They may not have plane tickets or carry-ons, but animals in need are being transported above ground to better, loving homes.
The nonprofit organization Pilots N Paws is made up of more than 5,000 pilot volunteers from around the country, with hundreds in Florida, who share the heart-warming passion to transport animals to a safe place from overcrowded shelters or unbearable circumstances.
Deborah Boies, the co-founder and president of Pilots N Paws, said the organization took flight when a friend of hers offered to help her rescue a Doberman that she found in an abusive dog-fighting situation. With scars covering his face and head and filed-down teeth to reduce his ability to fight back, the Doberman’s life was saved through Boies’ passion-driven love for animals.
“Every situation is unique. Every animal and every life saved is equally important to me,” she said. “Saving his life was a phenomenal way to start an organization. He deserves the credit for saving all these lives.”
On the site pilotsnpaws.org, people who rescue, shelter or foster animals are encouraged to request a rescue flight from a pilot volunteer. The forum serves as a meeting place to arrange and schedule flights to save an animal’s life.
“The minute you go to the shelter and take them out, you can see the relief on their faces … they look at you differently with their eyes,” Boies said. “We don’t really know what a lot of them have been through, but what we do know is that we have made a difference in their lives.”
Kate Quinn, the organization’s executive director, said if an animal comes from a kill shelter, Pilots N Paws will make sure that it does not go back to another one.
“The aviation community is very giving, and this is one of the ways to volunteer their time with their unique skill set,” Quinn said.
Pilots N Paws has saved more than 75,000 animals, including dogs, cats, rabbits, reptiles and pigs.
Boies said the organization even managed to save an 80-pound dolphin that got separated from its pod in Florida earlier this year. A burned bear cub in California was rescued, and endangered sea turtles have also been transported across the country.
“If our pilots can do it and are interested in doing it, they will answer any calls that they can,” she said. “There’s more to flying than just going up and having a great time. If you have a love for animals and you have a love for flying, and you combine those two passions, how rewarding is that?”
Jim Matthews, one of the first pilot volunteers, got involved with Pilots N Paws after surviving stage 4 melanoma cancer with the help of a furry friend.
At 38 years old with a passion to fly, Matthews was told he could not operate planes after being diagnosed and starting chemo therapy, with only a few months to live.
“There’s absolutely no medical reason why I should be alive today, but that was 17 years ago and I’m great and feeling fine and everything turned out wonderful,” he said. “When people get sick with cancer, they go through stages of grief. An animal is something that really shows compassion, grace and love, and that it’s all going to be OK no matter what happens.”
When walking back from one of his doctor appointments, Matthews said he was being followed by a small puppy, who he said had obviously been abused. But when he suddenly fainted from the effects of chemo, he said he woke up to paramedics who tied up the puppy to one of their trucks, reassuring Matthews that they had his dog.
“I looked at the dog and the dog was just looking at me, comes over and licks my face. And we got in the car and went home. That’s how I met Sunny,” he said.
Sunny died four years ago, but Matthews said his best friend has taught him the love and protection that everyone should have in their lives.
“It was because of Sunny; that’s how it started for me,” he said. “I got involved with rescue and Pilots N Paws, and the rest they say is history.”
After experiencing the unconditional love that animals have to offer, Matthews was committed to putting his passion for both animals and flying toward a great cause.
“Animals are a big part of this whole thing we call life. That’s why they’re here,” he said. “We save a giant percentage of animals that normally would be euthanized.”
As he’s gotten older, Matthews said he has come to realize that everybody needs to give back. Rescuing about 25 to 30 animals each month, he said he feels he has done his job.
“Even getting one dog has a direct effect on a lot of other people and a lot of other things that you’ll never know about,” he said.
For every one dog that somebody rescues, Matthews said about five lives are saved because of the great example it sets for others.
“It’s a lesson on love that I think is missing in this world today,” he said. “There’s an army out there of animal lovers that, together, we really do a lot.”