Let the Fur Fly

Pilots volunteer time and energy to transport homeless pups to a better future.
By The Bark Editors, October 2009, Updated February 2015

When Bark editor Claudia Kawczynska adopted Kit and Holly from a rescue in Kentucky last Christmas, she learned the shelter had a program for sending dogs to new homes in the North but not out West where she lives. A little more digging to find a ride for the puppies revealed a formal and informal network of individuals and organizations working together—supported by countless Internet posters and email blasters—to get dogs to places where their future is brighter.

Inspired and intrigued by this grassroots cooperative effort, TheBark.com has been talking to the people who fuel this underdog railroad. Earlier this year, we met the women behind Colorado Animal Rescue Express (C.A.R.E.), an intrepid van transport group out of Denver, and Dawn Painter, an individual animal welfare advocate who uses email like a megaphone to spread the word for animals in need. Today, we look to the skies, where a bevy of general aviation pilots provide first class service to their pup passengers.

Founded in early 2008, Pilots N Paws is a 501c3 organization that brings together rescues (with homeless dogs and cats, rabbits, pigs and chicks) in need of transportation and pilots ready and willing to fly. Pilot N Paws cofounder Deborah Boies of Landrum, S.C., told TheBark.com how things took off.

Like most of these things, the story begins with a dog. Boies needed transportation from Florida to South Carolina for her own rescue Doberman. She posted a message to a van club chat group, thinking someone might drive him up. Fellow club member, friend and eventual Pilots N Paws co-founder, Jon Wehrenberg of Knoxville, Tenn., emailed her back.


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What did he say?
He wrote, ‘Hey Deb, how about I just come over and pick up Bob [her husband], and we fly down to Tallahassee and pick up your rescue Doberman and bring him back to you.’ And I said, ‘excuse me?

He’s a pilot?
Jon’s been a private, general aviation pilot for 30 some years. He loves to fly. When he came back from the trip he asked, ‘Is there a need for this? Do people ask to have dogs transported?’ And I said, ‘Oh, you have no idea.’ [Boies had been active in Doberman Pincher rescue for sometime.] So, I sent him to some of the ground transport sites to see how we’ve been able to move animals from shelters to rescues and rescues to shelters. He came back to me and he was just floored and said, ‘Debbie, how does this ever get done?’

I said, ‘You know, Jon, I have scheduled a 1,500-mile ground transport with 16 legs for two Dobermans from Alabama to New Hampshire. It is horrific, and it’s hard on the animals and the drivers.’

He said, ‘We have to do something.’ I agreed.

‘You know there are 300,000 or more general aviation pilots in the country. They all have to fly and aside from that they love to fly, and they are looking for a good reason to fly.” [General aviation pilots are required to accumulate flight hours every year.]

Jon was even thinking that maybe he should sell his plane. He was tired of going for what they call the $100 hamburger. He said, ‘Let’s just see if we can work together with your rescue knowledge and my pilot knowledge and see what we can do.’

What did you do next?
I just wrote up a scenario of what we wanted—to create a place where rescues and shelters can connect with general aviation pilots and they can work together to get these animals where they need to go for adoption and save them from euthanasia because there are many, many adoptable animals that are euthanized every week in our shelters because they can’t get to places where they have adoptive homes waiting.

What we are is just an online forum where rescues and pilots can connect. We had no intentions when we started this to go any further than creating that connecting place. But when I sent a letter out to rescues, it went around the world. They were like: Where can we sign up? Where can we sign up? It’s been more challenging to get the word out to pilots. [Still, they have an impressive 500 volunteer pilots signed up to help.]

Where do your pilots fly?
Primarily we see the need a lot in the South, Southeast, mid-South, Alabama, Georgia, both the Carolinas and Tennessee. We try to get those animals up to the northern states. John flies routinely from Knoxville to New York, sometimes with 8 to 16 animals on board, almost all of them have pre-approved adopted homes waiting. We have actually had pilots who have adopted the rescue dogs.

How are transports arranged?
It’s totally up to the pilots. Rescues post their needs on the site. If a pilot sees that they can assist and want to be a part of the mission, then they reply and the parties work together. They work with the rescues directly. They take pictures. Sometimes they get news coverage.

NBC Nightly News and USA Today have covered your new organization—why so popular?
People like the story. They can’t believe that pilots would do this at no cost to rescues. The majority of our pilots who volunteer have rescue animals; they hold a special place in their hearts. They are the first group that I have found, outside of rescues, that have a heart as big as we do.

Do you ever join the rescue flights?
The interesting fact that I’ll share with you is, I’m afraid to fly. I do not stand in line to fly ever. But I have gone on two rescue flights. The dogs are calmer than I am.


Images courtesy Pilots N Paws.