Missions of Mercy

9/18/2015

Fall 2015

A quiet anticipation permeates the predawn autumn air as pilots tend to their preflight inspections, awaiting cargo. Animal rescue volunteers with Pilots N Paws begin arriving with the sunrise to deliver the four-legged passengers, who are about to get the ride of their lives to save their lives. The sound of yips, arfs, and woofs punctuate the flurry of pairing up 490 wagging tails to the 70 planes dotted across the tarmac. After each animal is safely stowed aboard, volunteers send off the parade of planes with teary-eyed waves as each ascends into the clear blue Greenville, South Carolina, sky to points north and south – the final leg in a journey away from kill shelters and neglect to forever homes.

A Doberman and a Dream

This annual fall flyaway is just one Pilots
N Paws event that moves animals to escape euthanasia from overcrowded shelters, mainly in the South, to areas with a greater number of adoptive homes. As pilots are constantly connecting with volunteer rescuers via a message board, rescue flights are just about daily occurrences. It all started in 2008, when a pilot offered to help a rescuer friend in need by flying from South Carolina to Florida to save a Doberman named Brock who was in a dire situation. The pilot was Jon Wehrenberg, the friend was Debi Boies, and from one Doberman’s rescue, a dream was born.

Pilots N Paws volunteers Devon and Jill Barger are shown with their
Subaru BRZ and two rescue dogs.

“After Brock’s rescue, Jon and I quickly realized that connecting pilots, who love to have a reason to fly, with rescuers that needed transportation could save many animals’ lives,” says Boies. Wehrenberg’s 16-year-old grandson helped the pair build a website to connect those who rescue, shelter, or foster animals with pilots and plane owners willing to assist with animal transportation. Pilots post their availability and rescuers post their needs. If there is a match, the two parties can get in touch to work out a plan. 

To support animal welfare advocacy, Subaru is a Pilots N Paws partner. Devon Barger, a volunteer pilot who has flown 1,000-plus animals and drives a BRZ when he’s behind the wheel of his other favorite vehicle, says, “At my first flyaway, I was impressed with the Subaru team. They provided tons of supplies and ground support. After a long flight, it sure made our jobs as volunteer pilots safe and enjoyable.”

Pigs DO Fly – and Many Others, Too

If every dog has its day, other lucky animals have also taken to the sky. A baby potbellied pig abandoned in urban San Jose, California, a badly burned bear cub pulled from the cinders of a forest fire in Washington state, sea turtles stranded in New England by winter’s early arrival, a dolphin orphaned off the Florida coast, and a steppe eagle rescued by U.S. Navy Seals stationed in Afghanistan have all been flown to safety.

Awareness through Education

In addition to coordinating the almost daily “freedom flights,” animal welfare education is at the heart of the nonprofit’s mission. There’s an epidemic of unwanted animals because people don’t spay and neuter, so the group works with educators to teach children about the importance of animal safety to help to solve overpopulation and abuse at their root. 

For those wanting to get involved, flying, fostering, donating to animal welfare groups, and stepping up to create awareness, such as leading education for scouting troops or community groups, are all useful ways to make a difference.

“With the support of Subaru, our program gives anyone who wants to help animals a platform to participate, bringing the best of humanity together, to work together,” says Boies. “Animal overpopulation is a global problem that is 100 percent solvable. There aren’t many problems we can say that about, but this is one of them.”