Chi Chi was quiet on the seven-hour ride in the back of a cargo van. Her metal crate, the bottom covered with a donated carpet sample, was stacked on top of another crate. The white mutt with black spots wore a band around her neck that read FLORENCE TO DC.
The driver, Stephanie Duer, and her sister, Andrea, had to stack the crates to make room for all the dogs—a German-shepherd puppy that had been turned into the shelter because it was chewing on things, a Lab mix surrendered during a divorce, strays such as Chi Chi.
An emergency-room nurse, Duer left Florence, South Carolina—an hour northwest of Myrtle Beach—on a Friday afternoon in November, feeling as if she’d pulled off a jail break. Abandoned dogs are common in poorer parts of South Carolina, and shelters can’t afford to keep them all. A group in DC, Lucky Dog Animal Rescue, had agreed to care for the dogs in the van.
For Chi Chi, who had been picked up by animal control, the drive north meant the end of an eight-week stay in an outdoor kennel run where she slept on concrete. Her igloo-style doghouse was filled with blankets, but it still got cold at night. Chew toys were hard to come by. Duer hoped the dog’s life would be different in Washington.
The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 6 million to 8 million dogs and cats enter animal shelters each year, and nearly half are euthanized. Many are strays found running loose. Some are given up by owners who can no longer afford them. Others are puppies or kittens that were part of an unplanned litter. The goal of groups such as Lucky Dog is to save as many as they can: They take animals out of shelters with high kill rates and place them in temporary foster homes until they’re adopted.
“We have hundreds of animals that we send out to our 80 rescue partners each year—we wouldn’t be able to save them without their help,” says Michelle Hankins, community-outreach manager for the Fairfax County Animal Shelter, which took in 1,392 stray and 670 owner-surrendered dogs in 2009. She volunteered for three rescue groups before taking a job at the shelter. “People can get an amazing animal when they go to a shelter or rescue.”
Until recently, the South Carolina shelter Chi Chi came from was putting down 85 to 100 animals a month.
“Ninety percent of the dogs we bring up wouldn’t stand a chance in our shelter,” says Duer, who volunteers to drive the transport van for the Florence Area Humane Society. “I can’t go to the shelter that much because then you learn who’s there and who’s gone.”
Over the past year and a half, Lucky Dog has pulled around 2,500 dogs from shelters in rural areas of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia.
“The ones there send out euthanasia lists. They say: ‘These dogs are going to die tomorrow,’ ” says Lucky Dog executive director Mirah Horowitz, a senior counsel for the Department of Justice who runs the all-volunteer nonprofit.
One of the shelters she works with doesn’t adopt out any of its dogs locally and used to euthanize them in a gas chamber, she says. The animal-control manager now allows Horowitz to rescue the dogs he deems adoptable—two to eight every week. Other shelters, such as the one in Florence, have adoption programs but struggle with overpopulation, in part because of low spay and neuter rates.
“People either can’t afford it or they don’t think it’s a problem,” Duer says. She says the mindset where she lives is that if your dog has puppies, you just give them away or let them go.
“It’s a different world down there,” says Horowitz. “You see dogs running down the side of the road.”
When Duer pulled into the parking lot of a DC grocery store that Friday night in November, a crowd from Lucky Dog had gathered. Volunteers were handing out leashes and crates. Families who’d adopted dogs they’d seen online were waiting to meet them: A border-collie mix named Sally was going home with a little girl and her dad.
Carla Cleveland and her husband, Jason Paraiso, fostered six dogs before they met Chi Chi. They signed up to volunteer for Lucky Dog last April, three months after their 14-year-old springer spaniel, Lilly, passed away. They wanted to be around dogs but weren’t ready for their own. Cleveland had held Lilly when the dog was two days old. She was devastated by her dog’s death and worried that a new one would feel like a replacement.
The plan was to keep Chi Chi until Lucky Dog found a home for her, just as they’d done with other dogs: Brody, the boxer mix who couldn’t stand being crated; Elaine, the shiba inu/husky combo with separation anxiety; Jack, the 15-pound puggle—pug and beagle—who liked jogging in Old Town.