People all over the country are learning about rescue dogs and what great pets they can be. More than seven million cats and dogs enter animal shelters each year and approximately 1.2 million dogs are killed according to the ASPCA. The worse geographical area for a dog to make it out of a shelter alive is in the south. Greg Mahle, who runs an animal rescue transport business called Rescue Road Trips Inc. is trying to make a difference. On his website, he describes his business as providing loving, humane road trips for homeless, unwanted, unloved dogs facing assured immediate death from southern kill shelters. They help move dogs to loving “forever homes” and a second chance at life in New England and surrounding areas.
There are many challenges in the south that lead to 80 to 90% of their dogs being killed in shelters and two of those things are overcrowding and a lack of resources. Other challenges include southerners not believing in spay/neuter and also treating their dogs as property and not pets. Their dogs live outside and serve a “purpose” such as being a hunting dog or a breeder in a backyard breeding operation. They are treated more like livestock and when their purpose ends or when the owner can’t sell them, they are abandoned. The dogs that make it to an animal shelter often stay there in unsanitary and disease-ridden conditions while they are awaiting their death. Many shelters have no inside kennels or on-site staff to watch them. If the dogs are owner-surrendered, they can be killed immediately. The stray dogs are held longer to give their owners a chance to find them, but many are unclaimed. Most don’t even get the luxury of a blanket or a toy in the shelter during their short time there. Many animal rescuers feel that conditions in the south could change with education about responsible pet ownership but they are so busy saving lives, there is often little time to do this important task.
Author Peter Zheutlin has written about Mahle’s life on the road in the best way possible – in person with a hands-on approach as he traveled with him on some of his trips. He also visited communities where the dogs came from to learn more about how a dog starts out in the south and ends up in the loving arms of a New England adopter. His New York Times Bestselling book “Rescue Road: One Man, Thirty Thousand Dogs, and a Million Miles on the Last Hope Highway” is a great gift for yourself this Christmas! It goes into detail about the difficult, stressful, exhausting, dirty, emotional, chaotic and joyous journey that Mahle makes every other week as he saves lives, four paws at a time. Throughout the book, Mahle explains how everyone is a cog in the wheel – how no one’s job or role in the rescue of the dogs is more important than another. There are many unsung heroes who make every trip happen: the rescuers, the animal shelter directors, the veterinarians, the volunteer dog walkers who meet up with Mahle along the trip, Mahle’s co-driver in the truck, Mahle’s wife and step-son, Mahle’s mother-in-law who is an employee with the company and the fosters who face the pain of separation repeatedly when putting the dogs on the trailer but also are so happy for the dogs to be starting their new lives!
Mahle picks up dogs from rescue groups at scheduled stops in Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana and Alabama although he has been known to make detours along the way if he has time of space. Mahle and the dogs travel together for days until they meet up with their new moms and dads in New England. The overjoyed adopters bring their “welcome home” signs with them as well as open hearts and their happy tears on “Gotcha Day” which is the day they meet Mahle and pick up their new furry family member. Mahle comments several times in the book about the long trip and the journey these dogs have made in order to get a second chance. He says, “as the miles melt away, so do a lifetime of bad memories.” These dogs have beat the odds to get on the truck and find a new family and that is what Zheutlin has documented by going on a the trips with Mahle. Zheutlin wasn’t a passive writer, just taking notes and watching the road signs go by – he was “all in” as a worker on the trip. Even if he hadn’t volunteered to do so, Mahle probably would have insisted.
Zheutlin slept on a mattress on the floor of the trailer, cleaned kennels, walked dogs, fed dogs, watered dogs, cleaned dogs (and himself) and did just about every task that Mahle does except for driving and scheduling. What Mahle considers the “best job in rescue” is also a very laborious and emotional one. Every other week, Mahle has to leave his wife and step-son as he travels from Ohio through the south and then to New England, saving dogs from being killed and delivering them to new homes. It’s a 24/7 job, which always has either him or his co-driver on the truck with the dogs at all times. It’s not a glamorous or high paying job either. Mahle needs to transport about 55 dogs to break even – and every rescue group is charged the same at $185 per dog, which the adoption fee often covers. The rescue groups make “reservations” to secure a spot but that list of dogs is often in flux even during the trip due to dogs getting sick, adopters changing their mind and other issues. Mahle says, “you just lave to live with uncertainty and have faith on each run that it will work out in the end.” He compares it to playing three-dimensional chess. It’s a juggling act and is random and chaotic – improvisation is a constant in all aspects of dog rescue work. After all of his hard work, Mahle is lucky to make minimum wage after expenses and is used to being “decorated” in dog poop and dog hair for a week. Although his business is an LLC and not a non-profit, he still accepts donations on his website.
Even with the low pay and difficult working conditions, Mahle loves what he does. He is constantly looking to recapture the feeling he had as a child when he rescued his first stray dog. He is able to feel that satisfaction over and over again as the rescue dogs get put into the arms of their new owners. Along the trip, Mahle documents his trip on his Facebook page so that the adopters can track his progress. Their anticipation builds up as the truck gets closer and closer to their cities.
Mahle got hooked on transporting rescue dogs when his sister Kathy, who founded Labs4Rescue, needed his help relieving a transport driver who had gotten tired while driving Kathy’s rescue dogs to their new homes. Mahle loved doing it and decided to do it himself. He started out slow with a smaller van and worked up to hiring some other drivers but didn’t feel comfortable doing that. He wanted to be hands-on and decided to do it himself so that he could control the quality standards of the ride for the dogs. The dogs always come first with Mahle and he’s always “on call” for them during transport. Mahle’s 15 hour days and work ethic he learned in the restaurant business trained him well to be able to withstand the rigorous demands of rescue transport.
Zheutlin started following Mahle’s work after he adopted a dog named Albie who came from Labs4Rescue and then through Mahle’s transport service. He wondered where Albie came from. What was his story? How did he become one of the lucky ones to make it on the truck? He had many questions. In addition to writing about what Mahle does, he decided to visit with the people who find the dogs that Mahle transports. He realized that it indeed takes a village to keep this operation going. There are so many volunteers, veterinarians, shelter workers and others contributing to save even one dog. Often people put their own personal money as well as their time into saving a dog and getting it adopted. That’s why the dogs on Mahle’s transport are so “lucky” – each one has a story, some known and some unknown. Some dogs were sick and nursed back to health by a rescuer using thousands of dollars from their own credit cards; some dogs were abandoned in boxes on a porch of a vet office; some dogs were strays wandering the streets and happened to have the good fortune to run into a rescuer that day…If there are 80 dogs on Mahle’s trailer, there are 80 stories which could fill up their own chapter in a book – and 80 or more people who were invested in that dog that that it could have a better life.
Tom English, one of many animal rescue volunteers that Zheutlin talks to, describes what motivates so many to save dogs. He says, “There is an addictive component to rescue. You get a high rescuing a dog that’s been living in a shelter and you bathe it and care for it and see it running in the yard. You get addicted to that feeling because if feels so good.”
Mahle adds, “Every job in rescue is essential to the process. Some risk life and limb, some their financial security, but all risk losing and regaining pieces of their hearts over and over again.”
Zheutlin wrote about Mahle’s company for a “Parade” article in 2014 and later his wife suggested that he write a book. It’s not just about Mahle’s journey but the journey of the dogs as well. He has done a great service by letting people know the plight of southern dogs and the need for rescue, education and governmental reform in the south. Most animal shelters are ran by municipalities – counties and cities. They are using taxpayer money for these animal shelters and the communities must demand more of their local governments. Like animal advocates in the north, the people in the south need to learn how to advocate for the animals in the community by attending their city and county commissioners meetings and demanding changes with their local laws and the way their animal shelters operate. If everyone worked on changing things in their own cities, much could be accomplished.
The internet has changed animal rescue for the better with websites, Petfinder and Facebook. People used to be afraid to go into shelters because of bad conditions and high euthanasia rates. By looking through photos and stories of dogs online, they can fall in love with their new family member who could be located anywhere in the country. Because of the internet, rescuers can also network with each other and solve problems much faster, saving countless lives. The internet has been a huge blessing to the rescue community and now it needs to be a way for people to change their local animal shelters for the better. Google your county website; Look at your local budgets; Find out who your local representatives are; Ask how you can volunteer to help or hold fundraisers for the homeless animals in your neighborhood; Volunteer with your local animal shelter or rescue group. Start your own animal advocacy group and meet with like-minded people where you live.
Reading “Rescue Road” will truly inspire you to do more for the homeless dogs who are out there waiting to be saved. It truly takes a village to accomplish many things in life and by working together, we can all make life better for homeless pets and also save many lives.