By Sydney Page
Callie Clemens was about to fall asleep when she saw an emergency message on Facebook. She sprang out of bed and into her car.
The message said that a tiny black puppy was spotted scurrying across a road in Spring Branch, a neighbourhood in Houston where she lives.
Whimpers were also heard from inside a nearby storm drain, so there was likely more than one puppy stuck down there.
Clemens, a mom of six-year-old twin sons, is known in the Houston area for rescuing animals. She has saved dogs, cats and occasionally possums and raccoons. Over the past eight years, she estimates she has saved at least 100 animals, often with the help of her own four-year-old rescue dog, Giselle.
"She is really good at sniffing things," Clemens said. "She's a smart girl."
Moments after Clemens was alerted to the puppy situation around 11pm on July 26, she drove straight to the scene.
Once there, she heard desperate dog noises from underground echoing through a storm drain.
She grabbed one of her son's toy flashlights that was in her car, pulled a metal grate off the drain, and shimmied down.
"I wasn't very well-equipped," Clemens said. "I was not expecting to go into the drain."
But nobody else was around, and puppies were stuck in there.
"Somebody's got to do it," she said.
After she lowered herself down the drain, she said she crawled through a 24-inch by 10-foot cockroach-infested tunnel, then reached an area where she could crouch and search. It was roughly 700 yards of pitch black.
"I heard splashing. I had my flashlight, and I could see two sets of eyes looking at me, and then they ran off," Clemens said, explaining that she probably frightened the dogs. "They were crying."
Clemens isn't sure how the puppies got stuck in the storm drain. There is an opening where they could have slipped through, though she suspects somebody might have put them in there intentionally.
"I don't know if they fell down there," she said.
The person who initially notified her about the stray pups also contacted the local SPCA, and staff arrived around midnight, also climbing into the drain. Clemens worked with them until 3 am to try to track down the dogs.
"We searched end to end, side to side," Clemens said.
It wasn't Clemens's first time going down a storm drain to save an animal. She co-manages the "Lost & Found Pets of Spring Branch & Spring Valley" Facebook page, and she runs Paws off the Streets, an outreach programme to support local animals in need.
They were not able to find the two dogs that Clemens saw underground, but they did find one female black lab mix puppy that was roaming around outside. They rescued her from under a dumpster and the SPCA took her in.
Knowing there were at least two more puppies trapped below ground, Clemens was not about to give up.
Venturing down a storm drain "is terrifying" she said, "but it would never resonate with me to know that I left an animal in there to starve and suffer."
She went home for a few hours of sleep, then straight back to the storm drain. Several volunteers joined her.
"The next day we had a whole crew out there from sun-up to sundown," she said, adding that city workers also came, and a local engineer drew a map of the drain system.
Emily Daniels, a Houston-based independent animal rescuer, showed up to help, as well, and offered to go underground with Clemens.
"If you're going in the storm drain, I'll go, too," Daniels, 39, told Clemens. "We all work together."
After several hours of searching, they finally found a tiny black pup that escaped from the storm drain.
While Clemens was still underground, she said, other volunteers above ground saw the dog standing outside a small tunnel at one exit of the drain. He then scurried under a nearby fence.
"We were very excited," said Clemens, adding that the male puppy had parasites and ringworm. They named him Timmy, and he was taken to a city pound, before he was transferred to a foster home on Aug. 1.
Clemens is an animal lover, and said she became a rescuer because of the overpopulation of stray animals in Houston - which has become a public safety issue. People in the Houston area have been afraid and concerned about violent packs of dogs.
Puppy dumping is a major problem in the city and elsewhere in the country, Clemens said, explaining that many breeders whose supply exceeds the demand "dump them and make them other people's problems."
Local rescuers like Clemens are inundated with urgent calls.
"What I do is just a small piece of what tons of people do here," she said.