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'Dixie dogs' head north

But is this rescue effort the best thing for pooches transported from the South?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 18, 2008

New Home: A dog from Georgia arrives at the North Shore Animal League shelter in New York.

Courtesy of Georgia Humane Society

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A hound named Carrie riding shotgun, Dom Fanelli darted up the East Coast last weekend with a cuddly cargo: In the back of his van rustled 30 dogs, mostly puppies, rescued from overcrowded shelters in rural Georgia.

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His destination: Port Washington, N.Y., where potential adopters eagerly awaited the delivery of the gangly pups. Along the way, Mr. Fanelli stopped every few hours to water and walk the dogs. Inevitably, crowds gathered to scratch some ears.

"Every time we stop we have a crowd, and that's why I like doing this," says Fanelli, an airplane technician, via cellphone from the road. "People always ask, 'Where are they coming from and where are they going?'"

Fanelli's regular route from the Fulton County Animal Shelter in Atlanta to various points in the Northeast is but a small cog in a burgeoning transport network that experts liken to an underground doggie railroad, where thousands of otherwise doomed Southern canines are shipped to new lives in the North.

Yet following a number of incidents involving rescue dogs from the South – including a Labrador mix that beat up five Yorkshire terriers on a Maine beach last month – animal-control officers and veterinarians have begun raising questions about the practice. Some say well-meaning Northerners, fueled by stereotypes of the South, may be prolonging misery for bad dogs, creating a health risk by accepting sick dogs, and exposing unintended consequences of the strict spay-and-neuter laws that have created a dramatic puppy shortage in the Northeast.

"This idea of an underground railroad for dogs poses certain problems," says Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University. "I'm not really so sure how humane the whole thing is."

Begun in the human and animal tragedy of hurricane Katrina, and fueled by the saga of Michael Vick (the pro football player convicted of running a dog-fighting ring) and its references to the sometimes brutal rituals that shade Southern backwoods culture, the dog trade across the Mason-Dixon Line today is brisk. Some estimate 90 percent of adopted dogs in the Northeast come from the South. One shelter, in Stratham, N.H., began taking out-of-state transfers in 2005 and moved 289 dogs. Last year it imported nearly 900, many from Alabama.

"They don't have puppies up in the Northeast, and there aren't a lot of family-friendly dogs, so they like to take the Labs and the dogs that we have an abundance of down here," says Michelle Humphries, the director of the Georgia Humane Society in Atlanta, which sends about 600 dogs a year to shelters in the North. "If we had enough volunteers, we could keep our van on the road pretty much all month long."

It's a dramatic shift in a country that has made huge strides in reducing the number of dogs euthanized in shelters, from 17 million in 1987 to about 4 million today. But it makes only more stark attitudes about dogs in the South, where shelters are still overcrowded – especially in springtime – with unwanted dogs and euthanization rates as high as 85 percent.

"I can get in my truck and drive in any single direction and find a skinny dog scrounging for food on the side of the road or puppies coming out from under a trailer," says the Mississippi novelist Ace Atkins, who helps run the Friends of Pete rescue group in Oxford.