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Ashley receives support from her new four-footed friends

LAWRENCE, Kan. - A lot of people today worry because of the direction they believe kids are going, shirking responsibility, not listening to their parents. Barb and Jim Tucker of rural Douglas County south of Lawrence don't have that problem.

In fact their fifth-grade daughter, Ashley, not only heard what they told her, but has made it a way of life, and crowding the Tucker household a bit these days.

Jim, Cherokee, and Barb, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, both work at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence. The couple bought a house and land in rural Douglas County several years ago, a place they could raise their children and enjoy the animals both of them own.

"I remember going to the animal shelter when I was young and I found this dog I had to have. I adopted him and then I hid him for a few days in the garage, 'til I could finally tell my parents," Barb Tucker said. Her parents let her keep the dog and the pattern of animal rescue had begun.

The couple and their eldest daughter, Amber, moved out in the country and loved it. Then daughter number two, Ashley, was born. Both girls learned from an early age that responsible pet ownership meant caring for animals, no matter what. The dogs, horses and cats all had to be fed before the family ate, water tanks and bowls always had to be full of fresh water.

The girls listened intently and watched their parents as they took in stray animals and gave the dogs and cats a home. The dogs sleep with the cats and a single doghouse has been joined by other houses, straw bales and even some subterranean chambers under the houses.

Life was going along pretty normally until about a year ago. That was when Amber got a Rottweiler-mix, female dog she named Stretch. The dog became one of the 'gang' and moved right in. Her owner, however, moved out to start college at the University of Kansas. Somewhere in confusion of Amber's graduation and moving into her own apartment, Stretch didn't get to the vet for her spaying, and a neighbor, Sammy, came to visit.

The result was 12 puppies, born in the heat of the summer. Stretch, being a young dog with her first litter, wasn't necessarily the best mother. In the sweltering summer heat, she didn't always have enough milk for the puppies. Seven of the 12 died shortly after birth. After that, Ashley knew she had to step in to make sure the last five survived.

The puppies were put in a box and brought into the house. Ashley bought formula for the puppies and began her stint as a surrogate mother. During the day, she bottle-fed the puppies and at night she put them with their mother.

The puppies, now almost 8 weeks old, consider Ashley, more than Stretch, to be their mother. They are happy, healthy, well adjusted and ready for new homes. Well, almost ready.

When Jim and Barb began talking to Ashley about finding homes for the puppies, the tears began. Ashley explained, "I've bonded with them. I took care of them and I fed them."

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But her reasoning doesn't stop there. "No one can take care of them as good as I do. I don't want them to end up at the animal shelter," Ashley said. She fears that although the puppies are cute now, if people took them, once the puppies became big dogs, they wouldn't want them anymore and they would end up at the animal shelter.

At first Jim and Barb thought their daughter's resolve would weaken and they would be able to start giving puppies away. "With the puppies we have nine dogs, two horses, three goats and one of them is expecting twins and thousands of cats!" Barb said. "That's a lot of food!"

But Ashley isn't deterred by her mother's logic. "I offered to get a job. I just don't think anyone will hire me because I am 10," Ashley said.

The situation, Jim says is, "Still under discussion."

An added complication has come to light - Sammy, the puppies' father lives on a neighboring farm, but decided to stay on with the Tuckers.

"We were looking out the window the other day and here comes Sammy," Barb explained. "He was dragging something and he got to the top of the hill and kind of paused, like he was trying to see if the coast was clear. A little while later we went out side and we found out what he was dragging, his blanket. He had moved in with Stretch, the puppies and us!"

Sammy has indeed moved in, blankie and all. He not only brought his blanket, he put it in one of the doghouses at the Tuckers.

"This is our HUD housing," Jim said, laughing as he pointed to a subdivision of doghouses. "See, he's moved right in."

Sammy seems to enjoy his new home, although he did make a recent visit to his old place to see his owner who was home from college for the weekend. Apparently Sammy thought he needed to live closer to Stretch and the 'kids,' and since his owner was away at college, it was the right thing to do.

Stretch is scheduled for her spaying, but she doesn't seem to be the reason Sammy moved in. It is the puppies that interest him. He sat nearby watching as Ashley played with them, looking like a proud father. Stretch was nowhere in sight. She likes having Ashley to mother the puppies.

What will be next at the Tucker household? Perhaps Ashley will take the lead from her big sister. When Amber wanted a Mustang for her first car, she did all the research and sat her parents down and did a poster board presentation for them. She outlined all the reasons a Mustang wasn't a poor choice - safety statistics, gas mileage the whole nine yards.

Ashley is thinking about the concept, but isn't sure what to put down for the expense part of it. Multiplying shots, spaying, neutering and food, she looked at her mother and said, "Do you think I can get donations?"