Petbus stirs up emotions

DOG DAYS: Bandit stands guard as another Petbus customer says goodbye to a special friend.
DOG DAYS: Bandit stands guard as another Petbus customer says goodbye to a special friend.

When Karyn McLauchlan drives her Petbus into any number of small New Zealand towns, she feels like the Santa Claus of the animal world. "You have kids waiting there for their bunnies, and the bus comes and you see them get all excited," she says. "It is the joy of the job."

But for this unique pet delivery service – which once a month embarks on a 10-day circuit of both islands, collecting and depositing everything from rats to kunekune – today has brought tears, not smiles.

In a windswept shopping-mall car park in South Auckland, the Petbus is preparing for its trail to Dunedin (and back). Already on board are seven dogs of varying sizes, several parrots, a lizard and a bearded dragon, ensconced in a polyester box with thermometer attached.

Then a woman rushes up with a caged chihuahua, bursts into tears, and darts back to her car, inconsolable. She has sold the dog, but after raising it for six months, appears to be regretting the decision. "We get tears all the time," says McLauchlan's's partner, Eddie Chappell, stoically surveying the scene. "When people are going overseas, leaving their pets, they just bawl. I know my little fella there, I'd be crying if I left him."

His dog Bandit peers serenely from the bus window, comfortable in the knowledge that this is entirely hypothetical. He travels everywhere with Chappell and McLauchlan, reclining on a beanbag propped against the dashboard (McLauchlan's's dog Nellie, in a trailer behind the bus, is equally tranquil).

The mall car park is the confluence of two routes: parked alongside the Petbus is the much smaller Northland Pet Couriers van, which covers everything north of the Harbour Bridge. Debbie Spridgeon has been covering the patch since February, when she quit her job as a truck driver, and invested $12,000 in an old ambulance, which remains unchanged bar the absence of the gurney. "It's good fun," she says, as a trio of quail cower in their cage between us. And so the crying chihuahua woman is replaced by a delighted Raquel Christie, collecting her new bald cat from Matakana via Spridgeon's ambulance. She has coveted one for two years, and now she has it. It's already – accurately – named Dobbie, a reference to the strange elf thing from Harry Potter.

More prosaically, rat breeder Emily Heap turns up with your standard rattus rattus, headed for a new home in Wellington on a $45 one-way ticket. The New Zealand Rat Breeders' Association is a major client for the Petbus.

The Petbus also gets a lot of rabbits, and the latest fad are kune kune. The easiest to transport are birds. The worst? Poultry (the smell). McLauchlan won't touch ferrets, or anything larger than a big dog. On board, the bus is noisy, but once they start driving, she assures me, most of the animals doze off. It doesn't smell either.

The monthly trip stops at the same motels, the same pick-up spots – the Caltex servo in Woodville, the fire station in Hawera, opposite the cop shop in Taupo – before they return home to rural Waikato. They rise three times a night to check the animals, and the dogs are walked every two hours. At the end of the trip, McLauchlan says, they are "absolutely exhausted. We sleep for about three days".

Then she's back into taking bookings for the next trip and working on her latest venture, a pet auctions website.

McLauchlan has been in the trade since 2006, when she began delivering the blue heeler pups she bred and other breeders asked her to help them with transport. First she had a Toyota Hiace van, then she added a trailer, upgraded to a Ford Transit and then to a bus, and next year she plans to buy a full-sized coach. "It's a great lifestyle," she says. "You get to see the country."

Six months ago, she asked Chappell to join her. He was working in management for an electrical wholesaler: "I got out; I'd had a gutsful of it, mate. I was 25 years in that industry and I worked my way up to management, and it was the nine-to-five grind in the corporates that got me. Karyn asked me to come on board and I said `Bloody oath, let's do it', and it was the best thing I've ever done."

The couple have been together two years.

"It's a relationship tester," he smiles. "But I am lucky, she is a beautiful woman."

They alternate roles; one will drive, the other sits in the jump seat, attending to the animals and cleaning (about five rubbish sacks of excrement on each trip).

What do they talk about in those long hours on the road? "I turn the radio up," smiles McLauchlan, who wants to make something very clear: "I'm the boss."

They struggle to find downsides: it's tiring, there's a lot of paperwork, the occasional travel-sick puppy. Eventually, Chappell finds two gripes: the idiocy of other road users, and the failure of the Cook Strait ferry to vary the onboard movie selection (always Pirates of the Caribbean, apparently).

And then, cheerfully, they are away – first stop Ngatea (pigeons), and then to Paeroa (quail), Waihi (guinea pigs, rabbits, birds), Katikati (chickens) and Tauranga (a menagerie), expecting smiles to greet them at every halt.

Sunday Star Times