In relay fashion, volunteers run a leg to deliver homeless pets to loving owners

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The passenger sat quietly in a private plane chartered just for him.

As the Piper Warrior aircraft touched down at Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin, a photographer snapped a photo -- the passenger's head, in profile, framed in the window of the back seat.

Then the pilots escorted the VIP out onto the wing, where he posed for more photos.

The special passenger was not a celebrity, star athlete or political figure but a 2-year-old English setter named Ranger who was being transported by volunteers for Ohio English Setter Rescue, Pilots N Paws and a new group, Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team.

Pilots Pete Lehmann and Rob McMaster attached two leashes to Ranger's harness and led him to the tarmac, where he wagged his tail and greeted those who came to take him on the next leg of his journey.

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Every week, cars, vans and airplanes transport such animals distances both short and long to new owners. Most are dogs, but the passengers also can be cats, birds and even pot bellied pigs and miniature donkeys.

These animals are not high-priced blue-ribbon winners, nor are they being transported for breeding. A lot have been rescued from breeders who did not take good care of them, and plenty are mixed breeds.

Many such transports are life-and-death situations.

Animals transported through Pittsburgh frequently come from low-income areas in the South and Midwest, where a lack of spay and neuter programs results in large numbers of unwanted dogs and cats. Many shelters in those areas euthanize a large percentage of animals, but some release animals to groups that will transport them to where they will be nursed back to health, neutered, trained, socialized and ultimately placed with new owners.

Most transports take place on weekends because the volunteers have weekday jobs. But some volunteers are so dedicated that they take personal vacation days to transport animals that must be moved quickly because they are scheduled for euthanasia.

Animal lovers have been transporting threatened pets for decades. But now, the Internet and social media, such as Facebook, have made scheduling easier while casting a wide net that pulls in more volunteers.

The transport process is costly, complicated and labor-intensive. It is a labor of love in which no one makes money.

Here are some tales about the animals and people who make up volunteer networks that operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Ranger lived in an outdoor pen "in very bad conditions" with his kennel mate, Samantha, and their six puppies. Volunteers from Ohio English Setter Rescue persuaded the owner to give them up, said Marcy Fenell of Moon, communications coordinator for the group.

Samantha was moved into an Ohio foster home to be treated for health problems, and Ranger was boarded at an Ohio veterinary clinic and then at Camp Bow Wow in Hilliard, Ohio, where he waited for a foster home to become available. It had to be a special place because Ranger had never lived in a house, had no training and did not know how to be a family pet.

When a foster home was found in Greenwood Lake, N.Y., the call went out for a transport.

Ms. Fenell, who describes herself as a "Facebook fanatic," had been following posts on the Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team. Pilot Brad Childs of Upper St. Clair posted that some pilots were available to fly that weekend.

Ms. Fenell worked with Pilots N Paws and set up a flight for Ranger from Columbus, Ohio, to the Allegheny County Airport. Ranger spent the night with a rescue family in Jeannette and then was picked up by Chrystal Collins-Johnson, founder of Starfish to the Sea Animal Rescue in Indiana, Pa.

Ms. Collins-Johnson drove Ranger 189 miles to a truck stop near Scranton, where his foster family picked him up and drove him to New York.

"It was just good fortune that I could help," Ms. Collins-Johnson said. "We were headed that way because I was adopting a cat from a rescue in New York City."

Ranger has "learned to be a wonderful house pet," Ms. Fenell said. The family frequently takes him to a park, where he regularly plays with a young female German shorthaired pointer.

And his long transport journey had the happy ending that every rescuer hopes for: He has been adopted.

Transports don't come cheap. Mr. Childs said it costs $150 an hour to fly the plane he co-owns.

Tracy Shimko of Plum spent $210 to transport three 8-week-old Doberman pinscher puppies.

On Valentine's Day, volunteers from the Doberman Assistance Network delivered the pups to her home from North Carolina. Two days later, she transported them to Carlisle, Pa.

Turnpike tolls totaled $40 and two tanks of gas cost $170. She owns a full-sized SUV because she's one of 20 volunteer drivers in this area for Distinguished Dobermans Rescue Inc., which has a local chapter in Moon.

She paid the costs out of her pocket; travel expenses for nonprofit groups are tax-deductible.

Frank J. Gavlak of McMurray said he's "not what you'd consider one of the key transport players in our area." Yet, last year Mr. Gavlak put 8,881 miles on his car delivering 72 dogs in 50 trips.

Most of his transport "legs" involve 60 to 90 minutes of driving each way.

Mr. Gavlak transports many breeds and mixes, but most of the time he works with groups that rescue and transport French bulldogs and Boston terriers.

Although their time together is brief, transport drivers and their passengers -- especially dogs -- do develop a bond.

Amy Coglio drives transports occasionally when she can fit one in around her full-time job at the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children in Oakland. She and her daughter recently drove from their Mount Washington home to Wheeling, W.Va., to pick up a mastiff named Lucky.

"He was a young, friendly apricot boy. He loved us right away," Mrs. Coglio said. When they stopped at a restroom, Lucky never took his eyes off the daughter when she left the car.

"People came and went" and the dog did not react at all, Mrs. Coglio noted. "When my daughter came back, he went nuts wagging his tail and happy barking."

They delivered Lucky to Gentle Ben's Giant Breed Rescue in Zelienople but admitted that they wished they could have kept him. "But we are at our limit at home," Mrs. Coglio said. "Supporting rescue is important," she said, adding many opportunities exist to do that, including fostering, donating or driving in transports.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and other Louisiana parishes in 2005, the disaster attracted animal lovers from all over the country -- and educated many about the need for transport. People such as Toni Kennett of Cincinnati, who drove south to help the four-legged victims of the storm.

She is still involved in transports, although she doesn't drive but instead coordinates trips.

Every night after work, Ms. Kennett spends hours on the Internet, checking emails about shelter dogs and cats that are scheduled to be euthanized and then sending emails to volunteers to ask for help.

She schedules transports that often cross multiple state lines, which means animals must have health certificates from veterinarians.

She breaks the journeys into drivable segments and schedules times and locations to handoff the animals from one transporter to another.

"Some people drive a lot. Others drive now and then," she said. "It becomes very stressful because dogs and cats are waiting for you." The transports, however, "always come together at the last minute," she said.

"Everybody always asks, 'Is that dog going to be saved?' And, nine out 10 times, they are."

Wildlife rehabilitator Maryjane Angelo and her husband, Robert, rescue about 1,000 injured and orphaned animals each year at Skye's Spirit Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Barkeyville, Venango County.

Beth McMaster takes in songbirds at Wildbird Recovery in Valencia. Sometimes she gets big birds of prey that must be transported the 45-minute ride to Skye's Spirit.

When Ms. Angelo recently sent out a transport request on her Facebook page, seven people quickly volunteered. Before Facebook, it once took a week to arrange a transport for a screech owl that needed help.

The next fundraiser for Skye's Spirit is an annual Wildlife Baby Shower from noon to 4 p.m. April 27 at the center.

Animal transports took a big leap forward in 2008 when the Pilots N Paws rescue service was founded. The nonprofit organization, based in Landrum, S.C., has grown to 2,466 volunteer pilots with 8,281 others involved in rescue. Thousands of animal lives are saved each year, said Kathleen Quinn, executive director.

"We fly mostly dogs, but there have been cats, service animals, military working dogs, birds, guinea pigs and two really small donkeys," Ms. Quinn said. "Pilots combine a love of animals with a love of flying."

Anyone can go to to start the application process. It's up to the pilots to communicate with people requesting a rescue.

In February, two pilots flew 17 puppies from the South to New Jersey. In less than a week, all were adopted.

"Usually pilots can fly 250 miles. We don't have pilots with jets yet," Ms. Quinn said. Because they are noncommercial pilots, they cannot accept pay, but the organization accepts donated crates, leashes and harnesses.

Five years ago, the first flight with a dog was a rocky one for Mr. Childs, the pilot who is vice president of Eyetique.

"Monty was a 9-month-old, 90-pound American bulldog going to Philly," Mr. Childs recalled. Mid-flight, Monty broke out of his tether, lunged into the arms of Mr. Childs and "put us into a perfect nosedive," he said.

The co-pilot grabbed the controls for the last 30 minutes of the flight while Mr. Childs held the dog in his arms.

"Monty just wanted to be with me," Mr. Childs said. When the plane landed, "I called the rescue lady and said I'm keeping this dog. He's going back with me. She said, 'Look out your window.' And there was a mom and dad and two kids waiting for the dog."

Mr. Childs handed the dog over.

"I get a holiday card every year from that family," he said, and he's been flying animals ever since.

Last summer, Mr. Childs and his wife, Linda, and Rob McMaster, an Upper St. Clair police officer, and his wife, Anne, founded Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team because they want to do more. The organization includes six pilots and nine board members. Their rescue process still starts with Pilots N Paws.

The Pittsburgh rescue team includes six pilots and nine board members and has rescued 67 dogs and flown supplies to victims of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey. A lawyer is working on establishing the team's nonprofit designation, which will enable it to collect money to buy more fuel and provide more flights.

The team's first fundraiser is 6 to 9 p.m. next Thursday at Rowdy Buck, 1325 East Carson St., South Side. Admission is $10.

Adoption prospects were bleak for a bald pit bull in Tennessee that had demodectic mange, which is expensive to treat. Jennifer Bird agreed to take the dog, if someone could get it to her group, FurKid Rescue in Bethel Park.

"We reached out on our Facebook page, relying on complete strangers," Ms. Bird said. A long series of drivers got the dog to Cincinnati. Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team flew to Ohio and flew her back to Pittsburgh.

Ms. Bird named the pit bull Piper, in honor of the plane that brought her here. Piper is living in a Pleasant Hills foster home and pictures of her are on the FurKid Rescue Facebook page. FurKid volunteers take in about 100 animals a year, many of them young pit bulls.

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Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-722-0087.


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