By: Vicki DeGruy  Date: 12/2/2003

December 2003: Networking and transportation have always been a critical part of the rescue process, especially in low-population breeds and those without well-distributed foster homes. It's not unusual for a purebred dog in a Nebraska shelter to be driven to a rescue service in Chicago that has an available foster home. Arranging transportation to permanent adoptive homes is also common.

For the most part, these transports involve one or two dogs at a time, from a shelter to a rescue service, from one rescue to another, or from a rescue to a pre-approved adoptive home. The latter is becoming more common as the Internet helps breed rescue groups in different areas do reference and home checks for one another. About two thirds of the messages posted on rescue email lists are requests for home checks and transport arrangements for individual dogs.

Also assisted by the Internet, entire groups devoted to transport have been created. Manned by volunteers unable to foster dogs themselves but wanting to help in other ways, the best known and most professional of these groups is the Canine Underground Railroad (CUR). CUR volunteers must meet strict membership criteria, undergo background checks, and provide references. The dogs transported must also meet a standard of temperament and health, and have had pre-travel medical care such as vet exams, vaccinations, and spay or neuter.

On the increase, however, are transport programs that are literally cleaning out shelters in one part of the country and bringing dogs en masse for placement in another. This practice began about 10 years ago when New York's North Shore Animal League began retrieving mixed breed puppies from rural shelters in southern states and bringing them north for placement. There was, the shelter alleged, a shortage of puppies in New York thanks to aggressive spay/neuter programs and reduced breeding. NSAL provided financial grants in exchange for puppies so the shelters could establish their own spay/neuter programs. This philosophy soon spread to other large shelters in the northeast that began making treks down south to relieve their own shortages.

Although this activity created a lot of bitterness among non-participating shelters struggling to place less desirable adult dogs, it was somewhat hard to argue with the general principle at the time. People definitely do want puppies and routinely choose them over adult dogs, making placement easy. Most of the puppies were spayed and neutered before adoption ensuring they wouldn't reproduce, the southern pounds were relieved of great expense and trouble, and most importantly, the puppies were adopted rather than euthanized as was the common practice in these resource-poor facilities. It appeared to be a win-win situation. As the practice has spread to the Midwest and beyond in recent years and is being embraced by private rescue groups as well as shelters, small breeds and some young adult dogs are being included as well as puppies.

Flies in the ointment

But is everything as good as it sounds? Unfortunately not. Situations such as these are putting a spotlight on this growing activity and raising concerns:

In August 2003, a rescue transport volunteer in Connecticut was cited for animal cruelty when he was discovered with 69 dogs crammed into 12 crates in an overheated van. Eleven dogs died. The dogs had been gathered from a shelter in Kentucky. The van's driver said this was his seventh trip to Connecticut with dogs from southern shelters. According to the Hartford Courant, the shelter was paid $55 for each dog with most of them bound for a private rescue service in Fairfield that charges a $225 adoption fee and had received a warning last year from state animal officials for missing health and rabies certificates. The Kentucky shelter reported that it had sent 300 dogs to Connecticut previously and thousands more to New York, California, and Canada.

4 Paws Pet Transport, a private rescue group in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has been bringing van loads of dogs to the state from small rural shelters in Kentucky and Indiana for over two years. Adopters responding to the rescue's website's emotional pleas for homes meet the transport vans on arrival in Milwaukee, pay an adoption fee, and take home unaltered dogs that have not been vet-checked and sometimes have contagious diseases and parasites like parvo, coccidia, and hookworm.

Recently, the Wisconsin Humane Society, the most visible animal shelter in my state, also in Milwaukee, has begun going south for dogs, claiming a shortage of adoptable pets here. WHS says their adoption program is so successful that the average dog in their facility is placed within 24 hours. Sponsored by Nylabone, WHS's "Operation Puppy Shuttle," began importing dogs from the City of Indianapolis pound in April 2003, while at the same time rejecting as many as 75 percent of the dogs in the Milwaukee county pound as "unadoptable."

Indianapolis animal control officials said in March that the pet overpopulation problem there was so severe that there simply weren't enough homes available locally, prompting their arrangement with WHS. Ironically, though, Indianapolis has a much larger human population than Milwaukee - 818,000 vs 600,000 - with a significantly greater market for potential adoptions.

Some of the rescue groups involved in these transports go out of state for dogs because they have a poor reputation in their own areas and local shelters will not release animals to them. Poorly funded rural shelters desperate to move dogs are eager to accept any help, turning a blind eye to credentials or the lack thereof. Animals are sent largely on faith that they will be well cared for, altered, and placed appropriately. Sometimes they are, but sometimes they're not.

Interstate transport of rescued and shelter dogs is largely unregulated. Other than state requirements that incoming dogs over a certain age be accompanied by rabies certificates, there are few health standards. There are no laws governing care during transport, the number of animals carried, or how they can be carried. Federal laws such as the Animal Welfare Act oversee animals intended for resale, but not adoption. In many states, shelters are specifically exempted from animal welfare and cruelty statutes. Most rescue groups and volunteers would prefer not to be regulated; however, there seems to be something of a double standard. Professional pet brokers are required to be licensed and inspected, and rescuers agree this should be so, but shelter transporters appear not to see that they're moving dangerously close to being brokers themselves, inviting closer scrutiny and the potential for legislation.

A matter of perception

Differing philosophies and politics between shelters and rescue groups contribute to the differences in perception of a regional adoptable pet population and must be taken into account. For example, WHS says there's a shortage of adoptable dogs in its area forcing it to seek dogs from out of state, but the number of dogs in the county pound and in neighboring shelters indicate otherwise. Much of the difference involves the definition of the term "adoptable." WHS' criteria for adoptability and its temperament testing methods are different than most of Wisconsin's other shelters and rescues. There may be fewer dogs that meet its criteria but not that of others. Relationships between shelters must also be considered in the shortage equation. WHS has reached out to other state shelters seeking dogs for its program but its help hasn't always been welcomed because of longstanding differences in policy and procedures.

The perception of overpopulation vs. regional shortage is also complicated by the individual policies of various shelters. Many city and county pounds, as mandated by their local governments, are "non-adoption" facilities; they don't offer adoptions to the public at all, preferring to go the cheaper route of farming out their animals to other shelters or out of state and euthanizing what's left over. The Milwaukee County pound, with an average of 70 dogs in residence any given day, is non-adoption. The public, whose taxes and license fees pay for this facility, is not allowed to adopt these dogs. Many rural pounds are also non-adoption, some by choice. The head of one that I visited recently said "I don't want the public tramping in and out of here all day." Residents of that county must go to the neighboring county's pound if they want to adopt.

Another misconception fueling the northern transport movement is an outdated perception of the types of adoptive homes available in southern states. Many people believe that only stereotypical "rednecks" and dogfighters adopt from southern shelters and therefore dogs must be moved north, away from this danger. In reality, thousands of good, responsible homes are there; it's a matter of shelters reaching out to them, promoting the dogs, and inspiring people to come in and adopt them.

More changes are coming to the south, as the Charlotte Observer reported on October 5, 2003. A 28- member committee appointed by the North Carolina House will hold hearings and reviews over the next six months to determine why their state's pound euthanasia rates are twice the national average and suggest reforms to their shelter system.


Most of the volume transport efforts focus on puppies and small breeds claiming there's a shortage of both in their respective areas. However, this "shortage" is not new and isn't surprising to anyone seriously involved in dogs. Small breeds and puppies of all types have always been in great demand with the public and it is those that are traditionally adopted first, rarely remaining long in adoption wards regardless of location. In fact, euthanasia of puppies at overcrowded shelters has more to do with a lack of personnel to care for them and their high risk of contracting infectious disease than a lack of adoptive homes within their regions.

The real shortage today is adoptive homes for medium to large mixed breed adult dogs. These "generic" dogs make up the majority of euthanasia statistics nationwide. Overlooked by adopters and transporters alike, and often discriminated against during strict temperament tests that fail to allow for poor social skills caused by neglect and lack of basic training, these dogs face the most dismal future of all. Many are handicapped by their apparent or assigned breed mix; about half of the daily population of the Milwaukee County pound are pit bulls or pit bull mixes, neither considered desirable by the average adopter and automatically euthanized at many shelters. If any group of dogs is deserving of a concerted effort to improve their lot, these are.

Some flatly allege that "no one wants these dogs" but could it be that they've not been made want-able? Consider the racing Greyhound, a large prey-driven breed raised in kennels during their most formative years without exposure to the "normal" world of a family pet until later in life. Greyhound rescue groups not only remade these dogs into family pets, they created a demand for them through vigorous promotion, education, and outreach. Could not the same be accomplished for the generic mixed breed dog and its truly unfortunate cousins, the pit bulls and pit bull mixes? It's a matter of shifting perspectives and applying the same resources to a similar problem.

There are indeed still dozens of poorly funded shelters in low population areas that are routinely full of strays and unwanted litters that they honestly don't have enough local homes for. There are still many large cities whose pounds overflow. Some of the them are dealing with it through euthanasia, others by shipping dogs out of state. Both actions, though, are endless revolving doors, in one and out the other by whatever means necessary. Neither provide a plan to reduce the number of incoming animals through the same aggressive education and spay/neuter programs that have brought success to other shelters. Taking the most desirable animals out of these less fortunate areas while failing to help them develop programs that address the real issues is simply perpetuating the problem.

The future

That we have made so much progress in the pet surplus battle that some shelters now have empty kennels is a remarkable success story, something to celebrate. It's taken a long time to get there but we've followed a course that's been proven effective. Now we must share that success with the shelters that haven't arrived yet by helping them get there, too. We still have a lot of work ahead.

We must also examine our role in this evolving situation and determine where exactly we're intending to go. Although shelter intakes have fallen, the public's demand for puppies and particular types of dogs has not. In fact, we've made so much progress discouraging commercial breeding in the US that retailers are now importing puppies from other countries to meet this demand. (They say they have a shortage.) Seeking out and importing shelter dogs to fill regional demands suggests that we may be changing our focus from finding homes for dogs to finding dogs for homes. We may be on our way to becoming suppliers, rather than saviors. Is this really what we want to do? In the effort to help less advanced shelters by importing their dogs into our own states, we must be very careful not to turn them into the new American puppy mills.

As shelter populations decline, it's inevitable that our selection of popular and easily placeable dogs will narrow. This is a byproduct of all our hard work and should be welcomed. It brings new challenges and forces a shifting of perspective. It's time to take a another look at the "leftover" dogs and apply our resources to them as well. Some should not be saved because of severe problems, but a great many can be made desirable through simple obedience training, aggressive education and promotion.

Is there really a shortage of adoptable dogs in some places? It depends on your perspective.

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