MACON – Over the past four years, 1,604 Noxubee County dogs have been spayed or neutered, with more than a quarter of them — 440 — being adopted by a Massachusetts-based rescue organization called Sweet Paws Rescue.
Two forces of nature are most accountable for this.
The first was Hurricane Katrina, which ultimately led to the Mississippi State University School of Veterinary Medicine’s mobile spay/neuter clinic. Funded by grants to create a mobile emergency animal clinic in the aftermath of the devastating events such as hurricanes, MSU’s mobile clinic now provides cost-free spay/neuter services for 18 Mississippi counties that do not have humane societies.
Likewise, Sweet Paws, based in the Boston suburb of Essex, Massachusetts, was created as a response to the suffering the group’s founder, Cynthia Sweet, witnessed during TV coverage of the 2005 hurricane.
The second force of nature — far less imposing than a storm yet just as relentless — is a slightly-built, bespectacled 49-year-old Macon resident named Jeannette Unruh.
Quite literally, without Unruh, Macon and Noxubee County would have gone to the dogs by now, for it is unlikely that either MSU’s mobile clinic or the Massachusetts rescue group would ever have arrived in this rural part of the state.
“I call her our lone warrior,” Sweet says. “She has nobody to help her. She’s here, fighting this war alone. Back home, we have 25 people who will foster dogs. We have dozens of fund-raisers and people help out in so many other ways, too. But Jeannette doesn’t have any of that. She can’t have fund-raisers because nobody would give anything. It’s the same with fosters. What she does all by herself — it’s just amazing.”
“I don’t see how she does it,” says Macon mayor Bob Boykin. “The other day, my wife and I were driving near our home and we saw a turkey and some chickens in a yard near our neighborhood. I thought to myself, ‘You would never had seen that a few years ago. Some stray dog would have got them.’ Give Jeannette 100 percent of the credit. She’s made a huge impact in our city.”‘
A one-woman humane society
Unruh says she’s always been an animal lover, a trait she attributes to her father.
“He taught me the meaning of compassion, of never letting an animal suffer,” she says. “That was such a big part of my life growing up. It was ingrained in me from a very early age.”
Even so, Unruh never planned to be the county’s unofficial, one-woman humane society, but when a woman who had been serving as the city’s de facto animal control officer threw in the towel, Unruh answered the call, mainly out of her love for animals and necessity.
“That poor woman, she was just overwhelmed,” Unruh says. “If a call about a stray dog came in, they would call her and she would go out and pick up the dogs. People just dumped on her constantly. Even when she would say, ‘No,’ the next morning, there the dogs are on her doorstep. I can certainly understand why she would say, ‘Enough.'”
When Unruh stepped into the void, she was determined to find some help.
“I started making calls, seeing if there was any help out there,” she says. “My first thought was to form a partnership with humane societies in other counties, but the biggest problem was finding homes for the strays and other counties won’t take dogs from here.
“The other problem was trying to find some way to control the population. Finally, I heard about what they were doing with the mobile clinic at Mississippi State. That was huge. They agreed to come here two days a month. What they do is really incredible, especially for poor areas like ours. It costs between $100 and $140 to have a dog spayed or neutered. A lot of people here just don’t have the money.”
There was a catch, however. MSU would provide the services, but it would need someone to set up the clinics, handle the intake and deal with all the other details. That someone was, of course, Unruh.
The first year, MSU veterinarians and senior vet students working with the mobile clinic provided free spay/neuter services for 229 dogs at the clinics held at the Farmers Market in Macon. The next year, it ballooned to 705. In 2014, 404 dogs were spayed/neutered. Last year, the number was 444. On April 9, the clinic performed spay/neuter services on 36 dogs, bringing this year’s total to 226 and eclipsing the 1,600 mark in less than four years since its arrival.
Sweet Paws to the ‘rescue’
Providing spay/neuter services for local animal owners was only part of the problem, of course.
The numbers of animals that were simply abandoned around the county was another.
The answer to that part of the problem found Unruh, and began when Cynthia Sweet was sitting at work in Boston watching footage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“I remember they showed a shot of this poor dog standing on a roof in New Orleans,” Sweet says. “I looked over at my boss. He just said, ‘Go’ and I did. I went to New Orleans for a month as a volunteer for the Humane Society. It just clicked. That’s how Sweet Paws got started.”
A few years later, Sweet ran across Unruh through her network of animal rescue groups. She was appalled at the numbers of stray dogs she heard about.
“It’s very strange, coming from where I come from,” says Sweet, who makes one or two trips to Mississippi to help Unruh organize a spay/neuter clinic. “You never see a stray dog where I live. It just doesn’t happen. Some people say, ‘Well, it must be the laws you have there.’ But that’s not it: It’s part of the culture there to have your dog spayed or neutered. It’s just automatic. But, for some reason, that culture isn’t there in some parts of the country, especially in the South.”
Sweet Paws made its first transport of Macon dogs in 2012.
“Jeannette and I have been working together for about three years now, so we’re a well-oiled machine,” Sweet says.
“I can’t imagine what we would do without Cynthia and her group,” Unruh says. “They’ve rescued and adopted out 440 dogs just from here and when you think about what that costs, it’s just something we would never be able to do ourselves.”
Sweet says the average cost for her group to rescue and transport a dog is $300. Sometimes, the expenses soar to more than $1,000, depending on the dog’s medical need.
“We don’t euthanize a dog just because of the expense,” Sweet says. “Whatever it costs, we do it.”
Last year, Sweet Paws rescued 562 dogs, mostly from the South.
“I think last year we raised $191,000 and spent $190,000 of that,” says Sweet, whose organization relies on grants, dozens of fund-raisers and contributions from friends and volunteers.
Sweet Paws also helps Unruh with some of her costs, too.
“I let them pay for the puppy food,” Unruh says. “But I pay for almost everything else out of my pocket, dog food for older dogs, gas for trips to the veterinarian once or twice a week, bedding, kennels.”
She says in addition to her own six pet dogs, she normally has anywhere from 18 to 24 strays she has picked up or have been dropped off.
The weary warrior
Boykin calls Unruh’s work a “labor of love” and that is true, she says, but only to a point.
It can also be tiring and frustrating.
“I love animals and I would do anything for these dogs,” she says. “But I could walk away tomorrow. I have no life. Right now, it’s puppy season and we’ll have 14 to 20 pups to take care of all the time. Day and night, every day. It’s constant. I don’t have time to go out and eat or go shopping. I can’t remember the last time I had a vacation.
“But what’s so frustrating about it is that we’ve had this free spay/neuter program going for four years now. We shouldn’t have to be dealing with puppies being dumped in ditches all over the county. It’s such a simple fix and it doesn’t cost a dime. I’ll never understand it.
“I wish I could stop tomorrow, I really do,” she says, pausing.
“But I can’t. Tomorrow, the phone is going to ring and I’ll be out somewhere picking up a litter of puppies.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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