Southern Pines Animal Shelter is proud of the work we are able to do across Mississippi. As an open admission shelter, Southern Pines takes in more than 7,000 pets each year. While this number is overwhelming at times, we are so thankful for community support, a thriving adoption program, and a robust transport program. We are also proud to work with a network of other shelters and animal welfare organizations in our state and nationwide to make a lifesaving difference for thousands of pets each year. This year alone, our transport program has saved the lives of more than 3,500 dogs and cats.
While we celebrate these successes with our community, this year, our shelter was rocked by tragedy. An accident claimed the lives of 11 of our dogs who were traveling North to find their new homes. We feel these losses everyday as we search for answers and push forward to continue our lifesaving work. Over the last two months, Southern Pines has worked tirelessly to understand this loss of life and to ensure that our transport program remains safe, continuing to save lives in a responsible way.
We hold our transport program—and all of our programs—to a very high standard, and we continually search for ways in which we can improve. We turn to national experts and best practices to strengthen our policies and procedures. And we remain committed to transparency with you, our community, as we carry forward with a promise to always do everything we can to protect the animals in our care and bring them to a happy life in new, loving homes. Below, is an update on the accident and the steps we have taken to strengthen our program.
Once again, we thank you for standing by us through this devastating time; for supporting our work; and for helping to make a difference for pets in need.
On July 6, 2018, Southern Pines Animal Shelter loaded a scheduled transport of 50 canines. Approximately 4 hours after leaving the shelter, the transport vehicle broke down and 11 dogs and puppies were immediately found to be deceased. Despite some initial misinformation given by observers at the scene, the dogs were found to have become deceased prior to the breakdown of the vehicle.
The Southern Pines transport vehicle is a 2016 Ford Transit. The van has a front and rear AC, both with no history of malfunction. The van receives regular maintenance to include oil changes, tire tread checks and alignments, fluid checks, and general mechanical inspection.
Upon departing from Southern Pines, the vehicle appeared to be in working order, and both AC units were operational and cooling. Following the incident, the vehicle was moved to a shop for inspection. At that time the mechanics performed a multi-point inspection including checking the gas gauges, the fuel system, the exhaust system, and both ACs. Their report identified no issue with any of these systems. They were able to identify at the conclusion of the overall inspection that the relay controlling the engine cooling system was faulty and had caused the vehicle to overheat and shut off. Once the vehicle was cleared, it was moved back to Hattiesburg for a second inspection. They also could not identify issues with the AC units or the exhaust system.
While no definitive answers regarding cause of death for the animals was discovered, it was speculated that the overheating engine could have caused the power to be pulled from non-essential systems prior to shutting off. This may have put strain on the systems or impacted the overall temperature of the vehicle; however, there was no way to determine when or if during the trip that may have occurred. The back AC was functioning appropriately when inspected but was taken apart and cleaned to ensure continued optimal functionality.
Both drivers report that during the 4-hour drive, the vehicle remained cool. They also reported that at the time of the breakdown, as they immediately opened the doors, all areas of the van felt cool. Additionally, the drivers did not indicate feeling sick, dizzy, or unwell during the drive. At no point did they see or hear any animals in distress from the time of departure until the breakdown.
The July 6th transport included 50 animals of which 21 were puppies, and 29 were adult canines. Each animal was checked prior to departure to insure they were healthy and ready to travel. Prior to departure, Southern Pines staff completed an additional headcount of all animals and observed each animal to ensure they appeared bright and alert and fit for travel. At this time, one small breed, obese dog (not included in the above count) appeared to be very stressed and uncomfortable. The staff removed this dog from the transport for her safety and comfort. All of the other animals appeared healthy and ready for travel.
When the van broke down at approximately 5:30pm, the drivers immediately began opening the vehicle doors and removing animals from the vehicle to prevent the possibility of overheating while the engine was off. At this time, they report the vehicle felt cool. Upon unloading the crates, they determined that 11 dogs were deceased and their remains indicated that they had become deceased prior to the breakdown. Two additional surviving dogs were sent to a nearby emergency vet clinic (one for blood in urine, and one for lethargy) to be monitored overnight. These dogs were found to have issues not related to transport. The dog with blood in his urine was thought to have a complication from heartworm treatment, and the lethargic dog was suffering from an unknown GI infection. Both were cleared and released by the vet the following day. We completed treatment for the GI infection and continued to monitor both dogs once they were back at Southern Pines Animal Shelter. The vet indicated that he did not believe either dog was suffering from heat-related or carbon monoxide related issues. They both made a full recovery.
The animals that passed away were housed primarily near the back of the vehicle. Two of the deceased animals were sent for necropsy the Monday morning following the transport incident. The reports and follow-up consultations with the performing veterinarian were unable to provide clear cause of death. Heat-related death and carbon monoxide-related death (the two primary suspects) could not be confirmed or ruled out. It was determined by the veterinarian that sending more samples for necropsy would not result in more conclusive results.
In the absence of definitive results on the cause of death for the animals on board, Southern Pines has made an effort to address all suspected causes and areas of concern as well as to reexamine existing protocols and procedures for transport to ensure safety and success of future transports.
New Carbon Monoxide sensors, rear thermometers, and temperature monitoring were installed in the vehicle. These allow drivers to monitor the temperature of the rear of the vehicle at all times. Additionally, Southern Pines purchased a secondary cooling unit which operates independently of the vehicle’s power to be used in the event of a power failure or emergency.
In order to better monitor and oversee transports while on the road, Southern Pines is also researching the installation of a device that allows for real-time monitoring of the transport vehicle and issues related to speed, location, stops, and break-downs. This would allow for better control and monitoring of active transports by support staff and quicker alerts and response in cases of emergency. Additionally, we are researching the addition of cameras that will give the driving team a better view of all kennels and animals throughout the trip.
We have also reviewed nationally recognized best practice transport guidelines and reached out to transport partners for copies of their transport guidelines in order to make sure that our program is operating at the high standard we expect. We have modified our guidelines to create more safety measures, structure, and accountability during all parts of the transport process, and we continue to work closely with other national transport partners and organizations to find additional areas in which we can strengthen these guidelines.
While the transport van has always been equipped with first aid supplies, we have also worked to strengthen safety protocols by ensuring drivers have access to listings of local vets and emergency resources along their travel route. Our transport drivers do have animal care experience and training, and we have worked to insure that they are comfortable with transport guidelines and protocols, especially during emergency situations.
Southern Pines takes this accident very seriously, and in the wake of this devastation, we have worked to examine each part of our transport program, identifying and addressing areas where safety measures and protocols could be strengthened. Transporting more than 5,000 pets per year is an incredible responsibility, and one that we do not take lightly. We value the commitment and support from our partners and community, and we are working diligently to ensure that our program continues to be a safe and responsible life-saving effort for the pets and people involved.
Thank you again for your support, compassion, and outpouring of love as we have grieved and grown from this tragedy. We look forward to working with you all to continue making a difference for pets in need.
For the animals,
Southern Pines Animal Shelter
Blog articles are written by staff and volunteers of Southern Pines Animal Shelter.