Linda and John Wickham's Hanover County plantation is a pooch's paradise. So why would dogs ever want to leave? 

Someone to Love

Along the old road, the dry autumn path, a mile and more through forest; along the bright seam laced russet and gold, into the Hanover wilderness, a realization begins to form. It is light and subtle and occasional at first, but when the woods drain away, and the empty fields open wide on either hand, slipping gently to the far, tree-fringed horizon, to unseen creeks and hidden ponds, and the brick plantation house can just be made out ahead, then the epiphany unfurls, and speaks:

This would be a great place to be a dog.

It was the easy insight Jim and Linda Wickham had, as well, when they inherited and arrived at the 3,200-acre estate, Hickory Hill Plantation, in 1986. Since then, its suitability has been a daily fact of life for the hundreds of hounds, as many as 60 at a time, with which they have shared their home.

These dogs are no idle accessory or lazy acquisition, however; the Wickhams have jobs; all these mongrels are a lot of work. There are no pedigreed wonders here, either — just dogs, mixed-breeds mostly, that Linda Wickham has found, or that have found her, one way or another.

Today there are 41, and they are raucous. The driveway terminates between the Wickhams' tall house and the dogs' sheltered grove — two rows of large, chain-link pens in which the dogs swirl and raise the alarm: barks, yaps, woofs, howls, yelps; whatever they can manage.

Out comes Wickham, smiling. The frantic din surges as she approaches the strangers: "Take me! Take me!" she interprets for them, and laughs.

The dogs are vying, she explains, to be chosen, taken, adopted. And, indeed, behind the collective belligerence there is a more mild-mannered effusiveness: Individual tails and tongues wag. Backs are straight, heads high. Curious, intelligent eyes search for meaning now that danger has passed.

Strangers can herald any number of shocking developments in this carefully ordered community: Old members may be plucked away, new ones installed. Unforgotten masters may finally have returned. Oh, it is very important that everyone pay attention, and be brave.

But some, more ambivalent, seem to seek anonymity in the bravado. "If I'd come down here with the leash, a few of them would be hiding," Wickham says, arms crossed over the cartoon critters on her Hanover Humane Society T-shirt.

Leashes are the sign, the omen of change: Strangers with leashes spirited off 14 of their brethren all at once this week — all the hunting dogs. Leashes and strangers mean something big. But just strangers?

Showtime, and another chance to lick Linda.

As she slowly crisscrosses the wide aisle of earth between the two rows of cages — airy, spacious affairs, sheltering without really confining — Wickham explains how she came by each of the dogs within, animals that now seek in their own inimitable ways to entice her inside.

Here is a pair of aged, noble Shepherds ambling out to pay their respects; across the way are the showoffs, a yellow Lab — "pure ham" — with his fractionally sized Tibetan spaniel sidekick. Over there are the black Labs, obvious as any, and just as unable to master their weepy joy; but here are the beagles, smiling every one, and clambering over themselves to get a tongue in Wickham's ear.

She is a safe-house volunteer for the county's humane society — the "backbone" of its foster-care program, says coordinator Rachel Kelley — but that seems incidental as Wickham explains how the strays still appear, mangy and famished; how whole litters of puppies are left at the edge of her property; how dogs ejected along the interstate continue to find their way here. She has cared for them without the humane society's help before, and it is clear she would do it again.

Earlier this decade, she finally, warily joined forces with the society, "a wonderful organization, but I'm not interested in the politics of it." She keeps an amicable distance: gets the dogs spayed and neutered; gets their shots and treatments; visits the pound to save the ones whose time has run out but are still adoptable; loves them back into sociability; makes matches. This year, she has "adopted out" 62 dogs to new owners, about 5 percent of those the society places annually.

Not all dogs here come around, but most do, and the ones that don't can always linger on, like Mickey, Daisy and Trixie, three of the five black-and-white puppies found abandoned five years ago, and today still huddling together, offering an occasional growl from their dim shade.

They are the exception. Here, tranquil in a cage by himself, is the rule: Honey, a young, pale yellow Lab mix that Wickam took in five weeks ago. The animal was so fierce and unruly it had to be controlled with a pole-loop, sedated, muzzled and put in a carrier for trips to the vet. Even so it was "still growling and everything else," says John Wickham.

"Now it's a completely different dog," he adds. "It's amazing. Now the dog sits there and licks her in the face. She works with them until they either turn around or they don't, and stay on here."

There is no magic to how this happens, or glamour. It is based on kindness and routine. It begins each day with two hours of cleaning and watering and feeding. The 50-lb. bags of Purina get so heavy, and always there is the constant shuffling and shuttling to make sure good cage-mates are together. "Everything is personality," Linda Wickham says. "You can't just mix the dogs up and assume everybody's going to get along." Some, like Bear, a husky, boarlike Norwegian elk hound, are loners and never take to the others.

But it's satisfying work, and her husband helps: "I can get out here on a Saturday morning and do these things ... and it's very relaxing," he says. And for her? "She does it 'cause she enjoys it and she just loves doing it — everything else be damned," he laughs.

That means for years they have taken no more than two- or three-day vacations, jaunts to close places such as Williamsburg and Virginia Beach. "She doesn't trust anybody else except her sisters" to take care of the dogs, he explains.

Linda Wickham and her siblings — two sisters, two brothers — grew up on a farm, though much smaller than Hickory Hill and on the other side of Ashland. There, they kept about 40 dogs - the family mutts, the strays and their father's hunting pack.

Sister June Thompson says Linda, the youngest of the girls, had the special touch. "She's always gotten along with the animal that's not been everybody's favorite," Thompson says. "I've never seen her turn an animal away. And she tells people who adopt them, 'If it doesn't work, bring them back.'"

That is the second, more poignant half of the equation here: Yes, dogs need love and the company of other dogs, but love comes first — the love of a lifelong master. Making the right match is as difficult and uncertain as reviving agreeableness, but in a way it is more important and rewarding.

"It's like, 'Yes! This is the right dog for the right person!'" John Wickham says. "It just makes you feel so good."

Maybe even better, sometimes, for Linda Wickham, than the straining young beagle's breath in her ear.

(Linda Wickham says it is best to take dogs one wishes to relinquish to one's local humane society. Please do not leave them on her property (or anyone else's), as they may not be found. She will take dogs from sources other than the Hanover Humane Society only if she has space for them and the dogs have been spayed or neutered, received their heartworm treatments and shots, and met her other requirements. She always has dogs to adopt, too. Her telephone number is 537-5502.)

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