Fifteen Miami shelter dogs were driven to Iowa on recent Thursday for a second chance at life. Dogs On The Move (DOTM) is a local nonprofit that transports dogs from Miami-Dade Animal Services to rescuers in counties and states where demand for dogs outnumbers supply.
Bonnie Plafke founded DOTM in 2011, after seeing firsthand the high volume of dogs that would arrive daily at animal services while she was a volunteer there. Using her prior experience of fundraising and arranging transports for established rescues, she put a plan into motion to save as many dogs scheduled to be euthanized as a van could hold. On average, DOTM makes two or three trips per month, depending on funding from donors, usually to the Northeast or Midwest. DOTM's only van can hold 15 crates, with one dog per crate. Plafke works with animal services transport coordinator Teresa Donnelly to select dogs that typically get overlooked by adopters: large, brindle and black dogs.
“If we don't have these programs than what do we do?” Donnelly says. “Because we don't have the space.”
Nearly 27,000 dogs and cats were brought to animal services last year, albeit a decline from previous years, with owner surrenders and strays accounting for the majority of intakes. Thousands of shelter animals are euthanized every year at animal services due to lack of space (less than 300 kennels in the facility) paired with not enough adopters to match the high volume and frequency in arrivals of animals.
Plafke and Amy Jones, DOTM's director, agree that the hardest part of their rescue work is choosing which dogs to save. “We do a lot of crying,” Plafke said. “Once you have 10 big dogs you have to stop. You can't look at the next dog in the kennel.”
“We take out small dogs too,” she says, “because in order for rescues and no-kill shelters to take the harder-to-place dogs, they have to have a couple of highly adoptable ones.”
Plafke and DOTM's other original co-founder, who is no longer part of the organization, volunteered with animal services before there was ever a transport program in place.
“We've monitored this long enough to know what dogs are in demand in what states,” says Plafke, adding that chows, Akitas, huskies and mixes of those breeds “get adopted within five minutes in the Midwest.” She says that demand for dogs in other states like New Hampshire is high because of their strict spay-and-neuter laws. “New Hampshire has almost no stray dogs,” she says. “They have such great laws in place that if they didn't take dogs from other parts of the country some of their no-kill shelters and rescues would go out of business.”
Last year, Plafke decided to make DOTM an independent entity from the animal services. She said she's scaled back on transports since last year, crediting animal services with hosting more successful on and off-site adoption events resulting in less dogs that need saving.
To date, DOTM has transported more than 3,500 South Florida animals in 135 trips. As a nonprofit, the group is completely dependent on donations from the public to make these transports happen. Expenses per trip cost between $1,600 and $2,000. Two drivers are hired per trip, rotating at the wheel so that one can sleep as the other drives straight to their destination to deliver the dogs as soon as possible. Oil changes after each trip and fuel costs must also be covered.
While all dogs must have a clean bill of health to be on board, Plafke and Jones are adamant about giving sick dogs a second chance. One of the dogs that left on the transport to Iowa on Thursday, a large mixed breed name Wilfred, had tested positive for heartworm but was treated for the deadly disease before the trip and recovered in the care of a local foster. Dogs must be kept in quarantine either via a foster or at a boarding facility 10 days before each transport to monitor their health before being delivered to a rescue. That transport of 15 dogs to Iowa was sponsored entirely by NYU student and Miami native Margot Mueller, who raised more than $2,000 for DOTM in a fundraiser for her run in the Miami Marathon in January.
The transport works when rescuers in other counties and states confirm with DOTM that they'll receive dogs. Once that “hold” is in place, DOTM pulls an average of 15 dogs from the shelter. (They used to transport more in prior years before animal services ruled that only one dog per crate was allowed.) When the rescues receive the dogs, they either take them to humane societies in their area, which are no-kill, or sometimes a dog will have a home right away, if people arrange to adopt from the rescue ahead of time. Jones affirms that DOTM only partners with reputable rescuers who guarantee that the dog will have a safe place to go upon arrival and will be responsible for the well-being of the dog until he or she is adopted.
Many rescuers attribute the epidemic of neglected and mistreated animals in South Florida to irresponsible pet owners who let their dogs roam, don't spay or neuter them, or provide proper care or basic necessities.
Animal services' new county shelter is being constructed in Doral and scheduled to open later this year. It will be around twice the size of the current one. Animal services is aiming to be “no kill” before the move to the new facility but in order for that designation, 90 percent of the animals would need to leave the shelter via adoptions, fosters, returns to owners or transfers to other no kill facilities. “No Kill” doesn't mean all animals will make it out of the shelter alive, even though the term would imply otherwise. Up to 10 percent of intake can be euthanized and the designation still stands.
Pilots N Paws (PNP), another animal rescue transport nonprofit, works on a wider national scale to bring homeless dogs to rescuers in all 50 states. Since 2008, more than 5,000 small-plane general aviation pilots have volunteered their time and flown over 75,000 animals, mostly dogs, to rescuers across state and county lines. The organization's goal is to double that amount of pilots in a five-year span so that more dogs can have a chance of survival.
With many flights departing from South Florida, rescuers and pilots connect and communicate with each other via a forum on Pilots N Paws' website.
Rescuers send a request for transport on the forum and if the pilot accepts they coordinate a date and time for take-off and arrival. Upon landing, dogs are delivered to receiving rescuers at landing bases who then take them to safe havens. On average, five to seven dogs can fit comfortably in small aircrafts. Other times, just one or two dogs are transported.
“Transport is such an important part of animal rescue,” says Kate Quinn, executive director of Pilots N Paws. “There's so many different components but if you can't find a way of getting the animal to its new home then the adoption wouldn't take place.”
Sometimes, pilots make multiple stops along their route, delivering dogs to rescues in different counties and states.
“The premise has been that if you're making a flight for business or pleasure, why not check the forum board and see if there's an animal that needs rescue going to the same area you're going to and from,” says Quinn. She hopes that more student pilots will take advantage of this opportunity to deliver animals since they have to fly to build hours to get their pilot's license.
Volunteer pilots have also assisted with transporting dogs who have been adopted by U.S. soldiers overseas in Afghanistan. After they fly to the U.S. on commercial airlines, PNP picks up the final leg of the transport and flies them to the soldier's home.
“We've seen a lot of pilots looking for a reason to fly. This really gives meaning to their flights – knowing that you're taking an animal that probably within a couple of hours would have been euthanized and then flying that animal and placing it in the arms of the new owner is ... really a great feeling for these pilots.”
PNP's biggest needs are fosters, donors and getting the word out to more pilots about aerial transport, especially those who fly jets. Crates and other equipment on board of each transport is provided free of charge. Also, the FAA recognizes PNP transports as “Humanitarian Flights,” so pilots can use portions of their flight expenses as tax deductible donations.