COLUMBIANA, Ala. - With excited barking filling the chilly morning air, about 30 dogs frolicked in outdoor pens, jumping, playing, and nipping at one another - blissfully unaware they were escaping almost certain death, thanks to newfound friends in New Hampshire.
The homeless mutts at the Shelby Humane Society in central Alabama were set to travel by van on a 20-hour journey to a new life in the care of New Englanders seeking a furry, four-legged companion.
It's a trip being taken by thousands of other dogs around the country - from areas like the Southeast, where there is an overpopulation of dogs, to communities like those in New Hampshire, where homeless dogs are scarce and some residents are on waiting lists to adopt.
The explosion of stray or unwanted dogs in Alabama "has reached a volume that's almost unmanageable," said Ronda Steciuk, executive director of the Shelby Humane Society.
While no state mandates that dogs be spayed or neutered, some like New Hampshire have managed the canine population through strict leash and licensing laws and enforcement of those laws, as well as measures to make sterilization affordable and easily accessible, Steciuk said.
In the Southeast, she said, leash and licensing laws don't exist or aren't enforced, and there are few incentives to sterilize pets. As a result, many people don't have their animals fixed and allow them to run free, causing the puppy population to explode.
The Shelby Humane Society euthanizes more than 3,000 animals a year, including healthy dogs and puppies.
To reduce that number, the Shelter Partners program was launched, like similar dog rescue operations elsewhere. The PetSmart Charities' program, called Rescue Waggin', says it has moved nearly 19,000 dogs in four years from overpopulated areas to potential new homes.
The Shelby Humane Society made its first shipment of dogs to New Hampshire in November 2006. It has sent two or three shipments per month since then, with vans leaving whenever enough donations have come in and a pair of drivers is available. Each shipment generally has 15 to 30 dogs.
The trips cost about $700, for gas, lodging, and meals, and are funded entirely by donations made specifically to the Shelter Partners program. Steciuk said she tries to send dogs that have been in the Shelby shelter the longest.
By mid-January, 779 dogs had relocated from Shelby County, mainly to New Hampshire.
"We have far exceeded what we thought we would be able to do given that we were not willing to pull funding from anything else," Steciuk said.
The trips, which generally take 20 to 24 hours each way, require dedicated volunteers.
They try not to stop overnight on the way to New Hampshire because the dogs can't be left in the van.
"It's not a trip for everybody," said Steciuk, who has made the journey three times with her husband. "It's not an easy thing to do."
But the effort is worth it for the volunteers who watch dogs that might otherwise be euthanized get welcomed by the receiving shelters.
"It's rewarding because you know the lives are being saved and they're definitely going to have a home," Whitney Roberts, programs administrator for the Shelby shelter and a volunteer driver, said as she helped load the van recently for her fifth trip.
In New Hampshire, the Alabama dogs are generally gone within a week of arrival.
"The general public up here loves the program, and there is a lot of excitement when the dogs arrive," said Tammy DeVito, animal care director at the Humane Society for Greater Nashua.
DeVito said the Nashua shelter has placed all of the nearly 300 dogs it has received since April.