One Woman's Dogged Effort
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?”
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?”
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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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