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All Over the Map—The Pros and Cons of Animal Transfer Programs

The postings on have the insistence of distress calls: “URGENT! I need help transporting two Dalmatian mix pups—they don’t have much time!!”

“Cherry eye weimaraner puppy needs transport from TN to Toronto, Canada! The airline charges $300 and won’t transfer when it’s below 20 degrees!”

“12 little puppies running away from death at a NC high-kill shelter—will be gassed unless we GET THEM OUT.”

Around the country, a vast, loose network of groups—sometimes shelters, but more often breed placement groups and private individuals—oversees the transport of animals from city to city, from state to state, and sometimes over international borders. Many consider their work a kind of canine underground railroad, moving homeless animals from overburdened shelters and communities to places where they’re more likely to find new homes.

Most of these transporters have only the best of intentions, yet their activities are at the center of another controversy in the ongoing national discussion about euthanasia. The commitment of “rescuers” to save particular animals from euthanasia manifests itself in a quietly chaotic phenomenon: At any given time, small groups of animals are on the move—a few dogs in the back of someone’s car, an FeLV-positive cat in a rented van, some litters of purebred puppies toted in a crate in the belly of an airplane.

The lack of a centralized system for tracking where these animals come from and where they end up has fueled ongoing rumors about worrisome transport practices and outcomes: that puppies and kittens are being transported when they’re too young; that animals are ending up with organizations which have no spay/neuter policies or which provide animals for research; that shelters receiving transported puppies are making enormous profits from their adoption; and that transported animals are bringing awful diseases into previously healthy shelter populations.

Even worse, detractors charge, animal transfer operations that funnel money into transportation or invest time in long road trips are often doing so at the expense of helping other animals, pet owners, and agencies in their own backyards. While some transfer programs do involve short-distance shuffling of animals among neighboring community agencies, others focus on routinely bringing in dogs from faraway places. Some organizations—largely in the Northeast and Northwest—even fly in animals from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Taiwan, where euthanasia methods and standards of living for homeless animals are frequently terrible enough to soften the most pragmatic of hearts.

In the eyes of those concerned about long-distance transfers, such geographical leaps imply that regions to the North have licked the problem of animal homelessness. While it’s true that populations of juvenile animals seem to be most concentrated in the South, the Midwest, and the Southwest, pockets of the Northeast and Northwest are still trying to stem the tide of both baby and adult dogs. And cat overpopulation is still an issue for shelters all over the country. Critics say that bringing more animals into such areas only further aggravates the problem.

Media coverage of the subject hasn’t helped. A recent USA Today story about transfer programs bore the headline: “Animal shelters in the USA send away for more strays.” The story focused on the efforts of Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, Massachusetts, to bring in stray dogs from Puerto Rico. While that area of Massachusetts is in fact experiencing a greatly reduced volume of adoptable dogs, the article did not explain that these lower numbers are specific to New England; instead, the writer asserted that “adoption campaigns have helped empty dog pounds” and indicated that across the United States, animal shelters no longer have good dogs to offer adopters.

Deafened by the barking from their kennels, many American shelter staff groaned as they read the story. Meanwhile, shelters as far away as Latvia e-mailed The HSUS after reading of the American dog shortage; they had plenty of dogs in their country, they explained, so could they please send some to the dog-poor United States?

But it wouldn’t be fair to blame the media alone for all of these misconceptions when the subject is so complicated. Even as the field of animal care and control progresses, the complexity of the animal homelessness issue deepens. Even as organizations in wealthy, socially conscious areas of the country ride an unprecedented wave of financial and moral support and watch their intake numbers plummet, other groups continue to battle wave upon wave of litters of puppies and kittens—and watch as those animals wait in their kennels while locals continue to obtain pets from backyard breeders and pet stores.

There’s a well-known allegory often mentioned in animal protection circles: The tide has stranded thousands of starfish above the waterline, and a child is walking along throwing them back into the water. She meets an adult who asks her why she’s bothering with the task: there are so many starfish, he says, that the few she manages to save can’t possibly make a difference. She responds by throwing another starfish back into the water and saying, “It makes a difference to that one.”

It’s a beautiful story, but it also manages to capture the reason for the controversy surrounding some kinds of animal transfers. Whereas private citizens can—and indeed, must, due to limited resources—focus on one animal at a time, an open-admission animal shelter must set its hand to helping all the animals in the community; in other words, helping “those” rather than “that one.”

For the Good of the Many

It is easy to sympathize with individuals who want to get animals out of shelters where euthanasia is a daily burden. But many shelter staff are frustrated when they encounter people working frantically to prevent the euthanasia of one or two animals. People who’ve spent years in shelters work to help such large numbers of animals that it’s given them a different perspective. It’s not that they see the death of a single animal as any less tragic; it’s that they have to work for the best possible outcome for the largest number of animals, rather than putting their entire reserves of passion and energy into relocating one purebred who’s scheduled for euthanasia.

Nevertheless, as more shelters experience occasional or frequent bouts of “empty kennel syndrome,” many are looking outside their organizations to the broader community and exploring the possibility of transfer programs. Organizations with staff willing and able to manage such programs can institute transfer systems with greater accountability and quantifiable results, cutting down on the haphazard methods that have made many transports controversial. Some have found that a transfer program with the commitment and resources of two organizations behind it can benefit a larger number of animals, shelter staff, and adopters in both the sending and receiving communities—particularly if those communities are neighbors.

Though we frequently speak of “community” in terms of our own geographical neighborhood, there are other kinds of communities all around us, overlapping in vast, concentric circles—communities based on interests, on political alliances, on careers. Every animal protection organization belongs first to the local community it serves, but then to the larger community of animal protection. And for the groups experiencing “empty-kennel syndrome,” bringing in animals from organizations still suffering from “busting-at-the-seams kennel syndrome” is one way to serve that larger community of animals and people.

Even shorter-distance transfer programs are complicated and time-consuming, and doing them right requires buy-in from staff at every level of an organization. While official transfer programs tend to begin with contact between the top people at the organizations involved, they shouldn’t develop without staff commitment; after all, it’s the work of kennel staff that will be most affected by an increased intake of animals. An organization considering participating in transfers needs to decide whether its desire to take part is matched by its ability to handle the challenges of such a program.

Because the methods and means of the groups doing transfers differ greatly, it’s impossible for Animal Sheltering to generalize about transfer programs; we can’t say overall that they are good or bad, helpful or futile. Instead, we’ve tried here to present some small pieces of the larger puzzle.

Included in these pages are discussions of the merits and pitfalls of animal transfer; a list of questions interested agencies need to ask each other before developing a partnership; and an exploration of the potential health problems created by long-distance transfers.

We’ve also included profiles of two organizations with stellar transfer programs. The Dumb Friends League in Denver, Colorado, and the Marin Humane Society in Novato, California, have gone beyond merely transporting animals to become models of partnership in their regions. They’re also great examples of the regional peculiarities that have caused many organizations to look to transfers as a means to help animals both in and out of their local communities.

We hope these small pieces will help you put your own puzzle together. Animal transfer is not the answer to all our problems, but when done well it can be an effective tool for combating animal homelessness.

Visit our Animal Transfer Programs resource page


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