“Free Puppies” has lots of great dogs. It also has many heartwarming stories. Some of them are about dogs that find the right home, like Buddy, a big, floppy, adult bloodhound who manages to escape his foster caretaker a couple times. It’s also really hard not to love people like Monda Wooten, who has taken it upon herself to rescue dogs near her home in Trenton, Georgia, an area with very limited resources for animal control.
There’s an interesting teaser for the film. Hurricane Katrina prompted a massive migration of rescued animals out of the South. Filmmakers Samantha Wishman and Christina Thomas started to notice news stories of puppies arriving in northern spots ready for adoption. There’s a clip of 84 puppies arriving by plane in Morristown, New Jersey. Another 51 dogs arrives in Rochester, New York, via the Freedom Ride Rescue.
The filmmakers wanted to know why so many dogs from the South were finding new homes in the Northeast. That the answer is related to low income is no surprise, but their caring and thoughtful documentary “Free Puppies” takes the time to meet people who rescue animals and explore the challenges.
Wooten says she was not an animal lover until her son wanted a dog. He chose a little black Yorkshire Terrier at a shelter, but she couldn’t stop thinking about all of the other dogs left behind.
She took it upon herself to start rounding up strays and rescuing dogs. She housed them in the back of her own flooring business while trying to find new homes or move them to shelters or rescue organizations. The camera follows her to animal pick-ups and town hall meetings. She and another woman became known as the “Rescue Ladies,” and police, firemen and other local government workers called her when they found animals in need of help.
Wooten is endlessly charming and charismatic, and she’s also candid that she’s dealing with the fallout of many shortcomings. Some dogs are the products of unscrupulous (“backyard”) breeders or owners who don’t spay or neuter their pets. Others are relinquished by individuals who learn the hard way they can’t afford a pet or they weren’t prepared.
Wooten and Ruth Smith make several trips to the home of two older brothers who live in dilapidated trailers and struggle to get by on fixed income. They don’t want to give up any of their dogs, but they need help.
Dog adoption may be a solution, but it’s also part of the problem. Wooten notes that many people don’t spay or neuter animals. Instead, they simply put new, unwanted litters in a box by the side of the road with a sign reading “free puppies.”
Katrina spurred organized and funded efforts to move animals to areas of the country, generally with better animal control laws and more resources. Karen Walsh, the ASPCA’s Director of Relocation, says Katrina showed it was a viable way to address some of the need, and rescue organizations embraced it.
The filmmakers stick to the region of northeastern Georgia and Chattanooga, Tennessee. There’s a very brief history of animal control, and they mostly focus on talking to shelter workers and veterinarians, who do their best to manage the situation with available resources.
The strength of Wishman and Thomas’ film is the time they take listening to rescuers and pet owners. It’s inspiring to watch the animal lovers who go above and beyond their own stake. The film also has some of the best footage to watch during and after the credits. It makes all the rescue efforts feel very satisfying.
“Free Puppies” opens on Aug. 12 at Zeitgeist Theater & Lounge.