SAN FERNANDO, Calif. — May was supposed to be dead by now. The charcoal-and-white pit bull mix had languished for more than two months at a high-kill animal shelter in east Los Angeles County, and though she’d passed one “temperament test” required for adoption, she failed a second. That essentially put her on death row at the facility.
But a small rescue group got to May first and reserved her a spot on a school bus that would take her 840 miles north to Eugene, Ore.; there, another rescue had pledged to find her a home. And so on a sunny Saturday morning, she bounded up the steps of the red bus and quickly settled into a large crate near the back.
She had plenty of company as the wheels rolled along the highway: 105 other dogs and cats collected from crowded shelters in California and destined for the Pacific Northwest, where euthanasia rates are lower and pets are in greater demand. Their four rows of crates were stacked floor to ceiling. “These little souls have engulfed me,” admitted Phil Broussard, the garrulous trucker driving them up the coast.
His passengers were among the more than 10,000 animals that will be ferried out of the area this year by Rescue Express, one of the dozens of organizations across the nation fueling a dizzying daily reshuffle of dogs and cats by car, van, bus, and private and even chartered plane.
These transports, mostly from high-kill southern regions, are small but growing factors in a long-term decline in euthanasia at U.S. shelters. According to some estimates, animal shelters killed as many as 20 million cats and dogs annually in the 1970s. That had fallen to 2.6 million by 2011 and to 1.5 million today, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The numbers are only approximations, because no central data collection exists and only some states require shelters to report intake and outcome figures. But animal advocates agree that the decrease in euthanasia has been dramatic, driven mostly by successful spay-neuter programs and, more recently, by savvy adoption campaigns, greater efforts to reunite lost pets with owners and the proliferation of advocacy groups both small and large that have swept in to help municipal shelters, often poorly funded and sluggish.
“This has been the single biggest success for the animal protection movement,” said Hal Herzog, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University who has long studied human-animal relationships. “It’s been an incredible drop.”
Still, hundreds of thousands of animals are euthanized each year, and advocates face challenges to pushing rates lower. For one, pit bull-type dogs — often perceived as dangerous and prohibited by landlords — disproportionately populate shelters. And feline sterilization continues to lag, one reason cats make up nearly 60 percent of shelter animals killed, according to the ASPCA.
Progress remains geographically lopsided, too. Advocates point to northern cities’ more concerted spay-neuter campaigns and mention “cultural” differences in attitudes about sterilizing pets. Climate is another factor: In warmer regions, cats go into heat more often, pets are more likely to be allowed outside, and strays more easily survive — all of which lead to more kittens and puppies.
Whatever the reason, shelters and rescue groups say an increasing number of communities in northern parts of the country now take in migrants — young and old, small and large. Nearly a third of the 30,000 dogs and cats received by a Portland, Ore., coalition of six shelters in 2016 came from outside the area, including from Hawaii.
“For a family that’s looking for that solid dog that’s good with kids and other animals … those are really tough to find,” said Anika Moje, manager of the Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland, which had a 95 percent “live-release” rate in 2016.
This overground pet railroad existed on a small scale for years, then rapidly expanded in the eastern United States after Hurricane Katrina left thousands of animals homeless in 2005. Transports more recently have mushroomed in the West, despite concerns in some places about what remains a fairly unregulated practice.
Yet even those who devote their lives to these efforts concede they will not end euthanasia of healthy animals.
“We’re the Band-Aid,” said Ric Browde, a board member of Wings of Rescue in Southern California. The group flies thousands of animals a year in its private plane and, sometimes, a chartered jet that can cost $20,000 a flight. “It’s sort of Einstein’s definition of insanity, repeating things over and over and expecting a different result. I can take dogs out of a shelter every day, but if it fills back up, have I done anything?”
The key is keeping the facilities from filling in the first place, says the ASPCA, which in 2014 pledged $25 million to help do this in the Los Angeles area. One of the public shelters it targeted was Baldwin Park, where May was housed for several weeks; it euthanizes 44 percent of the animals it takes in. On a recent Wednesday, ASPCA staff there counseled people who came to surrender dogs or cats, pointing them toward discounted veterinary care and sterilization services — expenses that often cause individuals to give up their pets.
The following Saturday, volunteer Jana Savage brought May to board the Rescue Express bus. May was a dog the volunteers at Baldwin Park were “worried about,” said Savage, a writer who has helped there for several years. They all felt the county’s temperament test had not given her a fair shake.
Onto the bus went May, along with a miniature pinscher, a yellow puppy and several other small pooches. Broussard had driven the vehicle down the night before from the Rescue Express base in Eugene. The longtime trucker runs many of the organization’s weekly transports, which begin in San Fernando and usually end near the Washington-Canada border.
The nonprofit has moved more than 8,000 animals since a former accounting software entrepreneur, a millionaire named Mike McCarthy, founded it two years ago. He’d always had a passion for animals and had donated to several related causes, and after watching a California friend transfer dogs north, he decided there was “a real need for better-quality transports.”
So McCarthy moved to Eugene — a midpoint on the West Coast — to start his own, one that would be free for the small rescue groups he’d seen were often bleeding cash. He opted to retrofit school buses, which he determined were more durable than the vans favored by many transports, could hold more crates and were cheaper to run than planes. Nowadays, that cost is about $20 to $30 per animal, and Rescue Express, with a three-bus fleet, is set to add a route up Interstate 15 through Utah.
McCarthy, 57, wants to take the model nationwide, though he knows it would make only a small dent in a big problem. “It makes a difference to the animals that are on the bus,” he said. “That’s how I look at it.”
From San Fernando to the Canada border, the journey takes more than 20 hours and involves a driver swap. Broussard pulled onto the highway at 8:35 a.m. Riding shotgun was Laura Miller, a Target manager who moonlights as a Rescue Express “transport supervisor” — a job that entails checking all the animals in and out, plus keeping their crates clean and water bowls filled.
The animals, separated from the cab by a metal partition, were quiet save for one yippy dog named Brownie. As he drove, Broussard held forth on the local geography and national politics. Miller kept tabs on the air conditioning in the back and texted with contacts at the next stop.
At a public shelter in Bakersfield, a few dozen more animals were loaded, including a litter of 6-week-old kittens bound for a rescue group outside of Portland. Then it was back to the highway.
At 12:30 p.m., at a truck-stop parking lot in Fresno, a group of volunteers helped put about 50 dogs and cats on board. Two dogs got on in Turlock, then four more in Lathrop. By 3:15 p.m., the bus was carrying 84 dogs and 22 cats. By 7:30 p.m., the snow-capped Mount Shasta signaled that Oregon was not far off. Miller held up her cellphone and took photos of the sunset.
It was raining and chilly when the bus pulled over in Roseburg, Ore., where an adopter was waiting to greet his new puppy. After midnight, Broussard turned into a gas station lot outside Eugene. Some 15 people, standing under hoods and umbrellas, lined up in the dark to retrieve two dozen animals.
The second-to-last was May, who was whisked away to a streetlight, where she promptly relieved herself.
Today, May is hanging out at Northwest Dog Project, the rescue that had agreed to find her a home. Its 22-acre facility usually hosts 10 to 18 dogs at a time in cottages with piped-in music and even skylights. There’s a doggy swimming pool, an agility course, a play yard and hiking trails.
“A majority of the dogs we take in come from high-kill shelters in California, where they’ve been living in noise and chaos. This is a good place for them to decompress,” director Emma Scott explained.
Like all the animals the organization accepts, 2-year-old May will spend a few weeks being evaluated and trained. Scott said she has been extremely friendly and “adores people.” She “already knew how to sit, and now we’re working on her leash manners. … We’ll do everything we can to make her as adoptable as we can.”