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Dogged Devotion

updated 02/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

RIN TIN TIN SAVED PEOPLE. SO did Lassie. That was in Hollywood. Sheba saved her puppies' lives and has become a canine heroine. That was in Florida.

Sheba, an 18-month-old Rottweiler, gave birth to nine multihued pups on Jan. 15 in Oakland Park, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale. Her owner, Bob Homrighous, 41, a pool-maintenance worker, was, according to police accounts, not thrilled.

"He dug a two-foot hole in the backyard," says Sgt. Sherry Schlueter, head of the Broward County sheriffs office animal abuse unit, "and got a paper sack. Sheba was confined by a chain or in a screened-in porch. He put the pups in the bag, then in the hole, put the earth back on top of them, tamped it down and walked away."

The next day, Sheba got free. A neighbor noticed her digging frantically in the yard. "Next thing you know," says Schlueter, 42, head of the animal abuse unit since 1982, "the neighbor saw her with a puppy that looked alive."

One by one, Sheba retrieved the pups, licking each one clean and depositing it in her doghouse. The neighbor, who has remained unidentified, helped dig up the last of the pups, then put them in a box to keep them warm. Another neighbor called police, and Schlueter impounded Sheba and her pups.

Dr. Cindi Bossart, a local vet who examined the puppies, says, "The only reason they survived is because they were in the paper bag, which probably made an air pocket, and because they were warm—they were on top of each other." Despite Bossart's best efforts, three of the puppies died from their ordeal.

Back at the house, Homrighous was trying to explain to the police what he had done. "He said he's from a farm, and that's how things work," says officer Jay Santalucia. "Well, that's not how things work around here."

Sheba and her surviving six puppies, still camping out at Bossart's office, are doing well, and Schlueter is fielding adoption offers from as far away as Europe. Because of the puppies that died, Homrighous—free on $3,600 bail—has been charged with three felony counts of aggravated animal abuse, charges that carry a maximum penalty of $30,000 in fines and 15 years in prison. Confinement in a paper bag is not considered an option.

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