By Kelly Madrone

Volunteers ready dogs for an air transport flight in San Juan, Puerto Rico, during Hurricane Maria. Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo/AP Images for the HSUS.

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.

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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.

It shows the power of what can be accomplished
when people and organizations work together.” – Gina Gardner

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.

Precious cargo

“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.”

  • Volunteers load animals onto a
    Wings of Rescue flight
    at the airport in San
    Juan, Puerto Rico,
    before Hurricane
    Maria hits land. Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo/AP Images for the HSUS.

For most of October, Burgos and other Berry
employees worked overtime to assist with saving
Puerto Rico pets. Their help extended to humans,
too. Every morning, the flight crew, along with volunteers
and staff from animal welfare organizations,
loaded pallets of pet food, first-aid kits, water and
other supplies donated from all over the country.
“People would sometimes just show up at the airport
with supplies because they knew we were flying
to Puerto Rico,” says Burgos.

The pilots took off early in the morning for the
three-hour flight to Puerto Rico, dropped off the
supplies, then loaded up the waiting animals rescued by the Humane Society of the United States and other
organizations. “We tried to make it as smooth and
quick as possible. The plane is air-conditioned, so it’s
comfortable. Most of them would fall asleep,” says

Sometimes he flew animals from Fort Lauderdale
to receiving hubs, such as St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare
Center in Morristown, New Jersey, which took in
most of the evacuated animals. Burgos recalls the
befuddled voices of the air traffic controllers he coordinated
with in-flight. “Am I hearing barking in the
background?” he was asked more than once.

The pilot says he’ll always remember his hurricane
experience, and he hopes to work with Wings
of Rescue again. “I got to see a whole different side
of animal adoption and how many organizations
there are that really care for animals.”

Some of Burgos fellow pilots were so touched by
the experience that they took home “souvenirs,”
adopting some of the dogs they helped rescue.

After the storm

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Wings of
Rescue also helped reunite pets and families who
had become separated during evacuation. Watching
those reunions at the Fort Lauderdale airport was an
experience Browde will never forget.

  • A woman hugs her dog after the pair were reunited
    in Florida after Hurricane Maria hit their home in Puerto Rico.
    Wings of Rescue and the Humane Society of the United States collaborate
    on large transports like this one before and after disasters. Photo courtesy of Ric Browde.

“When the dogs were coming [off the plane], it
was like the Beatles had landed. We’d pull one out
and people would shout, ‘That’s my dog!’. . . The joy
was incredible.”

One reunion stands out. Browde noticed a boy in
a wheelchair. His mother said he’d been despondent
for the month since his family had been evacuated in
the storm.

“I come out with this dog crate and the crate is
sounding like a drumbeat, the dog’s tail is wagging so
hard,” says Browde. “I open the crate door and [the
boy] sees the dog. He grabs my arm, he grabs his
mother, and he starts crying and talking. The whole
family was crying. That’s the power of a pet.”

As for the other evacuated pets, most of whom
came from overburdened shelters on the island,
many quickly found homes with the help of the
Shelter and Rescue Partners program. Browde says
that in 2017, the average length of stay in receiving
shelters for animals on Wings of Rescue flights was
only three and a half days.

It’s hugely satisfying knowing that an animal
you’re flying out of an area could be on someone’s
couch by the weekend, says Browde. Alboum agrees.
“Every adoptable animal in a home—that’s what we
all want.”

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Article source: HSUS

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