Dawn, the wispy-haired bundle of energy at the other end of the leash, spent the 15-minute pit stop clamoring over the patch of grass and sniffing with interest around the unloaded kennels still occupied by a patchy-coated dachshund and two clingy, coarse-haired puppies — one white, one black.
The woman raised a hand in greeting as a second car pulled up, but Dawn was not as welcoming, barking as ferociously as her 10-pound frame allowed before tucking herself up under the waving woman.
“Don’t worry,” the woman said, handing the four dogs off to the new driver. “She did the same thing to me when I picked her up in Birmingham an hour ago.”
By the time the red Chrysler and its four-legged payload pulled into the Chattanooga gas station where the next volunteer driver — the third in a caravan of 16 — was waiting, Dawn had abandoned her spot in the passenger seat and was curled up in her driver’s lap, an endearing habit that almost made her trip north obsolete.
Dawn was one of countless dogs at the Tuscaloosa Metro Animal Shelter when members of the Alabama Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals selected her for a second chance at a forever home — this time up north. But days before her scheduled transport to Eleventh Hour Rescue in Rockaway, N.J., Dawn came down with kennel cough, and was sent instead to a foster home in Birmingham.
The 10-month-old Spaniel mix spent six weeks with Alabama SPCA board member Corinne Giles, her husband and their three boxers while she recovered. But once she was cleared for transport, “we almost couldn’t let her go,” Giles said. Giles wrote a letter to Dawn’s new family detailing everything they’d need to know about their new addition — the brand of dog food she seemed to do best on, her love of bones and cuddling and rough-housing with her foster brothers, “who all adored her,” she said. “My husband really loved her too.”
Dawn’s spot in the Giles house won’t stay empty long, though. In fact, she said, ALSPCA volunteers were still scrambling for drivers to transport a pregnant bulldog mix this weekend, and if they can’t get it lined up in time, the momma-to-be will be headed home with her. It will be the Giles’ fifth foster dog this year and the third to be sent north for adoption.
“So far this year, we have pulled more than 450 animals, mostly from high-kill metro animal shelters,” Giles said. ALSPCA then works to find loving homes by hosting pet adoption drives, networking on social media and, lately, transporting them to areas with a greater demand for adoptable pets. According to Giles and ALSPCA secretary Katie Kincaid, the Central Alabama-based nonprofit works with rescue groups around the country, including Eleventh Hour, the Nebraska Humane Society, Minnesota Boxer Rescue, Furever Home Rescue New England, even Pilots and Paws, an online network of more than 1,800 volunteer pilots who transport animals in need to safe havens.
“The overpopulation of animals in the South is unreal,” said Kincaid. “Many Northerners acknowledge that and that raises the demand for Southern dogs up North.”
‘The Bubba Factor’
There is no precise way to compare the number of animals entering shelters in Alabama to its neighbors to the north. In fact, there is no central data bank in place that accurately tracks shelter statistics nationwide. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that U.S. animal shelters take in between 6 and 8 million companion animals a year, approximately 3-4 million of which will eventually be euthanized.
According to Mindy Gilbert, director of the Alabama chapter of HSUS, it’s reasonable to estimate that Alabama shelters take in between 160,000 and 180,000 each year. How many of those animals are euthanized? “A better percentage than what it used to be,” Gilbert offers.
Not everyone in the rescue community considers transports north a win-win solution to Alabama’s unwanted pet population. According to Aubrie Kavanaugh, a member of the No Kill Huntsville coalition, mass transporting animals from shelters in one area of the country to another essentially amounts to outsourcing.
“We are simply taking our problem and putting it into someone else’s backyard,” she said, “as if people in the North have to save us from ourselves.”
According to Kavanaugh, the result has come to be known as the “Bubba Factor.”
“When we ship our animals out, it kind of perpetuates this Southern stereotype,” she said, “like we’re all walking around with half our teeth missing, eating Moon Pies, still holding these antiquated values.” And at the end of the day, she continued, it’s all been an exercise in futility.
For one thing, she said, “there is no pet shortage in the Northeast.”
The real issue, agrees Gilbert, is not the region’s lack of pets — “It’s just that there are not as many puppies.”
So when a mass transport of cute baby animals arrives from below the Mason-Dixon Line, “What happens to the animals in that area?” asks Kavanaugh.
‘Meant to be’
But it’s not just Southern rescues transporting their dogs and cats north — adoption centers in the North are making the trip as well, returning home with a load of Southern furbabies ready for placement.
“Transport programs can be a really successful option,” Gilbert asserts. “But the people who are doing these transports successfully are putting a tremendous amount of work into them.”
One such group, Rescue Riders Transport, makes twice-monthly runs to Alabama to pick up adoptable dogs and transport them back to Peace and Paws Rescue in New Hampshire, says Anniston Councilwoman Millie Harris. As the president of Calhoun County’s low-cost spay and neuter program SAVE and a longtime animal advocate, Harris has witnessed the organization’s success at finding homes for local animals, including a homeless mutt named Breeze.
A friend, Harris recalls, was driving down a Jacksonville road when she noticed “this pitiful-looking black dog standing in the freezing, pouring-down rain.” The woman stopped and coaxed the creature into her car only to realize the dog was pregnant. “Within an hour she was having her puppies.”
Not only did Peace and Paws find homes for the entire litter, she continued, but once the puppies were gone, the rescuers were able to place Breeze as well — sending her to fill the empty nest of another mother whose children had all left home.
“That sort of thing is just meant to be,” says Harris.
Kavanaugh doesn’t necessarily oppose individual transports like in the case of Breeze.
“If someone in New Hampshire sees a dog on petfinder.com and falls in love, I’m OK with that,” she said — but not as a long-term strategy to overpopulation. “No Kill Huntsville’s stand is that there is no need to do these transports … We just need to change our policies.”
Without a voice
There has been progress. In May, a statewide law was passed making animal cruelty — to all animals, not just companion animals — a felony. Even so, Alabama still came in 45th in HSUS’s Humane State Rankings, which grade states in 10 areas of animal welfare legislation.
“In the past, it has been very, very, very difficult to get anything done for animal welfare,” Harris said, citing longheld resistance from the state's strong agricultural community as well as “a mindset that people do not want other people telling them what to do." Hurting Alabama’s HSUS ranking was its leniency on cockfighting, failure to restrict cruel practices to farm animals and a complete lack of regulation for puppy mills.
Alabama currently does not require licensing or inspections of puppy mills, nor are any laws in place to prevent dogs from being housed in stacked cages, cages with wire flooring or to limit the number of dogs that can be confined by a breeder. When foster mom Giles arrived at the gas station in Hoover where Dawn began her journey north, there was another rescue group there at the same time, she said. The small-breed rescue was there for the same reason as she, transferring dogs to a new driver who would take them one step closer to their destination and, hopefully, loving homes. The animals, “some of the cutest little dogs you’ve ever seen,” Giles said, had been living under inhumane conditions, part of a larger group recently rescued from an Alabama breeder.
“They were pitiful,” she recalled. “You went up to them and they just had no life in their eyes.”
But Giles and many animal advocates, foster parents and rescue volunteers like her believe every dog deserves a second chance at a forever home — whether it’s next door or nine states over matters little to the thrown-away dogs waiting in shelters for their turn to be rescued.
“There are so many of them — helpless, voiceless babies. The shelters are full of them,” Giles said. “They need our help in more ways than we can imagine.”
SOUTHERN TAILS WITH HAPPY ENDINGS
Dawn, a 10-month-old Spaniel mix, and two mixed-breed puppies named Caleb and Snow arrived at the Eleventh Hour Rescue in New Jersey last Sunday after a journey that began in Birmingham and took two days, 18 drivers and a host of Alabama SPCA volunteers coordinating, networking and fundraising behind the scenes. But one week later, all three former shelter dogs have found homes.
Eleventh Hour volunteer Eda Breslin, who runs the rescue’s foster program, says that as soon as dogs are selected for transport, their pictures and stories go up on the website. And she wasn’t surprised when Dawn’s profile sparked a lot of interest from prospective adopters.
“She met with two other families and it just wasn’t a right fit,” Breslin said. But when she met the big, close-knit family she eventually went home with, “She just had the time of her life, playing peekaboo, running around. She connected with everyone right away.”
First to go, however, was Snow. Breslin said the scruffy little white mutt met her future family — a mom and dad and their two “tween” girls — Monday, and “it was literally love at first sight.”
“They had never had a dog before … and those girls were just so happy to be taking her home,” she said. “I guarantee you they’ve already got her toes painted right now.”
Snow’s littermate Caleb will also be getting a makeover of sorts from her new pet parents, a young couple getting married next May.
“They’re already asking how big she’s going to get because they want to fit her for a bridesmaid dress,” said Breslin.
Breslin, who has been with Eleventh Hour for seven years, says in the several months she’s been working with ALSPCA, the group has earned a stellar reputation, not just for Alabama rescues but for the dogs of Alabama as well.
“You guys have the best dogs on the planet. They’re fun, they have great temperaments and, as you can see, they don’t stay with us very long.”
Next week Unsheltered Part 2 will look at fixing the shelter pet problem at home.