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Today, Homeward Trails has been honored with a feature piece on @The Today Show With Hoda & Jenna. We could not be more honored to have our 20 plus years of lifesaving work recognized.
More than 43,000 animals have had a chance at life and love at Homeward Trails. And while the organization was founded by one person, Sue Bell, all along she has been surrounded by amazing people who make Homeward Trails what it is today. Sue, Founder and Executive Director, reflects on the years and the many, many people then and now who make Homeward Trails what it is.

As the Founder and Director of this organization, I am always acutely aware that it would not be what it is today with the wonderful people who have surrounded me since day one. When visiting the Fayette County Animal Control in Fayetteville, WV one cold December, while vacationing there with friends for New Years, I happened upon the facility. Dogs were tied to trees which surrounded a double wide trailer that was serving as the temporary animal shelter. The permanent shelter had been hit by a flash flood just months earlier, drowning 50 animals. I was informed that 9 of every 10 animals that entered the shelter were euthanized. This was information that hit me hard. I dreamt about the animals who died. I could not get them out of my mind. And when it came time to head back to DC that cold, snowy January 1st, 2002, I made a decision that would forever change my life. 

Today is surreal. To be featured on the Today Show is so beyond my imagination it’s hard to get my head around how grateful I am. 

Sue Bell, Executive Director

Thanks to the amazing and supportive people around me and the shelter staff who took a leap of faith, I took three dogs – Brown Dog, Black Dog and Lucy – and put them in my Subaru Outback. I was scared, not knowing what I would do with them, where I would put them, and how I would hide them in my rental home, located across the street from my landlord. But I was moved by something I could not ignore – that strong gut feeling that I had to do something. Anything. I was there at that place at that time, learning about that flood for a reason. If even one person with me had told me I was crazy for taking three random dogs from a shelter 6 hours away I wouldn’t have done it. No one said that. They cheered me on. 
Just a month later I was back in Fayette County, this time with a rented van, having made the drive starting at 5 am that morning. My mission? Pick out a handful of dogs that fit the descriptions of people who had called me to ask for help finding them a dog from the ad I placed in the Washington Post. I filled up the van with 6 dogs, mostly mixed breeds except for one purebred Collie we named Molly. And off to the DC to circle the beltway I went, stopping at each address and inviting them to “my van of dogs” to meet the dog I picked for them. And all those wonderful dogs (and a few cats) went on to have the lives they deserved. Without those people taking a chance on a crazy woman dropping a dog or cat at their home with virtually no information or history whatsoever, the effort would have stopped before it got started.

My plan was to stop at 50 animals – to pay homage to those who drowned.  But I was hooked. Hooked on giving these amazing animals what they deserved. I was conducting adoption interviews, booking vans, finding veterinarians under my desk at the office of my full-time job. And suddenly, 50 rescued lives came and went. The goal had been reached. But the animals were still there. I couldn’t stop.

Brown Dog, Black Dog and Lucy that started Homeward Trails the day they left Fayette County in my Subaru

Soon I could not keep every animal at my home. There were people who offered to foster them, donate to cover expenses, adopt them. We had veterinarians offering discounted services. My friends and family washed animals, fostered them, drove with me through snow storms to get them. And they put up with my new obsession. One person contacted me asking if she could come and work for me. Yes, an employee! WOW. Without these people, it would have never happened.

I was never alone. Every step of the way was someone making my dream, my obsession possible.  And soon, it was no longer “my dream”. It became “ours”. 

Today, we have dozens and dozens of partners. Shelters and rescues in our partner communities who work tirelessly to save the lives of the animals that are left with them. I never forget the hard jobs they have. We have a network of veterinarians who make our work possible with discounts. We have hundreds of fosters. Hundreds of volunteers. Hundreds of donors. And we have the most amazing staff ever.
It is an honor every time someone chooses Homeward Trails. It is an honor every time someone adopts an animal, fosters an animal, donates towards an animal. 

Homeward Trails may have been my idea, or more accurately, my accident. But never ever was I alone on this journey. From day one, there was a village of people making it happen. Our village now includes tens of thousands of people and more than 43,000 animals saved. One trip. One visit to a shelter. One risk taken. And 43,000 animals and 20 years later, here we are. ON THE TODAY SHOW!! 

I am truly honored and privileged to have made rescuing animals and working in animal welfare my job. And I owe this privilege to those around me then and now. It’s true when they say “it’s not work if you love it.” But only on the good days. 🙂 And it is during the rough times that our awesome village pulls together best to get through. As our theme song says: “There Ain’t No Mountain High Enough…to Keep Me From Gettin to You”!

Homeward Trails is a very large village of amazing people. Every single person contributes. And every single contribution matters and makes a difference. 

“If you love something, take the leap. If you want to bring change, take the leap. If you surround yourself with the right people, you will never be alone. The fear, the anxiety, the highs and the lows will be shared. And the journey will be that much more rewarding.  You will never be alone. And the world will change for the better. Our village is a shining example of that. And I will never not be grateful for it.”

On January 15th, I headed to Thailand on a Soi Dog Foundation sponsored trip to visit their shelter in Phuket and the government animal quarantine area in Buriram Province. HT has been partnering with Soi Dog since earlier in 2016 to bring dogs who were rescued from the illegal meat trade to the US for adoption. Their wonderful program previously allowed for HT Dog Program Director Jenn Lafrican and HT Deputy Director Rebecca Goodhart to visit and return with dogs, through the donation of airline miles courtesy of generous Soi Dog supporters.

After the 20-hour flight to Bangkok, I was met by Soi Dog staff led by Cristy Baker who heads up the rescue program, and we boarded a van for the 4-hour trip to Buriram, a province north and east of Bangkok. We would spend the next days visiting the more than 1,000 dogs being held at the facility. All of the dogs here were rescued from the illegal meat trade.

The dogs are stolen from homes, found on the streets and at temples where they are then shoved into small cages (see photo below of an actual cage) – cages so small that many of the dogs suffocate before they can be rescued or are slaughtered. Once they cross the border, they are slaughtered in horrific ways and put into the market for consumption. Thankfully, due to the tireless efforts by Soi Dog and other rescue groups, the Thai government made this trade illegal in recent years and the crackdown of those still active has been vigorous. Thousands of dogs’ lives have been saved. But it’s not yet over.

In Buriram, over 1,000 dogs live communally in outdoor lots. The lots are thankfully shaded by trees and roofed units with platforms that the dogs can crawl and jump on to take naps. Soi Dog provides all of their food as well as these structures. The government hires and manages the staffing. The dogs are vetted and spayed/neutered upon arrival. And while they have ample space to exercise and plenty of fresh air, there is a tremendous lack of attention, love and care for these dogs. For it is simply too difficult for so few workers to attend adequately to 1,000 dogs. It was hard not to see this many dogs at once and wonder if their conditions were better or worse that the thousands of dogs who spend months and sometimes years in desolate shelter runs across the US.

As we arrived, I could hear the dogs barking in the distance. I was nervous to see all the dogs and braced for what I knew would be an emotional experience. As we approached the walls containing the dogs in the yards, many jumped up to greet me through the fences. Others stood back and eyed me warily. Others remained on their perches, eying me cautiously but then turning away, as if they knew I was not bringing anything of value to their lives and I was only a temporary visitor. I suspected those are the dogs who had been there for years; the ones who may have once had hope to be part of a family but in time, simply lost that hope and now passed their endless days with sleeping and eating as their only stimulation.

The Soi Dog staff go to work immediately photographing the dogs, taking inventory and working to identify the 60 dogs who would be leaving with us the next day to head to Phuket where they would remain until rescue was secured. Most of the 60 had been identified on a previous visit, but some were no longer there…leaving concerns and sadness…so we chose a few new ones to go in their places. This would be the largest single transport of dogs from Buriram since the Soi Dog effort started. Initially, only 2 or 3 dogs would leave at a time. The last transport was 30 dogs. And now 60 were leaving. This was an exciting time to be visiting.

As I entered the first lot, the dogs greeted me as if we were at a dog park. Except when I reached to pet them, they darted away suspicious of who I was and what I was doing there. As I sat on the cement ground some came up to sniff and examine me. As I slowly reached my hand out to them, some sniffed further and then allowed me to gently pet them. Once they felt the sensation of my fingers on their heads or under their chins, scratching gently at their flea-covered bodies, they moved in for more, allowing me to then scratch their ears, backs and rear ends. For a few, it took only seconds for them to reach their paws to my hand, pulling it back to their bodies once I stopped scratching. It’s most sensible to leave a shy dog wanting more of a good thing so he affiliates a stranger with something he wants. Plenty of these pooches wanted more. They clearly were longing for touch. I knew quickly that all of these dogs would make wonderful family members, some taking more time than others to adjust. But I just knew that they all could make it in the world if given a chance. Heartbreaking. How many would get that chance before they died, waiting to leave this place?

Just outside of lot five we came across a cage that was draped in old dog food backs to provide shade. In it we found a small female dog and her newborn puppies. She somehow had found her way to this location and made a safe place for her new family inside this cage. She was painfully thin with scabs on her body. But as we approached she wiggled and rolled over for a belly rub. Her pups were inside the cage squealing for her attention, their eyes not yet open. The staff immediately requested wet dog food for her and the next day, she had a case of wet dog food and someone had given her fresh noodles as well. Thankfully for now she was somewhat safe. But the staff decided she needed to move soon to their small facility in Bangkok or her puppies would likely die. I visited this sweet girl several times while there and each time she was so wiggly and grateful for the attention and calmly allowed me to check on her pups and move them to the warmer side of the cage. It broke my heart to leave her behind but the Soi Dog staff made arrangements for her to travel to Bangkok the next week…and from there she will fly to HT. They named her Brown Sugar! Her pups cannot leave the country until they are months older but they will be cared for there once weaned and then they too can fly over.

We left on Day One to have a quick dinner and head to bed. Covered in that smell of “country dog” that I had not experienced since we worked a hoarding case in Goochland, VA. Having the smell of hundreds of dogs on me was a flashback. I needed a shower badly. And the jetlag was still painful.
We rose early the next morning. As we headed down the long rural road to the government facility, I was excited knowing that 60 dogs were leaving. It reminded me of the days we spent going to Goochland, VA where one woman had more than 100 dogs on her property. Each time we went to retrieve some we had electricity in our veins, knowing that we were finally giving the neglected dogs what they deserved. Month after month, year after year we would go down and take as many dogs as we had room for. The best feeling ever. Except when we would drive away leaving those we couldn’t fit behind. This trip would be no different.

Two large lorries and 60 brand new plastic crates awaited us. All we had to do now was to catch the dogs. This was no easy task as the lots are quite large and more than half of these dogs would not approach a human. Catching them required six people with nets, brooms, hands and legs. We ran, cornered, sweet-talked, dove and eventually rounded up all 60. While some squealed in fear as we had to corner them and man-handle them into crates, not one single dog bit us. In one of their most fearful moments, not one dog bit. That is no small feat. And shows the incredible kind spirit of these dogs even after they have been treated so horribly and given few reasons at all to trust the hands of a human being. Feeling bad for inflicting more stress on terror on these poor dogs, I reminded myself that a minute of terror was a means to an end…an end to their suffering and the start of their new lives.

After the dogs were loaded up on the lorries, we assembled ourselves and got into our van for the 4-hour trip back to Bangkok. The dogs would make the 20 trip by lorry all the way from Buriram to Phuket. As the trucks were not covered, the blowing air would keep them cool and hopefully comfort them on their long journey. We told each and every one of them that better days were ahead and to hang in there. It was wonderful to see the lorries headed down the long dirt road with the dogs…never to return to this necessary, but depressing holding place.

Before we left, I was tasked with retrieving one of the meat trade cages that had been confiscated and kept in a grassy field nearby. The staff wanted it sent back to the Soi Dog facility in Phuket so that visitors could see in person the horrific reality of the dog meat trade. In the field were almost 40 of these cages, stacked on top of each other just as they had been filled with dogs at one time. They had been there long enough for ivy and other weeds to have grown in and around them making it difficult for me to extract one from the grip of the ivy. One cage was so heavy and cumbersome. I couldn’t imagine how they crammed so many dogs in one cage and lifted them on a truck. I stopped for a minute to take some photos of the cages and was overcome with emotion thinking of the thousands of dogs who had lost their lives in these cages and the horror they experienced. How can humans be so cruel to other living beings? How can we be so advanced as a species and yet so callous to suffering? But alas, we cannot undo the past and must instead keep working for the dogs we can save now and in the future.

Cage retrieved and set aside to be loaded on the lorry.
We arrived in Bangkok just in time for our flight to Phuket. Arrived in Phuket just in time for a short night’s sleep. In the morning I would head to the Soi Dog facility to have a tour, meet the staff and most importantly see the dogs who had just arrived from Buriram.

The staff and volunteers at Soi Dog were warm, gracious, kind and friendly. So much positivity going on there. The facility is amazing – spacious, clean, state-of-the-art medical rooms and dogs and cats getting all the attention they need and deserve. Our meat dogs had arrived just hours earlier and I visited them in their new temporary digs. A few even came up to me and sniffed my hand as I reminded them that we were old friends. So wonderful to see them safe, in a smaller pack, and at their next-to-final location before going to rescue and adoption.

The next morning, after an evening flight back to Bangkok I met the wonderful Bangkok-based Soi Dog staff at the airport for an early morning flight. They arrived with 12 dogs all neatly tucked into their crates and ready for flight. Each dog was kindly given a bone to chew on, extra water and bedding. We completed the paperwork, got everyone checked in and after almost 2 hours, said good bye. And we were off!

Arriving 20 hours later at JFK after a brief stop in Taipei, a small group of anxious adopters and fellow rescuers met me. It was quite a production rounding up enough porters and carts to help me get the 12 dogs through customs but we did it. And by 10 pm, the dogs were on their way. Some headed home and others headed to Michigan with a rescue who had flown to NY and were driving a rented van to get them back. The HT dogs were tucked away in an overnight boarding facility until our wonderful volunteer Michael Bates could pick them up early Sunday morning for the drive to DC.

And thus is the taxing journey of bringing 12 meat trade dogs to freedom in the US. The people power, love and devotion it takes to do this work is incredible. The dedication that Soi Dog has to this mission is unwavering and we at HT are truly honored to be able to help these dogs.

When asked why HT would spend time and resources to help dogs from so far away when there are still dogs here in the US needing us, my answer is simple: A dog in need is a dog in need no matter the geography. But dogs in countries like Thailand suffer on a level that few dogs in the US suffer. What they endure is truly horrific. Our mission is to not only find homes for homeless dogs and cats, but to do whatever we can to alleviate the suffering of animals. Thus, we work here in the US on laws that restrict tethering, pet store sales, abuse and neglect. We work with local and regional shelters and owners to take in unwanted animals – many of whom need special medical care. And we work with our global partners in places like Thailand, Puerto Rico and Peru to be a part of a larger mission to stop the suffering of dogs and cats in countries whose laws are still catching up. It’s a small role we can play in a much larger playground of hope. Together, we not only make a difference for the animals but strive to bring awareness and education to animal lovers in hopes they too will join our effort to stop the needless of abuse of animals whether in our own backyard or across the world.

Want to help?? We are assembling a Team Soi Dog to help us raise funds and awareness of the over 1,000 that await help and rescue. You can literally save a life by joining this team. Email sueb@homewardtrails.org if you wish to join our efforts. Together, we can make difference.

 

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by Sue Bell, Executive Director

This week’s fierce debate over the passage of SB1381 and the smack down of PETA’s extreme euthanasia activities has brought a lot of discourse with varying opinions about what is right and what is wrong. In many debates, it seems that people tend to fall on one extreme side or the other – we must save every animal at any cost vs. we must euthanize every animal at any cost. I believe that most of us reasonable animal advocates actually fall in the middle. But it’s easy to see how people get caught up in extremism when debating the fate of the most vulnerable and mistreated members of our society.

The No-Kill Movement has been embraced by individuals, shelters and rescues across America. Its goal is laudable and its very name has gotten animal lovers looking at the decisions we make on behalf of animals, debating those decisions and in most cases, committing to finding ways for us to euthanize fewer companion animals.

In the middle of the No-Kill bell curve are the animal advocates who work tirelessly to care for and rehabilitate America’s unwanted animals, maintaining steadfast focus on the animals’ well-being not only in the future but also in the present. These people recognize that every animal cannot be saved and should not be saved. They fully grasp that there are fates more inhumane than death. They recognize that the number of discarded animals remains too great to achieve true no-kill status in their shelters and larger communities. They live with underfunded budgets, elected officials who don’t care and communities who are more the problem than the solution. But they work towards getting there by implementing progressive programs and practices including spay/neuter programs, TNR, educational outreach and offer financial assistance to low-income pet owners. They endure public backlash when they euthanize animals. They are called “animal killers” and worse. They live in fear of being fully transparent because their honesty about the reality they face every day is used against them. And yet they keep going, committed to reaching the commendable goal of euthanizing no adoptable animal. They are the heroes among us.

As with almost any movement, there are extremist views that have tainted the original intentions. The outliers. First there are the No-Kill extremists who believe that no animal, for any reason should be euthanized. They believe that death is the absolute worst outcome and should be prevented at all costs. This extreme view has resulted in countless animals being warehoused, living lives in cages or kennels – both indoor and outdoor, suffering daily from a lack of social interaction, exercise and joy. They are hidden in the backs of shelters “off view” or are released to sanctuaries. They too fear being fully transparent about their actions. These animals live like this for years. They grow depressed, they become aggressive, they are forgotten. But they are ALIVE. And to some, that is all that matters. Thankfully, these people are in the minority and the vast majority out there neither condones nor partakes of these practices.

On the complete other side there are groups, namely PETA, who have taken the opposing view of the No-Kill extremists and believe that our companion animals, no matter what their environment and level of care, are simple hostages to human interests and better off dead. They espouse the All-Kill approach. They euthanize healthy, adoptable animals surrendered by the public or that they have rounded up as strays in or local communities. They are not transparent about their practices, which ultimately did them in, the passage of SB 1381 being proof. And as do the No-Kill extremists, they sleep well at the end of the day feeling certain they ended or prevented the suffering of animals. Yes, the two groups who have complete opposing views on the best outcome for our companion animals sleep well at night, certain that their No-Kill/All-Kill approach is the best.

One only has to experience seeing an animal in a shelter or sanctuary who has been warehoused for months or years on end, lunging, barking, circling obsessively, and begging for attention to know that the No-Kill extremists’ approach results in a fate far worse than death for too many animals. On the other side, the All-Kill approach and recent case of Maya, the dog who was stolen by PETA officials from the front porch of her owner Wilber Cerate and then illegally euthanized, is equally as heartbreaking and wrong. Maya was not freed from being tethered in extreme temperatures or rescued from being abused, tortured or warehoused. She was simply sitting on her owner’s front porch and then lured to a van by extremists who killed her. Additionally, one can’t help but have compassion for the thousands of people who surrendered their animals to PETA assuming the animals were in good hands and likely to find new homes, only be euthanized immediately.

If the last week has done anything for animal advocates, it should be to encourage us all to take a deep breath and hit the re-set button. Extreme views rarely prevail, but they do cause harm and needlessly delay common sense solutions to difficult issues. The result is that the very beings we are working so hard to help end up suffering harder and longer. Oh, the irony.

Let us stop and remember why each of us got involved in animal welfare. Let us remember that we ultimately all want to stop cruelty and abuse. We want to see fewer animals die needlessly. It may be that we want to see fewer animals born. It may be that we want to see fewer animals killed. It may be that we never agree completely on the best tactics. But what I know for sure is that when we calm down and take a moment to actually talk to each other, sharing and reminding ourselves of our mutual interests as well as our differing perspectives, we might just have the chance to find a small bit of common ground that we can use for the collective good.

And when and if that happens, we animal advocates will be a powerful, unstoppable force that will change the world for the better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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