DALLAS – Young animals, puppies, and kittens make most of us emotional. It can be hard to walk past these furry friends without uttering an “Aw, how cute.” Still, sadly, around 6.3 million companion animals enter US animal shelters annually.
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), approximately 36% of them have to be euthanized due to overpopulation. The thought that any of these adorable animals might be euthanized is heartbreaking.
In February 2008, animal lover Debi Boies and Pilot Jon Wehrenberg found a way to help more animals live when they successfully transported a rescued Doberman from Florida to South Carolina. That flight was special. Not only did it provide the dog with another chance at life but it also led to the creation of Pilots N Paws.
Pilots N Paws is an organization dedicated to saving animals by flying them across the United States to no-kill shelters or new forever homes. These rescues, made possible by thousands of volunteer general aviation Pilots, resemble a well-choreographed ballet involving multiple planes, Pilots, and helpers.
Since that first February 2008 flight, approximately 6,000 Pilots have transported more than 200,000 animals. Through the Pilots N Paws discussion platform, volunteers who rescue, shelter, and adopt animals can connect with the Pilots and airplane owners who donate their time and equipment to transport the animals wherever they need.
A typical Pilots N Paws trip starts with a transport request posted on the online forum. Pilots will respond if they can fly any or all of the trips. Coordination of the flight details via the forum, email, or text messages is left up to the rescuers and Pilots.
The animal and Pilot meet at the designated airport on the agreed-upon day and time, and the flight to a better future begins. Upon reaching the final destination, the receiver meets the flight and picks up the lucky animal. Many Pilots bond with their furry passengers and often keep in touch with their new families after the trip.
“Whenever I have some time off, I check the board to see whether there are any flights I can help with,” says Pilot N Paws volunteer Pilot Matthew May. Sometimes, these animals have multiple flights in a day, especially when traveling across the country. While a Pilot may not be able to complete an entire trip, he or she may be able to work one leg, and then another Pilot takes over. When missions cannot be completed in a single day due to duration, weather, or mechanical challenges, foster homes host the animals overnight. Depending on the circumstances, they will continue their journey the next day with the same Pilots or new ones.
Sometimes, a Pilot may become so attached to an animal that he or she may not want to complete the planned mission. Such was the case with Corbin Geiser. While assisting with a multi-day trip, Geiser agreed to host a black Labrador overnight and transport it the next day. After the initial introduction, the Pilot knew he wasn’t taking this puppy anywhere and adopted her instead.
Geiser quickly canceled the next day’s flight, contacted the expecting shelter about the change of plans, and began the adoption process. Amelia, appropriately named after Amelia Earhart, has been a beloved member of the Geiser family ever since. “Amelia has flown with me often. She still hangs out at the hangar with me when we aren’t hiking or kayaking,” Geiser says. “If it weren’t for Pilots N Paws, I would have missed out on a great companion and tons of memories.”
While it takes many volunteers to operate Pilots N Paws, aviators play a key role as they volunteer their planes and time to work for the flights. High fuel costs are a large personal expense, not to mention the maintenance and general operating ones. However, Pilots consider such costs to be well worth it and say that the most challenging part is not bringing all of the animals home with them!
Volunteer Pilot Matthew May shared some thoughts about his experience with Pilots N Paws.
How did you get involved with Pilots N Paws?
I saw a social media post about a completed trip and went to the website to learn more about the organization. Seeing the many pictures of animals flown to new homes caught my attention. I signed up as a volunteer, thinking I would make one or two trips. After the first one, I was hooked and now try to help whenever possible.
What is the longest transport flight in which you have been involved?
I worked one leg of a cross-country transport from Florida to Colorado. The dog had a total schedule of four flights over two days. I picked it up in Dallas, took it to Amarillo, and another Pilot got it from there. It is not uncommon for several Pilots to assist with multi-leg trips. The animals are usually quite well behaved and will often look out the window or take a nap. They are fantastic passengers!
What is your most memorable flight?
Honestly, each flight is memorable because each animal is memorable in and of itself. It is as if they know something good is happening. There was one dog that had cancer in its leg. The host shelter lacked the resources to provide the needed advanced medical care. I took the pup to a different animal shelter in another state, where it received treatment. A new family later adopted the dog, and I was happy to have contributed to a good outcome.
Thanks to Corbin Geiser, Matthew May, and the thousands of other volunteers who contribute to the success of Pilots N Paws. To learn more about this valuable organization, please visit pilotsnpaws.org.
This story is featured in the August 2022 issue of Airways Magazine, available now.
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Article written by Elise S. May. Featured image: Paws N Pilots