Jan 3, 2006
Rescuing pets from "death row"
Excerpt from: Animal lovers race to transport the unwanted to "forever homes"
By Sheba R. Wheeler
Denver Post Staff Writer

Lon Henderson, right, and his wife, Julia, center, look over Dulce, a black lab that volunteer Leslie Brown, left, delivered to them. (Post / Glenn Asakawa)

Laramie - On a dreary, winter day when blowing snow and black ice make highway driving treacherous, Leslie Brown's hope for one dog's survival pushes her forward.

A black Labrador named Dulce has languished at a Wyoming shelter and is about to be euthanized. The Safe Harbor Lab Rescue has arranged a foster family in Bennett to care for Dulce, but the dog is 200 miles away.

"If I can get to her, I can give her a chance," Brown says, about 30 minutes into her two-hour drive north on Interstate 25.

The Laramie Animal Control and Welfare Division called the rescue group about saving Dulce, who had been at the shelter since October. Her family gave up Dulce because she barked too much, and her territorial behavior at the shelter frightened away potential owners.

This was Brown's first interstate pickup. Within days of the call, Brown, Safe Harbor's co-founder, was on the road, a purple leash, a dog barrier gate and a well-used crate cushion set up in the back of her 2001 Subaru Forester.

On any given weekend, hundreds of people like Brown spend free time saving unwanted animals in coordinated rescue missions that crisscross the United States, Canada and Europe.

Some rescue organizations get calls from shelters that know the group is willing to find homes for certain breeds. But in most cases, rescue group staffers scour online adoption lists of kill shelters, searching for animals at risk.

Many times, urgent pleas for help appear on a message board at Petfinder.com, reverberating like a Bat Signal projected into the night: "5 full labs are in need of transport help ASAP. They are in a county pound that euthanizes in 7 days."

Labs are kept as foster pets at Julia and Lon Henderson's home before they are adopted. (Post / Glenn Asakawa)

Then a vast network of would-be heroes springs into action. Rescuers make arrangements with the shelter, then coordinate a relay system to take the dog to a prescreened foster home or its new owner.

Some trips are close to home, where only one or two drivers are needed. Others require the aid of numerous volunteers who usher the animal cross-country.

Transporters vary from paid moving companies, concerned airline pilots and organized groups like Biker Babe Transport to everyday citizens with an SUV and a kind heart.

"In most cases it's very piecemeal as it comes together, but then, just like that, this dog has a home," says Barbara Flores, 59, of Greeley, who has transported dogs with the Dalmatian Rescue of Colorado for almost six years.

There are no official numbers kept for how many animals are moved. But more than 20 dog rescue organizations are in Colorado, and each of them does hundreds of transports a year.

Rocky Mountain Great Dane Rescue, which has been in operation since 2000, has placed 200 dogs from Colorado, Kansas, Utah, Wyoming and Nebraska this year alone.

"We've got it down to a science," says Lindsay Condon, with the Great Dane group.

Brown has logged 6,000 miles on her car this year transporting adopted dogs to vet appointments and to their new homes throughout Colorado. Safe Harbor Lab Rescue has transported 500 dogs since it was established in 2002.

Dogs, cats, pet lizards, a potbellied pig - no matter the species, the ultimate goal is finding an animal's "forever home."

"Can you say sap?" asks Toni Phillips, owner of Mariah's Promise, a no-kill shelter west of Colorado Springs that has been instrumental in rescuing and securing new homes for dozens of pit bulls banned from Denver. She also has received dogs from other parts of Colorado, Missouri and Texas, and once flew out a dog to a New Jersey family.

"I just love animals," Phillips says. "We take them off death row from any shelter or animal control. I've picked them up when they were hit and left by the side of the road. All they needed was some extra time. Time and opportunity."

Critics say these transports are insane when animals could be rescued with a 20-minute drive to a local shelter.

Six to 8 million unwanted dogs and cats languish in U.S. shelters every year. Half end up euthanized because there aren't enough homes for them, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

But rescuers don't see it that way. "In the scheme of things, it doesn't make a whole lot of difference," Flores says. "It's just one dog compared to the millions that die every year in shelters. But it means everything to that one dog."

The majority of transports occur on the East Coast and in the Midwest, with many animals moving from the South, where more kill shelters are located.

But puppy love knows no state boundaries, thanks to the Internet, says Sharon Shott, a transporter based in Colorado Springs. In one case, the only hope for a deaf cattle dog in Arizona was a civil engineering designer in Lakewood.

Diana Preusser, 59, donated money to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals after Hurricane Rita and adopted two Australian cattle

dogs, her favorite breed, from local shelters. But she still had room in her life and heart for another dog, so she searched online and fell in love with a photo of Hansel, a 5-month-old deaf puppy.

"He is a special-needs dog, and that put him at an even larger risk for not being adopted," Preusser says. "And because my cattle dogs already know hand signals, I just thought that one more wouldn't be that tough."

The Colorado branch of New Hope Cattle Dog Rescue organized transportation for Hansel, renamed Foster, to come to Colorado from Phoenix."My house has been chaos ever since," says Preusser, who has had the dog for almost two months. "He's been transferred a lot in an effort to try to find a home. Why should somebody be jeopardized just because they have a handicap?"

Brown wanted the black lab named Dulce to have the same chance for a loving home.

Lon and Julie Henderson have fostered many dogs over the years for Safe Harbor Lab Rescue and had made room for Dulce. But the group had to get the dog from a shelter in Wyoming to the Henderson home in Bennett, a town less than an hour outside of Denver.

Steve Amrine, animal control supervisor at the Laramie shelter, says Dulce had grown into "one grumpy lady." As is common for some dogs, Dulce had grown "crate protective," barking loudly, jumping and frightening people who came near her crate.

At 87 pounds, she was overweight and intimidating. Potential suitors did not believe Dulce's nature was true to her Italian namesake, which means sweet.

When Brown arrived at the shelter in Wyoming, Dulce was happily chasing and fetching a ball. Once inside, Dulce pulled on her leash, tail wagging and legs jumping to give Amrine a sloppy kiss.

Brown receives updated information about Dulce's vaccinations and is warned the dog is an escape artist, having climbed a chain link fence and wandered the neighborhood numerous times.

Within 30 minutes, the pick-up is complete. Dulce hops into the back of Brown's Forester. She never barks or whimpers a complaint. Dulce looks back at the shelter, then turns forward, staring at Brown quizzically through a barrier gate.

During the long drive back to Colorado, Brown expresses her frustration about why some owners choose to give up their dogs.

He drinks out of the toilet. She jumps on the furniture. He barks too much.

"But it takes too much energy to sit and feel angry and fume about why they are at the shelter to begin with," she says. "At Safe Harbor, they tell me not to be judgmental. They tell me to just save the dog."

As Brown nears her Bennett destination, she worries whether Dulce will adjust to a home that already has six dogs - four Labradors owned by the Hendersons, and two dogs they are fostering.

When the animals meet in the Henderson's laundry room, Dulce momentarily growls and searches for an escape.

But within minutes, a pecking order forms as a chocolate lab named Buddy takes particular interest in Dulce, following her around and nipping her.

Brown's anxiety melts away as Dulce begins to run with the pack, frolicking in the backyard that's a small portion of the 35 acres the Hendersons own.

"You just feel useful," she says.

Diana Preusser plays with her three Australian cattle dogs, from left, Sheila, Foster and Flapjack. Foster is the deaf puppy she adopted from a shelter in Arizona. (Special / Matthew Staver)