Unwashed, unwanted, flea-bitten and with bloody paws, Merlin was one day away from death in a dog pound when a pair of collie-lovers rescued him.
The dog, a classic sable and white collie, had had a terrible year. His owners had divorced and after being passed from one new owner to another, he wound up roaming the streets of Monmouth, Ore., homeless before being caught.
Merlin's luck changed almost overnight. Dan and Susanne Castle of Monmouth knew they couldn't keep him themselves, so they flew the collie to Southern California and took him to dog-lover Sue Baldwin, a former neighbor they knew would help.
It was one of the 40 times last year the Trabuco Canyon woman saved a life.
For the last seven years, Baldwin has made her home a refuge for sick, starving or aged dogs, and those near death. Her goal is to save dogs--specifically collies--from euthanasia. Her reward: to see unwanted dogs placed with a loving family.
"Once you bring the dog [to Baldwin], you know it's saved," said Dan Castle, who brought another rescued collie to her several years ago. Unable to find the perfect home quickly, Baldwin kept the dog for two years.
"Dogs stay with her for years, if necessary, until she finds them just the right home."
Pulling a dog from a pound is termed a "rescue" because often it saves them from death. Many animal shelters, lacking the resources to care indefinitely for their charges, put the dogs to sleep within one to three weeks of their arrival. Merlin was in a pound that typically euthanizes dogs seven days after their arrival. But the staff held off, sure someone would want such a beautiful dog.
As the Orange County collie rescue coordinator for the Human Animal Rescue Team, or HART, Baldwin "fosters" dogs while seeking permanent homes. She is part of a Southern California network stretching from Ventura to San Diego that places 250 dogs a year.
The number of collies living with the 55-year-old woman varies from week to week. Recently, she's had about half a dozen large collies, ranging in age from 2 to 12, stay with her and her nine cats.
The dogs varied: purebred and mixes, high-spirited and stately. Two were her own; the others awaited permanent homes.
To enter Baldwin's domain is to be bombarded with animal affection. The collies joyfully encircle visitors, nuzzling and nudging for pats. Most of the cats feign indifference, but two push their way through the swirling mass of fur to claim their share of caresses. Stop patting for even an instant and the whole menagerie nudges, paws and purrs for more.
Feeding and caring for the dogs costs about $7,000 a year. Baldwin spends about $3,000 a year of her own money, and HART contributes another $4,000.
The real challenge, however, is dispensing enough affection to keep the small zoo happy.
"I tell people who adopt collies that they're adopting another child," Baldwin said. "They follow you from room to room. Four sleep on my bedroom floor, and if I get up and move into the living room, slowly they'll all follow me there."
Baldwin, who teaches kindergarten at La Madera Elementary School in Lake Forest, uses language to describe collies that others use to describe her: affectionate, sensitive, devoted.
"Sue is the nicest, the kindest, most humane, most compassionate person in the whole world," said Suzanne Kane, executive director of HART.
Though Baldwin will take in any collie, she won't let just anyone adopt one.
"I interview [families] very carefully, first on the phone and then in person," Baldwin said.
People who adopt a HART dog must sign a contract that stipulates they will never take the collie to a pound or allow it to be used for research. They must promise to provide veterinary and dental care, to license the dog, to notify HART if they move, and to return the dog to HART if they aren't able to keep the pet. The organization charges about $150 a dog to help defray the expense of maintaining dogs and advertising their availability.
Like a social worker vetting an adoptive home, Baldwin also visits the dogs prospective residences.
Shari Hartmann of Anaheim, who began sheltering rescued collies for HART after meeting Baldwin, is equally effusive.
"I've seen the work Sue does, and she is an inspiration to me," Hartmann said.
Baldwin said the "Lassie" movies played a part in sparking her love for the breed.
"I loved those movies, but, honestly, they were so painful [because the dogs were often] almost dying or suffering. I remember my mother having to take me out of all the Lassie movies."
Collies sometimes end up abandoned, she said, because of unrealistic expectations owners have of the dogs, in part from the movies.
For example, though collies are large, have thick, warm coats and like to be outside, the dogs also crave human company and are unhappy if left out alone for days on end, Baldwin said. And though they may bark at someone who comes to the door, collies are congenitally affectionate and do not make good attack dogs.
"They're so glad to see people they're like, 'Come on in! I'll show you where the VCR's located, and the jewelry's here under the bed.' Then they'll help load the van and ask, 'Want to take me with you?' " Baldwin joked.
Caring for the dogs can be exhausting, and there are times when Baldwin wishes for an end to the responsibility, she said. But placing them in a happy home is worth the effort.
Baldwin found the right home for Merlin within days: Betty and Harry Nelson of Garden Grove, a retired couple who had previously owned rescued collies and have a German shepherd.
"I get burned out sometimes," Baldwin said. "I get really tired when I come home after work and there are 10 telephone calls I have to return.
"But [the collies] are like my best friends or my children. They're what I come home to and who I unload on--they make the cares of the day go away when I walk in the door."
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The Human Animal Rescue Team (for dogs and cats in Southern California) is reachable at (805) 286-1098. Also, an unofficial list of dog rescue organizations, listed by breed, is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.netmeg.net/faq/animals/pets/dogs/rescue.