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Staff at the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA in California knew they were onto something when the dogs decided to take the stairs.
The nonprofit serving San Mateo County hadn’t had great success loading and unloading animals via the ramps that pull out from under its animal control trucks, explains animal rescue and control captain Jeff Christner. “We kind of had a suspicion that dogs don’t see ramps a lot,” he says. Some would jump back and forth across the ramp, while others skipped it altogether and hopped straight in.
But an idea emerged from the humane society’s vehicle committee: Maybe dogs would be more likely to use something more familiar.
To test that theory, staff took an animal control truck, pulled a ramp out of one side, and placed a small set of wooden stairs on the other. Ten shelter dogs were brought out on leashes. Only one used the ramp the way it’s meant to be used, while six went for the stairs—“with no additional training, no treats, no nothing!” Christner says.
As far as Christner knows, no one had ever made an animal control vehicle equipped with “dog stairs” before, but Peninsula Humane—armed with some conceptual drawings—decided to go for it. The shelter worked with California Truck Equipment Corp., which developed a set of two stairs that pivots out of the bottom of the truck to ease Fido’s trip from curbside to truck kennel.
And staff didn’t stop customizing there: They asked for spotlights that don’t just tilt up and down but are fully adjustable, and can be turned on from the truck cab or at the light itself. They wanted the kennels numbered for easier identification, and built in different sizes. “It cost us nothing extra to have one kennel built bigger than the other,” Christner says. “… We just had to ask.”
Christner has noticed that many animal control agencies settle for a “cookie-cutter vehicle” when they could ask manufacturers to tweak the specifications. “That would be my big thing, is don’t be afraid to ask for stuff,” he says.
There are at least a half dozen companies around the country that have been building and outfitting animal service vehicles for decades, and they can make recommendations to meet your needs, notes Mark Kumpf, director of the Montgomery County Animal Resource Center in Dayton, Ohio. When buying and equipping vehicles, agencies should consider such questions as: Do you need a pickup, a sport utility vehicle, or a van? Will it need to be four-wheel drive? Are you going to tow a trailer? Do you pick up deceased animals? Will the officers be staying in the field for extended periods and need greater holding capacity? Is the vehicle going to be used at night? Will you be doing animal control, or hauling pets to off-site adoption events?
Animal transport vans have grown popular in recent years because they’re lower to the ground than trucks, and thus easier to load, says Scott Campbell, sales manager for the Indiana-based Mavron. “We see people moving away from trucks and toward vans because the trucks are so high, and there’s a lot of injuries associated with loading animals in trucks,” he says.
A down side to vans is that transferring the cages from an old to a new vehicle is labor-intensive and expensive. Pickup trucks, in contrast, have animal storage units that are easily remountable when the chassis wears out, Campbell adds.
And vans aren’t the best fit for every situation. Peninsula Humane’s fleet includes vans, but Christner notes that they aren’t ideal for some duties, like picking up dead deer. The manufacturer will make a compartment for dead animals, Christner notes, but when the humane society’s previous administration bought the vans, no one thought to ask.
Campbell urges agencies to consider the quantity and the size of the dogs they’ll be transporting, “because you can make a mistake. You can get too many cages; you can get a vehicle that’s too large.”
Compare manufacturers and prices, and find an experienced company that will back you up with warranties, adds Warren Brown, president of Jackson Creek Manufacturing in North Carolina.
The downturn in the economy has prompted some vehicle manufacturers to venture into animal transport to boost their bottom line, Brown says. “Problem is, they build a good body, [but] they have no knowledge or background or experience of what the ACO needs, and what works and doesn’t work,” he says. Animal welfare agencies might be enticed by the newcomers’ pretty pictures and discounted pricing. “And when they get the unit and they’ve used it,” Brown warns, “they realize that, ‘Hey, these people never hauled a dog in their life.’”
The folks who have been handling animals for a while, and know their organization’s and officers’ needs, may have real insights into vehicle design. When Montclair Township Animal Shelter in New Jersey bought an SUV in 2007, shelter manager Melissa Neiss decided to make her own design for the cages. Neiss wanted cages that would protect both the animals and the officers. Working with a steel fabricator, she got exactly what she wanted: custom-made cages bolted into the back of the SUV, which turned out to be cheaper than a vehicle with the cages already installed. The cages offer an enclosed, dark environment to help ease the stress on the animals, with holes on the tops and sides for air flow. Five years later, the vehicle is still going strong.
“Would I have loved to get a totally premade vehicle? Yes, but it wasn’t in my budget,” Neiss says. “And I just got a little creative and expressed my ideas to a talented person, and they pulled it off.”