The devotion, the kindred spirits, the Southern hospitality, the PUPPIES! Looking for an experience of a lifetime? Join Animal Aid USA’s mission to help Georgian rescue dogs
As I pass through the fiercely air-conned interior of the Holiday Inn I have spent the night in, I have a momentary pang of nerves: just what am I getting myself into? I take a deep breath and stifle the unwelcome thought, push the door open, and walk into a wave of Georgian heat, my feet marching me across the already sun-baked pavement. Awaiting me is a white, windowless utility van, the door of which slides open to reveal a seat-less, mattress-clad cargo hold—and a host of smiling faces. A cheerful volley of greetings issue from the van’s inhabitants, all strangers who are set to become fast friends over the next two long, very emotional days. Fears are instantly dispelled.
I’m in Georgia to participate in a rescue caravan, the mobilization of a cadre of volunteers, vans, pilots, and planes that, in an epic feat of coordination, have come together to rescue 400-plus Georgian dogs and transport them back to other states where foster homes and adopters await. (In areas of Georgia, spay and neuter are not frequently implemented and laws protecting animals are rarely enforced.) It is to be, hands down, one of the most inspiring trips of my life.
Emotions will run the gamut—there will be tears, elation, heartbreak, and over-exhaustion, coupled with a frightening amount of gas station food and a seeming million hours spent in the back of a van—and yet it is somehow spirit restorative. The dogs saved—all ages and sizes but so many hounds and so many puppies—are high on the list of best trip memories, but even more so, it is the incredible people, now friends, that made this a truly incredible experience. Here is a group of people, bound by their love of animals and their desire to DO SOMETHING, who, once a month, undertake a 15+ hour overnight drive from New Jersey to rural southern Georgia. There they pack up a whole host of dogs at risk of being euthanized and pretty much immediately turn around to undertake the same epic drive in reverse—this time loaded up with pooping, howling precious cargo. It is a grueling 1600-mile roundtrip journey undertaken in just three days but the sense of community and mission participation on display are nothing short of a tonic for the world weary spirit.
At the helm of this operation are Karen Talbot and Lorenzo Borghese, co-founders of non-profit Animal Aid USA. The entire team is 100 percent volunteer and they’ve managed to save over 14,000 dogs and cats in just four years. Karen is hands-down amazing and Lorenzo likely needs no introduction—he’s a real-life prince after all, and starred in season nine of The Bachelor. Together they’re on a mission to help make the U.S. a no-kill nation.
The itinerary of their monthly Georgian rescue mission goes like this: early on a Thursday evening, four vans, one truck, and their main transport rig convene in New Jersey where they are packed with volunteers, many repeat, and the kind of supplies necessary for a mass rescue operation (lots of cleaning supplies, for one). Once loaded, the caravan sets out and drives straight through the night, headed for Georgia.
It is on the Friday morning of their August caravan trip that I am picked up en route, having flown in from the west coast to take part. By midday we’ve arrived at our destination—Nancy and Rick Allmon’s Blackshear, Georgia property—and despite the long hours logged thus far, the work is just beginning. Supplies need to be unpacked, arriving dogs dealt with, and the tremendous amount of organizational paperwork for tomorrow’s transport undertaken—this all-important task overseen by Karen, the mastermind of the operation. It is something to witness, this mobilization of transport vans, volunteers, and local fosters, all convening around pens and runs filled with the hundreds of dogs and puppies who are scheduled for this month’s rescue mission. The dogs come from kill shelters, are found on the side of the road or are callously dropped off or dumped in various locales. A local woman found one tiny puppy, less than eight weeks old, when she went to check her mail one morning. Instead of the usual bills and letters, she found someone had placed the tiny pup in her metal mailbox. Had she not happened to check her mail before work, the puppy would have roasted to death in the heat of the day.
Nancy and Rick, hosts to the staging of every monthly rescue mission, are as welcoming and down-home as they come. Inveterate dog lovers, they have opened their sprawling 20-acre property to the operation and are a cornerstone of its success. Their place is the organizational focal point of the transport and temporary home for many of the dogs destined for foster or rescue in other states. Old trucks, dog runs, and their countless own pups crowd the acreage, which is traversed on golf cart. Everyone is involved in some task or other, but it is impossible for newbies (read: me) not to beeline over to the pens of puppies for some cuddle time.
By the time the afternoon’s work is finished and we finally check into our hotel, the New Jersey contingency has been up a good 36 hours straight. Everyone quickly showers and changes and then we’re off to a family-style Southern dinner cooked by local volunteers. Squash casserole, soft rolls, pulled pork, barbeque chicken, salads of all stripe, gallons of sweet tea… it is a true feast, not only delicious but charming for one unused to the kind of community involvement on display here. It’s like I can actually feel my heart expanding in the presence of so much good.
It is over dinner that the plans for the non-profit’s next phase are revealed and they’re decidedly cool: they plan to expand their existing sanctuary at Rick and Nancy’s so they can double the number of rescued dogs and cats they can house. They can currently hold about 95 dogs and cats but the new facility will allow them to help over 200 with upgraded kennels and on-site medical services. The second phase will see the creation of a cabin-themed village where visiting volunteers can stay. They envision this being a place where virtually any animal lover can stay and volunteer, as well as a healing place for veterans suffering from PTSD and parents traveling with bullied or abused children. They are currently fundraising to make this a reality. (If you’d like to contribute go to gofundme.com/AnimalAidusa.) There is palpable excitement around these plans and they look forward to expanding their operation into Miami, Florida as well.
Exhausted after dinner, everyone calls it an early night. We will all be meeting bright and early in the lobby—earlier than usual even, for this is an extra special transport. Joining the usual caravan is a fleet of Pilots N Paws volunteers, a group of pilots who fly their own private aircraft to transport dogs to awaiting homes and rescues.
The next day dawns bright and hot. We head out for the airstrip pre-8 a.m., vans full of dogs in tow. On the tarmac is a formation of small planes and the volunteer pilots who have flown in from neighbouring states in order to assist in this super-sized rescue. Pilots are matched with their precious cargo and the dogs are then loaded into carriers and secured in the small aircraft. It is a sight to behold as one by one the planes take flight, bearing their four-legged passengers to their new lives.
By the time everyone is airborne, it feels like a whole day’s work has been accomplished but it’s barely mid-morning and time to head back to Nancy and Rick’s where all the transport vans set to hit the highway have yet to be loaded with dogs. Somewhere mixed in there is a lunch and a pray circle blessing, and then, finally, we’re off—kind of. There’s one more stop en route to pick up yet more dogs and then it’s just the long road ahead of us. We’ll pass through South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia, until finally we cross into New Jersey. Late night pauses at rest stops lit up in blinking neon allow for stretched legs, fast food sustenance, and bathroom breaks. All the vehicles drive nose to tail and the interminable miles are punctuated with hilarious late-night conversations with new best friends (hi, Roe!). We are definitely a sight as we pull into gas stations and everyone spills out.
My driving shift is at the loopy hour of 4 a.m. I have been up for over 22 hours and yet am wide awake, singing along with the radio as the miles whizz by and we hightail it to what is perhaps the best part of the whole mission: the arrival. When our caravan finally pulls up at our New Jersey destination late morning, there is a veritable parade of cheering people awaiting us, heralding our arrival with waved welcome signs and applause. There are the foster recipients, as well as the rescues that are accepting dogs, and, cutest of all, Girl Guides who help unload the puppies. There are hugs, tears, baby wipes to clean poop off of hands, and avowals from many of the caravan’s participants to “see you next month,” for 30 days later the whole shebang will unfold again. It truly takes a village and this one is filled with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.