes and love after their poor beginnings.
“It’s just wonderful,” Lee said.
The dogs she rescues make great pets, she said. On the day of an interview outside PetSmart, she adopted out one puppy to a woman who contacted her through petfinder.com and she sent an older dog out on a trial basis.
“With the adults, we let you try them first if you’re in town to make sure it’s going to work for you and the dog,” Lee said.
Lee said the work can be both satisfying and devastating.
“There’s very wonderful days and then there’s bad days, but the good days far outweigh the bad days, and the dogs pay you back tenfold.”