DENVER — The black Labrador retriever mix with a splash of white on his chest gazes quizzically at the Denver Dumb Friends League volunteer snapping his photo — a freeze-frame soon to be posted online in the hope that his beseeching eyes might connect in a life-changing way with a receptive human.
At 9 years old, he's mellow and in good health, except for the dental work that will briefly delay his availability for adoption. And he's road weary from the 14-hour journey that brought him here with a van load of other dogs abandoned, surrendered or otherwise cast off to the Peaceful Animal Adoption Shelter in rural Oklahoma.
"You've come to the right place, bud," says one of the volunteers.
His prospects for living out his dog-years with an attentive adoptive family rose exponentially once the van crossed the state line. He and his 36 fellow canine travelers, except for a few puppies too young to be adopted yet, will find new homes within days. They make up just one sliver of a far-flung pet transport effort that counts Colorado among the most desirable destinations.
Nearly 30,000 documented dogs from out of state, predominantly to the south, made their way in 2016 to Colorado shelters and rescues, where the live-release rate hovers around 90 percent and virtually no adoptable dogs are euthanized for lack of space to hold them.
That number has risen steadily from about 17,000 in 2014 as demand for family pets has led to a patchwork of partnerships between local shelters and rescues with organizations in regions where overpopulation continues to be a vexing problem. In all, 135 registered Colorado shelters or rescues transported adult dogs from out of state in 2016, according to state records, with 90 of them also taking in puppies.
Coloradans from pet owners to welfare experts attribute the state's status as an extremely pet-friendly landing spot to demographic, geographic, economic and cultural factors, as well as a largely successful, decades-long push toward normalizing spay and neuter procedures. A highly educated populace, an outdoors-oriented region and a culture that tends to place significant value on pets as family members coalesced around heightened expectations for animal treatment.
"We believe that years and years of humane education, responding to animal cruelty and neglect and making animals have value in our community has really been successful," says Apryl Steele, CEO of the Denver Dumb Friends League. "It's been this step upward for animals in society, and our community has buy-in about the value of animals, especially cats and dogs."
Culturally, Colorado has come to recognize pets as integral members of many families, giving rise to more dog-friendly policies among landlords and businesses and creating a burgeoning market for four-legged companions.
That stands in marked contrast to areas of the U.S., primarily in the South, where live release rates in some areas can dip as low as 30 percent — seven in 10 are euthanized, even healthy animals that would be highly adoptable in Colorado. Warmer year-round weather conditions allow stray pets to more readily survive on their own and reproduce, perpetuating the cycle.
Roger Haston, chief of analytics for Arizona-based PetSmart Charities, and other experts stress that the relationship between organizations with a surplus of dogs and those with access to an eager pool of adopters has to extend beyond simple supply and demand to address the root causes of overpopulation.
"Transport is not a solution but a temporary release valve," says Haston, whose group doles out millions in grants and was an early supporter of the practice. "When we get that collaborative effort, it's pretty amazing."
Even Colorado shelters far removed from the Denver metro area, like La Plata County Humane Society in Durango, also serve as a conduit that not only sends dogs from their own area to the Front Range but dogs from other states as well. Director Chris Nelson takes in up to 700 a year through what he terms a "pipeline" from the Southwest and Texas. Most find homes in the Durango area, but last year he sent about 40 to the Denver-Boulder area.
His shelter progressed from a 30 percent euthanasia rate in 1997 to less than 2 percent now, reflecting spay and neuter awareness that has lifted the entire state.
If Coloradans are quick to open their homes, Nelson adds, they're also ready to open wallets when a story touches them. He recalls the case of a German shepherd puppy named Lieutenant Dan, who appeared to be paralyzed and was about to be euthanized when workers discovered he actually had feeling in his leg. A plan was hatched to put the dog in swimming therapy and raise money for a wheelchair that would make him mobile.
They put the story on Facebook and reached out to some TV stations. In a week, $32,000 poured in — with $20,000 of that from Front Range communities. The money paid for the wheelchair, but also for orthopedic procedures on four other dogs and more surgeries over the next couple of years.
"It doesn't work if you do it every week," Nelson says. "But if you've got the right story, it helps."
It doesn't hurt the cause that more and more people have found companionship with dogs that come from rough — or maybe just indeterminate — beginnings.
Nelson, the director of the Durango shelter, figures the same people who used to crave Golden Retrievers now find a certain cachet in adopting rescue dogs. He calls it the Katrina Phenomenon. People would call him wanting to adopt dogs transported after the 2005 hurricane and he'd tell them that while he didn't have any of those, he did have dozens of other wonderful dogs ready to go.
The paradigm shift that has made Colorado such an enthusiastic home for so many cast-offs from other states eventually will spread, figures Nelson, the director of the Durango shelter, raising the profile of pets as family members.
"As jaded as I am about humanity in this job, I think culturally we're changing," he says. "Even if the trend of getting a rescue or shelter dog will fade, it'll be strong enough to last generationally. My mom didn't want dogs on the couch. Her mom didn't want them in the house. We've changed as a society, for the better."