Transporting animals across the country for a rescue or a better chance at adoption isn’t new. Countless animals have been transferred from cruelty cases, overwhelmed shelters or natural disasters. In the past, groups would organize truck transport and plot a course. The challenge, though, was that their destination had to be within a day’s drive. If you pulled dogs from Florida, placement in Washington or Oregon was out of the question, says Kimberley Alboum, shelter outreach and policy engagement director for the Humane Society of the United States. “Then along comes Ric.”
“Ric” is Ric Browde, a songwriter, record producer and author who is president of Wings of Rescue, an organization that flies pets out of disaster areas or to parts of the country where they’re more likely to be adopted. Initially, the organization relied on volunteer charter pilots and their personal planes to transport eight to 10 animals at a time. As the need for transport grew, Wings of Rescue adapted. By chartering cargo planes and partnering with cargo companies, the organization can now move hundreds of dogs and cats at a time.
The results are lifesaving. The group’s capacity to fly large numbers of animals makes it possible to quickly move hundreds out of harm’s way.
To Alboum, it’s also the perfect answer to one of animal sheltering’s current problems. In some parts of the country, shelters have implemented spay/neuter and other animal welfare management practices so effectively that their facilities are no longer crowded with adoptable animals. Some have the space to pay it forward, taking in animals from areas that are still overwhelmed or dealing with a disaster. For example, if you take a group of hounds from Louisiana to Massachusetts, where hounds are scarce, those dogs have an exponentially better opportunity to find a home. The receiving shelters then have a greater variety of dogs available, keeping shelters more appealing as sources for a new pet and cutting into the puppy mill market. Plus, animals with a great back story tend to fare better, because adopters feel they become part of the story by providing the happy ending.
Long-haul transport by any means can be stressful for animals, and it’s also challenging for caretakers because dogs have to be walked every few hours. To ensure the animals’ comfort, organizations transporting by semitrailer must create staffing and driving schedules that work around these issues, often limiting trips to eight hours. But for many journeys, eight hours just isn’t long enough. Air transport changes the game, making that 1,500-mile journey from Louisiana to Massachusetts more doable. Plus, the high-volume flights can be a better use of human resources than smaller flights with fewer animals.
Having reliable air transport has also helped Alboum expand the HSUS Shelter and Rescue Partners program, a nationwide network that coordinates placement of animals from cruelty cases and disaster areas. The network was put to the test last year. As the Humane Society of the United States coordinated the rescue of hundreds of dogs from South Korea’s dog meat trade, hurricanes hit the U.S. and its territories—one right after the other. “We were moving thousands of animals,” says Alboum. “We had all these partners around the country who were like, ‘Don’t worry about it—just send us a plane full of animals and we’ll take care of it.’”
Hubs—the heart of air transport
Lynn Olenik, executive director of Humane Animal Welfare Society in Waukesha, Wisconsin, recalls how her organization evolved into a transport hub during the hurricanes. “We got a call from the HSUS. Then we got another. And another. I think in all we did five or six transports just from the emergencies.”
Olenik’s organization is a Shelter and Rescue Partner hub, a shelter with capacity to take in high volumes of animals in times of need. The Humane Society of the United States and Wings of Rescue arrange a flight—handling logistics, physical resources (such as crates) and funding—then hubs take over, coordinating medical care and disbursing the animals among shelters or foster families.
Hubs play an enormous role in the animal air shuffle. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the Humane Society of Tulsa in Oklahoma served as a receiving and redistribution center for animals evacuated by ground transport from Texas. Tulsa provided medical care and quarantine, then Wings of Rescue flew the animals to their destination shelters. Partnerships forged among Texas and Oklahoma organizations during the disaster have stayed strong, and the Humane Society of Tulsa now serves as a permanent transport hub and source of relief for areas of Texas where pet overpopulation and disease are rampant.
Oklahoma is getting a boost from the effort, too. Tulsa receives Texas pets and prepares them for air transport, then adds its own shelter pets who would have a better chance at adoption elsewhere.
“It shows the power of what can be accomplished when people and organizations work together,” says Gina Gardner, president of the board of directors for the Humane Society of Tulsa. Olenik agrees, noting that the flights have helped unite shelters and rescues throughout the region in a shared cause.
“We’re good at doing things on short notice,” says Davis Green, director of cargo operations for Berry Aviation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Contracting with Wings of Rescue, the air carrier has played a major role in the development of air transport for shelter pets. Its eight planes—each capable of carrying more than 200 animals—were kept busy during the 2017 hurricane season.
Eduardo Burgos, a career aviator and Berry pilot, remembers getting the email announcing that the company would be flying to Puerto Rico to rescue animals in the wake of Hurricane Maria. It was a far cry from one of his usual runs flying car parts to an assembly plant.
“I was the first to volunteer,” says Burgos, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico. “[Green] told me it could be days, or it could be weeks. I told him I’ll do it as long as we need to.”