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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!