The dogs greet you right away at Dragon Dance Farm. The first one who catches your eye is Alvero, a three-year-old Great Pyrenees male. He’s followed by Lexie, a two-year-old Great Pyrenees female, and Sophie, a two-year-old Pyrenees-St. Bernard-cross – “a St. Pyr” and “a foster failure,” says Lynda Dunlop of Big Fluffy Dog Rescue. Next are Mia (a. k. a. “Winky”), a one-eyed Chihuahua-Jack-Russell-cross, and Stella, “an impossibly happy pug, as all pugs are.” Dunlop, a registered nurse with an advanced degree in behavioral health, cuddles the pop-eyed pug in her arms like a baby. Stella, Sophie, and Mia are “the comedy team,” she tells me. They’re somewhere between seven and eight…although Richard Busch, Dunlop’s husband, likes to say that Mia is “Methuselah’s age, somewhere in there.” And then there’s Amelia, an eight-month-old Great Pyrenees who has just arrived at their comfy farmhouse in Barkhamsted, Connecticut.
“She’s a hurtin’ puppy,” Dunlop remarks. “She underwent a spay surgery, and then her sutures didn’t heal. She’s on antibiotics. She spent two-and-half days in transport coming up from the South.” She doesn’t know exactly what Amelia’s life was like before she got picked up by Big Fluffy Dog Rescue, only that the puppy is skinny and looks starved and/or sick. She might’ve been beaten. So the couple’s just letting her be until she feels safer. Surprisingly enough, Amelia’s already showing an interest in her surroundings after having been with them just one day. “It’s kind of magical to watch,” Dunlop muses. “She goes under my desk, or she goes into her crate. She comes out a little bit, she’ll say, ‘Hi, how are you?,’ and then she’ll go back in. Or she’ll go with the other kids outside, and she’ll run around a little bit. By this time next week, she’ll be a different person. She’ll be out a lot more. But you have to be really patient and understand that.”
When Dunlop calls Amelia “a person,” she means it. She and Busch, a former Air Force cop and correctional officer, manage to be both sensitive and matter-of-fact about the dogs who come to them for fostering. Their involvement with Big Fluffy Dog Rescue began when they moved to Barkhamsted and adopted their first Great Pyrenees, Bru, from friends who were internationally known llama breeders. Bru was born with “a horrible cardiac murmur -- could never live on a farm, could never do what a Pyr is supposed to do,” she explains. “They’re livestock guardians.”
He was later joined by Alvero who came “sight unseen” from the National Great Pyrenees Rescue in Texas. “We just fell in love with the breed,” Dunlop says. “They’re terrific dogs – they’re terrific to be with. We like unusual dogs – well, we like the unusual. And we rescue all of our dogs, including you” – this is said in a soft lullaby voice to the dog nearest to her -- “and we just ended up having space and time.”
Next came Lexie, courtesy of Lone Star Pyrs & Paws-North in New England. Then the couple began looking at other Pyrenees and discovered that Big Fluffy Dog Rescue “had a lot of the Pyrenees – lots and lots of Pyrenees – and we just started talking with them. And we said, ‘All right, we’ll just start to foster.’”
A good many of the rescues come up from the South, where Pyrenees are used as working dogs. And if they’re not able to work, they’re shot, dumped at shelters, or abandoned outright. The spay/neuter and animal-protection laws are much more lax down there than they are here in New England, Dunlop explains. “We’re talking about rural South – we’re talking about rural Tennessee, we’re talking about rural Kentucky. We’re talking about people who are dirt-poor and who will breed Pyrenees and maybe get fifty bucks a dog. But the puppies are full of worms and full of mange.” The shelters will contact the breed-specific rescue organizations to “come and get them if they can. You have to go down and get ‘em…pull ‘em up and quarantine ‘em and heal ‘em…and sometimes operate on ‘em. And you have to neuter them. It’s very expensive to rescue a dog.”
Not all of the dogs are easy fosters either. Some of them come to Dragon Dance Farm shy, hurt, or afraid of men. Dunlop and Busch work with them, observing and medicating them…basically healing them both inside and out and “get [ting] them ready for their forever family to come along.” The rescues have been anywhere from twelve-weeks- to six-years-old and the turn-around time anywhere from six hours to two months. The couple is very strict when it comes to screening potential adopters. “I’m really wacky about who adopts the puppies,” she admits. “I’ve told people, ‘You’re not appropriate to take one of my dogs.’” And both Jean Harris, the president of Big Fluffy Dog Rescue, and Elizabeth Zaccaro, the head of the Connecticut chapter, have “trust[ed] my judgment. We’ve put so much time in our fosters. I think all fosters do.”
Dogs aren’t the only creatures who have found haven at the farm. At one time, they had close to twenty llamas. Why llamas? Dunlop starts laughing, and Busch joins in. “She was into llamas before I was,” he explains. “She divorced her husband, gave up her llamas…”
“He got the llamas in the custody battle,” she says facetiously of her ex.
“No, he sold them,” Busch corrects her.
“He sold my llamas out from under me,” she agrees.
“Then, about a year later,” he continues, getting into his story, “she goes, ‘Richard, guess what?’ I say, ‘What?’ She goes, ‘I bought The Man back.’ And I go, ‘Well, either I’m not going to have a place to live because you decided to go back with your ex-husband, or she bought her favorite llama back, which was Chili.’”
(This is the sort of dialogue that just spontaneously breaks out during the interview. Dunlop and Busch are so totally in synch with one another, they’re kinda like the George Burns and Gracie Allen of animal rescue.)
Over the years, the herd dwindled down to three. Then two died. Llamas are herd animals and don’t do well on their own. So they gave the lone survivor to another llama owner. Dunlop looks back at those twenty years with the llamas as “an incredible special time. They’re wonderful beasts.” You can hear the ache in her voice. “I miss them horribly. They’re just great companions. They’re not much different than these guys.” She gestures toward the dogs. The llamas “have a Pyrenees mentality. They’re very independent. They’re very smart. They’re very loyal, very family-oriented.”
She and Busch share all sorts of llama lore. How when a female gives birth for the first time, her voice changes and she develops a call that’s unique to her and her baby. How the baby does the same, making it seem almost as though they have their own private language. And how llamas will keep out any and all intruders. “We did not have any deer, bobcats, coyotes, or bears around,” maintains Busch. “Llamas have a distinctive sound that they make whenever they’re worried. An alarm call. And that alarm call kinda sounds like a horse’s whinny. All of a sudden, you hear this sound, and you know something’s going on in your area because they’ve got it spotted.”
It wasn’t unusual for the llamas to spot bears several hundred feet away, he continues. “If anything was to get in there, they would actually have killed it. Stomped it to death. They’re very protective.”
Now, of course, the couple just has the dogs and a flock of exotic chickens who look like escapees from a Mardi Gras parade. But the nurturing instinct is still going strong in both of them. “Richard has always brought home stray living things,” remarks Dunlop. “Stray dying plants, kittens…all kinds of strange animals.”
“I’ve just always liked animals,” he says in that easygoing way he has. “I enjoy animals. So she’ll sit there and go, ‘Oh, we’re getting a new dog this weekend. ‘Oh, we are? Oh, O. K.’”
“That’s not true,” she rejoins.
“I always ask you.”
“You always ask me.”
“I always ask you.”
“It’s funnier the way I say it,” he points out.
“Yeah, it is.” And they both start laughing.
There’s a lot of laughter and playful verbal sparring between them…a friendly copacetic energy that spills over into everything they do, including their rescue work. They both work from their gut, Busch says, and that’s how it has been with them from Day One. They met on-line: he was living down in Maryland, “and she lived up here in Connecticut. She was going through a terrible marriage, and I was ending a terrible marriage. And we started talking to each other – we were in the same [chat] room. She thought I was some kind of idiot until one morning, I just happened to say a certain phrase, and she thought it was funny.”
Dunlop seconds his version of the story. “When I started talking to him, he couldn’t express himself. He couldn’t spell. He wasn't typing very well. But he was funny.” They talked to each other on-line for a year; when they finally met, they were “both free of their marriages.” Six dates into the relationship, she asked him if he wanted to move to Connecticut, and he said, “Sure.” Since then, they've been apart maybe three weeks at most.
“We’re really lucky,” Dunlop reflects. She’s cutting up green grapes – “crack for chickens” – as she talks. “We have a really nice love story. And I think that probably why we’re successful with our fostering is because we’re successful with our relationship. Our household is pretty quiet. It’s pretty mellow. It’s good energy. And I do think that with any kind of intuitive, intelligent animal, they know.”