There’s an Overpopulation of Abandoned Dogs in the South. This NoVA Rescue Wants to Help


A Northern Virginia animal rescue is opening a new facility in Florence, South Carolina in its effort to rescue animals from high-kill shelters. Lucky Dog Animal Rescuewhich has been operating since 2009, broke ground on the location in April and is hoping to open the preliminary part of the facility by the end of this year.

Lucky Dog founder and owner Mirah Horowitz says that the Florence property sort of fell into their laps, but that it’s something she and her team have considered for years.

“Our goal is to help shelters that have very high euthanasia rates, very low local adoptions, and not a whole lot of help,” Horowitz says. “In Florence, South Carolina, the primary shelter we work with — the county — without Lucky Dog there, they end up euthanizing over 90 percent of their animals. They do maybe 10 adoptions a year. So we felt that is a shelter and an area where we could have a very positive impact on the quality of life for those animals.”

Phase one of the property will include the construction of a transfer kennel, which will house dogs for a short period of time while they are getting ready to move to the DC area; a vet clinic for animal care and spay-neuter — something she hopes to eventually offer for the community; and a dog ICU for upper respiratory issues, particularly parvo.

Since its founding, Lucky Dog has rescued over 22,000 animals. In 2021, Lucky Dog rescued 2,555 animals and 2,739 animals were adopted.

The rescue primarily saves animals from Florence and other rural areas in southern states — and it’s not the only Northern Virginia rescue operating this way. Places like The Little Black Dog Rescue saves dogs primarily from Texas.

There’s a reason for this South to North migration. Lucky Dog’s transportation from places like Florence County isn’t a one-off, but part of a larger trend Time refers to simply as animal relocation. Though not exclusively, in the South, there’s an overpopulation of animals with nowhere to go. In more northern states, there are less animals and a greater demand for adoption.

“If you look at animal welfare in general, the South generally has overpopulation, less spay and neuter, more outdoor animals. And then the further north you go, the less that is and the less animals are at shelters, and the more demand there is for animal rescue,” Horowitz says.

At the heart of this relocation model: When one spot opens, a different animal can take that place.

“We want people to understand when you adopt a dog, you’re actually saving multiple lives because you take a dog out of the foster home in DC, which means an animal in the shelter can move up to DC, which means a kennel opens and an animal can come into the shelter. It’s this whole ripple effect,” Horowitz says.

It’s why fosters are also an integral part of Lucky Dog’s rescue process — and they are always looking for more, according to Horowitz. Since Lucky Dog has no central location in the DMV, they rely on fosters to care for and house animals before they are adopted.

It’s not just southern states that Lucky Dog rescues from — and not just southern states that have an animal overpopulation problem. Puerto Rico’s years of infrequent spaying and neutering led to unwanted litters of puppies and a never-ending cycle of reproduction, according to The Sato Project, an organization focused on the rescue and rehabilitation of stray dogs in Puerto Rico. The Sato Project says there are an estimated 500,000 abused and abandoned dogs on the island’s streets.

Natural disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, in Puerto Rico have also lead to displaced animals. Following Hurricane Maria in 2017, Lucky Dog managed to get the CEO of Southwest Airlines to donate a plane to fly to Puerto Rico, bringing back 62 animals — and flying down over 14,000 pounds of supplies.

Following the pandemic and travel restrictions, rescuing animals from Puerto Rico has gotten more complicated for Lucky Dog.

“Before COVID, we were able to fly animals pretty regularly out of Puerto Rico and on commercial flights to the DC area, and that has become almost impossible. So, what we do now is we fly them in a cargo service to Miami and then drive them from Miami to DC,” Horowitz says.

This change in travel protocol to Puerto Rico isn’t the only way the pandemic impacted Lucky Dog. Horowitz says that Lucky Dog essentially had more demand for adoption than they had animals in 2020; the combination of people wanting to adopt and shelters not taking in more animals caused an adoption boom. But that boom might not have been as positive as initially thought.

While there might not be a flood of bringing animals back, there were pandemic-related and behavioral issues which caused some adopters to rethink having a pet last year. Some could no longer care for their pet upon returning to the office for work, or said they couldn’t handle their pet’s challenging behavior.

Horowitz says that veterinarians also mostly halted spaying and neutering for rescues during this period, something that is a potential cause for the influx of young animals she is currently seeing.

“Right now, this year — more than any other year — we’re really seeing a ton of puppies. More puppies than I’ve seen in a long time,” Horowitz says.

Though there have been challenges in operating the rescue, Horowitz notes that she could never have imagined the vastness of Lucky Dog’s work when she initially began, from hurricane relief efforts to the new facility in Florence — and even donations to rescue organizations on the ground in Ukraine.

“It has been the best decision, the best accidental decision, I’ve ever made. But I certainly never thought that we would be here today,” she says.

Though it’s not quite at the height it was two years ago, Horowitz says DMV residents are still interested in bringing home a rescued cat or dog, probably more than Lucky Dog saw in 2019 — something that is always welcome. She notes that whether it’s through actually adopting an animal or volunteering, the rescue is always looking for more help.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that by helping animals, you are helping people as well. That’s something that I don’t think that I fully appreciated when I started the rescue — I was very focused on the animals,” she says. “But the number of people that have been really positively impacted by adopting a dog or adopting a cat, or by having that outlet for volunteer work, getting to know other people who love animals, the cascading effect of volunteering with Lucky Dog is immense. ”

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