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Image: Sean Kiel with the dog Johnny 5
Courtesy Sean Kiel
Sean Kiel, a 46-year-old truck driver from Oregon, is pictured with Johnny 5, the first dog he transported to safety. "He's a really cool dog," Kiel said. "I felt really, really wonderful knowing that I helped somebody else."
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 11/10/2011 11:14:51 AM ET 2011-11-10T16:14:51

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.”

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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.

Image: Robert Montagna and Sue Wiese
Courtesy Robert Montagna
Robert Montagna, a truck driver from Michigan, is pictured with Sue Wiese, the founder of Operation Roger, an organization made up of truckers who transport animals to safe situations.

“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.

Image: Milo the Jack Russell terrier
Courtesy Robert Montagna
When Robert Montagna transported Milo the dog to safety in his truck, Milo liked to curl up on Montagna's chest for naps.

“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.”

Image: German shepherd on an airplane
Courtesy Pilots N Paws
Pilots N Paws has transported thousands of pets in airplanes since 2008. "You see the look in the animals’ eyes," said the group's co-founder Debi Boies. "They just know they’re safe."

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.

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“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.”

Operation Roger always needs more truck drivers and volunteers to provide layover homes for animals in transit. To get involved, visit the organization’s website or email operationroger01@yahoo.com.

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 info@pilotsnpaws.org.

To help support Susanne Spirit’s Musical Truckin' Dogs Adoption Program, visit this website or Facebook page, or email info@musicaltruckindogs.com.

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitteror read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

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Photos: How swimming, and lots of love, saved Harper the puppy’s life

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  1. A sad prognosis

    On Aug. 31, 2011, a puppy was rescued from a garbage bag in Central Florida. She was afflicted by a condition dubbed “swimmer puppy syndrome,” formally, pectus excavatum. It's rare in puppies, but when it happens it causes them to lie flat on their chests with their legs perpetually splayed out. It's usually a symptom of serious neurological problems that most puppies cannot survive. Veterinarians recommended putting her to sleep. (Dolly's Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Changed circumstances

    Erica Daniel, who provides foster care to dogs in serious need, decided to take the puppy home for one full day of love and affection before she was to be put to sleep the next morning. After a few hours of being massaged and cuddled, Harper began to lift her head and move. Encouraged, Daniel contacted Bev McCartt, a therapist with Hip Dog Canine Hydrotherapy & Fitness in Winter Park, Fla. McCartt, pictured here, offered to treat the puppy free of charge. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A fish in water

    At her first hydrotherapy session, the puppy – whom Erica Daniel named Harper – responded remarkably well. Hip Dog therapist Bev McCartt explained that swimming helped teach Harper what her natural gait should be. “Her brain kicked in and by the end of her first session, she was like, ‘Oh, I can do this,’ ” McCartt said. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Getting going

    “Hydrotherapy and massage actually build on that instinct for a dog to move,” Hip Dog therapist Bev McCartt said, adding that Harper is “a real testament to a dog’s determination to get up and just go.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Just the right help

    Erica Daniel, Harper’s foster mom and head of a dog-rescue organization called Dolly’s Foundation, said Harper has benefited from a mix of treatments: hydrotherapy, massage therapy and electric stimulation of her muscles. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. ‘Loosey-goosey’

    After one of her early massages, Harper got “all loosey-goosey, like we all are after a massage,” Bev McCartt said. “She just kind of melted into the pad.” Later that same day, she started to trot. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. ‘So much determination’

    “She has so much determination and grit,” Bev McCartt said. “She’s a miracle puppy. That’s how I see her. She’s a walking miracle.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Relaxed and happy

    Harper has thrived after receiving personalized attention and care. Her foster mom, Erica Daniel, plans to give her up for adoption in late October – if she can stand parting with her. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Unstoppable

    Harper took her first actual steps on grass, then on carpet, then on concrete. “She still can’t walk on tile or hardwood floors,” Erica Daniel said on Sept. 20. “But she’s getting there.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A whole new life

    Harper has been holding her own and playing happily with the seven other dogs at Erica Daniel’s home. “My dogs really egg her on,” Daniel said. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. ‘Dogs need love’

    “Pit bulls are just dogs,” said Erica Daniel, noting the negative image of Harper’s breed. “Dogs need love, and they need homes.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Help from new friends

    Harper has benefited from an outpouring of support from a variety of Central Florida residents. Flyin Fur Pet Photography donated photography services when capturing these "day in the life" images of Harper. All money raised from sales of Harper's photos will be directed toward Harper's medical bills and the work of Dolly’s Foundation, Erica Daniel’s dog-rescue organization. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. No worries

    “The whole world was against her, but she’s such a fighter,” said Erica Daniel, Harper’s foster mom. “She’s a blessing. She’s awesome.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
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Explainer: True ‘tails’ of animal survival

  • It's tough out there for a...

    NBC News
    A cat who went missing for nine years. A beagle who went missing for five. An enormous, affable hog who survived a serious truck accident on the way to the sausage plant — thereby avoiding the fate of being turned into sausage.


    These and other amazing tails — er, tales — of survival are contained right here in this slideshow. Some feature reunions with long-lost family members thanks to the miracle of microchips. Others spotlight the acts of kind-hearted humans. All of them will make you smile.

  • A dog's four-year, 1,100-mile journey

    NBC News
    A missing Missouri dog is found four years later and four states away.
    Who knows exactly where Mickey the Boston terrier went, what he ate, how he traveled and who he met during his four long years away from home? Well, Mickey does — but he's keeping his secrets to himself.

    The pup disappeared from his backyard in Kansas City, Mo. — and about four years later in 2007, his owners were stunned to receive a phone call from an animal shelter 1,100 miles away in Billings, Mont., saying that Mickey had been found and identified with the help of a microchip. Mickey's family said their dog no longer knew his name when he came home, and his teeth bore signs of wear and tear — but other than that, he was fine, and they were thrilled to have him back in their lives.

  • Oh Fudge!

    Image: Ashlea Boon with Fudge the kitten
    SWNS
    Ashlea Boon with Fudge the kitten.
    Attention, pet owners: Here’s a cautionary tale about leaving washing machine and dryer doors open. Ashlea Boon of Somerset, England left her dryer open in August 2010 — and Fudge, her tiny new kitten, hopped inside the machine and curled up on a soft duvet cover for a cat nap. Boon had no idea Fudge was in there when she switched the dryer on to give the bedding a refresher spin.

    Fudge spun with the blanket for a five-minute cycle. When Boon removed it from the dryer, she was horrified to see her tiny kitten collapse lifeless on the floor.

    “She was limp and wasn’t moving,” Boon said, according to the British newspaper the Daily Mail. “She was just dead when she came out. She was very limp and just lying on the floor. I was very shocked. It was horrible.”

    Boon, a nurse, rubbed Fudge’s belly in an effort to revive her, and she started breathing again. She then rushed Fudge to the vet, who feared the kitten had brain and vision damage. But after being treated for 24 hours and given steroids, Fudge bounced back. She’s doing just fine today.

    “It was really emotional and horrible,” Boon said. “I would warn anyone else with pets to be aware when leaving the tumble dryer door open.”

  • Gone with the wind, saved by a psychic

    Chihuahuas are tiny little dogs, and at 6 pounds, Tinker Bell the Chihuahua was especially small. So perhaps it won't come as a huge surprise to learn that a 70-mph gust of wind was able to sweep the little girl off her feet. That's precisely what happened to her in April while she was minding her own business at a Michigan flea market.


    What may come as more of a surprise is that Tinker Bell flew completely out of the sight of her owners, Dorothy and Lavern Utley, who turned to a pet psychic for help. They said the psychic directed them to a wooded spot almost a mile away from the flea market — and, what do you know? There was Tinker Bell! After two days on her own, she was hungry and dirty but otherwise fine. Dorothy Utley said the little dog "just went wild" when she saw Utley.

  • Should I call myself a cab, too?

    AP
    Talk about planning ahead. The owners of an African grey parrot in Japan spent two years teaching the bird to recite his full name and address in case he ever got lost.

    And that's just what the parrot did in May 2008 when he escaped from his cage and had to be rescued from a neighbor's roof in the city of Nagareyama, near Tokyo. He spent a night at a police station, where he stayed quiet as a church mouse — but after he got transferred over to a veterinary hospital, he started chatting it up. "I'm Mr. Yosuke Nakamura," the bird announced to the vet, and he also spelled out his address and sang songs to the delight of the hospital staff. Because the address the bird provided was flawless, he was easily reunited with his family.

  • Kitty rescued from PVC pipe

    NBC News
    Myra Amado of Wareham, Mass., heard crying sounds in her backyard for several days in June 2009, but she just couldn't identify the source of the cries. She finally checked an out-of-the-way area near her shed, and — gasp! What was that peeking at her out of a section of T-shaped PVC pipe? The head of a tiny orange tabby kitten!


    The 6-week-old feline was wedged inside the pipe so tightly that Amado had to call firefighters for assistance. Two hours and a dollop of vegetable oil later, the kitty was free from the pipe and on her way to a nearby animal shelter, where she was treated for dehydration and a broken paw. The name given to her by her rescuers? Piper.

    Video: Trapped kitten rescued from pipe
  • No swine before its time

    Stephen B. Thornton / Arkansas D
    Picture this: An enormous, 800-pound hog is riding in a truck in Arkansas along with about 90 other pigs, unaware that he's bound for the slaughterhouse — (but maybe slightly suspicious). There's an accident on the journey, and the truck flips. About 60 of the pigs survive. This one escapes.

    Not only does he escape, but he survives on his own for an entire week before deciding to take a dip in LeAnn Baldy's swimming pool. Baldy was stunned when she happened to notice that her pool was overflowing in June 2009. She was even more surprised when she saw the immersed hog cooling off in the water and enjoying a drink.

    This "ham on the lam" was spared a second journey to the sausage plant because slaughterhouse officials had no idea what he had been eating during his week on his own.

  • Reunited after Hurricane Katrina

    AP
    This is one of those stories that can make your heart hurt, even though it involves a happy reunion between a man and his dog. The drama began when Jessie Pullins had to evacuate New Orleans with his family in August 2005 as Hurricane Katrina approached. He figured he'd be gone a day — maybe two at most — so he left his Labrador-shepherd mix J.J. with a generous helping of food and water.

    Of course, Pullins was not able to return right away. J.J. ultimately got rescued and adopted by two sisters in California who cared for him deeply and wanted to keep him. After legal wrangling, the sisters returned J.J. to Pullins in 2009. The saga is detailed in "Mine," a PBS documentary about pet-ownership disputes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

  • 'Dead' pet cat returns... nine years later

    Fame Pictures
    Gilly Delaney of Birmingham, England never quite believed it when she was told in 1999 that her pet cat Dixie had been killed by an oncoming car. She always had a feeling the cat might return home — so much so that she nixed a move to Malta that she and her husband had been considering.

    And sure enough, in 2008, animal shelter workers showed up at the Delaneys' home — with Dixie! They had found the cat wandering less than half a mile away from the Delaneys' home, and they identified her because she had a microchip. The Delaneys were ecstatic. "Dixie's personality, behavior and little mannerisms have not changed at all," Gilly Delaney told the Daily Mail newspaper. "She is still a happy, contented cat who just wants to sit next to you on the sofa and have a fuss. She hasn't stopped purring since she came back through the door."

  • A 'flush' with death for tiny puppy

    TODAY
    Kids do the darndest things. Especially 4-year-olds who are playing with itty-bitty puppies. Daniel Blair, 4, of Middlesex, England, decided to give his 1-week-old cocker spaniel puppy a bath in the toilet in June 2009 because the puppy was muddy. And then — oops! — Daniel flushed the toilet!

    Daniel's mother, Alison, told Britain's Daily Mirror that she was convinced the puppy had drowned. Not so, however. A drainage company used a special camera and found the wet, startled and very alive puppy about 20 yards from the house. Four hours later, the puppy was out and safe. "I'm so, so sorry, " Daniel told the Daily Mirror. "I won't do it again."

    Video: Puppy survives trip down the toilet
  • 'Please Rocco, come home'

    TODAY
    After the Villacis' beagle Rocco strayed from their yard in Queens, N.Y., in 2003, the whole family was devastated — but no one took it harder than little Natalie. The 5-year-old cried for extended periods, and she never parted with the dog's favorite toy, a stuffed cat.

    And then in 2008, more than five years after he had disappeared, he turned up 850 miles away at an animal-control office in Georgia. He was reunited with his family because of his microchip. "When my mom told me they found Rocco, I cried hysterically — just like I did when they told me he was lost," Natalie told the New York Post. "Every time I would see a dog on the street, I would say to my mom, 'Maybe Rocco will come back.' She would say that he probably isn't going to come back. I would say, 'I know, but maybe he will.'...At night, I would wish, 'Please Rocco, come home.' And now that wish came true."

  • Somebody help this poor doggie

    This is the story of an impossibly small Chihuahua and an impossibly large barbecue fork, and it is not for the faint of heart.

    It happened at a barbecue in London, Ky. Somehow a huge barbecue fork broke in two and went soaring through the air — and its 3-inch prongs lodged deep inside Smokey the dog's head. The 12-week-old puppy barked in pain, ran off and disappeared into a wooded area for two full days before his frantic owner, Hughie Wagers, managed to find him.


    A trip to the vet, Dr. Keaton Smith, revealed that the fork had impaled the dog's brain. Smokey was operated on immediately. During a TODAY interview, Wagers told Matt Lauer that his pooch "did wake up weird" from the surgery, but Smith expects Smokey's brain to recover completely since he's still a pup.

    Video: Chihuahua impaled by BBQ fork
  • Tossed turtle makes 670-mile journey

    TODAY
    Ten-year-old Carley Helm thought it was OK to bring her new friend Neytiri, a coin-sized turtle, back with her on a flight from Atlanta to her home in Milwaukee. And so did AirTran Airways personnel — at first, that is.

    But, after Carley and her reptile friend were on board, flight attendants ordered the turtle off the plane. 

    The Helm kids set Neytiri in an airport trash bin, after calling their father William to come retrieve the animal. When he arrived, he wasn't able to find Neytiri. Turns out, another AirTran employee had already fished the turtle out of the trash, handed it off to a co-worker, who then took it home as a pet for their son.

    Jennifer Forbes, a cruelty caseworker for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, learned of the case and ran interference for the family. Eventually, Neytiri was retrieved and made the 670-mile journey to be reunited with the Helms.

    Video: Girl reunited with turtle tossed in airline flap
  • David, Brooke and Jake – together again

    PeoplePets.com
    Whether you're rich or poor, famous or unknown, the heartbreak of losing a pet can be devastating — and the thrill of being reunited with that pet can be the best feeling in the world.

    Just ask celebrity couple David Charvet of ABC's "The Superstars" and Brooke Burke, the Season 7 champion on "Dancing with the Stars." They were distraught when their chocolate Labrador retriever Jake went missing for nine long months – until they got a shocker of a phone call informing them that Jake was fine and ready to be picked up.

    "Someone found Jake in our town, had no idea who his owner was (Jake had no collar) and gave him to a neighbor who took him in and cared for him," Burke wrote in her blog on ModernMom.com. "The man took Jake to a vet for a random check-up and for blood work. After telling the vet the story of how Jake came into his life, the vet decided to scan Jake. David had an identity chip put in Jake as a puppy. ...

    "Thank God for honest people who are selfless enough to do the right thing. I hope something wonderful happens to [Jake’s rescuer] ... for caring for Jake and letting him go."

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