When Marty discovered Jackson (bottom, left), shunned by a pack of wild dogs in a Louisiana swamp, he rescued the Beagle-mix, assuming he was another Hurricane Katrina victim. After some time, Marty became ill and could no longer care for his dog. Eventually, poor Jackson ended up in a shelter—homeless again. When a rescue organization in Lakeside, Calif., offered to take Jackson it seemed a mixed blessing. After all, the rescue was nearly 2,000 miles away near San Diego, which was besieged by wildfires.
A trucker named Nancy learned about Jackson through a volunteer transport organization called Operation Roger. In late December, she loaded the dog into her rig in LaPlace, La., for a long drive west. During much of the trip, Jackson sat on Nancy’s armrest with his head on her shoulder and watched the scenery pass by. He was not alone. For many shelter and rescue animals, transportation provided by volunteers means the difference between life and death.
When Bark editor Claudia Kawczynska adopted Kit and Holly from a rescue in Kentucky last year, she was initiated into the formal and informal network of individuals and organizations with planes, trucks and automobiles that get dogs-in-need to places where their future is brighter.
Inspired and intrigued by this grassroots cooperative effort, TheBark.com has been talking to the people who make these daily efforts a reality. Earlier this year, we met the women behind Colorado Animal Rescue Express (C.A.R.E.), a van transport group out of Denver; Dawn Painter, an individual animal welfare advocate who uses email to spread the word for animals in need; and Pilots ‘N Paws, a collection of general aviation pilots who volunteer planes for speedy transfers.
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In this our final installment on the underdog railway, we talk to Sue Wiese, founder of Operation Roger, a non-profit organization comprised of regional and long-haul truckers who volunteer their time to transport needy pets at the same time they do their job delivering freight around the country. Wiese (pronounced We-cee) is a trucker and animal lover who knows how to get the most out of her telephone headset. She talked to us by phone from her home in the “tiny town” of Joshua, Tex., south of Fort Worth, where she lives with two dogs—Buddy, an American Bulldog, and a Dachshund named Huck, short for Huckleberry.
The Bark: How did Operation Roger get started?
Sue Wiese: Remember how you felt after Katrina? All the animals’ and the people’s anguish and not leaving, you know the whole thing. Well, I was driving at the time, and I just going down the road praying. I said, ‘Lord, what can I do, I’m just a truck driver?’ And I heard one word and that was ‘transport.’ I was like, ‘Huh? What do you mean transport? How am I supposed to transport?”
I had heard about PetFinder.com, so when I was able to stop, I went online. I found out that the transport of pets was an everyday thing, not just disaster-related. I called a friend of mine, and then my daughters and … they immediately could see the big picture.
They talked me into going on a truck [call-in] show on XM radio. My hands were shaking; I was scared to talk on live radio. So I typed out what I needed to say. When the guy finally got to me he said, ‘What can I do for Classy Lady?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’d like to know if there are any drivers interested in an operation to move needy pets across the country.’
There was absolute silence. You don’t have silence on radio. From the left temple to the right temple was this thought: “Oh no, I’ve laid an egg now.” He and his wife finally got over the shock. The talk was about 15 minutes long, and I had about 12 calls to return by the time we ended.
Why were they so surprised?
Generally, callers say, ‘Hi Bill, I’d like to hear this song’ or ‘What do you think about the new regulations?’ So this took them completely off guard.
Of the 12 calls, how many were truckers interested in driving?
All of them, and many of them are still with me.
Once you had drivers who were willing, how did you connect with dogs and cats needing transportation?
I went onto PetFinder.com, into their transport area, and put our name out there. We had decided on the name Operation Roger by that time because I’d used the word “operation” in the statement I made. And I’d had a little dog named Roger, so in memory of him we just put the two together. [Operation Roger now has its own website with a pet board listing of transports needed.]
Are drivers taking legs and connecting with other drivers or do they frequently drive from point A to the destination?
We prefer the latter, obviously. Sometimes they have to meet and transfer. For when that can’t happen, we are trying to build a nationwide network of what we call “layover homes” and also shuttle drivers.
Are those people who keep the animals overnight if necessary during a transfer or shuttle dogs from one truck transport to another when a leg isn’t covered?
Right. We had one dog at a layover home for a month, before we could get a driver through there. They know there’s that possibility. But we try to keep it short. We just had a new layover home come onboard for us. Yesterday, we called. He drove 70 miles to Fargo, North Dakota, picked up a Boxer from a driver who lost her job. He’s keeping it at his place up in Minnesota until another driver can get there.
That’s a terrible reason to need a layover home, isn’t it?
It is. We’ve had layover homes because of car wrecks, anything you can imagine.
Are you transferring the dogs from a rescue or shelter to another rescue or shelter?
Generally, it’s from a rescue or shelter to an adoptive home. That’s the most usual. Then it may be to a foster or it could be to another shelter that has more room in another part of the country. And also we do it for individuals. Maybe you’ve moved and you couldn’t take your animal with you at the time, now you’re able to have him. We’ve transported some lost during a move. We have one on the board that got stolen, and they found it and now we’re trying to get it home.
How many drivers do you have right now?
Between 30 and 35, and we’re needing three times that many.
You just celebrated your fourth anniversary in September, how many animals have you transported in this time?
Does that include dogs and cats?
Mostly dogs. But we have dogs and cats. I think there have been four ferrets, four ratties, and a hamster.
You were a trucker? Are you retired?
Reluctantly retired. I was injured almost two years ago. I’m trying to get back out onto the road.
Tell me about the operation’s namesake, Roger?
I adopted Roger from a shelter in Grand Prairie. He’d been a stray. I had him on board for a little over two years, when he suddenly passed away.
What’s it like to have a dog companion in your truck?
It is actually safer. It’s wonderful. You have someone to talk to, someone to care for. I say someone, because they really become a person to you. They know you just as well as anybody can. They make you get out and walk them. Even those with cats on board enjoy companionship. We have one team that has two cats onboard, when they’re stressed, they can just sit there and stroke them. That purr is relaxing.
Now if we can just convince more of the trucking companies, it would be great.
Are there companies that prohibit dogs on board?
Many of them. One of our major companies, which we had quite a few drivers from, suddenly [told drivers they had] 30 days get rid of all their dogs. You talk about drivers quitting right and left and raising holy Cain.
So trucking companies are not seeing the advantages of dogs onboard?
You know, it’s like the proverbial bad apple in the barrel. You can have a bad owner who will let the dog just tear up a truck, and that’s quite expensive. Plus there are places you go that don’t allow pets on the property.
What do shippers have to supply?
We request the shipper provide at least 10 days of food that the animal is used to eating. That keeps down digestive problems. Plus, blankets, harness, leashes and collars. For dogs that are 30 pounds or less, we ask for a crate. That’s kind of the largest crate that we can comfortably fit in the cab. Many dogs lay their heads on our knees to get stroked.
That’s got to be so great on a long haul.
It really is. The trucking industry, the companies and the general public too, all they see is this big 70-foot monster. They don’t see the human being behind the wheel and realize that that human being is a human being, has a family. We're hoping Operation Roger shows we have hearts too. The biggest comment made by our drivers has been that they feel like they’re giving back to the community, which they can’t do it at home, because they’re not there.