Written by Cheryl Fallstead
In the pre-dawn hours of April 10, a team of volunteers walked excited, nervous dogs and dressed them in sweaters and jackets before loading them on an airplane which would, as the sun rose, fly them to a better life in Idaho. These dogs faced an uncertain future in the Mesilla Valley, which has a serious pet overpopulation problem, but they are almost certain to find new homes to the north.
The exodus to Idaho was the brainchild of self-described “serial entrepreneur” Kelly Barker, a relative newcomer from Michigan, who has in two short years hatched many ideas to help resolve this long-term problem. Kelly comes from a business background and is a logistics pro, skills she has put to good use here. Her goal is not to replicate services provided by other local animal organizations, but to supplement them and, in some situations, act as a service provider to them.
She founded the non-profit Uncaged Paws with several initiatives under its umbrella, including one called Tails to Freedom, which flies dogs to other states to seek new “fur-ever” homes. The flights are done in collaboration with fellow non-profit, Dog Is My CoPilot, taking dogs from our saturated pet market every other month to areas in need of adoptable dogs.
Peter Rork, president and chief pilot of Dog Is My CoPilot, says, “We fly a Cessna Caravan 208B and each rescue flight we have anywhere from 40 to 250 animal passengers on board. Every animal we transport saves two lives: the one that we save and the one that takes its place.” The organization relies on donations from individuals and from organizations like PetSmart Charities since they don’t charge the rescue organizations for the flights. They have flown over 8,000 pets to new homes since 2012.
Kelly also works with Colorado Puppy Rescue, a non-profit which focuses on re-homing mothers and puppies. They move families of dogs every two weeks, with vans from the shelter meeting the Coloradans in Albuquerque to hand them off.
Kelly says, “We have transferred over 725 moms and puppies to Colorado and flown 173 primarily adult dogs. Our last flight (prior to April’s) was to Idaho and Montana and all our passengers had homes within days of their arrival.”
As helpful as it is to transport dogs to areas where they are needed, it doesn’t get to the root of the overpopulation problem.
Kelly has another idea for that, dubbed Last Litter, which she is rolling out in May. This program offers dog owners the opportunity for their litter of puppies, once weaned, to be given to her rescue division, Tails From the Shelter. The non-profit will pay for the mother to be spayed, effectively making that litter her last. Kelly says, “We can’t solve all of it at once, but the shelter can’t continue to be the dumping ground for people coming in with boxes and laundry baskets of puppies. That has to stop.”
Clint Thacker, executive director of the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley, echoes her sentiment, “Be a responsible pet owner. Sterilize and microchip your animals. We have an overpopulation issue in the shelter.”
He notes, however, that since he started his job in late November, the atmosphere has changed. They have more ways to find homes for animals, including working with organizations in other states which take large numbers of adoptable pets. Clint says, “There’s always that thought: will I have to euthanize this animal? Now that thought is so far off that a lot of us don’t think about it. We hit our first 90 percent live release rate in January. Ninety percent of the animals that came into the shelter left alive. That was a huge benchmark.”
Some larger adult dogs, however, remain overlooked. To help them, Kelly implemented the 12 Dog Program in cooperation with the husband-wife photography company of Melissa J. Koko, who use their creative skills to highlight a dozen long-term shelter dogs each month. The 12 lucky dogs of the month are sponsored by individuals or companies, and the selected dogs are sterilized and microchipped. The sponsors pay the adoption fee for the dogs, which are then available to be adopted at no charge. Since roll out in December, she says 36 dogs have been adopted from this program.
Clint says, “We had a hard time getting animals out of here. We had several animals from 2016 that were here. Kelly came up in December and said, ‘Let’s do 12 Dogs of Christmas, let’s identify these long-term dogs.’ So, after it went so well, I said, ‘Let’s do it every month.’ She’s like, OK, great!” he adds, “Kelly is very driven and very passionate about what she does. Kelly has done a lot for us.”