How a Chicago couple volunteers their time, money, and plane to rescue animals across the United States
By Kelsey Duckett
Peter and Karen Johnson love animals, and when they are not spending their time volunteering at a local shelter, or putting on an adoption event, they are flying animals across the country.
Peter, who has been flying planes since the age of 14, and Karen, who started flying six-years-ago, first got involved in dog rescue when one of their friends asked them to foster a puppy.
“She told me she was going down to Kentucky to rescue eight puppies,” Karen remembers. “Then she asked me if I would foster one until she found a home. I had Skye for about a week when Peter and I decided that this was her home.”
Pilots N Paws was started in 2007 by longtime rescuer and horse breeder Debi Boies, and her friend Jon Wehrenberg, a recreational pilot. It’s a group made up of volunteer pilots, who use their own planes, and cover their own fuel and expenses, to transport special needs animals around the country.
The Johnsons learned about the program three years ago at the Oshkosh EAA Air Show. After talking with some of the volunteers at the booth about Pilots N Paws, the compassionate couple knew they wanted to get involved and help in any way they could.
“There are so many pilots across the country that are volunteering their time and services to get these dogs out of terrible situations, and get them to a city where they will be in a loving home.”
Currently, around 9,000 rescue groups are registered with Pilots N Paws. The pilots who transport the animals typically fly to destinations about 250 nautical miles from their home base. Rescues take place around the country, throughout the entire year.
“We are given a destination to fly, and we meet the rescuers at the airport where they load up the animals and bring them to their new home,” Karen explains. “Sometimes this process takes some time depending on how many animals need to fit on board.”
The rescues have been very rewarding for the Johnsons, and humbling at the same time.
“It is amazing to arrive in a different city and get off the plane to be greeted by these hopeless and lost animals,” Karen says. “We know we are taking these dogs out of very bad situations and providing them an opportunity at a new life.”
The rescues typically already have new homes when they arrive at their final destination. Most of the animals that the Johnsons transport are flown to Appleton, Wis. They work with Chances rescue organization, who places the dogs in good homes.
They have rescued dogs from South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Southern Illinois. The most memorable was that of an English Bull Dog puppy, who couldn’t walk on either of her front legs.
“Most of the vets actually recommended that she be euthanized,” Karen says sadly. “But we ended up finding a vet at Iowa State University Veterinary Hospital who said he would perform the surgery.”
It is the stories with happy endings like this one that keep them going.
The Johnsons live with four dogs of their own, two of them rescues. The program continues to grow, and they look forward to continuing to be a part of it.
“My husband likes to say we made the world a better place today,” Karen says. “It is very nice to think that you saved the life of an animal just by volunteering your time.”
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