SAN FERNANDO, Calif — Jasper, a large snow-white American Husky, jumps into the arms of Shafali Grewal. Grewal says she wishes she could keep Jasper for herself as they stand by the Rescue Express bus outside Almost Home Pet Boarding in San Fernando, Calif. She pets him while trying to disentangle herself from the leashes that two other dogs have wrapped around her legs.
Jasper, along with 24 other dogs at the San Fernando stop loaded a bus that transported them to the Pacific Northwest, where they have better odds of adoption. There, they’ll escape the chance of being put to death for lack of space to keep them.
Rescue Express, a Eugene-based organization headquartered on a farm off of McBeth road, functions as an avenue out of overcrowded shelters in the California area for both cats and dogs like Jasper. The organization’s crews will help find the animals “forever homes,” as they call them. From their beginning they have grown to own three busses, they transport over 125 animals per trip every weekend, they work with over 200 partners, from California to Washington, and as of the weekend of July 21 surpassed 10,600 animals saved.
After the 24 carriers are filled, the Rescue Express crew pulls out, making their way northbound to their next stop in Bakersfield, Calif. A single dog begins barking from the back; as the bus rattles down the freeway and the others grow silent.
“There’s definitely a different mindset in animal ownership in the South across the United States,” said Chrissy Mattucci, the Executive Director of Rescue Express. She points to a lack of education, as well as overpopulation factors such as less spay and neutering, breeders, puppy mills, and backyard breeding as some of the causes.
Meanwhile in the areas of Oregon, Washington and parts of Canada, there are shelters and fosters working to take in animals from high-kill shelters that have the space for the animals. According to Amber Minium, a volunteer foster at Lucky Paws in Eugene, the number of animals they were able to take in tripled when Rescue Express arrived on the scene. Lucky Paws typically takes in anywhere from 10-20 animals from Rescue Express a week, Minium estimated.
For other shelters, like Many Miles Home, who work to save primarily puppies and dogs in need of rehabilitation, they would not exist if it wasn’t for the service Rescue Express provides, according to their president, Judi Sanders.
However the shelters in California don’t have the funds or the means of transporting animals to places where they stand a better chance of adoption.
Enter Mike McCarthy, a retired software engineer. In February of 2015, he founded Rescue Express. After working in animal causes for many years, McCarthy said, it became evident that there was a shortage in the north and overpopulation in the south.
McCarthy also saw how the organizations that were doing transports were passionate and were trying to do good things, but lacked the proper equipment and resources to do transports well.
Oregon also happened to be the perfect place for such a transport to be located due to its geographical location between California and Washington. This allowed for one crew to make the trip southbound before switching off with the northern crew who take the bus up towards Washington, when they passed back through Eugene.
His solution was a former school bus painted bright red, and featuring photos of animals. Inside, several air-conditioning units keep animals cool while driving through the triple-digit heat of California’s central valleys in high summer. The back of the bus is lined with 93 animal carriers.
The weekly crew of two employees, a driver and a transport supervisor, make the trip every weekend from Eugene to San Fernando, Calif., before heading back up to Burlington, Wash., which is usually the last stop before they return to their Eugene headquarters. Their largest trip to date transported 225 animals on a special charter.
While most of the dogs and cats on the bus settle in to take a nap, the voice of the barking dog gradually becomes a strangled whine.
Transport supervisor Heather Engstrom said the trip isn’t comfortable for the animals. The bus is bumpy, they are packed in close to other animals, and the carriers are tight quarters. But she points out that a few hours of discomfort is far preferable to the alternatives, which in many cases would have been death.
“These rescues are just crucial in helping to find the animals homes and save them from possible euthanasia or imminent euthanasia,” Mattucci said.
Nevertheless, the crew does everything they can to care for the animals while making the trip as short as possible.
They constantly keep an eye on the temperature in the bus to ensure the dogs and cats don’t overheat. And they supply food, water and treats while driving.
After the transport’s first stop in San Fernando, they will drive approximately 18 hours to Burlington, which is usually their last stop. Places they will stop at to load or unload animals include a well-kept, yet overcrowded, human society in Bakersfield, a sidewalk covered by the shade of trees in Fresno, and a “dusty truck stop parking lot” in Tulare.
Each weekend’s transport costs between $3,500 and $3,800. The average transport cost for each animal falls somewhere between $25 and $35.
Their primary funding comes from grants and the Michael G. McCarthy, or MGM, foundation, which took in $98,609 in contributions and grants according to the last available tax record. This has enabled them to keep the service free of charge to their rescue partners. Other transports can charge anywhere from $50 to $150 per animal, according to Mattucci.
“We’ve built a network; we’re sustainable; we’ve got the demand; we can keep going,” Mattucci said. “But we definitely still have a lot of need for support from a donation standpoint.”
The Rescue Express model hasn’t gone unnoticed by other organizations. Recently one of their busses made a trip to Texas where San Antonio Pets Alive is using the bus to save animals that have been left stranded due to flooding from Hurricane Harvey. Through Rescue Expresses Facebook and website they are currently running a fundraiser to help animals that have been affected by the flooding.
The bus will not be coming back, and San Antonio Pets Alive will be replicating the Rescue Express model. Meanwhile, according to McCarthy, Rescue Express is in the works of designing three more busses and creating a new route that would transport animals from southern California.
Several people are waiting in the shade of some trees as the bus pulls into Fresno, Calif., for the first stop where animals will be getting off the bus.
One of the rescue partners from 4 Dogs Rescue holds a large bag containing cookies, crackers, bottled water — a gift for the crew. As one of the dogs is set down in the grass, it begins to jump up and down. Soon it’s happily rolling, pausing on it’s back in a shameless bid for belly rubs.
“There’s a lot of crappy stuff in the world nowadays,” Engstrom said. “My heart is pulled towards stuff like this ... this is my way to help end some of the sadness.”
I approached Rescues Express originally about the possibility of a photo essay on their organization. During my first visit I photographed them washing the busses and loading the pet carriers into the bus. A few weeks later I was up at 4:00 A.M. where I met them at their ranch and drove all the way from Eugene down to San Fernando with them. We stayed in a hotel overnight and the next morning I began photographing them picking up animals at 7:00 AM. We arrived back in Eugene at around 12:30 the next Saturday night. I then proceeded to interview their Executive Director, and using that audio, edited together an audio slideshow. I came out to the ranch a fifth time to document Peter DeFazio visiting. And proceeded to finish piece through editing together my selection of photos, the audio slideshow video, and wrote the above written article.