updated 06/23/2010 AT 10:31 AM ET
•originally published 06/23/2010 AT 7:45 AM ET
Real estate agent Shelly Bookwalter was already heading down the highway with a cargo of rescued stray dogs in Marshall County, Tenn., when she came across a litter of puppies, partially buried in the dirt on the side of the road.
“They’re coming today; I’m not leaving ‘em – period,” Bookwalter said. With that, she scooped up the puppies and brought the mama dog to her truck.
But the dogs were no strays. In fact, the dogs’ owner was nearby. He told her the puppies were headed for his grandchildren, and he wasn’t about to give them up. These canines are likely to be some of the few Bookwalter has ever left behind.
The scene opens the first episode of Animal Planet’s new series, Last Chance Highway, which features Bookwalter’s work in finding new homes for America’s Southern states’ chronic dog overpopulation. Working with pet transporter Kyle Peterson and country singer Lucas Hoge, Bookwalter moves stray and homeless pets from certain death to new lives and homes with owners in the Northeast.
“I always had a soft heart for the strays,” she tells PEOPLEPets.com. “I happen to be born with a spirit to help animals.”
Since she was a teenager, Bookwalter has spent her own funds to treat sick animals and find new homes for stray ones. She estimates that she spends around $75,000 each year on rescuing dogs, and luckily, her success as a real estate agent has largely funded her work.
“I’m never not selling homes or rescuing dogs,” she says. “I could be sleeping, and still selling homes and adopting dogs out.”
Peterson provides the wheels – two trailers that his company, P.E.T.S. Transport Service, uses to move pets from shelters and pounds in the South to homes in places like New York and New Hampshire. Peterson started the company with his wife in 2004, and now transports about 6,000 dogs each year.
“Any given week, we transport 150 dogs at one time between the two trailers,” Peterson says. “It’s a full-time, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week business.”
And the number of dogs that Peterson is asked to transport each year only grows, thanks to a greater awareness in the rescue community about how to find new homes for dogs. Still, Peterson wants that number to get down to zero.
“If we could put ourselves out of business, meaning that there’s not an overpopulation problem anymore in our shelters,” she says, “then we’ve done our job.”
Catch new episodes of Last Chance Highway on Animal Planet, Saturdays at 8.