"He's got the run of the joint," says Capt. Jerry Lankford of the 48-pound Dalmatian who recently joined the fire crew. "The Lord blessed us with him, and we're glad to have him!"
Life wasn't so good for Axe just two weeks ago. The Dalmatian was found running stray in Lawton and was eventually picked up and taken to the Animal Welfare Shelter in Lawton.
"They did everything they could to find him a home, and they held him as long as they were able," says Jean Whetstone, who runs an animal rescue network with her husband, Larry, from their Altus home. Seventy-two hours before Axe was to be put to sleep, the Whetstones heard through their network that the Hobart Fire Department was interested in the Dalmatian. The Whetstones made the arrangements and a firedog was born.
"He's a good dog," Lankford says. "He won't lick you on the face unless you've got chocolate or something on it."
Since living at the fire station, Axe has put on eight pounds and is learning to "stop, drop and roll." As per the terms of his adoption, Axe has been neutered and is known inside the station among the five full-time firefighters and 14 volunteers as No. 76. The veterinarian would like to see Axe closer to 60 pounds, and his comrades are confident he'll reach that goal.
For animals like Axe, the work of Jean and Larry Whetstone gives true meaning to the word "lifesaver." The Whetstones operate the Southwest Oklahoma Animal Network, a name that tells people where they are and what they do. The non-profit organization is Altus' link to a network of people nationwide who rescue abandoned or unwanted animals by matching the animals from shelters with people in homes where the animals are wanted.
Jean makes at least one trip a week to try to rescue animals from being "put to sleep" or euthanized, and move them to a different location or, ideally, into a home. A typical trip might take her from Altus to Lawton, then on to Duncan and over to Oklahoma City before returning to Altus.
"We took a one day trip to get a dog to Fort Smith, Ark.," Larry says. "There are literally hundreds of stories, some with wonderfully happy endings. Unfortunately, there are some that end tragically, too."
"Helping people help animals" is the animal network's slogan. Larry says that for them, it's not just about getting animals out of the shelter, it's about networking with other animal rescue efforts to provide an alternative for people who don't want their animals to end up in a shelter. The Whetstones' work is separate and in addition to the formal adoption programs that many shelters run. Jean and Larry network with other animal rescue groups from all over the country.
"We have been able to rescue and arrange for transport to other rescue groups around the country," Larry explains."One of our current fosters came from a shelter in Texas. Ruby was down to her last day or so [before the shelter was to put her to sleep]. Through several people helping with transport, we were able to get her up to us. The other foster we currently have was found tethered on one short rope with only a plastic drum for a shelter. There were more than 200 animals that were pulled from this site. Most had only a rope and a barrel."
Larry goes out twice a day to take photos of the animals that are in the stray and owner-surrender area of the Altus Animal Control Shelter. He then posts the photos on the network's Web site and prints out a flyer to post on the bulletin board at Wal-Mart.
"This gives exposure to animals that have been picked up as strays and those that have been turned in [lost] by their owner," Larry says.
Working out of their home, the Whetstones are restricted by city limits on the number of animals they are able to take in -- a good thing, they both agree, as it forces them to keep the animals moving.
Last week, the Whetstones helped get a Great Dane from Vernon, Texas, to his new home in California; a Yellow Lab from the Hobart Animal Control stayed with the couple so they could monitor his temperament and provide him with some basic veterinarian services, and is now on his way to a Lab rescue operation in Oklahoma City; a pug mix is moving from the Altus shelter to a group in Yukon; and finally, some cats and other assorted animals are being moved from other area communities to other rescue groups in the country.
"We also help people find homes for animals they are having to leave behind," Larry says."Although we're not always successful, we at least offer an alternative to dropping them off at Animal Control on their way out of town." The Whetstones said they are much more successful at finding a suitable home for an animal if the owners give them a couple of months' notice, and they discourage pet owners from abandoning their pet under any circumstance, noting abandonment is a criminal offense.
Both Larry and Jean acknowledge that without the cooperation and support of local veterinarians, they would not be able to continue in their efforts. They receive some financial support through private donations that help pay for food, medicine and travel expenses.
"Our goal is to help people help animals," Larry says. "[Rescue] seems like a never ending revolving door, but it's all worth it."
Just ask the firemen.
"They always want to see the dog and we never had one," Lankford says of the 300-500 school children who visit the fire station each fall during Fire Prevention Week. "Now we have one."
For more information on the Southwest Oklahoma Animal Network, visit www.swoan.org.