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Pay it Forward: Homeward Trails

A dog rescued by Homeward Trails. (NewsChannel 8)

WASHINGTON (NewsChannel 8) – Plenty of people are guilty of over-packing. Not many people pack extra pets. Sue Bell is one of those few people, and that’s how Homeward Trails, a local non-profit that rescues animals from rural areas was created.

In 2002 Bell was vacationing with friends in a cabin in West Virginia during the Christmas holiday when she wondered into a nearby animal shelter.

“I stopped in, being an animal lover, to donate some dog biscuits. I got talking to them and found out that their permanent shelter had been hit by a flash flood that year and they lost 50 animals that had all drowned in their cages,” she said.

Bell was heartbroken and compelled to take action. Three days later, as she packed to head home, she had added four animals—three dogs and a kitten.

“All in my Subaru,” she said, “with the purposes of finding them new homes.”

In 2002 Bell was still working a full-time job in D.C., but she set out to find the animals new homes.

“I made some flyers, I put the word out among friends, and the biggest idea I had was to put an ad in the Washington Post,” Bell said.

After being bombarded with emails and requests for the animals, Bell began to compile a list so that she could bring more pets to more people; the list gave way to an idea.

“Here's this rural shelter in West Virginia where nine out of the 10 animals they take in are euthanized, and here are all these dozens of people wanting animals that seem to be down there,” she said.

So, Bell began making regular trips back to the rural shelter in West Virginia. She’d get up at 4 a.m. to get there by 10 a.m. and spend a couple of hours picking out cats and dogs. She’d drive back to D.C. and match all the pets with their new owners, still while working a full-time job.

Bell initially wanted to pay it forward for the animals that drowned in the flood, so her goal was to rescue and place 50 pets.

“And then it just became an obsession, so, as I was working and traveling, I was doing business deals under my desk, underneath work tables at meetings in the District, matching people with animals. And then Pet Finder was founded,” Bell said.

In 2002, Bell’s efforts officially became Homeward Trails and shortly thereafter the shelter began working with Pet Finder.

The online pet placing and adoption website launched in 1996 and became a national resource to help place people with pets. In 2005 Pet Finder and Homeward Trails, like many shelters around the nation, were sent into overdrive after Hurricane Katrina as the country saw so many animals displaced.

Homeward Trails continues its work, of which there is plenty, even without natural disasters.

Most of the animals come from rural shelters where owners aren’t responsible.

“They do not spay and neuter, they don't vaccinate and they tend to let their animals run free,” Bell said.

The shelters often don’t have the space or resources to tend to the amount of animals they take in, particularly ill animals, which contribute to high euthanizing rates.

Homeward Trails has rescued more than 17,000 animals. It also opened its first cage-less shelter this year. The shelter is powered largely by volunteers and a small staff. While Homeward Trails is now Bell’s full-time job, the work can be sad, but she says the good days make it all worth it.

“There's a person who's taking in these animals every single day and that keeps us going,” she said. “Every single day we have an amazing heartwarming story that tops the last day.”

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