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.