Most Monday afternoons, a van arrives at Animal Shelter, Inc., in Sterling, Mass., with a rare and coveted cargo: mixed-breed puppies. The 30 to 40 dogs that are unloaded come in all shapes and sizes, and display traces of most major dog types, from Hounds and Heelers to Shepherds, Labs and Collies. These pups—who are moments away from nail clipping, fecal testing, and blood work, and hours away from being spayed or neutered—may not feel lucky at the moment; the 10-hour drive from south-central Virginia leaves many of them car-sick and confused. But by week’s end, when most of these little guys are in their new “forever” homes, their travails will have been well worth it.
Balancing supply and demand
Since the van first began pulling into Sterling in July 2001, thousands of dogs and puppies have made the trek north through the Homebound Hounds program of Southside SPCA in Meherrin, Virginia. With few exceptions, each of these dogs has been placed. And Sterling isn’t alone in importing from the South; shelters and individual adopters from Maine to Washington, D. C., are increasingly looking southward for adoptable dogs. That’s because spay/neuter campaigns in the Northeast have been so successful, and the message to adopt from a shelter rather than a pet shop or breeder has been so forceful, that there aren’t enough adoptable dogs to meet the demand. That’s good news, as far as the animal community is concerned.
The inverse is true many sections of the rural Southeast, from Virginia to Louisiana. In these areas, minimal spay-and-neutering efforts, combined with a predisposition toward purebreds and an aversion to adopting from shelters, have resulted in soaring numbers of unwanted dogs.
Sunniva Buck, manager of the Cape Ann Animal Aid (CAAA) in Gloucester, Mass., was prompted to look south when she realized that CAAA’s generous kennel space was increasingly underused. She called shelters around the state of Massachusetts and in Connecticut, but couldn’t find any who had adoptable dogs to offload or who weren’t already working with another rescue group to bring in animals. Though firm data on the number of dogs surrendered on a state-by-state basis does not exist—at least according to the Humane Society of the United States—anecdotal evidence of a slowdown in the Northeast is widespread. When Sandra Dollar, director of Save the Strays Animal Rescue in Bethune, South Carolina, tried to find homes for six Lab-mix puppies, she emailed rescue organizations in the Northeast and received 75 positive responses.
Five years ago, Leigh Grady, director of the Sterling shelter, took in as many as a dozen local litters. Last year, she accepted a total of two locally surrendered pups. Farther north, in Maine, rescuers report that the puppies and young adult dogs available locally tend to be Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, Chows and Akitas, breeds whose reputations for aggressive behavior, whether fair or not, make them hard to place.
“There is a severe shortage of placeable animals in New England,” says Melanie Crane of Biddeford, Maine. “If someone [says] otherwise, they’re kidding themselves.” Crane is co-director of Golden Retriever Rescue Lifeline, Inc., which, despite its name, rescues any dog—pup to senior—as long as it has “a pulse and a good temperament.” Crane works with Gulf South Golden Retriever Rescue in Bourg, Louisiana, and has found homes for about 250 dogs in the last two years. Though that figure is impressive, it barely registers against what Crane says are the gassing deaths of 750,000 companion animals (dogs and cats) annually in Louisiana.
Local attitudes influence numbers
Unfortunately, the Bayou State is not unique. Much of the Southeast is prime hunting country, with seasons that stretch from October to January. Dogs are an integral part of this tradition—Walker Hounds on the trail of deer, Beagles chasing down rabbits, and Pointers and Setters stalking doves and turkeys—and people tend to view their hunting dogs more as livestock than as family companions. “There are plenty of good hunters out there who take great care of their animals,” says Donna Prior with Animal Control in Madison, Georgia, who sends dogs north to two shelters in Massachusetts. “But if the dog isn’t doing what it’s supposed to, there are … hunters who just leave it in the woods.”