It was a bittersweet time Tuesday, just before dawn at Kelly Field Airport, for medical care technician Michael Belmarus.
Belmarus had to say goodbye to a chow mix named Aisling that he’d fostered for the past six weeks.
He’d grown attached to the dog, who was born blind. But Belmarus knows the dog’s best chance for a permanent home awaits her at the end of the flight, sponsored by the transportation organization Dog is My CoPilot (DIMC).
On Tuesday, Belmarus was one of the San Antonio Pets Alive! members who gathered to put more than 40 dogs on a flight bound for Boise, Idaho, where canines are in high demand for adoption.
Along with several volunteers, the bearded technician lugged different-sized kennels across the runway, behind Atlantic Aviation, and placed them in the Cessna 208B. Pilot and DIMC co-founder Dr. Peter Rork, carefully placed his cargo, from largest to smallest, inside of the plane’s hold.
“I need the tinies,” Rork said, reaching for kennels bearing the littlest passengers.
Belmarus saved the dog he’d fostered for last. As volunteers set kennels in open spaces, he patted the dog with the Irish name that means dream or vision, one last time.
“It was more tear-jerking this time,” Belmarus said.
The large adult dogs’ 1,645 mile trip to the Northwest was part of Headin’ Home, SAPA!’s transport program that ferries local strays to animal shelters in other states, where most are adopted within two weeks. The nonprofit also provides monthly ground transport for strays to rescue organizations in the Pacific Northwest, Midwest and East Coast.
Rebecca Mayberry, director of philosophy, said SAPA! saved more than 40,000 cats and dogs in the last six years. She said the nonprofit partnered with Animal Care Services to pull animals off euthanasia lists from the city shelter.
“This was our second summer of air transporting dogs to different states across the country that do not have an overpopulation of large dogs,” she said, “but they do have adopters readily available for them.”
SAPA! programs also include caring for neonatal kittens and puppies with medical needs.
Dwight Randolph, Atlantic Aviation general manager, said this was their fifth time working with DIMC. The fixed-based operation caters to general aviation people who fly on private jets.
“It’s a good thing,” Randolph said. “They’ve got it down to a science.”
Outside, Rork walked around the airplane for a pre-flight check before the 10-hour trip. The early start was meant to keep his passengers more comfortable from the heat.
Recent flights have differed from his first transport in 2006, when he flew a patient’s pet from Driggs, Idaho, to Burns Oregon in an older, smaller aircraft. In 2012, Rork co-founded the nonprofit, based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with lawyer Judy Zimet.
Animal rescues and animal shelters in 15 states west of Louisiana work with DIMC to arrange flights for shelter pets. Flights are paid through public donations and grants.
“You can get any kind of breed — pure breed or mixed breed — but adopt, don’t shop,” he said, as the canines barked incessantly in their kennels. “These dogs are rescues and are more grateful. They know they got the golden ticket and can only look forward to happy times ahead.”
Rork, a retired orthopedic surgeon, said once in the air, the barking usually subsides. SAPA! staff and volunteers watched the plane taxi across the runway and take off overhead into the dusky morning.
The group waved goodbye to the dogs, snug in the cargo hold of the plane nicknamed “Big Dog.”