Before veterinary college, Dr. Krista Gazzola spent three months waiting to adopt a puppy from a shelter in her native New Hampshire. When she started work toward her veterinary degree at Mississippi State University, she was picking puppies up off the side of the road.
The imbalance between the large supply of adoptable dogs in the South and the high demand in the Northeast was apparent to Dr. Gazzola and two students in the same class—Dr. Megan Caulfield, a native of New York, and Dr. Amy White, a native of North Carolina. Somehow, the three veterinary students found time to create the Homeward Bound program to transport dogs across the country to find homes.
Dr. Amy White examines a puppy for Homeward Bound,
a student program at Mississippi State University that
transports adoptable dogs from local shelters with a
large supply to shelters in the Northeast with a high
demand. A 2010 Mississippi State graduate, Dr. White
was one of the founders of the program.
(Photos courtesy of BGD Photography)
The classmates spent a good part of their first year putting together protocols for the program. The first trip was in May 2007, after the students' first year at the College of Veterinary Medicine. Drs. Gazzola and Caulfield intended to take a few puppies along as they returned home for summer break. They ended up transporting 22 shelter dogs, plus six of their own animals, in two sports utility vehicles.
Dr. Gazzola said they made mistakes early on, despite their planning.
"Looking back on it, we didn't know what the heck we were doing," said Dr. Gazzola, now an intern in small animal surgery at a practice in Waltham, Mass. "We didn't quarantine, screen them for infectious diseases. We didn't think that far. At that moment, it was getting them out of there and finding them homes. We got lucky."
The students continued making trips, and they refined the protocols for the program—including the health standards. Like many similar programs, Homeward Bound did end up transporting some dogs that turned out to have infectious diseases or heartworm infection. The Homeward Bound health requirements for dogs now include spaying or neutering, full vaccinations, tests for heartworm disease, and treatment for parasites as necessary.
Homeward Bound volunteers freeze bowls of water
to place inside crates with dogs taking the trip to the
Northeast in a trailer that the program shares with
Mississippi State. Foster care soon became a key
element of Homeward Bound, partly to promote health.
"We just figured that the best way to really make sure that these animals were behaviorally sound and also healthy was to get them into foster care, have them begin their development into being family pets," said Dr. White, who was the program's fostering coordinator and now works at a small animal practice in Wilmington, N.C.
The three founders of Homeward Bound developed a network of foster families, with volunteers from inside and outside the veterinary college. They established general health requirements for source shelters along with the specific health requirements for dogs participating in the program. Eventually, they turned coordination of fostering over to the shelters.
The transportation procedures evolved. Early on, the founders assembled dozens of dogs at Dr. White's house for transport by rental van or an MSU van. Later, Homeward Bound and MSU bought a trailer to share for transport of companion animals. Now, Homeward Bound assembles dogs at the veterinary college on transport days.
Drs. Gazzola and White continued to help lead the program until this past spring. Dr. Gazzola stayed an extra year at MSU for an internship, and Dr. White stayed in the area for a year working in emergency and shelter medicine. Now the founders have passed the program on to current veterinary students and other volunteers.
Terri Snead, a large animal veterinary technician at MSU, started out by fostering dogs for Homeward Bound and is currently the informal program director.
"The program could have only been started by students," Snead said. "You couldn't have gone to a vet school meeting or any meeting anywhere and said, 'Hey, let's start this program whereby we get stray dogs that may have some illnesses and talk people into keeping them and then transport them 1,000 miles.'"
Snead said Homeward Bound is beneficial to the education of the MSU veterinary students and veterinary technician students who participate. The students learn about shelter medicine, and dealing with foster families is not too dissimilar from dealing with clients.
The program now transports groups of 55 to 70 dogs every four to six weeks from Mississippi to multiple shelters in the Northeast. The total as of mid-August was about 2,380 animals.