More than 100 dogs and cats winged their way from the Modesto Airport to new homes early Friday morning.
Just after dawn, the airport apron was a furry flurry of barks, yips and whines as the crated animals were unloaded from a Stanislaus Animal Services Agency horse trailer and truck.
Retired orthopedic surgeon Peter Rork, co-founder and president of the Wyoming-based nonprofit transport organization Dog is My CoPilot, flew his Cessna Grand Caravan to the rescue. In the cool morning air, he and Stanislaus Animal Services Agency staff and volunteers carefully arranged pet carrier atop pet carrier into the plane.
As the small aircraft was filled to capacity (a handful of animals had to return to the shelter when space ran out), Animal Services volunteer Michelle Crandell commented that the cargo area was getting pretty warm, humid and, well, stinky. Rork's cockpit windows were fogged up even with the doors open.
But as a guy who's been doing these flights fulltime for six years, and who'd be cooped up with the creatures for the next four hours or so, Rork appeared confident the flight would go well for him and his passengers.
Though the dogs were a noisy bunch while sitting on the ground, "once the engine starts up, they get very quiet. They're going, 'Now what?'" he said. Awaiting takeoff, those packed into the plane already were much quieter than before.
"These are sea-level dogs flying around 12,000 feet, where the air's thinner, so they get a little tired," Rork said. That, combined with the motion, "and off they go to sleep."
It's a lot cooler up there, too — about a three-degree drop with every 1,000 feet of altitude, he said. But the plane has a heater and window defroster.
All but one of the animals was bound for the Seattle area. The exception was a Rottweiler heading to Polson, Montana. Oregon also was to have been a stop Friday, but bad weather prevented it.
The Stanislaus shelter has worked with DIMC for about a year, said Animal Services Agency rescue coordinator Audra Black. Friday's was the seventh flight from Modesto, she said, and one each month is scheduled through October.
Friday's flight also was the biggest to date, she said, with about 100 dogs and cats aboard. Smaller flights have been about 80 animals.
All the animals are going to no-kill rescue groups and are guaranteed to be adopted or fostered, Rork said.
Friday's flight puts the Modesto shelter's population at about 300 animals, which Black called manageable. Last week, it housed more than 400 dogs and cats. While the shelter regularly is overcrowded, she said, "we could send them animals every week and they still would need more."
A dog or cat that could sit at the Cornucopia Way shelter for months will in Oregon or Washington be in a new home within days, she said.
It helps, Rork said, that Stanislaus and other agencies he works with tend to send their very best, to keep the pipeline open with the rescue groups receiving the animals.
While the doctor lamented that shelters euthanize animals, he praised Stanislaus Animal Services staff and volunteers as heroes for their work. "These are great people to work for ... I provide the transport, but they're in there every day, mucking out the stalls, socializing the animals, feeding them, grooming them, walking them, trying to adopt them out, foster them ... My involvement with these dogs is going to be about four hours. Their involvement with these dogs can be four months."