Saving hard-luck dogs on ‘Last Hope Highway’

Peter Zheutlin’s family wanted a dog, but Peter? Never. Through 20 years of marriage and two children, the freelance journalist resisted the idea. He never wanted tumbleweeds of dog hair floating through the house, never wanted to walk a dog through February slush and snow. And as a kid, he was allergic to dogs. Then he saw a video of Albie, a yellow Lab mix, and watched the sweet dog "smile" as he obediently set his rump on the ground when told to sit. After 30 seconds, the fight was over; Zheutlin was smitten. He had to have that dog. Albie was delivered by truck from Louisiana. On walks with Albie around his Massachusetts town, Zheutlin talked with other dog owners and said he was "astonished that so many people had rescue dogs from Southern states."

That was the beginning of Zheutlin’s education about the vast population of abandoned, abused and neglected canines from below the Mason- Dixon Line, as well as the people who are trying to help them.

During his recent talk and book signing at the Amherst Town Library, Zheutlin said Albie’s sav­ior was Greg Mahle, whose life is devoted to trucking dogs from Southern shel­ters, where most dogs are ultimately killed, to the Northeast. His biweekly trips bring some of the countless unwanted dogs to people in Pennsylvania and New England.

That’s how Zheutlin met Greg, and that’s how he came to write his book, "Rescue Road: One Man, Thirty Thousand Dogs and a Million Miles on the Last Hope Highway."

Zheutlin told the sad-joyful story of the culture of dog rescue, a story that shows the best and worst that people are capable of.

The focus is on Greg, who lives in Zanesville, Ohio, and drives his huge semitrailer more than 8,500 miles a month through Kentucky, Ten­nessee, Mississippi, Loui­siana and Texas, picking up dogs from local vet­erinarians and rescue groups, then heading north to deliver them to welcoming homes.

For Zheutlin, this was all new. The phrase "res­cue dog" conjured up im­ages of St. Bernards with flasks of brandy around their necks. But Greg in­trigued him. He and his fellow driver take turns driving and sleeping through the thousands of miles. On his "week off," Greg is home cleaning and sanitizing the trailer and arranging for more adoptions.

Zheutlin saw it all first­hand, accompanying him for 7,000 miles.

He watched Greg and the other driver walk the dogs during breaks in their trips. He watched the network of volunteer "angels" at designated stops help give the dogs exercise and affection.

Greg won’t let the dogs sleep alone at night, Zheutlin said, and he beds himself down on a mattress in the trailer.

There are so many un­wanted dogs, Greg told Zheutlin, he feels like he is "emptying a beach one grain of sand at a time."

But he and fellow rescu­ers do make a difference.

One Texas shelter, for example, turned around its kill rate from 80-20 to 20-80. But there are sim­ply too many dogs to save them all. Just in Houston, there are more than 1 mil­lion strays, Zheutlin said.

Greg’s work is "dirty, hard and stressful," Zheu­tlin said, though he calls himself "just the last link in a complicated network of rescuers," He likes to say, "It takes 100 people to save a dog."

Greg’s devotion extends to the grassroots network. He takes photos of every dog and sends them to the volunteers so they can ex­perience vicariously the dogs’ newfound comfort and joy.

Zheutlin’s slideshow featured photos of sick and neglected dogs in primitive shelters down South and of garbage dumps where litters of discarded puppies have been found. It also showed the happy meet­ings of dogs and their wel­coming families on what they call "Gotcha Day."

During the question-and-answer period after Zheutlin’s talk, people wanted to know why there are so many un­wanted dogs in the South. It’s complicated, he said, but basically, there’s is no strong spay-and-neuter culture, and many dogs live outdoors.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.