DAWGS: A True Story of Lost Animals and the Kids Who Rescued Them

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A group of 4th graders in the Texas Panhandle convince city officials to relinquish the town's homeless animals to their care rather than euthanize them. With the help of their teacher, the kids start their own animal sanctuary and work tirelessly to prove there is a solution to pet overpopulation.

Chapter 1: Out of the Mouths of Babes

Everybody’s life has its fair share of defining moments. Moments so unique they completely transform your world. I was an elementary school teacher, so you would think I’d be better prepared for those pivotal turning points. But what I’ve learned over time is, when you’re facing a truth that invites you to change the way you live, you have to make a decision. And regardless of the choice you make, your life will never be the same.

One of my life-changing moments happened in March 2003. It was Tuesday morning at Allyn Finch Intermediate School where I taught fourth-grade reading. And like every Tuesday, my students were sitting in four small groups scattered around the room, each under a different Harry Potter house crest banner that had been made from felt and suspended from the ceiling. The children were reading out loud to each other from our local newspaper, the Dalhart Daily Texan. The smell of glue and construction paper filled the classroom from the students’ just completed spring art projects.

Early in my career I learned the value of multitasking while I taught. As I was working one-on-one with Mitchell, who was reading out loud to me at my desk, I couldn’t help but notice that a small group of girls sitting near the front of the classroom wasn’t participating in the assignment. Instead, the trio was leaning over their desks looking at a photograph in the newspaper. Their small heads were huddled together, a mixture of brown and blond. I decided to wait a few more minutes before saying anything to them when they stood up and started walking toward me, newspaper in hand.

“Mrs. Trull, may we interrupt you for a minute?” Ally politely asked as Kali and Cortney stood by her side.

“Of course,” I said. “Do you have a question about the assignment?”

“No,” she said, laying out the newspaper across my desk. “We found this picture of all these dogs and puppies in the paper and we want to know what’s going to happen to them.”

An adult reading the paper would have probably overlooked the image. After all, a black-and-white photo of a crudely taped cardboard box overflowing with puppies was hardly newsworthy. But the mishmash of fuzzy round heads and fat little paws poking out in every direction from the puppy pile had drawn the girls in like a magnet.

“Well,” I said, pausing for a minute. “These dogs don’t currently have a home. Dalhart has a facility where lost animals stay until they can find a new home.”

“The caption under the photo says the dogs are available for adoption and that anybody interested in getting one should call the animal control office before Friday,” Kali added. “But what happens to the dogs after Friday?”

I didn’t know what to say and I certainly didn’t want to teach an unplanned lesson about the sobering reality of animal homelessness. So instead I encouraged them to ask their parents about adopting a dog, which would help reduce the animal overpopulation problem.

Satisfied with my answer, the girls went back to their desks and Mitchell started reading out loud to me again. But after a few minutes, Mitchell stopped when the girls reappeared.

“Mrs. Trull, we have some more questions,” Cortney said. “Where were these puppies found and who’s taking care of them?”

“Well, they were probably found somewhere around town,” I said. “And the people who work at the animal control facility where the dogs are staying now are taking care of them. Why don’t you go back to your desk and finish your reading assignment? We don’t have much time left before lunch.” I was trying to deftly divert their attention off the dogs.

As they walked away, Mitchell once again started reading to me. But before he could finish the paragraph that he had started, he informed me that the girls were heading back.

“Here they come again,” he said, slightly exasperated.

“These dogs are all so cute,” Kali continued as she held out the newspaper. “What happens if nobody takes them home?”

I’ve always encouraged my students to ask questions about things they don’t understand. But as I listened to their confusion and concern about the puppies, I was at a loss for words.

Animals have always been an important part of my life. My husband, Mark, and I were forever rescuing stray dogs and cats, making them our pets or finding them new homes. And even though I did my small part to help when I could, I was painfully aware, like most other animal lovers, of the overwhelming problem of homeless animals.

As a result, my struggle right then was real. Should I risk telling my students the truth about stray animals or should I assure them that the dogs would be adopted, even though I knew they probably wouldn’t be? As much as I hated being the bearer of bad news, I realized I had no other choice.

“All across the country, there’s a problem with animal overpopulation,” I began. “Unfortunately, we have the same problem here in Dalhart. There are too many cats and dogs compared to the number of families that want pets. Instead of allowing the animals to run loose and become sick or injured, animal shelters are safe places where they can stay and see if somebody will adopt them and give them a new home.”

The girls nodded their heads, following my seemingly sage and adult logic.

“But most of the shelters are so overcrowded the animals can only stay for a short time,” I continued. “If nobody adopts them within a few days, then, sadly, they are put to sleep.”

I cringed a little as I said those last three words. I am an animal advocate, and it bothers me that such a nice little term is used to describe something so ugly.

The group became very still when my words sunk in. Nobody said anything for several seconds. The incomprehension of this heinous crime showed on their young faces.

Kali’s green eyes widened in disbelief, and she broke the silence. “So you mean the dogs are killed just because they don’t have somebody to care for them?”

“How can that be right?” Cortney challenged. “People shouldn’t be able do that to them. It’s not the dogs’ fault that they don’t have homes.”

When you’re nine years old, it’s hard to understand that atrocities happen in the real world. It’s even harder to accept that they can happen in your own backyard.

Ally remained quiet as she continued staring at the photograph. I was afraid she was going to start crying. But she didn’t. Instead, she glanced at her classmates, took a deep breath, held it a moment, then exhaled.

“What is it, Ally?” Cortney asked.

Ally turned the newspaper around so it was right-side up for us. She slowly tapped the picture with her small index finger. “I don’t want any of these dogs to die.” She spoke softly, almost in a whisper. “Isn’t there something we can do to save them?”

The question hung in the air like chalk dust floating across a ray of sunshine. It wasn’t what I had expected her to say and I hesitated with my response. The needless killing of healthy shelter animals has always been an issue for me. What should I tell the kids when the truth was so heartbreaking?

“It’s not okay to kill healthy dogs just because they don’t have a home to go to,” I finally said. “Unfortunately, this is how our society deals with the overwhelming problem of pet overpopulation. But it’s not a good solution. You say you want to do something to help the animals and I will support you in any way I can. Each of you can make a difference if this is something you really believe in.”

As a schoolteacher, I was required to follow structured lesson plans, but my personal passion has always been to inspire and encourage young children to strive for greatness and to live to their fullest potential. I knew my fourth-grade class was a compassionate bunch, and I knew the girls’ concern for the homeless animals was genuine.

It took Ally’s simple and heartfelt plea to set the wheels in motion. Over the next several days, I talked to the entire class about what we could do to help the dogs. A lot of my students were deeply troubled by the thought of any innocent animal being put down. They were not content to leave the fate of these unwanted dogs to the city. They wanted to turn their concern into action.

Looking back, I’m still not sure which one of my students suggested starting our own animal sanctuary. At the time, it was nothing more than one of several ideas innocently tossed out. But once spoken, this particular spark lit the imagination of most of my students and quickly turned into a flame that took on a life of its own.

Later that evening, I was having dinner with Mark, as well as our son, Tyler, who was a junior in high school, and our daughter, Katie, who was attending college in Kansas but was home visiting for a few days. One of the most important lessons I’d learned as a teacher was to seek my family’s counsel regarding some of my class projects to make sure I wasn’t biting off more than I could chew. I told them about my students’ desire to start an animal shelter to save the city’s homeless dogs.

“Do you think it’s a crazy idea?” I asked them.

“Not at all,” Mark said. “I think this will be a great activity for the kids. It will be an opportunity to teach them about compassion, empathy, and giving back to the community. These are great life skills that they can use, and, at the same time, they’ll be helping to save animals. And really how many dogs can there be?”

Little did we realize how that innocent question would change our world forever.

The next day at school I told my excited students that we were moving forward with starting our own animal shelter.

“Somehow, someway, we’ve got to have our own place so we can start helping all of these poor dogs,” Cortney said. She was a soft-spoken girl with a shy smile, and she wore her emotions on her sleeve. I knew she would do anything to help these animals have a better life.

“I know we can make our shelter really special,” Kali added. She smiled, and a tiny dimple formed at the corner of her mouth. “There’s no way we’re going to let anything bad happen to any of the dogs we save.”

It was obvious that my students weren’t going to settle for anything less than helping as many animals as quickly as possible. And although I didn’t realize right then the complete impact they would have, I did have a feeling that their heartfelt efforts would result in something important.

Chapter 2: Innocent Beginnings

I once read that Agnes de Mille, an American dancer and choreographer, said that no trumpets sound when the important decisions of our life are made; rather, destiny is made known silently. Who could have imagined that a photograph of some homeless puppies would be a catalyst for causing so much commotion and change?

After we officially decided to start our own animal shelter, it became the main topic of conversation in my classroom. Every day it was the only thing my students wanted to talk about. In their innocent minds, all they wanted to do was save as many dogs as possible. They weren’t as concerned with the logistics of how to make that happen.

One afternoon after school, several of my students were helping me swap out the display on my bulletin board when the topic once again turned to rescuing animals.

“It’s so unfair that a dog might die just because it stays at the pound too long,” Alix stated as she pulled off the trim around the bulletin board. One of my twenty-five students, she loved animals and was excited at the prospect of saving some of the city’s dogs. “We’ve got to figure out some way to help them right away.”

“Do you think they’re scared being locked up in a strange place?” Kali asked. A concerned look spread across her face as she waited for my answer.

Before I could even think of a response, Molly burst into the classroom, visibly upset. While I knew that almost all children loved animals, Molly’s interest was keener than most. She had been a student of mine for the past seven months, and the entire time she had talked about wanting a dog of her own. I think everybody in our school knew how badly she wanted one.

“There you are!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

I wasn’t sure if she was speaking to me or to her classmates, but she had our full attention.

“You’re not going to believe what I just heard,” she continued. “It’s really terrible. Sadye and Sarah told me that the people at the pound sometimes take the dogs that don’t get adopted out to the shooting range and shoot them instead of putting them to sleep. Do you think that’s true? How could anybody do such a horrible thing?”

I had heard rumors that the shelter animals were sometimes used as target practice by those in law enforcement and security at the prison, but I didn’t want to believe it. Not in this day and age, and certainly not in our town.

“I don’t know if that’s true or not,” I said to my anxious group. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad things that happen in the world, even here in Dalhart. What I do know, however, is that we should focus on the positive. If you are serious about starting an animal shelter, then let’s put all our energy into that and see what good things we can make happen.”

It was in that moment when everybody’s desire to help the dogs really escalated.

The next day in class, I outlined what we would need to do to turn their idea into a reality. “I think your plan of starting an animal shelter is a good one, but before we begin, we’ll have to get approval from the school and the Dalhart City Council.”

After school was out, I approached our principal about the students’ idea. Although she was supportive of the project, she asked me to run it by the other teachers to make sure they were also onboard. Unfortunately, none of my colleagues shared our enthusiasm about rescuing the dogs, while several went as far as saying it was a terrible idea. Although I was surprised by their response, I wasn’t going to let it deter our plans. Instead, I started preparing for our presentation to the city council the next day. Since none of the children had ever been inside the council chambers, this would be a great teaching moment for them to learn how a city government operates.

“We’ll have to write a proposal that spells out our plan for how we will rescue the dogs from the city pound,” I explained. “We’ll also have to figure out how we’re going to raise money so we can care for the animals once we get them.”

The next few weeks were busy. We studied how local governments work and explored their powers and responsibilities. We also learned about the functions of city councils and how they are structured. We drafted and submitted a formal request asking to be placed on the agenda at the next Dalhart city council meeting, which was scheduled for April 9, 2003. We polished our proposal to the city, which outlined our plans for starting an animal sanctuary and rehearsed what we were going to say. I wanted to be sure my students were well prepared for the meeting.

Finally, the evening of our presentation arrived. Mark and I and twenty-eight anxious nine-year-old students stood in the lobby waiting for the meeting to start. I could tell everyone was very apprehensive. Practicing in a classroom in front of your peers is a little different from speaking in front of complete strangers. Luckily, we were first on the agenda, so we didn’t have to wait long.

“Just remember to speak from your heart and be respectful of each of the council members,” I said as I gave each child an encouraging hug. I was hoping they couldn’t see that I was as nervous as they were.

One by one, the children took turns at the microphone explaining their idea.

“There seems to be a lot of people who decide they want a dog, but when things don’t work out for some reason, they give their dog to the pound. Or, if they get tired of taking care of their pet, some people just turn it loose, which is worse.”

“Dogs have feelings just like us and each one has a special gift to give. How can it be right to kill them if the only thing they want is someone to love but they don’t have anybody to care for them? We don’t do that to homeless people, do we?”

“Our plan is simple. Instead of killing the dogs that don’t get adopted at your place, give them to us. We don’t care if they’re blind, deaf, old or sick. We don’t care if they’re big or small. We don’t even care if they have three legs or four. We’ll take good care of them until we can find new homes for them. And although we know we can’t solve all pet problems with our rescue, it’s a step. We want to start our very own no-kill animal sanctuary right here in Dalhart.”