Riding the Underdog Railroad
Working in relays, volunteers haul rescued canines long distances to new homes. The trips aren't easy, and some say they're unnecessary.
By Janet Wilson
August 24, 2005
Paddy's no show dog. He's a mid-size, aging brown mutt; shaggy, with white eye rings that give him a worried look, and a smell that's hard to ignore.
Dogs like Paddy abound at animal shelters across America. He was once a pound dog himself, back in Tennessee. But that was before.
Now he lives in California with a woman who saw him on the Internet and just had to have him. His 60-hour passage from east Tennessee to Silverado in the Orange County back country, involved a blues singer, a bartender, a retired orchestra conductor and 21 others who drove shifts across six states and four time zones to get him to what rescuers call a "forever home."
Most of those who transported Paddy never met his Tennessee rescuer, his new owner in California or each other. They were part of a vast, loose-knit movement known to animal rescuers as the "canine underground railroad." Linked by the Internet, cellphones and fervid love of animals, thousands of volunteers across the U.S., Canada and Europe go to enormous lengths to save strays like Paddy.
"If you can get a picture of a dog online, there's a 90% chance you'll get a home for it. People see a certain face, and they can't resist," said Elizabeth Sescilla, 27, a cheerful North Carolina pharmacist who coordinated Paddy's transport.
Although no one keeps official numbers, there are telling indicators of how widely the movement has spread. This week there were 195,294 dogs, cats and other species up for adoption on Petfinder.com, a virtual clearinghouse for unwanted animals funded by major dog food companies and others. Many will be adopted close to home, but sometimes a Minnesotan falls in love with a Texas coonhound. That's when the underground railroads gear up.
On any given weekend, dozens of relays move animals from one region of the country to another. Sescilla says she has arranged more than 75 such operations in the last two years.
Some animal welfare organizations question the need for the marathon relays, noting that people can easily adopt from nearby shelters. An estimated 3 million to 6 million cats and dogs are still euthanized nationally each year, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Those numbers are down from 20 years ago, when about 17 million stray dogs and cats were destroyed annually.
The organizations worry that it is stressful for animals to be hauled long distances, and wonder who monitors them during their journeys and afterward.
A Sad History
Paddy spent years in a cage at an outdoor pound before being taken home temporarily to the spacious, hill country backyard of Laurie and Issac Browder.
The Browders are avid animal rescuers who spent the last year — and $40,000 of their own money — running a "no kill" shelter in a county with no public animal control. Finally, they couldn't afford it anymore.
Knowing that she had to shut down, Laurie Browder e-mailed an urgent, mass appeal to dozens of rescue groups around the country in an attempt to place more than 130 cats and dogs.
People responded from across the United States. Browder said she made potential adopters fill out long applications, checked references and arranged home inspections when possible.
Paddy was the last to go. A photo of him gazing solemnly up at the camera was posted like all the others. The description was brief: "Breed: Irish Terrier Mix? Color: Brown. Age: Senior. Temperament: Very, very sweet, yet timid around strangers."
Finally, Browder heard from a woman in California. Sherry Meddick, a well-known environmentalist and animal rescuer in Orange County, had already taken three dogs from Browder, and was now volunteering to bring Paddy out West too, "to keep his buddy Rusty company," she said. They had lived in cages next to each other at the pound.
Browder agreed to the adoption, and Sescilla, who had helped her move dozens of animals already, went to work.
She mapped out possible 60- to 120-mile legs, then sent e-mails to a contact list of more than 1,200 fellow coordinators and potential drivers. It wasn't easy.
One in four of her transports falls apart, Sescilla says, because of the lack of drivers in sparsely populated areas. For Paddy, the West Texas leg proved tough. But an Albuquerque woman finally volunteered to drive eight hours over two days.
"It's a crazy thing to do, and it's hard to do, but somehow it all happens," Sescilla said.
Paddy's journey began before dawn one drippy October Saturday. Laurie Browder sat cradling the old dog like a baby in the front seat of her husband's Jeep.
"He looks so sad…. He doesn't know what's going on," she said, starting to cry. "I'm trying not to think about it."
An hour later, at 7:50 a.m., they arrived at a McDonald's parking lot, where they handed over a frightened-looking Paddy — along with his purple blanket, a travel crate, his vaccination papers and enough kibble for three days — to Linda and Dan Knott.
Laurie hugged Paddy and kissed his graying snout. He raised his furry eyebrows happily, oblivious to anyone but her.
She shut the door gently, and the Knotts headed their Subaru Forester onto the interstate.
Linda Knott, a lifelong animal lover, found out about canine underground railroads on the Internet. She and her husband have taken in all the animals they can handle — 11 dogs, nine cats and two horses — so the transports are their way of still helping. Outside the Knotts' car windows, the rolling hills were blanketed in spectacular orange, gold and scarlet foliage. The route would follow I-40, a trucker's favorite, all the way west.
An hour into the trip, it was time for another handoff. After refusing to get out of the Subaru at the Star Motor Inn in Cookeville, Paddy had to be carried to the car of Lane Scarborough, 21, a college student from Jackson, Tenn., who does transports to earn required community service hours for her sorority.
"I think it's brilliant," she said. "Any way to get dogs a good home is great. It's no effort on my part, just a little bit of gas."
Paddy sniffed the back seat nervously. He wasn't the only one sniffing. "Paddy, we need a vent, babe! You need a shower!" Scarborough said, cranking the window open wide.
But she had been warned. Sescilla puts a disclaimer on the bottom of all run sheets: "Dogs sometimes vomit, pee, poop, drool, shed, whine, smell and do other unpredictable things…. If you were not aware of this, now you are. If you are smiling at this, then you are a 'dog person'…. If you gasped while reading this, please do not take a chance that you will be a victim of these horrible atrocities."
Two hours later, it was time for Stop Three.
Deanna Trietsch, 44, a legal secretary in Nashville, waited for her charge wearing a leopard-skin top with matching umbrella, which happened to match Paddy's leopard paw print collar.
She leaned in to look at the woolly brown dog.
"You OK sweetie?" she asked in a soft Southern accent. "He's scared. Let's go pee-pee, Paddy, let's go potty."
The dog obediently squatted in wet grass next to the parking lot. "There you go, that's better."
Trietsch allows herself to keep just two dogs and two cats, for the animals' sake.
She regularly gives last walks to strays about to be euthanized in public shelters, to "make their last hours feel like they were loved," she said.
By now she had Paddy happily licking drops of water off her fingers in the back seat as her husband drove.
Still, she found Paddy's odyssey a little puzzling. "I do wonder why somebody in California would want to bring this dog all the way across the country. Quite frankly, I'm sure I could have found an animal I loved right here in Tennessee. Why wouldn't you search your local area? But they must've seen something in this pretty fella."
As she spoke, about 250 dogs needing homes were being housed at the shelter in Orange County. Most would end up euthanized.
Many groups limit the distance they will allow animals to be transported.
"Just because you can do a multi-state run doesn't mean you should," said Peg Banks of Anchorage, who for eight years headed the original online Canine Underground Railroad, on which many other groups pattern themselves. "I'm absolutely certain animals get moved into places where it might not have been necessary."
But transporters say there are many reasons for far-flung adoptions. People sometimes can't find a certain breed in their region, so they look farther afield. Finding homes for older or disabled animals can be difficult within a small range. And there are sharp regional disparities in the number of available pets.
"We have some areas of the country now where we've done enough spay and neutering that you really don't have surplus puppies and kittens," said Annette Rauch of the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. In other parts of the country, she says, things are grim.
She and others pointed to the rural Deep South as a region short on publicly funded animal control of any kind. Transports, she said, are a way to address "excess breeding that was leading to euthanasia of perfectly healthy 8-week-old puppies."
But Kate Pullen, director of animal sheltering for the Humane Society of the U.S., says transports can actually aggravate regional disparities by allowing officials to evade responsibility for strays in their area. She said people's energy would be better spent pushing for spay and neuter programs.
For Sescilla and other transporters, the policy debates take second place to what they see as a compelling need. "If you've tried locally and [finding a home is] not happening, then you do whatever you need to do to save that dog," she said.
A Road Buddy
In Jackson, Tenn., Paddy gained a companion. Whenever possible, Sescilla tries to move more than one dog per trip, and for this trip she arranged for a cruelty case named Buck to join the caravan from Tennessee to New Mexico.
A skinny white terrier — or possibly pit bull mix — Buck has nubs for ears, the result of a bad home ear-cropping attempt. He was taken from abusive owners and placed in a county pound with a high euthanasia rate.
Hearts of Gold Pit Bull Rescue in Memphis, Tenn., paid to spring him. They posted his story and photo on Petfinder, and an Arizona truck driver and his wife decided to adopt him as their fourth dog.
Julee Fleming, 46, who "fostered" Buck for three weeks in her home while waiting for a transport to be arranged, said she would miss him.
"He's sweet, sweet, sweet," she said.
Fleming said she decided to work with animals rather than the elderly or children after consulting her Bible.
"It said, 'The man who cares for his domestic animals is blessed. God gave man dominion over the animals.' So I said OK, I'm doing animals…. They are not masters of their fate; they're just floating along in the human deal."
The rest of the first day was a blur of strip malls and chain stores. As the hours and miles dragged on, Paddy and Buck were passed from one strange set of hands to the next, through Memphis and the Ozarks, and on into Oklahoma.
At 11:45 p.m., after 19 hours, 894 miles and eight cars, the bone-weary dogs arrived at the home of Jennifer and Doug Shultz, where they would spend the night.
Pullen of the Humane Society says it is possible to drive an animal too hard.
"There's so much emphasis on not euthanizing animals that in some cases we have failed them by not euthanizing them," she said. In their zeal to rescue animals in need, people sometimes "do not ask, 'Can this animal make this trip? Is this an animal that is adoptable?' The answer is often no."
Cinnamon Muhlbauer, who took over the Canine Underground Railroad from Banks in 2002, agrees that some transporters fail to assess which dogs are suitable candidates. She said when 38 puppies were recently moved from a Bakersfield shelter to Oregon, for instance, seven of them died. They were too young, she said.
"The Internet has been a great boon to [animal] transport and rescue," she said. "There are lots of great folks out there … who are ethical and dedicated. But it has also brought out a lot of nuts I wouldn't trust to transport my garbage."
Happy New Owners
Day Two began 90 minutes later than scheduled. The Shultzes had decided the dogs really needed more rest. Sescilla rejiggered the schedules overnight to make it all work.
At 7:50 p.m., after another long day of more kind souls and more hand-offs in fast food restaurants and city parks, the dogs arrived at a McDonald's parking lot in Grants, N.M.
Buck's new owners, David and Holly Thomas of Phoenix, were waiting. David, a jovial, tattooed truck driver, and his wife, a billing clerk, were ecstatic.
"I love his black nose!" squealed Holly.
"Ooh, look at his ears," said David. "I hope the guy who did that was drawn and quartered."
Holly said that when she saw Buck online, she couldn't sleep.
"He broke my heart," she said. "His only crime was the wrong owner. He was on death row, death row for pit bulls."
Within three days, she'd convinced David that they should adopt him, but it took months to put together a transport coming this way. Holly and David would take Paddy one more leg before cutting off for Phoenix with Buck.
David gave slobbery kisses to Buck before climbing behind the wheel. "I want my bonding time," he said. Buck rolled his eyes nervously.
After a 250-mile push to Flagstaff, Paddy was dropped off at midnight at the home of Laura Boe, an off-duty nurse who was volunteering for the first time. She coaxed him, trembling, into his crate. He'd gone another 900 miles in 16 hours. Her 125-pound English mastiff, Lola, watched with seeming indifference from the sofa.
At 8:30 a.m. the next day, the big green sign on I-40 said Los Angeles. Paddy didn't know it, but he was within reach. An additional 860 miles to go.
At Stop 15 in Kingman, Ariz., retired Las Vegas canine cop Sandy Spruiell worked patiently with Paddy during a dog park break. She soon had him straining happily at the leash, behaving somewhat normally.
By 4:27 p.m., Paddy was in California. The last leg fell to Keri Hardyman, 54, and Kimberley Richardson, 13, of San Bernardino County.
Hardyman's coonhound pup was brought from Texas to California a few months ago. She wanted to repay the favor.
At 7:40 p.m., they arrived at a Ralphs parking lot off the Costa Mesa Freeway in Orange. After a transcontinental journey of 2,260 miles in 60 hours, Paddy was about to meet his new owner.
Meddick pulled up with six empty cat crates in the back of her Toyota SUV.
"Can we have visitation rights?" Hardyman pleaded twice. Meddick didn't respond. She had eyes only for Paddy.
Crying, she whispered in his ear, "Hi, baby, you're home."
Paddy was unresponsive. Somewhere in the last several hours, his purple blanket — his last familiar smell of Laurie and Tennessee — had been left behind. He slid off the front seat and dozed on the floor as Meddick drove 20 minutes to Silverado Canyon in the Cleveland National Forest. She carried him up a dark flight of steps.
The acrid smell of dog and cat urine cut through the night air. Inside, a frenetic chorus of barking and hissing came from behind a closed door. Three sick kittens with rheumy eyes lay curled up in a fleece basket. Paddy was joining Meddick's menagerie, which already included 26 animals in the 900-square-foot house and backyard, including a litter of puppies.
Four dogs were stacked in crates covered with blankets. Meddick said she crates some of them when she is away on rescues and transports, which can take as long as 14 hours. The living room had little furniture or indoor lighting.
Paddy squeezed himself into a narrow hiding place between the front door and a stack of boxes. Meddick lay down next to him and talked softly.
Along with her unfamiliar non-Southern accent were the familiar sounds and smells of many animals in a confined space.
"It beats the alternative: being put to death at a shelter," Meddick said.
Within minutes of ending his transcontinental journey, Paddy was in a crate, his eyes peering into the dark.
After a tentative start, Buck is happy as can be at his new home, his owners say. The web page they've set up includes photographs of him sprawled on their king-size bed and grinning goofily in the living room.
Paddy's spot with Browder was filled the afternoon before he left Tennessee. She lured a stray retriever-husky mix puppy off a weedy hillside, brought it home, gave it shots and put its picture on Petfinder. It was transported to a home in Massachusetts within a month.
But she still worries about whether Paddy is OK.
"I can't tell. I think about it all the time," she said.
In late March, she e-mailed Meddick asking for photos and updates on both Paddy and Rusty, but said she received only vague replies. Over Easter weekend she saw online postings from Meddick boasting: "Yesterday I pulled 11 dogs, 1 cat and 1 duck from the bakersfield/mojave shelters. I WANT to thank the rescue that took the 12 and 15 yo [year old] dogs" and four others, including "an extremely matted" one, she wrote. "I just thank you SO much." The posting heightened Browder's alarm.
"I kept thinking, what about the dogs you agreed to take care of?" she said. "Are they sitting at home in crates for 15 hours? I just wonder about Paddy and Rusty, and it's a jillion miles away, and I feel helpless…. I would never send another dog to California, never, never, never again."
On a hot August afternoon, Meddick slammed the door on visitors who came to see Paddy.
A moment later she let him out, and came out herself. He looked the same: shy, hiding behind bushes, but wagging his tail even as he barked furiously.
A deeply religious woman, Meddick said she spends nearly all her free time on animal rescues, which she considers a ministry. She believes Paddy is "absolutely" better off with her than he was in Tennessee.
"She had to get rid of the dog. Some of the dogs they had trouble adopting out, particularly if they were very shy or a senior. And Paddy is both."
She said she knows that some judge her harshly for having so many animals — but she's licensed by Orange County to have 10 dogs and 15 cats, and said her home has passed a county inspection.
Asked why she had adopted a dog from Tennessee rather than her local shelter, she said, "because it was a gas shelter he was in. Do you know what gas is?"
When reminded that he actually had been in a backyard after being in a no-kill shelter, she said she adopted Paddy "because I wanted to. Does it matter why?"
She said she hadn't responded to Browder's request for updates and photos because her camera was broken. And besides, she added, "It's none of her business. Even if she doesn't like it, she can lump it. Paddy's fine."