It’s just after 7 a.m. this Saturday morning, July 15, in the City of San Fernando. The sun is just beginning to rise, but Mirita Solario has already driven two hours with her son and his girlfriend to get here from their Vista home in San Diego county.
They were told about an out-of-state animal rescue organization that can help find “forever homes,” or safe “non-kill” shelters for unwanted animals. Solario is an animal lover and a bit of a rescuer herself. She has nine dogs in her vehicle. She will transport six of the dogs herself today to a shelter in Harris Ranch, near Coalinga, CA, before driving back home. Three others — a female pit bull terrier, a mixed breed schnauzer, and another whose mixed breed Solario doesn’t know — she is trusting to Rescue Express.
“Another person asked me to bring them (to the pickup spot),” she said. “I know they do different stops.”
San Fernando is the first Southern California stop for Rescue Express, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Eugene, Oregon that sends converted school buses here every weekend to transport dogs, cats, and other animals that were either strays on the streets and put into shelters, or are unwanted pets that people either abandoned or gave to folks like Solario to care for temporarily.
There were animals that had traveled even farther for a new beginning than the ones brought by Solario. Two dogs were brought here the day before from a no-kill shelter in Loreto, Baja California Sur, Mexico run by Patrick McGorky. The dogs spent the night in Almost Home, a local boarding house in San Fernando, before heading to their new, permanent home in Portland, Ore.
All animals must have proof of vaccinations, a rabies certificate, and been quarantined a minimum of 10 days before they are accepted for transport by the company.
Rescue Express then takes the animals to more than 150 rescue partners in Oregon, Washington and Canada that have either already found new homes for them, or will care for them and put them up for adoption.
Many of the animals being rescued from overcrowded shelters in California were facing euthanasia, said Rescue Express Executive Director Chrissy Mattucci.
According to the organization’s website, 10,520 animals have been saved since the organization began its operation in 2015.
“Not all of the animals are from ‘high-kill’ shelters, but … this gives them and others a chance to live,” Mattucci said. “It’s why we’re still able to say we save lives, because they didn’t have a home, and they could have been put in kill shelters if rescuers had not intervened.”
Approximately 6.5 million companion animals enter US animal shelters nationwide every year. Of those, approximately 3.3 million are dogs and 3.2 million are cats. Approximately 1.5 million shelter animals are euthanized (670,000 dogs and 860,000 cats), according to the ASPCA, which also notes that the number of dogs and cats euthanized annually has declined from approximately 2.6 million in 2011.
The listed figures are approximations. There is no central data collection site, and not every state requires its shelters to provide intake or outcome totals.
The Los Angeles Department of Animal Services — which includes the East Valley Shelter in Van Nuys and whose service areas includes San Fernando — reports at total of 1,796 dogs and cats in its shelters have been euthanized through June of the fiscal year 2016-17.
An ASPCA survey cited pet problems such as problematic or aggressive behaviors, animals growing larger than expected, or owners becoming overwhelmed by health problems as the most common reasons that owners “rehome” their pet, accounting for 47 percent of dogs and 42 percent of cats getting new places to live.
Rescue Express does not directly place the animals themselves. It simply provides free pickup and drop-off transportation.
The organization was founded by Mike McCarty, who in 1998 sold a successful accounting software business and is president of the MGM Animal Foundation which primarily funds Rescue Express. He has been involved in animal rescue operations for more than 20 years.
McCarthy said he got the idea for Rescue Express after witnessing other businesses that transported animals, “doing it badly. Sometimes the animals had heatstroke, or died. I thought I could do a better job of it.
“We wanted to provide a service to rescue groups rather than just get animals ourselves. This would enable other rescue groups to get them out of (Southern California) shelters and find people willing to take the animals. We have provided high-quality transport to 250 different groups that wouldn’t have had access to a transport service, or have to develop it themselves, which is expensive.”
Rescue Express sends its drivers like Philip Broussard from Eugene, Oregon on Friday. They drive straight to the valley before pulling up to the appointed drop-off spot on Ilex Avenue.
This past weekend Broussard, 62, a retired commercial driver who joined Rescue Express last year, and crew supervisor Sabrina Benninghoven covered almost 3,000 miles roundtrip picking up or dropping off 118 animals (96 dogs and 22 cats). After leaving San Fernando, they drove nonstop to their final destination, this weekend being Burlington, WA.
“We’ll probably have anywhere to an 18-20 hour day today,” Broussard said. “And it’s not always dogs and cats. We’ve picked up bunnies and snakes and anything else that needs a ride.”
He does it gladly, he said, for “the pure passion of saving these animals.”
They go nonstop because they don’t want the animals — who are stacked inside portable carriers inside the air-conditioned bus — to be penned up any longer than necessary. The animals are fed during the trip, and there is extra bedding material in case the animals need to relieve themselves while in transit.
“[With animals] you have to sort of ‘read between the lines, especially with little ones, if they need to relieve themselves, or if they’re hungry or thirsty,” Broussard said. “We’ve gotten proficient at reading faces, and figuring out what their needs are.”
Broussard adds he prefers their company.
“The difference between humans and animals is humans complain more,” he said.
Rescue Express officials are considering ways to expand their operation. They are interested in developing another route in California — they have a bus in the San Diego area — and perhaps even travel east. But the organization is still cultivating other rescue operation groups for more routes.
“This is a growing business,” Mattucci said. “We know there are a lot of animals that don’t make it out [of being euthanized] that could. The fact is they need more of us. We are trying to make an even bigger impact. That’s a good thing, in its own way.”
For those seeking more information about Rescue Express or who would like to make a donation, you can visit their website at rescueexpress.org, or go to its Facebook page.