A few years ago when New York City-based filmmaker Samantha Wishman went to pick up a dog she helped her parents adopt through Friends of Homeless Animals Rhode Island, she thought she was just going to meet a little Poodle mix named Stuart. But when volunteers unloaded around 80 dogs—including Stuart—from a truck that transported them to the Northeast from Mississippi, she grew curious.
“The driver said she makes the trip every weekend and that there were many more trips being made all the time,” Wishman told The Dog People. “That’s how the seed was planted or me.”
That seed grew into the First Run Features documentary Free Puppies! that Wishman directed and produced with Los Angeles-based filmmaker Christina Thomas, who also worked as director and co-producer. The film premiered August 12, 2022 and is now being screened around the country at special premieres and rescue events.
Meet the “Tri-State Rescue Ladies”
The film offers an eye-opening glimpse into the activities of three women in the Tri-State area of Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama who are working to save the lives of dogs and cats in the rural South.
The three women—known as the “Tri-State Rescue Ladies”: Monda Wooten, who makes room to foster dogs at her flooring store in Trenton, Georgia; Ruth Smith, of Trooper’s Treasures Dog Rescue in Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Ann Brown of Tri-State Humane Society in Trenton, Georgia—frequently get phone calls about neglected or abused animals. We see the trio visit remote, impoverished areas to urge people to let them take a mama to get spayed and to get veterinary care for her and her puppies—sometimes at personal risk to themselves.
Wishman said the rescuers’ determination and commitment to saving animal lives made an impression on her.
“The courage of the women the whole time was obviously inspiring to us,” the filmmaker said. “They were just so strong and relentless and trying to do what they can.”
The Hidden Cost of “Free” Puppies
The reasons why pet overpopulation is so severe in the Southern states are challenging and complex—they range from poverty and lack of access to veterinary care to warmer winters that don’t kill off strays and allow for more reproduction. Additionally, animal protection laws are some of the poorest in the nation, and the few on the books are harder to enforce with so much room to roam in rural areas. There is a persistent need to educate more people about spay/neuter.
One Dog, One Day, at a Time
Depending on the situation, the women return some dogs after their veterinary care, while others get a “golden ticket” to be transported north where there’s more demand for adoptable pets. Viewers learn of the impact spay/neuter could have in reducing pet overpopulation in the South—something Wooten feels is the key to ending the crisis.
“I don’t care how big you build a shelter—you can fill it up. There’s always more than you could ever do,” she told The Dog People.
Over 25 years ago when Wooten started rescuing dogs, she might save a litter of eight puppies and feel good about finding them new homes. But she soon realized without also having the mom spayed, she was taking “one step forward and ten steps backwards.”
“Because the mom can multiply a whole lot faster than you can save them,” she explained.
When the ladies can’t re-home puppies and dogs locally—like one happy story of a rescued Bloodhound named Houston who finds a home with a deputy and his 10-year-old twins—the canines can be transported north by a grassroots network of volunteers and nonprofit rescue organizations such as Rescue Express. In one fun scene, volunteers in Wisconsin host a “spa day” to help newly transported dogs become clean and presentable to help with their chances for adoption.
“I think transport’s very important because the more animals we can get out of here, it’s almost like saving them,” Wooten said.
Transporting Dogs Saves Lives
Though transport has saved countless lives—the ASPCA alone transported its 200,000th animal to safety in March of 2022—there’s still a crisis in this country. Americans stepped up to adopt and foster dogs in the wake of pandemic lockdowns in 2020, but over two years later, adoptions have slowed and many shelters are once again overflowing.
Best Friends Animal Society, Human Animal Support Services and other major rescue organizations have been raising the alarm that shelter dogs and cats are at increased risk of euthanasia this year.
So, there’s more need for volunteers, adopters, and donations than ever, Wooten believes. She’s been pushing for Dade County, where she lives in Georgia, to build a new animal shelter for years and now with Free Puppies! premiering during the current crisis, she hopes it will finally happen.
“Believe it or not, I think we’re on the verge of it,” she said, adding, “There’s a true value in adopting with a rescue because we normally know the story behind the animal and we want to make it the very best placement possible.”
Raising Awareness—and Hope
Filmmaker Christina Thomas shares a close bond with her rescue dog, Ruphus. Making the movie was deeply meaningful to her, she says.
“I was very honored that [the Tri-State Rescue Ladies] let us into their lives and trusted us enough to let us follow them,” she told The Dog People. “They let us really be right by their side.”
She was so moved witnessing how hard the “Tri-State Rescue Ladies” work that she started volunteering at a local shelter in Los Angeles.
The film closes with an upbeat song, “Doo Wop Doggy,” by the family band, A. Rae Band, which rolls over shots of rescued dogs frolicking in and around a swimming pool during a rescue event in Wisconsin.
“It was just this moment of hope for the end of the film,” Thomas said. “We are all in this together and any way that we can help each other, we should. To save these dogs.”
A portion of every ticket sale is donated to animal rescue organizations. Visit the film’s website to learn more about the film, upcoming screening dates near you, and a list of resources to help get involved in animal rescue.