Thousands of Cats and Dogs Saved from Euthanasia

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Peter Rork, founder of Dog Is My CoPilot.

Dog Is My CoPilot has rescued almost 5,000 cats and dogs since 2012. All of them were scheduled to be euthanized across several western shelters. The Dog Is My CoPilot aircraft transport service has been a blessing for shelters, adopters and the many animals whose lives were spared as a result of these efforts. Their mission is clear cut, save pets from euthanasia by transporting them to shelters with higher demand for pet adoption.

Dr. Peter Rork (retired surgeon) and Judy Zimet (attorney), a dynamic duo, joined forces in 2012, operating as a 501c3 approved organization. Since their early beginnings to present their processes have slightly evolved making their efforts more efficient allowing them to save more lives.

At a local event, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Rork. I jumped at the chance to invite him for an interview to learn more about Dog Is My CoPilot and share his wonderful mission with my readers. Dr. Rork was kind enough to accept my invitation.

I hope you enjoy the interview where Dr. Rork shares his story, good humor and personal insights of his journey and mission to save cats and dogs from the euthanasia list.

KIRINGIE.ME – Cynthia: How did you get started?
DOG IS MY COPILOT – Dr. Rork:

A few years ago while practicing medicine, a patient who ran a dog rescue group out of Idaho Falls, had heard I was a pilot, she asked if I wouldn’t mind flying a couple of dogs from Idaho Falls to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. That’s a 12 to 13 hour drive vs 2 to 3 hour flight. I thought, sure why not save some dogs, get the aircraft out of the barn, bore some holes in the sky. I did that for a couple of years. Not a huge impact, except for the few dogs.

KIRINGIE.ME – Cynthia: What were your earlier flights with pets like?
DOG IS MY COPILOT – Dr. Rork:

In the beginning, the dogs were just sitting in the plane. As if you were going to the grocery store with your dog in the car.

I still had all the seats in the aircraft. I would always ask if the dogs traveled well by car. If they did then they just sat on the airplane seats where they would curl up and settle down. These were larger dogs. I didn’t have room for the crates. I have a couple of D rings on the back of the aircraft where I would tether them, giving them plenty of leash length so they could move about but not come all the way up into the front seats with me while I was flying. Although that has happened. Occasionally, a dog chewed through their restraint and then they were free in the cabin. But, these dogs are very mellow, they are not mean, they don’t have an attitude issue. It really didn’t create a huge problem.

KIRINGIE.ME – Cynthia: Where you nervous to fly with animals?
DOG IS MY COPILOT – Dr. Rork:

No. I’ve been around dogs my entire life. I’m comfortable around dogs. I trust the folks who vetted the animals that they were sending dogs that didn’t have behavioral issues. I was only misled once, where I had a dog that was not crated and the dog did have behavioral issues on the plane where he created a problem. Not so much for me but for the other dogs in the back of the aircraft. It was a lesson learned. From that point forward they all had to be crated. But, for the most part, I’ve had a 99% success rate.

KIRINGIE.ME – Cynthia: Did crating solve the in-flight challenges?
DOG IS MY COPILOT – Dr. Rork:

Crating created a new problem for me when flying larger dogs in the smaller aircraft. It’s a function of volume not a function of weight. When we work with new groups, people not familiar with the process will put an animal in the largest crate possible so the dogs get plenty of room to roam. We understand that a lot of these organizations are rubbing their nickles together; they are running on a shoestring budget and whatever crate they have available is the crate they are going to use.

To solve this problem, I started flying with pet crates in the cargo pod of the aircraft. There is plenty of room for me to stack several unassembled crates. If a pet has to go to a smaller crate, I can usually provide that right then and there.

As for the animals, they are not going to be in the crate for long periods of time. Our requirement is that the animal must at least be able to turn around and that’s about it. We’ve transported thousands and thousands of animals now and pretty much that is what works best.

KIRINGIE.ME – Cynthia: Have you ever had a pet break out of a crate?
DOG IS MY COPILOT – Dr. Rork:

Oh yeah, probably 2 or 3 times a year. We’ll have a dog that either the create fails or the dog will chew their way out.

Sometimes these crates have been used over and over again, and they don’t always handle well and tend to break down. I carry zip ties so I can do quick repairs, but once I’m in the front of the aircraft I can’t crawl into the back. I don’t have another human flying the airplane. Although I do have an auto pilot, but I only use that when I want to take a nap. Just kidding!

Once they are out, they tend to be ok. If they work their way up front I’ll talk to it, I’ll pet it, I’ll try to keep it out of the front seat. I usually have a loose leash upfront with me and if I can hook that around their neck then I’ll tether them to the headrest of the front seat so they can’t get any further. Then they are stuck there for the rest of the flight. Nothing like dog breath at 14,000 feet.

KIRINGIE.ME – Cynthia: Do you mix cats and dogs on the flights?
DOG IS MY COPILOT – Dr. Rork:

I don’t carry anything other than cats and dogs. I had one request to fly some bear cubs from Alaska but that doesn’t fit the model of what we’re doing. We will mix cats and dogs but we are very careful not to put a cage to cage. The animals don’t see the other animals. We load them in such a way that they can’t make eye contact. They can talk to each other and they do, the dogs are barking and the cats are meowing all the time.

If there is one dog that is particularly anxious, we’ll cover that crate with a blanket. There are some dogs that obviously are not cat friendly. They are usually identified, so it’s easy for us to keep them as far away from the cats as possible.

Most of the flights we fly involves dogs only, but I’ve also taken pure cat flights. There was one flight I recall where I flew 84 cats out of Merced and stopped in Rifle Colorado to drop off half of them, and the other half I left in Ft. Collins where they have a very active cat rescue program.

KIRINGIE.ME – Cynthia: How are the pets selected?
DOG IS MY COPILOT – Dr. Rork:

The receiving group will go to the sending group’s website, like petfinder, and they’ll pick the pets they want and they’ll make sure that they get all their vet checks, health certificates, their 5-way vaccinations, check that they are going to be spayed and neutered where they are at. That’s also another requirement, we don’t transfer to somebody so they can be breeding an animal. We strictly adhere to the healthy dog, although I’ve transported a lot of pregnant dogs.

KIRINGIE.ME – Cynthia: What are the typical transport arrangements?
DOG IS MY COPILOT – Dr. Rork:

Our organization never takes possession of crates or the dogs or the cats. Once the dog or cat is loaded onto the aircraft it is now in the possession of the receiving organization. We are just the intermediary, the transport, they’ll take the possession of the animal.

The Executive Director, Judy Zimet, is also an attorney. She dots all the i’s and crosses all the t’s and makes sure that at least in our organization we are avoiding any unnecessary exposure. But along that same vein, she fully vets the senders and the receivers to make sure that: a) they are 501c and b) the receiver is never a kill shelter.

KIRINGIE.ME – Cynthia: What is the most challenging aspect of the work you do?
DOG IS MY COPILOT – Dr. Rork:

From the pilot’s side, it’s dealing with weather. During the winter, icing makes flying difficult, and during the summer afternoons there are a lot of thunderstorms. We don’t fly nearly as much during the winter as much as we do during the summer. During the summer we fly almost every single week, but I like to be on the ground by 3 or 4 in the afternoon, if I can, because that’s when the thunderstorms start billing up. During the winter there will be periods of times where if I see a good weather window that is 3 or 4 days open over the Sierras and over the Rockies I’ll call Judy, the Executive Director, and she’ll get the flight scheduled.

The other challenge is something that we created ourselves; victims of our own success. When we were flying the small aircraft, the Cessna 206, we carried fewer animals, we needed fewer receiving groups. I would load up the aircraft and I would make 2 stops and that would be it. I would discharge my passengers. Nobody can take 130 animals at once so now I end up making 5 or 6 stops.

Personally, my most challenging moment on these flights are the 30 minutes on the ground. Once I get back on the air again, I’m relaxed. Then I’m off to my next stop. There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of different personalities. It would be easy if we weren’t dealing with humans; but we are. Even though these are special humans because they are involved in animal rescue, they are humans nonetheless. Some will sign up then they will back out, they’ll get to the airport late, they don’t have their paperwork in order, it’s a real challenge. It’s getting easier as we see the same faces now, over and over again, and I’m always happy to see them.

KIRINGIE.ME – Cynthia: How has your business model evolved over time?
DOG IS MY COPILOT – Dr. Rork:

After transporting thousands and thousands of animals we’re still finding new ways to make mistakes. Every time I do one of these rescue flights I’m learning something new, which is good, because the next time we are much more efficient. After each flight, Judy and I will spend a couple of hours on the phone. She’s down in Scottsdale AZ, and we’ll do a postmortem. We’ll pick it apart and we’ll look at what we did right, what did we did wrong, what can we do to make it easier the next time, who’s causing trouble for us, why are they not playing by the rules and again we are ready to go for the next flight.

When it comes to transporting animals in a Cessna Caravan, nobody knows how to do that better than Peter Rork and Judy Zimet. We want as many people helping us help them as much as possible.

KIRINGIE.ME – Cynthia: Was there a pivotal change in your operations that changed the course of your business?
DOG IS MY COPILOT – Dr. Rork:

Dog is my co-pilot started in 2012 as 501 c3. Our business model was just like every other dog transport model, somebody needs a dog rescued and I would jump into my white steed and fly off to the rescue. Sometimes I would fly 5 or 6 hours for just 5 or 6 animals. You can go broke really quickly doing that without making any headway. For those 1 or 2 animals it was life saving and it changed the world for them, but it’s not what we wanted to do. We wanted to do more.

I was working with a group primarily out of Jackson, Wyoming, the Animal Adoption Center. They were setting a collaborative relationship with the San Francisco Humane Society, Marti Watts. We all flew out there and Marti and I had lunch. Marti said, “there is a woman you need to meet out in Merced, California, Sharon Lohman. She could really use your help.” She said, “we are well funded up here. We have a beautiful facility, but Sharon is drowning in dogs.” She made the phone call, we flew down to Merced, spent the night, and walked through the shelter the next day. I learned that at the Merced shelter, they only had a 6% adoption rate; they were killing 94% of all the animals that came through the door. That’s when my business model changed.

Sharon had groups that were willing to take the animals, but not in the Central Valley of California. All the other shelters in the same area had the same problem with so many Chihuahuas. They would transfer the dogs to Portland, Seattle, Spokane, Missoula, Salt Lake, and Denver. This involves a 12 to 18 hour van ride one way. They would load up the Ford Econoline vans and drive. Keep in mind that you don’t stop half way to let the dogs pee, water them and walk them. Once they are in there, there in there; they go non-stop. That is tough on everybody; the animals included. Holy smokes. I said, “Sharon, I’m going to do your long distance transport for you.”

I started flying into Merced every week. We would load up the airplane. We’d get in as many dogs as we could. We took out the seats and could get 30 to 40 smaller dogs in there and then I’d fly them to Missoula, or Seattle, or Portland. In areas around Seattle and Portland there are like 3 or 4 different satellite groups. Over the course of the next couple of years (a) the word got out about what Dog Is My CoPilot is doing and (b) they don’t charge anything! So the satellite groups started addressing us saying, “we have a group down in Scottsdale and Roswell who want to send animals here.”

This is what we are perfectly suited for. It makes for a long day as a pilot but you know, I’ll get the next day off after cleaning up the airplane and dissecting the flight plan. We became that long distance ballistic kind of transportation that really geographically and exponentially expanded the area where these dogs can be transported and adopted out.

The way we’ve changed our model is still a work in progress. But I think we are pretty darn close to what works for us now. And, having the larger aircraft has created way more headaches for the Executive Director and scheduler (which is the same person, Judy Zimet), than we ever anticipated. But you know, honestly, you can fly a small airplane and fly just one dog and it’s cute, it’s really cute. But you are not really helping. On the other hand, now flying 100+ dogs we’re saving many more lives. We’re also creating a whole new list of problems; but, we’re getting them figured out.

KIRINGIE.ME – Cynthia: Have you had any bad experiences?
DOG IS MY COPILOT – Dr. Rork:

You’d think we are all be on the same team. Once a year, someone will call the state Board of Veterinary Medicine in Montana and accuse Dog Is My CoPilot of doing something illegal. Honestly, there is nothing more important to our organization as the safe transport of healthy animals. And still, there is someone who wants to stir the pot and create controversy. This creates an investigation which of course it’s almost old news at this point. The same people who are following up are going “we’re sorry Dr. Rork but we have to respond.” And I understand, they are just doing their job. But still, I can’t understand why people would just cause trouble for a group of individuals, the senders, the transport, and the receivers when we’re just trying to save animals.

This is not a dog problem, this is a people problem. Those people who are complaining are part of the whole problem.

KIRINGIE.ME – Cynthia: Are you signing on new senders and receivers?
DOG IS MY COPILOT – Dr. Rork:

Yes, we are in the business of transporting dogs. And when I say “we are in this business” we had no idea what non-profit meant until we started one, which is true to its name, there is NO PROFIT. We recently redid our website www.dogcopilot.org. There is a page where shelters can sign up. Judy is on top of it to get them vetted right away, get a transport agreement signed and we’ll start bringing them dogs.

Each flight costs about $4,000 and can fit 130 small animals. We don’t want to bring somebody the occasional dog. I’ve got 80 crates in the aircraft and can bring 6 dozens Chihuahuas. If they take about a dozen, it fits our model. We’ll work with them. We’ll put them on the schedule. We’ll put them on the map.

KIRINGIE.ME – Cynthia: How can the community support your efforts?
DOG IS MY COPILOT – Dr. Rork:

Most of the grant money that is available out there for animal rescue is directed at the shelters not directed at transport which is fine because the shelters are the real heroes. When they get these dogs, their day is just starting. They deal with these animals everyday and sometimes for weeks and months at a time trying to get these dogs adopted to a good home. They are the heroes here.

How can the community help? They can go to a shelter and adopt a dog. If they can’t adopt, they can foster. Believe me, these organizations need foster help for these animals so they can get adopted out rather than have them in a container. If they can’t adopt or foster, they can volunteer. Go in and clean out those kennels, feed the dogs, go down and walk the dogs. Or donate money. Hopefuly they can do all four.

We accept donations from our website. We keep track of everyone who has donated to Dog Is My CoPilot. We have the same people donating over and over and over again. Our list is growing very, very slowly, but the people who are donating are very good about donating on a regular basis. Some are part of our squadron membership where they donate $5 or $10 dollars or more a month. It takes a lot of $5 monthly donations to keep our wheels up. We appreciate every donation. I always send them a personal handwritten thank you note thanking them for supporting Dog Is My CoPilot.

If your readers can go to our Facebook page and “LIKE IT” and every post that we have, share it with their Facebook friends, that will help get the word out. The power of the social media is just immeasurable.

KIRINGIE.ME – Cynthia: Ever gotten attached with a pet passenger?
DOG IS MY COPILOT – Dr. Rork:

Recently, I brought one home. She is a Queensland Heeler. Her name was Tortilla, now I just call her Tia. She is a 7 year old service dog. Fully trained. Her owner died and the family didn’t want her so they took her to the pound. The dog was on the E list. She was in the pound for almost 3 months in Hobbs New Mexico. Finally the folks said, “Dog Is My CoPilot is coming down, let’s get a new set of eyes on this dog.”

This dog happened to be the 4,000th dog I transported. I recently lost one of my animals to cancer this past March and that was a bad time. Holy smokes! It was doubly sad because she was my wife’s service animal before my wife died. That was like my last connection to my wife so it made it really hard to lose that animal. As I think about it now, it makes me choke up. When I lost Doyle there was a big hole. I have another rescue, Wendell. He’s 14 years old. All he does is sleep all the time which is fine. I walk every day 8 or 10 miles and I would always bring Mr. Doyle with me.

Anyway, they wanted a photo with #4,000 and the pilot, so they found the dog on the aircraft. She come right over to me and curled up at my feet. I looked at her and I thought, “this dog is coming home with me.” I left the dog there because it was already claimed by Salt Lake City. I called Judy that night and said, “I’m flying back to Salt Lake in 2 days with another group of dogs, make sure that dog is at the airport, I’m going to take her home.” They were very accommodating. They brought her back to the airport for me. She got on the airplane. Tia is the perfect co-pilot. She doesn’t weight but 30 lbs. She is the smallest dog I’ve ever had in my life. She’s a Heeler, so she’s smart. Holy smokes, she’s amazing! She comes into my house and has settled in as if she has been here for years. And, she gets along fine with the other dog. That was a “failed transport.”

Well there you have it, Dr. Peter Rork from Dog Is My CoPilot. What a wonderful human being. He jumped into this life saving venture to help a few dogs and with the support of his wing-woman, Judy Zimet, they are on a roll savings thousands and thousands of cats and dogs by transporting them by air from high-kill shelters to shelters in other states where these once family pets get a new leash on life.

You too can make a difference in the lives of animals. The best thing every pet owner can do is be a responsible pet owner. Do everything you can to ensure your pet is the pet you keep for life. Sometimes all it takes is a little training, socialization, good food and exercise. And, like Dr. Rork said, you can always help by adopting, fostering, volunteering, donating, follow on social media and spreading the word so others can help too.

Photo by: Crystal Samson at captureyouidaho.com

Others to look up to…

Who else do you know of that is also making great strides in the lives of animals?

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Founder of KirinGie.Me. A dreamer and believer that humanity can come together for the greater good and well-being of the pets we love. You and I can make a difference to reduce pet abandonment, relinquishment and euthanasia through community support, corporate sponsorship, and city partnerships. Ask me how and get involved.

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Founder of KirinGie.Me. A dreamer and believer that humanity can come together for the greater good and well-being of the pets we love. You and I can make a difference to reduce pet abandonment, relinquishment and euthanasia through community support, corporate sponsorship, and city partnerships. Ask me how and get involved.

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