Tag Archives: interstate animal transport

Flood of Kindness

The animal shelter where I volunteer, normally quiet and shuttered at 10 p.m., shone last night like a brilliantly lit-up ocean liner on a dark sea. As I pulled into the parking lot I marveled at the number of vehicles; my fellow volunteer observed, as we both got out of our cars,”It looks just like a weekday.”

Our group of some twenty shelter staffers, vets, vet techs and volunteers had gathered to meet the shelter’s transport van, which had just returned from St. Landry Parish in southwestern Louisiana — a 20-hour round trip. There, the two drivers — Mike, the shelter’s animal services dispatcher, and Becca, one of our animal services officers – had collected 17 dogs from a shelter and brought them here. This will free up space in the Louisiana facility to take in some of the multitude of homeless animals rescued from the floods in Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

In the gated unloading area, the van stood with its doors open, its interior lights illuminating the crates stacked floor to ceiling. Each contained a medium-sized or large dog, and all the dogs were loudly giving voice to their fear, anxiety and eagerness to be out of the kennels in which they’d been confined for 10 hours.

The shelter’s staff had planned the intake process well, making the next few hours as smooth and stress-free as possible for the newcomers. Each of us volunteers stepped up to the van to get a dog: mine was a four-month-old male pup, tan and white. I first tried to take him to potty after the long trip, but he thrashed in a panic at the end of the leash. So I picked him up and carried him into the building, following the sign to “Station 1.” There, a kind vet tech held him and cooed to him while another drew blood from his arm for the necessary heartworm test. Thankfully it was negative. I consoled him with a piece of the precooked bacon I had bought that day as a special treat for the travelers — experience with shelter dogs has shown me that bacon pretty much improves any situation.

On we went to Station 2, where my puppy was weighed, given a flea treatment and a new name — “Crawdad.” His admission form was filled out and we proceeded to Triage, where I relinquished him to the vets who would give him a preliminary medical check and the vaccinations that all dogs receive on admission to the shelter. From there he was taken by other volunteers to his new kennel, for food, water and much-needed rest.

This procedure was repeated 17 times, and within a couple of hours all the dogs were settled in their accommodations for the next ten days or so. They will subsequently be given thorough medical evaluations and behavioral assessments, and then, hopefully, they’ll all be released for adoption.

Southeastern Tennessee is a long way from Houston, but the ripple effect from that city’s catastrophe has made big waves in our community. In preparation for the dogs we’ll be taking from Texas and Louisiana — and these 17 were just the first of several planned transports — our shelter put out a call for foster partners to house and care for our present canine residents, to make space for the new arrivals. So far, 200 people have volunteered. When I went in today for my usual Friday-morning dog-walking shift, there was a long line of people at the front desk patiently waiting to be escorted back to the wards to choose their foster pets. The hallways were crowded with donations of food, blankets, plastic bags, toys and other necessities.

Other shelters in our city are responding with equal energy and commitment. Concern for vulnerable animals has opened floodgates and released a torrent of human kindness.

This morning I looked in on little Crawdad. He was lying on a fleece blanket atop a raised dog bed. He had a plush hedgehog to curl up with, a bowl of fresh water and a licked-clean food bowl. Soft music played in the ward and all the other dogs — some 20 of them — were uncharacteristically quiet.

Crawdad cautiously came to the gate of his kennel and accepted a chunk of bacon from me. Mike, the dispatcher and van driver, told me last night that this puppy and several others on the transport had been rescued by the Louisiana shelter from a hoarding situation involving 47 young dogs. For Crawdad, this comfortable, climate controlled kennel must be like going from the pits to the Ritz. Here he will be cared for and have the chance to build trust with humans, and if all goes as we hope he’ll find a home — his first — with people who will love him forever.

Meanwhile, some other dog in Texas who has lost his home and his people will find a safe refuge in Crawdad’s former berth in the Louisiana shelter. And thus the ripple effect of kindness will spread on, and on, and on.

A Dogged Sense of Purpose

When my husband and I moved from New York to Tennessee four years ago, we left behind our full-time jobs. My husband, a former orchestral trumpet player and music professor, took up composing, learning the piano, and studying music with a focus impossible in his busy working life. His days were happily filled.

Although I continued a part-time magazine editing job, and my fiction writing, there were still a lot of empty hours in my days. Too, writing is a notoriously isolating pastime – and one that often feels soul-sappingly insignificant. My new freedom weighed heavily on me. I felt somewhat adrift.

I have always loved dogs, and when we made our move we were dog-less for the first time in thirty years, having lost our golden retriever five months earlier. I decided to try volunteering at our new city’s busy animal shelter. I began by walking the shelter dogs twice a week. My enthusiasm and commitment grew, my roles expanded, and before I knew it I had found what I was looking for: a new purpose.

It’s hard to feel adrift when being pulled along by a 75-pound pit bull eager to get to the exercise yard. I can’t doubt that I’m making a difference when a dog who formerly cowered in the corner of her run and growled at me now jumps up when I come near, wagging and loudly demanding an outing. Helping at a vaccination clinic in one of our city’s poor neighborhoods, I know that I’m enabling those pets to be healthier and their guardians to receive vet services they couldn’t otherwise obtain for the animals they love. When I put my writing abilities to use in creating a newsletter for the shelter and crafting animal bios to help them get adopted, it doesn’t feel isolating or insignificant. In fact, my animal welfare work has given new energy to my writing, inspiring this blog, now in its second year, and a memoir-in-progress about what the shelter dogs have taught me about resilience, trust and love.

I am not alone in finding a new vocation in volunteering “over 50.” At our shelter the contributions of retired people add up to hours and hours of cost-free, often highly skilled and committed labor. And, in addition to offering the competencies honed in our former careers, we gladly perform all the unglamorous chores that help keep the animals healthy and lift some of the burdens from the staff – doing dishes and laundry, cleaning kennels and outdoor yards, restocking supplies. After years in the work world and raising families, older volunteers can see what needs to be done and do it without being asked or needing our hands held. We’re generally emotionally mature, too, so we show up when we say we will, and can accept criticism or guidance without getting defensive.

Beyond the fact that we all love animals, our reasons for volunteering at the shelter are as varied and personal as our chosen areas of specialization. Maureen and Phil, a husband and wife team of photographers, take stunning photos of the shelter dogs and cats. Lee, whose medical condition prevents her from being able to handle the big rowdy dogs, uses the photographs to design gorgeous posters for every adoptable animal, and puts them on Instagram and Facebook. ​Sonia and Irene have told me that volunteering filled voids in their lives left, respectively, by the death of a spouse and retirement from a much-loved career as a physician. (The fact that the majority of the volunteers I serve with are women demonstrates that animal welfare work is an area where women are especially valued.)

For me, an added benefit of my shelter work is that it helps me feel young. Dogs don’t care about gray hair, wrinkles, or a stiffness in my gait. Because of my willingness to do just about anything asked of me, I am treated as an equal by people decades my junior. The workouts while walking the dogs rack up my daily step total and keep me agile and strong. I’m learning all the time, gaining new skills.

And I’m able to do things that younger people simply can’t. Last night, for instance, Becca and I – both of us on the far side of 65– set out at 6 p.m. to drive a transport of 12 dogs 2 hours north to meet a driver who would ferry them on to Michigan, where shelters, like many up north, lack a sufficient supply of adoptable dogs. At the rendezvous point, a shopping center in Knoxville, we had to climb repeatedly in and out of our tall cargo van to get the dogs out of their crates for walks before their long trip north. Then we had to put them back (in many cases like trying to cram a spring into a too-small box). When the relay driver arrived we had to get them all out again. Back at the shelter at 11 p.m. we unloaded all the heavy crates for cleaning. I was, quite literally after hugging so many puppies, pooped. Yet I felt a deep satisfaction that I could perform this particular life-saving service, which would be impossible for someone who had to care for young children or wake up at 5:30 a.m. to get to a job.

I think the secret to never being over the hill is always setting yourself a new hill. Not one so forbidding that it compromises your physical or emotional well-being — just one that challenges you, expands your heart’s capacity, and opens new vistas before you. And in my case, I hope that a furry friend will always be my companion on the journey.

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For information about the range of volunteer roles offered by animal shelters, both onsite and off-, please see my posts “Volunteers Do It For Love, Part I” and “Volunteers Do It For Love, Part II”

Road Worriers

An old friend from the rural New York area where we used to live posted a picture on Facebook, of a beautiful young black and tan shepherd-type dog lying curled up in his plush dog bed. “This is Percy,” she wrote. “He came to us from the South, and he’s perfect.”

A major export of the part of the country where I now live, the southeast, is dogs. Dogs and puppies, so numerous that our shelters are constantly overcrowded, are sent to midwestern and northeastern areas where there aren’t enough adoptable pets to meet the local demand. The reasons for this shortage are twofold: strictly enforced spay and neuter laws, and tough long winters that most homeless animals can’t survive.

Last week Dee, my driving partner, and I set out from the Tennessee shelter where we both volunteer to a small town in a rural county some hundred miles north of our city. Our mission was to deliver a van load of dogs – 11 of them, ranging from Paco, a tiny chihuahua, to Sarajane, a supersized St. Bernard-type girl – to a shelter there that served as a meeting point for several rescue organizations from nearby communities.

Sarajane and Paco in our shelter’s van on the first leg of their long northward journey

All these rescue groups would load their dogs into a huge trailer and the drivers would convey the animals to the shelter in northern Pennsylvania that had bought the trailer and hired these drivers to do these transports regularly. From there the Pennsylvania shelter would distribute the dogs to their network of affiliated organizations in their home state and neighboring New Jersey and New York. For each dog that we sent, the receiving shelter would pay us a modest but much-needed fee.

Dee had made this trip once before. As we were wending our way up I-75 toward Knoxville, she said, over the chorus of protests from our passengers, “I don’t like to say anything bad about anyone….” Which is true – she is the very soul of kindness. “But the people, the drivers, seemed a little – rough. They weren’t very friendly. And they had a young girl with them, I guess their daughter, and she casually dropped the f-bomb, and her mom said to her, ‘Hush, you’re in the South now. They don’t talk like that down here.’”

We arrived at our destination. The shelter was situated behind a large Walmart shopping center, but the narrow road that led to the facility took us to another world: a hilltop with a view over unspoiled pastureland and the distant Smoky Mountains.

Peaceful vista

The long, enclosed trailer, attached to a pickup truck, was surrounded by three or four small vans from other shelters. As I walked over to check in with the drivers of the transport I heard muffled barking from inside all the vehicles.

I saw what Dee meant about the drivers – a man and woman, both with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and a brusque way of speaking with none of the softening courtesy that is habitual in the South. Two young girls – maybe fourteen and eleven – whom I presumed to be their daughters, were helping their parents unload the dogs from each shelter’s van. We were the last to arrive and obviously had a wait ahead, so we decided to walk our dogs, to give them some fresh air, water and exercise before their long confinement on the trip north.

Some dogs came bounding out of their crates. Friendly volunteers from the host shelter assisted us, bringing bowls of water for the animals and helping us walk them.

A few of our dogs, however, were fearful. Pansy, a little black puppy with fluffy ears, crouched, trembling, in the back of her kennel, which had been stacked on top of two levels of crates below. She met my gaze with large, frightened brown eyes. The towel that had been put in with her for padding was stained with poop and vomit. This little one was not a happy traveler.

Dee and I both tried to coax her out. “Oh, God love her,” Dee said. “How’s she going to do on this big trip?”

I finally reached in and pulled her out, and was about to set her on the cool grass to walk around a little and drink some water, when the woman driver came over. She was a stocky person in a tank top and cutoff jeans, with a no-nonsense demeanor. “That one’s too young to go on the ground,” she said decisively, and took the little creature from me.

She handled the puppy capably, not roughly but efficiently, with no cooing or patting.

That signaled the beginning of our turn to load. As we brought our dogs to the van with the help of the mother and daughters, I asked the man, “How long is the drive?”

“Eleven hours.”

“I used to live up that way,” I told him, by way of friendly conversation. “In New York.”

“Too bad for you,” he said with a sardonic smile.

“How often do you do this run?”

“Once a week.”

“Wow. Year round?”

“Yep.”

He seemed disinclined to chat so I quelled my curiosity, but questions remained: Were there really that many homeless dogs, all year round? What if a shelter brought a sick dog to the transport; did the drivers refuse it? Did they stop along the way at all and take the dogs out? (I couldn’t imagine how those logistics could be managed.) Were there shelters along the route where they had contacts if an emergency should arise? And what about the young girls — were they on spring break, or did they routinely accompany their parents, and if so, what about their schooling?

Before going back to our van to help with unloading the animals, I looked inside the trailer, lined with crates secured to the walls.

It was air conditioned, and seemed clean. I was glad to see that each crate had a small water bowl hooked to its gate, though I wondered how long the water would stay in there once the vehicle was in motion. Rows and rows of dog faces looked back at me, many contorted with barking. The family wouldn’t hear the barks or cries in the pickup that pulled the trailer. On the plus side, the dogs wouldn’t have to smell cigarette smoke.

The man’s wife came up to the entrance to the trailer, holding Sarajane, our big St. Bernard girl, 88 pounds. “She wouldn’t walk,” the woman huffed, holding the dog’s back against her front, with Sarajane’s long legs bobbing up and down. Clearly the dog did not want any part of this; inside the trailer she splayed her legs out against the sides of the slightly-too-small crate and the woman had to kneel down and muscle her in, which she did with no cajoling or reassurance, slamming the gate of the crate firmly closed.

In a short time all of our animals were loaded. I took a last look at Pansy, the little black puppy, sitting quietly in her kennel. I said a silent prayer for her and all the dogs’ safety. We turned over the paperwork to the man and wished him and his family a good trip.

On the way home the empty crates rattled and thumped in the back as I drove. Dee and I shared our anxieties: such a long trip – and some of our animals hadn’t been walked very long, or, in the case of Pansy, at all. And the people – they weren’t like the rescue workers I was used to meeting, warm and open, and clearly motivated by love for the animals. However these professional drivers might feel about the dogs, handling some thirty or forty of them once a week and logging approximately 1400 miles in two days, they had to be brisk and efficient. Sentimentality was a luxury they couldn’t afford.

In all honesty, I probably would have worried even if Jane Goodall, the Dalai Lama and Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger were ferrying the precious passengers such a long way. I hoped with all my heart that the end result of the ordeal for the 11 dogs we sent – and all the others who traveled with them, and the countless others that we’ll send in the future — would be loving, permanent homes.

And I hoped that some day, through education and stricter enforcement of spay and neuter ordinances, the problem of animal overpopulation in the South might be conquered and these grueling mass transports rendered unnecessary. It did occur to me, however, that a negative result of this positive step might be a shortage of adoptable dogs nationwide, which unscrupulous puppy-mill breeders might try to exploit. The challenges in animal welfare are many and ever-changing.

For now, it comforted me to imagine a post going up on Facebook soon, from some unknown person in Pennsylvania, New Jersey or New York, showing a picture of a little black dog with fuzzy ears and big brown eyes lying on a plush dog bed, with the caption: “This is our new puppy, Pansy. She came to us from the South, and she’s perfect.”

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MORE ABOUT DOGS ON THE GO…

Anxious about leaving your pooch outside a store while you run inside for “just one thing”? Check him or her into a Dog Parker, like the one below, seen outside an organic market in Brooklyn, New York. Climate controlled, safe and secure, it seems like a good idea and certainly beats risking your pet’s safety tied to a parking meter or shut up in a hot car. The trick, of course, would be getting your dog to accept it!