‘The Traveling Zoo’: Life on the Road, With Pets at Their Side

It can get lonely on the road, but Rebecca Washington, a long-distance trucker who is sometimes away from home for months on end, has Ziggy, Polly, Junior and Tucker along for the ride: her “rig dogs.”

“People call me the traveling zoo,” she said.

“We’re away from our families a lot of the time,” added Ms. Washington, 53, whose home base is Springfield, Mo., and whose children are grown with children of their own. “Animals are good companions, and walking the dogs at truck stops is a good way to lose weight and stay healthy. I take them out two at a time. It’s a routine.”

Long-haul trucking companies mostly don’t complain about on-the-road pets, and some even encourage them, because happier drivers are more likely to stick around. The nationwide driver shortage is acute, and the coronavirus only made matters worse.

“Freight volume is back where it was before the pandemic,” said Avery Vise, vice president for trucking at FTR Transportation Intelligence. “However, trucking payroll employment is still 3.2 percent below February of last year, and the industry has brought back only about half the payroll jobs it lost. There’s a lot of stress in the system.”

Carrying pets is “pretty common” for truckers, Mr. Vise said. FleetOwner magazine reported in 2013 that over 60 percent were pet owners — with “40 percent of them taking their pets on the road with them.”

Those figures still hold up, said Wendy Miller, managing editor of The Trucker, a newspaper and website.

“Of the drivers I’ve interviewed,” she said, “I would say that the vast majority of them own pets, and many take them on the road.” Drivers who own their trucks have more leeway to take along a best friend, Ms. Miller said.

Asked if there were any regulations regarding pets on board interstate trucks, Duane DeBruyne, a spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, had a simple reply: “No.” But some trucking companies impose weight limits on the pets or bar certain breeds, and others require a deposit against damage to company-owned trucks.

Ms. Washington, who drives for the Road Legends trucking company and is an avid participant in a private Facebook group called Trucking Fur Babies, has come across big rigs with monkeys, small pigs, parrots and more on board. “One lady had a hedgehog,” she said.

And then there’s Sarah Giles, 27, of Breckenridge, Texas. She drives for All Freight Carriers and carries a pair of dogs — and, until recently, six parakeets.

“They’re funny little birds — each one has his own personality and quirks,” said Ms. Giles, who built an elaborate open jungle gym for them.

Unfortunately, the parakeets found some dangerous escape routes, so Ms. Giles rehomed them and brought in Bonnie, a larger green-cheeked conure parakeet.

“They’re about a foot long, as smart as a 4-year-old and very affectionate,” she said. “Bonnie wants to be on me all the time, insists on everything her way, and doesn’t like strangers near the truck.”

Ms. Giles’s routes are mostly long hauls on the East Coast. “The driving part is easy — it’s the mental aspect that’s the hardest part,” she said. “You’re alone with yourself for long periods, and having a companion helps. A little happiness boost gets you through.” She said the dogs were also good protection for a single woman on the road.

Frank Wehmeyer, 51, calls Paducah, Ky., home when he’s off the road. Okie (a corgi) and Bear (a Pekingese-dachshund mix) are his traveling companions, and together they’ve been to all of the lower 48 states, plus Alaska and Canada.

Mr. Wehmeyer first traveled with a canine companion 17 years ago, when his wife at the time was going out of town and didn’t want to board her dog in a kennel.

“It worked out fine, and I wanted to do it again, but my wife said, ‘Get your own dog.’” That was Lucy, a corgi who rode with Mr. Wehmeyer for 12 years.

“They like to see what’s going on, so they get attuned to the engine, the cruise control, the brakes,” he said. “They know we’re heading into a rest stop.” Mr. Wehmeyer ordered his Mack Anthem truck with rubber mats instead of carpets. “Corgis shed,” he said.

Pets are part of the picture even when husbands and wives travel together. Austin and Krystal Martin are from Texas but are on the road most of the time, driving a Freightliner Cascadia truck for FedEx Custom Critical 3,000 miles or more weekly — these days carrying Covid-19 vaccines, among other specialized cargo. Along for the ride is Clutch, 9, a mixed-breed cat who got along well with Chassis, a Westie-resembling dog who was once a part of the crew.

“She died in Memphis,” said Austin Martin, 42, noting that the couple received 300 to 400 condolences from other truckers.

Although the couple travel together, “when I’m awake, Austin is sleeping,” Krystal Martin, 50, said. “Animals are great emotional support. I drive the overnights, and sometimes when I come into a big city I’ll get anxious, and Clutch knows Mom is upset — she’ll jump up in my lap to get petted.”

Jenniffer Hancock of Madisonville, Ky., also travels with a kitty, an orange tabby named Sheldon, who has taken the rig pet concept to a high art.

“His nickname is Mudflap because when we take him out on a harness at the drop yards he’ll have to sniff all the trailer mudflaps,” she said. “In the terminal, all the dispatchers know him.”

Sheldon, who just showed up at Mrs. Hancock’s home one day, likes to stick his head out the window at speeds below 45 miles an hour, and is quite demanding about it. He has a special spot on the right corner of the dashboard.

Kelly and Robyn Brunson of Tooele, Utah, drive the 2013 Peterbilt 389 they own for Godfrey Trucking, sharing their space with Truffles, an American mini pig.

“We chose a pig for the truck because they are clean and do not smell,” Ms. Brunson said.

“The staff and drivers have all come to love Truffles,” she added. “She gets up every morning at 8 a.m. for her breakfast of piggy pellets and fruit, and loves to burrow in the pillows and blankets in the sleeper. She goes wherever we go, including to 48 states.”

Persuading shelters and pet rescue centers to let truckers adopt animals can be a bigger hurdle than getting trucking companies to allow pet companions, said Shannon Ashley, another FedEx Custom Critical driver.

“It was aggravating,” she said. “We must have gone to a dozen different shelters and rescues putting in applications, only to be told no. We needed to live within so many miles of the organization, or they had mandatory home/yard checks. We don’t have a home. Our truck is our home!”

Jim Mason, a board member of the Two Mauds foundation, which makes grants to animal shelters, echoed this sentiment: “They’re not all like that, but some are so strict that it’s like no one’s good enough to adopt their animals.”

Discriminating against truck drivers is misguided, Mr. Mason said, because “dogs want to be with their human companions as much as they can.”

“Nothing makes them happier,” he continued. “It’s absolutely better for the dog than being locked down at home while their owners are at work.”

Lindsay Hamrick, director of shelter outreach and engagement at the Humane Society of the United States, agreed with that view.

“For anyone wanting to adopt, there’s a match for that person,” she said. “I can think of no better life for a dog who likes to ride in a vehicle than to be with their owner 24/7. And some shelter policies are indeed too restrictive. Requiring a fenced-in yard, for instance, eliminates a lot of people who could give dogs good homes.” The Humane Society operates an Adopters Welcome site to help change adoption policies.

Given the driver shortage, it’s likely the trends will continue to favor allowing rig pets. According to William B. Cassidy, a senior editor who covers trucking for The Journal of Commerce, “A lot of companies are trying to become more driver-centric, and allowing pet ownership is part of that.”

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