Late December I received an urgent email on a Saturday afternoon while sitting in a design talk at MIT. PAWs New England, an extraordinary group that rescues dogs out of high kill shelters in the south and brings them to the north, needed an emergency transport driver on Tuesday.
The trip from Memphis to New Hampshire was 1,350 miles and would involve four animals, although the van was later described “not unlike a raft leaving the Titanic” so that number was bound to go up. The transport needed get underway in 72 hours so that the animals could make it to New England for the holidays. Is it possible for you to go? they asked.
Within minutes, my mind was made up. I can’t resist an adventure or a good cause, and PAWs holds a special place in my heart: my dog, Mia, was my “foster failure,” the joking term for a happily adopted foster animal. (As I was no longer able to foster I continued to volunteer as a photographer in the extensive network that is the lifeblood of organizations like PAWs.) It was close to Christmas and most people were busy, but I took the call as an opportunity to go big and embrace the holiday spirit. While the logistics were complicated, the choice easy.
The intricate machinery of the whole ordeal clicked into gear almost immediately: flights, vans, routes, and travel advice all swirling in my head. Like so many groups bringing animals from shelters to safety for a chance at a new life, PAWs is an extremely organized network of volunteers all over the east. As my mother said, critical groups like this create an Underground Railroad for dogs. Given the current kill rates in many shelters — as high as 80-98% — the name is not far off.
I arrived in Memphis on Tuesday evening to attend a volunteer dinner and was swept into the rescue world of the south: intense, harsh, and moving. Originally, I was told I would drive four animals north, but Kelly, the co-founder of PAWs had warned me that there might be more. Even so, standing before my Christmas-red mini van on Wednesday morning observing 12 animals in crates being loaded in with Jenga gamesmanship expertise, I was a bit shocked. The final count (which I repeated throughout the trip for fear of losing an animal along the way as fatigue bore down) was eight puppies, two dogs, two kittens, a partridge and a pear tree. My crew traveled all the way up to New Hampshire, a total of 1,350 miles, with the goal of finding each creature a home for Christmas.
The Tipton County PAWs team took a final photo of me and Kelly, and then we were off. Kelly was driving the other emergency transport to Michigan with Noel, another dire case. A dire case or high needs rescue is an animal with high medical needs who “logically” makes no sense to save, but whose heart and spirit spoke to the volunteers and whom they could not leave to die untreated and alone. PAWs’ motto “we save lives, one dog at a time” means that they are willing to really see dogs who might be viewed as hopeless by others. The unflinching HBO film “One Nation Under Dog” documents the story of PAWs, what so many groups like them are up against, and the ongoing battle to save animals from shelter deaths.
As I pulled out onto the road north to safety and a future, my high needs case, Ralphie, looked up at me with sweet chocolate brown eyes. He was sitting shotgun in a Tupperware bin as we rolled across Tennessee. Ralphie was the catalyst for the New England drive, paralyzed from the torso down. It appeared he had been a street dog for a long time, but as I quickly found out first hand, his charming but stubborn outlook had won over the swamped Tipton Volunteers. I could almost hear him say, “if you won’t help me, get out of my way” as he scooted by me on our rest stops. As my co-pilot Ralphie chewed on his Santa Hat (I brought it for social media pictures to help support his medical expenses), he grumbled about the other noisy puppies and tried to cross over to sit in my lap.
By the time I reached Virginia I had mastered the rest stop routine. It was far from glamorous, but our eyes were on the prize — just a dozen hours away. The eight puppies went into a pen playing with each other while I cleaned crates. Then Ralphie and I took a tour of the grassy areas, me walking and Ralphie scooting. As I looked after his wounds, we focused on the better life he would have in Connecticut. The kittens stayed put in the Jenga pile with fresh supplies. I was meant to walk a beautiful teenaged German shepherd mix, Melly Rose, who cowered and shook in the back of her crate. Once out, she had no interest in walking, instead putting her paws on my arms, her head under my chin. We repeated this cycle and stood like this at rest stops from Tennessee to New Hampshire, embracing. Melly, I believe, was trying to absorb the idea that she was finally safe, while I tried not to cry. It was heartbreaking, but beautiful, this new future she had before her thanks to the efforts of so many people.
Around 2 a.m., I picked up a relief driver in D.C., another PAWs volunteer. And with my feet on the dashboard and Ralphie underneath on the floor (there was no other room in the packed van), I blessedly passed out. I had been driving since 10 a.m., stopping every 5-7 hours for a cleaning and exercise break and eating whatever rest stop food I could find, worrying about the animals’ health and safety, belting out songs and listening to talk radio to keep focused. This was a road trip like none other, an adventure, and the collective purpose was pushing us on. These twelve little beings had better lives waiting for them, and like my dog did for me, they would change twelve families for the better.
As the sun rose, we arrived at our first stop in Connecticut. Ralphie’s adoptive mother already had two paralyzed dogs, including Trooper, a unique case with a social media following who has galvanized help from all over the country. I have to admit, I had been skeptical about the quality of life Ralphie would have. But I knew his intense determination and joy, the same energy which had allowed him to survive so long on the streets with limited mobility, would help him build a beautiful life with this remarkable family. His adoptive mother told us that he slept in front of the fire that evening with the calm, unbreakable sleep of an animal who knows his journey is over and that he is safe.
We carried onward north and I handed off the eight squirming, adorable puppies to the amazing PAWs affiliated New Hampshire shelter that was eagerly awaiting them. And as the trip neared the 26-hour mark, I dropped off my pint-sized feline charges —finally, all was silent. With the Christmas van returned, I headed home for a surgical scrub-down before I tipped forwards into bed.
I slept almost 20 hours and reemerged to hug my own former high-needs rescue, now a rotund, happy little dog who more closely resembles Winnie the Pooh than the blind pup I was assigned four Christmases before as a foster. Like so many that PAWs saves, Mia was logistically a bad bet, but her absolute optimism got us through her healing process. And she stuck with me through some of the darkest times in my life. She is pure joy; I sometimes imagine walking with Mia must be a bit like what walking around dressed as Mickey in Disney World must be like — people’s faces immediately breaking into smiles.
With Mia taken care of, I checked in with Kelly and PAWs that Thursday evening before Christmas, and I found that all twelve of my “unwanted” travel companions were either settling into their new homes or in the process of being adopted. Every single one, at risk only weeks before, was now safe. And just in time for the holidays. There are thousands more of them out there, all of them in need of whatever we can contribute to help create these little but important miracles. Miracles like Mia, Ralphie and Melly Rose being safe, having a name, and being loved.
Misadventures is an outdoor and adventure magazine by and for adventurous women.