While reading up on all the latest pet news, we ran across a mention of Pilots N Paws, an animal rescue organization that volunteers to fly pets from overcrowded shelters to places where they'll stand a better chance of finding forever homes.
We wanted to learn more, so we asked co-founder Debi Boies a few questions about pet transport, pitching in, and helping animals live happier lives.
How and when did Pilots N Paws get started? Was there a specific incident or moment that led you to turn an idea into action?
Pilots N Paws, an online volunteer organization of small-plane pilots and rescuers, “sprouted wings” after I, who had been in Doberman Rescue for several years in the upstate of South Carolina, sent out an email to my friends to see if any of them were by chance making a trip from Florida to the Carolinas. After the loss of my 12-year-old Dobie, I found a rescue Doberman in Florida who needed a home and felt that he would be a perfect addition to the family. The only question was how to move him from Florida to SC?
My friend Jon Wehrenberg of Knoxville,Tennessee responded to my plea and generously offered to fly the Dobie from Florida to SC. I was overwhelmed at his generosity. After the transport flight, Jon asked me questions about rescue work and animals in shelters, including what happens to them, where they go, and how they get there. The easiest reply was to send him to various websites detailing how ground coordinators set up vehicle transports, and I asked him to view several shelter sites as well. The next day he sent an email and said, we need to do something! I agreed and asked if he thought Pilots N Paws would be an acceptable name. Of course it was, and a great idea took shape.
The first official flight took place on February 8, 2008. Since then, the number of small-plane general aviation pilot volunteers has climbed to over 1,800, with 7,605 registered users participating on the website. Their goal is to have 10,000 pilots so that few transport requests go unanswered.
How do the pet transports usually work? What safety considerations do you make?
All flight requests are posted to our Ride Board (Animals Needing Transport). If a pilot (or pilots) can assist the rescue making the request, they reply directly to them and the involved parties plan all the details. We have suggested guidelines for both pilots and rescues on our forum board, as safety is the number one priority. Petmate, one of our sponsors, provides crates, safety harnesses, etc... for our pilots to use for transport, which we are very grateful for. This makes flying safely much easier! We also educate our pilots about the various health conditions and situations that they need to be aware of with proper cleaning of the crates after each flight.
What has been the most rewarding moment so far? What have been your biggest obstacles?
Every time an animal is saved from euthanasia, an abusive situation, or any other hardship they encounter, that's my most rewarding moment. Our biggest obstacle has been reaching out and letting general aviation pilots know we are here. Once they know we exist, most are more than willing to join and help with our efforts. Our 501(c)(3) charitable tax status is encouraging to pilots, as they are not permitted to accept any monetary compensation for their flights. However, the FAA has given us the status of Humanitarian Flights, so pilots can use portions of their flight expenses as a tax deductible donation.
Have you done any international flights or have they all been domestic?
Volunteer pilots have worked together and flown animals outside the U.S. We have also assisted with dogs who have been adopted by our soldiers overseas in Afghanistan after they fly to the U.S. on commercial airlines. We then pick up the final leg of the transport and fly them to the soldier's home. This is extremely rewarding! Our pilots were even involved with flying a steppe eagle from Afghanistan, who our Navy Seals rescued and saved after the eagle was shot. That eagle is now sharing space at Berkshire Bird Paradise with an American eagle. Very poignant to see the two of them perched next to each other!
What advice do you have for people who want to help this cause?
Take the first step and head to our website and start reading. From there you can determine if you can offer your services as a pilot or in general areas that most people can help with, including being a volunteer driver or a temporary overnight foster home in case of an unexpected landing. I encourage people to print out the airport flyer we have under the Download section of our website homepage and take it to their local airports, asking the personnel to post is in a location where pilots gather, such as the flight planning room or pilot's lounge. This flyer has tear-off tabs with our website address.
Reaching more pilots in turn helps more animals. I would also encourage people to contact their local shelters and rescue groups to see how they can assist them. Good volunteers and foster homes are always needed. Just jump in, that's exactly what we did when we started Pilots N Paws!
Can you estimate how many animal lives you've saved and how many pilots and other people have been involved?
The only estimate I can give you with regards to the number of animals saved is "thousands". Because we are all volunteers who work through a system where people are given a venue that they can connect through, it is impossible to have an exact number. I have quoted figures for animals saved in the past and was quickly told my estimate was too low by one pilot who had personally flown 300 to 400 animals in the first quarter of the year. As long as our pilots are flying, animals are being saved.
We do have approximately 1,800 pilots registered with us and our goal is 10,000. That figure seems daunting, but when you consider that there are 300,000-400,000 general aviation pilots in this country, it becomes more realistic to expect to have that percent join our mission. We presently have 8,100 registered users on our website and more join daily. Our Facebook fan page is has over 11,000 fans and our friends page has 5,000, so we know that people are very supportive of Pilots N Paws and are grateful for their support.
Do you have any future plans for expansion or improvement?
We are expanding every day and improvement is always our goal. Ease of use on our forum board is always on the forefront, and working with our sponsors, Subaru and Petmate, to bring about public awareness is a priority as well. Educating the public that overcrowding of animals is something we as humans can change by altering our pets and being responsible pet owners is our mantra. My personal goal is for Pilots N Paws to no longer be needed.
Do you have pets? Have you traveled with them (and did the experience inform how Pilots N Paws functions)?
Yes, I have four dogs (two Dobermans and two geriatric Lhasa Apsos), one cat, and six Morgan Horses! Because we have a horse farm, we normally do not travel with our animals and instead we have good friends who house sit for us. Pilots N Paws came about when we adopted our Doberman from rescue and our friend and my co-founder, Jon Wehrenberg, offered to fly him to us so yes, you could say that experience informed how Pilots N Paws functions. In fact, you could say it was the birth of Pilots N Paws :-)
Thanks for talking with us, Debi, and good luck as you continue all your wonderful work!