Jacksonville fire kills dozens of dogs

`We were family,' breeder says of his Pomeranians

March 15, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Irvin P. Keplinger loves his dogs, his precious Pomeranians. Although he and his wife, Trudy, have a roomy house south of Jacksonville, he spends almost every night in the three-bedroom cottage a few miles up the Jarrettsville Pike - just him, one nameless calico cat and 40 to 50 dogs, depending on the day.

So, when the wind kicked up Tuesday night and knocked out his electricity, Keplinger, 65, fetched a battery-powered light from his car, lighted a candle mounted on the bathroom wall and went through the nightly ritual of feeding the dogs, then putting them to bed.

He was preparing a special meal for one of the older dogs, a 10-year-old female who was toothless and crippled, when he noticed a scorched scent and felt a wave of heat coming through the wall.

The bathroom was on the other side of that wall. When Keplinger opened the bathroom door, a fire swept through his old house, killing almost all of the dogs.

Keplinger emptied two fire extinguishers on the blaze, to no avail. He ran to the garage to call 911 on a battery-powered phone, only to have it die as he shouted his address into the receiver.

His call at 2:14 a.m. yesterday did not go unheeded. Baltimore County police arrived within 10 minutes, and the Fire Department wasn't far behind. Firefighters forced Keplinger to wait in his car as they entered the house. They brought one dog out, then another, and another - Allie, her mother, Molly, and the little redhead, Audrey, who had just returned from the veterinarian Monday.

And then no more.

The two-alarm fire destroyed the consuming passion of Keplinger's life, the toy dogs he had bred and shown for two decades. Yesterday, sitting next to a makeshift pen with the three dogs that survived, he shook his head and said, "We were family."

The dogs on his 1-acre property ranged from little Keeper, a 3 1/2 -month-old who had just begun to impress judges on the local show circuit, to Lady, a 15-year-old who had whelped many of the dogs Keplinger bred over the years.

Gone also were Button and Cody, who once prompted a breeder to offer $10,000 on the spot. Gone were Dusky and Timara, both pregnant. Gone were the boys, Robby, Sylvester and Louie. Gone were Barbie Doll and Jody and Judy and Lori and Monica. Keplinger might not have known exactly how many dogs he had on any day, but he knew every one by name. "I know their barks," he said. "I can sit blindfolded and, just by reaching my hand down, know which one it is."

His wife added, "His dogs were known all over for having the sweetest dispositions."

Diane Johnson, founder and past president of the Pomeranian Club of Greater Baltimore, agreed. "They're very nice people who really love their dogs," said Johnson, who has known the Keplingers for about 20 years. "This is just a really sad situation."

Johnson met the Keplingers about the time they acquired their first Pomeranians, Mindy, Fox and Moby. Trudy Keplinger's mother once had a black Pomeranian, and she had always told her daughter it was one of the best breeds.

The dogs are small, 3 to 7 pounds, with foxlike faces and outgoing personalities. Keplinger said they make great watchdogs, barking only when necessary. They saved his life five years ago, by yapping when a long-inactive gas stove switched on automatically, burning plastic dishes that Keplinger had stored inside. His dogs also went off when they heard a smoke alarm, live or on television.

Yesterday, they apparently didn't have time to respond to the alarm. Keplinger hopes that most of the dogs died of smoke inhalation, but he can't be sure. Firefighters needed until 4:45 a.m. to put out the fire. Relatives and friends then began cleaning up the debris, as Keplinger was too overwrought.

"It is grisly," said his son-in-law, Ron P. Bailey of Shrewsbury, Pa.

The roof on the green, aluminum-sided house had partly collapsed, dumping insulation over the tiny bodies, many still in their pens. One dog had made it outside, only to die under a tree by the door.

"The only thing that could be worse is cleaning up after a nursery with dead babies in it," Bailey said. "[But] it would be worse for him, because he knows each and every one."

Keplinger was in violation of county zoning laws, which state that anyone with more than three adult dogs has to obtain a permit. But Charlotte Crenson-Murrow, supervisor of the animal control division of the county health department, said her office had not investigated the residence because it never received complaints.

Keplinger said he will continue to breed and show Pomeranians, but not on the same scale. He holds on to the hope that one more dog might have escaped the fire. Neighbors reported seeing a small cream-colored dog running through the woods.

That would be Alvin, Molly's brother, Keplinger said.

Sun staff writer Joan Jacobson contributed to this article.

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