The sun has just come up, a low pink-and-yellow glow on the horizon, when Oliver Feher coaxes his red-and-white Cessna 185 into the sky. On this Saturday morning in January, he’s bound for Sept-Îles, Que., a city on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. Three hours in, the plane’s two-way radio crackles. “This is Charlie Foxtrot Golf Zulu Bravo,” Feher, a 39-year-old entrepreneur and private pilot from Laval, Que., reads to the call tower. “Coming in for a dog rescue. We’ll stop for 20 minutes and then head back to Lachute.” He pauses, the aircraft shuddering in the gusting wind. “This landing is going to be interesting.”
Waiting below in the -20°C bluster are 14 husky-mix puppies and two adults-Feher’s return-flight cargo. Four parka-clad volunteers help hustle the crates of dogs from a white SPCA van into the bush plane’s hold as snow whips across the runway. At risk of euthanasia due to overcrowding at the city’s shelter, the puppies are headed south for a chance at adoption. “It won’t be the Ritz,” says Feher, a pilot for dog rescue organization Pilots N Paws Canada, as he straps a crate down. “But it beats option B.”
The idea for the charity began gnawing at Gini Green, its founder, in 2012. Green was working as a dog trainer and rescue coordinator in Vancouver when she received word that a group of 25 sled dogs might be put down unless they could be relocated. From British Columbia, she was part of a team of people who helped move the canines across the country, dropping them off in pairs or trios at different locations along the way. It took two weeks and cost $10,000. “I thought, There’s got to be a better way,” Green says.
A bit of digging led Green to Pilots N Paws, a South Carolina-based organization that connects animal-rescue workers and shelters with hobby pilots across the United States to coordinate rides for pets in crisis. And while the Canadian group runs separately, sharing only the name and logo of the American branch, the same principles apply. “Ground transport is time-consuming and much more stressful for an animal than being put on a private plane,” Green says. “The animal wins-they get the possibility of a new life.”
Relying on stories in aviation magazines and old-fashioned word of mouth, Pilots N Paws has developed a network of more than 200 hobby pilots from B.C. to Newfoundland who donate their time, fuel and aircraft when a community association needs animals moved, stat. Green runs the organization from her home on Gabriola Island, off the west coast, where she lives with Honey, a pit bull-whippet cross, and a yellow Lab named Gretal. There, she handles flight requests from agencies across the country. When one comes in, Green or one of her seven volunteer coordinators puts a call out on a forum for member pilots.
Pilots N Paws most frequently rescues pups from communities in Canada’s northern reaches, where veterinary care is sometimes unavailable. So far, Pilots N Paws has transported more than 500 animals from isolated towns as far away as Moosonee, Ont., and Fox Lake, Alta. “They seem to know they’re being rescued,” says Gerd Wengler, a pilot and property manager in Milton, Ont. “They look at you, come and push against your legs. They somehow know they’re being treated well.”
Although dogs are the group’s most common cargo, it has also given lifts to species as varied as snapping turtles and snowy owls. Last year, Wengler had the privilege of releasing three owls into the wild.
Back at the Lachute hangar, 80-odd kilometres northwest of Montreal, Feher and an SPCA volunteer herd the 16 dogs, yelping and nipping, into cages bound for a shelter in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que. “We don’t always have a lot of time to really make a change,” Feher says. “It’s the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done in my life.”