In the recently released book Rescue Road, journalist Peter Zheutlin chronicles the amazing story of Greg Mahle, who is on a one-man mission to save abused and abandoned dogs from the Deep South by giving them a new leash on life.
To date, Mahle has logged more than one million miles by making biweekly trips from his home in Zanesville, Ohio, to the Gulf Coast, picking up rescue dogs and bringing them to forever families in New England. Incredibly, Mahle estimates he has transported more than 55,000 dogs.
Dogster caught up with Mahle in between road trips, and he told us how he began Rescue Road Trips with his neighbor’s borrowed minivan. He also shared why he calls his favorite part of the journey “Gotcha Day.”
Dogster: What exactly is Gotcha Day?
Greg Mahle: Gotcha Day is that day the family receives its dog, and it also becomes the dog’s birthday. When a dog enters the shelter or when it’s pulled off the street, we don’t know anything about that dog. We don’t know when it was born or how old it is. We call it Gotcha Day because it’s the day when the dog gets united with its family.
Tell us how Rescue Road Trips began.
Rescue Road Trips started with my first run in 2005 with a couple of dogs needing a ride. I am based out of Ohio, and the dogs were in Lafayette, Louisiana. I borrowed a neighbor’s minivan, and it was nothing more than just a couple of dogs needing a helping hand and needing a ride. I knew that I could do it.
After that, you started making more trips?
Yes, there hasn’t been a plan in any of this other than, “Hey, some dogs need a ride. Can you get them?” The trips started getting closer and closer together, and I was doing it all the time. We eventually used up that neighbor’s minivan. They were very kind people.
Then, I started renting one van. That turned into renting two vans. I also bought a box truck. We had a small truck and a small trailer. We had a bigger truck pulling a bigger trailer. And now, we have a semi pulling a really big trailer. This all happened a little bit at a time. None of it has been expected or planned.
We get by with used equipment, which we keep duct taped together because we’re not making enough to have new equipment. So we keep it and fix it with Band-Aids, duct tape, and prayer.
What’s a typical run like?
I leave Ohio on Monday morning, and I travel to Texas. I arrive in Texas on Wednesday and then travel back across the Gulf States. By Thursday, I have made most of my pickups and make the turn and start to head for the New England states. I arrive in the New England states on Saturday.
How many miles do you log each trip and what does a typical run cost?
To the end of my driveway to the end of my driveway, round trip miles are 4,200. A typical run costs about $3,000 to $4,000 in fuel, and there are other costs, too — truck maintenance, insurance. And I have a paid driver I take with me.
Our costs are horribly expensive. We’re not doing this to try to get rich, and a lot of weeks, ends don’t meet because of a light load or excessive breakdowns.
There are a lot of weeks that we fall short. We didn’t get into this to try to make it a business, I got into this to help dogs, and I don’t care about anything other than making myself happy and making the dogs happy.
Why do you rescue in the South?
It’s supply and demand. The supply of dogs is in the South. The demand of dogs is in the North. We haul approximately 75 to 80 dogs each trip.
Not a lot of people know what we have to deal with and that we see dogs being starved, dogs being abandoned, and just the horrible situations that dogs in the South are in. Conditions down South are much, much worse. Dogs are treated like property. They aren’t treated as family members. That is not everyone, but there is definitely a problem with the pet overpopulation in the South that the North does not have.
Tell us about what it’s like at each stop along the way.
I do the same places biweekly and run it just like a bus stop. This is just for logistical reasons, to make timing and to make a schedule more dependable for people. It is a good feeling to meet them at transport. I am meeting people just like myself. They’ve pulled dogs, vetted them, loved them, and got them ready to go. They’ve worked tirelessly in finding them a home, and they’ve finally found them a home. But now, it’s time for the dog to leave.
A lot of the fosters show up to drop off their dog, and they’ll be crying hard tears of love. I’ve seen girls get the front of their shirts wet from their tears. They’ve handed me dogs, and I’ve felt tears on the dog. You do this because you love, and that’s the ultimate sacrifice — to love that dog, find it a home, and then let it go to that home.
It’s a wonderful thing. The dogs are all happy. They’ve been well cared for, they’re well-adjusted because they’ve been with a foster. So the moment of picking up is joyous because that dog’s happily forever after is going to begin.
Is it true you talk to the dogs?
(Laughs) I always talk to the dogs just like they are people. That’s just me. The dogs are the best to talk to. They’ll look at you. I don’t talk to them like they are a dog. To me, they are just like a person. Most of them understand what you’re saying. They may not understand your words, but they understand, and you can tell by the way their eyes connect with your eyes.
I usually tell the dogs: “This is your happily forever after.” We’ve been on the road together. We’ve eaten together. We’ve slept together. We’ve gone to the bathroom together. We’ve done everything together. So yes, I am talking to them just like they are a normal person.
What’s it like in the trailer, and is it true you sleep in the back with them?
Yes, I sleep in the trailer with them. There is one night that we travel through the night, and that is the only night that I don’t sleep with them because we are rolling. The rest of the nights, a lot of them are really short nights with just a few hours’ nap.
There is a big misconception that when the dogs get on the truck, they’re all scared. They’re not. They’re happy dogs. Most of them are raring to go, and we treat it like a big adventure.
It’s the biggest adventure that they’ve ever been on. This is just a whole bunch of us that got together, and we’re going to have a big party, and we’re going to make as much fun out of it as we can.
Do you have help along the way?
There are groups that come to help. I call them “angels.” There are angels in Birmingham, Allentown, and Connecticut.
The angels get all of the dogs out of the trailer, give them walks, give them loving, give them snacks, put their hands on them, give them reassurance, and keep them out for a few hours because we have been traveling and the dogs have been cooped up.
At the rest of the stops, it is just my driver and me who are walking the dogs.
Have you adopted any of the dogs you rescued?
(Laughs) Yes, I am a foster failure, but I love them and they are my life!
We have three fosters currently. Every once in a while you will foster fail. But, you have to tell yourself: “If I foster fail on this dog, It will diminish my capacity to foster more dogs.”
So by being selfish and keeping a dog, I am really being selfish and hurting all of the other dogs I could help out. We try to keep it right around four, so we can continue to have more fosters and continue helping more dogs because they need help.
What keeps you going?
There is always another dog that needs help, and that’s what keeps me going. I want to help the next dog. I’ve helped one, and now I want help another one and another one.
The world has lots of problems, and I can’t fix them all — I can’t fix the pet overpopulation problem — but I can do what I can do, and I can help dogs.
What I do is a drop in the bucket. It really is. What I do doesn’t matter in the whole grand scheme of things. But, if you ask that particular dog I got to a family if I made a difference in his life — I made all of the difference in the world to him. So I helped someone. I helped a dog. I am not concentrating on the big problem. I am concentrating on the smaller problems — this one dog in particular, and the next dog coming in.
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About the author: Anne Forline is a freelance writer in Bellmawr, New Jersey. She is an unrepentant foster failure. Her three rescue bunnies, JoJo, Bennie, and Nibbles, allow Anne, her husband, Steve, and daughter, Cara, to share a home with them. Anne likes to run 5Ks and has placed a few times in her age division. She is also a certified teacher who homeschools Cara. Anne makes friends with all of the neighborhood dogs and keeps treats handy to give out when they pass by on their walks. See more of her work at anneforline.com, and follow her on Twitter at @AnneForline.