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Volunteers go the distance, ferrying rescues from Missouri puppy mills to new homes

Mary Delach Leonard|St. Louis Public Radio
Volunteer Joanna Gable with Ziva, a mastiff mix, who was Maryland-bound.

A couple of Saturdays a month, Buck Newman gets in his SUV in St. Louis and gives homeless dogs and cats a lift.

On a recent trip, Annie, a shaggy dachshund mix, got to ride up front in her crate, while Goliath, 175 pounds of mostly mastiff, filled up the back. Annie’s tail was already wagging at top speed, as Newman started the engine.

“Annie, you ready to travel, Annie girl?”

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Newman, who’s retired, volunteers with Rescue Road Warriors. The group ferries dogs and cats from overpopulated shelters and puppy mills in Missouri  to rescue groups in eastern states that find them homes.

Volunteers can sign up to drive an hour or two, but Newman often drives as far as Indianapolis, about four hours away. The  transport operates like a relay, with more than 100 volunteers along the way.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Annie, a mixed dachshund, watches the goings-on.

“You kind of look at the animals and know that they’re off to a better life. It just makes you feel good to do it,’’ he says.

After handing off his passengers to the next driver, Newman turns around and heads back to St. Louis. He buys his own gas and has little time to pet his passengers. But he knows they’re grateful.

“You would be surprised,’’ he says. “When you get a little bit of cuddle time or at the transports when you get what I call the ‘ooh-ah’ time -- when you move them from one vehicle to another, you get to pet them, get some face licks. They let you know.”

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Volunteer driver Jessica Carter, right, hugs a passenger.

Driven to fill a need

Three million dogs and cats are euthanized in the U.S. every year, according to the Humane Society. Rescue groups around the country are working to reduce the rate in their own communities and nationwide.

Using the internet and social media, groups can identify and share information about healthy, adoptable animals and find them homes, sometimes hundreds of miles away. Transport groups like Rescue Road Warriors provide the wheels.

Newman says he’ll drive about 7,000 miles this year for the group. 

‘’Dog people are crazy,’’ he says, laughing. “Dog transporters are crazy. They love what they’re doing. It’s just something we can do -- and you just do it.”

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
These litter mates were headed for a Maryland rescue group.

The logistics for the transport are mapped out by coordinators who keep in phone contact with drivers and also with volunteers who shelter the pups on overnight stops.

In St. Louis, drivers meet about 10 a.m. on a shopping center parking lot in Sunset Hills to rendezvous with volunteers who’ve driven from Springfield or Rolla or Cape Girardeau. Many of the dogs come from puppy mills. Some are rescues; others were voluntarily surrendered by breeders because they’re considered "imperfect" and can’t be sold.

Drivers bring their own crates and blankets – and poop sacks. As animals are transferred between vehicles, they are walked, hugged and oohed over.

Jessica Carter, who works full time as a teacher, has removed the seats from her cargo van. She had enough space to fit 11 large dogs, traveling in crates.

“I work full time during the week and all my Saturdays are usually spent traveling with the dogs. And on Sundays, I sleep,’’ she says.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis coordinator Kristy Ritter, right, helps with a shy passenger.

"The dogs are your best reward"

There are 22,000 animal rescue groups in the United States, and they are making a difference, says Kristy Ritter, the St. Louis transport coordinator for Rescue Road Warriors. Transport groups focus on states with high populations of shelter animals and euthanasia rates,  including Missouri, Georgia, the Carolinas, California, Oklahoma and Texas. 

Ritter says the city pound in Springfield, Missouri, once euthanized more than half of the dogs it took in. That rate has dropped to 9 percent because of the partnerships the shelter has formed with local animal rescue groups. The transport opened a new door for some of these animals.   

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
A New England Westie rescue group is finding a home for this little traveler.

Volunteers with Rescue Road Warriors have transported 10,000 animals since the organization started five years ago, Ritter says. Receiving rescue groups donate $10 to the group for each animal transported. The money helps buy gas for volunteers who want to drive but can't afford fuel.

Volunteer Kathy Anderson says it’s like an underground army.

“No one knows what’s really going on except the people who get involved and help out,'' she says. "It’s pretty amazing.  The dogs are your best reward.’’

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Ziva patiently waits to be moved to her next ride.

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