Coming forth to carry them home
Thanks to the Internet and an "underground rail-road" of drivers, dogs from high-kill shelters several states away are spared, delivered to loving families in the Northeast.
By Amy Worden
Inquirer Staff Writer
Buster spent the early spring on death row here, stuck in an outdoor kennel at the overcrowded county shelter.
The beagle-mix puppy was the last of a litter found starving and neglected under a barn. The next stop for him was the euthanasia room.
These days, Buster - now a lively 1-year-old - frolics in the quarter-acre backyard of his Hatboro, Pa., home.
Buster owes his sweet suburban life to what has been called the "canine underground railroad." This network of animal lovers plucks unwanted dogs from high-kill shelters in depressed areas of Appalachia and the South, and brings them to the Northeast, where there are more adoptive homes.
In Buster's case, five volunteer drivers, each taking a 75-mile leg of the trip, whisked him away from almost certain death in northwestern West Virginia last month and delivered him to his loving home in Montgomery County.
It's a story played out every day across the country as rescue groups comb animal-shelter lists on the Internet and then put together a string of drivers to save endangered dogs - and, when there's room, a crate full of hitchhiking cats.
"If we had to put down all the dogs that we would if we didn't send them out, no one would work here," said Theresa Bruner, vice president of the Federation of Humane Organizations of West Virginia. "It would be too depressing."
Too many unwanted cats and dogs, not enough homes. It's a familiar situation everywhere. In Philadelphia, shelters destroyed 8,369 dogs last year, about 60 percent of the dogs they took in, most because of age, injuries or temperament, according to the city's two shelters.
But a combination of factors conspire to make the crisis in West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia and the South particularly acute: widespread poverty, the absence of spay/neuter education programs, and a staggering number of stray animals.
Shelters in West Virginia took in 103,000 dogs and cats last year, and about 75 percent were destroyed, according to the Federation of Humane Organizations.
A decade ago, the state's numbers were even grimmer. But in recent years, animal shelters there and around the country have been using the Internet to find homes for dogs. The Net frees shelters from relying solely on the local population for adoptive homes - especially helpful to a poor state like West Virginia.
"The Internet is a godsend," said Rosy Cosart, director of the Wetzel County Animal Shelter, where volunteers work hard to place Buster and many others like him.
Libby Marquardt, a volunteer coordinator for Trucknpaws, which has 2,000 members and says it is the largest transportation network, estimates that thousands of dogs are being moved every week all over the country.
Marquardt, of Mount Airy, Md., spends hours each week combing shelter Web sites for adoptable dogs, screening rescue groups and drivers, and mapping out routes throughout the mid-Atlantic and Midwest.
There is a high demand for certain breeds and puppies in urban areas that rural shelters can fill, Marquardt said.
Still, there are plenty of unwanted dogs in the Philadelphia area that are needlessly destroyed, animal-care officials say. Of the 7,300 dogs euthanized last year by Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Association, the city's shelter, about half were unadoptable because of age, temperament or health, but the others were destroyed because of lack of space, said Jeff Moran, a spokesman for the agency.
Erik Hendricks, executive director of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said there was a shortage of puppies in urban areas because many more people in those areas spayed and neutered their pets. To meet the demand in the group's Philadelphia shelter, he said, the SPCA ships in puppies from shelters in northern Pennsylvania.
Urban shelters also have large numbers of overly aggressive dogs that are not suitable for families, he said.
"There is the pit-bull factor," Hendricks said. "But there are a lot of dogs perfectly healthy and young, just not puppies anymore, who won't be adopted even though they may have 10 or 12 years of good life and love ahead."
Buster and his five littermates spent their first 10 months huddled under a barn in this hardscrabble area along the Ohio River in northwestern West Virginia on the Pennsylvania border.
"The person who called animal control said they'd been dumped on her property," said Cosart.
An animal control officer deposited them at the Wetzel County Animal Shelter in late March. "They were almost comatose," she said. "They were scared and hungry."
Three of Buster's littermates were adopted and saved, two by the group that helped Buster. One was destroyed because he fought with his kennelmate over food.
The shelter is in a small cinder-block building in a patch of lowland at the edge of the county fairgrounds. The shelter staff has brightened the place up with lavender paint and stenciled paw prints. Volunteers built a shed roof over the kennels, but it is so crowded lately that some dogs are tethered to stakes with doghouses nearby.
A Web-savvy volunteer maintains a list of the shelter's available cats and dogs, posting their pictures on the national pet adoption site, petfinder.com.
Buster's journey to Pennsylvania began when 17-year-old Pete Walton of Hatboro stumbled on the tricolored puppy with the floppy ears while surfing the Net in May.
The Walton family was looking for a younger companion for their 7-year-old poodle, Comet. They decided to explore adoption when they discovered the average puppy at the local pet store cost $1,000.
"Why buy a dog when you could save one?" Pete Walton said.
The Waltons contacted Animal Rescue and Referral, an all-breed rescue group based in Richboro, Pa., which arranged to transport Buster to the Waltons' home.
Just before dawn on June 5, Joe and Lou Rabel rolled up to the shelter in an SUV with their own ex-shelter dog, Buttons, a Saint Bernard/Great Dane mix.
The Rabels, a retired West Virginia couple, make regular 200-mile round-trip runs to Maryland with dogs from the Wetzel County shelter.
"It's the least we can do," said Lou Rabel, 62. "We see so many animals that are dumped."
Buster and his traveling companion, a spitz named Teddi who was heading for a home in Wilton, Conn., were spruced up for the road trip.
After a bath, a dose of Dramamine, and a round of goodbye kisses, Buster was packed up for the 400-mile ride ahead.
On the Saturday of Buster's journey, the rain was coming down in sheets in Hagerstown, Md., a hub of mid-Atlantic canine transport activity. The city sits at the junction of Interstate 70, a major east-west route, and I-81, a major north-south route through Pennsylvania that links the Northeast with the South.
It was a busy morning in Hagerstown. At one meeting point, volunteers put 23 dogs, mostly puppies of various stripes, into a van heading to a rescue group in Lancaster.
After a drink and a bathroom break, Buster was loaded up again for the next 75-mile leg to Harrisburg. By the time he reached his permanent home in Hatboro, Buster had traveled in five different vehicles and had spent a night at the Levittown home of rescue volunteer Anne Maghee.
On a recent summer evening in Hatboro the Walton family - Dave, Chris and Pete and his sister, Elizabeth, 10 - watched Buster gambol with his canine pal, Comet, in their fenced-in yard.
It took Buster a few days to figure out how to navigate the staircase, but now he sprawls out on the couch like he owns the place, says Chris Walton.
Carsickness may be Buster's only shortcoming.
"He doesn't travel very well," said Chris. "But that's OK, he's home now."
Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or firstname.lastname@example.org.