By KL Snyder
Interstate-35, Twin Cities to Clear Lake, Iowa, will win no scenic route marker, but for a group of dog-loving volunteer drivers, it’s the road to fulfillment, reward and wagging tails.
Active for nearly 10 years but only recently named (unofficially and with groans) Underground Tailroad, it’s the northern leg of a pet rescue network that fetches dogs (and the occasional rabbit, cat, bird) from death rows in public pounds in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri to rescue groups in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
It’s a strictly volunteer group consisting of transport coordinator Barb Krimminger of Plattsmouth, Neb., and dozens of drivers.
Bring stinky treats
Driver Dana Donnelly of Eagan described the routine.
Sunday morning, Barb sends an email request for drivers for the following Saturday. “We reply with the legs we can drive if we want to, and I always tell her which dogs I think I can fit in based on the crates I have.”
The day before the transport Barb emails detailed instructions, including vital statistics about each dog: name, breed, weight, vaccination status, temperament. Some dogs merit special notes such as “flight risk” or “bring stinky treats.”
Saturday, the drivers motor to Clear Lake where they meet a capacious van filled with crates filled with dogs. The Tailroaders help the hounds disembark, walk and water them and re-embark them, this time into cars. When the furry travelers reach the Twin Cities, shelters and foster homes will take them in and love them up. “They’re all going to good situations,” said driver Ellen Thoreson of Fridley.
The smiliest of days
Ellen let me ride along on a Tailroad trip in late April. When we met in Owatonna, I knew she was Ellen because her car was jam-packed with pet kennels. Later, Candi Menier, a driver from Coon Rapids, told me that Ellen’s knack for squeezing in more crates than a car could hold, has earned her the nickname Tetris.
Tetris brought cheeseburgers, but not for us. They were for her passengers-to-be. Lucky dogs.
“There’s almost always a dog I connect with more than the others,” she said. Her all-time favorite? “Joe, a 115-lb. Mastiff/Boerboel/bully-breed mix of some kind. He was 2 years old with bad skin, not neutered and had been chained in a yard his whole life.”
Joe was surrendered by his owner who’d said, “I’m a busy woman. I ain’t got time for that dog.”
“Joe’s head was bigger than mine,” Ellen said, “and I’m sure his heart was, too. He rode in the far back of my car and smiled at all the cars behind us the entire way. I was honked at and waved at many times. It was the smiliest of days.”
Bouncy, joyful, irresistible Joe got adopted in a hurry by “a very lucky family.”
But there is no joy in the breeder release/puppy mill dogs. “They are all afraid,” Ellen said. “They look years older than they are. They just want love but don’t know how to ask for it or accept it, and the realization that humans used them in such a way makes me very angry.”
Delivering the dogs
Ellen pulled into a parking lot just off the interstate near Clear Lake and soon Candi followed. Candi logged 8,000 Underground Tailroad miles last year,“but not as many as Ellen.”
“Some of the dogs are in bad shape,” Candi said. “Some are terrified.” She likes to put her most frightened rider in a kennel beside her. Better yet, when her friend Mike accompanies her, he drives back so she can hold a dog on her lap. “I’ve never met sweeter dogs than these,” she said. “It’s hard not to take them all home.”
New Tailroad volunteers Lindsey and Nate Boyer arrived, then a car from Coco’s Heart Dog Rescue, then a text from Barb saying the van from Des Moines was running 15 minutes late. (Des Moines is the first transfer point, where the canines, whose journey starts in Kansas City, switch to the canary yellow AHeinz57 Pet Rescue & Transport van.)
As soon as the colorful rig rolled into the Clear Lake parking lot, the Tailroad transfer began. Dogs of all sizes, shapes, breeds and ages moved into the four cars.
Winsome dogs all, but I fell hardest for Dooley, a black-and-white Basset mix with droopy ears, sad eyes and paws big as the hooves on a Clydesdale. Bassets lumber along; Dooley danced. Listed at 40 pounds but easily half again as burly, he clambered into Candi’s car and curled his long body to accommodate his kennel.
Ellen’s cheeseburger bits helped persuade her canine commuters to board. They were Louie, a Papillon-mix; Sis, a pretty little what?-mix; Bear, an Aussie/Heeler; Dorothy, a Shar Pei with wrinkles that left no doubt, and Brown Dog, a dignified Lab-mix recovering from a stabbing.
On the road again, Ellen played music and talked to her riders who were mostly quiet. Quiet is the norm, she said. (But not always. Edgar the Pug who’d ridden with Dana on one of her missions, made himself unforgettable. “He Pug-snorted the entire way,” said Dana.)
Snorting Edgar notwithstanding, a tranquil hush prevails among the dogs during homeward runs, and Ellen believes she knows why. “Call me crazy, but I think they know something good is happening. I think if we truly listen to our dogs, we’ll realize how intuitive they are. I just think they know.”
KL Snyder is a Rochester freelance writer who says Underground Tailroad, with so much irresistibleness, should warn first-timers: “Heads up: You’ll probably get hooked.”
How to help
Drive. Underground Tailroad is looking for more drivers, regular or occasional, of cars big or small. “We have fun,” said Candi Menier of Coon Rapids. Mileage is tax deductible, and there’s a fuel fund to reimburse people who would like to drive but can’t afford the gas.
Donate. Donate crates, blankets, puppy pads, water bowls and treats (stinky or not). Contribute to the gas fund.
To help, contact Barb Krimminger at Fla44C@windstream.net or 402-578-5308.
To the rescue: Among the rescue groups that help Underground Tailroad dogs find happy homes are Coco’s Heart Dog Rescue, Heading Home K9 Rescue, Midwest Animal Rescue Services (MARS), Minnesota’s Unwanted Siberian Husky Rescue (MUSHR), Rescued Paws, Ruff Start Rescue, Secondhand Hounds, and Wags & Whiskers Animal Rescue.