Heidi Streetman had frequently passed rescue groups parked outside her neighborhood PetSmart, where cute adoptable pets in need of homes were on display, wagging their tails. Streetman had planned to pick up some dog treats, but a jet-black puppy named Pearl changed her plans.

Heidi Streetman and new puppy named Pearl“She walked up to me like, ‘There you are! I've been waiting for you to show up',” said Streetman of Broomfield, Colo. “I had just put my other dog down the week before, and I wasn't ready.”

But that didn't matter. A few days later, Pearl officially joined the Streetman family, which includes a Maine coon named Zinnia and a senior chow-shepherd-Husky mix named Zulubaloo. It didn’t take long for Pearl to settle into her new life. The frisky puppy quickly claimed the comfiest chair and occupied prime real estate on the bed. When Mother Nature doused Colorado with 25 inches of snow, Pearl dashed along freshly plowed paths like a racehorse. The happy ending may sound familiar, but how it all happened is a story worth sharing.

Pearl’s long journey to the Streetman house began more than a thousand miles away. Abandoned in the woods of North Carolina with two litter mates, Pearl was rescued by Georgia volunteers determined to help her find a forever home. Although the puppy was impossibly cute, the rescuers knew she would face stiff competition. About 6 million to 8 million cats and dogs enter U.S. shelters each year, according to estimates by the Humane Society of the United States. Half of those adoptable animals are euthanized. And typically, black dogs are the last to be adopted.

Pearl’s good fortune would not have happened without two determined sisters, a cross-country trek and a horse named Joey.

Abandoned pets leave lasting impressions

Chamblee and Lindsay Abernethy (pictured below) grew up surrounded by animals on a 14-acre farm in north Georgia. Their four-legged brood often expanded to include dogs that had been abandoned along the rural roads near their home. Eventually, their parents took the dogs to the local shelter, which left Chamblee heartbroken. Years later, two dogs wandered onto the Abernethy farm and Chamblee decided she wasn't going to let their story play out the same way.  

Chamblee met volunteers from a rescue group called Tails and Whiskers outside her neighborhood PetSmart. With the group's help, Abernethy found a home for one of the dogs, Rusty, and her sister adopted the other.

She returned the favor by volunteering for the rescue group. Every Saturday, Abernethy helped unload about 20 adoptable cats and dogs and spent the day talking to people, taking applications and, eventually, loading pets back into the van for their trip home. Through her work, Chamblee became keenly aware of the depth of Georgia's homeless pet problem and she was determined to make a difference.

In addition to stray dogs, Abernethy frequently encountered dogs left chained outdoors, which led her to lobby for an anti-tethering ordinance in DeKalb County.

When she moved to Athens, Ga., Abernethy would cycle past a mobile home park where she saw many dogs left outside without shelter or water. With her husband acting as translator, Chamblee worked with the Spanish-speaking pet owners at the park by paying for materials if they would build fences and get the animals spayed. She improved the lot of 32 dogs over the course of 18 months.

But progress was slow-going, and Abernethy eventually grew tired of fighting an uphill battle. It was time to pack up and go. Abernethy moved to a pet-friendly community just outside of Boulder, Colo., where she could enjoy her passion for cycling. But her urge to help homeless pets stayed with her.

“I always had a vision of transporting pets from the Southeast to here,” she said. “There’s a great demand and no surplus. ... I knew that if we could tap into transporting from the Southeast, that would be a pretty amazing thing.”

So earlier this year, Abernethy put that theory to the test.

Southern Mutts Rescue Wagon hits the road

Lindsay Abernethy shared her sister’s passion for rescuing pets. After graduating from law school, she moved to Colorado to live with Chamblee. She also made arrangements to retrieve Joey, a 13-year-old rescued thoroughbred gelding she had left with friends in Alabama. Since Joey required a horse trailer for transport, the sisters decided to let other pets hitch a ride. With that, the Southern Mutts Rescue Wagon was born.

Chamblee worked with Georgia rescue groups to find the pet passengers — 10 cats and 12 dogs — while Lindsay planned the 1,200-mile trek that would transport Georgia pets from Tupelo, Miss., to Boulder, Colo. The Humane Society of Boulder Valley agreed to help place the animals. Chamblee and Lindsay created a Facebook page to spread the word, raising $3,000 for gas, vaccinations, and spay and neuter procedures. Lindsay and her boyfriend, Josh Derryberry, made the drive while Chamblee stayed in Colorado, caring for the family's animals.

Driving through Oklahoma City on Easter Sunday to the pickup point, Lindsay passed a stray dog on the interstate and was tempted to stop, even though she knew all the spots in the horse trailer were reserved. Then Derryberry told her that she had just passed two puppies. They turned around at the next exit.

Gracie and Okey“We turned on the hazards and looked for 20 minutes,” she said. “We were just about to give up and go, when we saw them 20 feet in front of the truck and 6 feet off the interstate. The female was barely even moving. The male was sitting up looking at us. He was obviously too tired to run from us.” (You can see their video here.)

The new pups (pictured right), joined the Southern Mutts Rescue Wagon on its maiden voyage. On April 6, the group arrived in Mississippi to meet volunteers who had traveled from Atlanta with the other 22 pets.

Boarding the pets took more than two hours. They traveled through the night, stopping in Oklahoma City only for a pit stop. And then the social media push began. As Facebook fans tracked the pets' journey, the Boulder Valley Humane Society posted profiles and began to promote the new Georgia additions — with great success.

“We would look at that website two or three times a day, and it kept dwindling and dwindling,” Lindsay said.

Within the first week, nine cats and nearly half the dogs had found forever homes. After 19 days, all but one of the Southern Mutts had been adopted, including a pit mix named Maple who had spent two years in Georgia foster homes. Grace was later adopted by Derryberry, while the other puppy picked up along the way was renamed Okey and found a forever home with the people who board Abernethy’s horse. The remaining dog is a 5-year-old pit bull named Moose who had spent his life chained outside. He was transferred to the Longmont Humane Society, which agreed to provide training and help find his forever home.

In the meantime, the Abernethy sisters are hoping that the Souther Mutts' caravan will inspire others to spay, neuter and adopt rescue animals. Oh, and they're already planning their next trip.

Follow Morieka on Twitter @SoulPup or visit her at SoulPup.com.

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Inset photos: Heidi Streetman and Pearl, the rescue pup. (Photo: Lindsay Abernethy); Lindsay Abernethy and Josh Derryberry found these two puppies on the way to Colorado and had to stop.(Photo: Lindsay Abernethy)