Andrea Chadis and her boyfriend, Matt Regis, had been looking for a new addition to their family for more than a month. They knew they wanted a rescue dog, but after weeks of checking local organizations and petfinder.com, they had their hearts broken more than once when a prospect they wanted was snapped up by someone else. Then they saw the online profile for Brady. A button-eyed chow-poodle mix, he ticked all their boxes: small, young, kid-friendly, with no anxiety and the promise of minimal shedding. And, Chadis added, “he looked like such a fun-loving pup.”
The Tewksbury, Massachusetts couple didn’t know for sure, though, because they wouldn’t get to actually meet Brady until just minutes before taking him home. Like so many dogs adopted over the past decade or so in the Northeast—a region where shelters have fewer local dogs —Brady (since renamed Folly) had started his life south of the Mason-Dixon line.
“Dogonomics is really what it is: Pretty simple supply and demand,” said clinical associate professor Emily McCobb, V00, VG02, director of Cummings School’s Shelter and Community Medicine Program and assistant director of its Center for Animals and Public Policy. “We’ve made huge strides with pet overpopulation in New England.” However, spaying and neutering is less common in other parts of the United States, and healthy homeless dogs and puppies end up being euthanized simply because there are far more of them than the shelters can care for humanely. As a result, rescue groups and individuals from these regions routinely move dogs—and lately, cats too—en masse to the Northeast, where they can find homes and escape euthanasia.
The country’s oldest documented humane relocation program seems to have started in 1991 at North Shore Animal League in Port Washington, New York, and arrived in Massachusetts a few years later, when the Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem began doing transports. But the practice really took off in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina exposed the extent of the homeless animal problem in other parts of the country. McCobb estimates that today, 20,000 or 30,000 New England pets originated in the South, Midwest, and parts of California—but there are no solid numbers. And that’s not all that remains unclear about the practice.
“We really know very little about adoptable pet transport in terms of data,” said Seana Dowling-Guyer, associate director of Cummings School’s Center for Shelter Dogs, and McCobb’s research partner in a series of studies aimed at changing that. “On a regional basis, we don’t know where the animals are coming from, how many are coming in, the species or age or sex or health and behavior conditions. We don’t know trends in transport methodology or the impact of that on animals’ health and welfare.”
The first of what the pair hope will be five studies over the next few years got underway in 2017 and explored transport practices from 200 sending and receiving shelters. Future studies will look at things like how dogs are doing in their new homes and perceptions of animal transport on the part of veterinarians, trainers, behaviorists, and the general public. “We’re trying to take a 360-degree view,” said Dowling-Guyer. “Because if you talk to just one group, you only get one side of the story.”
It’s easy to see the positive side of the story of dog transport from the South and elsewhere. In the source community, dogs’ lives are saved, freeing up resources that can be put toward public education and spay/neuter programs. In the destination community, families can follow the “adopt, don’t shop” adage that has helped decrease the country’s healthy-dog euthanasia rates from 13.5 million in 1973, to about 1.5 million last year. It can also drive foot traffic to local shelters, increasing adoption rates for older or larger dogs. “They’ll say, ‘We have twenty-five puppies coming up,’” McCobb said, “and then fifty people show up and the shelter empties out.”
But what’s the other side, the side that might not have such a feel-good ending? Perhaps the most common concern arises from the increase in heartworm and some tick-borne illnesses being seen in the Northeast. “You’ll find vets who are convinced this is because of the transport, and you can track some of it to that,” McCobb said. “But, honestly, we would have it anyway. People are moving around, and the climate is heating up.”
Another possible negative consequence for individual dogs is not physical, but emotional. Anecdotally, some Massachusetts behaviorists have said they’re seeing more anxiety in transported dogs, but McCobb wonders whether the research will bear that out. “It could be just that there’s a bigger percentage of dogs being transported,” she said. “Our sense is that most people end up with healthy, happy pets and are very satisfied.”
As for the source communities, there’s a concern that rescue operations are just shipping problems elsewhere rather than solving them at home. The worry about such a Band-Aid approach, McCobb said, is that it’s “maybe not driving change as quickly as it would if these communities had to make tougher decisions.” Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, “there is some intimation that people may be producing puppies for this market,” to profit from the high-demand for younger dogs. “Before, if you were looking for a pet, you were limited to your local shelter or the newspaper,” she said. “Now, people you think are rescues may actually be commercial dog breeders.”
Part of the reason for this is the wild west nature of the burgeoning movement, McCobb said. A lot of transports occur under the radar, with pets arriving on trucks operated by professional transport services hired by rescue operations or in vans run by good-hearted, loosely organized volunteer groups (or even in the cars of prospective owners, who decide to make the trek themselves). “The bulk of the animals are coming through informal channels,” McCobb said, “and there’s no way to track that.” One of the surprising preliminary findings of the first study she and Dowling-Guyer conducted is that not everyone transporting dogs to Massachusetts is doing “basic things you assume everyone would do”—sometimes not even vaccinating animals, which is a significant public-health concern.
McCobb hopes the research she and Dowling-Guyer are doing (with an assist from Adrian Dannis, V20, on the current study comparing characteristics of transported and local dogs and how they fare postadoption) may one day help increase consistency and safety in the industry, and perhaps even influence policy by identifying standards that will ensure success. “A few organizations have put out best practices for transport, but what do the numbers really show us?” McCobb said. “We’re trying to be systematic and study things more rigorously, answer questions people in shelters are telling us they want answers to.”
Karina King, director of operations for the Dakin Humane Society in Springfield, Massachusetts, is one of those who are very interested in the answers. Last year Dakin took in a total of 1,495 dogs and puppies, 386 of which were out-of-state imports, mostly from Texas. “Animal welfare is short on data and research and long on assumptions,” she said. King is not immune to making assumptions herself, she added, describing how she sometimes feels sure that cats are taking longer to adopt than dogs. In fact, it turns out she had been focusing on just certain longer-term cats, and not paying as much attention to all the ones moving out of the shelter quickly. “That’s how the human brain works,” Dakin said, “and why we need data—so we can look at what is actually happening, not what we think is happening.”
Elizabeth Gehrman, a frequent contributor to Tufts magazines, is a freelance writer based in Buffalo, New York