Inspired by Pups
Shelby Stephens Story of Hope
By Mackenzie Reese
In the Spring of 2020, Shelby Stephens was on her way to pick up an abandoned and abused Pitbull mix from Columbus, Georgia. At the time, she was the President and Creator of Pups on the Plains, commonly known as P.O.P., a student-run nonprofit that focused on dogs and cats from East Alabama and West Georgia area.
Before leaving for Georgia, she planned only to pick up a single Pitbull mix. A routine task that Pups on the Plains does when they have room to foster and re-home more dogs. But Stephens didn’t follow her plan.
Instead, she returned with four dogs, one of them being pregnant with 12 puppies. While unplanned and unexpected, all dogs rescued that day, including the litter of puppies, went to good homes. “She’s crazy,” said current president Abby Whitmer, “But it works.”
Pups on the Plains is a student run nonprofit, that rescues and re-homes stay dogs and cats. The nonprofit began in 2017 and has now saved over 200 dogs, re-homing them to loving families over throughout the United States.
Stephens’ was born minutes behind her twin, Sarah Stephens. Her parents raised them in Birmingham, Alabama, where they homeschooled her until she left for Auburn University. She has two younger sisters, who are still in Birmingham.
From chasing toads outside, collecting fish and rats, loving a Corgi named Darby, and an American Eskimo mix named Willow, Stephens adored animals her whole life. “When I was a kid, I thought I would be a vet,” said Stephens when talking about her pets, “but I’m not that good with blood.”
In fact, Stephens’ first word was ‘dog.’ She was staring outside her window when she saw her neighbors walking a pup and pointed at it, declaring her first words.
That moment and her childhood obsession with pets were the first steps Stephens made towards creating Pups on the Plains.
While Stephens grew up with a variety of animals in her household, her parents only wanted to have one dog at a time, a rule she always wished was different.
During her sophomore year of college at Auburn, she had dropped her sorority and found that she was lonely. Her parents discouraged her from adopting a dog because they feared it would take away from her studies. While Shelby agreed that adopting would be a huge undertaking, she couldn’t get the idea of a furry companion out of her mind and started to scroll through the Columbus dog rescue page.
It was here on September of 2017 that she first saw Max. Max was a Blue Healer and Lab Mix. He was underweight and scheduled for euthanization that day. Something about Max called to her. Whether it was his sad eyes or malnourished body, Stephens knew she couldn’t let him go.
She called her friend Caitlin Williams, who then assisted her in contacting the Auburn Veterinarian school. The Auburn Vet agreed to help the dogs and foster.
That day Stephens and Caitlyn got in their car and drove an hour to Georgia. She ended up saving five dogs that day and still remembers their names; Gill, Sky, Casper, Sadie, and Max, the pup who started it all. After the saves, she created an Instagram page to promote their adoptions.
Three years later, Stephens has saved over 200 dogs, each going to loving families across the United States.
In April of 2018, Stephens rescued Camo, a brown Pitbull with a white face, and a body that eventually took after his name. Chained to a fence, sitting on layers of trash, Camo was at that point 50 pounds underweight and needed immediate medical attention. People often use Pitbull’s to fight or exploit them, and Stephens feared that she wouldn’t find him right home.
Two months later, she was dog-sitting for her friend Jordan Canney and took Camo and Canney’s dog to the park. She sent Canney pictures as they play, causing Canney to fall instantly in love. Later, Canney asked to foster Camo at her home for a night.
Canney never returned him. They now live in West Hampton Beach, New York. “He went from living in actual trash to living the best life a dog can have,” said Stephens.
However, Stephens said saving these dogs and starting Pups on the Plains, “was not easy.” As a sophomore, she had no plans on creating a Nonprofit or a school run organization. All she wanted to do was save the dogs that she had found that late September.
After more research, she soon realized how many stray and abandoned dogs there were in East Alabama and West Georgia. Without enough volunteers and fosters, those dogs would’ve had the same fate that Max almost lost his life to. At that moment she started contacting people to join her cause.
By January of 2018, Stephens had done mock elections and created an organization named ‘Pups on the Plains.’ Original Members include Riley Hovis, Mary Nelsons, and Holly Goodwin.
Together, they went over the options of becoming an Auburn University organization. However, after realizing the complications of teaming up with Auburn, Stephens decided to take the first steps to make P.O.P. an official nonprofit organization.
A couple of weeks later, Stephens was 21, a second-semester sophomore filling out official nonprofit documents. She credits her success to the help of her friends, family, and other animal rescue organizations in the Alabama and Georgia.
“When you’re surrounded with like-minded people around you, there’s nothing you can’t do, no matter how young or old,” said Stephens. These people helped her surpass the beginning stages of building the company and “[were] so valuable.” Jenny Rogers from New Hope Rescue helped guide her through the guidelines of nonprofits.
“When you’re new and young, but have ideas, people want to see you succeed,” said Stephens. She said she hopes that others who work within her nonprofit learn this while working. Shelby is referring to the seven other girls that are on staff for Pups on the Plains. These girls fulfill different roles on the team, making the adoption process move more smoothly.
Stephens, parents’ reactions to P.O.P. were a little bit of shock with a lot of support. “They were like ok, this is a little crazy, but we support you,” said Stephens. Her parents slowly became more involved with the process of adopting dogs as well. Noticing that it helped their daughter’s mental health, they eventually adopted a cat and chihuahua for her little sisters. They now have three dogs and four cats in the house.
Stephens later adopted through P.O.P and said that when looking at her dogs, she feels like life, no matter how tough life is, it’s worth it.” She claims that her dogs have saved her, but many would argue it be the other way around. Her impulsive decision to drive to Columbus in 2017 created a domino effect that saved hundreds of lives.
Both of Stephens’s friends and co-workers have adopted animals from Pups on the Plains. Rachel Lee, P.O. P’s executive assistant, met her dog Banter while walking to class, and instantly connected with him. She adopted him later that year and they have been saving each other ever since.
Abby Whitmer, current foster, Hercules brought joy to her life after being found in a field all alone. He’s kept her company during the ten months of quarantine.
Riley Hovis, one of the original members of P.O.P, described Stephens as resilient. Stephens proves her right as she continues to push the envelope despite COVID-19, planning to take P.O.P further and inspire other colleges to create sister nonprofits.
Pups on the Plains have saved Stephens’s life, but it’s also saved Jordan and Camos, Riley, and her two cats, Abbey and Hercules, even the Pitbull Mix and her twelve puppies.
Stephens says that the dogs from Pups on the Plains give people purpose, “they love you unconditionally, they don’t care if you failed a test last week, or your boyfriend broke up with you; they just love you.”