For Joy Harklerode, it started with a call at church. A friend had found something.
“A little week-old puppy that was thrown away,” Harklerode said, now cradling the small black ball wrapped in a towel. “In a trash bag with her six siblings.”
This was typical for Harklerode. Sometimes, she’d get up to 60 such calls a day. From sheriff's deputies. From the trash guy. From an informal network of people who know she rescues dogs in Marion, North Carolina.
So, a dog in the trash, that’s life for Harklerode. And it’s where our story begins.
This is a story about supply and demand. It’s also a story about dogs. And the story of an industry that’s sprung up: Moving a supply of adoptable dogs from the rural south to cities in the north, where there's a demand for them.
On a recent Sunday, Harklerode sits with her friend Susan Menard, in Menard's kitchen. Three dogs run around their feet. Harklerode holds the small black puppy. A disabled former nurse, she now uses her skills to care for animals, as the head of Mercy Fund Animal Rescue. Harklerode rescues dogs from high-kill shelters and cares for strays and abandoned dogs from the community.
“There’s no spay-neuter law, no leash law,” Harklerode said. “We’ve tried for years to get one.”
That’s where the hunters come in. They’re a powerful group in rural North Carolina.
“We typically do not spay and neuter our dogs,” said Keith Loudermilt, president of North Carolina Sporting Dog Association. “I don’t have a problem with spay and neuter, but when those regulations infringe on our sport and what we do, then we can’t give ground on this.”
Loudermilt says its an economic issue, too. Spays and neuters cost money. While some North Carolina counties have proposed spay-neuter rules with paid licenses for people who want to keep animals intact, Loudermilt says that’d add up, too. He owns 20 beagles.
Harklerode says the area’s hunting culture makes attempts for a spay-neuter law difficult.
“They don’t want any of these things instituted,” Harklerode said. “The county commissioners, they’re not in agreement that we need a spay-neuter law.”
Across town, Ashley Wooten is McDowell County Manager. He says spaying and neutering isn’t a part of the culture in the area. Plus, when the idea of such a law comes up, hunters don't like it.
A lot of people think it's government overreach, too. But, maybe more importantly, it’s expensive.
“When you have the poverty level that we do and you have a working class community like we do, it's harder for folks to say, ‘OK I'm gonna go out and spend $300 for this whatever procedure that my dog needs or my cat or to spend a $150 on a spay and neuter,’” Wooten said.
Instead the area’s focused on education, low cost vet services and bringing the euthanasia rate down at the county shelter.
That also means that in McDowell County—and across North Carolina—there's an entire network of people like Joy Harklerode.
Rusty's Legacy, a nearby volunteer rescue in Marion, houses 32 dogs in kennels. Some will live out their lives here. Others will head north.
On an overcast Monday morning Kelly Brown arrives at Rusty’s Legacy. She collects dogs that will eventually reach the Connecticut Humane Society.
Brown’s from Brother Wolf Animal Rescue, an animal rescue located in Asheville, North Carolina. She loads four cream and white hound puppies, plus one brindle, into crates. Vicki Harper, of Rusty’s Legacy, helps.
“You have a new exciting life ahead of you,” Harper cooed to the departing dogs. “Yes you do!”
The puppies—all of whom have names that start with Z—drive with Brown to Brother Wolf’s building in Asheville.
There, they get a vet check. And shots. The puppies squeal.
Brother Wolf has been transporting dogs north for roughly a decade. This year, they've moved more than 650 dogs. State law in Connecticut requires medical checks before dogs can enter the state. The checks cost about $200 for each dog.
And then staff load the dogs back onto the van. It’s an hour and a half journey to Taylorsville, North Carolina.
Part II –Transport
Inside a bright white sprinter van, the dogs sit in crates. It’s their third van of the day.
They’ve just arrived from Asheville. The next step? Head north to the Connecticut Humane Society. Getting dogs there, that's the job of two women: Kelly Ivory and Jane Hurst.
They run Howl on Wheels, a ground transport service for rescued dogs
On this overcast and foggy Monday night, they’ll drive like they always do. Overnight. Straight from North Carolina to Connecticut.
With the slam of a door and the rev of an engine, the transport heads out into the evening. It’ll be a long trip. Thirteen hours.
Ivory’s used to it, though. This has been a full-time job for five years. “We’re going to be driving, and while one’s driving the other one’s going to be sleeping,” Ivory said. “If there’s any messes in the back, whoever’s not driving is cleaning it up as it happens.” She laughs a hearty laugh.
An average week for Ivory could be 5,200 miles on the road. Her, a colleague and a load full of dogs. Ivory typically transports about 28 dogs at a time. She loads crates of dogs onto shelves in her white sprinter van. Ivory modified the inside herself..
Before Ivory became a transporter, she ran a humane society in southern North Carolina. As she rescued dogs from local high-kill shelters, she decided she needed to get dogs out of the area. She turned north.
Ivory began occasional trips to deliver dogs to New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts . Every time she went, she said, other humane groups would ask her to take some of their dogs, too. “So I went ahead and got a van,” Ivory said. “And decided that this is what I need to do.” An hour into the trip, the women stop. It’s time to grab something to drink. Luckily, it’s finally quieted down in the back.
“We’ve had some dogs that just settled down,” Ivory said. “We’ve had to clean a few crates, but we are ongoing.”
For Ivory, the job is largely a labor of love.
She charges the receiving shelters one dollar per mile, round trip. Ivory will charge about $1600 for this 1,600 mile trip. She charges based on the fuel, her payroll costs and maintenance. Maintenance is the major cost to transporters. Ivory says she spends about $800 to $1600 a month in maintenance. The costs come from oil changes, rotating tires or, even, the occasional late night run-in with a deer.
“There’s not a lot of money-making in transporting,” Ivory said. “I make ends meet but that’s pretty much it.”
At 1 a.m., another stop. It’s time to grab some fuel, use the restroom and grab snacks—and clean any crates that need to be cleaned.
Ivory slides open the sprinter van’s door. Some dogs wake up. They sleepily bark.
“Hi baby! Who’s a big baby? Look at you!” said Ivory, talking to a dog. “Oooooh yes, you made a mess in there. Hold on, we need paper towels!”
Ivory and Hurst get to work spraying down crates and cleaning dogs. It’s all in the job.
“We have scheduled stops so we said we will stop. We will walk a dog we will clean up their kennels,” Ivory said. “So by the time that we arrive up in the northeast you can open up the door and you don't typically smell anything.”
And then, back on the road.
By 6:30 a.m. the white sprinter van sits in traffic outside of New York City. Getting ready to cross over the Tappan Zee bridge. Most of the dogs lay asleep. Since starting out in the business, Ivory has seen the competition increase. She’s no longer the only one making these trips to northern animal shelters.
Ivory’s one of 18 animal carriers in North Carolina registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 522 carriers are actively registered with the USDA nationwide.
An industry has been born.
“There’s definitely some competition out there,” Ivory said. At about 9:30 a.m., the sun’s fully up in the sky, “Small Town” by John Mellencamp plays over the radio. The dogs still sleep. The Connecticut Humane Society comes into sight. “A lot of these dogs don’t deserve what they’ve been dished out,” Ivory said. “If I can be that leg of transportation up to the north, then I’m going to do it.”
Ivory pulls into the parking lot. She cuts the radio. She’s arrived at the humane society with the dogs.
But they’re not home. Not quite yet.
Part III — Up North
To understand why there’s a demand for dogs in the north, in the first place, we need to step back in time.
Gordon Willard is the executive director at the Connecticut Humane Society, where the dogs have just arrived. He’s been in the business since 1983. Back then, animal shelters had more animals than they could adopt out.
“We were dealing with surplus animals,” Willard said. “We had oversupply and under demand.”
In 1987, the Connecticut Humane Society received over 40,000 local animals annually. But by the mid-90s something changed—all of a sudden, fewer homeless dogs. “Spaying and neutering was working,” Willard said.
New rules across New England made owners sterilize their pets. But just as fewer dogs got to shelters – demand for them shot up.
Why? Well a few reasons.
One, spay/neuter rules meant fewer people adopting out unwanted litters. Two, it also meant fewer strays. And three, awareness increased around puppy mills and animal welfare. “And the word rescue took on a different connotation,” Willard said.
Then, Hurricane Katrina hit. In 2005, northeast humane organizations pooled resources to transport dogs from New Orleans. It showed them bringing in dogs from other places was possible, disaster or no.
By 2016, Connecticut organizations were bringing up about twenty thousand animals a year from the south.
Today, about one in every ten comes to the Connecticut Humane Society, where the Howl on Wheels transport has just arrived.
With a chatter of “good mornings” staff and volunteers get ready. Everyone dons bright blue scrubs.
There’s a whole process to this. There are rules. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has 23 pages of regulations for how to handle and transport dogs. Staff at Connecticut Humane Society say they go above and beyond the requirements.
Inside the van, dogs wait. They’re excited and barking. The unloading process is a choreography. One dog at a time.
Volunteer Steve Woolbert picks up a little white rat terrier named Abby. She has pointy black ears. Abby’s terrified. She pees herself as Woolbert picks her up.
“Ooops, piddles!” said Woolbert says.
He takes Abby out for a walk. Little by little, the transformation is palpable. Abby goes from trembling to sniffing and running around the lawn. She even jumps at a treat.
“That’s my girl,” cooed Woolbert says. “You ready to go in and look at the vet? Let’s go.”
They enter the garage that’s been turned into a makeshift processing station. Staff give the dogs food, medicine and veterinarian Kelin Maciejewski examines every dog.
Maciejewski finds a strange spot on Abby and examines her fur with a blacklight -- looking for any bacteria or fungus.
“So anything weird will glow a green,” Maciejewski explains. “She looks good.”