Are you a dog person? “Free puppies!” is a documentary about the world of rescue dogs in America. He may not have much new information, but he has a big heart and is of service to an important issue, which he handles with care. The more you love man’s best friend, the more this little film will warm your heart.
Gone with the winter
Co-directed by Christina Thomas and Samantha Wishman, “Free Puppies!” follows dog rescuers living their mission and walking their talk in rural Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee counties. It not only tells wellness stories about dog rescues, but also the often heartbreaking reasons why dog overpopulation happens in the first place, why solutions are often so difficult to find, and how all of the above can lead to the sad situation even the most devout and committed dog rescuers have to resort to euthanasia.
This is exclusively a Southern tale; the reason being, as we learn, thousands of dogs are being transported north from areas of the country with high animal euthanasia rates, i.e. primarily the southern United States, the reason being that it is hot there; stray animals do not easily survive northern winters. It also has to do with low income areas, economic hardship and lack of education. Rescue dogs and puppies are sent to where there are fewer unwanted dogs and more grateful adopters ready to provide forever homes.
The Rescue Ladies
We follow lifeguards like Monda Wooten in rural areas of the Georgia-Alabama-Tennessee tri-state area; we are shown firsthand what canine overpopulation can lead to; the challenges as well as some success stories. “Free puppies!” is a true South of the Mason-Dixon slice of Americana, from the twangy overtones of his guitar and banjo-laden original music, to the twangy overtones of rural Georgian accents.
In addition to Monda, there is Ruth Smith, Ann Brown and a few others. These wonderful women often face seemingly insurmountable obstacles: lack of volunteers, rescue in cities with low populations and small budgets. In other words, virtually non-existent funds to support their efforts.
One particularly touching section concerns two elderly brothers, including a Vietnamese vet, living in caravans in the hills, who have litters of unwanted puppies running rampant. One fact that this film does not reveal but is explained in another documentary aptly titled “Stray Dog” is that Vietnam veterans tend to have lots of small dogs around them, like extra hearts, to help them carry their PTSD and stagger the grief of the horrible things they have seen and experienced during this war. It would have been nice if a little more time had been taken to listen to this veteran’s story and hear how his dogs have helped him, as it’s clear he’s still reliving his Vietnamese nightmare on a daily basis.
Wooten is the most captivating of the ladies. She is a city commissioner and business owner in Trenton, Georgia (population: 2,303). She relentlessly tackles the rescue of dogs in her area and facilitates neutering efforts. She constantly faces resistant dog owners, suspicious residents and many people who just don’t get it and do things like leave the dogs – for life – in the backyard, tied to a tree, on a short chain. The ladies have facilitated many illegal rescues and cut many chains.
“Free puppies!” is largely a hopeful film. He may not have a whole lot of style, but his abundance of heart makes up for that. What he could have used more, or rather a ploy that would have been useful to adopt (no pun intended), is the format used by “The Dodo”, the popular company that tells rescue stories 5 Minute Animals on Social Media. They typically follow one, two, or three animals from the disastrous, near-death origins of their discovery, documenting their healing journey, which ultimately leads to the discovery of their “forever home.”
This format is unfailingly effective; viewers immediately develop a huge connection with the animals and the rescuers/guardians. After a few short minutes, there is enormous relief in seeing the animal’s personality transition from deep anguish, depression, fear and despair at the beginning, to absolute joy, contentment and gratitude at the end. These videos, and the now-defunct website that many of these animal videos were inspired by – CuteOverload.com – dramatically changed animal awareness around the world and contributed to many words in the American lexicon, such as “hoomin” (human), “nosicle” (nose), “beans” (kittens’ pads), “smol” (small), “nom-nom-nom” (animals munching food), etc.
“Free Puppies” could have used this approach more and followed a few stray puppies and dogs on their journey to happiness. With endless cardboard boxes full of litters of writhing puppies, kennels overflowing with desperate barking locals, trucks stacked with cages of dogs preparing for the long journey north, and streets lined with dogs without shelter, this borders on exaggeration and the dogs come close to presenting as a vermin infestation. Less would have been more in this regard – more effect in motivating hoomins to adopt rescue dogs instead of keeping puppy mills running.
Directed by: Christina Thomas, Samantha Wishman
Duration: 1 hour, 8 minutes
Release date: August 12, 2022
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars