Some of the 52 once-doomed dogs were puppies, and others were fully grown. They were a blend of collies, hounds and Labrador mixes.
Margie Griggs and other volunteers for Old Fella Animal Rescue hand-picked them from kill shelters, found them on the sides of roads or found them dumped in their yards by strangers.
On June 11, a handful of Old Fella volunteers fostering the group of 52 dogs met at Wal-Mart in Waynesboro, Ga., where they waited for a Sprinter van with air conditioning, stainless-steel cages and a mission.
Puppy Pipeline Rescue of Georgia was there to drive the dogs 1,000 miles to a shelter in Salem, Mass., where they would be adopted out to families that wait hours in line for a Southern mutt.
“We were all standing out there taking pictures and waving to the van taking off,” Griggs said. “I get goose bumps just thinking about it because their lives could have been so different.”
With 6,500 unwanted animals euthanized last year at Augusta Animal Services – more than 70 percent of the dogs and cats dumped there – some shelter officials are pushing to use this cross-country transportation strategy to make the local facility no-kill.
Augusta’s animal overpopulation problem is complex, but shelter advisory board member Aimee Murphy said the search for a solution no longer can wait.
“We’re not just yelling from the sidelines anymore,” said Murphy, one of five advisory board members working on the proposal. “We need a public outcry. This is urgent. There are literally places up North clamoring for them, and we’re killing them.”
There is no straightforward remedy for pet overpopulation, and it does not get solved overnight, said Cory Smith, the director of pet protection and policy for the Humane Society of the United States.
Spay-and-neuter laws aren’t foolproof because communities rarely back them up with accessible and low-cost clinics to help pet owners comply, she said.
Education is key, but it’s difficult to reach the rural, low-income areas where overpopulation is rampant.
Transporting animals to Northern shelters with a low supply of animals doesn’t address the root ill of the issue, Smith said, but some shelters have come up with innovative ways to reduce kill rates.
“We can’t adopt our way out of the overpopulation problem,” she said. “It’s a holistic approach. You have to get outside the shelter walls on a community level. It’s about reaching the community with your message and making it easy for people to spay and neuter, not just requiring them to.”
Murphy said her group is looking at using resources such as the Northeast Animal Shelter, the facility in Salem that received Old Fella’s 52 rescue dogs this month. Last year, Northeast found homes for 4,800 dogs from 12 states, including eight in the South, according to Jane Taubeneck, the program coordinator for the shelter’s Puppies Across America Program.
The average time an animal waits at the shelter before being adopted is two days, she said.
“We get 60 to 70 puppies every other week from Alabama,” Taubeneck said. “They come in, finish quarantine and people are lined up outside to adopt them. We are afraid at some point we’re going to saturate the area.”
Like Georgia, Massachusetts requires pets to be sterilized – or promised to be sterilized – to be released from a pound, shelter or public rescue, but it is without a spay-and-neuter law for pet owners. Still, Taubeneck said, strays are rare in the affluent state, and spay-and-neuter compliance is natural.
“It’s very rare to see a dog running free on the street … which is why we can help so many other states,” Taubeneck said.
Northeast Animal Shelter requires each adopter to show proof of home ownership or written approval from a landlord and provide two references to take an animal; it charges $450 for puppies, $225 for kittens and $225 for mature dogs.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires animals traveling across state lines to be fully vaccinated, and the cost of that sometimes
falls on the rescuers sending them.
Taubeneck said her organization reimburses part of the medical and travel costs – up to $50 per dog – lightening the burden on many small, private rescues.
Home for Good Dog Rescue in Berkeley Heights, N.J., travels to kill shelters in Georgia and South Carolina and drives dogs to foster homes in New Jersey until they are adopted.
Since it opened in August 2010, the rescue has transported and found homes for 2,700 dogs, according to public relations officer Jackie Bucuk.
Run on donations and grants, the rescue covers vaccinations and transport costs and pays adoption fees to kill shelters that charge them to take dogs off “death row,” Bucuk said.
“The overpopulation problem down there is just different,” Bucuk said, and the average amount of time dogs wait in foster homes to be adopted is one to two weeks. “That shows we have a lot invested here in controlling the problem.”
Adoption policy hurdles
Murphy, of the Augusta Animal Services advisory board, said the biggest hurdle hindering the movement is the shelter’s policy to not release unaltered animals to rescue groups.
Georgia law requires public shelters to sterilize animals before relinquishing them to rescue groups or private citizens, but it also allows shelters to enter into written contracts with the person or group acquiring the animal guaranteeing the new owner would spay or neuter the pet within 30 days.
After the Augusta shelter lost its part-time veterinarian – who performed sterilizations – in March, it has had to call outside vets to come in until a full-time vet can be hired in December.
Still, Director Sharon Broady said she will not allow unaltered pets to be relinquished to rescue groups, even on a contract that they will arrange a spay/neuter, because of low compliance in the past.
In an e-mail interview, Broady said that she is open to exploring options to lower euthanasia rates but that a no-kill shelter would require “a new facility, additional staff, to include another veterinarian, vet
techs and a much larger budget.”
She said it would also require changing laws to require spaying and neutering to reduce the number of animals ending up at the shelter.
Broady pointed out the difficulty facing all municipal animal control facilities to realistically become no-kill because by law they cannot turn away any animal. That includes taking in the deathly ill, unmanagably aggressive dogs, and healthy animals when already over capacity.
In general, shelters can be considered no-kill if their euthanasia rate is below 10 percent and reserved only for animals severely ill or too behaviorally challenged to be adopted.
Columbia County Animal Services manages a 30 percent kill rate, less than half of Richmond County’s, even without a full-time vet on staff, according to its manager, Linda Glasscock.
Glasscock said outreach and activism are vital. Her staff of 13 visits parks and events to show the public photos of adoptable animals and hand out information about spay-and-neuter services. They visit schools to teach about proper animal care and hold field trips to the facility.
Out of the 1,400 animals euthanized last year, Glasscock said, only 245 were healthy animals killed for lack of space and the remaining 1,155 were aggressive or sick animals that could not be adopted.
Glasscock allows unaltered animals to be adopted, and she said her staff is proactive about making sure owners obey the law. If they do not return evidence of the spay or neuter in 30 days, they are cited, referred to court, and face a fine or jail time.
“None of them get by without getting it done – none,” said Glasscock, who took 69 owners to court last year.
In Atlanta, LifeLine Animal Project founder Rebecca Guinn took control of Fulton and DeKalb county animal control through a contract in 2013 and manages a 20 percent kill rate at both shelters – down from almost 50 percent the year before.
Transporting animals to Northern states is a small part of her operation of 130 employees, but she said her bread and butter is outreach. Before taking over the two municipal shelters, her rescue opened two spay-and-neuter clinics that are still in operation and self-sustaining.
Her shelters – which took in 9,000 animals in Fulton County last year and 7,000 in DeKalb County, compared with 9,300 in Augusta – conduct spay-and-neuter outreach in low-income communities and hold regular adoption events.
“It’s about making the services accessible and affordable to the people who need it,” said Guinn, a former Atlanta lawyer turned animal rescuer.
There are five spay-and-neuter clinics within 20 miles of Augusta, but Augusta Animal Services advisory board member Willene Colvin said it’s not enough.
Colvin said that until spay-and-neuter education in the community becomes inherent, more action is needed.
“It’s easier to kill them than it is to work with people to get them out, but we have to try,” Colvin said. “There’s a lot more animals that could be saved. There are people up North very, very serious about taking dogs from our kill shelters. We can’t wait anymore.”