Above: On Rick Gutlon’s 34th rescue flight were two dogs, both pulled from a North Carolina shelter, hours before being euthanized. After a few weeks of rehab by Chances Angel Rescue & Education, they were on their way to Blue Bell, PA to be adopted. While most dogs fall asleep on these flights, ‘Pete’ who was tethered on the side, climbed atop one of the crates behind co-pilot John Barrett so that he could “hang” with the crew. Resting his head on John’s shoulder, Pete remained in that position for the entire flight.
Providing a loving home for a rescued pet is undoubtedly one of life’s greatest pleasures, as well as an important commitment that an adopter makes toward caring for a deserving animal, companion, and treasured friend. Adopting a dog or cat through a rescue organization saves lives and gives them a second chance. Many rescues come from unimaginable circumstances such as cruelty, neglect, abandonment, or owners who are no longer able to care for them due to illness or a change in living situations. Some have never known a life off the streets, outside of a kennel, or a puppy mill, where mass breeding for profit is the rule, and little or no regard is given to an animal’s health, well-being, or basic necessities.
According to national statistics and data gathered by the ASPCA, it is estimated that 6.3 million companion animals enter U.S. shelters nationwide every year. Of those, approximately 3.1 million are dogs and 3.2 million are cats. Of the 128 million households in America, more than 85 million of them own a pet, with the most popular being dogs and cats. Pet adoption statistics by the Humane Society show that there are some 10,000 animal sanctuaries and rescue organizations in North America.
“I’m convinced Pete understood we were there to bring him to a better life.”
– Pilots N Paws pilot, Rick Gutlo
When pet rescue comes to mind, most people think of their local animal shelter, but what many may not realize is that, very often, rescued pets are pulled in the 11th hour from being euthanized, before traveling a long distance via air transport and ground to a safe haven with a local rescue organization, a foster, or an adoptive home.
There are many charitable organizations that provide air transport across state lines and several outside the USA. While it is not possible to obtain exact statistics on the number of abandoned animals and those rescued from being euthanized, who are then transported by airplane to safety, the probable figure is in the tens of thousands.
Most flight rescue organizations have a core network of general aviation volunteer pilots who transport rescue animals by air, in and out of small and regional airports across the United States. Throughout the country, hundreds to thousands of licensed private pilots donate their time, resources, or personal aircraft to transport rescued dogs and cats to safety. Since most of these smaller aircraft have a limited flight range of 200-500 miles, long-distance rescue flights are coordinated amongst several pilots who are assigned a ‘leg’ along a given flight route to the rescue’s planned destination. The originating pilot picks up one or more rescues and flies them to the first stop. After the first stop, the rescues are transferred from the originating airplane, onto the second one, and then flown onward to the final stop of their journey to a new home. Transports that originate out of the USA, most often utilize commercial airlines to fly rescues into the country. When flights are not available into an airport near the rescue’s final destination, the use of ground transport must be coordinated to pick up the rescues at the airport and deliver them by van or car to their safe haven.
The non-profit, Pilots N Paws (PNP) was founded by animal lover Debi Boies and pilot Jon Wehrenberg in 2008, when the website www.pilotsnpaws.org was launched as an online meeting board for volunteer pilots and airplane owners willing to assist with the free transport of animals in need, in conjunction with on-ground volunteers engaged in the service of animal rescue and adoption. The idea for the meeting board first took flight when Jon agreed to help Debi by flying a rescued Doberman from Florida to South Carolina, to save the dog’s life. The trip was a success and the two brainstormed on how to rescue other animals, particularly in high kill areas such as the South, where pet overpopulation is one of the worst in the country.
After Rick Gutlon earned his private pilot’s license in 2006, he felt that obtaining a license to fly was a privilege that he must do something productive with. A friend mentioned Pilots N Paws, so Gutlon, who is based in Durham, North Carolina, signed up on the organization’s bulletin board and began watching for rescue requests. After obtaining a single-engine, four-seat Cessna 172 in 2010, he flew his first rescue mission in 2011 and has since flown 97 rescue flights, saving the lives of 347 dogs and 44 cats. He attributes the success of every Pilots n Paws rescue flight to the combined efforts of the volunteer pilots who coordinate the chain of relay transports from start to finish, via what Gutlon refers to as, ‘’The gravy train.” A typical first leg flight north for Gutlon begins in the early morning depending on weather conditions. If conditions are VFR (Visual Flight Rules), the first flight proceeds. If conditions are strictly IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) then the origin flight, and those following, are scrubbed for the day. If the flight is a Go, seats from the back of Gutlon’s Cessna are removed and the animals are transported in crates or safely tethered in the aircraft. Prior to the flight, the dogs and cats are medically vetted. Since flying over state lines, they must travel with interstate health certificates. At the end of the final leg, the animals are unloaded and transported directly via ground to shelter, foster, or adopted home.
Since private pilots are not permitted to accept any form of compensation, the entirety of each rescue flight is funded out of the pilot’s own pocket. However, expenses involved – such as fuel or the use of their own or rented aircraft may be declared as a charitable donation.
Brooklyn-based Pilots to the Rescue (PTTR), is a 501-c-3 non-profit, volunteer-driven public benefit aviation organization started by Michael Schneider in 2015 to combine his love of aviation and saving animals at risk. He is a commercial, instrument-rated pilot with over eight hundred hours, who flies out of Essex County Airport in Caldwell, New Jersey. In the summer of 2014, Michael and PTTR President Brian Orter embarked on their first mission to rescue a litter of abandoned ‘’ditch’’ puppies from North Carolina that were slated to be euthanized. This first rescue delivered ten dogs to be adopted into loving homes. PTTR’s mission is to save pets facing euthanasia utilizing an advanced rescue flight system and enrolling a network of trained pilots, shelters, ground teams, and veterinarians who give innocent rescued souls a new life in caring homes.
In a single-engine Piper Saratoga, Schneider picks up dogs and cats most at risk for euthanasia, in over-populated shelters in the South: Virginia, North & South Carolina, Georgia, and even as far as Texas, where his flights connect with ground transport volunteers in Knoxville, Tennessee, or the southern border of Virginia. Speaking with great admiration for the dedicated volunteers on the ground who drive long distances to transport rescues to the airport, Schneider emphasizes how they make it possible for PTTR to be the most efficient support and lifeline to rescue partners throughout the South and Northeast of the country.
One such PTTR transport that began in Athens, Texas, and ended outside of Washington D.C. would have been a 20-hour, 1,300-mile road trip. But Pilots to the Rescue stepped in to speed up the journey of sixteen deserving dogs when a ground transport team from Athens Animal Rescue Shelter met PTTR volunteer pilots at the southern border of Virginia. From there the animals boarded the PTTR airplane, piloted by Schneider and co-pilot Daniel Baumel, and within a few hours, they arrived in Manassas, Virginia, where the rescues received a warm welcome from dozens of foster families from To the Rescue, a rescue organization located in the Washington D.C. Metro area. This is just one of a multitude of successful rescue flights by PTTR. In 2021 alone, Pilots to the Rescue has saved 534 animals, including 280 dogs, 243 cats, two wolves and foxes, and seven turtles.
Proud Rescuers of Puerto Rico was founded in 2018 by Andrea Herrick of Huntington, New York. The mission of this not-for-profit organization, headquartered on Long Island, is to find the best homes for rescues that have suffered living on the streets of Puerto Rico and to bring awareness to the plight of the people who rescue them, and animals that are abandoned, homeless and abused. According to Herrick, there are an estimated 600,000 dogs/puppies and over a million cats/kittens on the island of Puerto Rico, which is the size of Connecticut.
Luz Santiago is a rescuer and transport coordinator for Proud Rescuers of Puerto Rico. She coordinates the booking of air transports; reviews paperwork and makes sure all necessary supplies are brought on the transport to ensure a successful acceptance of the rescue by the airline. Luz recently explained how Proud Rescuers operations work and the many moveable parts involved in coordinating transport.
After an animal is rescued, the first step is to assess his/her medical condition. If the rescue has critical injuries or acute medical conditions, the first effort is to stabilize them. Once stable, the assessment for chronic conditions is done via the formal protocol that is in place, using veterinary recommendations with the start of preventative meds and deworming. The next step is to begin a set of vaccines proper for their age. The final steps include the spay/neuter of the rescue after six months of age and the inoculation with a microchip. During this interim, the rescue’s profile is posted on various platforms in search of the perfect adopter. Each application is carefully reviewed by Proud Rescuers for the most fitting adoption and then a home check is completed, by virtual means at this time with the pandemic. Once the application is approved the adopter is notified and the coordination of transport via commercial airliner begins.
Information on the animals to be transported is gathered by age, weight, and size. Based on this, the crate size determines the amount of space that will be needed to be booked on the airliner. A search of which flights are available to the New York area that allow the transport of Live Animals, begins with the preference of destination airports being- JFK International Airport; LaGuardia, and Newark Liberty. When none of these are available, the search is expanded to Philadelphia or Miami International, with the later choice being coupled with ground transport to the New York area. Once a viable flight is found, a request for booking is placed, which can only be done 10 days before the transport date. Once the final booking is made, all necessary paperwork is gathered from a licensed veterinarian, including medical records, travel certificates, and airline documents. The travel certificate is only valid for 10 days and must specify the breed and an acclimation letter if needed. The breed must be stated by a professional as some breeds are banned from traveling in cargo, particularly short-snouted dogs that could suffer breathing stress such as Bulldogs, Pugs, Boxers, and others considered brachycephalic. The acclimation letter is also needed if the temperature on any of the stops along the journey are below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. On the day of transport, the rescue must arrive at the cargo area three hours before flight departure in order to process the check-in, which includes crate inspection by regulatory agencies. The crate must be in good condition, properly sized, clean, with a water bowl, food attached, and sealed with plastic ties. Once IATA official gives the green light and there are no other issues, such as excess luggage or sudden transport of dry ice, the animals are loaded onto the airplanes and their journey home to the United States begins. Since its founding Proud Rescuers of Puerto Rico has saved over three hundred dogs/puppies and over 200 cats/kittens.
Amongst the dozens of rescue organizations and shelters on Long Island, where Proud Rescuers is based, is Yorkie 911 Rescue, Inc. Founded in 2010 by Heidi Walker, then becoming a 501-c-3 non-profit shortly after, this organization assists Luz Santiago in coordinating the ground transport, fostering, and re-homing of many of Proud Rescue’s small breed dogs (those under 15 pounds) upon their arrival to New York Metro area airport.
In addressing the crisis of animal overpopulation, the fact remains that each year the number of euthanized animals exceeds the number rescued by every transport group combined. It is critical that spay and neuter efforts are promoted in order to prevent tomorrow’s animals from becoming today’s rescues. The number of euthanized animals can be dramatically reduced if more people adopt those that are rescued, rather than purchasing pets. Whether by air or by ground, fostering or adopting saves the life of a loving, deserving animal and opens up a space for another one who desperately needs it.
Saving one animal won’t change the world, but for that one animal, the world will change forever.
Pilots to the Rescue
Saving Your Furry Friends Since 2015
Pilots To The Rescue is a non-profit, volunteer-driven, 501c3 public benefit aviation organization. PTTR’s mission is to transport domestic and endangered animals as well as people at risk.
Tel: (212) 404-6936 • www.pilotstotherescue.org
Proud Rescuers of Puerto Rico
Founded in July 2010, Yorkie911 Rescue, Inc is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization comprised of dedicated volunteers who are passionate about rescuing, vetting, and re-homing Yorkshire terriers and other small breed dogs. Given our many years in rescue, we’ve come to realize that saving every needy dog is impossible, but we remain forever grateful for the ones we do save.
Tel: (631) 965-6418 • [email protected] • www.yorkie911rescue.com
For more information on spay and neuter programs: American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and The Humane Society of New York