The dusty white cargo plane stood out among the sparkling business planes with its passengers: 48 barking dogs who had just landed at Hanscom Field, just outside of Boston. They left Mississippi that morning, their health certificates stapled to their cages. The team at the Oktibbeha County Humane Society OCHS in Starkville is color-coding each container for its journey.
They’d departed Mississippi early that morning, their health certificates attached to their kennels. The workers at Oktibbeha County Humane Society (OCHS) in Starkville, Miss., had been preparing them all week, giving them immunizations, temperament testing, and color-coding each crate for their destination: red for Second Chance Animal Services in North Brookfield, Miss. Representatives from each firm jostled around the animals on the tarmac like tourists at baggage claim.
There is no dog scarcity in America—at least not yet. However, there are significant regional disparities in supply and demand. Massachusetts requires more dogs, whereas Mississippi has an overabundance. According to Matt Bershadker, CEO of the ASPCA the animal-welfare behemoth based in New York, which financed and coordinated the airplane arriving in Hanscom.
Over the last five years, the ASPCA has invested heavily in its “relocation” program, which will mark its 200,000th animal move in March. However, it is far from alone.
The ASPCA’s program may be the largest and most well-organized, but dogs (and, to a lesser extent, cats) travel in a variety of ways. Nonprofits have popped up in large cities and their suburbs to collaborate with overcrowded Southern shelters, hire a driver, and load up a van with a few dozen animals once a month or more, throughout the COVID-19 epidemic.
It is a good time to be an American dog. Each year in the 1970s, up to 20 million dogs and cats were killed. This figure has dropped drastically. Fewer animals are born each year as a result of increased spay and neuter programs, which are usually mandated by legislation, and improved surgical methods. And more are being relocated, which saves money.
Nothing is more important than meeting the needs of their animals for shelter employees, who have a disproportionately high percentage of mental health issues.
The geographic discrepancies that cause one location to have too many dogs and another to have too few are mostly driven by resource differences. Rural animal shelters suffer from overpopulation, and communities face greater economic challenges. Puppies flying private may seem excessive—the ASPCA paid around $30,000 for the flight into Hanscom—but the kennels on the runway among the business aircraft are a sign of the larger success of the animal-welfare movement, as well as the excitement of its funders.
The simple issues are virtually addressed; the difficult ones need a different strategy. ‘Animal relocation’ is about more than only satisfying the need for pups; it is also about developing the capacity to aid all animals.
The ASPCA-sponsored flight is an example of a well-organized attempt to bring together divergent populations in pursuit of a shared objective. However, by viewing these flying puppies as points of connection between communities, similar to knots in a net, the problem of overpopulation may be solved.
OCHS is housed in a neat brick mansion on the outskirts of Starkville, the bustling home of Mississippi State University. Every inch of space inside is dedicated to animals and their care, with barking dogs and prowling cats behind every door and supplies packed in every corner.
Outside, the dogs have access to a fenced-in green-grass backyard. The social heart, though, is the iron seat on the small porch out front, which is frequently occupied by conversing veterinary students from the university and volunteers. It came to Oktibbeha for the first time in 2009, picking up 40 animals at a time and transporting them to destinations like Kansas City and Chicago. The Rescue Waggin’ increased that number to several hundred over the next few years. But it wasn’t addressing the larger issue in the neighborhood.
From 2009 to 2019, OCHS’ live-release rate increased from 50% to 95%; instead of euthanizing every other animal, it found homes for all but one in every twenty. “If we didn’t have transport, it would be devastating for us and the groups we work with,” says Anderson. “It’s transformed the lives of these animals, and the people who are dealing with these animals—because now they have some sort of hope.”
On the other hand, there are several shelters prepared to accept them. Sheryl Blancato, the founder and executive director of Second Chance Animal Services, one of the shelters that met the flight in Massachusetts, recalls that her kennels began to empty about 2007. “We started to discover that we had room,” Blancato says.
Unlike OCHS, which had (and still has) a constant supply of new students, Second Chance had significantly fewer by the mid-2000s. Blancato witnessed how the lovely new arrivals increased foot traffic at the shelter, increasing the probability that the harder-to-love or older-and-larger animals would find homes.
In response, Congress approved the PETS Act in 2006, which mandated that local governments include family pets in disaster preparation. It alone raised $30 million for the ASPCA in its first two years, helping to cement the image of a “rescue dog” as a virtuous good, rather than a nuisance.
#AdoptDontShop was a movement by the time Instagram arrived in 2010 when the oldest millennials hit 30 and started adopting their animals (and giving them accounts). In the 1990s, less than 10% of dogs were adopted from shelters; now, that figure has risen to about 30%.
That consistent increase in demand was accompanied by a fall in supply. The strategy was partly technical: veterinarians may establish assembly-line clinics, lowering the cost per animal. But it was also the law: 32 states now require sterilization of animals before they are discharged from shelters. It drastically reduced the number of animals born outside of intentional breeding.
Mississippi. Dr. Phil Bushby, one of the more prominent proponents of the national spay/neuter efforts, teaches at Mississippi State. Stating, “Transport is bailing water out of your basement,” he says. “Spay/neuter is turning the faucet off. You have to do both.”
The ASPCA controls the movements of its 18 vans, which run north full and south empty. Everyone must adhere to the ASPCA’s extensive set of ‘standard operating procedures’ which encompass everything from how dogs are tagged before departure to keeping track of which destination states require particular heartworm preventatives.
In Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, California, and Kansas, the ASPCA maintains five ‘Way-stations” overnight rest breaks that act as dog hotels for its transport program, each servicing shelters within a 650-mile radius.
When a combination of transportation and population management balances supply and demand,
animals in America will no longer be slaughtered for space.