A new kind of underground railroad is shepherding dogs and cats rescued from U.S. shelters to safety - and new families - in Canada.
Every weekend, volunteer drivers load up their cars with furry refugees and cross the border, sometimes following the very same routes that once guided runaway slaves to freedom. Each driver handles a roughly hour-long leg, rendezvousing and transferring animals in parking lots and rest stops until they reach their destination.
One such network, Open Arms Pound Rescue, has moved an estimated 2,000 dogs (and a few cats) from shelters in the South and Midwest since it started in 2007. Co-founder Lucy Moye, based in Michigan, was working with a high-kill shelter in Ohio when she realized she could save a lot more dogs if she could match them with adoptive families and rescue groups in other areas.
Her inspiration was a little Manchester terrier called Kirby she saw at a Kentucky shelter on Petfinder.com. "He was just the picture of misery, sitting there hunched up, looking like he didn't have a friend in the world," Ms. Moye recalls. She sponsored the dog and helped find a home for it, later receiving a picture of Kirby running joyfully through a field with his new family.
"That's the paycheque," Ms. Moye said. "I can't change the world, but I can change the world for one dog."
But why Canada? Some critics argue that there are already enough homeless dogs to care for without importing them.
Cross-border rescuers understand the concern, but say the country has compassion - and rescue capacity - to spare.
"I think we are a more compassionate society. We treat our animals as basically part of our family," said Deb Wilson of Vineland, Ont., who owns an antique store and runs Ontario Weimaraner Rescue in her free time. She regularly crosses the border with van loads of homeless dogs. "Down in the South, it's sad to say, but a lot of dogs, they're disposable to people."
The American shelters the organizations work with are so overcrowded that even healthy, young, adoptable dogs have almost no chance of escaping euthanasia. And U.S. pounds can sometimes supply specific breeds that are in demand but not readily available in Canadian shelters. The rescue groups that receive the animals say they place local dogs first before re-homing ones from south of the border.
"These rescues are not turning their back on their own neighbourhood dogs," Ms. Moye said.
Despite the good intentions, crossing the border isn't always smooth sailing.
A few years ago, Ms. Moye said, volunteers were frequently stopped and detained. At one point, Canadian customs officers were assessing the rescue dogs at $300 each and demanding the drivers pay taxes on them.
Ms. Wilson has since obtained a ruling from Revenue Canada specifying that rescue dogs have no monetary value; all volunteer drivers now carry a copy. And they know to have the dogs' paperwork in order, too: Health regulations require rabies certificates to be hand-signed by a veterinarian, for example.
"Two years ago it was a bit of a hassle; now it works like clockwork," Ms. Moye said.
That's thanks in large part to her massive network of animal lovers willing to spend their own time and gas money in exchange for a few tail wags.
Volunteer Brenda Bunn remembers a Chihuahua named Sophia Rose, rescued from a pound in Kentucky where she'd spent her time cowering in the corner. It turns out she was paralyzed in her hind end, the result of being shot. Her new family in Canada tricked her out with a little Chihuahua-sized wheelchair, and she recently won a doggie Paralympics-style race. "She beat a German shepherd!" Ms. Bunn said proudly.
She recalls another dog, a four-year-old cocker spaniel, whose family dropped it off at a high-kill U.S. pound on their way home from the pet store where they'd just bought a new puppy. The cocker spaniel would have been euthanized for lack of space if a volunteer had not happened to be in the lobby when it was surrendered.
"It can be the most heartbreaking thing," said Ms. Bunn, a financial planner in Peterborough, Ont., who drives dogs and runs Loyal Dog Rescue in her spare time.
The spaniel eventually found a forever home in Canada.
"When I get an e-mail three months later that tells me how amazing the dog is and how they can't imagine life without the dog, and how well the dog is living, that does it for me," Ms. Bunn said. "That keeps me going."
Rebecca Dube blogs about pets at www.paws.ly.