By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
For the Greater Birmingham Humane Society, the “dog days of summer” not only bring high temperatures, but they also bring an influx of animal residents.
Summertime is a precarious balance for the organization because animal intake is at its peak.
“We’re basically bursting with animals,” GBHS Director of Marketing Lindsey Mays said. “Anything from guinea pigs and rabbits to cats and dogs.”
It’s a time when the organization depends on its transport program, led by Transport and Rescue Coordinator Elisia Tillis.
Tillis coordinates about 120 trips a year, placing pets into GBHS vans and organizing volunteer drivers to transport them to shelters that need adoptable animals.
“These transports are a highly needed release of pressure, not only on our staff but on the animals themselves,” Mays said.
For every transported dog, there is room for another one to be rescued.
“Our annual intake averages at around 10,000+,” Tillis said. “Realistically, there are only so many homes available in our area.”
Typical long-distance destinations are to shelter and rescue partners in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and New York. Closer destinations include neighboring states such as Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Many of the longer trips leave at about 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., so it’s a task that could be fit in after a workday.
“We have trips that leave on pretty much any day of the week, so there should be plenty available no matter what schedule needs our drivers have,” Tillis said. “We also cover hotel rooms, a meal and transportation costs.”
According to Tillis, the long-haul trips are a bit more difficult to recruit volunteers for, but those are the trips that are most vital for the animals.
Having retired in 2007, Mike Wade was looking for something to fill his time and began volunteering with the GBHS in 2013.
“I have always been a dog lover, so this was natural,” he said.
It wasn’t until about three years ago that he was introduced to and began participating in the transport program.
Bob Stafford began participating in transports in 2015, sparked by a help wanted ad in a local newspaper. He enjoys driving and the cause was important to him.
His first trips were to Washington, D.C. Now he travels to shelters in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Illinois.
“When we go on a transport, most of them will start out in the evening,” Stafford said. “They load at approximately 4 p.m., then we take off at 5 p.m. and most trips take about 12 hours.”
Wade noted that the transports mostly carry dogs, but occasionally cats are carried, as well.
“Other than listening to the dogs, which usually settle down after a short distance, we have no interaction with them until we arrive at the destination,” Wade said.
The typically two-person team will check on the animals when they stop for gas, but for safety reasons the animals stay in their crates.
As they drive through the night, most of the dogs sleep.
“Typically, we drive 800 miles, sharing 400 miles each,” Stafford said. “After that, we rest at a hotel and have dinner, which is covered by GBHS, and then come home the following day.”
Sometimes the drivers will switch off after each stop for gas, Wade said, it just depends on their preference.
Stafford notes that there are occasions when the animals are a little nervous when they arrive at an unfamiliar location.
“We stop and pet them, give them hugs and then they are ready to leave us and go into the shelter,” he said.
Wade and Stafford have taken many ordinary trips, but there are some memorable experiences that stick out.
The GBHS is quick to take on pets that are displaced due to natural disasters. There are plenty of those, with hurricanes and tornadoes in abundance in the South. The only caveat is that GBHS has to make room for the newcomers.
Following the tornado outbreak on March 25, the GBHS offered free boarding for the pets of homeowners whose houses were damaged.
Stafford, Wade and Animal Control Field Services Supervisor Chris Angst each manned vans to deliver about 80 to 90 animals to five different shelters in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Two vans were filled with dogs and one was filled with cats, which is a rarity, according to Wade, because cats typically do not travel well.
“That was hard, because we had no relief driver,” Stafford said.
The trip was the longest transport Wade has participated in, the farthest location being Elmsford, New York. “It is about a 15½-hour drive,” he said. “That is just drive time. It does not include time for stops, etc.”
In 2018, Stafford was on one of two transports sent to Jacksonville, Florida, to pick up at-risk animals ahead of Hurricane Michael.
“When we got close, we were advised that the animals were safe,” Stafford said. “So, then we were told to go to Ft. Walton Beach to a small shelter. This was now 2 a.m. We got as many pets as we could hold, about 50.
As they headed back to Birmingham, they got caught in some of the outer bands of the storm but were able to get all the pets to the GBHS safe and sound. That trip started at 2 p.m. one day and ended at 11 a.m. the following.
The GBHS fronts all of the costs for these trips.
“We fully vet the animals, spay and neuter, everything,” Mays said. “We don’t get any of that money back, but, for us, there is no other option. We don’t have enough space for the amount of animals we have coming in.”
Transports help free up space, but they also ensure that the animals being transported will be adopted.
“Our Northern partners are located in areas where there are more open homes than animals,” Tillis said. “This is due to stricter regulations surrounding spaying and neutering. Partnering with these organizations is mutually beneficial for both the sending and receiving end because it helps more animals to be placed.”
The transport program is one that opens the eyes to a distinctive issue that plagues the South.
“We have a huge overpopulation issue here,” Mays said.
Most Northern states have legislation in place to control animal populations, most notably offering incentives for spay and neutering. There is also a cultural difference in how pets are viewed within the household.
“We only have a handful of areas who have laws against tethering,” Stafford noted. “We also have areas where people allow their pets to run the roads, free to get injured or killed. They are left out in the heat and cold with very little, if any, food, water or shelter. We also have hoarding situations, and dog fighting, which is one of the worst things of all.”
While many people treat their pets as members of the family, there is a lack of legislation to deter those who do view their animals more as pieces of property.
“A lot of areas still tend to use big, scary dogs as security,” Mays said. “It’s a very cheap alarm system, putting a big dog on your porch or chaining it to a tree out front.”
“Right now, we are struggling,” Mays said. “We are absolutely at capacity. We are no longer taking owner surrenders because we literally have no room for them. We need fosters horribly. We need transport drivers terribly.”
While the GBHS is operating at capacity with adoptable animals, there are shelters in Northern states that have waitlists for families looking to adopt a pet.
Some of these shelters are dependent on the Southern strays transported by the GBHS.
“Most people up there are dying to have an animal,” Mays said. “They are paying upwards of $300 to adopt them. Our adult animals are $50 here. You can get a dog pretty much for free anytime and it’s a great one.”
Adoptable dogs at shelters aren’t just pit mixes, a common misconception, according to Mays. She has seen anything from Rhodesian ridgebacks and vislas to shih tzus and Yorkshire terriers, as well as numerous German shepherds and huskies.
Volunteering to drive transports is an easy process.
“All volunteers go through an orientation with our volunteer coordinator, Chivon,” Tillis said. “Our insurance does require a motor vehicle report be submitted, but it’s a quick and easy process.
“We also offer potential new drivers a chance to test out our larger sprinter vehicle to ensure they’re comfortable and confident before hitting the open road.”
It’s a great way to get involved if you want to volunteer but are unable to foster or want minimal contact with the animals.
“I can only speak for myself, but I do it to save the animals’ lives and get them into loving homes,” Wade said. “I always watch the destination shelters’ web pages to see the animals we have taken and see how fast they are adopted.”
The animals he has helped transport usually are adopted within 48 to 72 hours.
“If you want to talk about saving lives, you are driving about 40 souls up to another shelter so they survive,” Mays said.
To volunteer, visit gbhs.org, or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.