Anatomy of a Pet Rescue

A new furry friend may seem like the perfect antidote to these isolating times. But how, exactly, your new cat or dog makes it to your door might surprise you.


Photo by ablokhin/Getty Images

What do you do when you’re trapped at home with little to do in the middle of a pandemic? If you’re like many locals, you welcome a four-legged family member into your heart and home. With rescue organizations reporting skyrocketing adoption rates across the state, training and caring for a pet seems to have become the COVID pastime many didn’t know they needed.

I was one of those Massachusetts residents desperate for a companion during quarantine. Last June, I lost my five-year-old adopted tabby, Otto. Two months later, my 17-year-old tortoiseshell cat, Gojira, passed away. I couldn’t live without a kitty. Searching online, I discovered that most of the available cats “near me” were actually coming from the South. I took a chance on Simba, a 12-week-old orange tabby with cafe au lait eyes and a puckish countenance who, with his litter mates, was being fostered in a home in Alabama. I filled out an application and verified my credentials with a volunteer coordinator based in Tuscaloosa named Lisa.

Two days later, Lisa called to tell me that Simba was mine and he’d be boarding a New England-bound transport van in Alabama. On Sunday morning, as per her instructions, I drove to a Rhode Island PetSmart parking lot, where I waited along with other soon-to-be pet parents for our new family members. A white van pulled up, a middle-aged male driver with a lilting Alabama accent took my pet carrier and name, disappeared into the van, and emerged a few minutes later with tiny, curious, brilliant Simba, already neutered, vaccinated, and de-wormed. The driver handed my new baby to me along with a manila folder containing the little guy’s health records, signed by an Alabama vet.

I wept when I held tiny Simba for the first time. He was a bright light in an otherwise very grim year, and I was deeply grateful for the web of strangers that had brought us together. But I also wanted to understand why so many of Massachusetts’ rescue animals were coming from the South, rather than from shelters close to home.
I called Lisa again and asked if she’d give me a little more insight into the situation in Alabama. What she told me sounded, well, unbelievable—stray dogs everywhere, shelters full, 500 euthanasias per month in her town, rampant dog fighting, and animal abuse and neglect. The dire circumstances, she explained, have spawned an entire network of volunteers—foster parents, veterinarians, transport drivers, humane societies, charities, and municipal shelters—dedicated to getting dogs and cats like Simba to locations across New England. Eager to learn more, I asked Lisa if she knew of any Massachusetts-based organizations rescuing pets from the South, and she connected me with Cynthia Sweet, founder of Groveland-based Sweet Paws. After a few tries, I got Sweet on the phone.

Sweet, who has boundless energy, can rattle off animal statistics and rescue stories that would make your hair stand on end. To meet the surging demand for animals here in 2020, Sweet told me, her organization doubled the number of Mississippi-to-Massachusetts transports every month from two to four—a grueling pace. As of November 1, the organization had adopted out 2,000 dogs, up 25 percent from the year before.

Sweet got into rescue in 2006, a few days after Hurricane Katrina hit. She was working at Northeastern University as a student adviser when she saw a photo of a dog desperately clinging to the roof of a house surrounded by floodwaters. As the storm approached, New Orleans residents had rushed to evacuate; assuming they’d be back in a few days, many left their pets at home. A heartbreaking majority of those people never returned, leaving more than 600,000 animals behind.

The image of the dog haunted Sweet. So without a plan or any contacts in the South, she hopped on a plane a week after the hurricane and talked her way into the official animal rescue operation that came on the heels of the human rescue operation. Alongside a government inspector, Sweet went from empty house to empty house in search of animals. She saw drowned pets, starved pets, maimed pets. They rounded up the survivors, but what to do with the orphaned animals? Volunteer rescue organizations quickly formed to reconnect dogs and cats with their original owners, but it was a futile effort—most hurricane refugees had scattered across the country.

Concerned about the dogs now crowding temporary shelters, Sweet sat with her laptop in a New Orleans hotel lobby every night, where she used the WiFi to upload photos of rescued animals to a Massachusetts-based graphic designer who’d built a crisp website to support her efforts. Adoption requests began flowing in. Dogs began heading north.

Before long, Sweet and other rescue and re-homing organizers began to realize that Louisiana and other southern states had a chronic cat and dog problem long before the storm. Sweet stayed in the region for a while and eventually connected with a strong network of east Mississippi volunteer rescuers eager to send their foster pups to better homes up north. “People say rescue is like the mafia,” she told me. “Once you’re in, you don’t get out.”

That was certainly true with Sweet. In 2015, she quit her Northeastern job to run Sweet Paws Rescue full-time. Since then, her organization, alongside untold others, have transported thousands of dogs and cats out of the Deep South each year, hoping to give their rescues a much happier chapter two.

Because the region has yet to fully embrace spay and neuter operations on a wide scale, the suffering is seemingly endless. But there are people who have been working for years to win hearts and minds. When I traveled down to Mississippi with Sweet in October to learn more about Sweet’s rescue operation, I met with one of the world’s most prominent spay/neuter evangelists, Philip Bushby, an emeritus professor at Mississippi State’s College of Veterinary Medicine. His story revealed how difficult it is to advocate on behalf of dogs and cats in a state where concern for animal welfare is extremely low.

Looking professorial in his button-down shirt and gray slacks, Bushby leaned against a fence and told us how he became a spay/neuter advocate. In 1968, he was completing a surgical residency at Henry Bergh ASPCA in New York City at a time when an estimated 20 million dogs and cats were being put to sleep in shelters each year. In those days, no one got their pets fixed; my husband, raised in a New York suburb in the ’60s, remembers fighting off dogs with a stick whenever he walked the family corgi when she was in heat.

Alarmed by the pain, suffering, and needless deaths of America’s unwanted dogs and cats, animal welfare organizations began to focus on ways to reduce the nation’s euthanasia rate. They rolled out public messaging on the merits of adopting rather than buying and encouraged people to fix their pets.

Bushby strongly believed that widespread sterilization was the most effective way to improve animals’ lives on a large scale. So the New Hampshire native accepted an academic position at Mississippi State’s fledgling veterinary school, where he pioneered high-volume spay/neuter techniques and encouraged his students to build weekly low-cost spay/neuter services into their own practices.

Despite his stature in the academic veterinary community, Bushby’s mission hasn’t been easy. In 2007, he raised funds to launch the state’s first mobile veterinary clinic to provide low-cost spay/neuter services to low-income pet owners and shelters around the state. Some private vets, fearing that access to low-cost care would kill their businesses, tried to block Bushby’s unit from coming into their town. (In fact, most pet owners who take advantage of subsidized vet services would never have sought care for their animals otherwise.) The university—publicly funded and sensitive to the wider veterinarian community—agreed that the mobile clinic, staffed by Bushby and vet students, would only go to counties where all local vets welcomed it.

That promise has led to uncomfortable encounters. After finding an elderly woman hoarding dozens of dogs in a single-wide trailer, animal control requested Mississippi State send the mobile clinic to Macon. Bushby called the town’s vet, a man who had been practicing “for 100 years or so,” for permission to deploy. The old vet let loose a 30-minute tirade about the ways that Mississippi State was destroying the veterinary profession. “The first way we were destroying the profession was we were letting women into veterinary school,” Bushby recalls the vet telling him. “The second way we were destroying it was by offering reduced-rate services to low-income families.” The old vet then took a deep breath and told Bushby, “I get along with everyone in this town except one person, and she works for the paper. So if I tell you no, I’m going to get lambasted in the paper. So you go ahead and bring your goddamn unit to Macon.”

Contrasting attitudes toward animals, reflected in state laws, bring the major cultural differences between the Deep South and New England into sharp relief. Massachusetts is sixth on the Animal Law Defense Funds’ (ALDF) rankings of state animal protection laws. Kathleen Wood, the ALDF attorney who studies state laws to create the rankings each year, says that the recent passage of the PAWS I and PAWS II acts in Massachusetts goes much further than most because it recognizes that animal abuse and child and elder abuse are often linked. The new laws expand the level of cross-reporting in abuse cases because an animal being harmed may signal much deeper abuse inside a home. Mississippi, meanwhile, ranks dead last on ALDF’s list, and until July 2019, the state’s animal protection laws were so minimal that law enforcement felt little compulsion to pursue abuse complaints.

Thanks to Mississippi State Senator Angela Hill, though, that’s changing. The legislator spent nine years trying to pass the Dog and Cat Protection Act, and last summer, the state took a giant step forward when the governor signed a law that made animal cruelty a felony. Hill told me that she felt compelled to write the bill after a deputy from her county’s sheriff’s department approached her seeking help. “This sheriff said, ‘Angela, we have got to do something with this law. Our hands are tied. We’ll go and investigate a case where there’s 50 to 75 animals, and it’s just unbelievably deplorable and sad, and we can only charge these people with one misdemeanor count.’”

Hill says that for years, her bill would die in the agriculture committee, blocked by Mississippi’s powerful Farm Bureau, which argued that anti-cruelty laws for dogs and cats would “spill over” into livestock and feedlots, driving up farmers’ costs. “There was always the argument that when you give an inch, they’ll take a mile,” she says. “They called me this extreme animal rights person,” says Hill, who comes from a long line of farmers and makes a point of saying that she’s not a vegan and eats USDA choice steak.

But after Congress passed the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act in 2019— with full bipartisan support—she says, “It woke up folks up who’d kept opposing me through the years in Mississippi because we realized we’re not with the mainstream. We’re way out here opposing making it a felony to torture a dog or a cat.”
This fall, the law was used for the first time to convict a woman of animal cruelty after an inspector found 38 abandoned dogs trapped in metal cages, metal sheds, and a metal trailer starving to death in their own waste on a property where she had once lived. The convicted woman couldn’t recall when she’d last been to the property; she said she thought someone else was taking care of the animals.

Before passage of the Hill’s law, the offender would have been charged with a single misdemeanor. This fall, she was sentenced to 114 months, a $3,800 fine, 380 hours of community service, a $3,500 psychological evaluation, and was banned from owning or residing with any domesticated animal for the next 15 years. “This statue has got a lot of teeth in it,” noted the justice who issued the sentencing.

“Hopefully,” says Hill, “Mississippi has moved out of the dark ages in recognizing that a civil society should treat their animals better than what we were tolerating.”

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