The Amazing Rescue Relay
The all-volunteer feel-good feat of coordination that transports rescue dogs to awaiting ‘furever’ homes
When I found myself smitten with Bodie, an Australian Shepherd cross available for adoption on Petfinder.com, I was downcast to learn that Heartstrings Animal Advocates (HAA), the rescue organization that had him in their foster care program, was in Kansas, over 1,500 miles away from my northern Nevada home. Since many rescues only adopt pets to homes within a small local radius, I figured I didn't have a chance of getting Bodie. Even if HAA was willing to let my husband and I adopt him, I had no idea how we would get the dog to Nevada. Still, I sent an inquiry, as I just couldn't get Bodie's happy, intelligent face out of my mind.
Imagine my joy and surprise when HAA said that they actually do adopt pets to good homes all over the country, and that they could even arrange to get Bodie to me—for free. While this sounded too good to be true, it turns out that this phenomenal group of people often take time out of their busy lives to drive pets to their new homes, but when the distances are too great, they work with several volunteer transportation organizations that coordinate drivers in elaborate "relays" to get the pets to wherever it is they are going.
Susan Kauffmann and Bodie. Photo Cindy Rogers
One of the organizations that HAA frequently works with on transportation efforts is Just A Girl Moving Dogs (JGMD). However, don't let the humble name fool you: While JGMD might have started out in late 2019 with just one girl, they are now a well-coordinated network of nearly 2,700 volunteers who have transported more than 600 animals all over the United States in just two years of operation. While most of the animals they move are dogs, they have also transported cats, birds, hedgehogs, turtles and tortoises, and, once, even a piglet.
JGMD's founder is Eryn Avis (on Facebook as Eryn Leather), a disabled U.S. Marine Corps Veteran who started coordinating transport runs when a degenerative spine condition made it too painful for her to keep driving dogs herself every weekend. “I still wanted to be involved,” she says, “and doing transport is a really uplifting, rewarding aspect of animal rescue work, as we are taking these animals to their new start in wonderful ‘furever’ homes.”
“Foster transport is a team sport, saving babies one leg at a time!”—Eryn Avis
Yet as rewarding as it is, coordinating these rescue runs is a complicated endeavor that requires time, dedication, and serious organizational chops. Asked about how it all works, Avis explains, "JGMD is a volunteer relay group that offers a no-fee transport service to rescues, fosters, adopters, military personnel, and we also assist with domestic violence cases and 'return to owners' (lost & stolen animals). We build our runs as a string of ‘legs,’ where one driver will drive 70 to 100 miles (1 – 1.5 hours) to the next driver, who takes the next leg and so on, until we come to an overnight, where the fur baby (or shell baby, as we are partnered with a tortoise rescue as well), rests for the night to start all over again, until we reach the final destination.”
Over nine days, King, pictured here with Eryn Avis, travelled more than 2800 miles through 13 states to get to his new home. The trip required 26 volunteers over 34 legs, two overnights, and one short-term foster. Photo by Just a Girl Moving Dogs
Moving so many animals—some coming out of difficult situations that may have led to behavioural issues—means that each run is different and comes with its own obstacles and challenges.
"We build each run specific to the animals we are transporting, so we try to head off any potential problems before the run even starts,” says Avis. “For example, if the animal has a high level of ‘stranger danger’ we take a little longer on transfers so they can get to know the next driver and feel safe. We also treat all the animals on transport as if they were extreme flight risks, which means always doing two-leash transfers using both a harness and a collar, tethering from a harness when needed, and crating the animal while in motion when needed.”
“Getting that many people of all different backgrounds and beliefs to come together for a common goal is such a positive—especially these days.”
Another constant challenge is dealing with so many different human personalities on every run, though for Avis, this is one of the greatest joys as well. “We consistently have 200+ volunteers under our belt at any given time,” she says, “and it can be a bit to wrangle them all, but it always works out in the end. Getting that many people of all different backgrounds and beliefs to come together for a common goal is such a positive—especially these days.”
Each trip also presents logistical complexities, especially when the journey is thousands of miles. JGMD does several coast-to-coast cross-country runs each month (their longest was Key West, FL to Lodi, CA — 3,546 miles), and the routes can get a little convoluted at times. “We can't always build the runs the shortest way, as we have to go where the available and willing volunteers are,” says Avis.
Illustration by Michelle Simpson
Filling the runs can be difficult, which is why, despite the number of people they already have on their lists, JGMD desperately needs more volunteers. “People simply can't imagine how great the need is, now more than ever," states Avis, “and when you realize that every dog we move to their new home opens up a spot for a rescue to save another dog's life, it is heartbreaking to have to say no.”
The volunteers at Heartstrings Animal Advocates are also dealing with the gut-wrenching reality of overwhelming numbers these days, in part due to the Covid pandemic. According to Alison Hoover, a board member who has fostered 237 dogs for HAA and spends every weekend transporting, event coordinating, and more, “a lot of people who were staying home during the first part of the pandemic adopted pets, but now that they're heading back to work, they're dumping those animals right and left. Vets also couldn't keep up with spaying and neutering, so we're seeing an unbelievable increase in the numbers of puppies and kittens, too."
The sad fact is that rescues are never able to keep up with demand, but the current situation is taking a toll on volunteers like Hoover. “The hardest thing for me,” she relates, “is having to say, ‘I'm sorry, we don't have any available fosters to take that dog in,' knowing the dog will be put to sleep that day because I personally didn't take in just one more. It doesn't matter that I have six of my own and anywhere from five to 18 foster dogs at a time.
Left photo Makenna with one of the JGMD rescues. Photo by Heartstrings Animal Advocates; right photo Dolly with Denny. Photo by Just a Girl Moving Dogs
When you draw a limit on what you can handle, innocent dogs die, and that hurts. It's frustrating to feel that guilt when the irresponsible people who contribute to the overpopulation problem and those who dump their animals feel none." Hoover's 17-year-old daughter, Makenna, shares her mother's dedication to helping animals and also struggles with the life-and-death decisions that are such a large part of animal rescue. Yet despite the heart-rending and sometimes exhausting work, Makenna absolutely loves helping the ones they are able to save. As she explains, "Seeing dogs that have never felt a kind hand, dogs that duck and run when you go to give them a gentle pat—that's always so sad. But when you see the most damaged dogs go from being scared, starved, injured, and emotionally shut down to being happy dogs that get to live their best lives carefree—that is incredible and makes it all worth it.”
HAA board member Missy Driscoll adds that sometimes, it's the little things that keep volunteers like her going. “For me,” she says, “the rewards come from watching a shut-down animal play for the first time ever in their life. Seeing the look of sadness, fear, confusion, and defeat leave their eyes. That first lick/kiss showing they trust and love you. Watching them slip into a relieved, deep sleep when they're out of the shelter and in a foster home because they know they can finally relax. Finding the most amazing family and knowing the pet's life will only continue to get better. Getting pics of an adopter's children playing ‘foster’ and ‘adoption,’ and hoping we've planted a small seed in the next generation that may continue to change the world.”
If you also hope for a better world for companion animals, the volunteers at HAA and JGMD invite you to explore ways to get involved. Wherever you live, there is likely a rescue group that could use more hands-on help with things like fostering and fund-raising events, and they can always put donations to good use. Short of cash? Consider asking the rescue if they could use donations of toys, towels, and blankets, then see what you can rustle up from your friends and neighbours. And, if you would like to be part of Just A Girl Moving Dogs' incredible network of rescue relay drivers or help with coordinating runs, get in touch with Eryn Leather on Facebook. Lastly, Amazon shoppers can choose to automatically donate to a non-profit of their choice through the Amazon Smile program, and it costs you absolutely nothing! Check it out at smile.amazon.com.