One day, a woman from Dalhart, Texas, went to her local animal shelter to report her beloved black lab as missing. When animal control notified the woman that her dog was found dead after being hit by a car she was devastated. She grieved for a year before summoning up the strength to visit an animal rescue to search for another companion. The woman visited the Dalhart Animal Welfare Group and Sanctuary (DAWGS ‘N Texas)—a no-kill animal rescue deep in the Texas panhandle—and met with co-founder Diane Trull. As the two walked through the kennel they heard urgent whining and barking a few rows away. Curious, Diane went to check on the situation and was surprised to see a normally calm and quiet dog jumping up, crying, pacing, and acting excited. The woman followed Diane and when she saw the dog making all the commotion, she was shocked to see that it was her missing dog—the one she was told had died a year earlier. The woman quickly ran to the dog, and the pair was happily reunited. Animal control had confused the woman’s dog with another, and Diane happened to pull this dog from the overcrowded shelter before she was euthanized. As Diane recalled, “It was an unforgettably happy day—one of those moments when you are reminded of why you work so hard for the animals and those who love them.”
“Why do they have to die?”
The number of companion animals in crisis in the United States is staggering. Six to eight million dogs and cats enter animal shelters each year, and half of them will die there. For many animal lovers these statistics can feel overwhelming. The thought of innocent animals suffering and dying is too painful, and feeling powerless to help all of them can lead to frustration and hopelessness, which results in inaction. But in Dalhart, Texas, Diane Trull and the others who work for DAWGS have channeled those feelings into meaningful action by rescuing homeless animals and providing them with food, veterinary care, and socialization, and finding them loving, permanent homes. And they do it all while educating the youngest generation about the importance of empathy, responsibility, and teamwork.
Like many people who work in animal rescue, Diane Trull never set out to start an animal shelter. But she believes she was called to do this work, and she answered the call. Trull worked as a fourth-grade reading teacher and always encouraged her students to read the newspaper and ask questions about things they didn’t understand. When several students read an article about homeless animals being euthanized they asked Trull, “Why do they have to die?” Trull discussed the issue as delicately as possible, which prompted the children to follow up with, “Is there anything we can do?” Rather than discouraging the children with the sobering reality of animal homelessness, Trull decided to empower the children and show them that by helping even just one animal they would be able to make a difference. This sentiment is echoed in the Starfish story, which served as an inspiration for DAWGS and reminds us that we each have the power to make a difference in the lives of others. Even a seemingly insurmountable problem like animal homelessness can be solved when people work together.
Struggle Leads to Progress
In March 2003, Trull and 28 fourth-grade students went to the Dalhart City Council and made a plea to rescue the animals that were slated for euthanasia at the city pound. The council approved the request, and DAWGS officially became an animal rescue. The group began with only a three-car garage and a small garden. The children worked before and after school walking, feeding, and socializing the animals. The rescue quickly outgrew the garage and moved to a location provided by the city, an old abandoned slaughterhouse situated on two acres of land where homeless dogs were once barbarically used as target practice. However, in 2007, the resolve and commitment of Trull and her students was tested as local politics intervened and the rescue was forced to move yet again. With an eviction notice threatening the lives of the hundreds of animals now in DAWGS’ care, staff members and volunteers worked day and night through a harsh Texas blizzard to move the animals to their current location, just outside Dalhart city limits. They housed the animals in tents and dogloos until permanent shelters could be constructed. And although the tight deadline and harsh weather conditions stacked the odds against them, the staff and volunteers of DAWGS got all the animals safely moved.
Including children in the creation and operation of the shelter is unique. Most shelters encourage adults to become volunteers but won’t allow children to take part because of insurance implications. As a result, many children don’t fully understand the nature of the animal homelessness problem or what it takes to solve it. As Trull admits, “A lot of shelters don’t want children in there because of the potential danger, and they are missing out on these wonderful people that they can help become wonderful citizens some day…We continue to actively promote the involvement of children in our work as they are our future and will truly make the difference.” Of course, DAWGS is aware of the potential dangers and is careful to keep the children safe. The kids are trained, are constantly supervised, and are only allowed to handle animals that have been temperament tested.
DAWGS usually houses between 750 and 800 animals; however, the rescue is currently at maximum capacity and is caring for more than 900 animals. As Trull explains, “It’s been a really tough several months. We took in over 150 dogs due to a horrible hoarding/abuse situation, and a large amount of puppies are being surrendered after the holidays.” Spring is often a busy time for rescues as unwanted animals are let loose, and pets given as holiday gifts are dumped at shelters. It is a sad annual trend experienced by both urban and rural animal rescues. Trull says she repeatedly hears the same excuses for why people neglect or surrender their animals: “Some of them were surrendered by families who had tired of them or were frustrated with them because of bad behaviors or because of economic hardships in the family. We see all the same things and hear all the same reasons. But the solution in our area is different.” Trull was referring to the cruel practice of people shooting unwanted animals or releasing them into the wilderness to fend for themselves. It is a sort of “wild west” solution honed by a community steeped in the agribusiness industry—and it has been hard to break.
Running a rural animal rescue is fraught with many ups and downs, which take an emotional toll on even the strongest of people. When asked to reflect on the rewards and challenges she has experienced, Trull hesitates and then says, “Loving and spending time with the animals is the best. The hardest is when they come in and they are seriously sick.” But a slight tremble in her voice hints that there is more to it. Diane Trull wants to save every animal and you can hear her heartbreak when she reflects on the ones that couldn’t be saved. “You see the very worst of people and the very best.”
The Impact of Spaying and Neutering
Millions of healthy, adoptable cats and dogs are euthanized every year because of animal overpopulation. Some states are trying to stop this practice. In Texas, for example, it’s a class C misdemeanor to not sterilize a female cat or dog. Nevertheless, pregnant animals and litters of kittens and puppies stream into the city pound on a daily basis, which is why rescues like DAWGS focus on population control as well as adoption. Trull explains, “One of our goals is to continue to decrease our numbers by adopting animals into forever homes and solve the problem with spaying and neutering.” Adoption addresses the current problem and prevents animals from being killed, but spaying/neutering prevents the problem in the first place. According to the Humane Society of the United States, spaying/neutering is the only permanent, 100% effective method of birth control for dogs and cats. And you only have to spay or neuter them once to stop the cycle.
DAWGS works diligently to save animals from needless euthanasia, but it also sponsors spay/neuter clinics to help control the pet population and prevent animals from entering the system. And it’s working. As Trull explains, “We’ve had several spay/neuter clinics that have significantly changed the number of litters we receive.” In 2003, DAWGS received more than 20 litters of puppies and several pregnant dogs a month. “Today,” Trull proudly states, “we average less than five litters a month and have had only three pregnant dogs in the last six months—and we rescued those from animal control.” DAWGS ensures that every animal in their care is spayed or neutered before it is available for adoption, and the statistics show that it is making an impact.
“Is there anything we can do?”
When Trull’s students asked this question, she taught them that everyone can do something to help homeless animals and each animal helped makes a difference. If you’re thinking about getting a pet, please visit your local shelter and adopt. If you can’t make the lifelong commitment to a pet, consider becoming an animal foster instead. Just hosting one animal in your home for a few days can save several lives. If you can’t have pets, you can always make a financial donation to a rescue group, or volunteer at a shelter to help walk the dogs or socialize the cats. As Trull states, “Financial donations are always needed, but a donation of your time can be equally important. Seniors and retirees can volunteer at their local shelter or rescue, and spend time with the animals. It is good for both the people and the animals.” Many shelters also ask for specific goods that can be donated such as food, toys, leashes, and collars. You can also help by being an advocate. Visit your local shelter’s website, see which animals are up for adoption, and use social media pages like Facebook and Twitter to help advertise and get an animal adopted. You might be surprised at how effective a Facebook post can be in getting the word out about an adoptable pet.
Teaching by Example
In its ten-year history, DAWGS has saved more than 8,000 animals! Under the strong leadership of Diane Trull, DAWGS illustrates the power a community has to change the world. Trull is a genuinely kind and empathetic person who cares just as much about people as she does about the animals she works tirelessly to save. Her sweet, calming voice and gentle manner is countered by a fierce determination to do what she believes is right for the animals. It hasn’t always been easy; political battles and the fierce weather of the Texas panhandle sometimes cast a bleak shadow over her work. But Trull refuses to let these obstacles distract from her mission to help animals and teach children and adults the importance of compassion and community service. Diane has said that since she retired she no longer teaches children, but we beg to differ. Every day, Trull teaches the children and adults who adopt pets or who work and volunteer at DAWGS that each and every one of us can make a difference. She teaches adults about the importance of including children so we can educate future generations about the humane treatment of animals. She teaches that animals should be loved and cared for and not shot in a field or thrown out like garbage. Diane’s fight to save animals deep in the Texas panhandle gives hope and inspiration to many people who continue to fight for the innocent animals that are at our mercy. That’s why she and the staff and volunteers at DAWGS are Inspirational Broadway Barkers!
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