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Learning life lessons down on the farm

Sometimes you walk the dog. Sometimes the dog walks you. Whichever way wags the most tails works for me.

Tuesday's assignment to head out to Sanctuary One, the Applegate Valley care farm, was a welcome one.

My job was to write about Ruch Elementary School's new curriculum that revolves around getting students outside the four walls of their classroom. My goal was to get some much-needed fresh air — and cram as much personal critter time as I could into the afternoon.

This wasn't my first visit to the last-chance sanctuary. I was there when Lisa the Pig arrived from Washington. I returned when other young students were discovering the joys of spending an afternoon traipsing around after llamas and cows and goats.

This visit was decidedly timely, for I was past ready for an assignment that didn't involve a field trip to a courtroom, or worse.

I was just waiting for the weather to cooperate. Finally a day filled with sunshine and blue skies coincided with my schedule.

All systems were go as Mail Tribune photographer Jamie Lusch drove us along winding backcountry roads.

My inner critter-lover had already begun to sing, "Piggies and ponies and pups — Oh my!" I couldn't wait to sink my pinkies in some fluffy fur.

Arriving just after 1 p.m., we were greeted by friendly staff members — and a couple even more friendly canine cohorts who bounded down to the parking area.

Burying my fingers in the border collie's shiny coat, I couldn't help but remember my sainted Twirley Jane. And reflect on how these farm dogs live a great life.

In fact, every dog lucky enough to end up at Sanctuary One must feel it has landed in clover. But many of them escaped hell to do so.

Sanctuary One specializes in taking in animals that are potentially unadoptable — aged, physically infirm, emotionally injured. Victims of abuse and neglect.

If some loving person steps up to give them a forever home, that makes room for more animals in need. But, if that doesn't happen, the critters will live out their lives in the loving care of Sansa Collins and her crew.

These are the lucky ones.

The Ruch eighth-graders spilled out across the grounds around 1:30.

Half of the 10 tweens got a lesson in applied science planting seedlings, mulching veggie beds and monitoring myriad compost piles. The other half headed up to the kennels to take the inhabitants for a walk. And learn a thing or three about compassion.

One freckle-faced boy ambled along the dirt path behind the shelter's most aged pooch, Leo. He and the kid are great buddies, his teacher shared.

You don't say? Like the kid's face-splitting grin flashing from under his oversized wide-brimmed hat wasn't a dead giveaway. Or the smiling eyes of the venerable old dog. Two kindred souls. Too sweet.

The group of dogs and walkers had almost completed their loop back to the kennel when one of the pooches suddenly pooped out.

Leela sank even lower to the dusty trail as her splayed legs decided they'd had enough of this exercise nonsense. Thank you very much.

Sanctuary One intern Madison Hayashi gave a gentle tug on the pitbull-basset mix's leash, and offered some encouraging words.

"You can do this, Leela. You can," Hayashi chirruped.

Leela had originally arrived at the shelter emaciated and covered in scars from a life too horrific to contemplate, she said.

It was clear the dog's spirit was willing to keep walking. But her swayed back and splayed legs weren't buying Hayashi's cheerleading routine.

Flattening herself out like a pooch pancake, Leela looked up at the intern. Her big brown orbs pleading for a piggyback ride.

"She's really tired at the end of her long walks," Hayashi said.

Without hesitation, Madison knelt and scooped the now normal-weight dog into her arms. Leela peeked over Hayashi's shoulder as the "miracle girl" was schlepped the final 50 yards back to the kennel.

I trailed along behind, grinning as Leela winked and lolled her tongue at me.

Hayashi said her favorite duty at Sanctuary One is to take the dogs out together to play as a group in one of the 5-acre pastures.

It's their own natural dog park. Leo, the kindly, gray-muzzled gentleman of the pack, stands by her side, surveying the youngsters. Leela likes to get down and dirty with the kids, she said.

"She rolls and rolls in the pasture," Hayashi said. "It's so fun to see her enjoying herself so much."

I wanted to tell her that it's pretty fun for me to see a young soul carry a weary one down a country lane — and with such cheerful compassion. But I didn't.

Later that day I saw a saying that said it all: "To be human is a given. To be humane is a choice."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Sanctuary One intern Madison Hayashi carries Leela the final 50 yards back to the kennel. - Sanne Specht