Sometimes a journey of a thousand miles begins not with a step, but with the mere click of a mouse.
On a bright March afternoon, an enormous horse trailer pulled into a car park in New Hampshire and received a rock star's welcome from an excited crowd. After three days on the road, 50 rescued dogs were introduced to their new families, some of whom had waited weeks for them to arrive.
For Kyle Peterson and Kelly Preston, it was the satisfying end to their exhausting work week, but for Jack, a 2-year-old mutt, it was a new beginning. In his short life, Jack has known both the worst and the best of humanity, and he owes his life to two organizations that devote their time to rescuing, and rehabilitating, unwanted dogs in the South.
When Jack was dumped at a pound in Tennessee, every day counted. If no one claimed him in a matter of weeks, he would face euthanasia. Hundreds of thousands of animals are needlessly killed each year, and Jack was in a precarious position because he had tested positive for heartworm, a life-threatening disease that is expensive to treat. The pound staff, impressed by his demeanor, gave him a little extra time and he came to the attention of an animal rescue organization called PAWS New England.
Jack was taken in by Lorie, a PAWS volunteer, who looked after him while he received medical attention for his condition, and helped him to get his confidence back.
PAWS was founded by Kelly Preston and Traci Parris.
Kelly recalls, "Traci was going to the pound, taking pictures, getting the dogs to the vet and coordinating their transport. I looked at the hopeless faces in the pictures she took and knew that families in New England would adopt some of these dogs in a heartbeat. Traci and I started chatting over the phone, and over the Internet, and things just blossomed."
PAWS has been recognized by the Humane Society for its work, an accomplishment that Kelly puts down to a team effort. "Our greatest achievement has been the enrollment of the amazing volunteers who give countless hours and pour their hearts and souls into this work. PAWS would never be where it is without them."
Kelly explains how dogs like Jack find their new homes.
"All dogs spend a minimum of two weeks in foster care to ensure that we get a true sense of their personality," Kelly said. "Any dogs who have questionable behavioral characteristics are sent to trainers for a full evaluation. In the same way, we push for adoptive families to be completely honest with us about their expectations, as well as the environments that they will be providing for their new dog, and we examine these fundamental details when processing applications."
The dogs are given a profile on Petfinder.com and members of the public submit an online application to adopt them. Each potential owner is screened to ensure that the dogs go to responsible, caring homes. There is a popular misconception that adoption fees are charged for personal profit. On the contrary, the fee is used to offset the high costs of medicating, vaccinating and spaying or neutering each dog. Even so, PAWS frequently has to fund-raise to keep going.
A full-time medical student, Kelly puts in 40 hours a week coordinating adoptions, arranging transport and even fostering dogs herself. It's a punishing workload but Kelly downplays it, saying, "All it takes to save a dog's life is time, energy and the willingness to think outside the box. There are often weeks when you feel like you just don't have enough gas in the tank to keep going, but then you imagine a dog who is cold, scared and lonely sitting at the pound. You are that dog's only lifeline. How could you not do everything in your power to save their lives?"
It is a sentiment shared by Kyle Peterson, owner of Peterson's Express Transport Service, and the driving force behind the trailer. Kyle and his wife, Pam, began as volunteers, transporting rescued dogs to their new homes in and around Tennessee.
Then, Pam was asked to take five dogs to Boston, which she did without a second thought. As those trips to New England became more and more frequent, Kyle and Pam realized that something more extensive was needed and they came up with the idea of a business that would cater to the needs of shelters across the South.
"Our Web site is set up like an airline's," Kyle stated. "We run two transports per week and our capacity is between 140-150 dogs. Rescue groups set up reservations through our Web site. They get a confirmation number for a particular date, then we pick up the dogs. We run six weeks in a row and then we skip one week to let everyone catch their breath and so that we can maintain our trucks, and then we run six weeks again." Altogether, Kyle said, they run 45 to 46 weeks a year.
"We have six drivers that go to New England and we have three other drivers for the pickup routes," Kyle elaborated. "In total we employ 15 people. It's really nice to be able to provide a service that helps so many dogs and, especially in this economy, be able to provide 15 people with full-time jobs."
In 2006, Peterson's Express received a Humane Society Best Practice Award. Kyle and his team take great pains to ensure that the dogs are made as comfortable as possible during the long journey to New England.
"We check the dogs every two hours to make sure they have water, and if any of them have made a mess in their crate, we clean them up," Kyle declared. "We can tell by the way they are acting that some of them need to go out for a time. Every single dog gets taken off and walked at least every eight hours. Above all, the dogs have to be taken care of. Nothing else matters."
On the days that Kyle is in Tennessee, he works as a volunteer for a spay/neuter clinic and is a vehement advocate for responsible pet ownership.
"Our mission as a company is to help lower the population of shelters in the South. It's a horrendous problem," Kyle said. "The Northeast has done a great job of enforcing leash laws, dog permits and running spay/neuter programs so they don't have such a population problem. Now, we don't want to transfer our problem to the Northeast, so our number one rule is that the dog has be spayed or neutered or we won't pick it up. This is something I believe in 100 percent."
Once Jack's adoption was confirmed, it was five weeks before he was fit enough to travel. Watching him bounding out of the truck, full of life and trust after all he had been through, was a very moving moment.
Kyle sees this scene play out week after week and it never loses its poignancy.
"We are very lucky because we get to see the emotion on both ends," he said. "Sometimes, it's very sad when we pick up the dogs, because the people who have taken care of those dogs for a few weeks grow very attached to them. Then, at the other end, we get to see the elation of the families getting their dogs. There can be tears of joy and, for us, it's very rewarding. I tell the rescue groups that I have the best part -- I get to be the hero for all their hard work!"