Most Monday afternoons, a van arrives at Animal Shelter, Inc., in Sterling, Mass., with a rare and coveted cargo: mixed-breed puppies. The 30 to 40 dogs that are unloaded come in all shapes and sizes, and display traces of most major dog types, from Hounds and Heelers to Shepherds, Labs and Collies. These pups—who are moments away from nail clipping, fecal testing, and blood work, and hours away from being spayed or neutered—may not feel lucky at the moment; the 10-hour drive from south-central Virginia leaves many of them car-sick and confused. But by week’s end, when most of these little guys are in their new “forever” homes, their travails will have been well worth it.
Balancing supply and demand
Since the van first began pulling into Sterling in July 2001, thousands of dogs and puppies have made the trek north through the Homebound Hounds program of Southside SPCA in Meherrin, Virginia. With few exceptions, each of these dogs has been placed. And Sterling isn’t alone in importing from the South; shelters and individual adopters from Maine to Washington, D. C., are increasingly looking southward for adoptable dogs. That’s because spay/neuter campaigns in the Northeast have been so successful, and the message to adopt from a shelter rather than a pet shop or breeder has been so forceful, that there aren’t enough adoptable dogs to meet the demand. That’s good news, as far as the animal community is concerned.
The inverse is true many sections of the rural Southeast, from Virginia to Louisiana. In these areas, minimal spay-and-neutering efforts, combined with a predisposition toward purebreds and an aversion to adopting from shelters, have resulted in soaring numbers of unwanted dogs.
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Sunniva Buck, manager of the Cape Ann Animal Aid (CAAA) in Gloucester, Mass., was prompted to look south when she realized that CAAA’s generous kennel space was increasingly underused. She called shelters around the state of Massachusetts and in Connecticut, but couldn’t find any who had adoptable dogs to offload or who weren’t already working with another rescue group to bring in animals. Though firm data on the number of dogs surrendered on a state-by-state basis does not exist—at least according to the Humane Society of the United States—anecdotal evidence of a slowdown in the Northeast is widespread. When Sandra Dollar, director of Save the Strays Animal Rescue in Bethune, South Carolina, tried to find homes for six Lab-mix puppies, she emailed rescue organizations in the Northeast and received 75 positive responses.
Five years ago, Leigh Grady, director of the Sterling shelter, took in as many as a dozen local litters. Last year, she accepted a total of two locally surrendered pups. Farther north, in Maine, rescuers report that the puppies and young adult dogs available locally tend to be Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, Chows and Akitas, breeds whose reputations for aggressive behavior, whether fair or not, make them hard to place.
“There is a severe shortage of placeable animals in New England,” says Melanie Crane of Biddeford, Maine. “If someone [says] otherwise, they’re kidding themselves.” Crane is co-director of Golden Retriever Rescue Lifeline, Inc., which, despite its name, rescues any dog—pup to senior—as long as it has “a pulse and a good temperament.” Crane works with Gulf South Golden Retriever Rescue in Bourg, Louisiana, and has found homes for about 250 dogs in the last two years. Though that figure is impressive, it barely registers against what Crane says are the gassing deaths of 750,000 companion animals (dogs and cats) annually in Louisiana.
Local attitudes influence numbers
Unfortunately, the Bayou State is not unique. Much of the Southeast is prime hunting country, with seasons that stretch from October to January. Dogs are an integral part of this tradition—Walker Hounds on the trail of deer, Beagles chasing down rabbits, and Pointers and Setters stalking doves and turkeys—and people tend to view their hunting dogs more as livestock than as family companions. “There are plenty of good hunters out there who take great care of their animals,” says Donna Prior with Animal Control in Madison, Georgia, who sends dogs north to two shelters in Massachusetts. “But if the dog isn’t doing what it’s supposed to, there are … hunters who just leave it in the woods.”
Many hunters believe that a spayed or neutered dog is not as effective on the trail, which leads to sizeable populations of “unfixed” dogs, and in turn, to litter upon litter of mixed-breed puppies. This problem is further exacerbated by another popular belief, that mutts don’t hunt as well as purebreds. If they’re very lucky, these mixed-breeds go straight to shelters like the Southside SPCA—if they aren’t so lucky, they end up in dumpsters or thrown out on the side of the road.
Searching for appropriate partners
Pairing the southern surfeit with the northern dearth sounds like a match made in heaven, and it is, but that doesn’t make it easy. The first step to success is finding a good fit, not just between dog and new owner, but also between the rescuer in the South and the shelter in the North. Dollar, of South Carolina, for example, had to search to find a group that would agree to return to her any dog that could not be placed.
Ideally, northern shelters look for southern rescuers who are spot-on judges of canine character and will provide reliable information on a dog’s health, as well as take steps to ensure that health. “Some people want to cut corners on costs, and therefore on health, and I just can’t risk taking a load of parvo pups,” says Grady. “Though we’ve worked together for years, I’ve never met Sandy, but I trust her implicitly and she trusts me. I know that we both want what’s best for the animal.”
Clearly, both parties need to do their research. Beyond that, state and federal law require that the receiving shelters be inspected and approved. The Virginia state veterinarian, for example, required that the Massachusetts state vet inspect and formally approve the shelter in Sterling. Fortunately, that wasn’t a problem. Sterling is one of the few to have a full-time vet and spay/neuter clinic on the premises, thanks to an arrangement with the VCA Animal Hospitals. In addition, the hard-working women behind these rescues work diligently to ensure that every dog transported across state lines is up-to-date on vaccinations for its age (distemper/parvo and rabies), and has been dewormed; treated for fleas, ticks and parasites; and has a health certificate issued by an examining vet.
Often, southern rescue organizations and shelters need help in providing round-the-clock, hands-on care for their youngest charges until the animals are 10 weeks of age and old enough to travel. In Meherrin, Sandy Wyatt counts on a network of safe houses with stalwart foster parents, such as Marian and Larry Burke and Anne and Jim Balfour. Neighbors and relatives, the Burkes/Balfours typically have 20 pups in their combined care. Jim frequently finds abandoned dogs along his paper route, and all four check dumpsters regularly. They do a lot of bottle feeding, vaccinating, deworming and socializing. “We just love that we’ve been able to get so many dogs out of here and on to better lives,” says Anne.
On the road … again
But passing state inspection, developing a network of foster homes, and giving flea and tick baths pale in comparison to the most formidable logistical problem: How do you get a dog safely from Hattiesburg, Louisiana, to Biddeford, Maine? Some groups have tried cargo flights, which have the advantage of taking less time and therefore inflicting less trauma on the dogs being transported. But cargo is expensive, and space limits the number who can travel in this fashion; Wyatt found that she was only able to move about a dozen dogs on a cargo flight, a small number when juxtaposed against her weekly goal of 30 to 40. That leaves driving.
Groups tackle the thousands of miles of driving in different ways. Some split the drive between two drivers. Others, like Dollar, have southern drivers who meet the northern drivers halfway. As a relatively new player in southern dog rescue, she despairs that there isn’t a more coordinated effort among the rescue groups. “The transportation is so hard—it seems like it’s all being done at the grassroots level and everyone is basically reinventing the wheel.” she says.
Sometimes, prospective adopters will make the trip, as Gail Belfiore of Johnson County, Tenn., has found out. She places her dogs using petfinder.org, and if the new parent can’t make the trip, Belfiore does it herself. “Nothing is going to keep me from getting these animals into better situations,” she says. “Nothing.” Gail snatches dogs from the jaws of death every week on “kill day” at the local shelter, then adopts them out to homes as far away as Florida, Massachusetts, Delaware, even Ontario. She’s placed nearly 650 dogs and cats.
Belfiore’s ferocious dedication is not unusual. Virginia Grant and Stephanie DeArmey share driving duties for the shelter in Bourg, Louisiana, that works with Melanie Crane in Maine. They log 4,000 miles on a typical trip, during which they drop off as many as 60 animals along the way. They stop every five hours to feed, water and change “piddle” pads. On one trip, Grant contracted pneumonia, but soldiered on. On another, their van broke down and they had to shift their crates of dogs, cats, guinea pigs and birds to a rental vehicle. Lynda Conrad has made the 10-hour drive from Meherrin to the New Jersey border 50 times a year since July 2001, leaving at 4:30 AM with up to 40 puppies. And when she’s not driving north, she’s doing local low-cost spay/neuter driving runs across 13 counties.
“When Sandy and Leigh got the Homebound Hound program up and running, I was the one doing the ‘running,’ ” explains Conrad. “And I’ll do these puppy runs as long as I can—it’s my purpose in life at this point. I love dogs; I wouldn’t be who I am if there weren’t dogs in my life.”
Grant is similarly motivated. Asked what could possibly make her hit the road so often, she simply points to Charlie, a Bloodhound relinquished from the Georgia prison system because he wouldn’t track. He went up to Maine, then to a foster home in Roanoke, Virginia, from which he was adopted. On that same trip, Grant and DeArmey left two hound mixes at Sterling; both went to forever homes within a week.
The adoption rate is just as robust at CAAA, and it’s not only the southern dogs who are benefiting. Buck notes that her canine imports have had an unexpected, but welcome, effect: “They bring people in here and they have a good experience, and then tell their friends; pretty soon, we’re getting exposure for all our dogs and even our cats,” she says. “It also exposes people to how many dogs out there need homes, and why spay and neuter is so important.”
And what about the impact on the South? Are these programs improving the overall situation for dogs there? Victoria Horn, chief animal control officer for Amelia County, Virginia, thinks so. Horn, who has worked with Wyatt for five years and oversees a small county shelter, says the number of dogs turned in to her is on the decline—813 were surrendered in 2001 and only 699 in 2003. “You just don’t see as many stray animals around or being brought in,” says Horn. “I definitely attribute that to Sandy—she works really hard to make things better for these animals.”
For her part, Wyatt stays motivated by reading her mail. Every week brings news of another happy ending for a Homebound Hound. “I send Walker Hounds up north that would be hunting deer down here, and tied to some stake outside,” she says. “And I get photos of them [from their new owners], sprawled on the living room sofa surrounded by toys. These letters are a lifesaver.”
And she intends to keep them coming.