All Aboard the Mutt-i-gree Express!

By Frank Ruggiero (

Article Published: Jun. 13, 2013 | Modified: Jun. 13, 2013
All Aboard the Mutt-i-gree Express!

From left, Kristan McCormick and Ted Moriates, both of the North Shore Animal League, pose with PARTNERS! Canines transport coordinator Jessica Bryant and founder Melissa Bahleda — and some furry friends — before departing for Port Washington, N.Y. Tuesday.

Photo by Frank Ruggiero

For Melissa Bahleda, dog days aren’t reserved for summer.

Every month brings a special day in which the fruits of her labors are met with an enthusiastic bark, a gleeful wag of the tail and plenty of sloppy kisses.

When a souped-up, pet-friendly transport called the Mutt-i-gree Express pulls out of Boone — with dozens of shelter dogs and puppies that would otherwise have been euthanized — her mission, at least for the moment, has been accomplished.

Bahleda is founder and president of PARTNERS! Canines, a Watauga County-based nonprofit organization that gives shelter dogs a new leash on life.

“Most of the shelters and rescue groups in the High Country region are doing what they can to help the animals in their care the best way they can,” Bahleda said. “But the reality of the situation is that there are just to many animals out there needing homes, too many unwanted litters still being born and too much expected of these well-intentioned but overburdened animal care facilities.”

Space grows scarce in animal shelters, she said, as they continue to take in more animals than can feasibly be adopted.

“So, it just makes sense to pair the shelters that can’t place all their adoptable dogs and puppies with other groups that can,” she said.

Enter North Shore Animal League of Port Washington, N.Y. Known as the largest animal rescue and adoption organization in the world, North Shore has rescued more than 1 million dogs, cats, puppies and kittens since its establishment in 1944.

Some of these four-legged refugees come from homes where their owners can no longer care for them, but overcrowded shelters are North Shore’s primary target, Bahleda said.

That’s where the Mutt-i-gree Movement comes into play. Just what is a Mutt-i-gree?

According to North Shore’s website, “Adoptable animals are largely mixed-breed pets, animals that we call Mutt-i-grees, and when it comes time to obtain a pet, unique, healthy Mutt-i-grees are an amazing choice.”

As such, the movement is designed “to help rally animal loves from across the nation to put an end to … the unnecessary euthanasia of healthy companion animals,” Bahleda said.

Ted Moriates drives the Mutt-i-gree Express, traveling throughout the United States to collect shelter animals and bring them to North Shore’s no-kill adoption facility in New York, where they’re examined by a staff of veterinarians, spayed or neutered (if not already) and put up for adoption.
From there, it’s only a matter of time.

“They go pretty fast at our shelter,” Moriates said. “From June 1 to 2, we did 600 adoptions in 36 hours.”

During a regular month, the league averages about 200 adoptions per week, he said. Its recent five-week campaign, called the Tour of Life, saw approximately 2,000 animals adopted. “And a lot of those animals come from rescue groups,” Moriates said, with PARTNERS! being one of them.

On Tuesday, Moriates and colleague Kristan McCormick visited the Animal Hospital of Boone to pick up 61 dogs and puppies, which Bahleda and PARTNERS! transport coordinator Jessica Bryant rescued from regional shelters, including those in Watauga, Wilkes, Avery, Catawba, Iredell, Lincoln and Stokes counties, as well as Mountain City and Elizabethton in Tennessee.

“We try to send about 60 each trip,” Bahleda said, “which is the maximum the transport can hold.”

But before they go, each dog is given a thorough examination by Animal Hospital of Boone staff members, including Joanne Burkett and Elizabeth Milligan. By the time they board the Mutt-i-gree Express, they’re collared, tagged and accounted for with verified health certificates.

PARTNERS! and North Shore have worked together for more than eight years, having teamed up when Bahleda and company were based in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. When she and husband Tom relocated to the High Country, they brought the rescue effort with them, establishing the High Country Mutt-i-gree Express in 2012.

Since January, their combined efforts have saved approximately 600 dogs.

“Obviously, we have an issue here of too many animals in our shelters, but we also have an issue of too many adoptable animals in our shelters not getting adopted,” she said. “It’s sad when any animal in a shelter is euthanized, but it is even harder to tolerate when the really awesome pets, the ones who would make a good companion for almost anyone in a good situation … are also dying needlessly.”

It’s a problem, she said, but one with a solution: spaying and neutering.

“If everyone in the High Country with companion animals would just pledge to have their pets spayed (or) neutered in 2013, we could end this problem right now, this year,” she said.

For more information on PARTNERS! Canines, call (828) 297-7797 or email ( For information on low-cost spaying and neutering in the High Country, call the High Country Spay/Neuter Hotline at (855) 259-SPAY.

Additional Images

From left, Kristan McCormick and Ted Moriates, both of the North Shore Animal League, pose with PARTNERS! Canines transport coordinator Jessica Bryant and founder Melissa Bahleda — and some furry friends — before departing for Port Washington, N.Y. Tuesday.
Photo by Frank Ruggiero

North Shore Animal League’s Ted Moriates greets a canine passenger before departing for the nonprofit organization’s no-kill shelter in New York.
Photo by Frank Ruggiero

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