On a mission: The Saving Train

A chihuhua hides under its blanket, a possible candidate on the Saving Train. (Trish Glose/News10)

“It’s a perfect day for this isn’t it?” Karen Evans said to me as we drove on Interstate 5 toward Redding. It was a bluebird day and nothing but sunshine for this very special mission.

That morning, SoHumane, an non-profit animal shelter, was headed south to a couple of shelters to take as many animals as it could to bring back up to the Rogue Valley for adoption. It was a rare opportunity for me and my camera to tag along.

“We usually have one big Saving Train mission a month and we do weekly trips to local shelters and like the one today we're doing to Northern California,” Evans, SoHumane’s Executive Director, says about the trips.

While the Saving Train is really just a van, packed with kennels of dogs and sometimes cats, it’s also a statement to SoHumane’s dedication to saving lives.

There are Saving Trains across the country; animal shelters that travel to save animals from other shelters to help reduce overcrowding or keep them from getting euthanized. SoHumane started up its own Saving Train in 2005. Since then, the organization has transferred more than 9,000 animals out of overcrowded shelters. Just last year, staff and volunteers helped save more than 850 animals on these missions alone.

“If we had more space or a bigger vehicle or more resources, we could absolutely transfer more than that,” Evans said. The organization has a big goal this year to purchase a new van, which Evans believes will help tremendously. They already have $10,000, but need about $30,000 more. Right now, SoHumane rents vans and it costs about $1,000 for every mission when all is said and done.

The Saving Train is a popular program at the organization. Evans says that’s mostly because residents in the Rogue Valley don’t seem to slow down when it comes to adopting pets. On this particular day, we were headed to two shelters.

“We've had a partnership with Tehama Animal Services for a number of years and just trying to help them get the dogs out in a timely manner so they don't have to euthanize them. We're also headed to Haven Humane in Anderson, California where it's a larger facility, but they have the same problem," Evans says. "They just run out of time and space so quickly, they take in a very large number of dogs and cats every year. We try and get down here at least once a week if possible to help alleviate some of that overpopulation.”

Just two days after our trip to Redding, the Saving Train was back at it, but this time in Fresno. They saved 46 dogs and then drove overnight back to SoHumane, arriving just after six o’clock on a Sunday morning.

“We get requests from all over the state of California for help. A lot of the shelters are experiencing overpopulation and many of them are just absolutely desperate to get animals out. As soon as we transfer animals out, they have them just come back in again, so it's just a perpetual cycle of animals coming in and out on a regular basis,” Evans says.

Once at the shelter on this mission, SoHumane’s Intake Supervisor Estrella Cervantes and volunteer Karen Stevenson don’t waste any time.

“I can probably take in a couple more medium to bigs if I can work out some crates with you if you have any,” Cervantes says to a shelter employee.

The whole idea: get as many dogs as possible.

Past the office and into the shelter, it’s kennel after kennel after kennel and Cervantes and Stevenson get right to work.

“He’s super sweet, hands on, he’s great,” Cervantes says to Stevenson about one of the animals.

The dogs watch as we walk through. Some push their noses through the chain link fencing of their kennels. Others anxiously bark and then pant. Some howl or jump, begging for your attention. I could feel their stress. A few just stare at you, tails wagging as though to say, “I’m a good dog. Take me.”

“It's ok, you just want out, I know,” Cervantes says to the dogs in an effort to keep them calm.

She’s looking for friendly dogs, ones that could be easily adopted in the Rogue Valley. She’s also looking to see who’s afraid, shy or submissive.

“A lot of the times when they are barking, they just want out. It can change their behavior if they're not exercised, so we have to keep that in mind,” Cervantes says.

While all of us could feel their anxiety, one dog put it right out in front of us. In a kennel, in the middle of larger, louder dogs, was a chihuahua, hiding underneath a blanket inside its crate. Cervantes went inside and sat on the floor, but the pup refused to come out, shaking and scared. She eventually gave up, but a while later, asked Stevenson to go back and see if she could work any magic.

A few minutes later, we checked on their progress. Stevenson was sitting on the floor, with the chihuahua cuddled on her chest as she pet him. A nod to Cervantes said “yes, we can take him home with us.”

“It's not easy. I would love to take all of them, but you have to think about the dogs that can be adopted quickly, so we can take more and continue saving more lives,” she says.

More seemed to be the theme of the day, although it’s probably the theme for every mission. Kennels are strategically packed in the van and staff and volunteers strategize on how many they can take.

“He could probably just sit in my lap,” Cervantes says to Stevenson as they look over their list of candidates.

It’s a hard decision. The animals who are loaded up in the van are the lucky ones. Their future is bright and their potential for a forever home is somewhat solid. For the dozens of dogs left behind at the shelter, their future is not so certain. While some may be adopted, others could get euthanized. It’s a fact Cervantes knows too well. A fact that sometimes causes her to break.

“It's hard because sometimes you do go home thinking about the one dog you couldn't take. Oh, it's going to make me cry, um, but thankfully because of SoHumane, we can help as many as we can,” Cervantes says, as tears filled her eyes.

Before decision time, Cervantes and Stevenson had one more stop. They wanted to see the dogs at the shelter right next door. “We're going to go into their stray hold building, which I warned you guys, it can be kind of hard to go in there because I've seen burn cases and animal abuse cases in there,” Cervantes says.

Evans says it’s a scene at shelters across the country. While many of them do the best they can to adopt animals out and avoid euthanizing them, she says there’s one real solution.

“Spay-neuter is the answer. We have such a problem in this country, we simply cannot adopt our way out of it. If people don't become more responsible and don't get on board with spaying and neutering their animals, we're going to be fighting this battle until the end of time,” Evans says.

With clipboard in hand, Cervantes chats with a shelter employee about the dogs she’s interested in. She asks questions about their demeanor, how they do with people, and how they interact with other dogs during playtime. The pups who are picked are vaccinated, discharged and then loaded up in the van with the other animals.

“I think, no matter how many animals you take, it's always successful,"Cervantes says. "You're helping out an animal that needs to get out of here to get adopted, but also to make room for another animal to come in.”

Of course, not all the animals on the list could go, like a blonde Labrador mix named Walnut. He smiled at us when we walked by his kennel, but there simply wasn’t enough space in the van that day. Evans really wanted him to make the cut, but settled on a plan for him to be on another trip, another time. After a few minutes though, that wasn’t good enough.

“I just can’t stand the thought of him spending one more night in this shelter,” Evans says and that was that.

She made the executive decision to take Walnut with us, in our vehicle. He jumped in the back without needing prompting, ditching his crate for a VIP ride back to the Rogue Valley. His panting stopped after several minutes as he settled into a quiet contentment. At several points on the trip home, he laid down to sleep. Then, almost as if he knew, he perked up as we drove into the Rogue Valley and stared out the window.

“He knows he’s home,” Evans said.

(Less than a week after we brought Walnut back to the Rogue Valley, he was adopted by a family who already had a dog. Walnut not only gained a forever home, he also gained an animal sibling.)

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