Volunteer pilots make rescue delivery to Ocean State


What has 56 legs, four arms and flies through the air? A Pilots N Paws rescue flight, of course. On Sunday, pilot Bruce Cohen and his co-pilot Avery Pellnat delivered 13 dogs (two adults and 11 puppies) to Quonset Airport in Cohen’s single-engine private plane. Cohen and Pellnat volunteered their time to transport the dogs from a high-kill shelter in the south to the East Greenwich Animal Protection League right here in Rhode Island.

Pilots N Paws was founded in 2008 through a partnership between animal lover Debi Boies and pilot Jon Wehrenberg. Wehrenberg had volunteered to fly a Doberman from Florida to South Carolina in order to save the dog from euthanasia at a kill shelter. The trip was a success, and the pair brainstormed the idea for Pilots N Paws, which now has thousands of volunteers across the country and saves as many animals each year.

The East Greenwich Animal Protection League (EGAPL) has used the Pilots N Paws service three times before, with flights landing at both Quonset Point and T.F. Green. Sunday marked their fourth Pilots N Paws rescue.

The dogs, including 11 four-week-old puppies, were on death row in North Carolina, until a rescue organization reached out to EGAPL in an attempt to save their lives. When EGAPL agreed to take the pups, just one thing stood in their way: distance.

Fortunately, a volunteer helped EGAPL coordinate the dogs’ trip through Pilots N Paws, reaching out to pilots across the East Coast to see who was available and where they could fly to and from. The dogs initially made their way from North Carolina to Maryland, which was where Cohen and Pellnat entered the picture.

The pair work together at the Duchess County Airport in New York, and although they knew each other, they had never flown together before. Pellnat had just received his instruments license, and was looking for the perfect occasion to take his first flight as co-pilot. Cohen thought his Pilots N Paws mission would be perfect.

So at 9 a.m. on Sunday morning, the pair made their way from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. to Maryland, and then from Maryland to Rhode Island. The flight arrived at about 4 p.m. at Quonset Airport, and the pair immediately began unloading their precious cargo.

Puppies poked their heads out of cardboard boxes and checked out their new surroundings as their mom hopped from the plane’s cabin. Everyone appeared to be in tip-top shape.

“It’s exhausting and incredibly rewarding,” said Cohen as he relaxed in the FBO lounge once the dogs were unloaded.

Cohen has been a pilot for about five years and has been volunteering his time to organizations like Pilots N Paws since he got his license. The Pilots N Paws program is well known among pilots, and Cohen said their website provides a great network for connecting pilots with rescue organizations and missions.

“It’s like E-harmony for pilots,” said Pellnat with a laugh.

Cohen said there’s a regional component to the program, since the small planes can only make short trips. He said about 90 percent of the animals he flies come out of high kill shelters in the southern states. Seventy percent of the dogs that enter southern shelters are euthanized, and 4 million unwanted pets are euthanized nationwide each year.

“It’s a lot more rewarding to fly with a mission with a purpose,” he said, noting that he also flies for Patient AirLift Services and Angel Flight, Inc. Pilots by nature love to fly, said Cohen, so flying with purpose makes the experience even more enjoyable.

“We like to fly missions that have some sort of a humanistic component to them,” he said. A lot of his fellow pilots have been making flights to areas hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy, bringing much needed supplies with them.

The other bonus of flying for charitable organizations is the in-kind donation he is able to make; the cost of the flight is then tax-deductible, which makes the trip practical and cost-efficient.

For Pellnat, who had never taken part in a Pilots N Paws rescue mission before, the experience was unique and exciting.

“It was great,” he said. “It was really rewarding. It was just really good knowing they’re going to a good home while I’m having fun.”

And there were no problems along the way, since all of the dogs were on their best behavior when in the air.

“Dogs love flying in the plane,” Cohen said. Cats, on the other hand…

“Cats don’t like flying as much as dogs,” he said.

“Cats don’t like anything,” laughed Pellnat.

Cohen said he has made dozens of Pilots N Paws trips, though 13 breaks the record for the number of dogs he has transported at a single time.

Cohen not only has a soft spot for animals, he’s got a special place in his heart for Rhode Island, too. Cohen spent his honeymoon in Charlestown and was in Narragansett during Hurricane Bob. He’s been visiting the Ocean State for 31 years and spends every summer in South County.

“The only regret I have is that I can’t rent a car and go down to Point Judith and go down to Champlin’s and have a bunch of lobster,” he said with a smile.

After a brief respite in the FBO, Cohen and Pellnat headed back to Poughkeepsie, a journey Cohen wagered would take about an hour and 20 minutes, since the headwind was strong.

As for the dogs, they’re now in a foster home, where the puppies will stay until they’re weaned from their mom and can be brought to the shelter for adoption. Unlike the shelter they came from in the south, EGAPL is a no-kill rescue league. Thanks to Cohen and Pellnat, all of the dogs have a new lease on life.

For information on how to adopt one of the Pilots N Paws rescue dogs or another animal from EGAPL, visit www.egapl.org or find them on Facebook at the East Greenwich Animal Protection League. The league holds adoption hours every Sunday at the Greenwich Bay Animal Hospital from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.


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