Sean Kiel is a no-nonsense guy with a gruff voice and a tough demeanor. A truck driver for 30 years, he describes himself as an “alpha male” who tends to keep his emotions “hidden pretty well.”
But get him talking about the curly white Bichon Frise he helped rescue from a dark life in a puppy mill, and all of that changes.
“Here I am, a big ol’ tough truck driver, and I’m sitting here choking up right now,” said Kiel, 46, who just transported the grateful fluff ball to a woman in California who was eager to give the dog a good home. “She was so happy to get that dog — just absolutely happy. It was so touching to see.”
More in Good News!
Kiel is a new recruit to an informal and ever-growing network of animal lovers who are transporting rescued dogs, cats, bunnies, ferrets and even the occasional monitor lizard or pot-bellied pig to loving homes, even if those homes are located hundreds of miles away. This unofficial Underground Railroad is powered by truckers, pilots, animal rescue groups and volunteers who provide “layover homes” to all kinds of creatures as they journey to new and happier lives.
Their work happens on their own dime and takes plenty of time, but these volunteers are determined to keep animals moving in the face of seemingly intractable problems: animal overpopulation, and downright abuse, neglect and abandonment of animals by their owners. According to the American Humane Association, about 3.7 million stray and unwanted animals are put to sleep in U.S. shelters each year.
“Shelters nationwide are filled with animals that are going to be killed,” said Sue Wiese, 68, a former truck driver from Joshua, Texas. “You just have to do something.”
‘I just love doing this’
In September 2005, Wiese founded Operation Roger, an organization made up of regional and long-haul truckers who transport pets in the cabs of their trucks as they deliver freight all across the country. She got the effort started after Hurricane Katrina left an estimated 250,000 pets stranded and struggling to survive.
“My heart was just breaking from all the stories about the pets,” Wiese recalled. “I was driving down the road and I was praying, ‘Lord, what can I do? I’m just a truck driver.’ And then I heard one word: Transport.”
Thanks to the abundance of animal lovers on the Internet, Wiese’s calling wasn’t all that hard to fulfill. An animal shelter or rescue organization might not be able to adopt out all its dogs and cats to homes locally — but what if nice people in other states read about those animals online and want to adopt them? Then, basically, those fortunate furry friends just need a ride.
Since 2005, Operation Roger has given nearly 600 animals a lift. The organization has detailed requirements and checks in place to make sure its drivers aren’t transporting animals to or from for-profit breeders, puppy mills or show circuits. Instead, the emphasis is on rescued animals who need permanent homes, and pets who have an opportunity to be reunited with their owners. For instance, if a lost pet turns up hundreds of miles away and is identified with a microchip, that pet could get a comfy ride home in the cab of a truck.Story: To snag homes, shelter pets get glam makeovers
Robert Montagna, 56, a truck driver and Operation Roger volunteer who is based in Michigan, has witnessed some emotional reunions between pets and their owners. In one instance a waitress in Colorado had been separated from her chocolate Labrador retriever for several months in the wake of a divorce.
“When they saw each other, they just ran together toward each other like it was in a movie,” Montagna said. “She cried and cried when she saw that dog.”
In other cases, Montagna has fallen so in love with the pooches he’s transported that he’s had a hard time saying goodbye to them. He still speaks wistfully of Milo, a Jack Russell terrier who liked to curl up and sleep on Montagna’s chest when he napped in his truck.
“I just love doing this,” Montagna said. “I always say that if I won a big lottery, I’d buy a big RV and I’d call Sue up and say, ‘Where’s the dog at? I’ll deliver it.’ And after that, I’d call her and say, ‘OK, where’s the next dog at?’ I’d just keep doing this all over the country.”
Sometimes the logistics involved with getting a pet transported exactly where it needs to go by truck can be tricky. That’s when pilots fill a huge need. Since it was founded in 2008, Pilots N Paws — a South Carolina-based organization that connects shelters and animal rescue organizations with more than 2,100 pilots and plane owners — has transported thousands of pets to safety in small airplanes.Story: How one high-flying dad is making pet rescue a family affair
“People have just really pulled together over this,” said co-founder Debi Boies. “It’s actually a great combination. Pilots are everyday working people who love to fly — it’s a passion. If they’re going to spend the money to do what they love to do, why not make a difference while they’re doing it? Why not save a life? And they do.”
Occasionally volunteer pilots will team up with volunteer truck drivers to coordinate a pet transport. In other cases, when the weather turns bad and pilots know families are eagerly awaiting special animal deliveries, they’ll spend their own money to rent cars and make sure the deliveries happen. “You can’t imagine what these pilots are willing to do,” Boies said. “Some of them even end up adopting the animals they transported.”
Finding a new home — in a truck
Some organizations work with truckers — not by proving transport, but by helping to connect truck drivers with animals they’d like to adopt.
Susanne Spirit, a country and blues singer based in Southern California, has started an energetic, music-filled, on-site adoption program for the hundreds of truck drivers who visit the TravelCenters of America truck stop in Ontario, Calif. The Musical Truckin' Dogs Adoption Program founded by Spirit does not facilitate transport for animals, but helps match truckers with rescue pets of their own.
The truckers who adopt dogs through Spirit’s program are set up with everything they need for seven to 10 consecutive days: water, bowls, collars, harnesses, leashes, blankets, a kennel if needed, toys, treats and food. She’s even arranged to have a mobile groomer and a mobile veterinarian in the parking lot. Over the course of 11 months, Spirit and a number of volunteers have managed to find rolling, loving homes for more than 900 dogs.Story: For couples in close quarters, squeeze-y does it
“These truck drivers can’t just stop at Walmart or Petco — they’re hauling freight,” Spirit said. “So with those care packages, all they have to worry about is the dog. We don’t make a dime off of any of the dogs, and I don’t know how many truckers have put together care packages. Everything is donated. ...
“The truckers are so grateful to have these dogs. I knew truckers wanted dogs, and they’re killing so many dogs — we just had to do this.”
- Jesse Tyler Ferguson's Date Night and More from Inside PEOPLE and TIME's D.C. Bash
- Kim and Rob Kardashian Send Loving Messages to Bruce Jenner
- Laverne Cox Congratulates Bruce Jenner: 'It Is Always Brave to Stand in One's Truth'
- Mark Wahlberg Makes a $250,000 Bet with Diddy on the Mayweather vs. Pacquaio Fight
- It's a Girl for Owain Yeoman
Pilots N Paws always needs pilots to transport animals to safe situations. General-aviation pilots who are interested in helping out should visit the organization’s website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints