A big, yellow van rolls into a garage at the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region. A team of people are there at the ready.
Out steps driver Frank Zautcke to meet a fellow retiree and comrade. “Hello, Larry! How’s it going?”
It’s going great for Larry Danforth, happy to be here to help unload the Humane Society’s next furry residents.
It’s Thursday, so it was Zautcke’s turn to drive south to Trinidad and into New Mexico to retrieve canines and cats from underserved communities and shelters along the way. Danforth’s Tuesday route leads to Durango.
These are Colorado Springs’ lead “rescue rangers,” driving “rescue rovers” across the state on a weekly, voluntary basis. Since 2014, the vans have combined for upwards of 191,000 miles. More than 17,000 pets have been retrieved since the start of the transfer program that year.
“Transferring is really the future of animal welfare,” says society spokeswoman Gretchen Pressley. “We’re able to get animals from locations that might not have the resources or be at risk of euthanasia because the medical care just isn’t there.”
This city’s facility, meanwhile, prides itself on accreditation by the American Animal Hospital Association. And the nonprofit speaks highly of its adoption rates.
“This is giving them a chance in life, and that’s why this is so rewarding,” says Elizabeth Schultz, Zautcke’s sidekick back from the trip. “These are wonderful, adoptable dogs, and just because of where they were born gives them a disadvantage. Why should that happen?”
She left this morning with a handy roster of targets, a list showing 22 dogs’ pictures, names and locations. Coda, Max, Rocket, Dr. Pepper, Whiskey, Sunshine, Precious, Jelly Bean, Pumpkin and many more yet-to-be-named now depart the van’s kennels.
A trembling little terrier hesitates to leave, dropping flat to her belly and performing what Zautcke and Danforth know as the “pancake” maneuver.
“You can do it, sweetheart, come on now,” Zautcke encourages.
“Come on, baby, it’s OK,” Danforth says, petting her head.
The two were in the Humane Society’s volunteer ranks long before the transfer program started five years ago. With the responsibility and liability involved, not just anyone is tapped to be a rescue ranger; it takes experience, and Danforth jokes he’s got the white beard to show.
The role has given him purpose in retirement. “If I had done this earlier, I would’ve been a lot happier,” he says.
But Danforth was busy in a 20-year Air Force career, then another two decades as a contractor. He was pulling 75-hour weeks, managing teams as big as 40 and as small as six, traveling overseas to install equipment when orders came, and hopefully orders kept coming to meet payroll.
Suffice it to say, he likes working with dogs much more. “I’m much healthier and so much better between the ears,” he says.
But driving over Wolf Creek Pass 154 times — his count at the start of summer — has been no small task. Once, Danforth got pulled over on the way back from Durango. It was only a curious cop, wondering what was up with the rover he kept seeing here in the mountains.
The officer gave Danforth his cellphone number and told him to call if ever he got stuck on the pass. Anything for the dogs, the cop said.
Which is how Zautcke feels.
“Everything is about the animals here,” he says. “I don’t want to get so attached to them, so this job works absolutely perfect for me. I can love on them, take care of them while they’re on the trip, and when I get back here, they’re adopted out.”
He confesses that he and his wife are “foster failures.” They couldn’t resist Shelby, the Australian cattle dog Zautcke picked up during one drive through an Indian reservation. But otherwise, he’s kept the love here at the Humane Society garage, “being happy with them in the moment,” he says.
Unloading is finished, and then comes time for cleaning: removing soiled towels from the kennels, spraying water and disinfectant and scrubbing.
Yes, the rescue rangers have to get dirty. And the job has other sacrifices, time away from home among them.
“But nothing that’s not offset by the reward,” Danforth says.
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