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Can These Dogs Be Saved?

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Brittney Perry’s school day is done, and now it’s time to feed the dogs. Since there are 540 of them, it will take a while. For eight months, Brittney, 11, and about a dozen other fellow students from Dalhart in northwestern Texas have gone from kennel to kennel at the 2½-acre DAWGS rescue shelter and slid bowls of dog food under the wet noses of just about every mixed breed imaginable. What’s hard to tell is who’s enjoying it more—the mutts or the kids. “It’s rewarding to see all these dogs wagging their tails at you,” says Brittney. “I’d like to keep doing this way past high school.”

She may not get the chance. Started in March 2003 by grade-school teacher Diane Trull, DAWGS—short for the Dalhart Animal Wellness Group and Sanctuary—has taken in some 3,000 stray and abandoned dogs and, remarkably, placed 2,500 of them in homes or other sanctuaries. With its rows of large chain-link kennels topped by barbed wire, the facility is basic, but “the dogs are in wonderful condition,” says Faith Maloney, director of Best Friends, one of the country’s largest private animal sanctuaries. “We see a lot of dogs and a lot of shelters, and the Trulls are doing a fantastic job.” Yet despite the shelter’s success in saving animals, Dalhart city officials have ordered that it move by the beginning of March, citing complaints about excessive barking. If no new location is found, the shelter must shut down. “If s a noise issue,” explains Mayor Kevin Cadell, who says barking disrupts funerals at the nearby city cemetery and can be heard in adjacent neighborhoods. “The location is unsuitable for the number of dogs they have, and the city doesn’t have another location for them.”

But Trull, 50, believes officials want to build a railroad spur on the city property that now houses DAWGS and have no interest in working out a solution (officials say the spur will be built near but not through the shelter site). “We’re teaching children that they can make a difference, and the city is saying what we’re doing doesn’t matter,” says Trull, who runs the shelter with her husband, Mark, 51, a director for an agribusiness company, and their daughter Katie, 22 (they also have a son, Tyler, 19). “Everyone says they like what we’re doing; they just don’t want us around them.” So far the city has blocked DAWGS from moving to a spot near the airport—a site it originally suggested—this time blaming safety concerns about dogs getting loose on runways. “I wish we had a plan,” says city council member Paul Henderson. “We’re hoping as much as they are that they find a piece of land.”

Trull got the idea for DAWGS after showing her class a newspaper article about another shelter. “Mrs. Trull,” one student asked, “are they going to kill those puppies?” Yes, she answered, unless they find homes. Then the student asked, “Can we do something about it?” The Trulls got the city to let them use the land for free and—with their own money and donations—set up a no-kill sanctuary that would house dogs until they were adopted. Before DAWGS, Dalhart euthanized some 600 dogs a year. The biggest surprise, though, was how much local students—who clean kennels and feed and water the animals—love volunteering at the shelter. “I come here almost every day,” says Jesse Brunmeier, 11, once a shy, quiet boy who by his family’s account has blossomed since starting there (his title, he proudly relates, is TLC Coordinator). “I just love the dogs, and this is way more fun than other stuff.”

The Trulls have been offered locations outside of Texas, but “we haven’t even considered that,” says Diane, who says leaving town would not solve Dalhart’s unwanted-dog problem. She’s also determined to preserve the touching friendships that have developed between dogs starved for love and children eager to give it. “Every single one of these dogs has a name,” she says. “Maybe not the same name from kid to kid, but they all have a name.”

Alex Tresniowski. Chad Love in Dalhart