At the end of a long day on the road in his semi truck, Greg Mahle climbs into the back of his 42-foot trailer, rolls out a blanket, rests his head on a gym bag and falls asleep to the sound of dozens of thumping tails.
Mahle’s precious cargo — about 65 dogs that would otherwise have been killed at animal shelters in the South — is comforted knowing that he is nearby, “and I am comforted by them,” the 53-year-old former restaurant owner from Zanesville, Ohio, tells PEOPLE. “I want to see the dogs, smell them, hear them and touch them.”
“Most of them were thrown out like trash or with the trash,” he says, “and I get to take them to become somebody’s treasure. They can sense that, and it’s the best feeling in the world. I can feel it every night in the trailer.”
As the founder of Rescue Road Trips, Mahle has spent almost 10 years making a 4,200-mile roundtrip every other week from Ohio to states in the deep South, “where there are there just too many dogs,” he says, “and not enough people who want to adopt them.”
With help from animal rescue volunteers who temporarily foster dogs that would otherwise be killed at overcrowded shelters in states like Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas, Mahle has saved the lives of an estimated 55,000 dogs and driven more than 1 million miles.
After meeting volunteers in parking lots to load up his canine cargo, he then drives north, stopping at towns along the way where new families have been lined up to adopt the pets.
“The supply of dogs is in the South and the demand is in the North,” Mahle, a burly man whose soft heart belies his appearance, tells PEOPLE. “There are a million reasons for it — low spay and neuter rates, warm winters and political and social problems. For every dog I rescue, there’s another one that needs help. It’s a never-ending, sad circle.”
There is happiness, though, at the end of the line, when Mahle, who gets help from his wife, Adella, 34, and four employees, lets the dogs out of their crates and turns them over to their new owners.
“It’s an amazing, emotional thing to watch. A lot of times, those dogs will run right to the person who has decided to adopt them,” he says. “They just know, somehow. It’s magic.”
Mahle, who decided to devote his life to rescuing dogs after helping to occasionally transport animals to his sister’s small rescue operation in Connecticut, leaves home every other Monday and arrives back in Ohio one week later.
“A normal range of crates is 68, with an average of 65 dogs,” he tells PEOPLE. “But I’ve had 36 Saint Bernards and my truck has been completely full, and I’ve had 200 chihuahuas, with room for many more.”
Four of those dogs ended up staying in Ohio, “because I fell in love with them too much to adopt them out,” says Mahle. “I love them all, I really do. But sometimes, you just can’t say goodbye.”
“Greg is one of the most dedicated and compassionate people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing,” says Katie Boggs, 46, who runs Katie’s Roadside Rescue in San Antonio. “I know when I put a dog on his truck that it will not only arrive safely, but will be loved and cared for along the way. I have total trust in him and we are all so lucky to have him.”
“This is not an easy job he does,” adds Betty Kroeger, 63, director of Animal Care and Control for Lytle, Texas. “We have a lot less dark days because of Greg. Literally, because of him, 175 dogs from our town have lived since August 2014.”
Although he often feels like he “emptying the ocean with a teaspoon,” Mahle says long hours behind the wheel of his truck are worthwhile, “to make a difference for even one individual dog and one individual family.”
“By the time I pay for gas and supplies, there’s really not a dime in this for me — I do it because I love it,” he says. “When I was a boy, a stray followed me home and taught me a lot about love and compassion. I named him Poochie. Now, when I’m dropping off a dog to a child or a new family, I think of Poochie and know that this new member of their family is going to make them all better people. That’s why I’m out there. You can’t ask for a better reward than that.”