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June 17, 1999

/ Daniel Rubin

A doomed dalmatian saved via the Net

Deaf, blind and abandoned, Tommy has new friends and a new owner.

No one had much hope for the old, deaf and blind dalmatian whose owners packed up everything in their Willingboro home but him.

Robbie Lark devotes herself to rescuing disabled dalmatians, but even she was only looking for someone to make the dog's last days more comfortable.

"I'm not sure how much time he has left, but it can't be long," the Limerick woman wrote in a plea posted on the Internet two weeks ago. "Is there anyone that lives near the Burlington County shelter that could take some treats and spend some time with this boy . . . before they put him down?"

"She wasn't asking for the moon," says Donna Reynolds of Oakland, Calif., one of more than 100 people moved by Lark's call for help. "But she got it."

Animal control found the dog yowling in his yard on June 3 and drove him to the Burlington County Animal & Rabies Control Center. The shelter has a procedure for abandoned dogs: Before any can be placed - or put to sleep - the staff tries to reach the owner by certified mail. That gives the dog at least 14 days.

Barb Giano figured those would be the dalmatian's last two weeks.

She and a friend regularly drop by the shelter in West Hampton and scout for animals that might be placeable. They post information about them on a Web site called Petfinder. When Giano saw the decrepit dog, she thought of Lark, who grew up with a deaf dalmatian.

This one was about 10 years old, well fed, with a tumor under his tail and a nose leather-tough from bumping into things.

"I have to be honest," Giano recalled. "I said, 'Robbie, he's blind. He's deaf. It kills me to see him in there, but maybe we should let this one go.' "

Lark has two deaf dalmatians of her own. The breed is prone to congenital hearing impairment, says Lark, who belongs to a national group that tries to teach people that a disabled dal can make a good companion for the right owner.

And she couldn't stop thinking about how strange the pound must seem to the disoriented hound. "My God," Lark worried. "He'll be so isolated."

So she posted her plea for visitors: "He's very friendly and sweet and well fed. He sits quietly in his cage very near the door where there is a breeze. . . . The shelter is not air conditioned."

And 112 people e-mailed her back.

Lisa Muench, a Northeast Philadelphia woman who rescues German shepherds, read about the dalmatian and brought it a burger from McDonald's on Friday.

She is one of four people who have visited the dog. "He scarfed it down in seconds!" she wrote to those following the dalmatian's saga on the Internet. Muench described taking him out of his enclosure long enough to let him sniff some grass. "He is very sweet and was wagging his tail up a storm. He likes to take his head and put it in between your legs and then just stand there - guess it gives him a sense of orientation and closeness. His nose is always pressed to the ground to try and guide himself. He does walk into some things, but he is amazingly adept at steering himself around obstacles.

"He seemed very disappointed when I had to put him back in his kennel."

Offers streamed in from as far away as Texas and California. An Oklahoma City man named Mickey Brown sent Lark $150 toward the cost of transporting the dog if a home could be found.

It was Brown who came up with a name for the dalmatian: Tommy, after the deaf, dumb and blind hero of The Who's 1969 rock opera. As Lark put it in one late-night e-mail, rallying the troops around the dog's new handle: "Tommy can you hear me? Tommy can you see me? Tommmmmmy! Tommmmmmy! COME ON EVERYBODY . . . SING!! Geez, sorry about that. . . . I'm not getting much sleep lately ;-)."

Susan Wolfe-Walters read of Tommy's troubles two weeks ago. She's a 43-year-old registered nurse in Seymour, Ind., who lives on a 100-acre farm with her husband, a 20-year-old horse that lost its sight in a tornado, a three-legged cat, a deaf and blind dachshund, and a deaf dalmatian.

For the last couple days, Wolfe-Walters has been hauling gravel and putting up a new fence. It's for Tommy.

On Tuesday, the certified letter to Tommy's former owner came back to the shelter marked "undeliverable." Today Tommy is free to go. Giano will pick him up and drive him across the river to Lark's place in Limerick.

Then on Saturday, Wolfe-Walters will end her 10-hour shift at a dialysis unit about 9:30 p.m. and drive most of the night. By late morning on Father's Day, she'll get to meet Tommy, whose name suits her fine: "He won't come when you call anyway," she says.

"All handicapped animals need a place to go and someone to love them," Wolfe-Walters says. "It doesn't matter how old they are and what their handicaps are. No dog deserves to end up in a shelter."

Not everyone Lark has heard from supports her campaign.

"I have gotten people saying 'What are you doing when there are 2-year-old dalmatians with hearing and vision being put to sleep?' My only thinking is, life is precious. No matter how old you are, it has meaning."

She likes to think that people would respond this way for people as well as for dogs.

"We all get old. We all might be blind and go deaf. We're worth it just as much. Maybe this is what this all about."

Daniel Rubin's e-mail address is dan.rubin@phillynews.com


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