At Santa Monica Airport on the west side of Los Angeles, there's some pretty unusual dog rescue activity going on.
LA has one of the largest shelter systems and homeless pet populations in America. The shelters are teeming with discarded animals, many of them abused, abandoned, sick or injured and starved. Failure to spay and neuter multiplies the numbers all the time. The shelters are understaffed, overcrowded places, filled with the anguished sounds of hundreds -sometimes thousands - of scared animals crowded into cages. Many of them never make it out for a walk, let alone make it out alive.
Not all of the shelters are kill shelters, but decimated budgets and the sheer weight of numbers mean that some still are. Shelter workers don't like having to put masses of animals down any more than anyone else, but that is their reality, day in and day out.
LA also boasts some of the most dedicated dog rescuers anywhere. It must feel like sweeping sand off a beach sometimes, but they fight on relentlessly to save one life at a time.
Phyllis Smith-Vanboxtel Osh, of All Breed Dog Rescue, arranged for the release of six dogs from the Devore Animal Shelter two days ago. She and her colleague Kathrin Schmidt, who are constantly plotting escape routes for these death-row dogs, arranged for the dogs to be taken in by The Grace Foundation, an animal sanctuary in northern California. There, they will live on a huge ranch, be loved and taken care of, until they are adopted. If they are not adopted, then Grace will become their new home. They will never be discarded again.
What makes this rescue operation pretty unique is that the dogs are flown to freedom on a private plane, in an operation coordinated by an outfit called Pilots and Paws.
Zach Bryson has a ways to go before he hits 30, and yet he's already a sea captain, a chef and a commercial pilot. With his earnings as a ferry captain, Zach bought an airplane so that he could develop an aviation career. If you're willing to turn the wrenches to keep it flying yourself, as Zach is, a 30-year-old airplane runs about as much as a nowhere-near-loaded Toyota. America's tarmacs are littered with them. Fuel prices have driven their value through the floor.
Combining forces with Phyllis and Kathrin, Zach flies rescued animals to destinations within a few hundred miles of LA, and he does it almost every day. The rescues are not only easy on the animals, they're economical. The cost for a trip like the one to Grace would be about $250 in gas, which is picked up by donors. Zach contributes the flying, the plane, his labor on it, all for nothing. That means about $30 per dog to transport them 300 miles. Can't beat it.
Now, keep in mind that these dogs have just been pulled out of a harrowing shelter. The next thing they know, they're at an airport, where they meet Zach.
You don't do this kind of work if you don't love animals, and Zach makes them feel welcome right away.
Next, they get loaded up onto the airplane. Zach makes sure everyone is calm and ready before they go anywhere. Normally, they lie down and go to sleep.
Send me your huddled masses...
One of the dogs on this last trip was the curious type. He relished every minute. Imagine what it must have been like, from a shelter cage, to leaving the ground, to flying up in the air. He was absorbed by the experience. He loved it. That feeling of gratitude makes for a pretty good reward for a rescuer.
So much so that Zach accorded him the honor of flying left seat.
Okay, so maybe the headline is a bit of an exaggeration. The dog didn't really fly the airplane.
On the other hand, he certainly had an experience that changed his life forever. That handsome, curious, intelligent young boy, and all the other passengers flying with him, flew to a new life. Look at the picture at the beginning again - it's wonderful to see a sharp young dog get a new lease on life and take special pleasure out of every minute. That's some dog.
Without this rescue team, he would have been just another one of the dogs who die every day in American shelters, forgotten by now.
Who knows what it was like for him. Who knows what he thought or what he will remember. Who knows what he'll be seeing in his dreams.
One thing is for sure - it was one stunning rescue.
My hat is off to Zach, Phyllis, Kathrin, The Grace Foundation and Pilots and Paws - and all the donors - for giving those dogs, and all the others they help, the wings to fly them home.