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Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

One Woman's Dogged Effort

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Dawn Thompson walks across the back porch of the house in Falconer, N.Y., where she lives and operates a canine rescue. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

FALCONER, N.Y.--A cat with a shattered voice that sounded more like a dove's coo than a purr kept her distance as eight or so dogs charged out of Dawn Thompson’s house and into her backyard.

The cat had been thrown from a car. And in their own ways, many of the dogs, too, had been broken.

There was Duke, a small mutt that was brought to Thompson after his owner moved into an apartment that didn't allow pets. Duke walked slowly through the yard, trailing the other dogs. Then there was Ringo, a chihuahua and rat terrier mix that survived an illness that felled his siblings. He jumped high for attention. Diesel, a black lab and rottweiler mix, ran wildly through the yard as if he knew he didn't need to beg to be noticed. The only large dog among a pack of small ones, he usually plays the role of peacekeeper, breaking up spats among the other dogs. He was the only pup from a litter of 10 to survive after Thompson found his mother wandering in the streets so emaciated, she didn’t look pregnant.

“This is the real travesty, the thing people can’t see,” Thompson said. “Sure you know your neighbor lost his job, but do you know your neighbor just gave up three pups and they’re here at Dawn’s?”

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These puppies were only weeks old when Dawn Thompson got a call saying the shelter could not keep them because they had not yet been weaned from their mother. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael and I ended up at Dawn’s Canine Rescue, which Thompson runs out of her home in Falconer in upstate New York, after reading a letter she wrote to her local newspaper. We had been eating dinner in a nearby town when we saw it. She had saved 2,000 animals over 19 years, she wrote, but she could no longer do it. The increased number of abandoned dogs, combined with new local health ordinances that were increasing her costs, was “too much for one person to handle, both physically, emotionally, and financially,” she wrote. She was done.

When Thompson first started the rescue mission, she envisioned she would take in eight to 10 dogs at a time, a small enough number that each could be spoiled--even within the hours left over after her day job in the office of a motor shop. By 2005, she was taking care of about 20 to 30, which was a strain, but manageable. Then the recession hit and pets that once fit comfortably into their owners’ lives and budgets no longer did. Dogs that had been cherished suddenly became a burden, disposable. Thompson said she has come home from work to find dogs tied to trees, tossed over her fence and left on the street for her to discover.

On the day Michael and I visited, she had 37 dogs, 14 puppies and 17 cats.

“Something has to be done,” Thompson said. She doesn't allow herself to consider limiting the number of animals she takes in, especially because the official shelter euthanizes animals. “You can’t with all that’s going on in the world today. I mean, I could, but how many would die?”

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Many of the small dogs jumped high to get attention as they played in Dawn Thompson's yard. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Yet, the 49-year-old doesn’t know if she and her husband, Wayne, can afford to keep doing it. Because they are not a legally-recognized non-profit, she gets no grants or funding. She estimates that she spends about $16,000 a year of her $24,000 salary on veterinarian bills, licensing costs and dog food, among other expenses. The couple, who have two grown children, have blown through their savings, taken out a second mortgage and depleted Dawn’s retirement fund. They also lost their homeowners insurance because of the number of dogs at the house.

And then there's the strain it has placed on their marriage.

“At first he was tolerant,” Dawn said of Wayne. “But he hates that everything he wants to do he has to do by himself.”

By the time she finishes all the chores -- feeding, playing and cleaning -- she gets to bed after 2 a.m. and is up at 6 a.m. to do it again before going to work. She said she stopped making dinner long ago and vacations are unheard of.

“You know the thing I miss the most -- you can’t dress up, you can’t look nice,” she said. “People don’t realize when you do this the right way, you have to give up everything. You have to give up normality.”

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When Dawn Thompson gets home from work, she's greeted by the canines she's rescued. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

No, it’s not fair to Wayne, she said.

The other day, he was stung by bees while lifting a dog house and passed out several times before the ambulance arrived. When the paramedics asked her if she wanted to go with him to the hospital, Dawn said all she could say was, “How can I?”

“I’ve got dogs to put back in the kennel. I’ve got dogs to put back in the kitchen,” she said “There is no spontaneous.”

Wayne Thompson, 53, said he understands why his wife started the canine rescue and why she can’t stop.

“They don’t have jobs,” he said. “They can’t take care of themselves. You can’t just forget them.”

Still, it’s reached a critical point, beyond what two people can handle, he said. It’s gotten out of control. He grinds bearings for a living and recently switched to the night shift not only because the couple needs the extra money, but because someone should be home during the day to care for the dogs.

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These two dogs wait their turn as a group of dogs crowd a bowl of food nearby. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“It doesn’t matter if it’s 95 degrees outside or 15 below zero, you have to do it everyday,” Wayne said. “Did you notice the roofs?”

The roofs on the outdoor kennels, as well as those on a barn and milk house on the property, caved in during the last snow storm. Thompson said he tried to shovel every day, “but I just couldn’t keep up.”

It’s why Dawn won’t let herself feel sick. There's no time. She recently agreed to have surgery on her thyroid only after the doctors said she could go home the same night to take care of the animals the next day. She also has Crohn’s disease and needs to have about 18 inches of her small intestine removed, but she’s been delaying the surgery.

“When were you supposed to have it?” I asked.

“Probably a year ago,” Wayne answered for her.

“I’ve been putting off my next test only because I know he’s going to want to schedule surgery,” she said.

There's no time, she said. More dogs are being abandoned and fewer are being adopted.

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Leashes outnumber coats on a rack outside Dawn Thompson's house. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Inside the house, a dog named Smiley peeked his head out of a fenced-off area where some newer arrivals are kept. Thompson had shaved Smiley because he was dropped off with matted hair that extended down to the ground. Behind him, a small black mutt stood on a cage, watching the three of us closely. “He was dropped off heart worm positive and had convulsions,” Thompson said. “Now, he’s terrified of people.”

Most people probably expect a pungent odor and chaotic scene to hit them when they walk into Thompson's home. But it was clean and orderly. When a cacophony of barks broke out, Thompson zeroed in on the troublemaker and yelled “Jefferson! Amazingly, every pooch quieted down.

“We make sure we keep it at a dull roar,” she said.

It helps, she added, that she has a system in place aimed at housebreaking and socializing dogs before they ever come into the house.

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The oldest dog at the rescue farm is named, appropriately, "Old Man." Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

The newest arrivals are placed on a concrete floor in the barn. (On the day we visited, we saw a cage of puppies that Thompson took in after a shelter called to say they couldn’t keep them because they were only weeks old and needed to be fed by hand). The next stage involves moving the dogs to an outdoor area with a hay floor. (We saw a mother and four of her pups in this area. There had been seven, but Thompson found homes for three). Finally, when the dogs are ready, Thompson said the smaller ones will move into the house and the larger ones will go to a kennel area outside.

She grabbed three bags of dog food and led Michael and me to the kennels.

In one cage, we saw Shelby, a collie that has diabetes and takes medicine to control seizures. In another, a dog named Hooch walked in circles around and around, a metal bowl in his mouth. He stopped only occasionally to see if anyone was looking. Across the yard was a dog appropriately named Old Man. He was given up at age 10 and has been with Thompson for five years.

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Dawn said this pooch named Hooch was probably mistreated and underfed. He carries a metal bowl in his mouth all day long. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Thompson usually spends hours in the kennel area, cleaning cages late into the night, but because we were there, she took a rare break. She scooped a cat named Trouble into her arms and sat on the porch with him. He is the son of the cat with the broken voice, born just hours after her mother was tossed from the window.

“My little dove,” Thompson said of the mother.

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This cat, named Psycho, uses Michael's camera bag as a scratching post. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

She knows some people will never understand why she keeps up the rescue effort despite the strain on her health, finances and marriage. She expects there will be people who criticize her for not dedicating that energy to taking care of human beings. But she’s been a foster mother to five children and housed exchange students. She said she knows where she is needed.

“People say, ‘Why do you waste your life?’” Thompson said. “But you don’t know what it’s like until you’re taking one that’s broken and you fix it and it goes to this forever home.”

As we sat there talking, watching Trouble nuzzle up to her, Michael and I got the sense that despite her letter, she probably wouldn't stop the rescue effort anytime soon -- that she couldn't, even if she knew she should.

“I can’t worry about the future when these guys don’t have a tomorrow,” she said.

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Dawn Thompson with a cat named Trouble that was born after his mother was thrown from a car. Only two kittens in the litter of five survived. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  September 16, 2009; 3:12 PM ET
 
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Comments

I had the pleasure of stumbling across Dawn a few years ago while looking for a family dog on Pet Finder. A dog that looked promising was recently transferred to her home from Kentucky and she agreed to let me visit. It was our lucky day... Maggie, our Walker Coonhound, has brought love and laughter into our lives, as well as more than a few funny stories. We've kept in touch over the years and her continuous respect, support and love for animals is an inspiration. Thank you for bringing attention to the plight of these animals and the woman who loves them.

Posted by: lisa_callaghan | September 16, 2009 8:47 PM | Report abuse

I adopted my wonderful dog, Stanley from Dawn. She drove to North Carolina to resuce him and other puppies that were left to die at a garbage dump. She hand fed him with a special diet because he could not eat regularly due to the cruel treatment he received before his rescue. Stanley is now a 110lb beautiful, healthy boy. He has never shown signs of agression, and is a cuddly, well behaved dog that thinks he's a lapdog. Dawn is a true caregiver that has dedicated her life to rescuing these defenseless animals and finding them the safe, caring homes that they deserve.

Posted by: lorimclark | September 16, 2009 9:20 PM | Report abuse

I am proud to call Dawn Thompson a friend. I have known her for almost seven years, and her dedication and love never ceases to amaze me. I have adopted from her, received help from her, and worked alongside her and I have yet to meet a more kind hearted person. Dawn is an angel and will never know how much she touches the lives of everyone she meets. I only wish I could live closer to her and help carry on her legacy when she is too tired. Everyone should be lucky enough to meet Dawn Thompson at least once in their lifetime...

Posted by: dreafish | September 17, 2009 2:57 AM | Report abuse

I have adopted two dogs from Dawn's Canine Rescue. My Zoe and Abigail were both dogs that were in Dawn's care when I found them and needed love, attention and patience. I have the greatest respect for Dawn and would highly recommend adopting a rescue dog when you are in search of a dog for your family. Both Zoe and Abigail have turned out to be the best dogs anyone could ask for. If you are considering adopting an animal, please consider contacting Dawn's Canine Rescue or another local rescue.

Posted by: kjwoloszyn | September 17, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Like others who have been fortunate enough to come into contact with Dawn, I too recently adopted a wonderful new puppy from her rescue, and in doing so, I gained a friend. Upon getting to know Dawn, what I am most impressed with is her generosity of spirit and purity of intent. The animals that find their way to her are met with unconditional love and attention. She knows each dog or cat thoroughly and understands their individual needs. This type of care takes great time, effort and money - all of which are quickly being depleted; this is a great responsibility for one person, despite the unswerving dedication that exemplifies Dawn. I suggest we put our money where our mouth is and donate whatever we can (time as a foster parent? financial resources?) to Dawn's rescue operation (see Dawn's Canine Rescue homepage and iGive.com). I would hate to think that at some point in the near future she won't be able to do the important work she is doing right now. And what a loss that would be for all of us - animals and humans alike.

Posted by: itslydia | September 17, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

I adopted Tanner in 2005 just as a little rolly polly puppy. Dawn had just brought him and his mom and brother to NY from Indiana, yeah all that way, and how lucky I was that day to be there to meet my Tanner. I couldn't believe she goes everywhere to help these poor animals. Dawn is an inspiration to me and should be to everyone, faced with so much adversity she continues to help the animals that can't help themselves, and put them first. If anyone deserves a Million Dollars, she's it. I am a strong believer in adoption of pets and I thank Dawn so much for everything she has done and anyone looking to rescue a pet should contact Dawns Canine Rescue.

Posted by: Blessed5 | September 17, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

I found Dawn through Pet Finder. From my first phone call I knew that this woman rescues these animals from the heart. I knew that I was going to adopt our new dog from her. I noticed on Pet Finder that most people want a large adoption fee which made me feel as though I was buying a dog and not rescuing one. After speaking with Dawn, I knew she was different. We will be getting my puppy from her very soon and we can't wait! She is so careful to make sure that the puppies are healthy before she will let them go.

Dawn has been doing this for years, she is ill and has no help and I know she must be extremely tired but yet she keeps going. I love the fact that she is so devoted to saving the lives of these animals. Dawn doesn't get any donations and pays for everything out of her own pocket. It's very rare to meet people like this!

Posted by: rt57413 | September 17, 2009 7:00 PM | Report abuse

I would like to get the official name and address so I can send whatever I can to help out. Even if I can only send $1.00,
if 1000 people do it....well you get my point.
What a great spirit this woman must have..

Posted by: mariahkody | September 18, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Dawn sounds like a very uncommon human being. But I also have to say that her husband, who may not necessarily share her obsession in this regard, also deserves a lot of admiration for allowing his life to be taken over like this. I just hope that Dawn has some way to require that her adopters will have their pets spayed or neutered because, otherwise, what good are all her efforts doing if her dogs are going out to new homes and then just reproducing and creating more "extra" dogs who will end up needing this kind of emergency care.Rescuing individual dogs in distress is a great gift to those dogs but there must be a concurrent effort to curb the overpopulation of dogs. Our shelters are full and there are too many dogs without good homes.

Posted by: mona1950 | September 18, 2009 5:25 PM | Report abuse

I have also adopted a dog from Dawn's Canine Rescue 'Jan 05' (rottweiler/lab mix) her name is Brandy. Dawn acquired Brandy and her brother after the owners moved, leaving the puppies in the barn without food or water. A neighbor called Dawn and asked if she could pick them up and take them to her rescue. I originally didn't want a puppy and was going to adopt one of her full grown rotts. Dawn and I were discussing the adoption on the phone and after asking me a few questions regarding my neighborhood and lifestyle, she told me the puppy would be a much better choice. Five years later, I still have the best dog in the world, a very good friend and not to mention the doggie hotline, if I have any problems with either of my dogs Thanks to Dawn. I think it's about time we through her a bone!
I know times are very tuff but if all of us animal lovers just send her $10.00 that would help her stay open for the rest of the year maybe. If you can afford to send more that is wonderful, if you can only send $1.00 that's O K too. Every little bit will help. How about some help from the big name people, are you out here? Make your donation payable to Dawn Thompson. Mail to Dawn's Canine Rescue; 3710 Ross Mills Rd; Falconer, NY 14733. Submitted by Paul Lakeman; Buffalo, NY 14213.

Posted by: pjlak747 | September 19, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

I'm another grateful companion of a dog I adopted from Dawn's at the beginning of this year. I knew that many people are giving up their animals due job loss, etc. and wanted to help. "Gizmo" is also a great companion for the other rescue dog I'd gotten last year---they keep each other company. They have been great support as I'm going through a divorce; better than any therapist on earth! Please support Dawn's efforts. Educate your friends and neighbors about responsible pet care. Fight for animal protection laws in your community. Help support animal rescue efforts in your town and county. Dawn is a star, and role model for us all, but she can't be in every town & carry this burden alone.

Posted by: Cusegirl | September 22, 2009 7:07 AM | Report abuse

Dawn provides a wonderful service - not just for the dogs and cats she rescues but for us humans too. The puppy we got from Dawn (by searching PetFinder on the 'net) earlier this year is a great family addition. I don't know how she does what she does and like someone else said - kudos to her husband too whose life has been just as altered as Dawn's by the work she does. and she did not charge as much as other dog rescue groups. I plan to send her a little money again now, but I so hope that many people will do the same, it could help her to keep going. Sure sounds like she could use several volunteers and only wish I lived closer.

Posted by: Begonias | September 22, 2009 7:08 PM | Report abuse

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