LIFELINE ON WHEELS SAVES UNWANTED PETS FROM DEATH IN CANADA
Once, twice or even three times a week, volunteers who call themselves Freedom Drivers transport animals whose days would be numbered otherwise from pounds near Montreal to the rescue organizations in Ontario or Quebec waiting for them. Sometimes they drive east to the Maritimes.
They drive relay style: The first driver picks the animals up from the pound and drives 100 kilometres or so to hand off the animals to the volunteer who will drive the next leg of the journey. Think of it as a kind of underground railway for animals whose owners have abandoned them or don't want them anymore or, for a range of reasons, can't keep them.
The Freedom Drivers are not reimbursed for gas or mileage. They do what they do, volunteering their time and their vehicles, because they love animals — and because helping the animals to freedom makes them feel good. They transport dogs and cats mostly, but also rabbits and birds and, occasionally, other animals: Once there was a pot-bellied pig, recalled Freedom Drivers volunteer and retired paramedic Melody Cowan.
With the approach of July 1 — moving day for what seems like every other Montrealer — the number of unwanted and abandoned animals in pounds swells as people leave them behind in their move or surrender them because the place they're moving to doesn't permit animals, or because they simply can't be bothered to take them along.
And as the number of animals in pounds rises, so does the number of animals who are euthanized.
"We always dread summer," said Sandie Wand, owner of Auberge Zen, a dual-purpose facility in Laval: It boards and grooms animals, but also contracts with the City of Laval to operate a pound. "It's all of July and August."
On a busy day, as many as 50 kittens and cats can be brought in to the pound, she said. "And every day we have cats coming in with symptoms of viral disease. More than 95 per cent who come in are unvaccinated.
"If people had their animals spayed or neutered and vaccinated, the pounds wouldn't be overrun with animals."
Although the euthanasia rate is significantly lower for dogs, for cats in pounds it can be 50 to 70 per cent, Wand said.
People sometimes give up pets because they're more of a responsibility than they thought they would be, she said.
"One lady came in with her kids and brought in two bunnies because they were going on vacation and she said it was cheaper to put them in the pound and replace them when they returned. We get dogs and cats like that, too."
To Wand, the work of Freedom Drivers is "awesome. The animals wouldn't get from Point A to Point B and be saved from the pound if it weren't for the network of volunteers who do what they do," she said.
Over the past 14 months, volunteers with Freedom Drivers have transported more than 2,000 animals from three pounds near Montreal to reputable rescue organizations. Almost all would most likely have been put to death otherwise; most are now in forever homes.
One of the three pounds near Montreal for which the Freedom Drivers do transports keeps dogs no longer than a few days before euthanizing them. "The other two pounds are more flexible, but it all depends on space," said Freedom Drivers founder Tayna Thorpe. During low season, they can hold a dog three months — but in the busy season the time is considerably shorter, she said.
Thorpe, a Montreal-area mother of three, is proud of the work the Freedom Drivers volunteers do. "What I want known is that there is this whole network of volunteers who do so much to make it possible for the animals to live," she said.
More than 1,000 people belong to the Facebook Freedom Drivers group, but just 50 to 60 are drivers — and it's the same 25 or 30 who tend to go out again and again, Thorpe said. The Montreal-Cornwall route is one of the toughest to fill — perhaps because the volunteers must set out relatively early in the morning.
"We had three or four runs booked this week — and no drivers," Thorpe said Thursday. "There is no Plan B, no alternative." Posts on the Freedom Drivers Facebook page include requests, even pleas, for drivers. One volunteer took a day off work last week to drive the Montreal-Cornwall leg, she said.
One day this month, I accompanied Freedom Drivers volunteer Tony Stocks and the cache of cats and rabbits in crates and birds in boxes he was transporting to Cornwall, most of them from Auberge Zen. Normally these runs include dogs, but a Parvovirus scare at the pound put the dogs under quarantine for the better part of two weeks.
In the parking lot of a Tim Hortons in Cornwall, Stocks met Carol Ann Lovegrove, the Freedom Drivers volunteer who would do the next leg of the relay, to Brockville. It would continue as far as Toronto, where the last animal would be dropped off with a rescue organization in the early evening. Lovegrove packed her SUV full of animals from Stocks's truck and from Cowan's car: Cowan had left Zen with a car full of animals and driven in tandem with Stocks.
The Freedom Drivers are part of an entirely volunteer-administered system in which animals in pounds are evaluated and photographed and contact made with registered rescue organizations in Canadian cities. A pound might put some animals up for adoption, but in most cases animals are released only to rescues. The rescues work with foster families and look for forever homes for animals; almost all dogs rescued from pounds ultimately find homes, Thorpe said.
"The dogs I had yesterday in my transport were beautiful dogs — an Australian shepherd and a boxer," said Stocks, a retired manager with Bombardier who was introduced to the Freedom Drivers by his wife and who often does the drives with her. "They will probably get good homes.
"But the biggest problem we have is coming up on July 1. People walk out of their apartments and leave their animals behind. … There seems to be no consideration that these animals have a personality and are entitled to live."
People not involved in animal rescue have no idea that these dedicated volunteers exist — or that they work as hard as they do. "It is invisible, and the people in it are 24/7 people who will drive the extra 100 kilometres to make sure the animals get out," Stocks said.
"You feel good about what you are doing. You know that all these animals are going to have a life because of you — and a forever home."
Most Freedom Drivers volunteers have animals themselves. Stocks and his wife have six cats; Thorpe has three poodles, one of them a foster.
"Once you start (volunteering), you don't want to quit," said Lovegrove. "It's addictive. … I fall in love every day all over again."
Laurel Merriam, a special-education teacher who lives about two hours northeast of Toronto, said that since joining Freedom Drivers about a year and a half ago, she has put 150,000 kilometres on her car. "The main reason I am doing this is that I have always loved animals and I am the kind of person who, once I start something, tends to give it 150 per cent.
"That first Freedom Drive got me hooked. I think those animals know they are getting a second chance," she said.
"It's also about educating people about what they can do — or shouldn't. What's the better thing to do – get a dog from a breeder, or work with a rescue because you're going to save a life?