Caroline MacGregor Published

‘Pilots To The Rescue’ Flies 16 Dogs To Forever Homes In Michigan

Two men kneel in front of a plane with two border collies mix breed dogs
Pilots to the Rescue, is a non-profit that transports animals from overcrowded shelters to regions with more room for adoption.
Swilled Dog Distillery

The power of collaboration was evident at West Virginia International Yeager Airport this week as three organizations joined forces for a dog-gone-good cause. 

As more people find they are unable to afford to keep their pets, animal adoptions are reaching crisis levels across the country and state with millions of animals destined for euthanasia.

Working with the Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association, Swilled Dog, a woman-owned distillery and cidery in Upper Tract in Pendleton County, enlisted the help of Pilots to the Rescue, a non-profit that transports animals from overcrowded shelters to regions with more room for adoption.

Their mission: to fly 16 dogs to the Cascades Humane Society in Jackson, Michigan where they will be available for immediate adoption.

Members of the Kanawha Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association load dogs onto a plane bound for Michigan.

Courtesy Swilled Dog

Swilled Dog CEO Brooke Glover, says their inspiration for the rescue mission comes from a Border Collie mix named “Lucy Pickles.” 

“So Lucy has really had a tough go of it and she’s really been a motivation for our business and our mission,” Glover said. “For us it’s really about drawing attention to these amazing organizations that are really trying to help animals. The goal is really to get these animals adopted, more than just this flight that we are doing, we want to draw attention to the organizations.”

Pilots to the Rescue are joined by founders of Swilled Dog distillery and Sarah Tolley with Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association.

Caroline MacGregor/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Top Dog Pilot” Michael Schneider started Pilots to the Rescue in 2015 after hearing about planes used to rescue animals. A self-confessed serial entrepreneur, he said it was a perfect way to combine his love of animals with flying.

“You know when you’re a pilot after going on a couple of tours with friends and interesting restaurants, you want to do more with your pilot’s certificate that you work so hard to get,” Schneider said.

The 16 dogs are carefully loaded into the snug compartment of Paw Force One – a small Piper 6 XT plane for the approximately three-hour flight to Michigan. A few feet away CRWs canine bird chaser Hercules, and Swilled Dog’s Lucy Pickles offer up barks of support from the tarmac.

“Lucy Pickles” is the face of Swilled Dog Distillery. Her story is the inspiration for a recent Pilots to the Rescue mission to transport dogs to Michigan

Courtesy Swilled Dog

It’s a tight fit but “Snausage,” a short-legged basset beagle mix, rescued from recent flood waters in Kanawha county, squeezed in alongside her canine companions for the trip.

Pilots to the Rescue is 100 percent donation driven. This year alone they have saved more than 850 dogs from euthanasia. Schneider hopes that one day they will be able to buy a larger plane for rescue missions like this. 

“I mean we are raising money to buy a bigger plane but you’ll be amazed by how much we can fit in there, mainly because the crates are smaller,” Schneider said. “They may be a little uncomfortable, but we’re saving their lives today and that’s the most important part.”

A large trailer containing dogs

An animal trailer owned by Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association delivers dogs to West Virginia International Yeager Airport to board a plane bound for Jackson, Michigan.

Caroline MacGregor/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Shelters in West Virginia are increasingly faced with the challenge of fewer dog adoptions. The higher cost of pet food and vet care at a time inflation is hitting the country are thought to be contributing factors.

Sarah Tolley, is the director of community engagement for the Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association. She says Michigan offers one of the highest rates of animal adoption. 

“They also have a lot of corporate sponsorships in Michigan, that helps them support and find homes a little quicker so they’re super excited to meet them in Michigan,” Tolley said. “I cannot wait to see their smiles when they meet the dogs.” 

Pilot Michael Schneider and Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association staff load dogs onto his Piper 6 XT

Caroline MacGregor/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), approximately 6.3 million companion animals enter U.S. animal shelters nationwide annually. Each year approximately 920,000 shelter animals are euthanized (390,000 dogs and 530,000 cats).

Tolley says no-kill shelters like theirs are committed to saving the lives of as many animals as possible through adoption, neutering and spaying. But when space is limited, she said rescue missions like this are invaluable.

“Snausage” relaxes after a plane ride from Charleston, W.Va. to Jackson, Michigan.

Courtesy Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association

“Everybody has been so supportive in helping these dogs. It’s been an incredible journey,” Tolley said. “It’s been a lot of work from all of us but it’s been so cool to see this come through and figure out the logistics to make this happen for these animals, it’s been so cool.”