When Dogs Fly. Pilots N Paws offers flights for homeless companion animals and so much more.

Not too long ago, I read about one of the animal rescues I follow on social media using Pilots N Paws to transport dogs from South Carolina to Vermont. There is a lot that happens behind the scenes when it comes to finding forever homes for homeless pets. I reached out to Kate Quinn, Executive Director of Pilots N Paws, so she could tell us more about how Pilots N Paws plays an important role in finding homes for some of the 7.6 million companion animals that end up in shelters every year.

Late in 2007, an animal rescue advocate named Deborah Boies, was looking to give a dog named Brock, who was in Florida, a home with her in South Carolina. Deborah had spread the word to her network of friends, family, and fellow rescuers to see if anyone would be traveling from Florida to South Carolina. John Wehrenberg, a friend of Deborah's who is also a pilot, responded with an offer to fly Brock from Florida to South Carolina. This was shocking to Deborah because it was such a unique and incredible offer.

John flew down to Florida, along with Deborah’s husband Bob, to get Brock and return with him to South Carolina. The flight went extremely well, and as they discussed the flight, John expressed that he had no idea such a need existed. Deborah had not heard of general aviation pilots being used to fly rescue animals. Deborah thought, "Why not fly animals with planes?" She then came up with the name Pilots N Paws. From that point forward, everyone messaged different pilot groups, reached out to different organizations, attended aviation events, and exhibited at those events to recruit more pilots. Pilots N Paws officially started in February, 2008.

Kate said, "We specialize in offering transport. Our mission is to provide free transport for any rescue or service animal that has a home waiting. Most of the animals are coming from kill shelters. If they make it onto a Pilots N Paws flight, they are guaranteed they are not going to be euthanized, and they are getting a second chance at life."

Pilots N Paws is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Volunteers register to the Pilots N Paws forum. From there, a rescue or adopter posts a request to the forum board looking for transport. Pilots whom are registered through Pilots N Paws can directly get in touch with the person who is posting the transport request.

Ground transport can be extremely stressful for a companion animal that is already coming from a difficult situation. Kate said, "Typically, with ground transport you could need up to ten drivers to get the animal from point A to point B. Each driver might take an hour­long shift. It can be stressful to have the dog change vehicles ten times and meet ten different people. However, with Pilots N Paws, the same distance may take only one to two pilots."

Kate explains, "Every Pilots N Paws flight falls at the controls of the pilot. Pilots need to be extremely cognizant of the weather, especially in winter. You can have a transport that is 800 miles and requires four different pilots to relay together. When a snowstorm delays a flight, that  is when people who are registered as fosters can play an important role in making sure the entire transport does not break down. Distance is a factor. Most of our pilots fly general aviation aircraft--Pipers, Cirrus, Cessna and Bonanza aircraft. Most of them fly 250 nautical miles each. Some fly a little further, but they not only need to fly where the animal needs to be delivered, they also need to return. To transport longer distances, we have seen pilots that have developed a good working relationship with other volunteers, and they network together to cover longer distances. A coast-­to­-coast transport is not the norm and usually outside of the scope for Pilots N Paws. We do see some pilots work together on a monthly basis to have eight to twelve pilots relay across the country. However, it is really rare, and it is a huge, coordinated effort."

There are easy steps on the website for pilots, volunteers or people involved in animal rescue who would be in a position to request animal transport. Kate mentions, "We offer a lot of information on our website, and it is there to help people educate themselves." Usually people who are already volunteering at the shelter from which the dog is being transported will coordinate ground transport. Some ways people can get involved are to register as a foster for those times where emergency shelter is needed due to inclement weather. Even though there are 17,000 registered users on the Pilots N Paws website, Kate says, "There are still so many more that do not yet know that we are doing what we do. Building awareness and getting the word out to aviation groups so we can recruit more pilots is paramount. Alerting folks at rescue events so that people who are already in the trenches doing this work on a daily basis know that we are there to help with transport is essential. By transporting animals, we are widening the field of where adoptions can take place."

In 2012, Pilots N Paws started to develop a children's educational program. There is a downloadable kids coloring book geared toward young children on their website. It navigates children through the basics of taking care of their pets. It teaches them to take their pets to the veterinarian, and to ensure they get the proper care. It explains the importance of giving their pets fresh food and water, giving their pets a home, and a warm place to rest. It also highlights the idea of adopting versus shopping for a pet. Kate explains, "It is our gentle way of touching on spaying or neutering your pets by taking them to the vet, without directly stating it."

There is also a children's educational book called Radar's Dream for children 7-10 years of age. It highlights a dog named Radar, who is having a dream. In his dream he is free and flying, and he is happy. He wakes up in his cage at the shelter. That day, he is brought to the airport by a rescue volunteer. The book highlights and outlines how a Pilots N Paws rescue takes place. He is brought to the airport and meets the friendly Pilots N Paws pilot who flies Radar to his forever family. Kate says, "We have a pilot program for the books in Maryland, Virginia and Ohio. The books are in several school systems. We have had great feedback from teachers, librarians, and from people who are educated in working with young kids--all telling us that this book will resonate with them on so many levels that adults cannot even recognize. We think that you need to create a sustainable change. The Humane Society estimates that 4-6 million animals are euthanized each year. We can't fly them all, so we are working to combat the problem at its core, and change it for future generations. Ultimately, we would love to see a day when our services are no longer needed because animals are no longer in the shelters in the first place."

Pilots N Paws is not just rescue. They offer transport for service animals, or animals that are being trained to be service animals. They also provide flights for pets of military personnel. If a soldier is deployed for a year, in order for their animal to not end up in a shelter, they must find a temporary foster. Quite often, they will have a relative or friend who will foster their pet for the duration of their deployment. Kate expounds, "If that soldier is in Virginia, we might fly their dog or cat to Ohio to stay with a family member when the soldier is deployed so it does not end up in a shelter. It happens more frequently than people realize. Their pet is a member of their family, so it is crucial for them to find someone who will take good care of their pet. It is one less thing for them to worry about while they are deployed."

Pilots N Paws has flown more than 100,000 animals since the program's inception in 2008. As Kate says, "The more people who get involved, the more animals we can save."

I hope that this blog has shed some light on just a fraction of what occurs behind the scenes of this wonderful organization. There are many ways for you to get involved as a volunteer. If you are a teacher, librarian or someone who works directly with young children, I encourage you to look into offerings through Brock's Kids Corner or sponsor a reading of Radar's Dream for your class.

(Editing credit goes to Tara Perkins.)