Each year throughout the country, more than 2.7 million adoptable dogs and cats are euthanized due to shelter overcrowding. Overburdened shelters take in 7.6 million stray, abused, surrendered, or lost animals every year, and the simple fact is that in many places they are taken into shelters faster than they can be adopted.
The problem is compounded by animals that are not neutered or spayed, which account for 90 percent of the animals that enter animal shelters. “No-kill” shelters help to absorb some of these animals as well, but such shelters have limited capacity and frequently do not accept new animals.
Overall, 41 percent of cats and 31 percent of dogs that are taken in by shelters are euthanized. But these numbers are not consistent across the country. By moving adoptable pets from regions where there are excess shelter animals to locations where there is a demand for pets to be adopted we can save the lives of at least some of these animals.
That’s where general aviation comes in. My organization, Pilots N Paws, works with volunteer pilots who donate their time, the use of their aircraft, and the cost of the flight to fly animals from “kill shelters” to “forever homes.” Pilots are also able to use our 501(c)(3) status to deduct portions of their flights at the end of the year. Eight years and more than 120,000 animals later, general aviation is still at the heart of what we do.
One story in particular that stands out for me was our reuniting of a Jack Russell mix, Fancy, with her family. The family, a wheelchair-bound veteran and his wife, came home to discover that Fancy was stolen from their back yard while the husband was in the hospital for open-heart surgery in April. Months later in August, the dog was found and identified by microchip in Quakertown, Pa., about 900 miles from her family in Heflin, Ala. Even now nobody knows how she traveled so far. Three volunteer pilots, each flying a leg of the flight, reunited Fancy with her family, and she recognized them immediately and jumped into the husband’s lap while he was in his wheelchair. In a job that provides countless heart-warming moments, this one is especially memorable.
Other times, when natural disasters strike, such as Hurricane Matthew or the 1,000-year flood here in South Carolina, our volunteer pilots will fly animals away from the affected areas to make room in local facilities for the pets that go missing during the storm. In other cases, we fly wild animals such as a bear cub that was burned in a California wildfire, and even an 8-month-old dolphin by building a small water pool in the back of a plane.
Our 5,300 volunteer pilots are representative of the pilot community across the country. They come from all walks of life, and many of our volunteer pilots also use general aviation for their businesses. General aviation helps business people travel to smaller cities where commercial flights are limited or unavailable, and to travel to multiple locations in a single day, permitting them to maintain an efficient and busy schedule. Similarly for charitable flying, general aviation offers functional advantages that makes it invaluable in certain circumstances. And overall, general aviation in South Carolina represents a $417 million-per-year industry and supports more than 5,000 jobs.
In reflecting on the work of the volunteers of Pilots N Paws, I ask myself, “How many problems of this kind, such as pet overcrowding in animal shelters, are solvable in this way?” General aviation provides a solution to this kind of complex problem that would be very difficult otherwise.
But that may not always be the case. Recently a proposal in Congress to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system would badly hurt general aviation, and leave charitable flying without its driving force.
We must retain Congressional oversight of the air transportation system, and thus permit organizations like mine and our volunteers to continue their good work.
(Debi Boies is the founder of the philanthropy Pilots N Paws).