Special feature: The Petbus

By: Vivienne Haldane, Photography by: Vivienne Haldane


Every month, Karyn McLauchlan gets behind the wheels of an Isuzu 2006 FRD 500 and goes on a trip around the country, carrying a busload of passengers—some four-legged and some with beaks and wings

The Petbus pulls up at the Mobil Service Station in Waipukurau—one of the many stops along the way—precisely on time at 8.45am on a Saturday morning. Each pet delivery trip begins in Auckland and finishes in Invercargill and takes nine days with around 43 stops along the way.

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The Isuzu Bus is Karyn’s third pet transporter

Waiting to board the bus are two East Coast French Bulldogs owned by Renee Auckram. With her is daughter Taylor Rae and she’s looking upset at having to say goodbye to her beloved pooches. They are bound for Kaikoura to a start- up breeder.

Greeting them is Petbus owner-operator, Karyn McLauchlan and her partner, Eddie Chappell. "I’m the co-driver, cleaner-upper and general helping hand along the way," he says. Over a cacophony of animal noise, I yell and ask if he gets used to it?

"After a while you tune it out," he replies, cheerfully. Karyn tells me that once the bus starts moving the animals quieten down. The Petbus is like Noah’s Ark on wheels and in true Noah’s Ark style, there’s a bit of everything on-board: turtles, water dragons, rats, birds, rabbits, dogs, and cats. Also on the list of transportable animals (but not there on the day of my visit) are piglets, swans, turkeys, geese, chooks, piglets, and spiders.

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Karyn McLauchlan and Eddie Chappell

Working dogs are transported in a large trailer towed behind the bus. Karyn says the most unusual thing they’ve transported was an ant farm.

"It belonged to a young girl who had the ants contained in a polycarbonate glass case. You could see the ants working, so it was fascinating."

Eddie brought out a fluffy pup. Even though, I am not exactly a dog lover, I could go for one of these. He was a Blue Merle X Border Collie and extremely cute.

Small beginnings

Karyn started the pet delivery business in 2006, calling it North Island Pet Couriers. At the time, she ran a business, breeding Blue Heeler dogs. It was after having "a terrible experience" with air travel for her puppies in transit to their new homes that she began to search for other options. When she found that nothing suitable was available, she decided to start her own pet courier business.

Karyn gained her Goods Service Licence and hit the road, hiring a transit van and working solely through word of mouth at first. She didn’t limit herself to dogs and took on every imaginable pet that required transporting. With her business expanding, she decided to purchase her own transit van. Expansion to the South Island soon followed, along with the need to buy a covered trailer for more space.

Pets are in transit for various reasons she tells me—their owners are either moving house or breeders require the service to deliver to their clients while other animals need to be rescued or re-homed.

Along the way, pet owners are able to track their pets via a tracker system to view their progress.

From van to bus

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The Petbus attracts lots of attention with its eye-catching signage

Buying a Toyota Coaster bus in 2010 was a big step up but it meant a more comfortable ride for Karyn, Eddie, and the pets. However, as business continued to expand, they soon outgrew that, so bought another Toyota Coaster bus in 2017 and used it when needed as a Petbus shuttle covering areas in New Zealand to link with the main Petbus. The Isuzu bus was added to the fleet in 2017.

Karyn explains, "It was originally a truck body, an Isuzu 2006 FRD 500.  The Isuzu truck was converted to a bus by Designline in Christchurch. We then bought it from Blackwells Isuzu in Christchurch who gutted it out and lined it with industrial flooring. We were able to add what we wanted in the way of cages and other equipment.

"The Isuzu has a six-speed auto/manual tip-tronic gearbox and I use it on manual quite often as I find I get more pulling power on hills, especially with the trailer on behind." Karyn says she enjoys driving the bus.

"I’ve never been afraid of driving bigger vehicles. You’ve got to be confident though, that’s the main thing."

The trailers

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The Mobil Service Station in Waipukurau is just one of many stops along the way

The Petbus now has two seven-metre trailers. The first one, which they still use, had cages with outside access for pets and the second is accessed internally and is double layered. This makes a huge difference for ease of working, out of the weather and with more room, all-round.

The working dogs (as well as kid goats) are housed in the trailers and along with family dogs, are exercised four times a day to stretch their legs and do their business.

Health and safety

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Eddie does a last minute check  before the Petbus departs

The rules and regulations surrounding pet transportation are strict. "There’s a code of compliance on cages with regards to size related to the particular animal in it and also strict rules for hygiene," says Karyn.

All animals require up to date vaccinations and an accompanying certificate, be in good health, have their own supply of food for the trip and arrive ready for the journey in secure crates or boxes.

Teamwork

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Eddie with a Blue Merle X Border Collie puppy, bound for Christchurch

While Karyn and her partner Eddie work well as a team, she says the stresses and strains of life on the road, doing what they do, can be a challenge.

"If we have an argument, he goes off down the back of the bus for a while. But overall, we are pretty good together. We chug on and know it’s only nine days, then we get a three-week break before we start all over again.

After 4250km, having covered the length on New Zealand, the Petbus arrives back at home base in Te Awamutu, where the couple live. It’s then time to scrub out the cages, wash the blankets, and clean and sterilise the bus and trailer. Once that’s done, the next lot of bookings need to be checked and logged in and the bookwork done.

"Yeah, it takes about three or four days to recover," laughs Karyn, adding, "It’s not an easy business to establish; it’s all built on reputation, which takes a while to build. It’s taken us nearly 15 years and in the beginning, we were running for nothing. It’s been a long road; I won’t say it’s been easy, but we are very proud of what we’ve achieved."

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