KINSTON, N.C. (AP) - Every day, hundreds of animals are taken in trucks, vans and cars from overcrowded Southern shelters where euthanasia rates sometimes reach 70 percent to states in the North, where puppies and kittens are not as plentiful.
It's a labor of love for those whose main goal is getting the animals off death row, but it can also have a dark side ranging from unscrupulous operators looking to make a quick buck to well-meaning incompetence.
Animal advocates say the transports are here to stay, thanks to a supply and demand imbalance between the South and the North, where spay and neuter programs are far more widespread. These advocates want to create standards to ensure pets aren't taken from overburdened shelters to an even worse fate.
"If you could take a truckload of dogs and cats up to Connecticut, and somebody is going to pay you $100 a dog, you're going to get as many animals as you can on that truck," said Kimberly Alboum, director of the North Carolina chapter of the Humane Society of the U.S.
"It's quite a market at this point, and it's really creating problems as far as unscrupulous transporters and unscrupulous rescuers," she said.
The worst-case scenario for Alboum is a situation like the one described by police in North Carolina's Rockingham County last October. Sheriff's deputies charged Thomas and Amber Adkins with misdemeanor animal cruelty after finding around 90 dogs on the couple's property.
Police said the Adkinses had taken many of the animals from a North Carolina shelter and were planning to bring them to New York. Some dogs were dead and others were eating their bodies, according to police.
Neither Adkins returned calls for this story.
"It's scary to me," Alboum said. "You're always leery of folks coming and pulling multiple animals from your shelter if you don't know where they're going."
Ernie Wilkinson agrees. The director of Johnston County Animal Services has boosted community support for the shelter, partly through adoption fairs at churches and events at schools.
But Wilkinson is wary of groups who call offering to take puppies up North.
"Anyone can say they're a rescue group," he says.
Wilkinson only deals with nonprofit groups registered with the Internal Revenue Service, and he also requires rescuers to provide a letter of recommendation from a veterinarian and undergo background checks.
The temptation for struggling shelters, though, is considerable.
Last year, at least 305,222 dogs and cats were dropped off at North Carolina shelters, and 214,475 were euthanized. The cost of handling all those animals is nearly $30 million. The real numbers are likely higher, because only 73 of 100 counties had reported their 2010 data to state government as of February.
On a recent day, the Lenoir County Animal Shelter in Kinston looked like a scene from "101 Dalmatians." There were puppies from a number of breeds wrestling each other in crates stacked three on the floor, puppies in the lobby, puppies under a desk, puppies behind a closet door.
"We fit "em in where we can," director Kim Petrusch said, raising her voice to be heard over the yippping.
The small shelter gets roughly 3,600 animals a year. Although nearly 1,300 were adopted last year, putting down the rest is emotionally taxing for workers who took the job because they love pets.
Rescue groups in the North say they also have to check transporters' credentials, because the homework helps ensure families adopt healthy, happy animals.
"In rescues, there are a lot of frantic calls of, "Oh my God, these two dogs in this particular shelter are going to die, we need to find homes now,"' said Joanna Reck, director of Andover, Mass.-based Great Dog Rescue New England, which has brought roughly 3,000 dogs from the South in eight years.
"But if you rush, sometimes a dog will come up here and it's sick, or it doesn't have the right temperament," she said.
Online message boards castigate drivers and rescue groups for reasons ranging from transporting sick animals to accepting ones that haven't been spayed or neutered. Even some well-meaning transporters fail to take proper precautions.
It's not uncommon for dogs to run off when novices pull over to let them stretch their legs, according to Mary Blake of Charlotte, who runs a volunteer transport group called Movin' On Up.
"I don't want to use the word "paranoid,' but you can't be too careful when you're moving these pups and kitties," said Blake, whose route usually goes from Atlanta to New York City.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals plans to have standards and guidelines on transports by the end of the year, covering issues from veterinary care to making sure animals aren't being driven hundreds of miles when adoptive homes can be found nearby.
"A single dog in a car is probably manageable, but anything more than that you need to know what you're doing," President Ed Sayres said.