Transporting Pets From Hurricane-affected Areas
What do you do when a rescue shelter asks for your help transporting 300 dogs from Texas to Michigan? If you’re professional driver Tony Alsup, you purchase a school bus, remove the seats and make it happen.
Tony Alsup is an owner operator driving professionally for Knoxville carrier Skyline Transportation, Inc., but he’s also a lifetime volunteer.
“Whatever I can do to help and anywhere there’s a need that I can fulfill, that’s where I want to be.”
Tony’s role in the mass transport of pets began at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I was driving for Skyline who annually donates some of its fleet to Wreaths Across America, a nationally-coordinated project that lays wreaths on the graves of veterans at cemeteries all over the country. During that project, I was talking with a driver who told me about Operation Roger. It sounded like something I wanted to do so I volunteered.”
Operation Roger is a non-profit charity reliant on drivers who volunteer to transport pets across the country. Tony says that involvement in both projects is only possible because of support from Skyline.
“If it wasn’t for Skyline, I wouldn’t be able to volunteer with Wreaths or Roger. They make sure I have a job to come back to after I’m done with a voluntary trip. More importantly, pet transport requires the logistical support that Skyline can offer. Without help from dispatch, I wouldn’t be able to pick up these animals and transport them where they need to be. I send my driver manager an email, he works his magic and it has worked out perfectly every time.”
As Harvey dissipated and Irma loomed, the need to increase capacity in the rescue shelters throughout the south was illuminated. It was this need for mass transport which lead Tony to buy an old school bus.
“I was getting calls from all these shelters asking for help. Instead of thinking about what I couldn’t do, I focused on what I could do. I thought ‘If I just had a bus’.”
Tony personally purchased a bus and quickly formed a non-profit group specifically for Emergency Animal Rescue and Shelter, or E.A.R.S.
“We were joining forces with all kinds of entities. I’m just the driver but it takes many people coordinating a project like this. This joint effort gives these dogs a chance at finding their forever homes. That’s what E.A.R.S. is about – communities coming together.”
As the waters of Harvey receded, Houston had thousands of pets needing shelter. Shelters were already at capacity which meant existing shelter animals needed to be relocated to make room for those being displaced by these storms. That is why, on September 11, Tony headed south from Skyline’s Knoxville headquarters with his new old school bus.
“Someone in Houston found someone in Michigan who would take 100 dogs. I coordinated transport with the Michigan outfit and multiple shelters in Alabama, which became evacuation sites for animals escaping these storms.”
To make matters more complicated, Tony and his team had to adhere to multiple safety rules and health regulations before they could think about mass pet transport. Tony, unsurprisingly, reflects on this obstacle with a great attitude.
“That was just another example of real teamwork. All dogs had to be health certified and the certification was only valid for ten days. It took real coordination to get more than forty dogs certified at once then transported safely during that short window of time.”
While many hands worked to lighten the burden, Tony again mentions the support he received from Skyline.
“Jeff Reed, President of Skyline, let me purchase tires for the bus at a significantly discounted rate. I could not have afforded to do any of this without the cost savings that provided.”
Skyline also offered its Kentucky drop yard as a pet respite. It was a fenced, grassy area allowing adequate room for the dogs to take a break which Tony recalls as ‘controlled chaos’.
“I felt like Noah. I had so much fun and it was like the dogs understood what was happening. I tied leashes to the fencing with enough spacing in between so the dogs would not come into contact with each other – a compliance requirement – it was very systematic. I went down the line giving food and water to about ten dogs at a time. I cleaned out their kennels, put a fresh puppy pad in each and loaded them back onto the bus.”
One of the most infectious aspects of Tony’s personality is his positive attitude and love for the cause.
“This whole experience was a tremendous amount of fun. It’s not a burden if you love what you’re doing, and for me, I love dogs, the more the merrier. I would’ve let all of them out of their kennels at one time if I could’ve. Three of them tried a jail break, but after a nice run they came right back to the bus…I didn’t even have to chase them down.”
The need for additional volunteers on the logistical side is critical. Tony says it isn’t just drivers, but everyone from community members and CEO’s who make these missions successful.
“We could use more experienced leadership especially around the logistics side. I played one part, but it was all of us working together towards a common goal that’s really the apex of success. We need more people so this can work even better on an even greater scale.”