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Cat railroad
Cats Jasper (left) and Jillian with their new owner Sally Holland (right) and friend Kelly Curtis. The photo was taken when the cats reached Maine, before they were driven to Canada. (Courtesy of Sally Holland)

Whiskers and well-wishers ride this railroad

Online relay system unites pets, adopters

Facing a death sentence in West Virginia, Jillian and Jasper traveled 1,245 miles by car, truck, and van over 21 hours, finally crossing the border and arriving safely in New Brunswick, Canada.

Jillian, age 1, and her kitten Jasper are petite, yellow-eyed Manx. For their getaway, the cats received help from 14 pet lovers from seven states, each of whom drove the cats one leg of the trip and passed them on to the next driver. The pet enthusiasts coordinated the journey through the website Catster Railroad. Like the website Dogster Railroad, the Catster Railroad facilitates the transportation of homeless animals from over-stuffed shelters to open-armed adopters, no matter how far-flung.

"It's a miracle," said Sally Holland, a 53-year-old motivational counselor who made arrangements to adopt Jasper and Jillian online from a shelter but could not afford to pick them up. "On these websites, if you ask people, they will help," said Holland, who couldn't hold back tears when she picked up the cats in Maine for the final leg home.

Pet railroads have existed for decades, but online they have become more numerous and better organized. Many pets are transported from shelters where they face euthanization to adopters who cannot afford the travel costs. By the hundreds, homeless dogs, cats, ferrets, rats, rabbits, hedgehogs, and guinea pigs are being ferried to adopters by members of Catster, Dogster, and similar Yahoo groups. Details are negotiated on message boards, routes charted with MapQuest, and photographs exchanged via e-mail when man and mutt are finally united.

"I don't know what they did before the Internet," says Debbie Hines of the Humane Society of Parkersburg, W.Va., who coordinated the first leg of Jillian and Jasper's trip. "The Internet has let people pick and choose the pets they want and arrange their transportation."

The railroads usually run from the South and Midwest, where pet overpopulation is most prevalent, to the Northeast, Northwest, and Canada, where spaying and neutering are more common. Massachusetts is a popular whistle stop for pets traveling north, and Holland's cats stopped in Sturbridge and Lowell.

Catster and Dogster were created in 2004 as the pet-owner equivalents of social networks like MySpace, Facebook, and Friendster. Most of Dogster's 312,000 users and Catster's 129,000 users frequent the sites for recreational reasons. They post photographs of Fluffy or Bowser and swap tips on chew toys, flea medicine, and Halloween pet costumes. Facebook unveiled rival websites Dogbook and Catbook in June, and already they have a combined 477,000 users.

But the Dogster and Catster Railroads -- forums within the main Catster and Dogster sites -- boast a weightier mission: saving lives. "It's one of the most rewarding parts of what we do," says Ted Rheingold, the Catster and Dogster founder who uses the title "Top Dog" and signs e-mails "Bow wow, meow." "If a dog really needs a home in Kansas but lives in Ohio, people will get together to drive that dog from Point A to Point B."

For Holland's cats, Point A was Parkersburg, where they were found in an abandoned house and taken to a crowded local shelter that euthanizes 49 percent of animals. Holland stumbled onto their photographs on the adoption website Petfinder during a search for her favorite breed of cats, Manx.

Holland called the shelter for adoption information and learned from an attendant that 100 cats had recently come into the shelter. "She said, 'For every cat that comes in, one has to go out, either through adoption or. . .' She didn't finish the sentence," Holland recalls. "That's when I realized how serious it was."

A fellow animal lover told Holland about the Catster Railroad, and she posted a desperate plea on the forum. Within weeks and without ever meeting Holland, Catster members volunteered for legs of the journey. On the Catster Railroad forum, they expressed sympathy for Holland, who had lost an 11-year-old cat to illness in March, and pledged to bring the Manx to safety.

A longtime animal transporter named Carolyn Fitzgerald from the Maine Coon Cat Rescue coordinated the effort by dividing the journey into manageable legs, assigning routes to volunteers, and posting updates on the Catster Railroad forum. In e-mails of gratitude to volunteers, Holland dubbed the mission "Operation Miracle Manx."

For more than a month, the operation's outcome remained uncertain. Holland and fellow planners failed twice to find enough drivers. "When I found out that the trip had been cancelled the second time, I cried," Holland says. Meanwhile, she received an ominous e-mail from the shelter: "The cats are taking up valuable space."

But July 20 brought good news: Drivers had volunteered for the final legs. The only remaining obstacle was locating a place for the cats to sleep between the first and second days. Donna Lenz and her husband volunteered. "We've been transporting for years," says Lenz, of Bethel, Conn. "We've picked up rats and delivered them to a foster home. If it's furry and needs help, we'll transport it."

In carriers stuffed with toys and cat treats, the two Manx arrived in Holton, Maine, on July 22. Holland drove there to meet the last leg's drivers. The moment was so emotional, Holland says, that she forgot to take photos of the cats with the digital camera she bought for that specific purpose. Instead she simply strapped on their new cat harnesses and hugged them tight.

"They were so gregarious and social. We passed them around for a while," she says. "It was such a delightful moment."

Along the journey, Catster Railroad members tracked the cats through photographs and message-board posts. When they arrived in Bethel after Day One, members swapped e-mails of celebration: halfway there. "It was a joyous occasion for all of us," Hines says.

These days, the cats spend most of their time lounging around their new Canadian apartment. But because they are cats in a digital era, Holland also keeps a blog in Jasper's name. On one recent post, she recounted their entire journey.

"Everything went great and we were at last in New Brunswick, Canada," she wrote, as Jasper. "Mom says Jillian and I are now 'dual-citizens.' We were also in another time zone. Good-bye Eastern, Hello Atlantic."

Robbie Brown can be reached at jbrown@globe.com.

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