A journey on the dog underground railroad.

Pets and people.
Feb. 17 2005 11:03 AM

Rescuing Fly

A journey on the dog underground railroad.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Most people would have driven by without slowing, but "Patsy Beckett" (a pseudonym) is a dog rescuer, so she noticed the young border collie tethered to a tree outside a Northern Florida farmhouse. Beckett made a point of passing the farm on her way to work the next day and for weeks thereafter. Each time, she saw the dog—whom she christened Fly—either sitting forlornly or straining at her rope. "She was a beautiful dog, very alert, keen," Patsy said. At one point, spotting a neighbor outside, she stopped and asked about the dog.

When Fly first arrived, the neighbor said, she was a playful, busy pup, but she bothered the farmer's cows and sheep and obsessively chased chickens, cars, and trucks.

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Evidently, the farmer didn't realize that border collies aren't born knowing how to herd; it requires long, painstaking training before they'll go whizzing around on command. Pressed for time and money, farmers have little patience for creatures that have to be fed but can't be sold. But having paid $200 for Fly, the farmer figured he could at least use her as a watchdog. So, day and night, rain or shine, heat or cold, the dog lived out her life attached to a tree, barking and circling some of the time, lying down and staring at the road the rest.

The neighbor, disturbed by the sight, had actually called the police. But tethering was not illegal, the cops said. She was fed; she wasn't beaten; there was no crime.

Beckett made a few telephone calls. One night, when the farmer's truck was gone from his driveway, she and a friend from her rescue group parked their creaky Windstar on the highway out of sight, crept up and cut Fly's rope, and walked off with the startled but friendly dog. "You will never be treated this way again," Patsy promised her. A few hours later, Fly's collar was replaced, her tag destroyed, and her picture posted on a Yahoo mailing list about rescued dogs.

Fly's life had changed forever. She was now in one of the country's most interesting animal subcultures, the dog rescue system—a semi-underground network of devoted pet lovers willing to do practically anything to help neglected and abused dogs find good homes.

Type "Dog Rescue" into Google and you will get 4,650,000 hits. Nobody knows precisely how many people are involved in the rescue movement, but it's reasonable to assume there are tens of thousands, in every city and state. (If you doubt this, visit petfinder.org, one of the rescue culture's primary communications networks.)

Some rescue groups are highly organized, experienced, well-funded, nearly professional. Others are small amateur operations run out of garages and back yards. Their members may identify strongly with animals as victims, sometimes because of traumas and disappointments in their own lives. Others simply love animals and want to help them. Most participants are middle or working-class women, it appears. And since it's hard to rescue, treat, and re-home a dog without help, they're obsessive e-mailers and communicators. In fact, the growth of the phenomenon is closely tied to the digital age. The Internet has made every dog a potential national adoptee.

If Americans find themselves homeless, laid off, abused, or in need of urgent medical care, no van will pull up in their driveways to whisk them off for treatment, place them in temporary housing, then drive them around the country to find them appropriate new homes and visit them regularly to monitor their progress and make sure they're OK. With dogs, though, it happens every day.

As of this writing, Fly is in Virginia en route to upstate New York. More than a dozen people and groups have already been involved in her rescue. Fly spent her first couple of nights in a private home in Jacksonville, as messages seeking help and transport were posted on eBay and Yahoo mailing lists where rescuers congregate. There's even a secret Yahoo list that collects the names of dog abusers, so that rescue groups can avoid them as potential adopters. There were scores of responses to the Fly posting, from all over the country.

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