Up in the Air

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Up in the Air
Independent pilots and rescuers join forces to save death-row dogs

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Pepper and Booberry had a lot in common.

Pepper looked like a Shih Tzu but nobody was certain. The abused and abandoned dog was found urine-soaked, flea-ridden, and battling a raging urinary tract infection. Tumours on her back made it look bent. Booberry, a blue Chihuahua who was more ear than body, was found in a dumpster suffering from parvovirus. Both were resident at a shelter that euthanized far too many dogs every day. Both were hopeless and both were close to their last days on earth.

But they shared one more similarity. Both dogs were plucked from the shelter in Fresno, California, to be part of the Freedom Flight program, the brainchild of founder and orangedog.ca owner Jan Folk.

Freedom Flight is exactly that—a volunteer-run flight program that flies dogs from shelters in California to the Edmonton Humane Society (EHS) in Alberta, where ample forever homes are waiting.

“I just can’t go past a dog without stopping,” says Folk. “Every time I see a dog, I smile and start to laugh.”

After semi-retiring, Folk started orangedog. ca, which sells high-end products with all the profit going to canine charities. She already sat on the board of EHS and had approached them about selling her products there. They knew Folk, of course, and also knew she travelled to California extensively and had access to a Gulfstream III jet. EHS also had an agreement with a Fresno shelter that if it could get its small-breed shelter dogs to Edmonton, the society could find homes for them.

So the Edmonton people told Folk that if she really wanted to help, maybe she could fly these dogs to Alberta. The idea took off, literally.

“The amount of animals euthanized [in the USA] in 2010 will be about 500,000,” says Folk. “In Fresno, they euthanize 114 a day.”

So Folk fired up the jet and made her first trip in June, 2009, on her birthday. She brought in 54 dogs from Fresno; then another 85 on Thanksgiving, followed by 114 on Valentine’s Day.

“On Valentine’s Day, people [in Edmonton] were standing outside the door waiting for these dogs,” says Folk, who made a fourth trip on June 25, 2010, bringing another 60 dogs, again in celebration of her birthday.

Folk says she got involved because dogs can’t help themselves.

“For years, I wrote a cheque,” she says. Giving money just wasn’t enough, however. “People are always saying someone should do something about this. Now I’m still financing it but I got off my ass and made it happen.” It’s worth her investment when she sees a dog come off the plane and she knows it’s going to a good home.

“I swear to God, when they go somewhere safe, they know it. They never make a sound on the plane.” Folk is amazed by the sweet and forgiving nature of the dogs she handles. She has seen badly abused dogs that still lick her face when she meets them.

Folk isn’t the only one with a plane and a love of dogs who is making a difference. Sam Taylor lives in Kansas City, Missouri. He was a pilot in the navy before teaching high school until retirement. Though he hadn’t flown since 1982, he rediscovered his love of flying and joined what he describes as the largest aero club in the free world.

“I was driving in Tennessee and saw an airport. I parked and walked around; I like to do that as a hobby. I saw a little airplane with a ‘for sale’ sign and thought it was meant to be,” he says. That little plane was his until a hailstorm damaged it. With his insurance settlement, he purchased a four-seat Cherokee 180.

In March, 2009, he heard about Pilots N Paws, a charitable organization based around a web-based forum board that creates a place for pilots to connect with rescue groups across the United States.

Pilots move dogs from shelters where euthanasia is imminent to areas where demand for adoptable animals is high.

“I looked at the website and thought it would be kind of fun,” Taylor says. “I looked at the posts and saw three dogs here in Kansas City that needed to go to Columbus, Ohio, and one in Ohio going to Arizona through Kansas City.”

He was hooked.

“I love to fly,” he says. “Secondly, it’s a lot of fun; I like all the scheduling and networking and coordinating. I enjoy doing that. And I like rescuing dogs. It sure does make a lot of people really happy, too. When I finally get the dog to them, they really appreciate it.”

One dog in particular caught his attention. Taylor was in Pryor, Oklahoma, picking up a Labradoodle.

“It was at risk of euthanasia at a city-run shelter and the woman there really liked the dog and didn’t want it put down. A rescue group found a home in Olathe, Kansas. I volunteered to get it and fly it to Olathe.”

Everything was set but once the dog was in the plane and Taylor made his confirmation call to the new owner, he learned she was no longer able to take the dog. Unwilling to put it back in the shelter where it would be killed, Taylor flew it home to await developments.

“Well, the dog had a funny way of walking and its hind leg stuck out when it sat down. I didn’t really know what to do.” So he called his own vet and took it in the next day for a check-up.

“Its right leg had a broken femur and was trying to heal but not properly. It never set. Its left leg was knocked out of its socket. The vet said, ‘by the way it’s been shot with birdshot’—22 pellets were seen on the x-ray. We had had the dog 24 hours and my wife was hooked.”

The dog joined Taylor’s family and now sports the name Pryor.

Debi Boies is the co-founder of Pilots N Paws. She had been involved in rescue, mostly Dobermans, and had found a Dobie in Florida that she wanted to bring home to South Carolina. She contacted other members of her Prevost Owners Group to see if anyone travelling by bus would let the dog hitch a ride.

“Jon Wehrenberg, a friend from the Prevost Owners Group, said ‘why don’t I fly down and get him and get him to you?’ I was just astounded,” she says.

He told her that pilots love to fly and are always looking for a reason to do so, and he wondered if there might be a need for such a volunteer service. Between the two of them, they founded Pilots N Paws.

It’s become a full-time pursuit for Boies. Since February, 2008, Pilots N Paws has transported thousands of dogs. The site has 1,726 pilots registered in every state except one. Pilots volunteer their time and pay their own fuel, although there is a tax break for a portion of their costs.

“The rescues are primarily dogs slated for euthanasia,” says Boies. “Some are pulled in just hours before euthanasia; some are pulled from the euthanasia room. They’re taken from shelters and sent to rescue groups in another part of the country where there’s better spay and neuter programs and where there are more adoptive homes.”

With thousands of rescued dogs, there are thousands of wonderful stories but one stands out above all others.

One of her pilots was driving his vehicle in northern Tennessee just before Christmas. It was nighttime, it was dark, freezing cold, and snowing. The fellow saw a blanket at the side of the road and swore it was moving. He doubled back, got out of his vehicle, and lifted the blanket.

“It was a red Doberman with a severe case of mange. It couldn’t walk. The pads of its feet had sloughed off. Obviously someone had dumped it there, on the road to the shelter. Who knows what people think?” she says. The pilot picked up the dog and brought it home. The dog was flown to a Doberman rescue group in Pennsylvania, re-named Christmas through a fundraising Name Game, and soon found a forever home.

Pilots N Paws is Boies’ passion. A retired nurse, she says she spends every day of her life working with the program, but it’s a labour of love.

“The pilots will tell you the rescuers are their heroes. The rescuers will say the pilots are their heroes,” says Boies about the more than 7,000 users who are all polite and do their best to work for a common cause. “They make the choice to volunteer and help. It’s truly the best of humanity working together.”

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