Rescue Transport: How Animals from the South End Up in Chicago

Every other Saturday morning, in rain, snow, or sun, volunteers of Starfish Animal Rescue gather at a warehouse space in Batavia, Illinois, to welcome a special delivery. Two huge vans arrive shortly after the volunteers, stacked from top to bottom with crates containing cats, dogs, and litters of puppies and kittens. The animals don’t know it yet, but they’ve just been given an amazing second chance. If they hadn’t made it on that van, they might not still be alive.

The animals come from two shelters in southern Kentucky—Harlan County Animal Shelter in Baxter and Kentucky River Regional Animal Shelter (KRRAS) in Hazard. The shelters are located in counties with high poverty rates and limited resources for both people and animals. In 2011, KRRAS alone had to euthanize 95% of dogs that came through its door and 99% of cats. In 2012, Starfish came in as a lifeline, pulling animals and transporting them up to Chicagoland for adoption. By 2017, the euthanasia rate at KRRAS was only about 3%.

“It’s remote. The mines shut down, so there’s no way [for people] to make money to even care for themselves, let alone their animals,” says Margie Swift, founder and director of Starfish. Animals are dropped off at the shelter because their caregivers can’t afford vet care. They’re abandoned in ditches, thrown out of cars, left tied up in bags in the Walmart parking lot. And most of the time, they’re healthy, sweet animals who just happened to be born into a community that can’t afford to value them.

“The animals that come up from Kentucky, sometimes they’ve never been indoors. They’ve never had a bed. They’ve never gone to the vet,” Swift says. “These animals may have unexpected medical [needs]; they may come in a hot mess and really need a bath and a groom and a clipping. But then they’re good to go. You show them a little bit of nicety and that’s it. That’s all they were looking for.”

Hugo is one of thousands of animals Starfish has rescued from Kentucky.

Starfish, which is run entirely by volunteers, matches animals with rescue organizations in Illinois and Wisconsin who agree to take them in. They also run their own foster-based rescue operation. Every other week, more than a hundred animals make the overnight journey from Kentucky to Illinois. And each year, 3,000 animals make it out of the Kentucky shelters alive thanks to the organization.

Rescue transport is a novel solution to an old problem. Homeless animals are everywhere, but the resources to care for them are not.

About 6.5 million animals end up in shelters every year, according to data from the ASPCA, and approximately 1.5 million of them are euthanized. Overwhelmingly, these euthanizations happen in states in the South and Appalachia, says a report from the non-profit organization Shelter Animals Count. Poverty, a lack of spay/neuter awareness and capabilities, different cultural ideas about the human-animal relationship, and distrust of shelters all play in to these high rates.

“Down there, there’s nobody coming,” Swift says. “There’s very few local adoptions.” Rescue transport organizations like Starfish become the only method of getting the animals out and getting them adopted.

Still, rescue transport is not without its controversy. In Chicago, some argue that transport does a disservice to local homeless animals, primarily the Pit Bull-type dogs who are so predominant in the city shelter. Because even in a big city like ours, where rescue resources are more plentiful, there’s still only a finite amount of kennels, fosters, and adopters waiting to take in animals.

The more pervasive argument, however, is that rescue transport acts as a bandage on the larger problem—a lack of resources and awareness toward animal welfare in certain states—instead of providing a real solution.

“I believe transports can be a force for good, in that they clearly help many unwanted animals get a second chance. But there needs to be more research conducted on…whether such actions promote irresponsible pet stewardship and animal welfare policies in these states,” says Susan Russell, former executive director of Chicago Animal Care and Control.

“If a state or city foregoes strategic planning, policy development, and allocation of funds that help pet [parents] in under-served areas spay/ neuter and vaccinate their animals, and instead relies on transport to resolve pet overpopulation problems, then transport might continue enabling irresponsible animal welfare policies and laws, which would not benefit these pet [parents] or the animals, and could have the unintended consequence of creating demand for these animals at the expense of others,” she adds.

For rescue transporters like Swift, however, the arguments for transport outweigh the arguments against it. Because at the heart of both the pros and the cons are living, breathing animals who need help.

“Once you know something, you can’t unknow it,” Swift says. “I know exactly what’s going on down there, I’ve been down there. So either you step up and do something or you become part of the problem.”

Things are changing, she says, at least in the areas of rural Kentucky that Starfish works with. Humane programs are going into schools and teaching children how to be kind to animals and about the benefits of shelters. Low-cost spay/neuter through programs like Starfish’s Spay it Forward initiative mean less puppies and kittens looking for homes.

While we can’t ignore the problems surrounding animal welfare in other states, it’s imperative that we dig deeper to examine their roots. It’s a truth that Chicago’s Felines & Canines understands well as they actively work toward being a part of the solution.

Local residents might be surprised to learn that every single one of the adoptable dogs at Felines & Canines comes from outside of the state. For many years, the shelter worked as a rescue partner with Starfish, taking in dozens of dogs every other week.

Inside the Hunter Stephenson Rescue Center.

As of this year, however, they’re running their own transport operation out of a brand new facility they built in Northern Alabama called the Hunter Stephenson Rescue Center.

Here’s how it works: Every Monday and Tuesday, the Felines & Canines team in Alabama visits up to eight different shelters and pulls out adoptable dogs. They test their temperament in playgroups, and get them vetted, bathed, and dewormed. On Wednesdays and Fridays they transport them up to Chicago with help from the ASPCA.

In just nine weeks this summer, Felines & Canines’ transport efforts saved more than 500 animals from euthanasia. Currently they’re on track to save 3,000 animals within their first year of operation.

“We decided that we were going to try to help the most animals we possibly could with our resources, and it just happens to be in the south,” says Abby Smith, Felines & Canines’ executive director. While the shelter does rescue all of their cats locally, they found very early on that the dogs who were getting adopted the fastest from their shelter were the doe-eyed Lab and Hound mixes who are mainstays of southern shelters but harder to come by in Chicago.

“We look for the beta dog. We don’t look for the alpha dog. We look for the one who is a little tender and shy, and who is not huge because they’re getting all the food and bossing everybody around. We look for the ones who are a little more mellow in the crate, even if they’re nervous,” Smith says. “They will do everything they can to be your best friend. They know where they came from and where they are and that it’s completely different.”

Like Starfish, Smith and her team at Felines & Canines are determined to be more than just a symptomatic cure for the animal welfare issues in other states. The Hunter Stephenson Rescue Center, she says, is a model the shelter hopes to replicate in other states that really struggle with their homeless animal populations. Along the way, they hope to make some concrete advancements as well.

“We want to make real changes,” Smith says. “Once we get ourselves established in these communities our goal is to legislate so that there’s low cost spay and neuter options, so that we’re not just a band-aid to the issue.” But until that happens, she adds, transport is the best option. “We’re grabbing these dogs off the euthanasia list because they’re already born, they’re here. The next stage is how do we get things to change.”

The common thread among both rescue transporters and on-the-ground Chicago advocates like Russell is a desire to see things get better. Because there’s a lot of work to be done for animals near and far, and doing right by them is always going to come first.

Lend your support!

• Volunteer to help out on transport days with Starfish Animal Rescue or become a
foster by requesting information via StarfishAnimalRescuer@gmail.com. Starfish is
also in need of donations, which can be made at StarfishAnimalRescue.com.

• To support Felines & Canine’s ongoing efforts, visit FelinesCanines.org and make a donation.

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