Inside the Underground Pipeline Bringing Pets to Massachusetts

A neglected pup from the deep South, a grieving Plymouth family, and the fearless rescuers that brought them together: The untold story of Bowser’s incredible journey home.

Photo by Webb Chappell

In the predawn hours of October 19, 2020, Plymouth plumber Robert Fleming Jr. rose from bed and began getting ready for work, trying his best not to wake his wife, Colleen. As he dressed, his mind wandered to Bauer, his six-year-old dog, who he worried might be seriously ill. For nine long months, the boxer seemed to be doing well on an anti-inflammatory after a battery of medical tests totaling $4,000 was inconclusive. Colleen slept lightly during those months, fretting about the dog who paced around the house and often nudged her for a backyard break in the middle of the night. Outside in the dark, Bauer sometimes became disoriented; Colleen would find him staring into the blank darkness at the edge of the above-ground pool.

The Flemings had good reason to worry: The previous evening, Bauer had slept under the dining room table while the couple and their two children, Teddy, two, and Evelyn, six, ate dinner. They all agreed it seemed strange that the food-crazed pup Colleen had once dubbed “hungry hippo” didn’t bark and beg. While Colleen cleaned the kitchen after dinner, Bauer rested quietly in his dog bed. When she was finished, she invited him upstairs to the couple’s bedroom as usual, but he stayed behind. “Goodnight then, buddy,” she said to him. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Now, heading down for breakfast, Robert hoped to find Bauer feeling better after a good night’s rest, but instead descended and saw his beloved pet lying on the tile in the entryway at the bottom of the stairs, struggling to breathe. Robert called out to Colleen, who rushed to his side, and together they got down on the floor with their dog and held him while fighting back tears. A few moments later, they watched Bauer take his final breath.

The Flemings had spent two brief but precious years with the sweet and easy boy, whom they’d adopted after his previous owners divorced and gave him up. Bauer’s gentleness with their children touched Colleen; when he arrived, she said, he “walked into our homes and into our hearts.” Bauer was the third boxer the Flemings had adopted, having developed a strong attachment to the breed after Tek, their second rescue pup—who had been abused and suffered from severe separation anxiety—helped Robert through addiction recovery in 2011. Whenever Robert felt frustrated, hopeless, or lost, Tek was a reminder that things would get better. That healing was possible.

Nine years later, the family members coped with Bauer’s passing in different ways. Teddy, who was too young to understand death, walked around the house calling, “Bow-ee! Bow-ee!” It was eerie and heartbreaking for his parents to hear. Evelyn asked for a cat. Deep down inside, though, Robert and Colleen felt an emptiness that could only be filled by another boxer, and they began to scour the websites of rescue organizations.

Given that all three of their dogs had suffered from debilitating illnesses, Colleen’s best friend wondered aloud why they were willingly setting themselves up for more heartache and financial distress by adopting another rescue pup. To the Flemings, the answer was obvious. “We know these aren’t healthy dogs,” Colleen later told me, “but our dogs are part of our lives.”

Ready to Adopt?
Read up on these tips from local rescue organizations first.
By Stefanie Schwalb

Have Patience
It’s easy to get so excited by the cute dogs and cats on rescue websites that you forget it takes a lot of time to find the perfect companion. “There’s a lot of research that needs to be done,” says Carolyn Curran, animal care manager of the Animal Rescue League of Boston, “and there needs to be a lot of soul-searching for people to actually consider what they’re willing to take on.”

Speaking of Soul-Searching…
Will your kids really help out with caregiving like they promised they would? Will you still have all of that extra time to walk and play with your new puppy once you go back to the office? The first thing adopters need to think about is their lifestyle—what it looks like today and what it may look like tomorrow, says Corinne Bourgoin, shelter operations coordinator of the MSPCA Boston Adoption Center. And that’s to say nothing of the financial requirements, Curran adds: “I think people should consider their budgets, know their own limits financially, and know what things cost.”

Be Prepared
So you filled out an application and got the news that you’re about to become a pet parent—now what? Before picking up your new furry family member, it’s important to have food and water bowls, a bed, toys, and a leash or litter box already in place so the dog or cat can immediately feel comfortable in your home. “You can set that animal up for success by providing a lot of structure,” Curran explains.

Easy Does It
Like any new relationship, starting out slow is always sound advice. That means Sunday-morning snuggles are good; crowded parks are bad. “Definitely don’t bring your new pet around a lot of new things right from the get-go,” Curran notes. “You don’t want to flood them with stressful events. You want to bond with the animal and let the animal trust you first.”

The Flemings were hardly alone in their desire to bring home a new furry companion in 2020. When the state shut down in March to contain the spread of COVID, an unprecedented number of Greater Boston families found themselves stuck at home with ample time to care for a new pet—and “adoption requests skyrocketed,” says Deb Cameron, a volunteer coordinator at Paws New England. The organization re-homes about 1,500 dogs each year from southern states, where, conversely, local shelters are overwhelmed with a seemingly infinite number of abandoned or stray animals. Before COVID, Cameron typically received 10 to 15 adoption requests a week; after ​Governor Charlie Baker shut down Massachusetts’ shelters in March, she was fielding up to 50 applications an hour.

For Robert and Colleen, the worst part about losing their pet during the pandemic was the silence. “It was a sad, quiet house,” Colleen says. They were willing to drive a long distance, even risk staying in motels, to find a new boxer. They discussed the possibility of buying a puppy. They even considered adopting a dog they’d never met. Whatever the price, whatever the heartache, they vowed to make it work.

The September 5 text to Kathy Westbrook-McNutt read: “The dog is still there. That’s a dead chicken on the ground near it…. The house looks abandoned but we aren’t sure. Dog is in bad shape.

An Alabama animal rescuer, Westbrook-McNutt, 61, didn’t have room in her home for another dog, but she couldn’t ignore the mail carrier’s texts any longer. She’d brushed off the first message; the property in question was in Hodges, just a few miles outside her humane society’s jurisdiction of Marion County, Alabama, close to the Mississippi state line. But the latest text included a video she couldn’t brush aside. The dog was lying against a chain-link fence near a rundown double-wide trailer home. Westbrook-McNutt knew that people sometimes moved and left their animals behind. If that was the case, this dog would surely die.

Westbrook-McNutt took stock of the 10 rescue cats and 22 dogs and puppies she was fostering in her 1,200-square-foot home. As usual, she was out of space. A post on the Facebook page of her humane society read, “!!!!!EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY!!!!! Marion County Humane Society [Alabama] is on an indefinite intake hold. It will do NOBODY any good to try to guilt us into taking because the answer will still be ‘No.’”

But sometimes, she couldn’t say no. This was one of those days.

Westbrook-McNutt and the humane society she runs are affiliated with a Mass-achusetts nonprofit called Sweet Paws Rescue. Through partnerships with volunteers like her, the Groveland-based organization and others like it send neglected, abused, and abandoned dogs and cats from the South to adopters up North via a pipeline of animal lovers across dozens of states. Its motto—“Saving people. One dog at a time”—couldn’t be truer for Westbrook-McNutt. In 2012, when her husband died and the bank foreclosed on their home, she says, “It was like my whole world had been shattered. I needed something to give my heart to.” One day, she saw a Facebook post about a dog and her pups that someone had discovered in northern Alabama. “She was nothing but skin stretched over bones,” she said, “eating rocks, grass, garbage…anything she could to survive.” Although Westbrook-McNutt had little room in her mobile trailer to foster an animal, she sent a message to the woman who’d posted the photo. “I said, ‘Look, you don’t know me, but I have seen the pictures of this dog. How can I help? What can I do?’” As soon as word got out that she was willing to take in animals, the pleas for help began coming her way. Rescuing dogs gave her life purpose.

If the dog in Hodges had been abandoned, Westbrook-McNutt resolved to help, even if she had to drive more than an hour to Columbus, Mississippi, where fellow rescuer Brandi Kain was waiting to swap it for a puppy that Kain had been nursing back to health. It would be a typical game of “animal Tetris”—shuffling around cats and dogs to accommodate a near-constant intake—played by an army of volunteer rescuers in the region over text, phone, and Facebook.

Standing outside the fence at the house in question, Westbrook-McNutt couldn’t get a good read on the dog the mail carrier had texted about because it was obscured by some bushes. The fact that it wasn’t budging worried her, though. To assess its health, she’d have to enter the property—risky business in a state boasting the second-highest rate of gun deaths in America. Next door in Mississippi, which ranks first, shrapnel in cats and dogs is so common that veterinarians refer to it as the “Mississippi microchip.”

Westbrook-McNutt knocked on the front door. No one answered, so she walked around back, steering clear of the snarling German shepherd chained to the garage. To her relief, he looked healthy, but it pained her to see the animal tethered like that. Unlike in Massachusetts, in Alabama a dog can legally spend its entire life chained to a tree or an old tire in a circle of dirt, vulnerable to the elements, predators, and other dogs. Westbrook-McNutt knew the shepherd might remain pinned there for years, but she hadn’t come for him.

At the back door, she heard people talking inside. She knocked again. A thirtysomething guy in a T-shirt, jeans, and a baseball cap came to the door. Westbrook-McNutt explained that she was with the local humane society and had received a call concerning the dog in the yard.

“Has the animal been to the vet?” she asked.

“No ma’am,” said the man. He explained that he was a single father working full time, living with his three young daughters as well as his father, who was recovering from a stroke. He couldn’t afford a vet—which is what Westbrook-McNutt hears 99 percent of the time. Though the former long-haul trucker has little patience for the people standing between her and a sick, abused, or neglected animal, she still musters compassion for them. The vets in her area charge way too much for the community, she says.

Westbrook-McNutt offered to give the unseen dog in the front yard “worm medicine” and promised that she’d leave some pills behind as well. Still, she couldn’t go back to her van in good conscience without seeing the animal for herself. Under the guise of determining the proper dosage, she asked if she could check him out. The man walked her through the house, where Westbrook-McNutt briefly met his three daughters.

Once they were in the yard, he called out: Peanut!

Westbrook-McNutt has seen every form of neglect and abuse, but she was still shocked by the animal’s appearance as he wobbled over to her. Profoundly emaciated, his hip bones were visible and his eyes were sunken into his skull. “I don’t know how this dog was standing, let alone walking,” she said. “I looked at this dog and I looked at this kid, and I said, ‘Hun, this didn’t happen overnight. Where did you get this dog and how long has he been like this?’”

The man said something about a buddy dropping him off in that condition a few weeks ago.

“I’m going to be very blunt with you,” she told him. “This dog is going to die within the next day or two.”

Westbrook-McNutt told him that Peanut needed immediate medical care. The man hesitated, unsure of whether he wanted to part with the animal. “My girls really love him,” he told her. She heard that line all the time from pet owners, even when there were obvious signs of abuse or neglect.

“I understand that the girls love him,” Westbrook-McNutt told the man, “but tomorrow you’re going to have to explain to them why he’s dead in your front yard because it’s going to happen. And then you’re going to have to explain to a judge because I’ll have to press charges.” The man relented. He even carried the animal—at that point 42 pounds (healthy adult male boxers weigh about 70 pounds)—to Westbrook-McNutt’s van.

The rescuer, who felt strongly that the boxer she’d just saved was “not a Peanut,” immediately gave him a new name: Bowser. Then she drove the dog to Kain’s home in Columbus, Mississippi—much closer to a Tupelo animal hospital where vet Kimberly Kelly provides cut-rate medical care to shelters and rescue operations like Sweet Paws. Kelly confirmed that Bowser was riddled with parasites and suffering from ehrlichiosis, a tick-borne disease endemic in the southeastern United States, treatable in the early stages with antibiotics.

Over the course of his two-month recovery, the boxer spent enough time around Kain’s family and foster dogs, as well as Westbrook-McNutt’s animals, for the women to know what kind of home would work best for the two-year-old dog who was “almost” house-broken: He’d be happiest in a place where he’d get lots of exercise and extra attention. But because Bowser had such a difficult early life, Cynthia Sweet, Sweet Paws’ founder, decided to send him up North first before soliciting adoption applications from Massachusetts families. She felt that anyone considering Bowser should meet the little boy with the soulful eyes and powerful backstory face to face.

The dog was severely emaciated when he was rescued in Alabama. / Photo by Rachel Slade

A couple of weeks after losing Bauer, Colleen clicked open a Facebook link from her father-in-law’s girlfriend about a two-year-old rescue dog. The boxer had been seriously neglected in Alabama, then nursed back to health by a group based in Massachusetts called Sweet Paws. A photo montage on the site showed the dog on the day he’d been found—severely emaciated—and documented his remarkable recovery. She immediately filled out the extensive Sweet Paws application. “His eyes just spoke to me,” Colleen says.

Unbeknownst to his wife, Robert had found Bowser’s post, too, and had sent a separate email inquiring about the dog. The following day, Robert heard from Judy Luff, Sweet Paws’ rescue director, who confirmed that Bowser was still available. Luff then grilled the Flemings about their dog-parenting history; another volunteer conducted a virtual home visit over Zoom and checked Google Earth to verify that they indeed had a big, fenced-in backyard.

The Flemings learned that they were one of eight local families under consideration. As part of their adoption agreement, the couple agreed to join a Zoom call with other would-be pet parents led by Sweet to learn more about the abuse, neglect, and overpopulation problems that plague the South.

Each year, Sweet told the potential adopters, Mississippi’s shelters take in about 50 percent more animals than Mass-achusetts shelters (17,020 strays and surrenders in 2020 alone). There are so many stray dogs in the region, Sweet explained, that shelters can’t keep up, leaving many abandoned or abused dogs and cats behind. That’s where Sweet Paws’ volunteers in Mississippi, as well as Alabama, come in: Working to actively save animals standing in harm’s way, they take emergency calls day in and day out from concerned citizens, mail carriers, and animal control officers who spot kittens dumped behind the KFC, dogs left chained to trees in the woods without food, cats hit by cars, pit bulls maimed in illegal dog fights, full-breed canines like Bowser starving in someone’s yard, and animal-hoarding situations. In one extreme case, a Macon, Mississippi, woman kept 37 Chihuahuas in her single-wide trailer without running water or electricity; when rescuer Jeanette Unruh showed up to remove the pups, some of them, blinded by the ammonia buildup from their own waste, had to be euthanized.

Sweet Paws’ potential adopters tend to react to Sweet’s lecture by offering advice: Widespread spaying and neutering have reduced New England’s cat and dog populations to all-time lows, they note, so just get that going in Mississippi and Alabama. Problem solved!

It’s not that simple. Most Americans don’t realize the effort it’s taken to change attitudes and get pet populations under control. Fifty years ago, no one got their pets fixed and an estimated 20 million dogs and cats were being euthanized in U.S. shelters every year. Now, most New England organizations won’t adopt out an unfixed animal, a policy that has all but eliminated the region’s stray-dog population, according to Edward Schettino, Animal Rescue League of Boston’s president and CEO.

In the rural South, however, Unruh says misperceptions about sterilizing animals persist among dog owners, many of whom believe the procedure is unnatural or cruel. They’ll tell her things like, “I’d sooner put a bullet in her head than get her fixed.” Or they’ll say that they heard that fixed male dogs are fat and miserable. In response, Unruh tells them that female canines live 26 percent longer than unfixed ones, and reminds owners that if they don’t do it now, litter after litter will continue to come, especially if the dog is chained outside 24/7, which it often is.

In fact, the concept of cats and dogs as “fur babies” is relatively new in the South, where animals are still valued more for their utility as hunters, fighters, protectors of livestock, or alarm systems, notes vet and Alabama native Trey Stephenson. “When we had ’em growing up, they were just dogs out in the yard,” he says. “We loved them, but they were in the yard…. Some people think of dogs and cats the way people think of squirrels or rats—they’re just animals.”

Accordingly, legal protections for animals in Mississippi are among the weakest in the nation: The state lands dead last on the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s 2019 U.S. State Animal Protection Laws rankings (Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia are 44th, 42nd, and 40th, respectively).

It doesn’t help that Mississippi has nothing akin to the MSPCA or Massachusetts’ ARL chapter, whose combined annual operating revenue of nearly $90 million aids efforts to educate the public about proper pet care, lobby for stronger animal-protection laws, and subsidize basic services for those in need. Instead, the responsibility for animal welfare falls on individuals—private vets like Kelly in Tupelo, who’s often forced to turn away pet owners when they can’t afford her very reasonable spay and neuter price tags. Or shelter directors like Neely Bryant, a former champion equestrian from Tennessee who is known to use her own money to buy an animal’s freedom from an abusive owner. Or Rocky Rockette, director of Mississippi’s Lauderdale County Animal Shelter, who sends out an SOS to Sweet’s team of foster moms whenever his shelter is full. Everyone scrambles to make room for more dogs; Rockette will even take home pups to save their lives. But once his shelter reaches its limit, he’s forced to start euthanizing. The goal of Sweet Paws’ volunteer rescuers, of course, is to ensure dogs and cats never land in shelters in the first place.

Photos by Rachel Slade

On a bright, beautiful, mid-October morning in Mississippi, I joined Unruh and Sweet—visiting from Massachusetts to connect with her southern volunteers in person—on a rescue mission in Noxubee County, one of the poorest counties in the nation’s poorest state.

Unruh is either famous or infamous in these parts, depending on whom you ask. She’s known, locals say, as the “crazy dog lady” who freely speaks her mind, a fact that fellow rescuers chalk up to her being born and raised in Kansas. Unruh works with Scott Boyd, who edits and publishes Macon’s local paper, The Beacon, spending half her week at the paper and half her week rescuing animals. At Boyd’s farm, she helps take care of more than a dozen free-roaming cats, as well as a retired New Orleans police horse named Kelly and six skittish rescue donkeys.

We met up at Ole Country Bakery, a Mennonite doughnut and pie shop, then climbed into Unruh’s “good truck,” the one Boyd bought with the caveat that she couldn’t keep rescue animals in it. The truck has tinted windows for her protection and Sweet warned me that Unruh packs a pistol. Inside, the scent of dog was strong as we drove north along Highway 45 past vast cotton fields, many picked bare, en route to a town called Brooksville. It was harvest time and 7-foot-high round bales of cotton wrapped in yellow, blue, and pink (for Breast Cancer Awareness) dotted the fields; pretty soon, they’d be loaded onto flatbed trucks with forklifts and transported to the local gin.

Brooksville is a dead town; every store on Main Street is empty. Residents get their provisions, including food, at the forlorn Dollar General, which opened a few years ago. The median household income here is $27,188, and in 2018, less than 15 percent of the 260 students at Brooksville’s elementary school reached math proficiency. The school was shut down later that year. Driving around, it was difficult to determine whether a property was occupied or abandoned. Sweet and Unruh pointed to yards where they’d seen evidence of dog fighting or performed dramatic rescues. A few years ago, Sweet said, one property was literally strewn with dog corpses.

Earlier in the week, Unruh had received a call from a resident whose shepherd mix had had her third litter of pups. The caller told Unruh he’d been able to find homes for the previous pups, but he was willing to part with these. Oh, and he agreed to get the dog spayed after receiving multiple lectures from Unruh.

We pulled up to a white single trailer and the man came out, his eight-year-old son following behind. In the backyard, we met the friendly mama dog. She was tightly chained to a plywood enclosure with a dirt floor and no roof; she paced back and forth, wagging nervously, as far as her chain allowed. Ten feet away, pulling against her short chain attached to a car tire on the ground, a brown pit bull was jumping and yelping for attention. Another shepherd mix, also female, nervously darted in the shadows of a nearby tree. The man said she was his, too, but he hadn’t been able to catch her because she was too skittish.

Unruh knelt to pick the puppies out of the dirt—six squirming brown-and-tan balls of fur, fleas, and probably parasitic worms—and handed half of them to Sweet. As we turned to leave, their mother began to whelp. “Won’t she miss her babies?” I asked Sweet. She assured me that Mama needed a break; the pups were getting big, their teeth were cutting her teats, and she was severely malnourished. “She’ll be relieved,” Sweet said.

As we were loading the pups into Unruh’s crate, an elderly woman came out of the trailer holding a shih tzu mix. Another pup was at her heels. Unruh offered to get them spayed, too, but the woman said no—she could sell her pups for $300 apiece. Sweet bit her tongue.

We took the six puppies to Leah Gray’s house in Columbus, where she and her husband, Tony, had built three large outdoor pens—one for rescue pigs (about a dozen full-size Vietnamese potbellied pigs that were surrendered by people who thought they were buying “teacup pigs,” which do not exist); another pen for dogs and puppies; and a third smaller shelter where a very pregnant black Lab lay panting uncomfortably in the shade. A small enclosure farther back held a cat seized in a drug bust; she watched us without leaving her perch.

Leah and her daughter, Alex, took the puppies inside and bathed them in Dawn dishwashing liquid to help kill the adult fleas. The rest of the afternoon would be spent carefully going over each pup and handpicking off the remaining fleas. Once the puppies had a clean bill of health and were fixed, they would be loaded into a Sweet Paws transport van and re-homed in Massachusetts.

That night in Gray’s backyard, Sweet Paws Rescue held a team-building event. That’s where I met Westbrook-McNutt and Kain, who told me about Bowser. On Halloween, Westbrook-McNutt told me, she would drive the dog in the transport van as far as Virginia, where another driver would take him the rest of the way to Sweet’s holding facility in Groveland. (Massachusetts requires that shelters quarantine pets coming from out of state for at least 48 hours.)

Sure enough, when I returned to Boston a few days later, Sweet sent me a photo of a healthy boxer in a gray crate, ready to make his journey north.

Bowser and his new family take a walk together on the beach near their Plymouth home. / Photo by Webb Chappell

Colleen Fleming was at work on the morning of November 5 when her phone buzzed. With every incoming call that week, her stomach jumped a little in anticipation of a decision from Sweet Paws. Though she knew the organization was leaning toward her family, the wait was still agonizing.

Thankfully, it was Luff, the rescue organization’s director, and she had some good news to share: The Flemings’ application had been presented to the team, including Sweet, Westbrook-McNutt, and Kain, and because the couple had extensive experience with the boxer breed, they’d been chosen to become Bowser’s new parents.

Colleen immediately called Robert to plan how to get their family of four up to West Newbury, where Bowser was being fostered locally, as quickly as possible. “We got a little more frantic once we knew if we met him and it felt right, he was ours,” she says. Eager to give Bowser a stable home and fill the emptiness in their hearts, they decided to drive there that same day. After work, Robert returned to their Plymouth home, loaded the kids into the couple’s Escalade, and picked up Colleen at Boston Bowl in Dorchester, where she serves as marketing director. Then, with love, hope, juice boxes, and plenty of snacks in baggies, the family drove another hour north to the home of volunteer Tammy Messina.

Pulling into the driveway on that balmy fall evening, the couple was cautiously optimistic. What kind of boxer was Bowser? Would he be shy? Was he the excitable, barky, jumpy, licky sort of fellow? Would he scare the kids? The answer to all three was no. When Robert walked into Messina’s kitchen, he knelt on the floor and beckoned the dog, who calmly walked over and gave him a kiss. In spite of everything Bowser had been through, he seemed to trust these new humans. Then the dog padded over to the children and nudged them softly with his muzzle. He was gentle with them and they weren’t afraid. At that point, Robert says, “It was all over.” They collected Bowser’s few possessions, hooked their leash onto his harness, and thanked Messina for her part in his rescue. After a long, emotionally draining few weeks, Bowser was theirs.

Late that night, the Flemings pulled into their driveway with an exhausted but happy pup. As soon as he saw his new backyard, Bowser bounded across the grass, stopping at every corner and bush to sniff. Then he took his time inspecting each spot in the house, from the entryway to the dining room table, his brown-and-black muzzle working overtime. He certainly smelled Bauer. The Flemings hoped that he found the scent of their late dog comforting.

When it was time to turn in for the night, Colleen and Robert made their way upstairs and Bowser followed right behind—they didn’t have to ask twice. The pup immediately jumped into bed with them and fell fast asleep, as if he’d always been there. Robert and Colleen wrapped their arms around the dog’s body and breathed in his warmth. The tawny Alabama boy with the soulful eyes and trusting heart was finally in his forever home.

To read more about how adoptable pets get to Massachusetts, click here.