Saving abandoned animals, one ride at a time
(NBC) -- For former trucker Sue Wiese, obstacles don't get in the way of her drive to save pets' lives.
The 69-year-old Texas grandmother is the founder of Operation Roger, a group of volunteer truck drivers who transport animals from kill shelters and rescue groups to families willing to adopt them.
"We're a ragtag group of pet lovers who want to help pets who already have a home to go to, give them some T.L.C., and a hitchhike to get there," she said.
Now retired, Wiese started the nonprofit, named after her late Manchester Terrier, Roger, after listening to grim stories coming out of Hurricane Katrina's devastation in August 2005. As she drove one night, Wiese said she prayed for guidance on how to help the pets stranded by the storm.
She says she remembered saying, "Lord, I am just a truck driver, is there anything I can do to help?"
Then it came to her: transportation.
At the advice of loved ones, Wiese called into Bill Mack's XM Satellite talk show, a favorite with truckers, to ask for support to transport abandoned pets.
She described her idea on the air -- and although no one volunteered right away, by the end of the program her phone had voicemails from a dozen other truckers wanting to participate.
Finding their 'forever family'
Almost eight years later, Operation Roger has 50 truck drivers. Their two coordinators locate a driver who will be traveling near the pet's destination, or they locate a series of truckers who can do a relay to move the rescued animal from one state to the other until finally arriving at the home of the adoptive family.
"Dogs, cats, ferrets, hamsters, gerbils, chinchillas, anything a driver can put in the cab of their truck they will take," said Wiese.
Chihuahua owner and trucker Tony Hamilton said the drivers treat the dogs like they are family, carrying one animal at a time.
"We're all pet lovers," he said.
Pekingese Shelby is the 692nd pet to "hitchhike" to his "forever family." He lived under a tin shed crowded with some other 30 dogs and at least two dozen cats in Buffalo, Okla., for years until the local sheriff stepped in and labeled it a hoarding situation.
Rescue groups Furever Friends and W.O.O.F. Pet Rescue took in the pets.
"The feces and the urine were inches thick," said Melba Shawn Evans of Furever Friends.
Alaska family adopts Shelby
Then a family in Tok, Alaska spotted dog Shelby on a pet rescue website and decided to adopt him. Operation Roger coordinator Toni Bowser found Washington State-based driver David Binz who had been assigned to pick up goods in Texas bound for Alaska.
As a volunteer for the group, Binz has transported nine dogs and one cat since he joined Operation Roger.
"It's a good way that truck drivers in America can give back to society because we're not home a lot," he said. "We can't do a lot of volunteer projects, but this is something that we can do."
For nine days Shelby rode with Binz and his own dog Izzy for 4,579 miles. Saturday they arrived in Tok, Alaska, where the Kern family anxiously awaited Shelby's arrival. Morgan, 11, and her twin sister Madison met the Pekingese with big smiles and hugs.
"I'm very excited," Morgan said.
Shelby's new dad said the family is proud of being able to provide a good home for the dog.
"He was in a bad situation and it was just our duty to do something like that, to give him a good home," said Todd Kern.
Operation Roger drivers are not just transporting pets, said Bowser, they are also helping the animals heal from abuse and abandonment trauma.
"They're being loved on during the ride, the drivers try to meet the pets' needs" she said.
To this day, Wiese is surprised and impressed at how many people have joined her cause.
"I feel in awe," she said. "It's been a whirlwind."