2012 December 08, Saturday
Porterville, CA to Hillsboro, OR

The folks in Porterville, CA -- like many other crowded animal shelters in central California -- find themselves over-run with orphaned, abandoned, and injured dogs every day of the year. They never stop doing everything they can to find them homes or fosters before their allowed time in the shelter runs out. But finding homes and fosters is only one challenge. Getting all the dogs there is another.

Happily, people in the colder northern states love the small dogs that abound in California! Maybe it’s because these small dogs don’t require long walks in the sub-freezing weather, or because they love nothing better than to hang out indoors with their humans? Who knows, but thankfully, there are many people in the northwest who are delighted to adopt the many small dogs who find themselves lost and homeless in California. So we at On Wings Of Care do all we can to help get them there!

During our rescue transport flight back to California from Texas on December 6, we received a frantic phone call from our friends at Porterville. They said that their previous plans to fly 71 of their dogs to Oregon, Washington, and northern California were falling through, and that if the dogs didn’t go by that weekend, their time would be up. (Think “euthanasia.”) Among these were 40-45 smaller dogs and about 25 medium-sized dogs. “Whew!” we said, “That’s a lot of dogs and crates!” They had expected at least four large planes to do the transport, but chronic bad weather and various other problems had interfered.  Now the only option being offered was that if Porterville would drive at most 28 dogs in individual carriers to San Jose, each dog freshly bathed and clean, the dogs could hitch a ride in the cargo bay of a jet that was returning to its home base in Hillsboro, OR. We acknowledged with sympathy the near-impossible challenge of immediately bathing 28 shelter dogs and finding vans and drivers to take them to San Jose, but asked -- “What about the other 43 dogs??”  Well, that’s why they were calling us, they said.  But FORTY-THREE dogs?

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Now, we’re not ones to run away from challenges. Even more, we can’t leave a dog with no prospect of rescue or transport. Larry and I were dog-tired (sorry about the pun) from flying the past two days straight, and we were both coming down with really bad colds. But what were our options? We spent the rest of our flight back to California brainstorming about how to build those custom carriers we’d been talking about for the twin-engine Cessna we were flying, and how many dogs they might be able to hold comfortably. After we thought we had that figured out (and we came up with a number of around 38-40 dogs), then we had to figure out how we could get these carriers built the very next day, Friday, because the only day that looked even barely feasible weather-wise for flying up to northern Oregon was Saturday. We almost fainted just thinking about this impossible task.

But once home, and our two canine rescue passengers were handed off to their happy new homes, we got serious about how to accomplish this. Larry decided to call in two of his employees to work the next day, even though it was their regular day off.  And I promised to bring them all of the materials we had decided we would need, by 9 am. As for the rest of the story -- well, that’s the kind of magic Larry is famous for.  (Larry is our chief airplane mechanic and fellow pilot and the closest thing to a real-life MacGyver there is!)  Those guys worked til 9pm Friday night, and when they were done, that Cessna 310 was fitted with perfect small-dog condominiums, from floor to ceiling and side to side. Dutch doors were fabricated so that individual floor levels had their own openings.  The only thing they didn’t have time to do was varnish and seal the floors -- but no problem, we planned to line them with bedding anyway. (Wait til you read about my brilliant mistake on that one!)  We told Porterville that we would see them between 0900 and 0930 the next morning, and I told Larry I’d meet him at the hangar ready to go by 0715.

Porterville was foggy as usual Saturday morning, but as luck and good works would have it, Air Traffic Control and our instrument flight clearance brought us close enough to the airport that we could find our way in and land safely and easily. The vans and shelter staff and volunteers and families were all parked there and ready for us, and we wasted not a moment starting the transfers.

The neat thing about having custom carriers in a plane is that rescuers keep and use their own crates. And we, the transporters, always know how many animals we can hold and we will always have our crates clean with bedding and ready for the animals. The transfer between their crates and the plane’s crates? No problem, it’s a great excuse to meet, hug, and carry every dog individually.  Which is something we always do anyway, because we think it very important to know each and every dog we transport.  That way, if any dog had a problem or we had any kind of emergency, we know that we could handle the dogs without any problem for them or for us.

So we loaded up the little guys, with Shannon and Augie from the shelter plus many other volunteers and their children pitching in. Everyone quickly found an important job to do. One person stood by the plane and kept a careful count of the dogs going in. Others made sure that each dog had the correct color ribbon around his or her neck, to identify the rescue to which they were going. Others helped decide which dogs should ride with which other dogs, to make sure that the ones who “bunked” together in our crates would be comfortable together. And just about everyone took a turn at carrying a dog to us at the plane so that we could load them in.  (See the entire gallery of photos and a video below.)

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We fell in love with every one of those little dogs as we hand-carried each one into and out of his or her spot in our plane. That’s always the case, because rescue dogs are just the BEST. The scruffiest dirtiest ones are the ones who hang on to you the tightest when you pick them up, as if they're saying with all their hearts  "Thank you so much, please keep us!" It’s enough to make even the toughest among us get a little misty in the eyes. Rescuing animals is a great, great privilege.

Okay, I promised I would confess my brilliant mistake about the carriers: I bought large packages of what I thought would be terrific bedding -- soft, plastic-lined puppy training “wee-wee” pads.  I forgot about the fact that these pads are designed to encourage the dogs to use the pads as potties! I guess they have some subtle inviting odor or something. OOPS!  Unfortunately, the pups were really fast learners. At least one-third of the younger dogs obliged us by using the pads as bathrooms.  Okay, next time we’ll buy disposable diapers, or go back to using old cotton towels!

All went well on the flight otherwise, and we landed in Hillsboro in heavy clouds and rain and freezing cold, or so it felt to us. The locals there were still walking around in shirt-sleeves; whew, those northerners are hearty folk! The people were there and waiting to pick up their dogs, had their carriers all clean and ready and looked delighted to be receiving these precious pups.  (Yea! The dogs had escaped death and come to arms that longed to hold them! That’s why we do this!!!)  The transfer of dogs went quickly and efficiently.  We would have loved to stay for a while, at least to warm up, dry off, and have some hot tea and visit with the rescuers.  But the weather was closing in, the freezing level was dropping, and we knew we needed to get off the ground soon, so I filed an IFR flight plan with the tower, and we taxied back to the runway.  As we waited at the runway Hold Short line, the plane that landed just before we took off was the jet from San Jose with the rest of the Porterville dogs!  Larry and I looked at each other with exactly the same thought -- that lucky guy was home to stay, and we had a cold four-hour flight home ahead of us!

Here’s a video with excerpts from the loading in Porterville and the unloading in Hillsboro. We’ll have more videos and photos in the next week or so, and will upload them then.  A gallery of more photos is also included at the bottom of this article.Enjoy!

The flight home turned out to be more than just a little cold, for as night fell and we climbed through the freezing level up to 11,000’, the heater in our plane decided to fail. Ohhhh my, we missed that heater. Fortunately, we had blankets behind our seats, so we wrapped ourselves in them and covered our headsets, and enjoyed an absolutely gorgeous sunset past Mt. Shasta to our west. Once the sunset was over, it was a bit harder to forget how cold it was, and we had already told each other almost every joke and flying story either of us knows.  But California brought warmer temperatures, and we descended as soon as we got past the highest of the Sierras on our route, so all was well. When we finally landed back at home, around 8pm, we did the necessary post-flight tasks and left the crate-cleaning for the next day. All I could think about was a nice hot bath to get myself warm again, and all Larry wanted was some dinner! But most of all, we kept remembering those beautiful, dear, trusting dogs who finally, tonight, would spend a night in a soft bed and a quiet place with humans holding and reassuring them. No more concrete kennel floor for those dogs. And that’s what this day was all about.

The chain of rescue has many links. Shelters can't do it all, rescuers and fosters can’t do it all, transporters can’t do it all.  But together, oh my, how many lives they can save.

The first heavy-lifters who saved these dogs' lives were the Porterville shelter staff and volunteers, especially Augie, Shannon, and Ben. In the coming weeks and months, the Oregon-based rescues will have their hands full, as they patiently place each of these precious dogs into his or her perfect forever home.  These flights are crucial to getting the dogs from over-filled shelters to areas of the country where homes and families who want these dogs abound. The “ground crews” for these transports work as hard as the pilots, for sure. No end of thanks goes to Larry’s employees for working so hard on their day off to build these custom carriers at the last minute, and to Larry for letting us use his beautiful twin-engine Cessna “Silverbird” for these rescue flights.  With the help of supporters everywhere, we’ll continue making these transports, and we’ll all end the needless pain and killing of so many dogs who end up -- and end their lives -- in shelters.