What struck Rowan Elliott most about Gracie, the six-year-old bulldog, was her eyes: "They were dead, she had nothing left worth living for."
Elliott, a 21-year-old Tauranga woman, was recalling the moment she first saw Gracie and the suffering she was enduring. "She was starving, malnourished and had trouble breathing; she really had been to hell and back."
Yet today, around a year later, Gracie (one of three British bulldogs Elliott has) is healthy and thriving thanks to the love and care lavished on her. The pair have become inseparable – "she is my best mate, my soul dog."
Sadly, Gracie's story is one Elliott could easily repeat hundreds of times. Along with two other women, Siobhan Mikaere of Te Puke and Liz Proudlock of Papamoa, Elliott voluntarily runs an organisation they have called Rescue, Revive, Re-home (RRR) taking in animals who have been badly mistreated or neglected.
"We are here for the lost causes," says Elliott. "It is just the stuff we do."
The women cover vast areas to rescue animals (they have been as far afield as Taumarunui in the King Country and Whangarei in Northland) and often have to resort to paying vet and food bills out of their own pockets.
Elliott estimates they have rescued up to 1000 animals - horses, cows, guinea pigs, cats and dogs among them - in the "year and a bit" they have been operating: "The abuse and neglect we see would astound you," she says. "There is so much helplessness that people don't know about and the problem is only getting worse."
Their work was recognised this week when they received an ASB Good as Gold award, the bank giving them $10,000 to assist with their service.
"The work these three have done is invaluable," says ASB Bays and lower North Island regional manager Barry Coffey. "A lot of these animals have never have known kindness and love, but through RRR's work, they get a second chance at having a family and being taken care of. Hopefully this money will help RRR provide a second chance for many more animals."
Initially Elliott worked by herself as Rowan's Rescue for Re-homing, which she began when aged 18. Mikaere joined her after visiting Elliott to adopt a cat.
"She is a lovely lady," says Elliott, "She said she wanted to do what I was doing and I said 'why don't we do it together?' It all spiralled from there."
Proudlock made it three after she adopted eight cats from Elliott: "She also brought a massive donation of food and never left. She is an incredible lady."
Elliott has always loved animals. Growing up she spent large amounts of time on her own as her parents were often visiting her brother in hospital (he suffered from cystic fibrosis) and animals became her friends and sanctuary.
"I had a large number including rabbits, lambs, a pet rat and Pongo the cat who was blind in one eye and, at the time, was my best friend," she says.
The first cat she rescued came from a rubbish dump: "I had gone there with Dad and saw this nice cat sitting on a pile of garbage and I thought 'she doesn't need to be here'. She was heavily pregnant but we took her in and a week later she gave birth to six kittens under my bed."
She eventually re-homed the cat - with two of the kittens - to a farm and her rescue work was under way.
Elliott somehow fits it all in around two jobs. Five days a week she is employed in after school care between 1.30 and 4pm while twice a week she works a 12-hour shift through the night (6.30pm – 6.30am) as a security guard.
Working with the animals before and after work Elliott admits she doesn't get a lot of sleep: "It definitely suffers but the important thing is the animals don't suffer."
Trained how to treat sick animals by a local vet - who also assists with de-sexing, vaccinating and micro-chipping of domestic animals - the three women often look after "high-care" cases in their homes until they can be re-homed.
"I literally have fluid bags in my car to keep some of them alive while I am going to work," says Elliott. "If we don't have enough money from donations for surgeries it has to come out of our own pockets."
One of the worst cases Elliott has come across was a baby foal she was called out to. It had fallen and was left lying on its side unable to move.
"It was in horrific condition. It couldn't urinate, was bleeding internally, had snapped ribs and its organs were starting to die. It took 24-hour care for over two weeks before she could start walking." Elliott says.
RRR was nominated for the ASB award by Mt Maunganui's Kate McTainsh who, although she did not know any of the three women, had been following them on Facebook.
Meanwhile, RRR has been successful in applying for charity status and is working with lawyers on the legal processes to set this up. Elliott says the $10,000 will be used to pay for outstanding vet bills, food, hay and farrier work.