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    « BACK to David Puner's portfolio

    Posted 02.07.06
    Dog Traffic Control
    Feb. 2005

    The gas chamber is an austere stainless steel cabinet with lockable wheels and a latch door--one might mistake it for a mini-fridge. The homemade contraption rests, behind the Rocky Mount Animal Shelter, a small, outmoded facility about 60 miles east of Raleigh, N.C., where almost 1,500 dogs and cats were euthanized in 2004. Surrounding the chamber are stacks of cages that look like large rusty lobster traps and a top-loading freezer used for carcass storage. On a late afternoon in October, flies and gnats swarmed in dimming daylight. For stray and surrendered dogs held in American shelters like this one, the odds of living the good life aren't that good. The odds of living at all are less than 50 percent.[1]

    "They cleaned the place out before you got here," said Laura Gearhart, the director of Friends of Rocky Mount Animals, a charity organization whose primary interest is saving animals from the chamber. Gearhart is a 40-year-old, five-foot-one-inch ball of fire, who never takes a breath. With powder-white skin and medium-length dark hair with conspicuous bangs, she looks like a peppy schoolteacher. Legally blind without her owlish black-framed glasses, Gearhart has had six surgeries for retinal hemorrhaging and her vision continues to deteriorate; ironic, considering she has dedicated her life over the past few years to guiding shelter dogs from death row--a world most Americans will never see--to safety, through rescue transports. Working with a network of around 100 volunteer drivers, Gearhart connects dogs with rescue groups and families up and down the I-95 corridor. Primarily, dogs travel north because overpopulation of homeless animals is especially common in southern regions, where climactic conditions are mating-favorable and spay/neuter laws are lacking.

    Once a week, Gearhart drives (she can drive short distances, but only during daylight) to the shelter to take photos which she posts on, an Internet hub for homeless pets. "Without Petfinder, we couldn't do what we're doing," she said. Through Petfinder, "no kill" rescue groups--organizations that do not euthanize healthy animals--search for dogs at shelters, regionally or nationwide, and choose dogs they're interested in "pulling." With matches made, the transport process goes into motion and the Internet meets the interstate. A dog departing Rocky Mount on Saturday, for example, may arrive in Maine on Sunday. "These are animals who came straight from a cage and into a car and off they go," Gearhart said.

    Setting up transports means Gearhart is constantly calling and emailing drivers, filling trip legs and rearranging stops according to where a driver lives and is willing to travel. The risk of transport cancellation always looms. The volunteer drivers, who connect at prearranged locations, are lawyers, vet technicians, NASA employees, recovering alcoholics, and pet book editors. Some are grandmothers; others are barely out of college; many are lonely. Most are women. Some occasionally eat dog biscuits.

    Since starting the transports in fall 2002, Gearhart has moved more than 1,100 dogs. In 2002, nearly 1,700 dogs arrived at the shelter; only 467 left alive. In 2003, Gearhart's first full year doing the transports and posting on Petfinder, the shelter turned out nearly twice as many dogs.[2] "I have no life, but the animals have lives because I have none," she said. "New Year's Eve is not to go out and party--it's a night to set up transports. Christmas day is the only day I don't set up transports." For her effort, one might call Gearhart the Harriet Tubman of dog rescue. The historical metaphor is not lost on the volunteer transport world, which contains dozens of groups (one organization fittingly calls itself the Canine Underground Railroad). On any given weekend, hitchhiking dogs are moving all over the country: from Rocky Mount to Cape Cod, Gainesville to Minneapolis, or Memphis to Allentown. Dogs are displaced from regions where they are unwanted to locations where they might have a better chance of becoming family members.

    I was in Rocky Mount--which is actually fairly flat, not particularly rocky, and located equidistant between New York and Florida--to accompany four dogs northeast, on a two-day, eight-leg dash from death row to freedom. Death row at the Rocky Mount Animal Shelter is a cramped cement, one-room kennel perpetually teeming with 50 to 60 stray and surrendered dogs. Gearhart gave me a tour of the pungent, fluorescently-lit room while the floor received a hose-down. As we walked down the row separating the two sections of pens, barking dogs clawed at the wire caging. Despite a sign warning in red block lettering--DO NOT PUT HANDS IN CAGES--I put my hand in a cage, and front paws excitedly pitter-patted the sopped floor, as if they were revving up to run.

    At the Rocky Mount Animal Shelter, similar to the majority of the estimated 4,000 to 6,000 animal shelters in the United States, dogs are penned inside 24 hours a day. "Shelter animals don't run," Gearhart said, bluntly. Like prisoners of war, confined to small spaces with little stimulation and socialization, shelter dogs are prone to become fearful, sick, and aggressive. Conventional wisdom is that dogs are unadoptable after six months in a shelter.

    With the continuous surplus of animals and the chamber working weekly, Gearhart feels she can never move enough dogs. Sometimes she can be a little aggressive, she says. "I take my pushiness and use it for what I need-that's how I get more animals out. It's suggestive sales--You want fries with that?" Gearhart explained to me. "You got to look at it that way--throwing another dog into the package. I did some telemarketing in college--I was really good at it."

    Amidst the controlled kennel chaos, I was introduced to my rescue transport traveling companions. Shasha, a stoic three-year-old boxer-mix with a urinary tract infection was on a course of antibiotics and had been cleared to travel to a boxer-specific rescue in Massachusetts. When we met, she was receiving a misdirected hump in the ribs by her cagemate, Tito, another large adult boxer. A few cages over was Wilton, a 2-year-old white Pekingese-mix with a pronounced under bite and significant yellow nasal discharge, for which he was also receiving antibiotics. According to data Gearhart received from Petfinder, Wilton generated the most interest of any Rocky Mount dog that week, with 140 cyber-visits--40 more viewings than Tito, the runner-up. Wilton was also heading to a Massachusetts' rescue. And then there was Wanda, a very waggy, black lab-mix puppy with a curly tail and a cloudy left eye. She was heading to a rescue in Pennsylvania.

    The fourth dog, Watson, was at the vet getting neutered. He was the luckiest of the bunch because he had already been adopted by a family and was being transported to his "forever" (permanent) home in Carmel, NY. The family had recently scrambled to prepare paperwork and sent $250 to the shelter to cover Watson's surgery (sterilization is mandated by Friends of Rocky Mount Animals before a dog goes to a forever home), shots, and the $35 adoption fee. Veterinary references were checked, and the family was approved after a home visit by a Petfinder volunteer. Watson was then scheduled for surgery and transport. In about 12 hours our transport was set to leave--four dogs had one-way tickets to freedom.

    At daybreak on Saturday, Engel Hicks navigated her '93 Ford Aerostar (N.C. tags: "PUP VAN") through syrupy fog, past Rocky Mount's old, abandoned cotton mill. Leg one had commenced. "I usually make time on the highway," warned 57-year-old Hicks, a frequent rescue transport driver, as we reach our initial cruising speed of 85 mph. The Aerostar, she told me, is a good ve-hic-kul.

    Monitoring the cargo, and filling the Aerostar's bench seat, was one of Hicks' dogs, Carl, a 112-pound borzoi--an oddly-proportioned white and brown creature that resembling a lama. At home, Hicks keeps her refrigerator chained shut to prevent Carl from prying it open--he has been known to help himself to the meat tray. If Hicks were a dog, she would be more basset hound than borzoi--her silver hair is cut in a short, simple unisex style--trained left on top and tucked over the ears, revealing red cardinal earrings. For her transport duty, Hicks wore dark red sneakers and a bright red t-shirt (covered with Carl's white hair), tucked into elastic-waist, army green pants. For sustenance, an enormous, waxed Hardee's cup was parked in the Aerostar's condensation-slicked cup holder.

    It took a flood for Hicks to decide to retire from her three-decade-long career as an educator at the Rocky Mount Children's Museum ("A ball of a job if there ever was one--they pay you to play with animals and make kites"), to become a full-time dog trainer. Hurricane Floyd's rain swelled the Tar River, ruining her home, washing away most of her neighborhood, and submerging her museum in nine feet of water. It killed many of her beloved animals at the museum including: a pair of 30-year-old boa constrictors, a chinchilla, two ferrets named Adam and Eve, a 10-year-old bunny named Killer ("because she was a pit bull rabbit"), a black rat snake, two iguanas, two gerbils, a guinea pig, and a parcel of mice and rats[3] Hicks knew it was time for a change. She compares the impact of Hurricane Floyd on her life to what she imagines survivors of 9/11 have experienced. "It just shakes things up and makes you think about doing all the things you want to do."

    The Rocky Mount Animal Shelter, also hard-hit by the flooding (most of its animals were killed) was an obvious outlet for Hicks' volunteerism. "Some people think shelter dogs are defective," she said. From an obedience standpoint, Hicks says she's impressed by shelter dogs' intelligence. "Having to tolerate other dogs, and noise, and people--these dogs have a certain advantage," she said.

    Perhaps this advantage helps the animals tolerate the road. My traveling orphan companions were an odd lot, but they all got along--sometimes resting on top of one another in the cramped quarters of a sedan's back seat. Wanda wanted attention; Shasha, despite her gruff, bulky boxer fašade had a penchant for practical jokes (particularly involving power windows); Wilton received the most driver lap-time. Watson slept a lot, no matter what the traveling quarters. Unfamiliar with a leash, when walked, he would occasionally prop himself up on his hind legs and lightly land his front paws onto me. His shy, half-wags were equivalent to 20 full-wags from the effervescent Wanda.

    Hicks discovered the transport world on the Internet. Before meeting Gearhart at a dog obedience class, Hicks had driven for a few breed-specific rescue groups. Now she only drives for Gearhart. "Laura's way of doing it for one shelter is revolutionary," Hicks said, as I snuck a glimpse of the road through a corner of her glare-cutting, gold-tinted glasses. "She has really made a science out of it."

    With a transport underway, Gearhart becomes ground traffic control--she knows driver location and when there's congestion (in this case, Wilson's vile, yellow snot). "As a transport coordinator you have to be fast on your feet and have a Plan A and a Plan B," she explained. Gearhart has helped her drivers outrun hurricanes, snow and even snipers. When John Muhammad and Lee Malvo were terrorizing the greater Washington-area, spraying bullets out of the back of their late-model Chevy Caprice, Gearhart continued to ship. "We still transported when he was doing the shooting," she said, referring to the trunk trigger-man. "We still moved these dogs and we moved them quick."

    Half-way to our handoff in Carson, Va., Hicks' cell phone rang. Gearhart was on the horn with a possible situation. "Unless they gave me Bandit and are calling him Watson..." Hicks spoke calmly, before being cutoff mid-sentence. After a long pause, Hicks confidently volleyed Gearhart's concern: "He's chocolate colored--looks like a Boyken Spaniel--he's shy, and he's cute." Having appeased Gearhart that she had the right dog, the call ended. We rode in silence for a few minutes as the fog started to lift, with the highway humming beneath unbalanced wheels--Hicks clasped the shimmying steering wheel with both hands near six o'clock position. Watson, despite a few stitches on his undercarriage, appeared healthy and comfortably crated. An injured animal, easy prey for a predator, instinctually attempts to its hide pain.

    We arrived at a Carson Shell station ahead of schedule. "I told you I don't drive the speed limit," Hicks said, as she rolled the Aerostar to a halt. By the gas pumps, an emaciated shepherd-mix was standing on its hind legs, head buried in a garbage can, foraging through fast food wrappers and oil-stained paper towels. The cowering creature wore a frayed blue synthetic rope around its neck and the tips of its ears looked singed--remnants of a neglected, tied-up life. "Laura would kill me if I came back with a dog," Hicks said, sighing. Rocky Mount Animal Control, by mandate, can't accept strays from outside city lines. The shepherd was Carson's problem.

    A common misperception about shelter dogs is that nearly all were once strays. While the Rocky Mount Animal Shelter takes in plenty of strays, an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the shelter's intakes are owner surrenders. Some owners move and leave their dogs behind; some dogs are deemed too lively. Aesthetic specifications, like breed or size, are often taken into consideration before a dog's personality--some people pick their dogs like they would choose a Toyota. Three weeks after Christmas, shelters receive their biggest influx of the year, when dogs and cats given as gifts are surrendered by owners--some of whom no longer want the responsibility their new toys require.

    Without fanfare, the dogs and I were soon transferred into another vehicle and continued our northern I-95 climb. We gained momentum with each new driver. When legs were completed, the drivers disappeared somewhere off the road--back to their routine lives. As the day grew brighter and traffic thickened, the I-95 landscape became a blur of exit signs, Cracker Barrels, body-colored bumpers, and blacktop. Death row was starting to feel a safe distance away.

    On the road, dogs have been known to lock drivers out of vehicles--some seasoned volunteers carry extra keys during transports. "The only thing that's predictable with the transports is that the animals are unpredictable," Gearhart told me on more than one occasion. The biggest mishaps usually occur at rest stops, when car doors open and dogs bolt. Or, when dogs are transported uncaged--as was sometimes the case on my transport--a paw may push an electric window control and the dog will attempt to leap out of the swift-moving vehicle (causing the driver to almost have a heart attack). Gearhart says her organization doesn't have time for formalities like mandatory cages. "I'm a Cliff's Notes kind of person," she says. The more red tape, fewer dogs get moved and more die.

    Our first and only male driver of the weekend transport was a former Marine Jag officer-turned-personal injury / workers' comp lawyer ("Blood and guts stuff--I just like working with people") from D.C., whose wife "adiosed" him a year and a half ago. Before beginning his leg Michael Kowalski, sporting youthful, dark Serengeti shades and a neatly trimmed white goatee, quickly changed in the parking lot--out of a black suit into sneakers, shorts and a beige, long-sleeved t-shirt. As it turns out, he had come from the wake of one of his firm's partners, who had died of a heart attack at 62-years-old--only slightly older than Kowalski. With the suit stuffed into his filthy Infinity's overflowing trunk, Kowalski smiled. "This is the best part of the trip," he proclaimed, as he pulled the Infinity into traffic with the sniffly Pekingese on his lap. "The kisses!"

    The urgency of our mission's pacing relaxed a bit. "I'm not a punctual guy," Kowalski said. Why be on time when you only live once? "I like to play with the dogs--I can always blame traffic," he said, as he popped a Johnny Cash CD into the Infinity's stereo. "I like to get up on a Saturday and hang out with a bunch of dogs. Usually I've got the tunes blaring--not so loud that it bothers the dogs--and the wind blowing. It's America!"

    Triumphantly arriving at our McDonald's transfer location, Kowalski exuded excitement. "Whoo! Hey guys, we did it!" he called out, beaming. Although the next driver had been waiting for some time and was clearly ready to leave, Kowalski always has his photo taken with the dogs--evidence of the role he has played in their lives. "They're just like people--I swear to God. They're all so different," he said, while on one knee with sunglasses propped atop his head and arms around the dogs. "It's almost a letdown to go home."

    Just north of the Mason-Dixon Line, we freed Wanda, the happy lab pup. While shifting into a forest green Toyota 4-Runner (coincidentally, our third identical 4-Runner of the day), Wanda was hustled into a forest green Plymouth Voyager and whisked off to a nearby rescue.

    I later learned that some northern animal rescue groups are not pleased with the transports. "It may feel good to rescue a dog from the gas chamber in North Carolina, but that's not looking long term, that's thinking in the moment," Patty Adjamine, the director of New Yorkers for Companion Animals, told me after I returned to New York. Adjamine has been involved with New York City animal rescue for 15 years, where nearly 24,000 city shelter animals were euthanized by lethal injection last year. "There's no shortage of animals in New York," she said. "I don't know what's going on in the southern states. They need education--they need to learn about spay/neuter." There's also a fundamental difference in the way people view their animals in the north and south, she said. "In New York people treat their little fee-fee dogs like children." Adjamine mentioned a friend who had moved from New York to Tennessee--"She said, 'Oh my God, I've moved to a Third-World country!'" Her friend, used to animals being treated like family members, was horrified they were being gassed in Tennessee.

    America spends about $15 billion[4] annually on its pets, and some sources estimate as much as $2 billion[5] to kill unwanted animals. People pay big-money for purebred hunting dogs and for purebred lap dogs. Meantime, three to four million[6] cats and dogs are euthanized in shelters annually. Lethal injection is the recommended method of euthanasia by the Humane Society of the United States. Some shelters shoot their animals. And then there's gassing. Execution by gassing, considered an especially cruel method of execution[7], hasn't been used as a means of U.S. capital punishment since 1999. That's human capital punishment. In North Carolina, almost 230,000 dogs and cats were euthanized in 2001--reportedly more than double the national average[8] The Rocky Mount Animal Shelter gas chamber, which can hold up to three dogs at once, delivers death via carbon monoxide, slowly and painfully, I'm told. Some say you can hear the dogs scream.

    The city of Rocky Mount holds dogs for at least seven days. Unhealthy and vicious dogs ("DNAs"--Do Not Adopts) are the first to be put down. Ultimately, every dog is marched through one of two doors on either end of the kennel. The first door is where dogs enter the pens upon arrival and where they go out if adopted, reclaimed, or rescued. The other door opens out to the chamber area. Dogs ushered out Door No 2 die.

    "You need to pick your battles," Gearhart told me, when asked about her shelter's primary euthanasia practice. "If you stop the overpopulation, you won't need the gas chamber."

    Saturday, after Day One of our journey on the road, Shasha, Watson, and Wilton spent their overnight in a volunteer's basement outside Philadelphia. After eating a celebratory meal and taking their medications wrapped in cheese, the weary dogs were left to doze, with their cage doors open, to a soothing duet of washer/dryer. I retreated, spent and wired, to a lumpy, flee-ridden bed at the nearby Summit Inn. As the headboard from my neighboring room slammed with ferocity, I thumbed through loaned material: Laura Gearhart's loose-leaf binder filled with four-by-six photos of shelter dogs. Gearhart names shelter dogs like hurricanes, starting with "A" and progressing though the alphabet. Beneath the photos she writes the fate of each dog: Tatiana and Terrence went to Castle-of-Dreams Animal Rescue in New Jersey; Tama to Fur Essentials in Acushnet, Mass. Turf escaped. Euthanized dogs, like Tara, Toby and Tad (an almost all-black, lab-hound-looking mix, with a fearful, blue-eyed gaze), have one word scribbled beneath their images: gone. Gearhart writes gone in tiny, lowercase pencil print, as if she's hoping finality is erasable.

    In Gearhart's family, dogs have always been like full-fledged members. "Have I been this weird about animals all my life? Yes!" Gearhart says. When she was a little girl and had her tonsils removed, Elfie, her terrier-mix, was Gearhart's first request coming out anesthesia. Gearhart talks about her own dogs with detail one might reserve for a child, of which she has one, an 11-year-old son, Alex. One dog is "bitchy," another is on antidepressants, and "Max throws temper tantrums if he doesn't get pet," she says. Animals are comforting. After her brother died in 2000, Gearhart would sit among animals at a local farm and grieve.

    Gearhart's animal immersion helps to distance herself from the loneliness of being a long-haul trucker's spouse. When he's home, Gearhart's husband Danny, isn't wild about her undertaking, she says, but he's not stopping her. "If it wasn't for husbands, there would be no stray animals," Gearhart says--meaning, that if it wasn't for Danny, to whom she's been married 14 years, the number of animals sharing their king-size bed would be significantly greater than its six permanent canine occupants.

    In my motel room, staring at shelter dog photos, I was struck by profound sadness from the frozen facial expressions. Some dogs looked terrified and cowered as a gloved hand held them still for the camera; others looked oblivious to their situations. Along with Gearhart's snapshots, I was inundated by thoughts of the eager, animated faces that had gazed longingly at me from behind the wire caging in Rocky Mount the day before. I also flashed to moving images of my traveling companions gazing out car windows as if they were viewing the outside world for the first time. I started to think about possible scenarios: a euthanized dog that could have been adopted a day later; a dog that might have been adopted if it had only been connected with someone who had instead paid big-money for a pure-bred dog; a shelter dog that had been traumatized too long and couldn't possibly recover from the shelter stress. As I turned through pages of the hidden Rocky Mount Animal Shelter world, the shelter dog scent clung to my hands heavily, like lingering diced garlic. Despite exhaustion, I couldn't shake the rush of the road and thoughts of dogs that were still languishing at the shelter.

    On Sunday morning, the three dogs were found sleeping in the same crate. After big breakfasts, Alpo-style, we were once again 4-Running. We left Philadelphia, passing Boat House Row on the Schuylkill Expressway, in slight drizzle. Almost 400 miles north of Rocky Mount, the chilly air smelled like fallen wet leaves--it was autumn. By the time we arrived in the parking lot of Mercer County Waterfront Park, the home of the Trenton Thunder (New York Yankees double-A affiliate), the sky had brightened to the color of a soft-white light bulb. Inside our current 4-Runner's cabin, air with autumnal aroma was displaced by the flatulent fumes courtesy of the dogs' breakfasts. Throughout the morning, I kept my finger on my window button and pressed it when I could no longer breathe the stagnant, thick air.

    My time with Shasha and Wilton was coming to an end, and the inevitable separation was weighing on me. We had come so far together to head in different directions. Despite both dogs indiscriminate mashing of my testicles in separate instances during the journey (with paws of varied heft), I was fond of them. But the handoff in Newark, at yet another McDonald's, was quick and tidy--typical of the entire transport. New car, new driver--two fewer dogs. Watson and I were transferred into a forest green Ford Explorer with speedy precision. Watson now had the entire back of the Explorer to roam. He chose to lie down with his face centered directly between the two front seats-eyes wide open.

    Watson, as it turns out, had not always been so docile. Last August, while driving down to Myrtle Beach, a family from Carmel, NY pulled off I-95 to fuel up in Rocky Mount. They had stopped at a gas station where Watson regularly sifted through trash and was fed by truckers. Watson had developed a beat that included BP Mart, Dairy Queen, Waffle House, and Comfort Inn; pillars of ostensibly unified, anonymous American society. Rocky Mount Animal Control had received many calls about the young stray with the thick coat of caramel, sun-bleached hair and deep brown, humanlike eyes. He looked like he had been taken out of an illustration from "The Three Bears" and brought to life. The family's 16-year-old daughter, Melissa Morgante, had fallen in love with Watson--but the shelter was closed.

    Continuing to Myrtle Beach, the family passed two dead beagles, lying in an I-95 emergency lane. During their vacation, Melissa called Rocky Mount repeatedly--they couldn't catch Watson. The family stopped in Rocky Mount on their way back to New York and spent hours searching for the dog. They came up empty and assumed he had met a fate similar to the beagles'. Melissa cried while riding northbound, away from Rocky Mount.

    Back in Carmel, five weeks later, Melissa received some unbelievable news from North Carolina--the shelter called, saying they'd finally captured the dog from the gas station. The animal control officers had probably tried to catch him ten times, they figured. Once, they tried setting food in a cage with a trapdoor. Nothing worked, Watson always fled. Finally, animal control netted the skittish dog.

    En route to Watson's new home, just before crossing the George Washington Bridge, the New York City skyline briefly appeared in our windshield. Soon thereafter, the Statue of Liberty, the stalwart symbol of freedom, emerged as a dark silhouette through the passenger-side windows. Responding to some of our first significant scenery, Watson vomited in the back of the Explorer and attempted to nudge a blanket over the mess to hide it. "Sometimes, especially after they get their shots, they get a little sick," explained our hard-braking, herky-jerky lane-changing driver.

    Once across the George Washington Bridge, we had about an hour to go and I felt like it was the end of strenuous day of hiking--when the sky gets darker and a chill runs through you as temperature drops and sweat dries--you risk injury, giving that extra push to finish. As we pushed up I-684 through Westchester into Putnam County, the dark sky accented enormous rolling hills and their vibrant fall foliage. Watson watched his first colorful, serene landscape of the journey--not a gas station or McDonald's in sight.

    When we arrived in Carmel, we drove past modest homes decorated with pumpkins and American flags, and parked in a cul-de-sac at the top of a hill near Melissa's house, a green-roofed A-frame with a "Wipe Your Paws" mat outside the front door. As planned, she walked her well-fed Springer spaniel, and especially well-fed beagle, up the hill to meet Watson. This way, the dogs would be inviting Watson into their home and wouldn't feel threatened. "You can't redo an introduction," said our driver. Tails wagging, the three dogs sniffed one another for a few minutes and then the beagle and spaniel, escorted Watson into their backyard (which they share with six "show bunnies" and some domesticated ducks). "We fell in love just on his looks alone--his face was just adorable," said Melissa's mother, with a tremble in her voice, as the dogs romped around the above-ground pool. "It was meant to be."

    Watson is now named Rusty--because of his color, I'm told. When I left Carmel, Rusty had a new identity and a new life. I thought I was going to be happier but instead I felt my energy reserve deflate as I watched Watson from a distance. Emotionally spent as well, heroics were over and I was headed back to my regular life. There was no final farewell for the dog I'd fled death row with. I felt it was better to not say goodbye.

    Christmas 2004 was tough for Laura Gearhart. The holiday's falling on a Saturday was foreseeable--no dogs were transported out of the Rocky Mount Animal Shelter that weekend. What Gearhart didn't expect was that Christmas would mark her third consecutive week without having a transport to coordinate. As it turns out, in September a couple of dogs shipped from Rocky Mount died within a few days of their northern exposure. Signs pointed to parvo, a highly contagious virus that spreads through fecal matter, striking and often killing unvaccinated puppies quickly. All dogs transported from Rocky Mount are vaccinated, but for some of vague age and with unknown medical histories, late vaccination can prove ineffective. One driver, at first concerned by the dogs' diarrhea (not an uncommon issue for traveling shelter dogs with suppressed immune systems and unstable diets), later became alarmed when contacted with news of the dogs' deaths and reminded to clean her car thoroughly. The woman wrote a letter to the Rocky Mount police department voicing concern about the deaths. The result was the December suspension of transports out of the Rocky Mount Animal Shelter. The city told Gearhart they would let her know by New Year's if she could continue to operate and, if so, what changes would need to be made. By mid-January Gearhart was still waiting to meet with officials. In the meantime, she started to move animals for the neighboring Wilson County Humane Society. Despite the shutdown, Gearhart moved 798 dogs last year--her goal was 800.

    On January 22, a very excited Gearhart called me; she had just met with the Rocky Mount chief of police. After reviewing her transport records and interviewing her drivers, the city decided Gearhart could continue to move its animals. She spoke hopefully about receiving a grant to build a separate facility for puppies and animals that are being readied for transport. On January 29 at dawn, almost eight weeks after Gearhart last shipped a Rocky Mount animal, six dogs received tickets to ride and were hustled out of town. "The bottom line," said Gearhart, "is animals move, or animals die."


    [1] National average, as estimated by The Humane Society of the United States.

    [2] In 2003, the Rocky Mount Animal Shelter took in 1,513 dogs.

    [3] Some of the museum's rats survived. Wild Norway rats now roam Rocky Mount.

    [4] Estimated, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

    [5] Local government funding. The HSUS, the City of Rocky Mount, as well as the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services agree that animal shelter statistics (including numbers of animals killed and by what means) are, at best, "guesstimates." Many states, including North Carolina, do not mandate shelters to provide annual data.

    [6] Source: HSUS.

    [7] Kate Pullen, Director of HSUS Animal Sheltering Issues, told me that euthanizing via carbon monoxide is considered "conditionally less humane" than lethal injection. The HSUS has produced a document called "Appropriate Use of Carbon Monoxide for Animal Euthanasia" which details, among other things, that "the chamber must be a commercially manufactured unit" and CO must be cooled (heated CO would come from a pickup truck tailpipe, for instance, which are frequently used as the source of CO in certain homemade animal gas chambers). Incidentally, there is only one commercial CO chamber manufacturer in the U.S. The Rocky Mount Animal Shelter chamber was built 13 years ago by someone in the Rocky Mount area.

    [8] As printed in DVM magazine, July 1, 2004. When I contacted the article's author, she put me in touch with Lee Hunter, Public Health Veterinarian for the NC Dept. of Heath and Human Services. Hunter sent me North Carolina euthanasia data (for shelters that reported) and again discussed why animal euthanasia rates are so difficult to put into a national perspective. The conversations I had with HSUS officials bolstered Hunter's speculation.

    (l to r) Watson and Wilton, rolling northbound