Let Sleeping Dogs Fly

Wallace Prize Second Place Nonfiction
taotaoholmes_pilotsnpaws-9
Photo by Tao Tao Holmes.

Hunter Polonoli and Andris Skulte stand together on the tarmac of Orange County airport in Montgomery, N.Y. They are both young, handsome, and brunette, with bright white teeth and short, soft hair. They’re fit, though skinny, and their eyebrows twitch above big, brown eyes.

The shadow of a sparrow darts across their feet, and Hunter starts to lurch after it, tail going wild. Andris holds him back.

“You ready? C’mon, get in here,” Andris tells Hunter. “You’re not getting any birds.” Andris, our young pilot, wraps his long arms around Hunter’s wiry frame, lifts him up, and eases him onto the blankets spread out on the backseat of the Cessna 172, a small propeller plane. Hunter presses his nose against the window and his feet against the belly of Trisha Meyer, Andris’ aunt-in-law, while Andris wraps a seatbelt strap into Hunter’s harness to secure him. Hunter strains his neck towards the still-open door, but Trisha pulls him towards her, calmly rubbing his soft, brown ears.

“You’re going home, Hunter. You’re going home,” says Andris, as he shuts the airplane’s side door, points me towards the shotgun seat, and begins his preflight procedure. He’s wearing a special T-shirt in honor of today’s flight: It has the circular logo of a plane superimposed on a paw print, accompanied by the words “Pilots N Paws — Saving the Lives of Innocent Animals.”

Every dog has its day, and this one is Hunter’s. Today, he’s not just going to a new home. He’s flying there.

*

Dogs get killed every day. So, as I ought to point out, do manatees, humans, and childhood dreams. Fortunately, if you live in the land of the free and you like to wag your tail, there are tireless crusaders who will arrange a chain of multiple flights across the country just to get you to a safe place.

Pilots N Paws is a charity organization that connects dogs in danger of dying with pilots who love flying. Volunteer pilots will fly bull terriers, bearded collies, and even Bernese mountain dogs from Florida to New Jersey, Tennessee to Colorado, Texas to Maine, or wherever it is that they need to go. PNP was founded in 2008 by a Doberman lover named Debi Boies and her friend Jon Wehrenberg after Jon offered to fly one of Debi’s recently rescued dogs from Florida to South Carolina. The two quickly realized they’d struck furry gold; Debi knew how badly shelter dogs needed rescue, and Jon knew how badly recreational pilots needed excuses to take to the air. They launched a website that allows pilots and rescue coordinators to arrange flights for Fido (or Kitty, or Babe — other animals, though rare, are also welcome) from a harrowing place of grim hopes to the freedom and love of a family looking for that one scruffy missing member.

Dog rescue transports move Canis lupus familiaris from overcrowded, understaffed dog pounds to volunteer-run rescue shelters, and from there to canine foster care and, ultimately, to “forever families.” Up until PNP’s founding, such transports had been coordinated exclusively through land-bound vehicles, requiring charitable chauffeurs to drive countless hours through a precarious chain-link process that can take multiple days, enlist up to 20 volunteers, and require overnight pit stops. Ground transports, such as those arranged through nonprofits like Roads of Hope, require battalions of volunteers who are prescreened via email and personal references. Odd circumstances carve out particular canine relay routes — for a while, aging hounds being dumped by hunters in Virginia were being snatched up like hot cakes by adopters in Washington state, and fluffy huskies rejected in Texas kept cruising to the cooler climes of Colorado. But besides being logistical nightmares, these road trips, rescuers tell me, are very stressful for the pooches.

Better that the dogs fly.

 *

Most dogs seeking transport through PNP come directly from rescue shelters or dog pounds where they are in immediate danger of death, generally due to a lack of space and slim hopes for adoption. Hunter Polonoli’s story, however, is a little different. Still an oversized pup, the German shorthaired pointer (GSP) was found wandering the streets of a Pittsburgh suburb and taken in by a woman named Trudy Polonoli. Trudy took him to the vet, posted lost and found photos online, and sought advice about the breed through Internet forums, which is where Liz Bondarek, a longtime GSP lover, stepped in to give Trudy some pointers about pointers. As time wore on and no claims for Hunter came through, Trudy began to consider adopting the pup for good.

However, pointers are perpetually bursting with energy, and Trudy and her family quickly realized that Hunter was more than their lifestyle could handle. The dog needed an avenue to pursue his hunting instincts and the right person to do it with. So Trudy decided to try contacting Liz.

Only weeks earlier, Liz’s own German shorthaired pointer had passed away, and since his death, Liz had barely eaten or slept. To Trudy’s surprise, she agreed to take Hunter in.

“We love him dearly and this is the most heartbreaking thing we have ever gone through,” Trudy wrote to me about Hunter. “But we know what’s best for our boy — to be with Liz. I am eternally amazed and grateful that she wants our boy, after her loss. … I know he will have the life that he deserves with her.”

Hunter has some big shoes to fill. Liz says that she and her late dog were like an old married couple, and the loss has left a huge hole in her life. But Liz, though anxious about bringing a new man into her life, is ready.

“I’m just so touched — what an amazing gift,” she said of Trudy’s gesture. “She’s rescuing me.”

 *

When Liz hangs up the phone, it takes a moment for me to remember who is being rescued, and who is doing the rescuing. It takes me another moment to remember that we’ve been discussing a pup, and not a person. These days, though, it’s increasingly easy to get the two confused. In many American households, dogs and people receive the same treatment — gourmet dinners, interactive toys, regular baths and haircuts, and a spot on the family couch.

But flying elderly shih tzus from Florida to New York and deaf, disabled pugs from South Carolina to Colorado? For canine companions, it seems a bit much.

That said, I will admit that dogs were some of my best friends growing up. I kept 365 Dog-A-Day calendars by my bedside, plastered my walls with puppy posters, bought dog encyclopedias, and cried only when the dogs, not the humans, died in movies. For a while, my dream job was to be a dog breeder, but after learning to identify every breed from an Azawak to a Zuchon, I came up with a new position I titled “dog consultant” (To help you choose the dog that’s right for you!).

But while my dog days are over, the Monday I met my golden lab Orwell — in the back of a pet store on Prince Edward Island — will forever number among that handful of Mondays in my life that merit the term “momentous.”

Orwell remained close by my side for nearly 14 years, and he is intertwined in some way with every one of my lucid childhood memories. In fact, Orwell is a distinct member of all of our family’s memories — a collective 42 years’ worth of failures and triumphs, fights and celebrations. As long as he was around, Orwell ensured that there was always plenty of love in our home.

Orwell’s final year was not his brightest. He got pretty decrepit during the home stretch, hips stiffening, tail drooping, goop oozing from the corners of his eyes. Every time I left for college I expected to return to a home without a dog — a building, I’ve been told, which reverts to the mere status of “house.” But Orwell just kept living.

One winter morning at the age of 14, Orwell simply could not stand up. My dad and I finally took him to the vet to be put to sleep. But apparently what we’d thought was Orwell’s last breath was perhaps only a temporary stroke, and perhaps, with medication, he would be fine. My dad shelled out the $150 without a moment’s hesitation — my dad, the Massachusetts Yankee, who would rather wear a shirt to its last threads than spend $10 on a new one. We lifted Orwell back into the trunk, my father stoic while I stood clutching a soggy fistful of tissues.

When my mom saw Orwell enter the house — alive — her jaw dropped.

“You spent over a hundred dollars on a shot?” she asked.

*

Generally speaking, a dog costs somewhere between $500 and $1,000 a year, plus the price of the dog itself and one-time purchases like neutering, vaccines, leashes, and collars. If the dog sees a professional groomer or medical specialist or needs a doggie hotel when its owners are away, then that number can shoot up as high as $3,000 or more. If your dog gets cancer, diagnosis will cost $200, major surgery a minimum of $1,500, and chemo or radiation therapy up to $6,000. If your dog gets bladder stones, that will be $1,200, and if it tears its ACL, that will cost upwards of $2,500. So, if the average dog lives to the age of 13 without any outstanding medical problems, then total expenditures end up between $7,000 and $14,000 or so.

I once mentioned to my college roommate the ridiculous lengths people will go for their dogs. She’s never owned a pet, so to her the concept of a canine sibling is absurd. I rattled off some of the most senseless doggie indulgences: dog hotels ($70/night), dog stylists ($95/haircut), and dog spas ($40/massage + color enhancing shampoo).

She acknowledged my point, but countered with her own: What is the real difference, she asked, between these people spending money on a dog spa, and your family spending money on dog food? Either way, she concluded, you’re still spending your money on a dog.

I started to say something about food being essential and a massage being excessive, but I stopped mid-sentence. Our reasoning derived from different fundamental outlooks: I see dogs as justified, and perhaps even essential companions, whereas my roommate sees dogs as superfluous belongings.

But I can’t willingly concede that dogs are superfluous. With tens of thousands of dog lovers across the country who spend every spare waking hour trying to save dogs from being euthanized and helping them find safe homes and loving families, there’s got to be something special going on with our four-legged friends. Because when it comes to doing things for dogs, the sky is really the limit.

Well actually, no — not even the sky is the limit. I’m going to be up there with Hunter today.

 *

At 9:30 on Saturday morning I meet Andris and Trish at the Brainard Airport just outside Hartford, Conn. Andris unlocks the hangar and pulls out the Cessna 172, which he shares with 13 other guys. A lanky late 20-something and graduate of Tufts, Andris now works as a quality control manager at a company that engineers airplane parts. He’s wearing aviator sunglasses and a black North Face vest over a long-sleeve T-shirt, his short brown hair lying flat in front but sticking out at all angles on the back of his head. He looks like a young, Latvian Jim Carrey.

Andris carries out of the hangar a tan plastic container labelled “Pilots N Paws” and pulls out two blankets, which he tucks into the back nook of the plane’s tiny cabin. Trish begins to read aloud the pre-flight checklist as Andris paces slowly around the aircraft, which is smaller than the Honda Civic I drove up in this morning.

I buckle myself into the backseat while Trish climbs up front. Trish has short, auburn hair and is wearing a red Columbia fleece. She’s 5-foot-3, in her 50s, and nervous about going up 6,000 feet in this dinky bit of metal.

“Do dogs take well to flying?” she asks.

“Oh, yeah. They love it,” answers Andris. He climbs in the pilot’s seat and goes through another checklist. We begin rolling towards the runway, and after a few minutes of waiting, we’re speeding forward and then sliding into the air. We wobble through a patch of cloud and then rise up over downtown Hartford.

Andris mutters some flight jargon to the airport controller into his headset and then breaks into a smile. He loves it up here, his hands on the controls and the world drifting below.

He loves it even more when he’s flying on a mission.

“Don’t worry, Hunter. We’re comin’ to getchya.”

*

My introduction to Hunter began with this post: “A Hail Mary Pass for 2 pilots AGC~70N~PYM.” It was one of about 25 posted on the PNP forum that day. There are somewhere between 10 and 40 new posts daily, though only a handful each week are marked with the little green square that signals “DONE.” I found the post among a slew of other distressed requests:

DESPERATE LAB XPORT FROM GASSING SHELTER IN NC TO OHIO

Gentle Mastiff needs freedom ride NC to CO

**SPECIAL NEEDS PUPPY** NV to Calgary, Canada

Senior Rat Terrier needs ride to Retirement Home in FL

EXTRA URGENT DEAF/BLIND AUSSI PUP NEEDS HELP

 

Hunter’s transport, like nearly all of the rest, required flying from South to North. A lot of the flights on the eastern seaboard went from somewhere like North Carolina to New Jersey or Tennessee to New York.

I get in touch with Andris and Kristen Skulte, who have offered to fly the second leg of Hunter’s transport, from Hartford, Conn. to Plymouth, Mass. After nine replies to Liz Bondarek’s initial PNP post, the planning shifts to a chain of private emails between the Skultes, Trudy, Liz, and another pilot named Bruce Cohen. The date and itinerary are settled; Bruce will be flying from LBE Arnold Palmer Region Latrobe to POU Dutchess County Poughkeepsie, and then Andris will continue from POU to PYM Plymouth Municipal. Hunter will be traveling with: “collar, harness, leash, rabies tag, health certificate, vet ppwk; FOOD for three days, water, misc. toys.” I receive all of this information in an email signed “Liz Bondarek, Transport Coordinator (overtired volunteer).”

The morning of the flight, though, everything gets called off — something about “400ft observed ceilings and 1.5nm visibility.” Hunter’s big trip gets postponed. A profusion of emails between Bruce, Trudy, Andris, Kristen, and Liz follows; everyone exchanges information about when kids get out of school and adults out of work. “We are good. Whatever it takes. Keep us posted,” writes Trudy. After 23 more emails, the flight is resettled for the following Friday.

Friday, Bruce emails that there are remnants of a tropical storm overhead. Seventeen more emails. The flight is re-re-scheduled for the upcoming Saturday. Bruce is no longer available, but pilot Keith McPherson offers to step in. Finally, we have a winning itinerary: PJC Zelienople Municipal Airport to MGJ Orange County, and then from there to HYA Barnstable Municipal.

Damn, dog. You better be one special pooch.

 *

Pilots N Paws has been featured on a number of newspaper and TV broadcasts, including USA Today, Katie Couric, and Good Morning America. I watch a video posted on the PNP website of a pilot and volunteer being interviewed by two anchorwomen on WTXF Fox 29.

“They rescue the pets and they take them to other areas where they’re not going to kill the little dogs,” says one lady.

“This is priceless!” says the other.

Priceless? Well — not exactly. To put things in real terms, one gallon of airplane fuel costs $6. The Cessna burns nine or ten gallons of fuel per hour. Hunter’s flight, from outside Pittsburgh to the middle of Cape Cod, in addition to each pilot’s commute, took a total of 10 to 11 hours, paid out of the pilots’ pockets. The final price tag on Hunter’s Homecoming: about $600.

“There really is no choice involved,” the pilot, a white-haired fellow named Scott tells the interviewers. “It’s something that we have to do. It’s a moral responsibility. And once you know what really goes on in these kill shelters, you can never un-know it. You can never go back.”

What exactly does go on in these kill shelters? And why can’t the dog population be controlled, so that there are only as many dogs as families who want them?

Kill shelters are simply another name for dog shelters, or pounds, that are forced to euthanize most of the dogs they receive, brought in primarily by fed-up owners. Shelters in the North, I learn, abide by a no-kill policy, and states have laws that regulate spaying and neutering. Southern states have no such laws, and as a consequence, their shelters overflow with dogs that are left to be gassed; some statistics report that up to 500 dogs are gassed every hour in the U.S. Escaping an anonymous death in the South for a new life in the North — is this the movement that PNP posts are alluding to with phrases like “freedom ride”?

I can’t find anything online or in print addressing this North-South canine cultural gap except for a Facebook post written by a woman named Karen Talbot. She is part of an entire Facebook community of dog activists who continuously upload photos of dogs needing rescue, dogs with their new families, and quotes about dogs. Karen explains that shelters in the South are underfunded and overpopulated, but a major part of the problem is rooted in culture. In the South, she says, animals are viewed as property. The law reflects that, and many people find it laughable to give animals any sorts of rights. At shelters in the South, a person can take a 10-minute tour, buy a dog for $20, and saunter out the door. If the dog gets pregnant, the owner can simply dump it back at the shelter and pick up a new dog to take home. Contrast this with places up North, where most rescue shelters require prospective owners to submit a vet reference, a grooming reference, three personal references, and to complete a home visit by one of the rescue’s volunteers. The volunteers who run these rescues won’t adopt to families with doggie doors, tie-outs, or electric fences. Funding for these rescue shelters comes from adoption donations and grants as well as from bake sales, garage sales, and local donations of food, leashes, and coats.

Archeological history tells us that dog has been man’s best friend for over 12 millennia. A spa treatment might still be a bit much, but I’d say a bake sale seems reasonable.

*

Andris, Trish, and I walk across the tarmac towards the skinny brown and white blur that must be Hunter.

“They say if he runs off, you’ll never catch him,” Keith warns the three of us. I take hold of Hunter’s leash while Andris and Trish slip inside one of the one-story buildings at the Montgomery airport. Soon, Hunter has me sprinting around the parking lot.

Keith, who leads market development at a software company, flew up with his wife, Vicki, and their Cardigan Welsh corgi, Georgie. Another couple meanders over, curious about the canines. The wife takes a photo of all of us before Georgie snuggles into her blanket in the McPherson’s plane and Andris tucks Hunter into the backseat of ours.

We bid goodbye to Keith, Vicki, and Georgie and are soon taking off in the direction of Cape Cod. Five thousand feet in the air, Hunter finally calms down. He looks out at the sky and then over at Andris. He smacks his lips and sniffs the cabin. He sits on Trish, turns around, and turns around again. He finally settles with his legs stretched against the wall and his head against her side. I wonder if Hunter can feel Trish’s anxiety — recent studies have shown that dogs and humans have similar mechanisms for processing emotional information.

“He’s a leaner,” says Trish, who keeps her arms loosely around him the whole two-hour flight. Trish is in between jobs and lost her greyhound not long ago. She decided to come on today’s flight to take her mind off things. “Hunter is a great therapy dog,” she tells us later.

I lean back and rub Hunter’s chin with my fingers. He lets the weight of his head rest on my outstretched hand. Yep — he’s a leaner.

We’re now over Cape Cod, land of sailboats. The ocean curves out the edges of islands and laps up against miles and miles of sand. Andris gets the go-ahead from the flight control center and our little rescue aircraft begins to descend.

As we steer off the main runway, the four of us spot a woman in jeans and a battered brown coat.

“That must be Liz,” says Andris. “Hey buddy, you’re home!”

Hunter starts barking wildly. Naptime is over. Andris grabs his leash and they scamper together around the tarmac.

“I think he’s gonna be a real snuggler,” Trish tells Liz as they watch the two dashing about. “Sweet as can be.”

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” Liz mumbles.

Liz, who is a cook by day, has arranged flights for over 300 dogs through PNP. “I call them ‘my dogs,’” she told me a few weeks ago over the phone. “I know who they are, I know what their names are.” She checks up on them regularly. “We’re all a bunch of dumb balls here. I’m like the weird auntie.”

But today, for the first time, she’s the new mom.

Liz will be fine, though. She’s a hunter, and she’s had a German shorthaired pointer before. She knows what she’s doing.

“Good boy, little dog. Good boy!” She plants a kiss on Hunter’s head. His hind legs are in the passenger’s seat of Liz’s old SUV, his paw resting on her arm and his head pressed against her shoulder. “This is so wonderful. I am just so grateful,” she says quietly. Hunter moves his paw and starts shifting between seats. “We’re going for a run, don’t you worry!” she tells him. She turns back to the three of us. “My other guy never sat still. It’s all the men in my life — all they do is complain,” she says, climbing into the driver’s seat, and waving good-bye.

 *

“The coolest part about flying is being above the clouds,” says Andris over the headsets. Seven thousand feet up, we watch as the sun sets, warming the top of the wispy white expanse with light pink and gold hues. It’s dusk when we land back at Brainard, nearly nine hours after we began.

While driving on the highway back to my college dorm, I realize I just spent my whole day saving a dog — and even then, all I really did was spectate. My mind starts racing through all the people I could have been helping instead.

When I get back to my room, I open up my email. There’s something forwarded to me by Andris, from Liz.

“I want to take a moment and thank you all for helping Hunter get home to me. … He’s such a wonderful little dog and I am blessed to have him in my world and blessed to know you all.”

Alone in my room, I start to think about Orwell. A simple-minded boy with a big doggy heart, Orwell brought my family closer together and gave each of us someone to talk to who would never criticize, judge, interrupt, or argue. The time and money we spent on Orwell was time and money we spent on ourselves, but under the romantic illusion that we were taking care of a companionate creature. All the while, Orwell was the one taking care of us.

Climbing into bed, I realize that today wasn’t about helping a dog. What we actually did was give Hunter a lift so that he could go along and rescue a lady named Liz. After 12 millennia, things aren’t looking to change anytime soon. At the end of the day, humans will keep on helping dogs so that dogs will continue helping us.

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