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.
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.
It's not that Southerners, especially in rural areas, don't love dogs, says Jack Kirby, a self described "dog man" and author of an environmental history of the South. But attitudes about dogs as chattel plus the price to spay – starting at $125 – makes spaying a nonstarter for many, he says.
"Southerners love dogs, as many as possible, as essential companions in travel and hunting," writes Mr. Kirby in an e-mail from St. Augustine, Fla. But he adds, "There's a tradition of individualism and sovereignty that poorly serves the dog and cat surpluses attributable to human carelessness."
The sheer numbers of dogs being euthanized – one shelter in north Georgia that sends dogs out of state still euthanizes nearly 3,000 a year – have become a burden on animal-rescue groups in the South, who see little legislative will to strengthen spay-and-neuter laws. When such a bill was brought up in Mississippi several years ago, rural legislators hooted, says Mr. Atkins. Georgia didn't pass a dogfighting law until the Vick story broke.
Out-of-state transports intensified after hurricane Katrina as new networks sprung up, connecting shelter workers facing growing demand in the North with exhausted, and often demoralized, workers in Southern states.
"Not only are we partnering, which is always a joyful experience, we're saving lives," says Lisa Dennison, director of the New Hampshire SPCA in Stratham. "We're meeting a need in New England and we're giving shelter workers [in the South and Midwest] hope that they don't have to euthanize dog after dog after dog. What difference does it make where the animals come from?"
But it can make a difference, some critics say. This spring, animal-control officers in some Maine and New Hampshire towns began sharing reports of Southern dogs getting into fights in public places. Recently, a Great Dane from Kentucky came to Rochester, N.H., with no indication of behavioral problems. It turned out that the dog came from an abusive household, where it lashed out to protect children – a scary surprise for one mom who was reprimanding her daughter and almost got bitten.
With behavior training, the big dog was able to be saved and adopted out. Dogs coming from stressful situations tend to take more behavioral work, experts say, which new owners aren't always able to handle. One dog in Maine recently bounced around six homes before finally being euthanized, causing the Portsmouth, N.H., Herald to run the headline: "Animal officers: Rescued dogs from South proving dangerous."
The New Hampshire Federation of Humane Societies committee held a seminar on transport dogs in April as concerns rise about diseased and misbehaved dogs coming northward.
Exeter, N.H., animal control officer Neal Jones calls some rescuers "Animal Planet people" driven by a need to rescue animals from "horrible conditions" in the South. "It's a connection where they want to do something for an abused animal," says Mr. Jones.
For rescuers like Mr. Atkins, notions of saving all the South's dogs have faded to the humbler hope of simply saving dogs one at a time. "We're not going to fix the problem, but for that individual dog, having a good life means everything to them."