Filmmaker 5 with Samantha Wishman and Christina Thomas: Free Puppies!

Pandemic puppies. With the U.S. on lockdown during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people looking for companionship brought home a new dog. These happy stories of pet adoption made headlines nationwide.

The connection not making the news was to another national disaster 15 years prior, the devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In its wake, Hurricane Katrina left more than 250,000 pets stranded in the South, giving way to a nation-wide dog rescue effort. Since then, millions of Southern rescue dogs have been transported to new homes, many in the North, thanks to the tireless efforts of a grassroots network of dog rescuers. And while the media loves image of dogs climbing out of transport trucks into the arms of eager adopters making their way to new homes, little attention has been paid to the other side of the story and where these dogs started their journey.

The documentary film Free Puppies! tells the origin story of a network of independent “rescue ladies” who patrol vast rural counties in the Tennessee Valley caring for stray and surrendered dogs. In rural areas with no public animal services, these women volunteer to rescue countless dogs from neglect and the prospect of euthanasia, placing them in forever homes across the country.

Free Puppies!, a true story about the heartbreak and heroism of dog rescue in America, is available on VOD on major platforms and DVD in the U.S. and Canada from December 13, 2022. Our Classic Couple Academy interview with filmmakers Samantha Wishman and Christina Thomas follows.

Filmmaker 5.1: What was the most surprising and the most inspiring thing you discovered about the women you feature in Free Puppies!?

Filmmaker Christina Thomas
Filmmaker Samantha Wishman

Most of the women also have full-time jobs and are doing dog rescue in their “spare time.” Like the saying goes: A woman’s work is never done! Of the main rescuers we follow, Ruth Smith is a special-ed teacher and Monda Wooten owns a discount flooring business. It’s amazing how many dogs and people rely on them and how much they get done in a day – they go from caring for sick puppies to lobbying government officials to confronting hostile owners, all with a sweet tea and a smile.

Filmmaker 5.2: How did being female filmmakers—women in film—aid in your interactions with the rescue ladies” you encountered while making the film? 

Being female filmmakers allowed us to connect with our subjects and identify with their perspectives and experiences. By having insight into their motivations or being sensitive to how people engage with them as women, we were seeing the story from a woman’s point of view.

Rescuers Ruth Smith and Monda Wooten taking a litter of puppies from a home in Rossville, GA, as seen in Free Puppies!

Filmmaker 5.3: You are both based in the North—NYC and Philadelphia. How did your perspectives as “Northerners” find their way into the film and influence its structure? 

One of the wonderful things about transport is that it’s brought together people from different parts of the country that are working together to save dogs. And yet, among “Northerners,” we found little awareness of the challenges facing the communities these dogs come from. We believed strengthening that understanding could lead to positive change, perhaps even in ways that extend beyond animal welfare. So, the film is driven by inquiry and discovery.

Filmmaker 5.4: Free Puppies! takes on the subject of poverty, especially in the rural South. Was that theme apparent when you set out to make the film? How did it evolve as you uncovered different stories? 

When we set out to make the film, we knew the lack of adequate resources was a major challenge facing communities where many of these Southern rescue dogs come from. For example, counties without enough money to support a public shelter or without low-cost spay and neuter options for people who need it. But we ended up following stories that gave a much more intimate view into both the macro forces behind – and personal impact of – rural poverty.

A rescue puppy arrives on transport and meets her new owner at the Vince Lombardi Service Station in NJ, as seen in Free Puppies!

Filmmaker 5.5: Why do dog owners need to watch this film? Why do non dog owners need to watch this film?

Dog owners need to watch this film to learn more about all of the people and hard work that go into saving just one dog. If they bought their dog, hopefully the film will lead them to rescue in the future. For non dog owners, they’ll have fun watching a spirited group of women with a shared passion for saving dogs and improving their communities –  it might even inspire them to be better citizens and better humans!

Classic Couple Recommends

Watch the Free Puppies! trailer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *