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Volunteer pilot Jeff Bennett has flown thousands of shelter pets to forever homes.
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Five years ago, Jeff Bennett, a retired businessman from Big Pine Key, Fla., was volunteering his time at a Key West animal shelter. Bennett had recently earned his pilot’s license and bought a four-seat Cirrus SR22 airplane.
Although he didn’t know it yet, Bennett was about to use it to save thousands of homeless pets from euthanasia.
After reading an article in an aviation magazine, Bennett decided to combine his passion for helping homeless animals with his hobby of flying planes. The article was about an organization called Pilots N Paws, a national networking community that enlists volunteer pilots to transport shelter dogs to foster and permanent homes.
“Instead of me flying in circles practicing around my local airport, I actually go places and pick up dogs and get them to safety on the way back,” Bennett says.
When Bennett began flying for Pilots N Paws in 2008, he never could have known that just five years later, he would transport his 2,000th animal, an Australian Shepherd-Collie mix, who was adopted and named Boots.
Bennett has flown all types of animals around the Southeast, so many in fact that people in the Pilots N Paws community call his Cirrus “All Species Airways.” He has transported cats, snakes, chicks, hamsters, rats, rabbits, guinea pigs and even potbellied pigs, but most of his passengers are dogs.
“You know you’re saving a dog’s life when you’re doing this because a lot of places I’m moving these animals out of are very high-kill areas (that) have low foot traffic through their shelters,” Bennett says. “If we don’t move them, they get euthanized.”
One animal made a huge impact on him just a couple months into his volunteering.
“There was a Border Collie who I got an emergency call on,” he says. “The only reason this guy was alive was because the freezer at the kill shelter was full of bodies already, and they had no place to put his body. That was actually when I learned how bad things were. That’s when it hit me the hardest.”
Pilots N Paws President Debi Boies and pilot Jon Wehrenberg founded the organization in 2008 after they worked together to transport a Doberman Pinscher who Boies had adopted from Tallahassee, Fla., to her home in South Carolina.
“I could have driven several hundred miles to pick him up,” Boies says. “That wouldn’t have been a problem.” But Wehrenberg, a friend from Tallahassee, Tenn., asked her, “Debi, why don’t I just go fly down and pick him up?”
“I thought he was kidding at first,” Boies says. “Who makes that kind of generous offer to take their aircraft and pick up a rescue dog and fly him to you?” After that, she and Wehrenberg came up with the idea of Pilots N Paws, which is based in South Carolina.
Since Wehrenberg’s first flight, Pilots N Paws pilots have transported more than 40,000 animals across the country.
Pilots N Paws doesn’t organize these transports, but with the help of its sponsors Subaru and Petmate, it serves as a gathering place for pilots, other volunteers, shelters and rescues. The organization provides discussion boards where rescuers and pilots can make transportation arrangements and gives guidelines for participants to make transports run smoothly.
More than 4,300 volunteer pilots are currently registered with Pilots N Paws. That might sound like a big number, but Boies says, “There are 300,000 to 400,000 general aviation pilots in the U.S. alone. We’d really like to reach the 10,000 mark. We’re slowly climbing there, but we’re not there yet.”
Learn more at pilotsnpaws.org or at Facebook.com/PilotsNPawsFanPage
Cassandra is an editor and writer based out of Orange County, Calif. She lives with her rescued cat, Pickles, who loves to “talk.” While Pickles is her only pet now, Cassandra is a long-time rescuer. She also volunteers her time walking dogs and socializing cats at local shelters, and was a “shelter scout” for guinea pigs. When not caring for animals, Cassandra spends her spare time hiking, bird watching and restoring local habitats as a volunteer at Orange County parks and beaches.
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