We have a rescue crisis in the region, really the entire Eastern seaboard.
Yes, there are too many unwanted cats and dogs and not enough loving homes. But that's not the crisis I'm talking about.
The crisis surrounds the growing number of individuals and groups seeking to abuse and profit from the plight of homeless animals in the South.
Two stories in the news in the past few days touch on that topic. First there was Daniel, the beagle who miraculously survived a gassing in the Alabama shelter and was whisked away by a wonderful volunteer pilots' group to New Jersey rescue called Eleventh Hour. Once word got out there was a line of people stretching to Alabama to adopt him.
The flip side to Daniel's story is that of Teddy, a 9-week-old Border Collie-mix old who died a terrible death of parvo virus last year (pictured at left).
Teddy died five days after being adopted by a Doylestown, Pa., family from Jessica Isenhour, a North Carolina woman now charged with running a sick puppy sales operation in Lambertville, NJ.
The New Jersey SPCA has filed 15 criminal and civil charges against Isenhour, 33, who runs the North Carolina-based “Saving Fur Kids” animal welfare organization. She transports puppies to sell at adoption events at shopping malls in suburban Philadelphia and NJ. Isenhour was busted after allegedly selling sick dogs - four of whom died from the highly contagious parvo virus.
The Internet has changed the fortunes of many such animals in remote corners of Appalachia and throughout the rural South, allowing dogs and sometimes cats to escape to brighter futures beyond the state lines by matching them up with adopters or shelters in the north and organizing transports to deliver them to their new homes.
The animals come from impoverished counties where unneutered and unspayed dogs roam the countryside and the "shelter" is the kindly woman in the trailer. Other counties have a shelter and still destroy an overwhelming number of the animals they take in, sometimes using gas chambers, a practice considered barbaric and now banned in a number of states - Pennsylvania is still not yet among them - and many counties.
The problem is too many people on both ends of this rescue spectrum and sometimes the transporters in between are unreasonably profiting from this burgeoning enterprise and the animals are suffering. We have heard of cases where unscrupulous "rescues" sweet talk shelter managers into giving them dogs, comb Craig's lists in the South, pick up puppies for a song, cram them into filthy cages, haul them to New Jersey - a hot bed of faux rescue activity - and peddle them at the local shopping mall for hundreds of dollars.
Bad rescues are rarely exposed until tragedy strikes. Puppies who haven't received proper vet care or were living in unsanitary conditions are flipped at the local Tractor Supply store for hundreds of dollars. The "rescuer" makes off with the cash while the new owners face high vet bills and emotional trauma of trying to save a severely ill dog.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg and is indicative of a much larger problem with rescues selling shelter pets and adversely affecting both animals and adopters, says Libby Williams, founder of New Jersey Consumers Against Pet Shop Abuse, which is tracking rescues and has helped expose those operating illegally. "New Jersey has about 2 dozen bad rescues operating in the same capacity, with a few groups even buying puppies from Pennsylvania puppy mills or older unsold puppies from New Jersey pet shops and advertising them as “puppy mill rescues.” It’s 'rescues run amok – literally – bad behavior mucking up the legitimate and reputable rescue community.”
I first became aware of the rescue transport network concept in 2004 when I wrote a piece on the efforts of Wetzel County Animal Shelter to reverse its dismal adoption rate. I followed Buster, a sweet Beagle mix destined for death at the West Virginia shelter, to his new home in suburban Philadelphia. The shelter director Rosy Cosart and her staff have done wonders for the animals in Wetzel County - where in 2006 anyway there was exactly one veterinarian. With no vets, no low cost spay neuter clinics, grinding poverty and a shortage of suitable adoptive homes, the Internet was the best thing to happen to Wetzel County animals.
But the profit mongers out there are preying on people's desires to adopt. With the torrent of publicity surrounding pet stores and their connection to puppy mills, families are looking for ways to adopt animals. Some New England states have a shortage of adoptable dogs, period. Blessedly, you don't see pregnant coon hounds roaming the back roads of Vermont. Sadly, many urban - and now suburban - shelters are overloaded with pit bulls. The number is well above 90 percent in Philadelphia. While pit bulls can and do make fine pets, unfortunately many in shelters have been abused and neglected. Many families are just looking for a fluffy puppy or more well-adjusted adult dog.
Transports deliver those animals. Beautiful hounds. Furry shepherd mixes. The occasional lap dog whose owner was living in her car because she lost her house. All abandoned, willfully or not.
But now some states are cracking down. A new law in Connecticut requires "animal importers" to register with the state, pay a $100 annual fee and get their dogs checked by a Connecticut vet. The New Jersey SPCA and the state Health Department are stepping up efforts to pull the plug on "bad rescues." But some say that rescues should comply with state pet dealer regulations.
It's tragic that the unscrupulous behavior of some has threatened the good work of so many others. The southern shelters looking for a lifeline. Residents of the northeast are looking for adoptable dogs. Transport volunteers are looking to help needy dogs out of a bad situation.
Williams suggests a task force headed by one of the national animal welfare groups is needed to address what is a regional, cross-border issue.
"There should be more transparency in rescue," said Williams. "They don't provide phone numbers, they are not registered charities. They don't provide health certificates. They should do better than the pet stores."