Pete Tobin and his wife, Karen Johnson, are part of a growing corps of aviators who volunteer their weekends and their personal planes to support rescue flights posted on an Internet forum called Pilots N Paws. For their most recent trip, their Columbia 350 was filled to the brim with more than 22 strayed, orphaned and unwanted animals (17 puppies and 6 kittens to be exact) who needed a lift from Fairfield, IL to Chicago for an opportunity at a brighter future.
Pilots N Paws was founded in 2008 and serves as an online meeting place for animal rescue groups to coordinate with more than 2,500 general aviation pilots willing to use their personal airplanes to transport shelter animals to towns where they could be adopted. According to Pilots N Paws, more than 4 million unwanted pets are euthanized each year because of overcrowded and underfunded shelters in mainly rural locations. The pilots are able to save these animals by flying them to no-kill shelters or to adoptive families, often located hundreds of miles away. The pilots spend their own money to pay for the flight, which in the case of a Columbia 350, costs $400-plus for a tank of gas.
For many of these animals, a rescue flight is their only chance of survival.
“Once you get in the air they mellow out quite a bit,” says Pete as he glances back at two puppies sleeping in the back seat. The Glenview couple says they stopped counting once they reached 50 animals carried aboard their plane on trips across the Midwest and the East Coast. But the record for most in one flight was on this day when 22 animals flew from Fairfield to Chicago.
A pair of beagles sit in one crate, while another contains a mother West Highland Terrier and her four babies. Only one dog was unable to fit safely aboard and had to be left on the ground to wait for a truck to carry him on the five-hour journey north.
“Sometimes it’s so stressful,” Karen says about carrying the animals by truck. “They’ve had animals die being transported from Tennessee all the way to Chicago because it’s so much stress and so many more hours on the ground.” The rest of the pets enjoyed a smooth one-and-a-half hour flight.
After the Columbia 350 touches down at Chicago Executive, volunteers from the Animal Rescue Foundation load the cats and dogs one by one into the ARFMOBILE to take them to their final destination — for now, at least — at a no-kill shelter in Chicago. The next step is spaying or neutering and a second chance at adoption through the shelter.