Rescue Express

Getting those "born in the wrong place" to the "right" place and a 2nd chance 

Cupid himself might have smiled last February when Mike McCarthy first climbed into the driver’s seat of his newly converted bus with a 100,000 BTU climate control system and specialized GPS navigation. It was, after all, Valentine’s Day, and McCarthy’s new “Rescue Express” was making its maiden voyage, marrying McCarthy’s lifelong passions. Leaving McCarthy’s home in Eugene, Oregon, the bus would travel south to Los Angeles, then north to nearly the Canadian border, and back again to Eugene. That’s a 2,400-mile drive — 36 hours without traffic.

The reason for the marathon drive in the customized bus? The countless adoptable cats and dogs who die in overcrowded southern California shelters. McCarthy says his research into animal rescue revealed tragic realities. “Animals die in shelters because they’re in the wrong place. If you’re in southern California and you get taken to a shelter you’re much more likely to get euthanized than if you are taken to a shelter in Oregon. We seem to have a shortage of little dogs in Oregon, and I see lots of Canadians adopting Pit Bulls because they like the breed. So it seemed like a good way to save lives.” So, Rescue Express picks up otherwise-doomed cats and dogs and delivers them to the open arms of shelters, rescue groups, foster homes, and adopters to the north.

It’s a retirement project for McCarthy, who spent his career creating a successful business designing accounting systems for large corporations. After selling his company in 1998, he turned his attention to helping animal shelters and rescue groups with number-crunching. He also rescued dogs — many dogs. “Right now I have eight rescue dogs who were broken and sick when I got them,” he says. “It’s so satisfying to see them doing well and enjoying their lives. Rescue and adoption have become mainstream. You meet a lot of people who feel good about the pets they’ve saved, and you see that the public wants to support that.”

The Rescue Express is not a new concept. Countless formal and informal shelter transports move their wiggly, furry cargo along the nation’s interstates on any given day. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), shelter transports largely grew out of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2004, when numbers of displaced pets in Louisiana and Mississippi overwhelmed local resources, and communities across the country offered to help. In the years since, an uncounted and unregulated network of grassroots and commercial transport operations has sprung up, moving adoptable animals from crowded, high-kill shelters to communities with greater capacity to place them in adoptive homes.

While the Animal Welfare Act regulates interstate transport of animals for sale, no such regulation exists for animals being transported for adoption.  Therefore, according to the AVMA and other sources, no one knows how many transports crisscross the country, how many animals they move, or even how healthy or humane the transport conditions are. Transports seem to reach their largest numbers on the routes leading from the southeastern US to the northeast states, and from southern California to Oregon and Washington. Increasingly, veterinarians and rescue advocates tell stories of animals arriving sick or dying, either from disease or extreme temperatures in transport, although these stories are difficult to substantiate.

An article on the AVMA website outlines common health and welfare risks associated with interstate transport, along with a list of best practices to minimize the hazards. While cautioning that incubation periods may allow animals to appear healthy even while infectious diseases are beginning their quiet assault, the AVMA recommends pre-screening all animals for signs of disease, providing a full regimen of vaccines and parasite control before transport, then allowing time before newly-arrived animals are introduced to the general public or a shelter population. Frail, unusually nervous, arthritic, or heavily pregnant animals who might not fare well on a two-day journey should also be left off transport vans, according to the article. However, given the lack of oversight and diversity of transport operations that tend to be well-intentioned but poorly-funded, it’s impossible to know how many transports meet these health and welfare standards.

For his part, McCarthy is keenly aware that his venture launches him into a crowded and unregulated field with nearly as many critics as supporters. In addition to inherent health and welfare concerns, there are questions about how many transferred animals the northern communities can ultimately accommodate. While none put their concerns on record for this feature, Portland-area rescuers have openly complained about the difficulty of finding available shelter space for local animals when shelters and foster homes fill with out-of-state transports.

In launching Rescue Express, McCarthy feels he’s addressing all concerns. “I believe doing things the right way means having the funds to do it,” he says. Having invested $80,000 of his own savings into the purchase and renovation of the van, he’s now turning his attention to fundraising, recognizing that a well-run transport service will require sustainable funding and diligent work. “The bus interior is dismantled after every transport and everything is sterilized. It’s a lot.” Providing modern, climate-controlled transport, and requiring health certificates for all animals before boarding, Rescue Express aims to minimize health and safety concerns while carrying out its primary work: offering hundreds of life-saving freeway rides for animals who would die simply because they became homeless in the wrong community.

For dogs and cats who find themselves in the wrong place, few places could be more right than Portland, Oregon. Now considered one of the safest places in the country for homeless animals, the community has reduced shelter euthanasia by 87% in the past eight years. The Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland – or ASAP – organized 10 area shelters and veterinary organizations in a collaboration to aggressively provide community spay and neuter surgeries and improve adoption rates. It’s a multi-faceted approach that results in a 93-percent save rate of shelter animals across the metro area.

As part of its successful lifesaving model, partners in the ASAP coalition transfer large numbers of animals between area shelters, nimbly responding to fluctuations in populations and shelter capacity. A total of 1,717 animals moved from one shelter to another within the community in 2014. During the same period, member shelters brought in 6,674 cats and dogs from outside the community. It’s unknown how many traveled just 60 miles from nearby communities like Salem, or how many arrived by interstate transport vans. Still, ASAP spokespeople say the community does well by these refugees. The majority are homed, though not all arrive in perfect physical or behavioral health.

In 2014, 1,800 — nearly one-third of animals transferred into ASAP-member organizations —  arrived with manageable or treatable conditions, and 67 were listed as unhealthy and untreatable. ASAP Program Manager Anika Moje says it’s nearly impossible to know which of those 67 were euthanized for their conditions and which were placed into different care settings. Even if all 67 were euthanized, which she says is unlikely, the data indicate that transports by and large are delivering reasonably healthy and adoptable animals as promised, and the vast majority are finding adoptive homes.

ASAP-member shelters report generally positive experiences with shelter transfers, including Cat Adoption Team, based in Sherwood, Oregon. There, executive director Karen Green recalls a week in April when CAT received an out-of-state transfer of 35 adolescent cats and kittens. “Nearly all were in homes five days later.” And had the shelter not had young, playful cats available when those adopters visited, Green says those adopters wouldn’t necessarily have taken “an eight-year-old cat who was going to hide under the bed for the first month.”

As for concerns about local animals being displaced by out-of-state transfers, Green says shelters can be selective about transfers, taking in the kinds of pets that will be quickly adopted, while providing the necessary time and resources to local animals that might be harder to place. “It’s not always a one-for-one, as in you’re taking in one cat and displacing another cat that would have an equal chance of adoption. We’re doing much better with our harder-to-place cats and getting them adopted much more quickly. We have far fewer cats spending long periods at the shelter before we find them a home. So, yes, we’re always trying to strike a balance between placing the harder-to-place cats, and also saving as many as possible.”

Transfers, for the most part, help shelters do that, Green says. But, experience has taught her team to be selective in choosing which transfers to work with. “It is all over the place. Groups vary enormously in what they’re able to do in terms of screening animals for health problems and providing preventive care, and in how good their disease control is.” After a quick look at the Rescue Express website, she was interested in learning more. “Having an appropriate vehicle is important. They always have two drivers, which is important for the safety of the animals.”

With positive reception like this, Rescue Express hit the pavement at full speed, sometimes transporting more than 100 animals in a single trip, even in the first months of operation. McCarthy and his staff have delivered to large shelters like PAWS in Seattle, “and sometimes we deliver directly to adopters,” he says. “We roll in and there’s a mom and dad and two kids waiting to meet their new dog.”

McCarthy’s focus now is on fundraising. So far, he’s arranged for his transport bus to do double duty as a rolling billboard, complete with a number where donors can quickly text donations. It’s yielded little to date. “We really want to try to get the general public to recognize what we’re doing and see the value of it and to donate.”


AVMA article on shelter transports:  Animal Rescue—Transporting Fido Across State Lines

ASAP statistics:

Rescue Express: 

Michelle Blake is a former journalist and lifelong animal advocate whose work has appeared in national publications. She serves on the board of Wildwood Farm Sanctuary in Newberg, Oregon, and lives in Salem, OR., with a pack of rescued dogs and cats, as well as a patient husband who lovingly calls her his "crazy dog lady".