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How America Saved Millions of Dogs—By Moving Them

18 minute read

The dusty white cargo plane stood out among the gleaming corporate jets, as did its passengers: 48 barking dogs, newly arrived at the private air terminal at Hanscom Field, outside of Boston.

They had left Mississippi that morning with their health certificates taped to their kennels. All week, the staff at Oktibbeha County Humane Society (OCHS), in Starkville, Miss., had been getting them ready, giving them their shots, testing their temperaments, and color-coding each crate for its destination: red for Second Chance Animal Services in North Brookfield, Mass.; gray for the Animal Rescue League of Boston; and blue for the MSPCA, an independent animal-welfare organization.

On the tarmac, representatives from each jostled around the animals like vacationers at baggage claim. Danielle Bowes, a staff member at Second Chance, checked her list. She was looking for two tiny puppies named Tiger and Presley; black and brown 4-month-olds Bandit, Josie, and Wells; an adult lab mix, Trent; and a dozen more, ranging from 8 lb. to 40 lb., from 8 weeks to 4 years old. When she found Bravo, a 1-year-old collie and American blue heeler mix, she cooed into his cage, “Hi, Pretty, you’re going to go quick!” Back at Second Chance, the dogs will quarantine for 48 hours, per state law, before they go up for adoption. If past experience is any guide—and transports like this arrive nearly every week all over the country, by plane, truck, and van—they will be gone in a few days, becoming the newest of the estimated 90 million canines living with U.S. families.

There is not a dog shortage in America—not yet, at least. But there are stark geographic differences in supply and demand. Massachusetts needs more dogs, and Mississippi has too many. The same is true of Delaware and Oklahoma, Minnesota and Louisiana, New York and Tennessee, and Washington and New Mexico, among other states. To compensate, sophisticated dog–relocation networks have sprung up over the past decade, transporting dogs and cats from states with too many to states with too few. Mostly, it’s a tactical problem: “How do we connect those shelters that have too many animals and are at risk of euthanasia simply because they were born there, to those shelters where these animals are gonna fly off the shelves?” says Matt Bershadker, CEO of the ASPCA, the New York–based animal-welfare giant, which sponsored and organized the flight arriving at Hanscom. Over the past five years, the ASPCA has poured resources into its “relocation” program, which in March will celebrate its 200,000th animal moved. But it is far from alone.

These pipelines of adoptable animals—primarily, but not exclusively, moving from south to north—have become a cultural phenomenon in their own right, and a key part of a broader transformation of companion-animal welfare. The ASPCA’s program may be the biggest and most organized, but dogs (and, to a lesser extent, cats) move by all sorts of other means. There are ad hoc bands of volunteers, organizing on Facebook and Petfinder, who cover their back seats with towels and rendezvous at rest stops, passing animals along every couple hundred miles. In big cities and their suburbs, nonprofits have sprung up to partner with overcrowded Southern shelters, hire a driver and load up a van with a few dozen animals every month or more. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these groups became overwhelmed with demand in some states, leading to months-long waiting lists and stiff competition among adopters. That spurred a surprising fourth category: veritable smugglers, who saw an opportunity in loading up a horse trailer with the cutest strays and driving north (leaving the nonprofits with the sick and less desirable animals).

Wells, 4 months, Millie, 4 years, and Coralie 1 year wait to be moved from their travel kennels into quarantine at Second Chance Animal Services
Wells, 4 months, Millie, 4 years, and Coralie, 1 year, wait to be moved from their travel kennels into quarantine at Second Chance Animal ServicesEvan Angelastro for TIME

It is a good time to be an American dog. In the 1970s, as many as 20 million dogs and cats were euthanized each year. That number has declined precipitously. The ASPCA now estimates 390,000 dogs and 530,000 cats are euthanized each year, down from 2.6 million as recently as 2011. That’s still too many—especially when a way to further reduce the number is at hand. Euthanasia was once seen as an inevitability: there were just too many animals. But a combination of factors—cultural, medical, and political—has changed that. More people want mutts, rebranded “rescues.” Fewer animals are born each year, thanks to broader spay and neuter programs, often dictated by law, and improved surgical techniques. And more are being moved, which helps save those animals, but also opens up space and time to care for others left behind. For shelter staff, who suffer from a disproportionately high rate of mental-health problems, nothing matters more than keeping up with their animals’ needs. Rather than being beaten down by the incessant necessity of euthanizing the unwanted, they are buoyed by a steady flow of adoptions.

Money helps, of course. The geographic disparities that lead one place to have too many dogs and another too few are primarily fueled by a difference in resources. Shelters in heavily populated cities and suburbs benefit from well-funded population-control programs and large pools of potential adopters. Shelters in rural areas struggle with excess animals, and communities with broader economic burdens. Puppies flying private may seem excessive—the flight into Hanscom cost the ASPCA approximately $30,000—but the kennels on the tarmac among the corporate jets are an indicator of the broader success of the animal-welfare movement, and the enthusiasm of its donors. The easy problems are nearly solved; the hard ones require a new approach. “Animal relocation” is not only about meeting demand for puppies, but also building the capacity to help all animals.

The ASPCA-sponsored flight exemplifies an organized effort to connect disparate communities in pursuit of a common goal. It is a living, breathing—barking, panting—geographic arbitrage. But by treating these flying puppies as points of connection between communities, like the knots in a net, the issue of excess animals can be addressed. It’s a recognition that some problems, even ones that bridge red states and blue states, can be solved together.

When Michele Anderson first volunteered at the Oktibbeha County Humane Society, its challenges could be measured with a simple formula. Like many shelters, it calculated its “live-release rate”: the number of animals that left alive, divided by the total number that came in through the door. In 2009, it hovered around 50%. “I remember if we had a cat that sneezed, we didn’t keep the cat,” Anderson recalls. New animals filled the door of the shelter every day, and there was neither the space to house them nor the money to pay the staff to take care of them. But Anderson saw a way to change that.

Danielle Bowes, a care and adoption counselor at Second Chance, moves Zelda from the crate she flew in
Danielle Bowes, a care and adoption counselor at Second Chance, moves Zelda from the crate she flew inEvan Angelastro for TIME

OCHS occupies a tidy brick house on the industrial edge of Starkville, the thriving home of Mississippi State University. Inside, every inch is devoted to animals and their care, with barking dogs and prowling cats behind every door and supplies stacked in every corner. Outside, a fenced-in green-grass backyard gives the dogs a place to play. But the social heart is the iron bench on the little porch out front, often busy with chatting veterinary students from the university and volunteers.

It was there that Anderson, who had joined the shelter’s board of directors, oversaw the arrival of a transformative visitor: the “Rescue Waggin’,” a green van with a giant puppy decal on the side. It belonged to PetSmart Charities, the philanthropic arm of the pet-store chain. The first year it came to Oktibbeha, in 2009, it picked up 40 animals, a handful at a time, and transported them to places like Kansas City and Chicago. Over the next few years, the Rescue Waggin’ raised that to several hundred. “But it really wasn’t doing anything,” Anderson says. It wasn’t addressing the broader challenge in the community.

OCHS was far better resourced than many of its Mississippi neighbors. It had the social capital of the university to draw on, and a contract with the city of Starkville to take in strays. By many measures, Mississippi is the poorest state in the U.S., and in nearby communities “animal control” was more likely to be a fenced-in area alongside the town dump or behind the sheriff’s department. OCHS had professors of veterinary medicine advising on best practices, but places like Winston County, 25 miles away, struggled to provide basic necessities to the animals in its care.

Anderson, who works as an administrator at the university, saw a way for OCHS to “step up our game”: they would transport in more animals. At first, it seemed anathema: the goal was to have fewer. But if OCHS could act as a hub, consolidating the work it took to prepare animals for transport, it could reap the rewards of volume. “Instead of Rescue Waggin’ coming down for five animals, we were able to fill the entire truck,” says Anderson. They began working with partner organizations to bring in more dogs; and a growing list of transport partners to ship dogs out. From 2009 to 2019, OCHS’ live-release rate skyrocketed from 50% to 95%; rather than euthanizing every other animal, it found homes for all but one in 20. Last year, the little shelter sent out 1,842 dogs and 844 cats on transports, about two-thirds of which came in from partner organizations. “If we didn’t have transport, it would be devastating for us and the groups we work with,” says Anderson. “It’s transformed the lives of these animals, and the people who are dealing with these animals—because now they have some sort of hope.”

Four-month-old siblings Zelda, left, and Zara, right, traveled together from Mississippi to Massachusetts
Four-month-old siblings Zelda, left, and Zara, right, traveled together from Mississippi to MassachusettsEvan Angelastro for TIME

On the other end, there are plenty of shelters eager to receive them. Sheryl Blancato, founder and executive director of Second Chance Animal Services—one of the shelters that met the flight in Massachusetts—remembers, around 2007, when her kennels began to empty out. “We noticed that we started to have space,” Blancato recalls. From the street, the Massachusetts and Mississippi facilities don’t seem that different; like its Southern counterpart, Second Chance occupies a converted house on the edge of town. But whereas OCHS had (and still has) an endless stream of new arrivals, by the mid-2000s, Second Chance began seeing far fewer. Blancato started driving down overnight to Virginia or Maryland, returning with a full van. She saw how the adorable new arrivals increased foot traffic at the shelter, which in turn increased the likelihood that the harder-to-love, or the older-and-larger, would find homes.

Blancato’s experience tracked a broader transformation in American dog culture. Animal welfare used to be animal control: the dog catcher of lore. (It’s how Blancato got her start.) Private shelters began to pop up in the 1980s and ’90s. Petfinder, the ubiquitous classifieds site for adoptable dogs, was founded in 1996—right on the heels of Craigslist and Match, the year before—and similarly revolutionized how people found pets. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina galvanized animal welfare, as evacuees’ despair over their abandoned pets showed how much companion animals meant to people. In response, Congress passed the PETS Act in 2006, which required local governments to accommodate family pets in their disaster planning. In 2007, the ASPCA aired its famous “Angel” commercial, with singer Sarah Mac-Lachlan asking viewers to give a “second chance” to an “animal in a shelter right now.” Astonishingly, it alone raised $30 million for the ASPCA in its first two years, and helped cement the image of a “rescue dog” as a virtuous good, rather than a nuisance. By the time Insta-gram launched in 2010, and the oldest millennials turned 30 and began adopting their own animals (and giving them their own accounts), #AdoptDontShop was a movement. In the 1990s, fewer than 10% of dogs were adopted from shelters; today, that number has grown to nearly 30%.

That steady increase in demand coincided with a decrease in supply. Around the same time, in the late 2000s, veterinarians launched a concerted effort to spay and neuter more dogs and cats. The strategy was in part technique: vets developed ways of performing the surgery faster. They could set up assembly-line clinics, bringing down the cost per animal. But it was also law: 32 states now require that an animal be sterilized before it is released from a shelter. It exponentially reduced the number of animals born outside of deliberate breeding. Puppies became scarce.

Not in Mississippi. Dr. Phil Bushby, one of the more prominent proponents of the national spay/neuter efforts, teaches at Mississippi State. He thinks of this interplay between surgery and transport like a faucet flooding a basement. “Transport is bailing water out of your basement,” he says. “Spay/neuter is turning the faucet off. You have to do both.”

Presley, 8 weeks, left, and Hazel, 18 months, will be adopted immediately
Presley, 8 weeks, left, and Hazel, 18 months, will be adopted immediatelyEvan Angelastro for TIME
Evan Angelastro for TIME

On a crisp Mississippi afternoon with a deep blue sky, Camille Cotton sits in front of two computer monitors inside her office, a little red brick building at the edge of the OCHS parking lot. Think Pawsitive, says the plaque above her desk. Each week, sometimes several times a week, Cotton organizes the transports. She starts with a blank spreadsheet and begins assembling her manifest, drawing on the animals waiting at OCHS for their ticket out, or checking in with any of three dozen partner organizations to see who might be “transport eligible.” When Cotton texts, they reply immediately. If she takes their dog, it frees up a crowded kennel, with the assurance that the animal will go on to a good life. “They’re all pets, they’re just homeless,” Cotton says. “They just need somewhere to go.”

Some come with scars, others with stories. Elmer Fudge, a 1-year-old hound mix, was the largest on Cotton’s list that day, at 49 lb. He’d arrived at OCHS a couple weeks earlier as a stray, and the staff now knew him well. “Elmer Fudge is ready to lick your face and smell your yard,” noted the last column of Cotton’s spreadsheet. The mix is crucial, like a box of bonbons, “but sometimes it’s not that easy,” Cotton says. “Bless their hearts they might all be black and brown.” Joyce, a 3-year-old pit bull mix, is white, and traveling with four of her 2-month-old puppies. “Joyce is a sweet soul,” notes the manifest. “She has been through so much.” Joyce and her pups were among 19 animals seized from a home where a murder took place. Cotton tries to stay dispassionate. “The ones at OCHS, we know each other,” she says, “but you can’t have favoritism on transport, because you can lose sight of what’s best for the dog, and what’s best for the source shelter, and what’s best all around.”

The ASPCA precisely manages the movements of its 18 vans, which run north full and south empty. It also sets strict requirements for how both source and destination shelters participate in the relocation program. Everyone needs to follow the ASPCA’s thick portfolio of “standard operating procedures,” covering everything from how the dogs are tagged before departure to keeping track of which destination states require which heartworm preventatives. As much as anything, the shared procedures help build connections between the source and destination communities. Rather than well-resourced Northern shelter workers shaking their heads at the poor treatment of animals by their Southern colleagues, the program gives everyone a better understanding of their shared challenges. When possible, they visit one another. “Have them walk a mile in their shoes, because there’s nothing like that,” says Heather Cammisa, former president and CEO of St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in New Jersey. “They’re already getting their teeth kicked in, just on what they have to deal with every day.”

Read More: Some Workers Are Choosing Their Pets Over Their Jobs As Offices Reopen

Over time, the shelters that needed the most help find themselves in a position to help others. At the ASPCA, they call it “pushing the line”: when the problem of animal overpopulation is solved in one place, it can be meaningfully addressed in the next. “What we’re starting to see is shelters that started as sources of dogs for us, become aggregators of dogs for their own communities,” says the ASPCA’s Bershadker. When OCHS brings in healthy animals from around the region, those rescues can devote more energy to their struggling animals. “It’s definitely a domino effect, where we help them, they get help from their community, and it evolves,” says Anderson.

Cheyanne Gustafson walks Hazel into quarantine at Second Chance Animal Services
Cheyanne Gustafson walks Hazel into quarantine at Second Chance Animal ServicesEvan Angelastro for TIME

Cotton’s group was headed from OCHS to Wayside Waifs, a shelter in Kansas City, Mo., around 600 miles away. Each month, Karen Walsh, ASPCA’s senior director of animal relocation, creates a transport calendar with her team. They poll the destination shelters on how much space they have; confirm that the source shelters don’t have any health issues, like a distemper outbreak; and plan the routes. The ASPCA operates five “Way-stations,” overnight rest stops that serve as dog motels for their transport program, in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, California, and Kansas—each serving shelters within a 650-mile radius. “It’s a costly program because we do it that way, but it’s a very safe program because we do it that way,” Walsh says.

They talk about someday putting themselves out of business. The end point would be when a combination of transport and population control balances supply and demand, and animals are no longer euthanized for space in America. The adjacent risk, however, is a shortage of dogs that spurs unsafe puppy breeding. That prospect has some discussing the possibility of shelters in high-demand areas starting their own breeding programs. For those who vividly recall the era of high euthanasia rates—much less those who are still living it—it’s a shocking idea, like a cocktail hour at rehab. But, its proponents argue, encouraging more healthy “American mutts” could be an alternative to allowing commercial puppy breeders to meet the public demand for animals.

The next morning, a crescent moon hangs over the Mississippi predawn. After a night at the Hampton Inn, the ASPCA’s drivers, Mel Rock and Jess Tippie, beep the van back up to the OCHS door. The staff gathers around, and Tippie checks the paperwork on an iPad and shuffles the printed rabies certificates in plastic sheaths. “All the health certs were good?” Rock asks.

Then the dogs start coming. A 20-year-old volunteer cradles Button, a tiny dachshund she’s been fostering at home for 10 days. Rock and Tippie had already labeled the crates strapped into the back of the van, determining in advance where each animal would go. Their moves are all choreographed and codified by the ASPCA, from closing the van door while each animal is loaded in, to changing out their surgical gowns and gloves to prevent the spread of any illness. Andrea Spain, a professor of English at the university who runs her own small rescue, brings over Mo, a 9-month-old Rottweiler mix, who jumps in circles. Rock fills a red watering can with bottled water, then slips its thin spout through the mesh crate doors, filling each animal’s bowl for the all-day journey.

It’s 38 dogs in total, and also a webbing of ties between communities—in Starkville, in Mississippi as a whole, at the destination shelter in Kansas City, and wherever the dogs end up. When the truck leaves, OCHS has space for 20 new animals. Not for long. “No sooner than we get a couple of kennels open, here comes a newbie!” Cotton says. “There is a door they open somewhere and it’s just like … Who let the dogs out?”

Blum is the author of The Weather Machine and Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

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