by Jeff Fleischer(Chicagoland Tails, September 2006)
According to the Humane Society of the United States, every year some 3 million to 4 million cats and dogs around the country are euthanized in animal shelters. And while rescue groups can effectively place many animals, it can be a logistical nightmare getting needy pets to the people who can find them new homes.
That’s where “railroad” organizations come in. By creating networks of shelters, rescue organizations, and other contacts, the railroads match animals with destinations—and coordinate the transports to get them there.
“It’s something I got involved in quite by accident,” says Dena Allen, who founded the UnderHound Railroad about eight years ago. After personally rescuing a dog from an abusive home, Allen used Internet mailing lists to find a rescue group to take her, and decided to use the same technique for a larger-scale operation. “Before long, I was coordinating trips to get animals out of high-kill shelters and getting them to areas of the United States where they don’t have as bad of an overpopulation problem and where they can find homes.”
The UnderHound Railroad usually rescues dogs and cats from shelters in six states—West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland—then transports them through Chicago, up to Madison, Wisconsin, and on to Minneapolis or even Manitoba, Canada. Along the way, drivers drop animals with those who will find them homes. “What our group does—and so do a lot of other groups—is set up ground relay teams of cargo vans and trucks that take them out of the shelters,” Allen says. “And one by one, each vehicle passes off to another until everyone gets where they need to go.”
Initially, Allen’s organization only did large transports of 50 to 60 animals at a time, scheduled mostly around holidays. Today, the UnderHound Railroad’s large transports often take more than 100 animals, and the organization conducts smaller transports multiple times each month. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, we’re bringing the dogs to rescue groups and no-kill shelters,” Allen says. “They make sure the animal has all the vetting they need, that they’re spayed or neutered, that they’re healthy. They’re the experts at finding homes, so we usually don’t do that ourselves.” Allen hopes to soon expand the railroad into the Northeast, with the long-range goal of a nationwide network.
While the UnderHound Railroad focuses on dogs and cats, the Maryland-based nonprofit RabbitWise has its own railroad system for bunnies. Lana Lehr, who founded RabbitWise in 2003, created the organization’s Bunderground Railroad a year later. Like UnderHound, it’s a network of rescues and shelters committed to saving animals from euthanasia.
“Often, the rabbits are coming from shelters,” says Lehr, the organization’s managing director, “or from a rescue who gets overloaded. For example, there was a bunny rescue in Tennessee that intervened in a collector situation where there were 68 rabbits. The rescue couldn’t take on that many. And none were spayed or neutered‑and you know what they say about rabbits. So the Bunderground started looking for rescues that had spots, and people stepped up.”
In 2004, RabbitWise’s Bunderground played a part in the rescue of about 625 rabbits, and that number grew in 2005. It included eight rabbits rescued from Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The network found foster homes for the animals in California and, through the efforts of about a dozen volunteers over two weeks, transported them from Baton Rouge to the West Coast. State coordinators oversaw the transport through each station, with each driver taking the rabbits between 100 and 200 miles.
The organization conducts most of its transports on weekends, and routes are planned based on where the railroad has “conductors”—volunteers with rabbit-care experience who house and handle the rabbits along the way. At this point, the organization has 70 such conductors. “We’re growing, and that’s the most exciting part,” says Jennifer Barbieri, Bunderground’s head state coordinator. “We get so many requests from other people, and it’s such a tight-knit community. So we’re able to figure out the right place for the rabbits to go and, once we do that, it’s relatively easy to organize a transport and get them there.” While the Bunderground does not transport animals from individuals, RabbitWise has an online list of rabbit-care resources and educates people about responsible care.
Both organizations need volunteers. Anyone interested in working on the UnderHound Railroad should email Dena Allen at Dena@underhoundrailroad.com. RabbitWise’s Bunderground has a volunteer application available online at www.BundergroundRailroad.org.