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A Closer Look at the Problems Faced by a Small Town American Dog Rescue

The Puppies of Winston County

[3/15/2021 ][Written by Jaclyn Leedy]

Sugar, Spice, Baron, Reggie, Mia, Olive, Peanut, Annie, Dennie, Boo, Bubbles, Dobby, Elena, Janie, Odie, Bruno, Chloe, Ivory, Bella, Coco, Midnight, DJ, Teddie, Pete, Jester, Tiara, and Queenie. 

These are just some of the names of the Winston County puppies that Free State Four Paws (FSFP) Dog Rescue of Northern Alabama have taken in since the beginning of the year. 

Sometimes there are so many of them it’s just easier to assign names to the litter like “Snow Litter,” “Tree Litter” or “Barn Litter.” Sometimes it’s more important to take photos of each puppy and simply state “boy” or ‘girl” so the receiving rescues know their sex.

Where do they all come from? Everywhere. I remember asking Johnna (director of FSFP) several months back where the dumping grounds were in her area. “These days, everywhere is a dumping ground,” she replied. 

Winston County is largely a rural part of Northern Alabama. Double Springs, where Johnna and many of the FSFP volunteers live, is tucked away between long stretches of rural county highway and forests. The homes are mostly spread out with long driveways that branch away from the main roads. It’s quiet and peaceful. The town is simple: a gas station, a bank, and a few stores. About 30 minutes south is where you find the bigger grocery store chains and fast food restaurants in Jasper.

In a lot of ways, Double Springs reminds me of the small Oregon town I grew up in, nestled between two larger towns, each about 30 minutes away in either direction. And if you’ve ever grown up in a small town you understand small town problems. Because our population was so small, our town was always the last to have power restored or roads cleared after a big storm. When asked now where I grew up, some still scratch their heads when I reply. Where is that?” they ask. They had no idea such a town existed, even though they only live less than an hour away from it. Another common problem found in small towns is funding. The budgets are always tight and allocation of funds is always a place of contention. There never seems to be enough of it to go around.

Double Springs is among the several rural American towns that are without an animal shelter. There is no government funded facility that can look after the lost, forgotten, abandoned, or surrendered dogs and cats. There is one government employed animal control officer and that person is shared with the next county over. Complaints of animals are often handled by local law enforcement. Euthanasia is a common “fix” to most of the county’s problems. 

And for people like Johnna who care so deeply about the welfare and wellbeing of these displaced dogs, the gravity of the situation is felt everyday when she drives up and down those long stretches of county highway. She is always expecting to find strays during her commutes to and from town and the question of how many are out there among the forests is what keeps her up at all hours of the night.

Just last November, Free State Four Paws hit a new milestone in their 6 years of operation. They had saved over 6,000 dogs and puppies. It’s now 5 months later and that number continues to climb at a fast rate.

I think it’s important to pause real quick to stress that number one more time. 6,000 dogs. This momentous rescue feat was not achieved by a government funded organization or shelter. This was not achieved by a Humane Society. 

There was never a facility with kennels, grooming stations, and on-staff veterinarians. There was never a garage full of public or company sponsored donations. There was never a team of paid employees who cleaned the kennels, fed the dogs, and processed intakes. There was never a gift shop that you walk through first on your way to adopt your dog where you can buy a mug with the organization's name printed on it. There was never a receptionist answering phones, taking messages and rerouting calls. There was never a transportation vehicle donated by the local car dealership, waiting out front with new tires and a fresh oil change, ready to make another weekend trip up north to Minnesota for a rescue drop-off.

It has only ever been a small team of unpaid volunteers who fill their homes and backyard kennels with dogs undergoing treatment or waiting to be transported out of state. It has only ever been a small team of women who juggle full time jobs, families, and the many life responsibilities. And as quickly as their kennels empty out on a Friday night for a weekend transport, they fill right back up the following day.

I think it’s important to remember that the responsibility of these dogs was never something that any of the FSFP members were ever required to take on. Their organization is not funded by the local or state government. They are not government employees. They don’t receive large stipends or grants or free upgrades to their backyard shelters or transportation vehicles. 

They were simply a group of concerned members of the community that were deeply troubled by the constant sight of abandoned dogs up and down their county highways. They took this tremendous burden upon themselves because no one else would. When everyone else had either turned their back on this problem or learned to live with it, these women said, “enough is enough” and formed a small, non-profit dog rescue to try to tackle the problem head on. And if they hadn’t, 6,000 lives would have eventually succumbed to the harsh reality of being a stray dog in the countryside. Each of those names we introduced you to at the beginning of this story would have been among the most vulnerable- they wouldn’t have made it for very long.

Johnna is exhausted. I feel that every time we talk. “Next week I will take a break,” she says but next week turns into the following week and the following week turns into next month before finally another year has gone by. Her kennel is always full. Her phone is always ringing. She spends her lunch breaks and evenings after work shuffling dogs to and from their vet appointments. 

She spends her Thursday nights preparing health certifications and microchipping; her Friday evenings coordinating with her team and loading up between 25 and 50 dogs to be transported out of state to a sister rescue. Sometimes she is the designated driver meaning she will leave late Friday after a long day of work and drive all through the night to Saturday where they will then unload the dogs before making the return trip back. This has been her life for the last six years.

Somehow, she even finds time to keep up with all the “pupdates” she receives which are updates on the dogs that have been rescued from her organization over the years. And those updates are Johnna’s favorite part of the process. It’s that small moment of validation where it feels like all that hard work was worth it; that every time she sacrificed time away from family or put off a much needed break, it was all to see a photo of a puppy all grown up and smiling wide in the company of its family.

Why are there so many puppies? The local problems in Double Springs are also amplified by much larger systemic issues in the state of Alabama. It’s a complex set of problems but a lot of it has to do with state laws regarding animal welfare. Alabama, like many states, does not have any aggressive animal laws that largely protect domesticated animals like dogs and cats. Passing shelter and tethering laws on a state level has always been an uphill battle, something that we will circle back to more of in the future but worth mentioning here too.

Like all states, there are no spay/neuter laws that require pet owners to sterilize their dogs. Los Angeles County, California is among the most aggressive counties in the nation to ever pass an ordinance requiring pet owners to sterilize their dogs and cats with a short list of exemptions. You can read more about this here. And though the LA County ordinance may sound harsh, it was necessary in helping dramatically reduce the number of euthanizations taking place in the city every year due to overcrowding in the county animal shelters.

Spay/neuter accessibility is also a critical piece to the problem. The average size of a canine litter is around 7 but can reach up to 15. Because canine litters are so large, the numbers tend to multiply quickly. It’s where 7 female puppies can easily turn into 49 dogs. Instead of 1 female dog needing a single rescue commitment, it’s mom plus her 7 puppies equalling 8 dogs who will now need rescue commitments. This puts a lot of stress on small dog rescues like Free State Four Paws who try to keep up but can never seem to get ahead. 

Johnna has found puppies everywhere: in boxes behind grocery stores, in thickets tucked away in the forests, and even the occasional owner drop-off in the middle of the night at the end of a driveway in front of a volunteer’s home, the darkness disguising their identity and preventing any sort of accountability.

Sometimes the puppies are dumped by an owner who refuses to have their dog fixed. Sometimes the litters come from the local stray dog population. Sometimes they wind up in a box outside of a store with a handwritten sign that reads “free.” Johnna tries to rescue those puppies too because she knows all too well the uncomfortable reality that awaits a “free” puppy. 

And when Johnna and her team rescue puppies, like all of the dogs that go through their rescue, they refuse to adopt them out locally. Johnna knows that by doing so, the puppies would just need rescue commitment all over again later down the road when the owner decides they no longer want to keep them. Johnna works to get all of her dogs out of Alabama by sending them to bigger cities in states like Minnesota, New York, and Florida where there is a healthier balance to the local canine population and more vibrant dog friendly culture.

I too have witnessed this: the passage from one state to the other or even from one city to the next can change everything about how a dog is treated. 

It’s an invisible line that is crossed where a dog goes from “property” to “family member.” 

Sometimes it's a more obvious change like the sight of a clean, spacious air controlled animal facility where dogs relax in air conditioned rooms while they wait to be adopted. Sometimes it’s more subtle changes like the coffeeshops that put out a water bowl for their local neighborhood dogs to enjoy while on a leisurely walk with their owner. It’s quite a contrast from the overcrowded animal shelters in Alabama’s larger cities or the strays that cross the road with cars passing by and drivers not thinking twice to stop and check to see if it’s an animal that needs assistance.

It’s a hard realization to come to but it’s an important one to be made: dogs are not treated the same across state lines. 

It can oftentimes be a troubling phenomenon to witness: a dog can either be a well loved and well cared for member of the household or it can be treated as disposable. Dog culture is very much so the product of community views towards canines.

Interestingly enough, there have been many videos over the years that capture dogs being dumped on the side of the road or an owner mistreating their animal- all which went viral and was met with public outcry and the demand for justice for the dogs. I can’t help but wonder if more of what goes on in Winston County were captured on camera, would there be more public outcry? Would there be a demand for change? Even with 6,000+ dogs rescued, the work that Free State Four Paws does is not the evening headline on the local news stations. Their work largely goes undetected by those outside of the dog rescue arena.

There is a lot more to this story that still needs to be discussed. We will continue reporting on more of the issues that surround the overpopulation problems that complicate the rescue workload for Johnna and her team of FSFP members.

 It’s important to also consider that these problems are not necessarily specific to Double Springs, AL and that a lack of legislative oversight regarding laws of animal welfare and wellbeing greatly affect many municipalities across the U.S. We wish to continue researching and revealing these experiences and hardships felt among the dog rescuing communities across the states and continue using our weekly featured storytime as a means to share these findings with all of you.

As for the puppies mentioned at the beginning of this article and the ones featured in this week’s Coffee Cover Art? They have all been adopted.

All photos courtesy of Free State Four Paws. You can keep up with their incredible rescue work by following them on Facebook. If you are interested in making a donation to FSFP, they are always in great need of dog and puppy food as well as monetary donations to help pay for medical expenses. To find out how to donate, click on the “Featured Dog Rescues” tab on our website and scroll down to “Free State Four Paws.”

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