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Terminally ill dogs find care, comfort in Texas

By MAGGIE KIELY

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) — It had been a long journey for two rescued pit bulls with terminal cancer by the time they arrived at the Aggieland Animal Health Center in College Station.

The trip was the most recent adventure of Wyatt and Cookie Monster — a 23-hour ride with a 26-year-old Californian who volunteers to transport rescued pits facing certain death to places they won't be killed.

And then the experience before that: Life with their owners, the unknown part of their stories.

But the ending is known and, although it's a terminal one, it's a happy one.

"They'll be in a home, not a shelter, not a kennel, not a crate. In a home," said April Plemons, vice president of Long Way Home Animal Sanctuary and Pit Bull Rescue in College Station. "They're going to die being loved. The last three to six months of Wyatt's life will probably be the best of his six or seven years of living."

Days ago, Wyatt and Cookie Monster, or "Cookie," were in a California animal shelter, unaware that they'd soon be in College Station living it up in their new foster homes.

The shelter in California — the Santa Paula Animal Rescue Center, which attempts to run a no-kill program — reached out to Long Way Home in February in hopes they'd find homes for Wyatt and Cookie, whom veterinarians have given up to a year to live.

Long Way Home Sanctuary works to rescue animals that otherwise are deemed unadoptable. The facilities are located off Texas 30, where there are about six or seven cats, two horses, eight or so rabbits and guinea pigs, and around 20 dogs.

But that's not where Wyatt and Cookie were headed.

Wyatt, the smaller and squarer of the two dogs, with a reddish coat and a friendly disposition, wagged his tail inside an exam room at the animal center Friday while standing near his new owner, Andrea Kuhnle.

As evident from the many scars on his face, neck and body, Wyatt was used as a bait dog by someone who organized dog fights. His teeth had been pulled, which Plemons said was done to keep him from fighting back. And at some point not too long ago, someone left him on the side of the road with a rope around his neck.

Cookie, meanwhile, "landed the jackpot," Plemons said. "He is going to be living in the home of our president, Gwen (Inocencio)."

The spotted white pit bull, age 5, seemed a bit drained Friday from his trip, but didn't turn down a chance to be petted by the many there to greet him.

Less is known about Cookie than Wyatt, but shelter officials in California said he and his sister were abandoned when his owner discovered he had severe skin cancer.

Wyatt's new mama, Kuhnle, who works at Aggieland Animal Health Center, has been looking to get a larger dog that she'd feel comfortable leaving around her two small dogs. She said she's found her match in Wyatt.

"From what I've seen, he's pretty perfect," the 24-year-old told The Eagle (http://bit.ly/115hcDF ). "I know it's not ideal to get (a dog) knowing he's terminal, but I couldn't stand the thought of him being left in a shelter to die."

Just talking about the fact that her new pup would die relatively soon brought tears to her eyes.

"I know I'm going to be heartbroken but at least I'll know he went being loved," she said.

Justin Weilein, a 26-year-old Californian, was the middle man between Long Way Home and the California shelter.

He left the West Coast on Wednesday and split the trip into two parts, stopping in Phoenix the first night and Austin the second.

"They were great," he said of his passenger pit bulls. "Cookie would let me know when he needed to use the restroom. And Wyatt slept in the bed with me last night."

Weilein is a paramedic in his day job, and in his free time he's helping rescue pit bulls from euthanasia by driving them from a kill shelter to a no-kill shelter or, preferably, a home.

He said he started the transports about a year ago and has done about 10. The longest was a 36-hour drive to the Canadian border, which he and a friend drove straight by taking turns at the wheel.

"I'm just glad there are people out here that respect dogs the way this organization does," he said. "The most amazing part to me is these two organizations coming together."

Plemons said Weilein is strictly a volunteer, meaning he doesn't get reimbursed for gas or other travel expenses.

"I had fun," Weilein said about his road trip with his pit bull buddies. "I will miss them."

Plemons, who's working on her Ph.D. in sociology at Texas A&M and teaches the subject at Sam Houston State University, began working with Long Way Home in 2011 after hearing about Esperanza, one of two pit bulls found in 2011 in a roadside ditch in rural Brazos County, where they'd been left to die after being severely burned.

Like Wyatt, Esperanza was used as a bait dog and was covered in bite marks.

Despite the inhumane treatment she received, the female pit bull showed no signs of aggression or human resentment, those who know her well say.

"If you want to learn about forgiveness, go meet that dog," said Suzanne Laughlin, a College Station animal lover. "Anything that can go through that kind of suffering at the hands of humans but still wants to lick your face ... it's amazing."

Laughlin and her daughter, Victoria, 19, were among the group of Wyatt and Cookie supporters who'd gathered at the animal center to welcome the West Coast pups.

They'd decorated posters for the occasion and held them high as the dogs and their transporter pulled into the parking lot where they were greeted.

Like Plemons, the Laughlins said they started supporting Long Way Home after hearing about Esperanza.

Victoria Laughlin, an A&M Consolidated High School graduate who drove from Houston for the welcoming event, said that, through stories like that of Wyatt and Cookie, she hopes people will see that pits aren't the aggressive, ferocious animals they're often portrayed to be.

"They are strong and people know that, and they also want to please their owners," she said.

Suzanne Laughlin continued, "And that can be used for the wrong purposes."

Plemons said dogs with similar features are often misidentified as pit bulls by the media and others, leading to an increased negative perception.

For example, the rescue dog that bit the Denver news anchor's face on live TV in February 2012 — a video of the episode was picked up by local and national media outlets and went viral online — was reported by many to be a pit bull, but actually was a Dogo Argentino.

But until pit bull advocates are able to prove the stereotype wrong, Plemons said, the breed — or any dog that looks enough like it — will continue to be the most-euthanized at animal shelters across the country.

"There are so many, we can't save them all," she said.

Facebook has become a powerful tool for pit bull rescuers, Plemons said. Cases of healthy and adoptable pit bulls with only days to live before being put down are posted on the social media site in hopes of finding the pooch a new home, or even space at a no-kill shelter.

Long Way Home Sanctuary is dependent on donations and can always use more volunteers, Plemons said.

Anyone wanting to help can find out how by visiting its website, http://mylongwayhome.org, or by searching for Long Way Home Sanctuary on Facebook.

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Information from: The Eagle, http://www.theeagle.com

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