Dan Schweickert stood in the open bay door of a transport van parked in the back lot of the Animal Welfare Society in Kennebunk, passing dogs into the waiting arms of shelter staff amid a cacophony of barks, whines and yips.
Pairs of brindled and white-and-black puppies, a little tan-and-white terrier, a dusky female in heat, a stocky shepherd mix – 25 dogs in all – were let out of small cages double-stacked in the van and carried or led through the back doors of the shelter.
“We’ve got three more,” Schweickert called out, as he prepared to transfer the last puppies. “There are two with no names because they ate their tags.”
Schweickert and another volunteer arrived in Kennebunk after an 18-hour drive from Acworth, Georgia, with a vanload of 50 dogs, headed for shelters in Kennebunk, Westbrook, Augusta and beyond. Road Trip Home, the nonprofit group Schweickert volunteers for, makes the trip two or three times a month, bringing up to 90 dogs at a time from overcrowded shelters in Georgia to New England – at least 1,200 dogs a year, he said.
“The chances of most of these animals getting adopted down there is pretty slim,” Schweickert said. “Basically, they are going to be euthanized.”
They will find a home in Maine, where decades of successful spay and neuter programs have left an animal-crazy state without enough local dogs to meet demand.
In 2017, more than half the dogs taken in by shelters – 7,174 – were transfers, almost all from out of state, according to statistics from Maine’s animal welfare department. Last year’s intake was more than six times the number of dogs transferred just six years before, and more than all the strays and surrendered animals entering shelters.
Three out of every four shelter dogs were adopted last year and only 2 percent were euthanized, down from 11 percent in 2011.
Maine’s successful campaign to cut pet overpopulation has worked, giving shelters an opportunity to save animals from hundreds of miles away, in parts of the country where shelters are crowded, adoption rates are low, and animals have a high chance of an early death.
“Our commitment is to our community first, but we have empty cages and kennels. Why not fill them?” said Abigail Smith, executive director at the Animal Welfare Society.
“People want to adopt pets, and we want to save lives.”
‘THIS IS A SUPPLY-AND-DEMAND ISSUE’
Nationally, the number of dogs going into animal shelters is on the decline, from 3.9 million in 2011 to 3.3 million last year, according to estimates from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
About half of shelter dogs were adopted last year, but at least 670,000 were put to death, about 20 percent, the ASPCA estimates.
In the Northeast, euthanasia rates are much lower – Maine shelters now have a 95 percent live animal release rate for dogs and cats, said Liam Hughes, head of the state’s animal welfare program.
Maine’s low number of homeless animals isn’t an accident. Starting at least 25 years ago, Maine and other New England states made spay-neutering programs a high priority by offering low-cost operations and responsible pet ownership education. Last year, the state-funded Help Fix ME program gave out 3,569 vouchers to low-income pet owners to spay and neuter their animals – fewer than 500 vouchers were for dogs, according to Hughes.
“We have pretty much solved the pet overpopulation problem here in New England,” particularly for canines, Hughes said.
“Over the past 10 years, we started noticing, especially for dogs, we don’t have as many to adopt out,” he added. “People are coming looking for these animals and we just don’t have them.”
To meet that demand, northern shelters looked south. A turning point was 2005, when vanloads of animals made homeless after Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast were transported cross-country to waiting shelters. Since then, transportation networks have expanded, making regular trips to rescue animals, primarily from southern to northern states.
It is unclear how many independent rescue organizations are transporting dogs to Maine, but transfers make up the majority of adoptable dogs in some shelters.
“This is a supply-and-demand issue,” Hughes said. “The thing is, demand for pets seems unlimited.”
IN MAINE, ANIMALS ‘VALUED AS FAMILY’
National animal shelter statistics are spotty, so it’s hard to tell how many dogs are being transferred between U.S. shelters. The ASPCA alone relocated 28,444 animals in 2017, over three-quarters of them dogs, an increase of almost 12,000 animals from the year before, according to Karen Walsh, director of the group’s relocation program. The national group moved pets from Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas to Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Washington and Wisconsin.
The national group recently started Destination Maine, a program specifically aimed at removing “city-shy” dogs from New York City-area shelters to rural Maine, where they will be more comfortable.
The Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland took in 952 out-of-state dogs last year, almost 300 more than dogs taken in locally. The shelter works with independent rescue groups to arrange transfers of dogs to the shelter at least once a week, said Jeana Roth, the league’s director of community engagement.
“We are really trying to extend a helping hand. When we are able and we have the space, we welcome animals from across the country,” she said.
Groups like the league have more resources than some of their counterparts in other parts of the U.S., which could make the difference between euthanizing a dog because of a health problem and treating it instead, Roth added.
Last year the shelter had a 98 percent animal live-release rate.
“Mainers really support adoption and animal welfare,” Roth said. “We are very fortunate to be in a community like this. You can go to other places where animals aren’t valued as family members like they are here.”
‘YOU HAVE TO PLAN AHEAD’
About 22 percent of U.S. dog owners adopted from a shelter and 12 percent from a rescue group, according to a 2016 survey from the American Pet Products Association, a national trade group.
There are no comparable state numbers, but demand for shelter dogs in the state, and particularly in southern Maine, is intense.
A dozen people camped out in the lobby of the Animal Welfare Society on Friday morning, waiting for a chance to adopt a puppy recently brought from Puerto Rico.
Marta Laszkiewicz and Kaitlynn McGuire woke up at 3 a.m. and drove from their home in Monroe, near Belfast, for the chance to adopt Blackie, a 10-month-old, black-and-white mix they saw online. When they arrived in Kennebunk at 7 a.m., they were third on the list of potential adopters, some of whom had signed in at 6:30 a.m. But they wound up getting the dog anyway.
“We’re going for personality,” Laszkiewicz said. Their chow-chow mix, Ferrdia, is a little shy, but they hope he’ll open up with a new friend in the house. “We want the most obnoxious, human-loving, food-motivated dog we can find,” Laszkiewicz joked.
The couple weren’t taking chances – last week, they missed out on a puppy at an adoption event in Brunswick. Despite arriving 45 minutes early, they were at the end of a list of more than 40 people who wanted the same dogs.
“You have to plan ahead to ethically get a puppy in Maine,” McGuire said.
That demand is good, because it means the shelter can keep saving lives and finding homes for pets from away, said Smith, the Kennebunk executive director.
“If we didn’t do transport, our cages and kennels would be empty,” she said. “People really want to make a difference, and when you adopt, you do make a difference,” she added. “You are literally saving the life of an animal when you adopt.”
But the demand also has a downside, since some potential adopters turn to unlicensed breeders or self-described rescue groups.
Maine has tightened up regulations for rescues and the majority of groups follow state law, but there are still rogue operators advertising online, said Hughes, the animal welfare director. He cautions consumers to check that the person they are dealing with has a physical location in Maine and a license, two basic requirements. The state also requires health certificates for every animal transferred from out of state. Going through illegitimate sources runs the risk of having a pet that has a disease, or the wrong temperament, Hughes said.
“We want consumers in Maine to be more educated. There are people out there from out of state who have no problem taking advantage of them,” he said.
“The demand for pets is very high. There are people who are claiming they are rescuers who are just an animal broker.”