By MATT POLLACK
For the Courier-Post
Mary Sue Miller was so determined to find a home for Sarah, a kelpie puppy, and Sarah's five siblings and mother that she looked almost 350 miles away to find one.
Miller, the founder of the Marion County Humane Society in Fairmont, W.Va., found a connection with the Animal Welfare Association in Voorhees.
In February, Sarah became one of more than 300 canines that have traveled along the "puppy underground" from Fairmont to Voorhees.
Sarah ended up with a Haddonfield family who couldn't be happier with her.
"She's such a nice dog," said Jeff Smith, 11, as Sarah slept under the coffee table.
Though some people are happy about the underground, others are outraged a county that killed more animals than any other in New Jersey in 2000 would take in more homeless animals.
The puppy underground grew out of a classic story of contrast.
Fifty wait for puppies
In Fairmont, as recently as January, the humane society killed between 300 and 400 animals every month. In Voorhees, at the Animal Welfare Association, waiting lists for puppies can number up to 50 names.
In Fairmont, the humane society is still pushing shelters to accept spay and neuter requirements. In Voorhees, the shelter maintains a state-funded mandatory spay/neuter program, thus preventing stray problems in the future.
In Fairmont, there are no euthanization regulations and shelters euthanize dogs the cheapest way possible, in gas chambers. Here, state regulations require animals to be put to sleep by a more humane sodium phenobarbital injection.
To Karen Dixon, the executive director of the Voorhees association, and Miller, of Fairmont, it just made sense to make a connection.
So in November, the Voorhees association became the fifth shelter to accept puppies from the Fairmont shelter.
Monthly kills drop
Since the puppy underground was established, between 1, 200 and 1,500 animals have been saved in Fairmont, dropping the 300 to 400 monthly kills down to just five or six.
"We're saving adoptable animals that until recently would have been euthanized," Miller said. "I thank God every day for what we've been able to accomplish."
But other Camden County shelters and animal rights organizations are in an uproar however, seething over what they see as shortsightedness.
Not everyone happy
"In Camden County, animals are being euthanized because they're importing puppies," said Glenn McCleery, the director of the Camden County Animal Shelter, the county's largest. "We should save animals in-state before we start saving animals from across state borders."
Bill Lombardi, the director of the Gloucester County Animal Shelter, received an e-mail about a program similar to the underground, but immediately dismissed it.
"I figured no shelter in the state would touch it," said Lombardi, whose shelter takes in between 8,000 and 10,000 animals each year and places just under half of them. "We have enough trouble finding homes for animals from here, let alone another state."
But Jennifer Ayres, a Medford resident who adopted Molly, one of the imported puppies, last month, suggested that ultimately, where the puppy is from should not matter.
Location doesn't matter
"It doesn't matter where they're from - they need a home. A puppy that's going to die in West Virginia is the same as a puppy that's going to die in New Jersey," said Ayres, who also owns a cat and another dog. "It's a problem that needs to be controlled all over."
For McCleery, the staggering euthanization rates are such a problem that he will not even allow mother dogs to give birth to puppies in his shelter. Instead, he spays the mothers, effectively aborting the pregnancy.
McCleery firmly believes that puppy adoptions strongly limit the shelter's ability to find homes for adult dogs.
Dixon vehemently disagrees with McCleery's sentiments.
"When a family decides to adopt a puppy, they're going to adopt a puppy. They aren't going to adopt an adult dog," Dixon said. "If we don't have puppies, they'll go to pet stores."
But the Voorhees association reports that the adoption rate for adult dogs has actually increased since it struck the agreement with the West Virginia association.
Also, Dixon said none of the puppies brought in from out of the area have been euthanized. The organization boasts a 100 percent adoption rate.
Those numbers, McCleery counters, can be deceiving.
"Fifty percent of all puppies adopted through shelters, or bought through breeders or pet stores are returned within one year," said McCleery, citing many families leaping into pet ownership without realizing the responsibilities it entails.
For Haddonfield's Smith family, adopting Sarah has been a success.
Since they got her in April, Sarah is a regular at Jeff' s soccer and Little League games. More important, she has become a member of the family.
And Sarah's early life makes her that much more special.
"It's like adopting an orphan that nobody wanted," said Jeff's mother, Carol.
Reach Matt Pollack at (856) 486-2401 or firstname.lastname@example.org