Above: Mary Galinski and John Barnwell pick up Jane at Furkids, one of three cats they adopted. Photo courtesy of Furkids. 

Each year, about 6.5 million animals enter animal shelters nationwide, and about 1.5 million are euthanized, according to the ASPCA.

In Georgia, about 150,000 adoptable cats and dogs are euthanized every year, simply because they are homeless, says Furkids, the nonprofit operator of what, according to its website, is the largest cage-free, no-kill shelter in the Southeast for cats and a no-kill shelter for dogs.

Samantha Shelton with pets
Samantha Shelton, CEO and founder of Atlanta-based Furkids, relaxes at home in Peachtree Corners with her four senior animals. From left are Betsy, 20; Uncle Buck, 20; Tortie, 18; and Misty, 8. Photo courtesy of Samantha Shelton.

Atlanta-based Furkids is going the extra mile — actually, lots of extra miles — to help put a dent in Georgia’s animal euthanasia rates. Last year, the 17-year-old group launched its TransFUR animal transport service, a program that is picking up unwanted animals from high-kill shelters across Georgia and sending them to no-kill animal shelters in northern states, where there is high demand for adoptable animals and a low inventory of them.

The warmer climate and lack of laws or enforcement of laws requiring spaying and neutering contribute to animal overpopulation in the South, according to Samantha Shelton, Furkids’ CEO and founder.

“They can’t comprehend the sheer volume of what we’re dealing with in the South,” she said. “They have the demand. We have the supply.”

TransFUR has delivered just under 2,000 cats and about 150 dogs to partner shelters awaiting them since the program’s inception in March 2018. “They’re begging us for these animals,” Shelton said. “Shelter staff welcome the animals with open arms and big smiles.”

The group partners with Georgia shelters and with shelters in the North so they all can know what types of animals are available and which are needed at any given time. The requests can be pretty specific, ranging from the number and age range of animals to requirements for recent vaccinations and certain medical treatments, Shelton said.

Furkids picks up animals from animal control and rescue agencies as far as three hours’ drive away, delivers them to the program’s shelter in Doraville, and then prepares them to be transported to north U.S. locations on the next TransFUR run.

Dr. Elmore at Furkids
Dr. Erika Elmore, a Furkids staff veterinarian, checks out a kitten that will be transported to a shelter in the North. Photo courtesy of Furkids.

“Our vet techs and veterinarians spend a good part of the day checking them from head to tail, making sure they’re totally healthy and preparing a health record,” she said.

Once they get to the North, “whole teams are outside to help unload them and check them on their end,” Shelton said. “They typically quarantine them for a day or two. These cats are adopted immediately, once they hit the adoption floor.”

Karina King, director of operations at the Dakin Humane Society in Springfield, Mass., talked about the shelter’s win-win relationship with Furkids. “We love working with our Southern partner shelters and supporting their efforts to save lives,” King said. “We ourselves had far too many cats/kittens in our own community not too many years ago and remember what a blessing it was when we could get others to take some animals from us. Furkids does a wonderful job working with us, and together we save more lives.”

A plea for help

TransFUR had its genesis in October 2017 with Hurricane Irma.

As the hurricane approached the U.S., dozens of Furkids volunteers and staff in vans and planes worked around the clock for six days to rescue 120 dogs and cats from animal shelters in mandatory evacuation areas along Georgia’s coastline.

Getting them out of danger was just the first major step. Caring for and finding them homes was the next huge deal.

Dalton Furkids
Christine Taylor adds a new dog, Dalton (left), to her family. Photo courtesy of Furkids.

When a group from Minnesota heard about their emergency need for adopters, they called to say they could take 30 cats. A donor paid for a rental van and off the cats went.

Interest grew, and TransFUR was born.

These days, there is typically one transport per week, usually of about 30 to 65 cats, to currently 12 states, from Minnesota to Maine. The focus is on cats because most other animal transport services in the country focus on dogs, Shelton said.

Another reason: 70% of dogs entering shelters come out alive, while just 15% of cats do, she said, quoting stats from the Georgia SPOT Society (Stopping Pet Overpopulation Together).

Northern adopters show “so much gratitude and appreciation” for their transported pets, she said. “We have had some very sweet emails from people who’ve received them,” Shelton said. “It just brings tears to my eyes and a smile to my face to know there are cats from Georgia who were someone else’s throwaways who are somebody else’s beloved family member.”

Jolie Furkids
Jean and Larry Hammond adopt their new cat, Jolie. Photo courtesy of Furkids.

Furkids has rescued more than 30,000 animals since its founding in 2002. About 1,000 animals are in the program today in Furkids shelters, PetSmart and Petco adoption centers and more than 400 foster homes.

A “no-kill shelter” generally means the shelter has a live release rate of 80% or more, Shelton said. “At Furkids, ‘no-kill’ means every life is valuable,” she said.

And the program has vastly improved the live release rates of its partner Georgia animal controls and rescues, she said. Toccoa-Stephens County Animal Control, for instance, is reporting a 17% increase in its live release rate since joining the transport program, according to Furkids.

The program plans to acquire a second transport van this year to allow for more frequent trips to the North and is developing a training program for municipal shelters in Georgia’s small towns.

“We’re saving more lives through this program than we ever have before,” Shelton said. “We know we’re on to something great here and it’s worth every effort.”

Shelton’s senior animals

Furkids’ cat shelter has been offering rates reduced sometimes to zero for cats five years old or older. The shelter currently has about 75 cats in that age category.

Jordan Furkids
Robert and Jean Schmidt adopt their new cat, Trebor. Photo courtesy of Furkids.

Shelton, a Peachtree Corners resident, has personal experience with senior animals as the owner of four of them — three cats and a dog. Her youngest cat, Tortie, is 18 years old. She found her as a kitten in her backyard.

Her quest for a home for Tortie back then made Shelton aware of “the serious pet overpopulation problem in Atlanta” and led to her founding of Furkids. She’s passionate about the value of senior animals.

“With an older animal you definitely know what you’re getting in terms of personality, which to me is a benefit … and you’re not having to deal with training,” Shelton said. “A lot people don’t fully grasp what’s involved when you have a puppy. It’s like bringing home a baby.”

“There are wonderful adult dogs and cats available in the shelter,” she added. “Sometimes owners passed away, there was a divorce or a new job that requires traveling all the time. These animals pay the price. It’s heartbreaking when people bring their senior pets to a shelter. That’s when they need us the most.”

Furkids' TransFUR van
People line up at the Dakin Humane Society in Springfield, Mass. for a chance to adopt some of the animals transported to the shelter from Atlanta by Furkids’ TransFUR service. Photo courtesy of Dakin Humane Society.

Furkids — How you can help

  • Adopt or foster a Furkids cat or dog. You can search for your new pet at furkids.org and other sites such as petfinder.com.
  • Volunteer to walk, bathe or help socialize shelter animals. Administrative and leadership volunteer roles are also available.
  • Help with the TransFUR van’s prep, cleanup or maintenance.
  • Make a donation.

For more information about Furkids, its animal shelters and its thrift stores in Peachtree Corners, Marietta and Lawrenceville, visit furkids.org.

Donna Williams Lewis a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She previously worked as an editor and journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.