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All Aboard: Rescue Waggin' is savin' lives

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By Stephen Lega

When five coon hound-shepherd mix puppies arrived at the Marion County Animal Shelter in August, Vickie Hazelip knew she had to do something.

She knew they wouldn't be adopted locally, but she knew the puppies might have another chance to find a home because the shelter had recently become a partner with PetSmart Charities' Rescue Waggin'.

After an illness was diagnosed at the shelter, Hazelip, the shelter manager, took the puppies home in an effort to keep them healthy. Throughout the month of September, Hazelip and her daughter acted as foster parents to the puppies, feeding and caring for them. One of the puppies was loaded onto the Rescue Waggin' during its first pick-up from the Marion County shelter in October. The other four puppies were loaded on the truck during the second visit Nov. 18.

Hazelip said she got a "wonderful, very warm feeling" when the dogs were taken away. She knew they were being taken to a Michigan Humane Society shelter where they were more likely to be adopted.

"I couldn't let my tears come, but it tugged at my heart, because I know how they would have ended up otherwise," Hazelip said.

The coon hound-shepherd mix puppies are just five of the 65 dogs who've received a second chance at finding a home thanks to the shelter's partnership with the Rescue Waggin'. It's a connection that has saved the lives of at least half those dogs, according to Marion County Animal Control Officer Jeff Wooldridge. Without the move, many of them would have been euthanized.

"It's been a godsend," Wooldridge said about the program.

Life-saving mission

PetSmart Charities started the Rescue Waggin' in 2004. PetSmart officials knew that some shelters routinely had open kennel space. At the same time other shelters were overflowing with unwanted animals.

By transporting animals from overflowing shelters to open ones, more dogs could be placed with loving families, according to Susana Della Maddalena, PetSmart Charities executive director. Since the program started, more than 24,000 dogs have been placed in homes, and program officials estimate that more than 6,000 dogs will be adopted out this year.

The Marion County shelter's connection with the Rescue Waggin' started in the summer of 2007 with a phone call from the Boyle County animal shelter. Hazelip said the Boyle County shelter wanted to know if Marion County had any puppies that it needed to adopt out. According to Hazelip, the Marion County shelter took 40 puppies to Boyle County at that time.

She'd heard about the rescue program before that day, but that call also prompted Hazelip and Sara O'Daniel, a part-time shelter employee, to learn more. In August of 2007, they applied to become a shelter partner with the Rescue Waggin'.

Acceptance into the program isn't automatic, however. PetSmart officials evaluate the conditions and the commitment at the shelters, Della Maddalena said.

"They have to show a real willingness to want to improve how they run their shelters and in placing animals in their own communities," she said.

Several shelters are on a waiting list to join the program, Della Maddalena added.

Hazelip and O'Daniel went to training in Wisconsin in May, where they learned how to conduct temperament tests on dogs  5 and a half months or older.

"We have to video the dogs and grade them on the grading system," Hazelip said. "They want to make sure they are getting good, adoptable dogs."

If a dog passes the temperament test, it also must go through health tests conducted by a veterinarian. The good news for county taxpayers is that PetSmart Charities pays for those costs, Hazelip said.

In October, the Rescue Waggin' transported 18 dogs to Michigan, and within a week 17 of them had already been adopted, Hazelip said.

Della Maddalena said that is fairly typical. Most Rescue Waggin' dogs are adopted out within days of arriving at a receiving shelter, she said.

Getting to the root of the problem

Dogs from the Marion County shelter may be taken to receiving shelters in Michigan or Wisconsin. Hazelip said those states have stricter spay and neuter laws, which means they have fewer dogs available for adoption at their shelters.

And that actually gets into another important aspect of the Rescue Waggin' - spaying and neutering. Those procedures reduce the number of unwanted pets as well as the number of dogs that have to be euthanized.

"They don't want to just come in and be like a band-aid fix," Hazelip said. "They want to get to the root of the problem and get people to spay and neuter."

To encourage this, the Rescue Waggin' also provides grants to its shelter partners to help pay the costs of those procedures.

"When the shelter can offer the spay/neuter for a low price, you have a lot of people sign up for it," Della Maddalena said.

In a real sense, the long-term goal of the Rescue Waggin' is to make the program unneeded. According to Della Maddalena, they want to pick up fewer and fewer dogs from their source shelters in hopes that they can reduce the number of unwanted dogs to a point at which all of dogs taken in at a shelter can be adopted out locally.

According to Hazelip, the Marion County shelter has adopted out an average of 15 dogs per month locally. 

Healthy habits

The Rescue Waggin' certainly has had an impact on the number of dogs that have had to be euthanized in Marion County. During the last two months when 65 dogs were transported to Michigan rather than the incinerator.

But shelter employees don't want to mislead anyone.

"This doesn't mean every dog will be accepted into the rescue program," Hazelip said.

Dogs that fail the temperament test won't be transported, nor will dogs that are unhealthy. The purpose of the program is to increase the number of dogs adopted, but no one wants to adopt out a dog that bites or could spread a disease to its owner. According to Hazelip and Della Maddalena, that would just create new problems for the source shelter.

Through the training and mentoring offered by the Rescue Waggin', Hazelip said shelter employees have learned how to better identify dogs that could pose problems. They've also learned new practices to improve the conditions at the shelter.

And there's another benefit to partnering with the Rescue Waggin' as well.

According to Wooldridge, euthanizing animals remains part of the work at the shelter, but the employees, volunteers and community service workers from the Marion County Detention Center all feel better knowing they are doing everything they can to save as many animals as possible.

Hazelip wouldn't have taken home five puppies is she didn't think they would find a home, nor would 47 dogs have been picked up from the shelter last week.

The Rescue Waggin' was supposed to stop by the Marion County shelter in early November, but because the receiving shelter had a disease issue, no dogs could be transferred there until that shelter was disinfected. For two weeks, Marion County shelter employees and community service workers made an extraordinary effort to make sure the dogs - which ranged in size from seven pounds to 65 pounds - remained healthy and therefore adoptable.

Wooldridge was impressed by what he witnessed.

"It was remarkable that we could keep that many dogs healthy," he said.

Maybe that's why, on a chilly Nov. 18 morning, smiles were abundant on the faces of the employees and community service workers as they loaded dogs onto the Rescue Waggin'. Maybe Hazelip wasn't the only person experiencing that "wonderful, very warm feeling."

Everyone involved at the shelter has helped with the Rescue Waggin', but Wooldridge said Hazelip and O'Daniel have done the bulk of the research and training that allowed Marion County to become a program partner.

And, for better or worse, the need for the program was evident within hours of the Nov. 18 pick-up. That same day, eight dogs were abandoned at the shelter by their owners. As of Monday, Nov. 24, the shelter's kennels were filled again with 43 abandoned dogs.

The next scheduled pick-up is Dec. 14.

Wooldridge and Hazelip know it will take time to improve the situation locally. Yet, they remain committed to finding homes for as many dogs as possible and to promoting responsible pet ownership so there will be fewer unwanted dogs in Marion County.

"Rome wasn't built in a day," Hazelip said. "We're doing a little bit at a time."

Editor's note: For more information about the program, visit www.petsmartcharities.org/rescue-waggin/ or call the Marion County Animal Shelter at (270) 692-0464.