Lifestyle

From South to North, rescue operation brings thousands of dogs to new homes

Greg Mahle with rescue dog Champ at a drop-off stop in Putnam, Conn.
Steven G. Smith for The Boston Globe
Greg Mahle with rescue dog Champ at a drop-off stop in Putnam, Conn.

PUTNAM, Conn. — In the Advance Auto Parts parking lot, a nondescript space near a highway, absolutely nothing is happening on a Saturday afternoon. Then, at 3 o’clock, there’s a sudden flurry of activity.

Cars pull in. Couples, parents, children emerge and cluster nervously. The signs come out:

“Welcome home Jessie!”

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“We love you Abe.”

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“Welcome Home Jill.”

Anyone watching would think they’re greeting beloved family members, and in a way, they are. They’re waiting for their new rescue dogs, due to arrive by truck at 3:30. The man at the wheel, Greg Mahle, calls it “Gotcha Day”— the day his organization, Rescue Road Trips, delivers abandoned, unwanted, stray, or abused dogs from the Deep South to their new homes in the Northeast.

Mahle’s dog transport service is the subject of a new book by Dover writer Peter Zheutlin, “Rescue Road: One Man, Thirty Thousand Dogs, and a Million Miles on the Last Hope Highway.” Zheutlin’s dog Albie arrived on Mahle’s transport three years ago. The writer was seduced by the story of the beleaguered 53-year-old guy from Zanesville, Ohio, who’s been making this 4,200-mile round trip twice a month for 10 years, his truck filled with shelter dogs who may have been days or even hours from being euthanized.

“I had this image of the last helicopter out of Saigon,” said Zheutlin, who embedded himself on Greg’s truck over the course of a year and logged 7,000 miles with him.

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Mahle’s story goes back to a time when a dog rescued him. As a boy in rural Ohio, he was a bit of a loner — until the day a dog followed him home from school, and stayed. “The dog loved me and was my companion. I knew something good had happened,” Mahle said during an interview in a Newton diner on a publicity tour for the book. “The dog” — he says dawg — “taught me how to be a compassionate person, and about kindness and caring.”

In 2005, after the last of five family restaurants he’d run had closed, he got a call from his sister, who ran a Labrador retriever rescue organization. A woman who’d been hired to transport dogs from the South to New England needed some help. Mahle drove the dogs to Connecticut for her, and saw an opportunity.

Gavi Azoff, 14, meets her new dog, Jessie, delivered by Greg Mahle.
Steven G. Smith For the Boston Globe
Gavi Azoff, 14, meets her new dog, Jessie, delivered by Greg Mahle.

Now he’s a guy with a 42-foot tractor trailer, and a calling. He charges a flat rate of $185 to transport a dog, which barely begins to cover costs; he makes up the rest with donations. He’s so committed to his work that three years ago he got back from one road trip at 3 p.m., then rushed to his wedding at 6.

“There’s an ocean’s worth of dogs washing up on the shore,” said Mahle (pronounced MAY-lee). “The sad fact is there are so many more dogs than there are homes.” Some 3.9 million dogs a year enter animal shelters in the United States, rounded up by animal control officers or brought in by owners, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). About 1.2 million are euthanized each year.

The problem is particularly acute in the South. In Houston’s Fifth Ward alone, there are 1.2 million strays roaming the streets, according to Zheutlin. Why? “The simple reason is the lack of spay and neuter efforts in Southern communities,” said Kristen Limbert, who directs the ASPCA’s Animal Relocation Initiative.

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“There’s a different mindset [in the South] when it comes to dogs,” Zheutlin said. “Dogs are seen as property, not family members.” Often they’re used as guard dogs or for hunting, and then abandoned when their usefulness ends.

“In a lot of parishes in Louisiana, a stray dog is just a target,” said Mahle, an intense, stocky man who has four “personal dogs” and a host of fosters, including one that someone threw acid on. “The same thing is true in Texas, in rural Alabama, in rural Mississipi.”

Despite the lives saved by Mahle’s Rescue Road Trips and other transport companies — there are many, though their exact numbers are unknown — animal welfare advocates have expressed concern about some of these businesses, which are largely unregulated.

“There’s a big difference between professional rigged-up trucks with air exchanges and heating, and professionals who have an understanding of disease and can do a really good job because they have the tools to help them, and those going down and picking up animals in their SUVs,” said Anne Lindsay, founder of the Massachusetts Animal Coalition, which works on initiatives to improve animals’ lives. “I think it can be a kind of loosey-goosey practice.”

Mahle agrees. “I can load a van with puppies and in the darkness of night run it into any state,” he said. To ensure successful adoptions and animal safety, he works with volunteers who do home visits with families who have applied to adopt a dog, most of them through sites such as Petfinder.com, which Zheutlin calls the “Match.com of the canine world.” His truck is equipped with air conditioning and heating, and he won’t take a dog unless it’s been examined by a veterinarian and has a health certificate.

“I want the pipeline from North to South to stay open, and you can’t do that if you bring sick dogs up,” said Mahle. “In all the years I’ve done this, I’ve only had to go to an emergency veterinarian one time. Most of these dogs are so vetted, and have been in foster care for so long, that if there’s a problem it’s already worked itself out.”

Gavi Azoff and her mom, Nicki, embrace their new pet.
Steven G. Smith for the Boston Globe
Gavi Azoff and her mom, Nicki, embrace their new pet.

By the time he arrives in Putnam for Gotcha Day, Mahle has been on the road for six days, with one other driver. With the help of volunteers across the country he calls “angels,” he’s picked up dogs at stopping points in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and dropped them off in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and New England states.

He arrives at the Advance Auto Parts lot at 3:35, announcing himself with a blow of the horn. The truck says “Rescue Road Trips” on the side, as big as a billboard: “Saving Dogs 4 Paws At a Time.”

Mahle hops out of the cab, beaming and unshaven, in raggedy blue jeans and a tattered cap. There have been 79 dogs in total on this trip, with 20 getting off at this stop. He slides open the side door of the truck, which is lined with labeled crates bearing canines of every shape and size; dogs are barking, yapping, whining. There’s Linus, Astro, Dewy, Sonny, Poppy, Benji, Ralphie. There’s a chocolate Lab, a cockapoo, a beagle, a shepherd-terrier mix, a pointer mix, mixes of all sorts.

“C’mon over here!” he calls to the families, matching dog names on their signs with names on the crates and coordinating it with paperwork.

He scans the crates for a beagle mix named Sonny, and gently lifts him out and hands him to a little boy, who looks to be about 5. “Sonny, this is your happily forever after moment!” he says to the dog. Everyone is tearing up. The boy and his mother embrace the dog, the mother choking up. Greg takes a picture for Facebook: He keeps a journal of each trip “to ramp up families,” he said, for his next trip.

Some dogs jump eagerly into the arms of their new owners. Others are cowering. “We’re your new family,” Jessie’s new owner tells the dog, speaking softly.

Mahle has to get back on the road. He has two more stops ahead in Providence and Westport.

“You guys saved a life today!” he tells the crowd. At 4 p.m., with a blow of the horn, the rig is gone, back on the road.

Linda Matchan can be reached at linda.matchan@globe.com.