Jeff Middleton, a school counselor at Jasper High School, still holds his wife, Linda, responsible for the couple's long history with canines.
"She tricked me into getting our very first dog," Middleton laughed. "Then the second one, Jack, that had the seizures."
The two came as a pair—General Lee, a purebred corgi, which the Middletons had traveled to a breeder to buy, and Jack, a pup from the same litter, who whose bad leg and recurring seizures would likely consign him to an animal shelter or worse if the Middletons hadn't been willing to take him home.
"After that, I just had a sense for any dog that was in need," Middleton said. "She was afraid for me to go off to Little Rock, because she thought I'd come home with a dog, which I sometimes did."
After the corgis, there was Remington, an indescribable mutt who just leapt into the Middleton's van in the church parking lot, and simply wouldn't get out until they drove him to their home.
And then the was Helen Keller, an Australian Shepherd born deaf and without eyes, pale as a ghost.
Helen is what's known in breeding circles as a homozygous merle, or "lethal white," the occasional byproduct of breeding two merle-colored dogs together. Statistically, most of the offspring from such pairings are healthy, often with extraordinary white coats—but about 25 percent are born deaf, blind, and without pigment.
Typically, breeders will simply put down the disabled offspring immediately—hence the term "lethal white"—but sometimes they are adopted out, or simply abandoned.
"At first, we thought we were going to have to take her back," Middleton said. "She had so many issues. We couldn't control her, she was scared of everything. "
Helen had been found running in circles in a parking lot in Beebe. An employee from the Beebe Humane Society called the Middletons, who had developed a reputation for taking in animals that were otherwise "unadoptable."
"She called and said, 'Y'all are just the people. Would y'all give this dog a try?'"
"We solved her fear problem by putting her in our bed each night. After that, she calmed down," Middleton said.
Karen Belsi, president of the Blind Dog Rescue Alliance, a national network headquartered in Philadelphia that tries to place blind or visually impaired dogs in foster homes, said her organization receives notices about double-merles like Helen across the country about twice a week. She said the alliance also receives dozens of notices each week about dogs that are visually impaired for other reasons, from congenital defect to cataracts and abuse.
"We can't help every dog we hear about," Belsi said. "There's a lot of blind and visually impaired dogs out there."
The alliance posted adoption information about more than 1,700 dogs last year, Belsi said.
The Middletons literally have a binder full of dogs. A Father's Day gift from Linda to Jeff a few years back, the 3-ring binder features photos and biographies of the nearly three dozen dogs the two have fostered over the two decades since building their home atop a hill.
"The word got out that 'these people know what to do with dogs that have issues,'" Middleton said.
"At times, we've had as many as 11 here. We're down to seven, if you don't count the two big ones outside," Middleton said, referring to Daisy and Abner, a sibling team of great pyrenees/anatolian shepherd mixes that guard the Middleton's small herd of alpacas. "We're not really looking to increase that number, but, if a situation came up, to keep a dog from being put down, we would take him or her for a short time."
Middleton seems to have an almost irrepressible attraction to rescue, to protect. In addition to the dogs (and Helen is not the only "fatal white" currently living with the Middletons), Jeff and his wife also raise alpacas, an utterly defenseless animal that is something of a cross between a camel and a sheep, simultaneously curious, shy and playful. The Middletons aren't exactly running a for-profit alpaca operation—they sell products from the animals' fleece at about cost, and write off the loss on their income tax—so it's more of an extension of catharsis through pet ownership.
When Linda and Jeff first married in 1986, Linda already had four children from a previous marriage. When Linda's ex-husband's failure to pay child support became so persistent that he was repeatedly jailed, Jeff simply adopted the youngest three of the four.
When Aaron, Jeff and Linda's only biological child together (is there an unawkward way of phasing this? Is "sired" an applicable term to humans?), left home to attend John Brown University in 2007, the couple began hosting foreign exchange students "almost by accident," as Middleton put it.
Middleton, who has worked as a counselor at Jasper High School for the past 13 years, and an educator in multiple subjects for decades before that, often deals directly with foreign exchange students who come to the Ozarks from around the world. According to the U.S. State Department, more than 400 secondary schoolstudents from other countries came to Arkansas in 2012.
In 2009, Annette, a German foreign exchange student came to Middleton complaining of a miserable living situation, wherein the host family was conniving money from her, often leaving her home alone on weekends to babysit their small children. Middleton made endless calls to the exchange agency (Pacific Intercultural Exchange, which has since had its operational license suspended by the U.S. State Department in 2012 after numerous complaints), state and federal officials in an effort to relocate the girl within the area for months without success. When the host family finally ran afoul of the law on drug charges, Middleton said, the agency asked if he and his wife could take Annette in until a suitable host family could be found.
"In my mind I said, 'I'm not ever going to let anything like that happen again, even if I have to get radical,'" Middleton said.
Annette ended up finishing the school year with the couple, which in turn led them to consider taking on more foreign exchange students.
"When we got married, there were already four kids, an instant family for me," Middleton said. "Until Aaron went off to college, it'd never been the two of us alone. It wasn't traumatic, it was just boring. It wasn't even boring—it was just too quiet."
"That got us to thinking, since all our kids were grown, and we're just two old, cranky people around here—as if we didn't have enough to do with the work and the animals—but we decided to have an exchange student the following year, so we had a girl from Russia who was just amazing in every way," Middleton said.
In August, 2010, 16-year-old Marina Bobyleva came to live with the Middletons from Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), a Russian city of about 1 million people, located 600 miles southeast of Moscow.
"I didn't know where Arkansas was," said Bobyleva, now a freshman at the College of the Ozarks, near Branson. "I though it was where the Wizard of Oz was from."
Bobyleva said she thought she had originally misread Jasper's population numbers, thinking that 466 must mean 466,000.
"I'd never been to such a small place before," Bobyleva said. "I wondered whist you do with your time. But it's much more modern than I thought it would be, and there are a lot more activities than I had imagined."
Bobyleva grew close to the Middletons during her stay. After she returned to Russia, the Middletons traveled to Volgograd to attend her high school graduation, and later hosted her again for another semester when she returned to Arkansas to attend North Arkansas College in Harrison before transferring to the College of the Ozarks.
"I love my host family," Bobyleva said. "I'm very thankful for all they've done."
Then there was Livia, from Brazil, who the Middletons took in from another bad foster situation in Harrison. And Coralie, from Belgium. And others.
"It was almost uncanny," Middleton said. "It's another thing that we never planned to do, any more than we planned to rescue dogs. "It's amazing how things happen in life. You can plan all you want, but sometimes the things you don't plan are the most fulfilling."
March 2, 2013