The Secret World of Pet Transport

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Yeller Cab, Portland

Nancy Wolske is the Founder and Co-Owner of Yeller Cab Pet Taxi in Portland, Oregon. Wolske’s previous work in long-term care with her late therapy dog, Schooner, made her realize just how much help hospitalized or otherwise limited individuals need in caring for their pets. She and her partners began the company in 2011 to help pet owners without transportation or physical mobility get their pets to and from the vet and other appointments. I sat down with her to learn more about what really goes on behind the scenes of this “pet courier” service.

Was there ever a point during your development that you wanted to back out of launching this company?

Several times, actually. Since we're open 24 hours a day, there have been occasions in our dark and rainy Oregon nights that I’ve questioned, ‘what in the heck am I doing out here?’ But, we have safety features using technology that have helped me get over that. Of course, when the person shares a HUGE hug after getting their pet to emergency care, that is also incredibly encouraging.

Were there any funny "learning curve" moments when you first started out?

During one of our first fares, BEFORE we got the stretchers for large dogs, two of us made a dog trolley from a blanket to carry a 90-pound German Shepherd down two flights of stairs. Although we did it successfully, my hands were sore for two days because I had gripped the corners of the blanket so tightly. On another occasion, a dog was so excited that half a mile from the destination, he defecated [in the car], and spun circles in it, essentially grinding it into the carpet. I could hardly breathe, even with the windows open. I got to the kennels as fast as I could, and the staff there felt so sorry for me, they loaned me their carpet cleaning system. I bought cleanable mats the next day, and then we purchased a steam cleaning system.

Tell me the story of your scariest moment transporting.

It was another dark and rainy Oregon evening. I was asked to transport a dog and her owner to a hiking trail in a nearby suburb. I finally found the home and pulled up. No one was in sight, no porch light was on, and I stepped out of the vehicle with a flashlight. As I turned, immediately in front of me was a person wearing full rain gear, hat, hood, and swimming goggles. The dog was so big it looked like a fuzzy pony. She stated it was her standard hiking attire and, together, we got the dog to ascend the ramp into the back of the Yeller Cab. She didn't say much [during the drive]; just pointed or softly said, 'turn right, turn left'. I pulled over where she indicated and they got out and crossed the street, leaving me alone next to a small gravel pit site. As soon as I saw them get onto the trail, I called my husband and did not get off the phone with him until I had them returned home again. Her dog was classified as a 'service' or 'companion' dog, so I'm sure she had some kind of special needs, but it was one of the most nerve-wracking trips ever.

Tell me the story of your funniest moment transporting.

There’s a tie in this category. I was transporting a small dog that seemed to find me particularly attractive. His owner chose not to have him crated and, although we use pet-friendly partitions, this little guy found every escape hole possible. So I spent the trip with one arm bent precariously into the back petting his head to keep him occupied. He licked and nibbled my hand until it was practically raw.

The other trip was a Great Dane that could barely walk, but refused to sit down during the 12-mile trip to the specialty vet clinic. I drove 15 miles an hour most of the way, as the owner, who followed in her car behind me, kept looking for my occasional 'thumbs up' out the driver's side window, indicating all was well. The dog laid down, of course, when we got to the vet, and then we couldn't get him back up. That's when I implemented the heavy lift fee schedule.

Are most of your transports emergency or non-emergency? How do you manage your nearly 24/7 availability?

More and more of them are becoming routine veterinary appointments now, although initially it was a lot of urgent care trips. We rotate the 'on call' schedule and recently, decided to close on Saturday nights and Sundays - primarily because on Saturday nights a lot of folks call from a bar thinking they've reached a regular cab company. We close on Sundays because I do so much volunteer work that, after two years of being on-call, I needed to start taking some time for myself.

What happens if someone needs your help but can’t afford it?

The hardest cases are when we have people who cannot afford our services. As much as we try to serve everyone, the need is so great and we're such a young company that we can only do so much. That's why I founded the Schooner's Harbor Fund. It's a way for people to anonymously donate money so we can serve people who have no other means of getting their pet to the services they need. We have some terrific success stories where 'sponsors' have come through and offered private scholarships for seniors, cancer patients, and so forth.

What's your favorite part about running this business? The hardest?

It's hard to pick a favorite thing, but when we become part of a pet's care team, meaning that the owner depends on us to get them to and from complex veterinary care, it is incredibly rewarding. 99.9% of the people who call us are thrilled to learn that Portland has this [service] available. It's commonplace for folks to approach one of our vehicles and ask questions, get brochures, magnets, etc. It's not unusual to see someone running to try and catch us before we leave a veterinary office so they can get information. But the best part about this is creating a culture that is nurturing - for the pet, the pet owner, and our team. We love supporting the Portland community through volunteer efforts too.

The hardest? When we know it's going to be a pet’s last ride to the vet - we use canine and feline calming music, but the truth of the matter is, that it helps us get through it too.