From death row to adoption: Saving animals by car, van, bus and even plane
SAN FERNANDO, Calif. — May was supposed to be dead by now. The charcoal-and-white pit bull mix had languished more than two months at a high-kill animal shelter in east Los Angeles County. Although she'd passed one "temperament test," she failed a second. That put her on death row.
But a small rescue group reserved May a spot on a bus to take her 840 miles north to Eugene, Ore., where another rescue pledged to find her a home.
She had plenty of company as the wheels rolled along the highway: 105 other dogs and cats collected from crowded California shelters and destined for the Pacific Northwest, where euthanasia 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," said Phil Broussard, the garrulous trucker driving them up the coast.
His passengers were among more than 10,000 animals that will be ferried out of the area this year by Rescue Express, one of dozens of U.S. organizations fueling a dizzying reshuffle of dogs and cats by car, van, bus and private or even chartered plane.
These transports are small but growing factors in a long-term decline in euthanasia at shelters. Animal shelters killed up to 20 million cats and dogs a year in the 1970s. That fell to 2.6 million by 2011 and to 1.5 million today, reports the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
These are only estimates because no central data collection exists and only some states require shelters to report intakes and outcomes. But animal advocates agree 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 sweeping in to help municipal shelters, 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 long has studied human-animal relationships. "It's been an incredible drop."
Still, hundreds of thousands of animals are euthanized each year, and advocates face challenges. Pit bulls - 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 is 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 let outside, and strays more easily survive - all of which lead to more kittens and puppies.
But shelters and rescues say more northern communities now take in migrants. Nearly a third of the 30,000 dogs and cats received by a Portland, Ore., coalition of six shelters in 2016 came from elsewhere.
A dog that is good with kids and other animals is "really tough to find," said Anika Moje, manager of the Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland, which had a 95 percent "live-release" rate in 2016.
This overground pet railroad rapidly expanded in the eastern U.S. after Hurricane Katrina left thousands of animals homeless in 2005. Transports recently have mushroomed in the West, despite concerns about a fairly unregulated practice.
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 to keep shelters from filling in the first place, says the ASPCA, which in 2014 pledged $25 million to help do this in the L.A. area. One shelter it targeted was Baldwin Park, where May was housed for weeks; Baldwin euthanizes 44 percent of its animals. One recent Wednesday, ASPCA staff counseled people who came to surrender pets, pointing them toward discounted veterinary care and sterilization.
The following Saturday, volunteer Jana Savage brought May to the Rescue Express bus. Volunteers were worried about her, said Savage. They all felt the temperament test had not given her a fair shake.
Onto the bus went May, with a miniature pinscher, yellow puppy and other small pooches. Broussard runs many of the weekly transports from San Fernando to near the Washington-Canada border.
The nonprofit has moved more than 8,000 animals since a software entrepreneur, millionaire Mike McCarthy, founded it two years ago. He donated to several related causes and, after watching a California friend transfer dogs north, saw "a real need for better-quality transports."
So McCarthy moved to Eugene - a midpoint on the West Coast - to start his own, one that would be free for small rescue groups bleeding cash. He opted to retrofit school buses, which are more durable than vans, hold more crates and are cheaper to run than planes. The 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."
The trip from San Fernando to the Canada border 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" - 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 Broussard drove, Miller kept tabs on the air conditioning in the back and texted 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, volunteers loaded about 50 dogs and cats on board. Two dogs got on in Turlock, four more in Lathrop. By 3:15 p.m., the bus was carrying 84 dogs and 22 cats. By 7:30 p.m., snow-capped Mount Shasta signaled that Oregon was near.
In Roseburg, Ore., an adopter was waiting to greet his new puppy. After midnight, Broussard turned into a gas station lot outside Eugene. About 15 people, standing under hoods and umbrellas, lined up in the dark to retrieve two dozen animals.
The penultimate was May, who was whisked away to a streetlight and promptly relieved herself.
Today, May is hanging out at Northwest Dog Project, the rescue that agreed to find her a home. Its 22-acre facility usually hosts 10 to 18 dogs in cottages with piped-in music and skylights. There's a doggy swimming pool, agility course, play yard and hiking trails.
Most of the dogs come from high-kill shelters where they lived in noise and chaos. "This is a good place for them to decompress," Director Emma Scott said.
Like all the animals the organization takes, 2-year-old May will spend a few weeks being evaluated and trained. Scott said May 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."