SALEM — Despite his close brush with death, Kiko the dog appeared little worse for wear after spending two days on the road, bound for his new life in New Hampshire.
A former resident of the Miami Dade Animal Shelter, the 3-year-old basset hound mix had been overlooked by potential adopters and was just days away from being euthanized.
But volunteers from the Dogs On The Move program, which pulls pets from high kill shelters in southern Florida and transports them to no-kill shelters and rescue organizations around the country, saw certain spark of sweetness in Kiko's big, brown eyes and wagging tail.
Well before dawn on Wednesday, Kiko was loaded into a crate and placed inside a van with about 20 other shelter dogs.
With Dogs On The Move workers Melissa Sorokin and Sabret Sordo taking turns behind the wheel, the barking busload pulled into the parking lot of Salem Animal Rescue League late Thursday afternoon.
This week's trip was extra special for Sorokin and Sordo as it represented the charity's 100th Florida transport.
Fifteen of the dogs now await their new home at the Salem shelter, with the remaining dogs brought to the Nashua Humane Society and other area rescue organizations.
D.J. Bettencourt, development and communications director for the rescue league, said this week's shipment was the largest thus far, though the Salem shelter has been working with the program for nearly two years.
As it turns out, the timing was perfect — Bettencourt said that 18 of the shelter's resident dogs had been adopted over the past few weeks, leaving plenty of room in the kennels for the Florida transplants.
"We're literally pulling dogs off death row here," he said. "These are dogs that probably wouldn't have made it if they stayed in the South because there are just so many of them."
Within moments after stepping out of their vans and into the crisp November air, each dog was taken on a much-needed walk by the dozen or so awaiting Salem Animal Rescue League staffers and volunteers.
The dogs were then placed in a 48-hour quarantine kennel and each underwent a full veterinary check-up. They'll be de-wormed and treated for fleas and ticks, then placed up for adoption via the rescue league's website.
"We're fortunate in this region to have a culture of spaying and neutering," Bettencourt said. "In the South, the dog and cat population has gotten pretty out of control."
Elisabeth Shuter, rescue league transport coordinator, said she works closely with Sorokin to select dogs that she feels are most likely to get adopted in New Hampshire.
It's no easy task.
Shuter said she leans towards younger dogs, as many potential adopters find them easier to train. While some of the Florida dogs have had minor medical problems in the past, all must be relatively healthy prior to being placed in their new homes.
Arriving at their new home base is often an emotional experience for those who make it a life's work to save pets' lives.
Sordo wiped away a tear as she placed Skip, a 1-year-old terrier mix, into Shuter's waiting arms.
"You are smart, you are kind, you are important," she whispered into the dog's ear, planting a kiss on his fuzzy forehead.
Sorokin said that partnerships with Salem Animal Rescue League and other participating shelters have saved countless critters over the past several years.
Just two years ago, the Miami Dade Animal Shelter had a euthanasia rate that was over 50 percent.
Today, thanks to the success of the Dogs On The Move program, the shelter has a 30-percent euthanasia rate — still far from ideal, but impressive progress nonetheless, considering the fact that between 40 to 60 pets are deposited at the Florida shelter every day.
Adoption rates of the former Florida dogs suggest a growing demand in other parts of the country, and the plan is to increase the number of monthly transports, organization officials said.
Two more shipments of Florida dogs are due to arrive in Salem next month, though space availability will ultimately dictate how many are accommodated.
"The good news is we're seeing a trend," Sorokin said. "People like to tell the story of how they rescued their dog. Because they know they've just saved a life."
For more information on adopting a new family member, visit http://www.sarlnh.org.