Monday, November 7, 2011

Moving Mayhem: The chaos that is rescue transport

Do you have a rescue dog that came "from out of town"? Or maybe you've visited your local shelter and seen signs noting dogs that came from Georgia, Tennesse, Texas or Puerto Rico. Have you ever wondered how these dogs got to your local shelter?

Mostly they got there through the efforts of volunteers all across the country who offer to move dogs out of danger zones to receiving no-kill shelters and rescue organizations in an 'underground railroad' type of operation. Volunteers who, on their own dime, in their spare time, sign up with rescue groups, monitor email lists, Facebook and Twitter feeds looking for opportunities to help save dogs and puppies from almost certain death.

Last night I was lucky enough to take part in a tremendous effort moving dogs from Marion County Animal Shelter in Mullens, South Carolina, to various rescues up and down the eastern seaboard, some dogs travelling as far north as Augusta, Maine.

As usually happens, everything went wrong: legs ran up to two hours late, puppies got sick, pick-up locations were mixed up... I ended up with 5 dogs in my car, two of which didn't get along. But consider this: this rescue took place over two days through 10 states, involved 32 drivers, 21 dogs and 10 shelters/rescue groups. Suddenly it's hard to imagine how it happened at all. And it happens every week.

Yesterday's Dogs

My five dogs were all beautiful, sweet and gentle young souls who were so grateful for any kindness extended. All but one of them came from Marion County Shelter and all but one of them were little more than a rack of bones. Here, let me introduce you. (You can click on the pics for a better view.)
Jewel, a hound mix, was described on her transfer form as weighing 40 lbs. Maybe once upon a time but she barely weighed twenty when I picked her up last night. You could see every rib and her hip bones stuck out like little mountains on her back. She greeted me with a kiss and slept with her head on my lap the entire ride. (She also raided every treat bag I had in the car, took out my GPS and stepped on the horn while we were loading up the other dogs. She's going to be a fun little companion for someone with a good sense of humor.) She was heading to a rescue group in Augusta ME.


Monica and Magnolia were two little Jack Russell Terrier puppy mixes from the same litter and they were just babies. Their records said they weighed 10 pounds. Maybe together! I'd say they were closer to 4 or 5 pounds each. Magnolia had a slight cough and an upset tummy but they cuddled up together in the blanket and slept most of the way to the next drop-off.

We try not to handle puppies too much (for their health and ours) so I didn't get to interact with them except to move them between cars. Doing so required wrapping them in a towel and they both just snuggled so deeply into the warmth of the towel and human contact, it was hard to let them go. They were headed to Augusta with Jewel.


Jasmine came to me with an injured back leg. I don't know if this happened during transport or before. I suspect before. She was very thin but not as appallingly so as Jewel or the puppies. She was a gentle, timid and lovely young Coonhound/Foxhound (mix?) who fell asleep as soon as the car started moving. When I picked her up to get her in and out of the cars, she was compliant and uncomplaining. She was going to her forever home somewhere near Portsmouth NH. Her new family will be very lucky to have her. She was just lovely.

Wesley, my hitch-hiker, was a beautiful St. Bernard mix who was going in to Big Fluffy Dog Rescue's care. The original instructions had Wesley leaving the railroad in Worcester, MA but there was a bit of a mix-up and his new 'picker-upper' was meeting us in Lowell. He and Jewel didn't get along very well so it made for some interesting accommodations but everybody settled down once we got moving. Wesley was very goofy and playful, a real sweetheart of a dog. He's going to make someone a very fine, very big, fluffy dog.


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Over the past few years that I've been involved with rescue, I've had the pleasure of transporting a few dogs. It seldom goes exactly right and you have to have a bit of a "roll with it" personality or you'll be driven nuts by the constantly shifting schedules. On the bright side, there's usually a great story waiting to be told afterwards. A few of the highlights:

  • The good: Lucy, the gorgeous black Lab/hound mix who simply needed a lift from one foster family to another. One driver, beautiful dog, picture perfect transport.
  • The bad: My very first transport was picking up "Mister", the elder Lab, from his family who loved him dearly but were losing their home. They were doing the best they could by him sending him to a rescue group with foster homes rather than a shelter. It was unbelievably tragic and I cried the whole way to the next drop-off point. In fact, I'm pretty sure I cried for the next 3 days.
  • The ugly: Benny, the Basenji, was a little darling who bit me when I didn't recognize his stress and mishandled him. He had traveled up from Pennsylvania in the middle of a heat wave and now I was bleeding profusely as I tried to keep us both cool and calm and on-time for our next hand-off. I still got kisses - maybe he regretted biting me.

I remember every dog I have moved. And I have fallen in with every one of them.

So why do we do it?

Not everyone feels called to forfeit their Saturdays and Sundays to go move dogs around the country. I'm really glad there are folks who do though.

My husband, of course, thinks I am insane. While he very graciously helped me figure out how to turn a Subaru Forrester into a mobile kennel with one crate and some panels from our portable puppy pens, he was still nervous when I left wondering how I could possibly manage 4 dogs in one car. (I didn't tell him about Wesley until after it was over. To be fair, I didn't know about Wesley until it was too late either...)

And while he doesn't share my compunction for rescuing dogs, I think I was finally able to put why I do this in terms Jan understood: Someone, probably many someones, had done this for Bella.

Where they came from

Yesterday's ride was initiated by the rescue group Paws to the Rescue. Paws contracted with Marion County to run the local animal shelter in 2008. They have made significant improvements to the living conditions of the animals in their care including adding heat to the dog and cat runs, providing basic medical care and letting the dogs run in an outdoor area at times throughout the day.

The shelter, however, remains desperately under-funded, tragically over-filled and entirely too high-kill. With limited space and even more limited resources, the animals that come into the shelter have little time to find willing adopters and rescue groups before facing euthanasia to make room for the dogs and cats that continue to pour in. In 2009, 2,700 animals were admitted to the shelter. Only 750 of them made it out alive.

It's hard not to be moved looking into their faces knowing you helped 21 make it out this weekend.


  1. What a happy/sad post.  It's wonderful that so many dogs and puppies were helped and continue to be helped but they're just the tip of the iceberg.  I hope they all find their forever homes.  Well done to you and the other folks who do this.  

  2. Hey good on you. It's great to know that there are some really kind people out there doing their best to help. Deccy x

  3. I learned alot through this post.  I am glad there are people like you out there who are willing to help out with this cause!

  4. I don't know how you do it.  You are an amazing person! 

  5. Thanks Sue - it was hard to write this post in a way that wasn't downright maudlin.  So I'll take happy/sad as a compliment. ;)

    There are dogs being helped but one can't escape the fact that many, many, MANY more dogs die in shelters in the US every year than make it out alive.  It's tough to find a balance between educating the public and overwhelming people with the tragic reality.

  6. Hi Deccy, I'm just a tiny player in this rescue thing, it's the folks out there doing this every day who are the real deal.  

    And for my part, it's actually a whole lot of fun this being covered in puppies for a while. ;)

  7. Hi Finn, thanks so much for that. I was actually surprised myself by how big an effort this last transport was and just how many people and organizations were involved.  It was that information I was hoping to convey in this post (and really didn't want to come across as self-aggrandizing.)

  8. Hi Christine, thanks for visiting!  

    I don't think my part in this is all that big.  The organizers, the folks who do this every week or every day - they're amazing.  

    The other people that amaze me are the folks who foster.  Even if that were possible with Bella the scared-y dog, I know I'd end up with a houseful of dogs that I just couldn't let go of!  :}

  9. There was a show on Animal PLanet a few years back called Last Chance Highway. Don't know if you watched it, but it was about a rescue in Mississippi and a transport company that trucked animals to their new owners in New England. It was mind blowing how they moved all those dogs to so many different stops EVERY week. Before that show I never knew of such operations. 

    Thank you for doing what you do. Those babies you had in your car are so worth it. :) 

  10. It looks like you are doing great work out in the world.  Kootenai

  11. Hi Elizabeth, I remember hearing about that show but don't think I had much chance to watch it.  I have watched a few episodes of Best Friends' "Pup My Ride" which, I think, is similarly premised.  It's kind of heart-breaking in a way so sometimes I find those programs hard to watch.  But I think that was the first time I realized how big some of these operations can get.
    Most of the transports I've been involved with have had 2 or 3 dogs and 4 or 5 drivers (max!) so this last one really impressed me.  I plan to do many more with them and another group that brings pups up into New England from the south.  (I'd love to help with the dogs from Puerto Rico but I'm not located appropriately to do so.)

    And yeah, those babies were worth every sometimes frustrating second of it. (I still get weepy thinking about Jewel - she was so spectacularly sweet.)

  12. Thank you for doing transports! If not for people like you, donating their time (& patience), most all of our fosters, would have been out of luck :)

  13. Hi Kootenai!  Thanks for visiting.  It's not a lot but it's something I can do. I hope it makes a difference to at least a few animals.  

  14. It's the least we can do to get the dogs to you guys who do the REAL work.  I'm so in awe of you foster folks.  

    I'd love to do it but Bella is really an only-dog kind of girl so it's just not possible.  (Besides, I know I'd be all epic-foster-fail in the first go-round. Heck, I have trouble letting go of the dogs I transport, can you imagine what I'd be like if one actually lived with me?! LOL)Thanks for saying hi.

  15. That was such a great peek into one of the thousands of transports that take place each year.

    The writer, Jon Katz, has written about the massive resources involved in moving animals from high kill shelters to rescues and foster situations. He laments that those resources aren't used to help people in a similar way.

    But your post points up the major difference between helping people and helping dogs. People are much harder to help. 

    With the exception of your bite (hope it wasn't too bad), the dogs were very dependent on you and thankful for any kindness. People are so much more complicated and don't always want to be helped the way we think they should be helped.

    Thanks for the food for thought. Thanks for helping the dogs find new homes.

  16. Hi Pamela,

    I love Katz (you might notice I follow his blog on my blog roll page) but he should know better than anyone that people have minds of their own and we can't just up and move them from one place to another. 

    Thankfully, there are tons of resources helping people (if not in exactly similar ways because, you know, that would be illegal and stuff. ;) There are food banks, donation drives, shelters (where they don't kill you if you stay "too" long), not to mention government-funded programs.

    What I would like is for there to be no reason for shelters to exist for dogs or people - that we, as a society, took good enough care of our neighbors and pets that neither was necessary.  But until that happens, I'm glad there are people willing to lend a hand (or a paw) to make a difference in individual lives.

    Thanks for visiting and giving us something to think about. (Oh, and yeah, I survived the bite. Who knew a 20 pounder could draw so much blood? ;)

  17. thank you SO much for doing this!!

    one thing i always wondered about this is about the dogs who are transported for an intended adoption. what happens if the dog arrives and the adoption doesn't work out for whatever reason? where does the dog go?

    when we were in the market for a second dog, we saw a sweet girl online that we thought would be a great match, based on the description. but we felt very strongly that we needed to meet her first and have desmond meet her and get to know her for a while before bringing her home, and the transport situation made us nervous--we didn't want to commit to something or piss anyone off. how does something like that work?

  18. Hi Lauren,

    Every rescue group is different and the ones I generally work with don't adopt out to folks who haven't had a home visit where we meet them and they meet the dog.  Most of the dogs on this transport were going to other rescue groups although Jasmine did go directly to her forever home.

    I got involved with this particular transport through Big Fluffy Dog Rescue who, while based in TN, has volunteers and foster homes here in New England. They will take a dog back as will BRAT and NEARR (the other two rescue groups I volunteer with).  

    While I haven't worked with Paws before this run, I understand they do everything possible to first make sure the new home will be a good fit (the dogs they rescue spend time in foster homes before getting shipped up here) and then to re-home a dog if the newly adopted just isn't working out.  They work closely with several rescue orgs up here so have some options in that regard.

    Like you, I would have a hard time adopting a dog I hadn't actually met but having met these little ones, I might change my mind on that in the future...