Two things Mark Avellino loves are flying and animals.
So on a recent Saturday morning, 28-year-old Avellino strapped a crate that housed a Maine Coon cat called Rascal into the cabin of his Piper Cherokee 140 and took to the skies as a volunteer pilot with Pilots N Paws.
“This would be my first cat,” said Avellino, who was headed to Staunton, Virginia, to place the 5-year-old feline into its new home. “Everything I’ve done is dogs so far. It’s mostly dogs that you’ll find on Pilots N Paws, at least going up through this area.”
Stacy Morris, a 56-year-old who lives in Virginia with her husband, six dogs and four cats — all of which are rescue animals — adopted Rascal, and said Rascal had been on the adoption list for a while, with no prospective family.
“So I thought I would get him for myself,” Morris said. “It’s just one of those faces. You see the face and fall in love them.”
Avellino, who is also a Marine staff sergeant stationed at Camp Lejeune, is one of the 5,000 pilots in the country who volunteers with Pilots N Paws, a South Carolina-based nonprofit that helps connect pilots with homeless animals that need to be transported to new homes or shelters in another part of the country.
The organization was founded in 2008 by Debi Boies and Jon Wehrenberg, who first worked together to rescue a Doberman by flying it from Florida to a home in South Carolina.
“I choose to volunteer for these flights through Pilots N Paws because it provides an opportunity to utilize the talents which God has given me in order to serve others and animals,” Avellino said. “What would take most people many hours or even days to get an animal from point A to B can be completed in just a few hours.
“Surprisingly, I have been told by some rescues that I have worked with that it is easier to coordinate with pilots for flights rather than ground transportation.”
Morris said what Avellino and the other pilots do for these animals is “remarkable.”
“Mark was godsent,” she said.
Avellino, who earned his pilot’s license in 2011, said he first discovered Pilots N Paws after stumbling upon its message board on the Internet.
“What (the message board) does is it provides an opportunity for shelters to connect, as well, with those pilots to get animals up north where they are taken into rescues or adopted out to give them a second chance,” he said.
Since joining the forum in March of this year, Avellino, who does a majority of his flights on the weekend out of the Albert J. Ellis Airport in Richlands, said he has helped between 10 to 15 dogs find new homes and keep from being put to sleep.
“A lot of the animals we get them on the weekend because they are going to be euthanized on a Monday,” he said.
According to Pilots N Paws, more than 4 million unwanted pets are euthanized each year and an overwhelming 70 percent of dogs that enter shelters in the southern part of the country are put down.
Kate Quinn, the executive director for Pilots N Paws, said it is common for the animals being rescued and transported by Pilots N Paws volunteers to be on a shelter’s kill list prior to transport.
“Most of them are coming from really horrible situations from a kill shelter,” Quinn said. “We saved 15,000 (animals) last year … and it’s even higher this year.”
While it is faster to fly animals to their final destinations, Avellino said it’s not always a smooth ride for some of these dogs or cats.
“This one that I did (the weekend before Thanksgiving), that was the first time I haven’t had sickness or things like that,” he said. “It’s a lot of stress on the animals as well, just flying. It’s loud and depending on the day, it could be bumpy.”
Avellino said dogs have also managed to wrangle out of their leashes mid-flight and have gotten loose in the back of his plane, which is why he usually travels with another human companion.
“So they might move around a little bit, but I usually try to take someone with me to help with that,” he said.
Aside from the challenge of flying with animals, Avellino said he also spends a significant amount of time and money on each trip.
“Depending where you’re going, (I) probably spend close to about $200 per flight,” he said.
Despite the large commitment, Avellino said he has no plans of stopping anytime soon.
“I love animals,” he said. “One of the incentives is that it gives you an excuse to fly. It kind of gives you a purpose other than flying to just go fly.”
Avellino and his wife, Korissa, have three dogs, two cats and a handful of chickens at their Richlands home.
As an animal lover herself, Korissa said she is supportive of her husband’s passion and endeavor.
“He’s very much into it,” Korissa said. “If he’s able to do it, he will email right away.”
Korissa said she is proud of what her husband is doing for the at-risk animals in the area.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “I’ve never met anybody else who does it, and just to know it’s my husband — it’s exciting.”
As a young pilot, Avellino is limited by how far he is able to fly, but Korissa hopes her husband gets to advance his flying skills to help more animals.
“I’d like to see him do more trips,” she said. “He does want to go more west. There’s been some for Tennessee and further up north from Virginia.”
While Avellino hasn’t made plans for his next trip with Pilots N Paws yet, he said he is already looking forward to it.
“One of the best parts though is getting to spend time with the animals,” he said. “So I find it exciting and a blessing to be a small part of it.”
For more information on the program, to donate or volunteer, visit PilotsNPaws.org.