By Dwain Hebda // Photos by Jamison Mosley
The last quarter mile to Gary Robbins’ property, folded into the foothills of Van Buren County, is a doozy. Turning off a crumbling country blacktop, the visitor stares down a remnant cowpath and hopes the GPS has its signal straight. Like its owner, the weedy trail is rutted and blind and, frankly, doesn’t care much if you make it in here or not.
But for the members of Robbins’ pack, it’s a glory road. Canines of all shapes, sizes and hues took the same path to get here, literally and figuratively. Just like the 40 or so currently on-premises, they’re large, small, young, old, hurt and wounded, inside or out, but safe at last — the happy epilogue to a common, harsh backstory.
At the center of the clearing, Robbins’ battered and pock-marked double-wide towers on cinder block stilts like a landed space capsule, from which radiates a crop circle of homemade kennels and wood-and-tin outbuildings. From each, the hounds salute Robbins’ passing-by, acknowledging him as master, bearer of food and a two-legger apart from their last one in that he doesn’t kick them just for the hell of it.
Yes, somehow, it seems, each pup understands that but for this thin, slightly bent man, who’s the only human here most days, life would still be painful and survival an hour-to-hour commodity. Their then-and-now existence couldn’t be more different than if the lot of them boarded the double-wide spaceship and flew away, far from the savagery of past lives, yonder into the stars, tails wagging.
Welcome to the world headquarters of Gary’s Adoptable Dogs, Robbins’ one-man rescue operation that has saved the lives of countless canines by connecting them directly with families, as well as partnering with out-of-state agencies that place them in their forever homes.
“If you hear me out here in the daytime, you’d swear I hated dogs,” Robbins says with a dry chuckle as he winds his way around the various pens. “I’d have some choice words for them.”
Since he began in 1980, Robbins’ commitment to the lost and forsaken has resulted in an average of 250 dogs rescued each year, including during the pandemic. He’s attracted a few helpers here and there, but most of the work — and expense — falls directly to the 74-year-old U.S. Navy veteran. He never knows what each day will bring or how many.
“Well, this guy called me up and told me he had a lot of dogs. And I told him he could bring them in a few at a time, and I could process them,” he says. “The next morning, here he was in the truck with all the dogs crammed in, 22 of them. I mean, these things were 6 inches deep in poop.
“In one pen, I took the dog out, and something didn’t seem right. So, I took a look further in there, and there were four little babies buried in it. They lived through that.”
The enormity of Robbins’ effort surrounds you on his property. Despite being legally blind, every pen and shed out here is built with his own hands, sometimes from scraps and donated materials, mostly out of his own pocket.
He rolls out of the rack at 4:30 every morning to begin his daily chores, cleaning pens, feeding dogs and seeing to their medical attention. While he does attract some donations, mostly supplies eat up the majority of his monthly military pension.
“I go through 75 to 100 pounds of food a day,” he says. “Last month was $700 for feed and wormer. And I just bought $350 worth of medicines for the dogs out of one little check. It don’t go very far.”
Some ongoing projects — putting a raised floor in one building, finishing the roof on another — have been put on hold due to the lumber shortage, and even if he could get it, there’s only so much to spend each month. His veterinarian is accommodating, but the tab there is as constantly over his head as the hawks that swirl through the trees across his 50 mountain acres.
“It all has to be out of donations or out of my checks,” he says. “There’s no money in this.”
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According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), there are roughly 6.5 million homeless animals in the U.S. every year, and about half of them are dogs. And while just under half of those dogs will find homes, 20 percent are put down.
Statistics such as these don’t tell the whole story when it comes to the adoptability of dogs, which is by no means a level game. When viewed at a shelter, any number of things can put hounds in the “no” column, from the color of their coat to their size, age or breed.
Pit bulls, for instance, make up 40 percent of the dogs that are euthanized in shelters annually, on the basis of the breed’s reputation and stereotype. Special needs canines, senior animals and dogs that are perceived to have behavioral problems (such as barking or cowering) also stand a far slimmer chance of finding a forever family than puppies or animals that don’t have these characteristics, according to various animal advocacy sources.
In fact, some shelters have become so good at handicapping a dog’s odds at being adopted; some have started turning away problem surrenders in favor of those with a better chance of finding a home. While this practice helps shelters turn over animals at a higher rate — thus making room to take in more pets — being rejected is usually a one-way ticket for any dog.
That’s where Robbins comes in. He knows something about all of the dogs that come to him, some of it documented, much of it by intuition and all painted over by simple, logical deduction: If they’re here, life hasn’t been kind. The rest is just details.
“Quite a few of these dogs have been taken to the vet to be put down. I take all of them that come in that way,” he says. “These here upset me some of the most. These old dogs, they get too old for people, and they just dump them. I just had a call about an hour ago. They’ve had the dog, they said, for six years. The dog started to have seizures, so they wanted to get rid of it.”
Walking through the compound, Robbins casually shares one horror story after another about what he’s seen over four decades as a rescuer. Nothing surprises him anymore, but for the newcomer, it’s a sickening eye-opener of humanity’s capacity for cruelty. Some of the backstories make you shake your head; others turn your stomach.
“That’s Betty, she doesn’t trust women. A woman used to beat her when she was a puppy. But she’s a real good dog,” Robbins waves at pens this way and that. “Those little dachshunds, the vet said the guy was still kicking them when he brought them in to be put down.”
Robbins stops at a large kennel where a bright-eyed spotted fluffer barks warily at the stranger. He shushes her then sticks his fingers through the gate, scratches her nose, tells her what a good girl she is.
“The one over here, Violet, they was using it for a bait dog,” he says, as casually as reporting the weather. “They teach little pit bulls to attack them. What they’ll do is they’ll tape this dog’s mouth closed, where it can’t bite the other dog. And then, they’ll sic the other dog on it, and it just has to defend itself.”
He strokes the side of Violet’s muzzle, and his voice drops.
“It’s pretty cruel.”
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Robbins came south from his native Michigan in 1974 with the overriding desire to be left alone, be it from ex-wives or the public in general.
“When I got this place, I told the real estate guy I wanted a place that nobody would buy around me,” Robbins says. “I bought it and then, all of a sudden, everybody built. I never pictured anybody buying out here. I mean, when I bought this here, it was all woods.”
After a land-locked six-year stint in the U.S. Navy — spent in the desert of Beeville, Texas, where he worked on ejection seats — he’d wandered to the Natural State. He secured his spot in the woods and paid the bills as a stoneworker. Six years later, he answered his life’s true calling and hasn’t looked back.
Robbins moves dogs via local adoptions through Gary’s Adoptable Dogs and, over time, he’s made other connections with individuals and organizations that help more animals go from desperate circumstances to loving homes.
“We do local adoptions, if we can. There’s not a lot of people here wanting these dogs,” he says. “A decent percentage of them go to New York and New Jersey. That was just word of mouth. People knew I had the dogs, somebody called me up and asked me if I had a certain kind of dog, so I shipped that. Then they were wanting more.
“A lot of dogs they have in the South, we don’t have up here,” says Donna Casale of Staten Island, New York, who since 2017 has been an intermediary between Robbins and rescue agencies back east. “I mean, we have mainly pit bulls and Chihuahuas here. And Arkansas has everything. Like, I never heard of these breeds until I started doing all of this. So, these dogs that come up here, people really want them, you know?”
Casale, a fellow animal lover who knows what it means to fund her passion for rescue out of her own pocket, says she’s never seen anyone with the commitment Robbins has for his cause.
“He’s like a living saint,” she says. “He doesn’t turn any dog away. They could be blind, they could have no legs, I mean, it doesn’t matter, the breed or anything. There’s nobody like him. He’s got a lot of health problems, he lives in subpar conditions. I don’t even think he has air conditioning.
“I don’t know anybody that does this kind of sacrifice. He uses all his money, all his retirement funds, for the dogs. Everything, his whole life, goes to the dogs. This is like a saint, if you ask me.”
* * * * * * * * *
It’s a long-held belief that one human year equals seven in dog years. While that may or may not be true, it’s clear that a year of caring for dogs takes out its multiple in time, resources and work. Compounded over 40 years, it’s easy to see this is a mission one man can’t carry forever.
So it was with a grateful heart that he found out recently a colleague in Conway would take in his pups come the day he can no longer do his rescue work.
“It really is a load off my mind,” he says. “Before, I didn’t have anybody. The only one we had was [an organization] out of Chicago. They said they’d come down, but they’d put half the dogs down. I mean, they come up to pick the cream of the litter and put the rest of them down. Now, the dogs will be taken care of. They’ll all have a chance.”
Not that he’s planning on stepping aside any day soon. Despite the urging of his three daughters, one of whom lives across the road, and the demanding toll the work takes on him, his end game is clear.
“I’ll do this ’till I die,” he says simply.
Until then, there are pens to build and floors to lay and dogs to feed. Robbins looks across his property to a pine-blanketed ridge in the distance, a beautiful backdrop for his labor of love.
“I just consider them all mine,” he says. “I’ve had dogs that came in here, just not adoptable. I’ve got some inside that are very unsocial. If they’re too bad to re-home, I keep them, and they become my dogs.
“I just always preferred the unadoptables. I don’t know why.”
By now, the pack has settled down, ignoring the visitor, and Robbins soaks in the quiet of the woods like a hot bath. Still searching for the why to his work, words fail him so he motions: here, the sleek puppies that were in danger of being shot on sight by their owner’s neighbor; over there, the ones dumped in the woods and at the mouth of the property; and beyond that, the ones brought in by families as far away as Fayetteville and Texarkana. Some are bound for homes from Grady to Gotham; some will never leave this peaceful mountainside. But all are alive solely because of him.
“To see pictures of the dogs that were in bad shape and now they’re up there in New York and have got good homes, it makes you feel good,” he says as Belle, the only pup on the loose here, races up and demands a hug, which Robbins obliges, tenderly.
“I get the misfits,” he says. “The only ones I used to deal with was just the ones nobody else would take. Now, I’m taking just everything.”
At this, St. Gary gives a gentle shrug.
“I like dogs. I just don’t like people.”
SPONSORED BY LAKE HAMILTON & HOT SPRINGS ANIMAL HOSPITALS