I’d heard about the Animal Rescue Corps before, snippets mentioned by other rescue people in passing, but nothing solid, nothing that I thought had anything to do with the world of dog rescue I inhabited.
I pictured a group of superheroes who swooped in during the direst of situations and rescued the dogs, but I had no understanding of how that actually worked, where the dogs went when it was all said and done, and if they were actual people or just this brilliant fantasy.
Yesterday we were on our way south to shine a light on the shelters, rescues, and pounds working so hard to save dogs, in the hopes of raising awareness and resources to help them do just that. It was our first official trip for Who Will Let the Dogs Out and we were excited to get started, maybe over eager. We woke to snow in Christiansburg, Virginia and went in search of caffeine before beginning our drive to Columbia, TN where we would spend the night with one of my rescue heroes, Laura, who moves more than two thousand dogs out of Tennessee each year on to safety with shelters and rescues to the north.
Over breakfast, I read through messages and noted one from Kim, another animal advocate I’d connected with on Facebook. She told me about a few shelters and dog pounds we might want to check out while we were in Tennessee that week. She also mentioned that Animal Rescue Corps’ emergency shelter was in Lebanon. Kim is the Animal Welfare director at ARC and she thought we might find their work interesting.
The idea of seeing some dogs and finally discovering what this mythical group was all about was irresistible. We would be driving right through Lebanon, how could we not stop? Kim sent their address and we reset our GPS to head there with no idea what to expect. The address was a Suite and she mentioned we would be meeting with the PIO, which made me wonder if that meant we were just going to meet the official leadership and only hear about the dogs.
When we pulled in, clearly that was not the case. ARC was located in a warehouse, but if the dog crates stacked to eye level and an ambulance-like vehicle adorned with the Animal Rescue Corp logo parked beside the building didn’t give them away, the faint sound of barking made it clear we were about to meet a lot of dogs.
Inside the warehouse, there was a steady dog noise and the familiar smell of a shelter. We met Michael Cunningham, but he was definitely not what I expected a Public Information Officer to be. He wore jeans and an ARC t-shirt and was busy directing volunteers and answering questions amid the organized chaos of a large shelter which appeared to house hundreds of dogs.
Kennels housed rows of dogs and volunteers buzzed around them, spot cleaning, walking dogs, playing with dogs, carrying dirty laundry, distributing medications and dewormers, grooming dogs—everyone focused on healing the batch of animals so that they could take the next step. There was a positive energy in the place, clearly good things were happening here for a group of dogs whose stories could have ended much differently.
Michael explained that ARC works with law enforcement on large cruelty cases all over the country, working alongside the investigation to move the animals to safety, evaluate them, rehabilitate them, and ultimately pass them along to their placement partners – mostly foster-based rescues out of state. ARC does no adoptions.
ARC rehabilitates the animals – giving vaccinations, treating for mange and other contagious conditions, administering dewormers, doing all the necessary vet work to keep their population safe and get the animals healthy so they can send them on to trusted partners who will have them spayed or neutered and then help them find a forever home, likely far away from the world they came from.
The other thing they do, maybe the most important, is teach animals who may never have known a kind hand, what it feels like to be loved. The people most responsible for that, Michael explained, were the passionate and committed volunteers who swarmed the place.
Everything ARC does is completely free to not only law enforcement, but the rescues that take their dogs. Most dogs stay at the ARC shelter 10-30 days on average, but occasionally longer depending on the case and the condition of the dogs. And it’s not just dogs, they’ve helped exotic animals, farm animals, and their current case, Operation Desperate Days, involved cats too.
ARC has over 5000 volunteers, 3000 of which are in Tennessee and the rest scattered around the country, ready to leap to action when necessary. Between cases, Michael and his husband go back to their real home in Luray, Virginia, but when they are working they move to the warehouse, bringing their eight dogs with them.
Nine and a half years ago, Michael and his husband Tim were working in Silicon Valley working on start ups and in finance. They both felt that while they could make a nice living, the work they were doing didn’t actually matter. So Tim, followed by Michael, left that world and along with two others started ARC to fill a need. There were already plenty of rescues out there, Michael explained, but there weren’t any doing what they envisioned.
When a local law enforcement agency runs up against a dog-fighting bust or a hoarding case, they aren’t equipped to deal with the animals. Many of these cases are in rural counties with small shelters (if they have one), which can’t take in large numbers of animals all at once—not without killing the animals they currently have.
The plan really coalesced after Hurricane Katrina—there was an urgent need for a plan for the animals left in the wake of a natural disaster or a man-made one.
So, ARC was born to handle the big cases. They work with local authorities, bringing their trained volunteers, recruiting local volunteers, and creating a ‘pop up’ shelter to document the dogs, evaluate them and house them temporarily before they can be moved to Lebanon which is often a good halfway point between where many of the cases erupt and the rescues who will ultimately rehome the dogs.
They keep expenses low by having only four employees and several contractors. Almost all of their supplies arrive via their supporters (1/2 a million on Facebook) purchasing what they need through ARC’s Amazon wishlist. Michael showed us a photo of their UPS delivery the day before – 63 Amazon boxes containing food, paper towels, treats, enrichment toys, dewormers, whatever they needed to handle the dogs currently at their shelter.
The dogs serenading us as we talked with Michael were from a Tennessee hoarding case, but there were two other groups of dogs in the warehouse that had been pulled from enormous overloaded kill-shelters in Louisiana that take in 30-75 dogs each day. The shelter dogs will be easy to move along their pipeline, but the Desperate Days dogs were shut-down, terrified, many covered in mange, and most had never been indoors before. The volunteers will work slowly with them building trust, one bucket of chicken at a time.
ARC operates solely on donations, depending on individuals, but also corporations like the Bissell Foundation to pay for their rescue operations. One case normally costs between twenty and sixty thousand, but a recent case involved 150 animals, some of them exotic, dragged on more than a year because of the court process and cost ARC half a million dollars.
Michael’s positive energy and gentle touch was evident as he gave us a tour of the facility and introduced us to the dogs. Chatting up the dogs, handing out treats, and crawling on his knees into a kennel where a terrified mama dog nursed brand new puppies. He held her water bowl for her as she drank. He’d midwifed those puppies the day before and now mama dog wouldn’t yet leave the bin where she lay with her puppies, not even to eat or drink.
It was an impressive operation and it was easy to see how the contagious energy would draw animal-hearted people to the warehouse each time it filled up with another case.
We are headed into a week of meeting more dogs and more heroes, who work day in and day out to handle the steady flow of need, but it’s nice to know that Michael and ARC are always at the ready to swoop in like the calvary should disaster or demons strike.
Today we will drive on to Mississippi to visit a flea market where they sell puppies and dogs. After that, we’ll meet our OPH rescue partner MidSouth Animal Foundation whose focus is on addressing one of the biggest reasons why so many animals suffer in the south– the great need for spay and neuter.
This is only the beginning of what promises to be an inspiring, enlightening, and exhausting week.
Until every cage is empty,
Who Will Let the Dogs Out (we call it Waldo for short) is an initiative of Operation Paws for Homes. If you’d like to contribute to our work, we encourage you to click on the how to help link above and give directly to a shelter. You can also donate to our work via OPH’s donation page by designating Who Will Let the Dogs Out in your comments.
My upcoming book, One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (Pegasus Books, July 7, 2020) tells the story of not only our foster experience but how Who Will Let the Dogs Out began. A portion of proceeds of every book sold will go to help unwanted animals in the south.