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By DANNY MOGLE
Sitting in a patch of grass behind a gas station on Interstate 20 at Highway 69, Tammy Geisler is becoming more anxious by the second.
It is just past 9 p.m. “They’re never late,” she says. She pulls out her cell phone and makes a call.
“The truck should be here in about 10 minutes,” she continues as Simba, the leopard catahoula puppy she’s doing her best to keep still, lunges forward in a playful leap.
It’s going to be a bitter-sweet night for Geisler and fellow pet foster parent Heather Nash, who is there keeping tabs on Sasha, an energetic collie mix. Geisler and Nash, both of Tyler, soon will put Simba and Sasha on an animal transport truck that will ship them to new homes halfway across the country.
Geisler and Nash take in dogs that nobody else wants or the owner can no longer take care of, find them new homes and then, in an onslaught of heartbreak and joy, send them on their way.
Because the truck is late, the rescuers unexpectedly have been granted extra time to spend with the dogs they love but soon will never see again.
“It’s always difficult to say goodbye,” says Nash, suddenly solemn. “Oh, I cry, but it’s a good cry.”
Nobody knows how many rescuers are in East Texas. They move quietly behind the scenes; out of the spotlight. Usually somebody knows somebody who is willing to take in a scared dog wandering along a country road or a litter of stray puppies.
Geisler gets calls all the time about dogs that need homes. She either packs a crate in the car and heads over or gets on the phone. One way or another, she always finds someone willing to temporarily take on the responsibility of feeding and boarding a dog or cat.
Sasha was part of a litter born outside a business in Longview. The owner found homes for all the puppies but one. Geisler took Sasha and placed her with Nash.
Simba, who is deaf, was rescued by a teenager who found the puppy in a busy Walmart parking lot. A few months later, the young man entered the Air Force and the couple he was living with was unable to keep Simba. Desperate to find a new owner, he turned to Geisler.
Once Geisler takes in an abandoned dog, she has it checked by a veterinarian and, if need be, spayed/neutered. She either boards the animal or places it with one of about eight people in her rescue circle of foster volunteers.
Geisler has fostered 63 dogs over the years. “Each one is special. This one’s friendly and fun loving,” she says of Simba. As if on cue, Simba puts his paw on her arm. “And very cuddly,” she adds, petting his head. He licks her hand in approval.
Nash almost always is fostering a dog. She has grown quite fond of Sasha. “She’s a fluff of love,” she says of the dog whose tail never stops wagging.
Geisler announces that she is now trying to find homes for a littler of lab puppies.
“I’ll take one,” Nash instantly volunteers.
Luci Mimms of Tyler has been a foster for about a year. She became involved after a stray dog showed up at her home. “He was terrified of everything,” recalls Mimms. “He spent the night on my front porch.”
She took the dog she named Emmitt to a veterinarian and tried to find him a home. Everywhere she turned she was told that East Texas is overrun with stray dogs and there are not enough homes to go around.
“I was completely unaware of the problem.”
Mimms ended up keeping Emmitt. A few months later, Geisler asked her to foster a dog found in a vacant lot next to a car dealership.
“She (Sadie the dog) was not a happy girl. She had been on her own for some time, had a partially embedded collar and was terrified and distrusting of people,” Mimms says.
A veterinarian recommended Sadie be euthanized.
“I wouldn’t do it, so I took her home,” continues Mimms. “Within 24 hours, she was in my lap.” After receiving love and attention, Sadie became “more sassy and confident.”
The couple who adopted Sadie now takes her each week to visit nursing home residents. “Sadie seems to have a sixth sense about which patients to visit and who needs a little Sadie therapy,” Mimms says.
“This is what makes fostering so rewarding. I call it the ripple effect of blessing. The dogs I foster enrich my life and the lives of their adoptive families. Whether they go on to do therapy work or snuggle on the couch as a family pet, they know they were spared and they show unconditional love to everyone around them every day.”
The rescuers do whatever it takes to prevent an abandoned dog or cat from being hauled to an animal shelter where, barring a miracle, they will end up being killed.
In rural Smith County, dogs picked up by animal control officers are kept in pens in a metal building that once stored construction equipment. Strays captured by animal control officers in Tyler are shipped to a shelter in Jacksonville. Regardless of how happy, loving or healthy an animal is, if it is not claimed, usually within three days, it is killed.
Individuals can surrender strays to Pets Fur People, formerly the Humane Society of East Texas. The no-kill shelter accepts only dogs and cats deemed to have the greatest chances of being adopted. Pets Fur People says it is “committed to reduce and ultimately eliminate euthanasia as an acceptable method of population control for unwanted dogs and cats.”
The national Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that 5 to 7 million potential companion animals end up in shelters every year and that of those, 3 to 4 million are euthanized – injected with a dose of either pentobarbital or sodium thiopental that quickly renders the animal unconscious and then stops its breathing and heartbeat.
Deborah Dobbs, founder of the East Texas SPCA, estimates “conservatively” that in Smith County alone several thousand are euthanized each year.
Dobbs calls the stray problem in East Texas “an embarrassment” and one of our “dirty little secrets.” She says the cause is no mystery: too many dog and cat owners do not spay/neuter their animals and are too willing to dump pets instead of finding them a new owner.
Dobbs has proposed building a 43,000-square-foot, $6.6 million animal services center on donated land that she says would allow strays to be held longer and thus greatly improve their chances of being adopted. She’s proposed that the cost be split evenly between Smith County, the city of Tyler and private organizations.
So far, the city and county have chosen not to commit funds.
“When you talk about that kind of money and budgeting for it, it comes down to priorities,” Smith County Judge Joel Baker told the Tyler Paper earlier this year. “This community will let us know what its priorities are when it comes to county services.”
FINDING NEW HOMES
Finding strays a new home can be a challenge. Abused dogs sometimes have trust issues and are aggressive. Some, such as the deaf Simba, have special needs that must be taken into consideration. Some dogs need a lot of space; others need a lot of attention.
Geisler placed a photo and information about Simba on petfinder.com, a website used by people looking for animals, and with Mutts4Rescue, a rescue group in Portsmith, Rhode Island, she has worked with for years.
Mutts4Rescue identified possible adoptees including a single woman with two other dogs and a nice, fenced-in back yard who indicated she would love to have Simba.
“When I talked to her (by phone) I knew that’s it. She’s the one,” says Geisler. “I was so excited. It’s a perfect match. … I’ll never put a dog in a home that I’m not comfortable with.”
Geisler frequently adopts dogs to families in the Northeast. Because many cities in the Northeast require pets to be registered and charge higher registration fees for those that are not spayed/neutered, fewer strays exist. In a strange situation of supply and demand, abandoned dogs from Southern states are ending up in the Northeast. Simba’s new mother lives in Rhode Island; Sasha’s new home is in Connecticut.
RESCUE ROAD TRIPS
At 9:18 p.m., the truck finally arrives at the pick-up point behind the gas station where Geisler and Nash are waiting.
Twice a month, a climate-controlled converted horse trailer from Peterson Express Transport Service – PETS – makes animal rescue road trips through East Texas. Kyle and Pam Peterson of Cookeville, Tenn., began the service in 2004.
“Being animal lovers, we started helping with volunteer animal transports in and around Tennessee,” says a statement from the couple. “As we became more involved, our volunteer work developed into a full-time job. In the past few years, we have helped transport thousands of animals that would have otherwise been euthanized.”
“Sorry we’re late, it’s been a little crazy at times,” apologizes driver Jason Gentry, who’s had to deal with two separate mechanical issues.
Geisler and Nash scoop up Simba and Sasha. Simba is the first to go. Geisler walks up the ramp into the truck and hands Simba to Gentry.
Gentry loads Simba into one of the travel cages that line the walls. As Simba looks back, Geisler pushes his favorite blanket inside the cage and quickly walks out.
Outside in Nash’s arms, the usually feisty Sasha suddenly is still as she can be. “Sasha, it’s OK,” reassures Nash, kissing the collie on the nose one last time.
Inside the truck, Gentry makes sure paperwork is in order. Each foster must provide an interstate health certificate and proof the animal has been spayed/neutered and is current on vaccinations. The adoptive family pays the cost of transportation.
Gentry says the best part is delivering the pets to the new owners. “It gets pretty wild. When we pull up there’s always a crowd waiting for us. Everyone starts applauding as soon as they see the truck.”
KEEPING UP THE FIGHT
Mimms is frustrated that East Texas has so many abandoned dogs and that many people don’t seem to know or care.
“How do you change the mindset of certain segments of the community? I’m not sure.
“I see and hear about tragic situations (involving adoptable animals) every day. I think part of the problem is lack of legislation and regulation at the state and local level. … I do know that other communities have licensing laws that require dogs to be vaccinated and spayed/neutered.”
Until changes are made, the rescuers will quietly press on saving as many adoptable dogs and cats as possible. Mimms says she realizes they will never be able to stop the flow of abandoned animals that end up being killed in shelters “but we can certainly slow it down.”