Rancho Santa Fe’s Mike McCarthy is the founder and heart of Rescue Express, saving lives by transporting animals from overpopulated and high-kill shelters in Southern California to rescue groups who find them forever homes in the Pacific Northwest. The nonprofit subsidiary of MGM Animal Foundation provides freedom rides for pets free of charge in a fleet of three big red buses that can hold up to 200 animals safely and humanely.
Since 2015, Rescue Express has transported almost 13,000 animals. With the addition of two buses to the fleet in 2016, McCarthy said there is a real possibility they will meet 20,000 animals transported by next year.
New to Rancho Santa Fe from Eugene, Ore., Rescue Express is hosting an open house on Wednesday, Nov. 15 at the Rescue Express Ranch at 6715 Lago Lindo, Rancho Santa Fe. From 4-7 p.m. guests can enjoy a light meal, meet the staff, tour the buses and learn about how the group is working toward a future in which no animals are euthanized due to a community’s inability to care for them.
A retired software engineer, McCarthy had his own computer science and accounting system consulting practice that he sold in 1998. He always had a love for animals and after selling his company, he went to work for animal rescues, whether it was helping rescue groups to improve their fundraising efforts or making contributions to help them meet facility needs or other needs.
McCarthy and his eight dogs, all rescues, moved to his Rancho Santa Fe ranch in August. McCarthy lived in Rancho Santa Fe from 2008 to 2010 before moving to Newport Beach for a couple years and then heading up north to live on a ranch in Eugene.
While working with shelters in Oregon, he said it became evident that nearly all of the rescues were coming to the state from Southern California. A bunch of little groups were transporting the animals up north, often times in cramped vans or even cars, some of them arriving in poor condition, dehydrated or even worse.
“I decided I could do a better job than they were doing and do it really cheap if I used a bigger vehicle,” McCarthy said. “You could get a lot more animals in the van, and with a two-person crew we could transport animals from Los Angeles to Seattle.”
The first Rescue Express, a converted 40-foot school bus, took its initial journey on Valentine’s Day 2015, stopping at rescue groups along Interstate 5 to load up the bus heading north.
“Shelters in Southern California, mostly those in the Central Valley, are more and more pressured by the community to lower euthanasia rates and find ways to home most dogs, as long as they aren’t ferocious or sick. So this is a great program for them,” McCarthy said.
Free of charge, he will go to a shelter in a place like Bakersfield and take 20 dogs out of their cages and take them up north. McCarthy said the Southern California shelters are “delighted” because it takes pressure off of them to find homes for those 20 dogs and the shelters up north, which have a hard time finding animals, are able to get those dogs into good homes and benefit from adoption fees to keep their shelters up and running.
“The people there are also getting to adopt an animal that they wouldn’t have been able to get and the animal gets to live a life as well,” McCarthy said. “Everybody wins.”
The first few trips were word of mouth but soon they implemented a reservation system. Over the last four years, McCarthy has refined the system, drawing on his tech background to create an online method. In 2016, they added two more buses to the fleet to meet demand.
The bus is equipped with 100 carriers of varying sizes, from small to large and groups can make reservations based on carrier size. Every weekend on Saturday mornings, the bus starts picking up animals all the way up to Sacramento and then makes several scheduled stops. Eugene, Ore., is usually the first stop and then the bus goes on to Portland, Seattle and Burlington, Wash.
“A lot of animals are going to Canada now,” McCarthy said. “The further north you get, the greater the shortage of animals.”
At one Canada shelter, McCarthy said they had 200 applications for 20 available dogs.
The buses are also useful in the event of natural disasters. In 2016, the buses transported animals from Louisiana after the floods and after Hurricane Harvey this year, the buses went to Houston and back twice, bringing over 400 animals to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Rescue Express will also do charters for small rescue groups as long as they can fill the bus with 80 animals.
There are many “happy tails” from the nearly 13,000 lives saved. A favorite is Gwen, who got on the bus just in time, the day before her euthanasia date. While on the bus to Oregon, she gave birth to a litter of puppies. The Rescue Express gave Gwen and her puppies a chance to find a forever home that they would have never had otherwise.
In addition to transporting animals, the nonprofit is also working to reduce the number of animals needing relocation with innovative initiatives targeting the sources of pet overpopulation, including support for low-cost spay/neuter programs and lobbying for improved local animal regulations and enforcement.
While dogs and cats are the most common passengers, the Express has also carried pigs and bunnies and they will soon start partnering with a pigeon and dove rescue. There have been no problems in the transports, which McCarthy credits to his safety procedures for all traveling pets.
When the bus returns it is cleaned and sterilized and prepared for the next trip. As the goal is for the bus to travel as far as possible as quickly as possible so that the animals are not on the bus for too long, two staff members make the trip to take shifts driving — there is space on board for one staff member to rest.
“We don’t charge rescue groups for service so we rely on donations,” said McCarthy. “We want to do more. The buses can go a long way, they are pretty economical, but we are in the process of designing an 18-wheeler.”
The 18-wheeler would have room for 300 carriers so the Express would be able to take three times as many animals in one trip. The more lives he can save the better, McCarthy said. To learn more, visit Rescue Express at rescueexpress.org or contact Madeleine Gere at (760) 730-2106 or firstname.lastname@example.org.