From death row to adop­tion: Sav­ing an­i­mals by car, van, bus and even plane

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY KARIN BRUL­LIARD IN SAN FERNANDO, CALIF.

May was sup­posed to be dead by now. The char­coal-and-white pit bull mix had lan­guished for more than two months at a high-kill an­i­mal shel­ter in east Los An­ge­les County, and though she’d passed one “tem­per­a­ment test” re­quired for adop­tion, she failed a se­cond. That essen­tially put her on death row at the fa­cil­ity.

But a small res­cue group got to May and re­served her a spot on a school bus that would take her 840 miles north to Eu­gene, Ore. There, another res­cue group had pledged to find her a home. And so on a sunny Satur­day morn­ing, she bounded up the steps of the red bus and quickly set­tled into a large crate near the back.

She had plenty of com­pany as the wheels rolled along the high­way: 105 other dogs and cats col­lected from crowded shel­ters in Cal­i­for­nia and des­tined for the Pa­cific North­west, where eu­tha- na­sia rates are lower and pets are in greater de­mand. Their four rows of crates were stacked floor to ceil­ing. “These lit­tle souls have en­gulfed me,” ad­mit­ted Phil Brous­sard, the gar­ru­lous trucker driv­ing them up the coast.

His pas­sen­gers were among the more than 10,000 an­i­mals that will be fer­ried out of the area this year by Res­cue Ex­press, one of the dozens of or­ga­ni­za­tions across the na­tion fu­el­ing a dizzy­ing daily reshuf­fle of dogs and cats by car, van, bus, and pri­vate and even char­tered plane.

These trans­ports, mostly from high-kill south­ern re­gions, are a small but grow­ing fac­tor in a long-term de­cline in eu­thana­sia at U.S. shel­ters. Ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates, an­i­mal shel­ters killed as many as 20 mil­lion cats and dogs an­nu­ally in the 1970s. That had fallen to 2.6 mil­lion by 2011 and is about 1.5 mil­lion to­day, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety for the Pre­ven­tion of Cru­elty to An­i­mals.

The num­bers are only es­ti­mates, be­cause no cen­tral data col­lec­tion ex­ists and only some states re­quire shel­ters to re­port in­take and out­come fig­ures. But an­i­mal ad­vo­cates agree that the de­crease in eu­thana­sia has been dra­matic, driven mostly by suc­cess­ful spay-neuter pro­grams and, more re­cently, by savvy adop­tion cam­paigns, greater ef­forts to re­unite lost pets with own­ers and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of ad­vo­cacy groups both small and large that have swept in to help mu­nic­i­pal shel­ters, which are of­ten poorly funded and slug­gish.

“This has been the sin­gle big­gest suc­cess for the an­i­mal pro­tec­tion move­ment,” said Hal Herzog, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Western Carolina Univer­sity who has long stud­ied hu­man-an­i­mal re­la­tion­ships. “It’s been an in­cred­i­ble drop.”

Still, hun­dreds of thou­sands of an­i­mals are eu­th­a­nized each year, and ad­vo­cates face chal­lenges to push­ing rates lower. For one, pit bull-type dogs — of­ten per­ceived as dan­ger­ous and pro­hib­ited by land­lords — dis­pro­por­tion­ately pop­u­late shel­ters. And fe­line ster­il­iza­tion con­tin­ues to lag, one rea­son cats make up nearly 60 per­cent of shel­ter an­i­mals killed, ac­cord­ing to the ASPCA.

Progress re­mains ge­o­graph­i­cally lop­sided, too. Ad­vo­cates point to north­ern cities’ more con­certed spay-neuter cam­paigns and men­tion “cul­tural” dif­fer­ences in at­ti­tudes about ster­il­iz­ing pets. Cli­mate is another fac­tor: In warmer re­gions, cats go into heat more of­ten, pets are more likely to be al­lowed out­side, and strays sur­vive more eas­ily — all of which lead to more kit­tens and pup­pies.

What­ever the rea­son, shel­ters and res­cue groups say an in­creas­ing num­ber of com­mu­ni­ties in north­ern parts of the coun­try now take in mi­grants — young and old, small and large. Nearly a third of the 30,000 dogs and cats re­ceived by a Portland, Ore., coali­tion of six shel­ters in 2016 came from out­side the area, in­clud­ing from Hawaii.

“For a fam­ily that’s look­ing for that solid dog that’s good with kids and other an­i­mals . . . those are re­ally tough to find,” said Anika Moje, man­ager of the An­i­mal Shel­ter Al­liance of Portland, which had a 95 per­cent “livere­lease” rate in 2016.

This over­ground pet rail­road ex­isted on a small scale for years, then rapidly ex­panded in the eastern United States af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina left thou­sands of an­i­mals home­less in 2005. Trans­ports more re­cently have mush­roomed in the West, de­spite con­cerns in some places about what re­mains a fairly un­reg­u­lated prac­tice.

Yet even those who de­vote their lives to these ef­forts con­cede they will not end eu­thana­sia of healthy an­i­mals.

“We’re the Band-Aid,” said Ric Browde, a board mem­ber of Wings of Res­cue in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. The group flies thou­sands of an­i­mals a year in its pri­vate plane and, some­times, a char­tered jet that can cost $20,000 a flight. “It’s sort of Ein­stein’s def­i­ni­tion of in­san­ity, re­peat­ing things over and over and ex­pect­ing a dif­fer­ent re­sult. I can take dogs out of a shel­ter ev­ery day, but if it fills back up, have I done any­thing?”

The key is keep­ing the fa­cil­i­ties from fill­ing in the first place, says the ASPCA, which in 2014 pledged $25 mil­lion to help do this in the Los An­ge­les area. One of the pub­lic shel­ters it tar­geted was Bald­win Park, where May was housed for sev­eral weeks; it eu­th­a­nizes 44 per­cent of the an­i­mals it takes in. On a re­cent Wed­nes­day, ASPCA staff there coun­seled peo­ple who came to sur­ren­der dogs or cats, point­ing them to­ward dis­counted ve­teri­nary care and ster­il­iza­tion ser­vices — ex­penses that of­ten cause in­di­vid­u­als to give up their pets.

The fol­low­ing Satur­day, vol­un­teer Jana Sav­age brought May to board the Res­cue Ex­press bus. May was a dog the vol­un­teers at Bald­win Park were “wor­ried about,” said Sav­age, a writer who has helped there for sev­eral years. They all thought that the county’s tem­per­a­ment test had not given her a fair shake.

Onto the bus went May, along with a minia­ture pin­scher, a yel­low puppy and sev­eral other small pooches. Brous­sard had driven the ve­hi­cle down the night be­fore from the Res­cue Ex­press base in Eu­gene. The long­time trucker runs many of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s weekly trans­ports, which be­gin in San Fernando and usu­ally end near the Wash­ing­ton-Canada border.

The non­profit has moved more than 8,000 an­i­mals since a for­mer ac­count­ing soft­ware en­tre­pre­neur, a mil­lion­aire named Mike McCarthy, founded it two years ago. He’d al­ways had a pas­sion for an­i­mals and had do­nated to sev­eral re­lated causes, and af­ter watch­ing a Cal­i­for­nia friend trans­fer dogs north, he de­cided there was “a real need for bet­terqual­ity trans­ports.”

So McCarthy moved to Eu­gene — a mid­point on the West Coast — to start his own, one that would be free for the small res­cue groups he knew were of­ten bleed­ing cash. He opted to retro­fit school buses, which he de­ter­mined were more durable than the vans fa­vored by many trans­ports, could hold more crates and were cheaper to run than planes. Nowa­days, that cost is about $20 to $30 per an­i­mal, and Res­cue Ex­press, with a three-bus fleet, is set to add a route up In­ter­state 15 through Utah.

McCarthy, 57, wants to take the model na­tion­wide, though he knows it would make only a small dent in a big prob­lem. “It makes a dif­fer­ence to the an­i­mals that are on the bus,” he said. “That’s how I look at it.”

From San Fernando to the Cana­dian border, the jour­ney takes more than 20 hours and in­volves a driver swap. Brous­sard pulled onto the high­way at 8:35 a.m. Rid­ing shot­gun was Laura Miller, a Tar­get man­ager who moon­lights as a Res­cue Ex­press “trans­port su­per­vi­sor” — a job that en­tails check­ing all the an­i­mals in and out, plus keep­ing their crates clean and wa­ter bowls filled.

The an­i­mals, sep­a­rated from the cab by a metal par­ti­tion, were quiet save for one yippy dog named Brownie. As he drove, Brous­sard held forth on the lo­cal ge­og­ra­phy and na­tional pol­i­tics. Miller kept tabs on the air con­di­tion­ing in the back and texted with con­tacts at the next stop.

At a pub­lic shel­ter in Bak­ers­field, a few dozen more an­i­mals were loaded, in­clud­ing a lit­ter of 6-week-old kit­tens bound for a res­cue group out­side of Portland. Then it was back to the high­way.

At 12:30 p.m., at a truck-stop park­ing lot in Fresno, a group of vol­un­teers helped put about 50 dogs and cats on board. Two dogs got on in Tur­lock, then four more in Lathrop. By 3:15 p.m., the bus was car­ry­ing 84 dogs and 22 cats. By 7:30 p.m., the sight of snow­capped Mount Shasta sig­naled that Ore­gon was not far off. Miller held up her cell­phone and took pho­tos of the sun­set.

It was rain­ing and chilly when the bus pulled over in Roseburg, Ore., where an adopter was waiting to greet his new puppy. Af­ter mid­night, Brous­sard turned into a gas sta­tion lot out­side Eu­gene. Some 15 peo­ple, pro­tected by hoods and um­brel­las, lined up in the dark to re­trieve two dozen an­i­mals.

The se­cond-to-last was May, who was whisked away to a street­light, where she promptly re­lieved her­self.

To­day, May is hang­ing out at North­west Dog Project, the res­cue or­ga­ni­za­tion that had agreed to find her a home. Its 22-acre fa­cil­ity usu­ally hosts 10 to 18 dogs at a time in cot­tages with piped-in mu­sic and even sky­lights. There’s a doggy swim­ming pool, an agility course, a play yard and hik­ing trails.

“A ma­jor­ity of the dogs we take in come from high-kill shel­ters in Cal­i­for­nia, where they’ve been liv­ing in noise and chaos. This is a good place for them to de­com­press,” direc­tor Emma Scott ex­plained.

Like all the an­i­mals the or­ga­ni­za­tion ac­cepts, 2-year-old May will spend a few weeks be­ing eval­u­ated and trained. Scott said she has been ex­tremely friendly and “adores peo­ple.” She “al­ready knew how to sit, and now we’re work­ing on her leash man­ners . . . . We’ll do ev­ery­thing we can to make her as adopt­able as we can.”

PA­TRICK T. FAL­LON FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A dog is car­ried to a bus that will take scores of pets from South­ern Cal­i­for­nia to the Pa­cific North­west. Such trans­ports are a grow­ing fac­tor in a de­cline in eu­thana­sia at U.S. shel­ters.

Dee Matello, right, waits in freez­ing tem­per­a­tures out­side a den­tal clinic be­ing held in Sal­is­bury, Md. The two-day event, start­ing on March 10, pro­vided free treat­ment for more than 1,000 peo­ple.

PA­TRICK T. FAL­LON/FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Phyl­lis Van Box­tel says good­bye to two dogs be­ing taken by bus with over 100 oth­ers from crowded shel­ters in Cal­i­for­nia to pet res­cuers in the Pa­cific North­west, where eu­thana­sia rates are lower and pets are in greater de­mand. ABOVE: A dog boards the bus.

TOP: A peafowl at Los An­ge­les County’s Bald­win Park shel­ter, which eu­th­a­nizes 44 per­cent of the an­i­mals it takes in. ABOVE: The shel­ter houses a pygmy goat. Na­tion­wide, hun­dreds of thou­sands of an­i­mals are eu­th­a­nized each year.

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