Film Review: ‘Free Puppies!’: Where America’s Rescue Dogs Come From

Mark Jackson
Are you a dog person? “Free Puppies!” is documentary about the world of rescue dogs in America. It might not have a whole lot in the way of new information, but it’s got a big heart and is in service of an important issue, which it handles with care. The more you love man’s best friend, the more this little film is going to warm your heart.
A saved dog brings bliss to a youngster in "Free Puppies." (First Run Features)
A saved dog brings bliss to a youngster in "Free Puppies." (First Run Features)

Gone With the Winter

Co-directed by Christina Thomas and Samantha Wishman, “Free Puppies!” follows dog rescuers living their mission and walking their talk throughout rural counties in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. It tells not just feel-good stories about dog rescues, but also the often heartbreaking reasons that canine overpopulation happens in the first place, why it’s often so difficult to find solutions for it, and how all of the above can lead to the sad situation of even the most fervent and committed dog rescuers having to resort to euthanization.
This is exclusively a Southern tale; the reason being, as we learn, that thousands of dogs are transported North from parts of the country with high animal euthanasia rates, which is mostly the southern United States, the reason being—it’s warm down there; strays don’t easily survive winters in the North. It also has to do with low-income areas, economic hardship, and lack of education. The rescue dogs and puppies are sent where there are fewer unwanted dogs and more appreciative adopters ready to provide forever homes.

The Rescue Ladies

Monda Wooten (C) with a newborn pup and Ruth Smith in "Free Puppies." (First Run Features)
Monda Wooten (C) with a newborn pup and Ruth Smith in "Free Puppies." (First Run Features)

We follow rescuers like Monda Wooten around in rural parts of the Georgia-Alabama-Tennessee tri-state area; we’re shown firsthand what canine overpopulation can lead to; the challenges along with some success stories. “Free Puppies!” is a real South of the Mason-Dixon slice of Americana, from the twangy notes of its guitar and banjo-laden original music, to the twangy notes of rural Georgian accents.

In addition to Monda, there’s Ruth Smith, Ann Brown, and a few others. These wonderful women often face seemingly insurmountable obstacles: lack of volunteers, rescuing in towns and cities with small populations and small budgets. In other words, pretty much non-existing funds to support their efforts.

Ann Brown on the road to rescue dogs needing help. (First Run Features)
Ann Brown on the road to rescue dogs needing help. (First Run Features)
A particularly touching section involves two elderly brothers, one a Vietnam vet, living in trailers up in the hills, who’ve got unwanted litters of puppies running rampant. A fact this film doesn’t reveal but which is explained in another documentary titled, appropriately, “Stray Dog,” is that Vietnam vets tend to have lots of little dogs around them, as extra hearts, to help them carry their PTSD and staggering grief from the horrific things they saw and experienced in that 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 helped him, because it’s clear he’s still reliving his Vietnam nightmare on a daily basis.
Wooten is the most captivating of the ladies. She’s a city commissioner, business owner in Trenton, Georgia (population: 2,303). She tirelessly tackles the rescuing of dogs in her area as well as facilitates the spaying and neutering efforts. She constantly faces resistant dog owners, wary residents, and lots and lots of people who just don’t get it, and do things like leave dogs—for life—in the back yard, tied to a tree, on a short chain. The ladies have facilitated many an illegal rescue and cut many chains.

All in All

‘Free Puppies!” is for the most part a hopeful film. It might not have a tremendous amount of style, but its abundance of heart makes up for that. What it could have used more of, or rather a ploy it would have been helpful to (no pun intended) adopt, is the format used by “The Dodo,” the popular company that tells 5-minute animal rescue stories on social media. They usually follow one, two, or three animals from the dire, near-death origins of their discovery, document their healing journey, all of which eventually leads to the finding of their “forever home.”

This format is unerringly effective; viewers develop a huge connection to the animals and the rescuers/caretakers immediately. After a few short minutes there’s a huge payoff of relief by witnessing the animal’s transition in personality go from deep anguish, depression, fear, and hopelessness at the outset, to utter joy, contentment, and gratitude at the end. These videos, and the now defunct website so many of these animal videos got their inspiration from——has drastically shifted awareness about animals worldwide, and contributed many words to the American lexicon, such as “hoomin” (human), “nosicle” (nose), “beans” (the toe-pads of kittens), “smol” (small) “nom-nom-nom” (animals nibbling on food), etc.

Puppy love from a rescued dog for his new owner. (First Run Features)
Puppy love from a rescued dog for his new owner. (First Run Features)

“Free Puppies” could have used more of this approach and followed a select few puppies and strays for their whole journey to happiness. With endless cardboard boxes full of writhing puppy litters, overflowing kennels of desperate, barking inhabitants, trucks stacked with cages of dogs getting ready for the long trip north, and streets lined with homeless dogs, it borders on overkill, 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 in business.

‘Free Puppies’ Documentary Director: Christina Thomas, Samantha Wishman Running Time: 1 hour, 8 minutes Release Date: Aug. 12, 2022 Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Mark Jackson is the chief film critic for The Epoch Times. In addition to the world’s number-one storytelling vehicle—film, he enjoys martial arts, weightlifting, Harley-Davidsons, vision questing, rock-climbing, qigong, oil painting, and human rights activism. Mark earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Williams College, followed by a classical theater training, and has 20 years’ experience as a New York professional actor, working in theater, commercials, and television daytime dramas. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” which is available on iTunes and Audible. Mr. Jackson is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic.
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