“The situation is, in the South because of the ‘lax’ spay and neutering practices, there are lots of puppies so there are more dogs than there are people, so they wind up taking these dogs to local shelters, many of which are high kill shelters. What this basically means is that if the dog isn’t adopted during a certain period, or has any illness or is too old, they put them to sleep. They gas them, put them in a giant chamber, (with) carbon dioxide, and suffocate them.”
Michael F. Young explains this, almost as if he has rehearsed it hundreds of times, detaching his emotions from “the situation.”
The Horrifying Reality
If dogs are a man’s best friend, why are there so many without a home? The horrifying reality of canine homelessness is something that we are trying to help fix. The contributing factors to this problem are endless, and there are limited resources to help. Michael F. Young, pilot, professor, and dog-lover, has been contributing to an industry very few are educated on: dog rescue flights. Passionate volunteers dedicate their lives to saving these sweet animals. Many dogs who are on the path to a forever home, (forever home: casually defined by myself and others in this industry as a safe, permanent living situation with a loving caregiver), are transported numerous times and are often exposed to disease. On the other hand, many people who have opened their hearts and resources so that these pups will find a home.
The Apopka-Orlando Airport (X04) is where Mike reveals his true self. The hilly, rural backdrop with pine trees surrounding the border of the small executive airport is comforting and reminds me of somewhere that is not Central Florida. For an airport, X04 is quiet aside from the gentle hum of the Cessna-type aircrafts that can be heard from time to time. Almost every other hangar is open, a haven for these innovative aviators who are working on their pride and joy, or who are perhaps even building a jet pack. Mike pulls up and parks his silver BMW in the field beside his hangar. He waves to his neighbors. X04 is a community, and everyone knows Mike and what he does on the weekends. Mike’s relatively new Lanecair Colombia 400 model plane sits in his hangar with nothing but some Florida/Alabama maps, four headsets, hand sanitizer, and, inevitably, the trace of past flights: dog hair. Surrounding the plane are shelves with dog and cat food, leashes, dog toys, pens, and a refrigerator full of Mike’s favorite Diet Cherry Coke.
George Mason University claimed Mike as adjunct faculty in their Volgenau School of Engineering, and he was the faculty advisor for the school’s Aviation Club when he began this adventure. Now, among the faculty of the University of Central Florida, Mike uses his weekends to fly across states and save puppies. Almost never straying from his sky blue or navy Colombia short sleeve top, paired with either khaki shorts or jeans based on the weather, he has (gradually) altered the process used to plan these puppy excursions.
Flying with a Purpose
The morning begins at his Winter Park office where Fairbanks Ave. meets Wymore Rd., he meets his two to three volunteers who will accompany him for the duration of the day.
“I always take dog helpers,” Mike explains. “That way, they can be with the dogs and comfort the dogs”.
Most of these volunteers now come from his network of students within UCF, people he has met at the Orange County Animal Shelter, and those who want to be a part of something larger than them.
When Mike lived in Washington, D.C., he used Pilots N Paws as a helpful tool when he began this journey that has ended up becoming a huge part of his life.
“I’m just glad to be a part of it, because I love to fly. Loving to fly is great, but there’s got to be some purpose behind it. So…moving these dogs to forever homes is a great reason to fly”
Believe it or not, he is not the only one who supports this cause. There are many eager pilots waiting for an opportunity to pick up a plane full of dogs and transport them to a location where they will find homes. Pilots N Paws is a 501(c )3 non-profit website used for the purpose of communicating between pilots and rescue groups needing transportation. This is strictly an online platform for volunteers on both sides of the situation. Both the pilots who have the time and space for dogs and the rescues who are in need of transporters communicate through Pilots N Paws. There are message boards with non-stop conversing between dog-lovers until a flight is confirmed.
Other online resources like Pilot.dog and Doobert are used for the same type of communication and are even for transports by means of car. Unlike Pilots N Paws, on Pilot.dog, the husband and wife duo encourage pilots to share their flight stories and encourage the pilots whom are willing to donate their services to be guided to organizations which do not require the stories be attributed to the non-profit. Pilots N Paws is unique in that if a flight is requested and filled through their online discussion board, the pilot may not use the photos from that flight in any personal way online, and they must give full credit to Pilots N Paws. Either way, these stories are being shared and encourage others to do the same.
The barking of dogs in every shelter can be heard from the second you step out of your car in the parking lot. These state funded shelters look like a jail for animals. There are cages lined up with one to two dogs in each, depending on their temperament. Fearful dogs are marked, and the aggressive and violently ill dogs are not even advertised to the public. Walking down the long concrete path lined with metal bars, potential owners are eyed by hundreds of whining dogs looking for a home.
“The situation is, in the South because of the ‘lax’ spay and neutering practices, there are lots of puppies so there are more dogs than there are people, so they wind up taking these dogs to local shelters, many of which are high kill shelters.”
The demand for this type of work is undoubtedly everywhere you look in rural Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, and all the way up the Eastern Coast. In fact, there are flights that go across the United States. Statistically, about 3.9 million dogs enter the shelters every year, and about 1.2 million of those dogs are euthanized. That means about 60% of dogs are either returned to their homes or find families; while this is the majority, it isn’t enough. The Southern region has a very high concentration of dogs depending on the time of year, and sometimes each dog checked in is only given 24 to 48 hours to find a home. The bright side is that the multiplicity of rescue groups that work hard to save as many dogs that they possibly can, and these groups can treat them the dogs, since many will get infections such as Parvo, Heartworm, Hookworm, and Bartonella while in the shelter.
A Special Flight
Before the dogs are even able to get on a plane, there is a lot of “behind the scenes” work. One flight holds a special place in my heart; the September 24, 2016 flight to Tory Municipal Airport. Inside of Hale County Animal Shelter in Greensboro, Alabama was six puppies, of whom the overcrowded kill-shelter had taken custody due to neglect and abuse from their owner. This liter of beautiful 10-week-old yellow and black Labrador Retrievers had known life only as it had existed behind their cruel owner’s trailer. Featuring one puppy lying on top of another, the photo of the
“Brian 6,” as the shelter named them, was heartbreaking. Mike emailed his list of helpers and announced that they would be on the flight alongside 14 other pups from Hale County, totaling 20 dogs. The Brian 6 were snuggled upon each other because that is how they had survived behind a trailer during the hot summer months in rural Alabama. Living outside, their golden coats showed an obvious trace of dirt, fleas, and maybe mange. And then there was the black one. One black lab, so dark you couldn’t even notice the muck on him; his chest had a white marking. Symbolic of their silver lining, their faces were all hidden, besides one. He had a wide snout, and his big brown eyes stared at the camera with a look of desperation. The Brian 6 are going to survive.
As an avid volunteer myself, Mike sends me all the information of his flights, and if I am ever unable to fly, I set the hangar up for their landing in the afternoon. On September 24, I had hangar-duty and transportation duty. I had the job of transporting the “Brian 6” to one of Mike’s two familiar rescues in Orlando, “A New Beginning Animal Rescue.” Aware of the Brian 6 backstory, the anticipation for N2522F to land was building. I assisted with set-up, and I wanted to play with them and give these dogs the love they had never known.
Across the hangar, relatively empty without his plane, a familiar voice comes across the walkie-talkie.
“Puppy flight Colombia 2522Foxtrot is four minutes out, requesting approval for landing.”
They’re almost here. I finalize the setup of the two large dog pins, pools, and food; the white and red airplane, 20 dogs heavier than this morning, taxis it’s way to the hangar.
Moments later, other helpers and I are grabbing and passing puppies out of this plane. The Brian 6 are among the mayhem, and while the other 14 puppies were running around wagging their tails and splashing in the baby pools, the Brian 6 were not detaching from their dog pile. This is the sad reality of many dogs who end up in abuse and neglect situations. The day continues, and it’s time to transport the pups to A New Beginning Animal Rescue where they will be quarantined, spayed/neutered, micro-chipped, and get their first few rounds of puppy shots.
East Colonial Drive is a noisy, crowded place for anyone, especially a litter of puppies that grew up in the rural countryside of Alabama. As I pull up to the PetSmart where Abby, director of the rescue, decided to meet me, it was a job prying these puppies off of each other. They were going to be in separate foster homes, and they needed that. As I handed Abby the last Brian pup, I got the feeling that it would not be the last time I’d see them.
Three weeks later, on October 15, a message from Abby pops up on my phone:
“Brian pups are ready for adoption.”
Without a thought passing my mind and filled with pure happiness, I made arrangements to adopt one, Brian Pup #5
Brian Pup #5 resembles the hard work of every volunteer who contributes to this industry. Brian Pup #5 is the reason Mike flies. He is the reason Abby and others don’t have a day off. He is the reason there are animal shelters. He is the reason for Pilots N Paws, Pilot.dog, and Doobert. He is the reason I, and many others, spend countless weekends at the Apopka-Orlando Airport (X04). Now, he has a name and a home.
Henry is now a (wo)man’s best friend.
- “A New Beginning Pet Rescue, Inc. Orlando, Florida.” A New Beginning Pet Rescue, Inc., awos.petfinder.com/shelters/anewbeginning.html.
- “Pet Statistics.” ASPCA, www.aspca.org/animal-homelessness/shelter-intake-and-surrender/pet-statistics.
- Character Portrait – Michael Young. Dir. Brian Boenau. Perf. Mike Young.Character Portrait – Michael Young. George Mason University, 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 5 Oct. 2016.
- Doobert | Animal Rescue Made Simple.” Doobert | Animal Rescue Made Simple. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2016.
- Ferraro, Catherine Probst. “GMU Lucky Dogs: Professor, Students Give Lucky Dogs a Second Chance.”GMU Lucky Dogs: Professor, Students Give Lucky Dogs a Second Chance, Dec. 2012, vimeo.com/56724503.
- GMU Lucky Dogs: Professor, Students Give Lucky Dogs a Second Chance. Dir. Paul King. Perf. Mike Young. GMU Lucky Dogs: Professor, Students Give Lucky Dogs a Second Chance. George Mason University, Dec. 2012. Web. 5 Oct. 2016.
- Pilot.Dog – “Saving the Lives of Dogs, One Flight at a Time.”Pilot.dog. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2016.
- Pilots N Paws Pet Rescue Services. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2016