How the United States Saved Millions of Dogs by Relocating Them
At Second Chance Animal Services, Wells, 4 months, Millie, 4 years, and Coralie, 1 year, wait to be taken from their transit kennels into quarantine/ Evan Angelastro for TIME
These adoptable-animal pipelines, which largely but not only move from south to north, have become a cultural phenomenon in their own right, as well as an important element of a larger revolution in companion-animal welfare. Although the ASPCA's program is the largest and most well-organized, dogs (and, to a lesser extent, cats) travel in a variety of ways. There are impromptu groups of volunteers that cover their back seats with towels and meet up at rest stations every couple hundred miles, organizing themselves on Facebook and Petfinder. Nonprofits have sprung up in big cities and their suburbs to join with overcrowded Southern shelters, hire a driver, and load a van with a few dozen animals once a month or more. Many of these organizations were overwhelmed by demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in months-long wait lists and fierce rivalry among adopters in some areas. This sparked the emergence of an unexpected fourth category: true smugglers, who saw an opportunity in filling up a horse trailer with the cutest strays and going north (leaving the nonprofits with the sick and less desirable animals).
It's a great moment to be an American dog right now. Each year, up to 20 million dogs and cats were euthanized in the 1970s. That number has dropped dramatically. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) now estimates that 390,000 dogs and 530,000 cats are destroyed each year, down from 2.6 million in 2011. That's still too many, especially since there's a means to cut the number even more. There was a time when euthanasia was considered inevitable because there were simply too many animals. But that has altered due to a mix of cultural, medical, and political causes. More people are interested in mutts, which have been renamed "rescues." Each year, fewer animals are produced as a result of expanded spay and neuter programs, which are frequently mandated by legislation, and improved surgical techniques. More and more animals are being relocated, which not only helps to preserve those animals, but also frees up room and time to care for those that have been left behind. Nothing is more important to shelter workers, who have a disproportionately high percentage of mental-health issues, than keeping up with their animals' demands. Instead of being crushed by the constant need to euthanize the unwanted, they are buoyed by a regular stream of adoptions.
Of certainly, money is beneficial. Geographic discrepancies that result in one place having too many dogs and another having too few are mostly due to resource differences. Well-funded population-control initiatives and vast pools of potential adopters benefit shelters in densely populated cities and suburbs. Shelters in rural areas are dealing with an influx of animals, as well as a greater economic strain. Puppies flying private may seem extravagant—the ASPCA paid around $30,000 for the flight into Hanscom—but the kennels on the tarmac among the business aircraft are a reflection of the animal-welfare movement's larger success, as well as the excitement of its funders. The simple problems are nearly addressed; the difficult ones necessitate a fresh approach. The goal of "animal relocation" is to not only meet the demand for puppies, but also to increase the ability to help all animals.
The ASPCA-sponsored flight is an example of a well-coordinated attempt to bring divergent communities together to achieve a common purpose. It's a live, breathing geographical arbitrage that's barking and panting. However, the problem of extra animals can be handled by seeing these flying puppies as points of connection between communities, similar to the knots in a net. It's an understanding that some problems, including those that span red and blue states, may be tackled collaboratively.
The Oktibbeha County Humane Society's issues could be measured with a simple formula when Michele Anderson initially helped there. It calculated its "live-release rate," which is the number of animals that were released alive divided by the total number of creatures who came in through the door. In 2009, it was hovering around 50%. "If we had a cat that sneezed, we didn't keep the cat," Anderson remembers. Every day, new animals arrived at the shelter, and there was neither the space nor the funds to house them or pay the employees to care for them. Anderson, on the other hand, saw a way to change that.
OCHS is housed in a neat brick building on the outskirts of Starkville, Mississippi State University's booming campus. Inside, every square inch is dedicated to the care of animals, with barking dogs and prowling cats lurking behind every door and supplies packed in every corner. A fenced-in green-grass backyard provides a safe haven for the dogs to play. The iron seat on the small porch out front, however, is the social hub, which is frequently occupied by conversing veterinary students from the university and volunteers.
Anderson, who had recently joined the shelter's board of directors, presided over the arrival of a life-changing visitor: the "Rescue Waggin'," a green van with a large puppy decal on the side. It belonged to PetSmart Charities, the pet-store chain's philanthropic arm. It came to Oktibbeha for the first time in 2009, picking up 40 animals at a time and transporting them to destinations like Kansas City and Chicago. The Rescue Waggin' increased that number to several hundred over the next few years. "However, it wasn't actually doing anything," Anderson explains. It wasn't addressing the community's larger problem.
Many of its Mississippi neighbors lacked the resources that OCHS had. It might draw on the university's social capital, as well as a contract with the city of Starkville to take in stray animals. Mississippi is the poorest state in the US by many standards, and "animal control" in surrounding municipalities was more likely to be a fenced-in area alongside the town dump or behind the sheriff's department. Veterinary medicine academics advised OCHS on best practices, but locations like Winston County, 25 miles away, struggled to provide basic supplies to the animals in their care.
Anderson, who works as a university administrator, saw a potential for OCHS to "raise our game" by transporting in more animals. It sounded counterintuitive at first: the idea was to have fewer. OCHS, on the other hand, could reap the benefits of volume if it could operate as a hub, combining the work required to prepare animals for shipment. "We were able to fill the entire truck instead of Rescue Waggin' coming down for five animals," Anderson explains. They started collaborating with other organizations to bring in more dogs, as well as a growing number of transport partners to transfer canines out. OCHS' live-release rate increased from 50% to 95% between 2009 and 2019; rather of euthanizing every other animal, it found homes for all but one in every 20. Last year, the small shelter transported 1,842 dogs and 844 cats, with around two-thirds of the animals coming from partner organizations. "It would be disastrous for us and the groups we work with if we didn't have transportation," Anderson adds. "It's changed the lives of these creatures, as well as the individuals who work with them, since they now have some hope."
On the other hand, there are several shelters that are eager to take them in. Sheryl Blancato, the founder and executive director of Second Chance Animal Services, one of the Massachusetts shelters that met the flight, recalls how her kennels began to empty about 2007. Blancato says, "We observed that we started to have space." From the outside, the Massachusetts and Mississippi facilities appear to be identical; Second Chance, like its Southern cousin, is housed in a converted house on the outskirts of town. However, whereas OCHS had (and still has) a continuous stream of newcomers, Second Chance saw significantly fewer by the mid-2000s. Blancato began traveling down to Virginia or Maryland overnight and returned with a full van. She watched how the cute new arrivals increased foot traffic at the shelter, increasing the chances that the harder-to-love or older-and-larger animals would find homes.
Blancato's story paralleled a larger shift in dog culture in the United States. Animal welfare used to be known as animal control, as in the legend of the dog catcher. (It's where Blancato started.) In the 1980s and 1990s, private shelters began to spring up. Petfinder, the popular classifieds site for adoptable dogs, was created in 1996, just a year after Craigslist and Match, and transformed the way people locate pets. Hurricane Katrina galvanized animal welfare in 2005, as evacuees' sadness over their abandoned pets demonstrated the importance of companion animals to people. As a result, in 2006, Congress approved the PETS Act, requiring local governments to include family pets in disaster preparation. The ASPCA's renowned "Angel" commercial aired in 2007, with singer Sarah Mac-Lachlan pleading with viewers to give a "animal in a shelter right now" a "second chance." Surprisingly, it raised $30 million for the ASPCA in its first two years, and helped to establish the image of a "rescue dog" as a noble cause rather than a nuisance. #AdoptDontShop had become a movement by the time Insta-gram launched in 2010, when the oldest millennials aged 30 and starting adopting their own animals (and giving them their own accounts). Fewer than 10% of dogs were adopted from shelters in the 1990s; today, that number has risen to about 30%.
The continuous rise in demand was accompanied by a drop in supply. Veterinarians made a determined attempt to spay and neuter more dogs and cats about the same period, in the late 2000s. Part of the goal was technique: veterinarians devised new ways to do the surgery more quickly. They may build up assembly-line clinics, lowering per-animal costs. But it was also the law: 32 states now require sterilization of animals before they are discharged from shelters. It cut the number of animals born outside of planned breeding by a factor of ten. Puppies were becoming rare.
In Mississippi, no. Dr. Phil Bushby, a professor at Mississippi State University, is one of the most vocal proponents of the nationwide spay/neuter campaign. He compares the interaction between operation and transportation to a basement faucet. He describes transportation like "bailing water out of your basement." "Spay/neuter is like shutting off the faucet." "You must do both."
Camille Cotton sits in front of two computer monitors in her office, a little red brick structure at the edge of the OCHS parking lot, on a fresh Mississippi afternoon with a deep blue sky. The plaque above her desk states, "Think Pawsitive." Cotton coordinates the transports once a week, sometimes many times a week. She begins by creating her manifest on a blank spreadsheet, drawing on the animals waiting for their ticket out at OCHS or checking in with any of three dozen partner groups to see who might be "transport qualified." When Cotton texts them, they respond right away. If she takes their dog, she frees up space in a crowded kennel while also ensuring that the animal will have a happy existence. Cotton explains, "They're all pets, they're just homeless." "All they need is a place to go."
Some have scars, while others have stories to tell. Cotton's roster that day included Elmer Fudge, a 1-year-old hound mix who weighed 49 pounds. He'd been a stray at OCHS for a few weeks, and the staff had grown to know him well. Cotton's spreadsheet concluded, "Elmer Fudge is ready to lick your face and smell your yard." "But sometimes it's not that easy," Cotton says, comparing the mix to a box of bonbons. "They might all be black and brown, bless their souls." Joyce, a 3-year-old pit bull mix, is white and has four 2-month-old puppies with her. "Joyce is a lovely soul," the manifest says. "She's been through so much," says the narrator. Joyce and her puppies were among 19 animals taken from a house where a murder had occurred. Cotton strives to maintain his neutrality. "We know each other at OCHS," she says, "but you can't have partiality on transportation because you lose sight of what's best for the dog, what's best for the source shelter, and what's best for everyone."
The ASPCA meticulously coordinates the movements of its 18 vans, which travel north full and south empty. It also establishes tight guidelines for both source and destination shelters in terms of how they participate in the relocation program. Everyone must adhere to the ASPCA's extensive set of "standard operating procedures," which encompass everything from how dogs are tagged prior to leave to keeping track of which states require certain heartworm preventatives. The shared practices, more than anything else, aid in the development of relationships between the source and destination groups. Rather than well-resourced Northern shelter personnel shaking their heads at their Southern colleagues' bad care of animals, the training helps everyone realize their common concerns. They try to see each other as much as possible. "Have them walk a mile in their shoes," says Heather Cammisa, former president and CEO of New Jersey's St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center. "Just by dealing with what they have to deal with every day, they're already getting their teeth kicked in."
Over time, the shelters that required the most assistance became able to assist others. When the problem of animal overpopulation is remedied in one place, it may be meaningfully addressed in the next, according to the ASPCA. "What we're seeing is shelters that began out as sources of dogs for us are now becoming aggregators of dogs for their own communities," says Bershadker of the ASPCA. When OCHS brings in healthy animals from around the region, rescues can focus their efforts on the animals who are in need. "There's absolutely a domino effect," Anderson adds, "where we support them, they get help from their community, and it evolves."
Cotton's group was traveling 600 miles from OCHS to Wayside Waifs, a shelter in Kansas City, Mo. Karen Walsh, the ASPCA's senior director of animal relocation, and her colleagues develop a transportation calendar every month. They survey the destination shelters to see how much room they have available; establish that the source shelters are free of health issues such as a distemper outbreak; and map out the routes. In Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, California, and Kansas, the ASPCA operates five "Way-stations," overnight rest breaks that act as dog hotels for its transport program, each serving shelters within a 650-mile radius. "It's a costly program because we do it that way," Walsh adds, "but it's also a highly safe one because we do it that way."
They talk of putting themselves out of business in the future. When a combination of transportation and population management balances supply and demand, animals in America are no longer slaughtered for space. A shortage of dogs, on the other hand, poses a risk of unsafe puppy breeding. Some people are considering launching their own breeding operations at shelters in high-demand areas as a result of this possibility. It's a disturbing thought, like a cocktail hour at rehab, for people who vividly recall the era of high euthanasia rates—much less those who are now living it. However, some say that encouraging more healthy "American mutts" could be a better option to enabling commercial puppy breeders to meet public demand for pets.
A crescent moon lingers over the Mississippi predawn the next morning. Mel Rock and Jess Tippie, the ASPCA's drivers, beep the van back up to the OCHS entrance after a night at the Hampton Inn. Tippie checks the documentation on an iPad and shuffles the printed rabies certificates in plastic sheaths as the staff gathers around her. "Did all the health certificates come back clean?" Rock inquires.
The dogs then begin to appear. Button, a little dachshund that a 20-year-old volunteer has been fostering at her house for ten days, is cradled by a 20-year-old volunteer. Rock and Tippie had already labeled the cages attached to the back of the van, figuring out where each animal would go ahead of time. The ASPCA choreographs and codifies every move they make, from closing the van door while each animal is loaded in to changing surgical gowns and gloves to prevent the transmission of disease. Andrea Spain, an English professor at the university who also runs a small rescue, brings Mo, a 9-month-old Rottweiler mix who bounces in circles, over. Rock pours bottled water into a red watering can, then slips its small spout through the mesh cage doors, filling each animal's bowl for the long ride.
It's a total of 38 dogs, as well as a web of community ties—in Starkville, across Mississippi, at the destination shelter in Kansas City, and wherever the dogs end up. When the truck leaves, OCHS will be able to accommodate 20 additional animals. Not for long, at least. "Just as we get a couple of kennels up and running, along comes a newcomer!" Cotton explains. "They open a door somewhere and it's just like... "Who let the dogs out?" says the narrator.
Blum's books include The Weather Machine and Tubes: A Journey to the Internet's Heart.