Six years later, Brenda Dutschke still tears up at the memory. Her sister Doreen Tage was walking her 10-year-old German shepherd, Rebal, near her Brighton, England, home when suddenly the dog collapsed. "My sister didn't have a car, and she couldn't get a cab," Dutschke recalls. "Eventually my brother came by and took her to the vet, but it was too late. I thought there must be so many people faced with the same problem when their pets are sick."

Not anymore. Since 1996 Dutschke, 36, and her husband, Rainer (Rudi), 41, have operated Brighton Pet Ambulance in the English coastal town, offering free emergency transport to area vets 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Their work has helped similar services develop in Germany, New Zealand and the U.S. "Injured animals are like people," says Rudi, a former insulation technician. "You have to be there within the first half hour."

While their emergency transport is funded by donations, the couple (who have four children) also ferry furry charges to routine vet visits for $22. They answer as many as 24 calls a day, with patients ranging from dogs and cats to a 4-ft. lizard and a shedding tarantula. Despite their lack of veterinary training—they have completed only a course in basic first aid—the couple have earned the support of area vets. "If you have a cat with a bad attitude, you can pretty much count on Rudi," says Dr. Shaun van Vuuren. "He's very good at handling animals." But it is customers' testimonials that matter most. Says Paulette Davenport, 72, whose greyhound Sarah has been chauffeured to two operations: "I don't know how I would manage without them." Rudi hopes she'll never have to find out. "The major thing," he says, "is that there's no need for the animals to suffer."