STARKVILLE, Miss. — The din of 27 howling puppies, waiting here for a ride to New York City, is the sound of lives being saved.
The dogs, loaded onto a Dodge cargo van marked “Mississippi Mutts On the Move,” like at least tens of thousands of others making the trip northward might once have died for lack of shelter space.
Before the Oktibbeha County Humane Society shelter started shipping puppies and dogs north a decade ago, half the dogs and cats in its care were put down — a “kill rate” of 50 percent. Last year, when the humane society transported 3,000 dogs north, 93 percent of its animals left the shelter alive.
“We are the epitome of the Southern shelter. We are too small for the amount of animals coming in,” said Michele Anderson, a humane society board member. The shelter was built in 2005 to hold 100 dogs and cats, but typically has 120, using crates in hallways to hold the excess. Every day brings in as many as 20 more animals.
“Here in Mississippi, we are in the heart of the struggle,” Anderson said. “We are always over capacity.”
The trend of relocating animals began in the mid-2000s, when a slew of massive hurricanes devastated the South and left thousands of pets homeless. Shelter dogs, many lost or abandoned by fleeing residents, were moved around the country by volunteers hoping to eventually reunite them with owners. Animal rescuers took note, set up a travel network and since then, thousands of Southern animals have made treks north.
As concern about abusive puppy mills spreads, more than 300 cities and two states have banned retail pet sales, requiring stores to offer only shelter-rescued dogs and other pets for adoption. As a result, new markets have opened for the dogs and cats languishing in animal shelters across the South.
Hard numbers are not available, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) alone has increased pet shipments from the South from about 500 in 2014 to more than 40,000 in 2018.
The trend may continue as more states prohibit retail pet sales. A California ban took effect this year, a Maryland one starts next year, and Pennsylvania and New York are now considering them.
The chatty pups in the Dodge van, along with three adult dogs, eventually made their way from rural Mississippi to the Big Apple last week. Half were adopted this past weekend, and volunteers hope to find homes for the rest in the coming days.
To be sure, some states — wary of canine diseases and parasites — are less eager to take in the animals.
Rhode Island imposed the nation’s most onerous quarantine for imported dogs — at least five days — after cases of the deadly canine parvo virus rose from two a year to two a week at its peak in 2012.
“It was affecting people’s lives, because they would bring home an imported dog with parvo, their other dog would catch it, and before they realized it, both dogs were dead,” said Rhode Island State Veterinarian Scott Marshall.
Rhode Island’s quarantine followed similar actions in Massachusetts, where officials imposed the first quarantine on imported dogs in 2005, and in Connecticut, where dogs were required to be examined by an in-state veterinarian within 48 hours of arrival.
After complaints from rescue organizations, Rhode Island later in 2012 began to carve out exceptions for rescue organizations that could show they carefully screen for parvo and other ailments such as heartworm parasites, Marshall said.
“From a pure health perspective, we shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “But it’s political now. People think they’re doing a good thing. They want to do this.”
Northern states, which often have shortages of adoptable dogs, have residents eager to take in surplus dogs from the South. They’re doing it through shelters like the one in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi, through volunteer rescue activists who coordinate moves between shelters, and even through individual animal lovers who journey cross-country to find new companions.
A couple from New York City recently spotted a pup online, flew here to Starkville to come get it, and drove back home, according to Martha Thomas, the humane society’s development director.
Some potential owners find out about the relative abundance of Southern dogs by accident.
Susan Ethridge of Woodbridge, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., was frustrated over the past year by the low supply of shelter puppies in her area when she wanted one for her grandson.
Twice she signed up for “clear the shelter” events in suburban Washington, only to wait for hours and still miss out, because people who came even earlier adopted the dogs her grandson liked.
“We were never quick enough to get the puppy we wanted,” she said.
Over the winter holidays, she visited her father in Heber Springs, Arkansas, and he suggested their local shelter. The shelter was full of dogs, and she walked out an hour later with her new puppy, Molly, a husky mix. The adoption fee was $90, a fraction of what she would have paid at home.
She wasn’t even the first out-of-state visitor that day, New Year’s Day 2019.
“They told me I just missed a lady who drove down from Massachusetts and took nine Labrador puppies — she already had deposits on six of them,” Ethridge said.
Thirteen states plus Los Angeles County, California, make up “donor” areas of shelter dogs, according to the ASPCA, which in 2018 helped transport more than 40,000 animals, mostly dogs.
Some cats are transported too, but because cats typically are not in short supply anywhere, there is less demand for cat deliveries.
It’s impossible to gauge how many dogs and cats are moving north for adoption, since so many shelters and small rescue groups are working on it, and not all states keep careful track, said Patti Strand, director of the Shelter Project at the National Animal Interest Alliance, an Oregon-based group that opposes animal welfare extremists and compiles public information about shelters.
Dog overpopulation in the South has many explanations: warmer weather, poverty that makes it hard to pay for spaying and neutering, and fewer legal controls over loose dogs.
“These areas have a long mating season because of the warm weather, and a lot of areas don’t have shelters or low-cost spay and neuter clinics,” said Karen Walsh, transportation director for the ASPCA. “The culture is different in the South. I’m from Tennessee, and you get used to seeing everybody’s dogs walking up if you have a cookout.”
Phil Bushby, a veterinarian who pioneered mobile spay and neuter programs in Starkville in the mid-2000s, said he often hears resistance to the procedures.
“Some people just don’t like the idea. I’ve had so many people tell me, ‘He won’t hunt if I neuter him,’” Bushby said.
Mississippi, as the nation’s poorest state, also has many people who can’t afford to pay a veterinarian for spay-neuter services, and might see selling puppies as a source of income or gifts to neighbors who like the dog, Walsh said.
Starkville now has a “Fido Fixers” van that offers free or low-cost spay-neuter services, donated by a Connecticut-based charity.
The van provides service for residents around Starkville and also places as far away as Meridian, 100 miles south, where the local shelter’s kill rate is 70 percent, Anderson said.
“We do 250 operations a month,” she said, “and it’s not nearly enough.”
Many Mississippi residents can’t afford the cost of heartworm prevention, and most states won’t allow importing dogs and cats that test positive for the parasite. But Ohio is generous in allowing heartworm-positive dogs to come into the state for treatment before adoption, Anderson said, so she often turns to a Toledo shelter for help.
Rescuers go to work
The movement of dogs from the South to the North started in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s ravaging of Mississippi and Louisiana in 2005, said Kim Kavin, a freelance writer and the author of several books on puppy breeding and rescue.
“There were all these dogs that were abandoned or about to die in flooded shelters. You could see it right on TV,” Kavin said. “That was really the catalyst that started this interstate adoption on a massive scale, and it’s just grown and grown from there.”
Eagerness to save dogs led some rescue activists to cut corners, a problem that persists today, Kavin said. She found several sick or aggressive animals among the 20 rescue dogs she adopted at various times in her New Jersey home.
“The rescuers, in their zeal to help save dogs, do sometimes blow off the regulations,” including the certificates of veterinary inspection required by most states to show that imported dogs were recently examined and appeared healthy, Kavin said.
Connecticut’s state veterinarian, Mary Jane Lis, said the transport process has evolved since the mid-2000s when the state passed laws to rein in the transfer of rescue dogs at parking lots by out-of-state groups.
“It was a lot of good Samaritans who just picked up dogs and decided they could just move them, without any kind of documentation,” Lis said. “Now there’s more structure than there was. They’re going through more organized channels.”
There’s plenty of interest in saving dogs, but also attention to paperwork, at the Starkville shelter. As a shipment of puppies headed north on a recent night, volunteers and veterinarians checked certificates in a three-ring binder and looked one last time for any signs of parvo, which can be signaled by fever, lethargy or vomiting, and other illnesses.
The shelter seeks help from small groups and individuals to hold dogs for transport so the shelter doesn’t fill up.
Those foster animals made up a third of the 3,000 shipped north in 2018, Anderson said. They help make up for a lack of formal shelters and animal control officers in adjacent northern Mississippi counties.
On a recent day, the sheriff’s office in rural Choctaw County asked the Starkville shelter for help: It had a court order to pick up two emaciated dogs from a rented house, and deputies were afraid to add them to a makeshift holding pen with three other stray dogs deputies had taken in.
That’s typical of some rural counties in Mississippi, Anderson said. Without her shelter’s help, those dogs are likely to be euthanized or returned to owners without vaccinations or spay-neuter services.
“Some counties will find a veterinarian to euthanize the dogs, but some will just take them behind the office and shoot them if they pick up a dog and nobody claims it in five days,” Anderson said.
One dog lover who agreed to take in foster dogs is Lisa Wise, a retired steelworker who lives 40 miles north of Starkville in Aberdeen, Mississippi.
Wise said she has 44 dogs and cats in her large home and grounds in Aberdeen. She specializes in hard-to-adopt dogs, older dogs or ones with behavior problems, coaxing mostly Northern adoptive families to take the animals after she works on repairing bad habits.
“My husband says I’m spending our retirement money. But what can I do when I know there are so many dogs that need help?” Wise said. “I got a call about a man with terminal cancer who has 20 animals, and then a call about another elderly man who doesn’t have the money for his own groceries, and he has 16.”
Many transport groups say they are careful with the certificates they carry for the dogs, eager to avoid legal trouble if they’re pulled over and asked to show documentation.
At a community college parking lot near Baltimore, volunteers converged at dawn on a frosty January morning to shift shivering dogs from South Carolina, many still puppies, to new drivers for the next leg of their journey north toward adoption.
A dozen cars pulled into the lot as drivers greeted one another and pulled dogs out of cages for walks after their latest leg of the trip, roughly an hour stretch from Alexandria, Virginia. They prepared to shift the dogs to cages in other cars for the next leg, which would take most of them to Delaware.
But first they exchanged folders with each dog’s certificate of inspection.
“The paperwork moves before the dogs. We’re in trouble if we lose those,” said Jean Schnurr, who helps manage the network of people driving dogs in personal cars on legs of about 75 minutes of driving time.
The group, named MAMAS on the Move Transport, works with the Mary Ann Morris Animal Society in Bamberg, South Carolina, to move 700 dogs a year. Some drivers keep dogs overnight at their homes.
Jim Freal delivered a black lab mix named Reilly to Catonsville on a recent morning after keeping him overnight at his home in Arlington, Virginia. Freal has been helping occasionally with the trips for about two years, he said, and worried at first about introducing large shelter dogs like Reilly to his own 5-pound poodle.
“We haven’t had any trouble,” Freal said. “All the big dogs that come from the South seem to be so pleasant. They have Southern manners, I guess.”