Pup My Ride: 5,000 Lives Saved (and Counting), Part I

It all began quite unexpectedly. Four years ago when Best Friends started pulling dogs out of Los Angeles shelters and driving them up to Salt Lake City, no one thought that someday the program would have expanded to Las Vegas and then the Midwest. But Pup My Ride did that and more. Last month, the combined Pup My Ride programs hit a milestone that in the beginning none of the staff dreamed would happen: 5,000 dogs. Pup My Ride has saved these dogs from shelters’ "red lists" and from Midwest puppy mill cages, and we want to celebrate by giving you a behind-the-scenes peek at what it’s like to do the work.

The idea behind Pup My Ride is simple: basic supply and demand but with lifesaving flair. In places like L.A., there are shelters full of small dogs like Chihuahuas and mini poodles — so many that they can't find homes. Meanwhile, in other areas, shelters have very few of these dogs, so potential adopters are leaving empty-handed. We work with rescue groups and shelters to pull dogs out of areas with a severe overpopulation (and therefore, high euthanasia rate) and bring them to areas where there is a high adoption demand.

I’ve been part of the Pup My Ride team since we first started the puppy mill dog transports, and I can say that in many ways it has changed my life. I know the rest of the team feels the same way, so I decided to talk to many of those involved in the work to get their impressions about how we made it this far together.

Starting out

Nikki Sharp, Best Friends' senior manager of local programs, was there for the inception of both branches of the Pup My Ride program, and is responsible for the idea to try Pup My Ride out of Los Angeles in the first place.

She remembers, "It was the summer of 2007, and I had recently started working at Best Friends and was just starting to get to know people. I somehow got an email from Robin Harmon in L.A. about shelter dogs who were ‘red listed.’ I was shocked to see how many small dogs were on the list Robin sent." Nikki lives in Salt Lake City, and she’s savvy about the animal shelter situation there. She says, "I knew there were hardly any small dogs in the shelters; in fact, there were waiting lists for them. When I saw pictures of all those little dogs that were scheduled to be put down if no one took them, I called Robin and said I thought there might be an opportunity to save those dogs with a transport." And with that, Pup My Ride was born.

Nikki put Robin (Best Friends’ Los Angeles rescue and shelter coordinator) in touch with a Salt Lake rescue group she knew well and had them start putting together a transport. Robin says, "When we started planning the first transport, the receiving group started out saying they could take six to eight dogs. But then as we went through the list together and they looked closely at those dogs’ photos and bios, the number soon became 12, and in the end they took 21 dogs. We should have known at that moment that it was only the beginning."

Neither Robin nor Nikki ever imagined that several years later the transports would be going every two weeks, and that they’d be celebrating the rescue and transport of over 5,000 dogs. Nikki said, "It really just began with one list of dogs."

The Los Angeles program’s success was one factor that helped us make the leap to include rescued puppy mill dogs in a new branch of the program. It was 2008 — the beginning of Best Friends’ puppy mill initiatives (then called Puppies Aren’t Products), and we had been doing a lot of research about the puppy mill issue and what was needed most. We started forming relationships with groups who regularly took cast-off dogs directly from puppy mills. Puppy mill owners typically won’t hold onto a dog when he or she is no longer useful to them. They’ll sell it, euthanize it or give it to rescue. All of the rescuers we spoke with were overwhelmed with the number of dogs coming out of mills and haunted by the number they had to turn away because they just couldn’t take them all.

From there we came up with a plan to do our part to take as many of those dogs as possible and move them to the Northeast where there is a high demand for those types of dogs. It’s also one of the highest-density areas for pet stores. We wanted to bring those same pet store–type dogs to the area — dogs that the shelters didn’t often get, and if they did, were immediately adopted.

Challenges

Pup My Ride isn’t all warm and fuzzy fun (though a lot of it really is!). Any project this big involves challenges, and Pup My Ride comes with some tough hurdles. Robin, who is in charge of rounding up shelter dogs for each L.A. Pup My Ride says, "The hardest thing is choosing which dogs to take. There are so many that fit the criteria, and you can only take the dogs you can take. You’re saving lives and there are other lives you can’t save."

Imagine facing a veritable Sophie’s choice every two weeks. But Robin does it. She explains, "I make myself do it. I totally understand people’s feelings when you hear them say they can’t go to the shelter because it’s too sad. But I also believe that you can do whatever you need to do if you’re strong enough. And, I look at every dog we transport as saving two animals. If we transport 30 dogs, we open up 60 spaces — 30 spaces from the dogs we took and 30 more for the dogs that come in and don’t have to be put down right away because there’s no space."

Both branches of the program can bring staff people into places that aren’t so animal friendly, but it’s especially true with the puppy mill program. Elizabeth Oreck, manager of Best Friends’ puppy mill initiatives remembers, "About a year after the program was underway, we attended one of the many dog auctions that occur regularly around the country. We don’t typically attend auctions, as we primarily work with rescuers to whom breeders just give dogs away, but I knew these auctions existed and wanted to see one for myself. Hundreds of dogs were being sold, but toward the end of the day, the crowd thinned out and there were very few bids. As we watched, dozens of dogs sold for less than a dollar. The bidding was in five- and ten-cent increments. Auctioneers told the audience that they had vets standing by to euthanize the dogs that didn’t sell. It was heartbreaking. Although we had not planned on this, we ended up taking all of the dogs that didn't sell that day, paying a penny apiece for these wonderful, healthy, adoptable animals."

End of Part I. Click here for Part II.

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