PHOENIX — Darlin' is the first dog to place her four small paws on Slim Jim Lane, the new walking path at Jackson County Animal Care and Control Center.

PHOENIX — Darlin' is the first dog to place her four small paws on Slim Jim Lane, the new walking path at Jackson County Animal Care and Control Center.

The sight of the formerly emaciated and traumatized dog prancing alongside the project's coordinator, Jeanette Larson, brought smiles and tears Thursday morning to staff members, volunteers and the path's designer, John Stadelman.

"Darlin' says she approves," Larson said.

The change in Darlin', body and soul, is astonishing, said Director Colleen Macuk. The bundle of bones that was dropped off at the shelter just a few months ago was hours away from death, vets said.

"We hate to think of anyone deliberately abusing her like this. Our hope is that she got (accidently) hung up somewhere, and somehow managed to get free," said Macuk, holding the shredded collar and tattered red bandana Darlin' was wearing when discovered by two Good Samaritans who dropped her off at the shelter.

Love and groceries have transformed Darlin' into a happy little dog that sidles up to strangers with a soulful glance and a wagging tail that wiggles her entire hind end.

"Those eyes just kill you," said Macuk.

It seems appropriate that the little brindle dog who narrowly escaped death herself would be the first to test out a path built to honor the memory of Slim Jim — a dog whose body ultimately could not overcome the cruel legacy of beatings and starvation he endured, Larson said.

Both dogs were woefully battered in body, but their spirits somehow managed to survive.

The memory of Slim Jim's valiant struggle and joyful heart motivated Larson to build a path that Darlin' and the other shelter dogs can romp on until they find a new home of their own.

The path provides a much-needed exercise area for the dogs, said Macuk. Over the years the spaces available for shelter volunteers to walk dogs have been increasingly constrained, she said.

"We used to be able to walk in the orchards next door. They took that away. And we used to be able to walk around the old barn next door. But that's a jail now," said Macuk.

In May, the Jacksonville Mutt Strut garnered $2,600, Macuk said. An April Mail Tribune article on the Slim Jim Lane project resulted in more than $5,000 in cash and many donations of materials and labor, said Larson.

"A genuine outpouring of great Southern Oregon care and concern," said Larson.

The combined fundraising efforts provided enough to "rough in the basic hardscape for the project," said Stadelman.

Two tiers of steeply sloping decomposed granite paths are complete. Railroad ties and river rock make up the retaining walls. The irrigation system also is in place.

Arched benches, a covered shelter, drought-tolerant plants and shade trees will be installed as funding becomes available, Stadelman said.

Next to try out the trail was Bruce — another dog formerly featured in the news. The 3-year-old hound mix was permanently relinquished for adoption several months ago by the Eider family, who was struggling financially. The Eiders had other pets and ultimately decided this was the best decision for them and for Bruce, Macuk said.

Bruce has become a favorite with the shelter personnel.

"He can be a handful, but he has a temperament as sweet as sweet can be," Macuk said.

When big Bruce zeroes in on Darlin', the much-smaller dog at first appears overwhelmed by the boisterous black-and-white hound. But Sansa Collins, who is fostering Darlin' until her owners can be found or she is adopted into a permanent home, calls out encouragement.

"You're very brave! You're very brave!" Collins cheers.

Darlin' gives Bruce a kiss for luck as licensing technician Erin Conte escorts him down to the bottom of the lower path. With a quick release of the restraining leash, the muscular hound roars up the path like a runaway freight train. Eyes alight, mouth agape and jowls flapping, Bruce is in doggy heaven as he races toward the cheering group of humans.

"Watching Bruce race up and down the trail is making my heart sing," said Stadelman. "He loves it! He loves it!"

Those who would like to donate money to help build Slim Jim Lane may call 944-2021 or mail a check made out to FOTAS (Friends of the Animal Shelter), P.O. Box 3412, Ashland, OR 97520. Those who may have information about Darlin' are asked to call Macuk at 774-6654.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.