Faint whimpers on a subzero night caught the ear of the pickup truck driver visiting the garbage dump on the edge of a northern Minnesota reservation village.
Clayton Van Wert followed the sound to one of several bins inside the fenced-off yard. The metal dumpster was in flames.
Van Wert said he pounded on the side of the dumpster and heard "howling, crying" before a puppy "emerged from the bottom."
With his gloved hands clamped onto the 4-foot-high edge of the bin, Van Wert hoisted himself up and peered down at the puppy in the trash, its fur charred a deep brown.
Van Wert plucked the discarded pooch from the bin Friday night, called for help and was still fighting back tears days later as newly named Phoenix, a husky mix, is being nursed back to health by a Twin Cities veterinarian.
"I don't believe that he got into the dumpster on his own," said Van Wert, 55, who operates a towing and auto recovery business out of his home in Redby and is a lifelong dog owner. "He had to be put in there … by a very, very sick person."
"I reached in, burned my hands and singed my hair, and grabbed him by the front legs," Van Wert said. "When I got back on the ground, he immediately started to walk."
Van Wert said he was amazed how calm and trusting the dog was toward him.
"He came over to me, and he was just like there was absolutely no fear," Van Wert said.
As he lowered a comforting hand to the rescued pup at his side, Van Wert noticed its coat looked like "a burnt marshmallow. I touched his fur, and it just disintegrated."
Van Wert called a tribal conservation officer, who arrived at the dump and delivered the dog to Red Lake Rosie's Rescue shelter on the reservation.
From there, the puppy was moved to Act V Rescue, which is based in Bloomington and routinely receives injured pets from the reservation with the ultimate goal of finding them a loving home.
Phoenix, so named by the operators of Rosie's after the mythological bird that is consumed by fire and then rises from the ashes, now splits his time between the South Hyland Pet Hospital in Bloomington and the home of Dr. Vicki Schulz, one of its veterinarians.
"Most of his hair was charred … and his feet were very swollen on the left side, and he has significant burns on his knees," said Schulz, who believes the 5-month-old dog is roughly about half the size he should be, almost certainly from malnourishment. "He either belonged to someone or is one of these pups that runs around from place to place and looks for food."
For the next two to four months, Phoenix will undergo skin grafts as part of his extensive — and expensive — treatment. Donations to the nonprofit Act V can be made at http://www.actvrescue.org on behalf of Phoenix or the other animals that the animal hospital treats pro bono.
Authorities on the reservation Monday said they have not tracked down whoever is responsible for the pup's near-death abandonment.
"We don't have cameras by the bin," said officer Kendall Kingbird, acknowledging that it will probably take a guilty conscience to break the case. "But we're still going to do what we can to find the person."