Lucky Dogs

Asheville-based veterinary surgeon Dr. David Crouch volunteers his time with Pilots N Paws. Photo by Tim Robison

Asheville-based veterinary surgeon Dr. David Crouch volunteers his time with Pilots N Paws. Photo by Tim Robison

The Pilots N Paws online forum reads like a Craigslist ride-share, except that these passengers can’t take a turn at the wheel. In fact, it’s likely that most will sleep the whole trip.

But with subject headings like, “Rescue puppy to forever home!” and “Transport needed for partially blind Doberman,” it’s not surprising that volunteers across the nation frequently comb posts on this busy forum, searching for animals they can help.

A non-profit launched in 2008, Pilots N Paws helps connect people who foster or rescue animals with pilots who will transport these animals in private planes. The website boasts heart-warming tales of domestic animals, mostly dogs, that faced either euthanasia or life in a shelter, when a team of PNP volunteers stepped up to coordinate a safe transport to a new home.

The PNP system provides a forum for volunteers, including pilots, coordinators, and humane shelters, and adoptive families. A recent post highlights a common mission completed: a fluffy black and white Pyrenees and her puppies are successfully rescued from a shelter in Oklahoma and transported to foster families in Colorado.

One of the 2,700 volunteer pilots registered with PNP, Asheville-based veterinary surgeon Dr. David Crouch explains that coordinating these canine-carrying flights requires teamwork, including many behind the scenes helpers. “People have to coordinate meet-ups, receiving shelters have to be involved, sometimes they need short legs of ground transport, adoptive families step up — it takes a lot of effort from a lot of different people working hand in hand,” he says.

For his part, when Crouch has an available weekend, he searches through the PNP forum, where individuals or humane organizations across the country post the animals’ location and desired flight times on the Ride Board. He explains that PNP exists for need-based cases. “It’s not because grandma in Florida misses her daughter’s dog, who lives in Georgia. It’s for when shelter animals in danger have an opportunity for a healthy life,” he says.

“Maybe a Jack Russell needs to get to Nashville from Raleigh,” Crouch says. “And he has a mild seizure disorder. He’s been in shelter, and someone in Nashville has offered a home if he can make it there. When you want to adopt a dog, and you’ve got to choose between a completely healthy puppy and a dog with special needs that also might cost extra money to care for, realistically a lot of people are going to go for the healthy one.”

Some of these animals need people to look out for them — to help them find a home, explains Crouch. If someone a few states away is willing to adopt a special needs animal, PNP is there to help ensure that’s a possibility.

Crouch typically meets rescue animals at the Asheville airport, where he loads them into a kennel in his single engine Beechcraft Bonanza. “If I can make a flight work with my other obligations, and Mother Nature is on our side, it’s really a fun and pretty simple process,” he says. Often, he brings his wife and two teenage sons along. They’re there to calm the animals during the flight, but more often than not, says Crouch, the dogs curl up and fall asleep.

Working with PNP brings Crouch unique fulfillment, since it blends two of his lifelong passions: saving animals and flying planes.

“Ever since I was five or six, I would take care of every little creature I could get my paws on. I was always patching back together baby birds and wrapping up family pets in bandages,” he remembers. “It seemed like a long, time consuming project because I wanted to be a vet so young.”

His vision ultimately led him to veterinary school, where he specialized in pet surgery. “The idea of being able to put animals back together had always really appealed to me,” says Crouch. “Originally I had thought I’d be a hometown vet, but when I got the chance to participate in surgeries, I was so fascinated; I was immediately hooked.”

Crouch opened Western Carolina Veterinary Surgery in Asheville in 2000, a referral-based animal hospital exclusively offering surgery for cats and dogs. And with one childhood dream fulfilled, it was time to pursue another.

“I was also always fascinated with airplanes,” he recalls. “Back in the 70s when I was a kid, you got all dressed up to get on planes. I remember I got to wear a little three-piece suit. And the pilots wore suits, too — they seemed like glamorous rock stars.”

When Crouch earned his private pilot license a few years after opening his practice, he found his work with PNP. Private flying is a time-consuming and expensive hobby, with fuel costs in the hundreds for one round-trip. But for pilots like Crouch, it’s worth the time and effort to play a part in rescuing needy animals. “It provides me another heart-warming way to give back,” he says. “Saving the lives of abandoned or special needs animals is an honor.”

Visit www.wcvs.org to learn more about Dr. Crouch.

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