It's barely 5 a.m. when we pull out of Clearwater. More than 60 feet of truck and trailer heading north through Tampa toward I-75.
Night gives way to a gray, drizzly morning as Laura Fletcher-Taylor and her husband J.T. begin their road trip to rescue -- from Tampa Bay all the way to Gulfport, Mississippi. It's a journey that will take them nearly 1,300 miles in less than 30 hours.
"It gets long. It gets tiresome, but it's worth it," Jim Taylor offers.
The mission is to rescue dozens of dogs from a Mississippi shelter and bring them back to the Bay Area to be adopted.
"When I adopted a puppy mill dog, it opened my eyes to the need for something like this," Laura Fletcher explains.
That dog was Lily -- a little dachshund that spent most of her life standing on wire.
"She had chronic pneumonia from being in a cage for probably five years," Laura continues. "She had a broken jaw from how bad her teeth were. She had to have 39 teeth removed…she's really the inspiration for this whole journey and the rig and everything else."
The rig cost a quarter-million dollars and is customized to haul up to 150 dogs. They only get paid for gas; everything else is out of pocket.
"There's nobody else out there doing it and also because we can," Laura says. "I own my own business and that affords me the ability to do this."
As we roll on toward Gulfport, the count on Laura's iPad climbs. By the time we pull into the Humane Society of South Mississippi, it's confirmed: 68 dogs are headed for Tampa Bay.
"The more we transport, the higher the save rate," explains HSSM's Tim Sartin.
For Sartin, it's all about saving lives. He says his gulf coast community is still suffering from the one-two punch of the economy and the oil spill.
"Every day, we have multiple people come in and surrender animals because of the economic situation that's going on," he says. "They're not making the money from fishing or oystering or shrimping like they were before."
They get puppies -- lots of puppies -- which, fortunately, are in demand in the Bay Area.
It's a team effort, and in less than 45 minutes, they're done -- a trailer full of dogs yipping and yowling and ready to roll.
And there's one more for the road. Barkley has a little respiratory virus, so he'll ride up front with Laura.
"I usually bring a dog that needs help," she explains. "Either it's sick or it looks like it's scared to death, so I usually bring one up then I ask the shelters to let me know when it gets adopted, who got it. That's my reward."
Operating on just a three-hour catnap, J.T. stays behind the wheel. And now the real work begins for Laura.
"I have to start thinking about letting people know when we're going to arrive," she says. "I'm constantly monitoring whether everybody's safe; the temperature in the trailer."
Ten and a half hours up, 10 and a half hours back -- where the folks at Tampa's Humane Society can't wait for that rig to arrive.
"Everybody's happy because we know it's full of puppies and small dogs and that's what the public really wants, so we are so happy that they've ended up in Tampa Bay and they're going to get another chance at a new home," explains executive director Sherry Silk.
"They've been on a long journey and the journey's not over yet," adds the humane society's Pam Backer. "It's going to keep going until we place them in the right home."
The journey's not quite over for Laura and J.T. either. They've got one more stop: Delivering 22 dogs to Sarasota.
J.T. is weary, but all smiles.
"Makes it all worthwhile," he offers. "Seeing them dogs jumping around, ready to go."
And how about them? How long before they'll be on the road to rescue again?
"Ask me in about a week," an exhausted Laura says. "Then I'll be ready to go again."
All but eight of the dogs have since been adopted. The Taylors will go back to Mississippi for another load soon.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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