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Have leash, will travel

Transport programs give animals a ticket to ride toward a new life

From Animal Sheltering magazine July/August 2015

Staff member Meredith Kaufman helps to unload a St. Hubert’s transport van.Stacy Smith of the Humane Society of Flower Mound in Texas smooches Bruce, the organization’s 1,000th transport dog.The St. Hubert’s Teen Animal Welfare Enrichment Program works with at-risk teenagers in recovery for substance abuse and includes volunteer activities to benefit homeless animals.These kittens were transported from a crowded Newark, N.J., shelter to St. Hubert’s in January 2015.

It was a long journey. They weren’t always sure where they were headed, but someone told them that far away, there was a place for them. So they packed up their dreams and headed off to find a home.

Just like the settlers of long ago, many of America’s companion animals are leaving the places they’re from in search of a better life.

For shelters struggling with too few resources and too many animals, transfer programs can be a godsend, acting as a relief valve to ease the pressure. Some regions have had higher spay/neuter rates over time and thus can lend a helping hand to shelters struggling with higher intake or fewer potential adopters. In many areas, shelters simply have too many of the same type of animal to be able to find homes for all of them (such as Los Angeles’s legendary Chihuahua problem), but those same animals could be easily adopted in another part of the country. For example, hordes of hounds from the South—where unaltered hunting dogs are common— have found happy homes in the Mid-Atlantic and New England, where beagles and their kin are seen in shelters less frequently.

A robust transfer program has been a major factor in the turnaround at Stockton Animal Services (SAS) in California. Seeing that the city was struggling with a live-release rate of roughly 25 percent, the San Francisco SPCA (SFSPCA) stepped in, launching a massive partnership program with the shelter that includes animal transfer. In the program’s first year, SFSPCA took in and adopted out a whopping 1,114 animals from Stockton.

For now, transport programs cater mostly to dogs, though some shelters in New England and other cold areas—where frigid winters quash the perpetual kitten conundrum that states in warmer climes experience—are starting to import cats as well. Others specialize in small animals who need a new place to burrow while waiting for homes. (Small animals may require additional logistics, such as separating them from barking dogs by keeping them in the truck cab.)

“Being involved in a relocation program and transporting animals out gives [shelters] that ability to keep those numbers at a reasonable level and have another outlet aside from just adoptions out of their facility,” says Kristen Limbert, community initiative director for the Animal Relocation and Transport Initiative at the ASPCA. She adds that seeing animals find homes elsewhere rekindles hope among staff at shelters with traditionally high euthanasia rates.

Transporting does get its share of criticism. Abby Volin, rescue group coordinator for The HSUS, says it’s not uncommon for shelters bringing in animals from far away to be criticized by nearby groups that are still struggling to improve their own live-release rates. Importing large black dogs from a group across the country, when a group near you needs help with its large black dogs, probably doesn’t make much sense—and may not do your local relationships many favors. It’s important to be thoughtful about what kinds of animals you’re bringing in, says Volin. “You don’t want to outshine the animals that are already there.”

But transfer programs do offer significant benefits to importing shelters, one of the biggest of which is being able to supply would-be adopters with a diversity of available animals. As one shelter director told Volin, “I can’t have a store where all I’m selling is black T-shirts.”

Limbert agrees. “If people come in looking for a small dog, it’s very unlikely they’ll leave with a large breed. … You’re not going to talk someone into taking a dog that doesn’t fit their needs or what they’re looking for.” And if a family can’t find a match at a shelter, they’re likely to turn to the Internet (where they might unwittingly purchase a puppy mill dog) or other non-adoption sources. Limbert says that keeping a good assortment of adoptable animals trains humans to keep coming back to the shelter to find their next friend.

Stacy Smith, vice president of animal advocacy for the Humane Society of Flower Mound (HSFM) in Texas, says her organization’s Love on Wheels program fills a need on both the source and destination ends. HSFM, located in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, pulls dogs from regional and local shelters and rescue groups and sends them to an adoption partner on the East Coast. Over the last two years, Helping Hounds Dog Rescue in Dewitt, N.Y., has received more than 1,100 dogs from HSFM, many of whom are spoken for by the time they reach New York.

Still, transferring by itself is not a long-term solution for communities burdened by an abundance of animals. Indeed, when the SFSPCA and SAS embarked on their partnership, transfer was only one piece of the puzzle (for more on the partnership, see

Heather Cammisa, president and CEO of St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison, N.J., says that making a lasting difference in a community involves doing more than putting dogs on a truck. “We don’t feel it’s enough to just take animals from an organization. We want to be an active participant in assisting that source community with solutions” that will help reduce its own intake stream.

St. Hubert’s has a national network of “effective distance partners,” along with several “sister shelters” in New Jersey, from which it pulls pets. In 2014, St. Hubert’s transported 1,411 animals (mostly dogs) to facilities in northern New Jersey. For every animal it transfers and then adopts out, St. Hubert’s returns $50 to the partner organization toward low-cost spay/neuter programs in its community to help “turn off the source.”

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

As with all relationships, successful transfer partnerships begin with finding the right match. “You really have to find that rescue soul mate on the other end of the trip,” says Smith.

The ASPCA has made finding that special shelter a lot easier. Moving Animals Places (MAP) is an online resource that Limbert calls “Google Maps meets for dogs.” Through MAP, source and destination shelters can search geographic areas for potential partners. “The response has been fantastic,” Limbert says. Launched in May 2013, MAP already has more than 500 members. While better than half are source shelters, Limbert believes that as more organizations learn about the resource, the mix will balance out.

It’s tempting to want to jump at the first group that offers or wants help, but doing your due diligence up front can prevent surprises—and an ugly divorce—down the road. “It is really important to know where your animals are coming from and where they’re going,” says Volin, noting that while visiting a partnering organization isn’t always done, “it should be.”

Smith agrees that it’s critical for group representatives to meet in person because it’s too easy to misrepresent yourself over the phone or online. “I think it would be terribly irresponsible for an organization to send dogs somewhere that they haven’t visited personally. There are just too many horror stories out there.”

Meeting face-to-face helps to increase trust and create a bond between the people involved. Even if a representative from your organization can’t make an in-person visit, it’s worth tapping your network to see if a trusted colleague in the area could stop by and check the place out on your behalf.

Another major factor to consider when looking for your transfer match is comparing the need to the supply. You don’t want to transfer your toy breeds to a shelter that’s already teeming with pint-size pups.

Limbert says it’s about more than just geography, and that shelters on the receiving end should ideally be open to receiving a mix of dogs, not just the pick of the litter in terms of what’s popular in their area. “You’re trying to balance the needs of both sides,” she explains, which means that receiving shelters will ideally take a few large breeds or Chihuahuas—or whatever the surplus size or breed is at the source shelter—along with their ideal dogs in the interest of advancing the overall program.

There are some exceptions, most notably pit-bull-type dogs. HSFM doesn’t send any bully-breed dogs to New York—they’ve already got plenty. But for all other breeds, it’s game on. “All the dogs that are a ‘dime a dozen’ in Texas, they get snapped up in New York,” says Smith.

Road Trip!

In terms of what kind of canines make the best transfers, Smith says there’s a distinct profile. “We call them ‘bulletproof dogs.’ It’s a hard trip that we’re asking them to make. They have to go from a shelter to a vet to a foster home and then in a matter of a couple of weeks, they have to get on this very scary truck. … It’s a four-day trip from Texas to New York. And then they get to New York and they come off the truck and they’re greeted by like 20 volunteers up there, which is all very overwhelming for a dog, and the very next day they’re up for adoption. So they have to be very hearty dogs.”

Identifying these bulletproof dogs is much easier thanks to HSFM’s foster program. Once dogs are pulled from surrounding shelters and rescues, they’re placed in foster homes for two to four weeks, a period that gives any health or behavioral challenges a chance to show themselves. It also allows foster families to create a detailed description of the dogs’ personalities for potential adopters.

Health certification requirements vary from state to state, but it’s in the best interest of the program and the animals to ensure transported pets are in good health. Not only will it make for an easier adoption, it will help protect the transport program from critics.

Limbert emphasizes the importance of quarantine or foster care for animals before transport, saying it’s bad for animal relocation as a whole when sick dogs start showing up in an area. If animals go directly from the general shelter population to transport, health problems may not show up until later.

Volin agrees, adding that unhealthy animals can spread different types of illness around the country. “For example, there may be a place were there’s no real heartworm problem to speak of, but if you start importing all these dogs who have heartworm, now there will be. That’s what we’re seeing happen in quite a few states in New England—they’re starting to have a lot of restrictions and regulations on what kinds of animals you can import into their state.”

There are a variety of options when it comes to how to transport. A vehicle that can provide safe, comfortable and climate-controlled housing for the pets in transit is a must. Some organizations have their own vehicles; others contract with animal transport companies and still others use a mix, or piggyback onto other transfer programs, such as PetSmart Charities’ Rescue Waggin’.

The National Federation of Humane Societies offers best-practice guidelines for animal transport that provide logistical details, such as how often animals should be exercised during longer transports (see Resources on p. 34).

For Cammisa, transfer programs are just one part of a national movement for shelters and rescues to partner up in a variety of ways to maximize the number of animals saved. It’s about looking past the limited help that large national organizations like The HSUS, the ASPCA and PetSmart Charities can provide. “They can’t be in every community,” she says. “It’s up to us to work with other groups.”


About the Author

Kelly Huegel is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.