On a recent Sunday, 20 unwanted dogs flew a thousand miles from York County, where they faced being euthanized, to shelters in New Jersey and Maine, where they will have a better chance of finding new homes.
Rock Hill's Project Safe Pet and a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit called Cloud Nine Rescue Flights made the flight to safety possible.
With 32 flights, Cloud Nine has already flown 436 animals, mostly dogs, to safety. Ten of those trips have been to York County to pick up between 15-20 dogs each time.
Over half of the flights are to the Carolinas, said Ted DuPuis, president and founder of Cloud Nine.
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DuPuis, 26, designs airplane engines by day and runs his nonprofit by night and on the weekends. His flights take him coast to coast, sometimes venturing beyond U.S. borders into Mexico and Canada.
At $2,500 a flight for fuel and aircraft maintenance (which he provides himself), these flights aren't cheap. But he and his ten or so volunteers who run the nonprofit haven't had any trouble raising support for their cause, he said.
In fact, they're expanding to two planes, and DuPuis is currently training another crew. His ambitions for more seem limitless.
"We'll soon be able to do twice as many transports," he said. "And if we keep on doing that, our phones will stop ringing, because the animal population issue won't be an issue anymore."
"We aim to put ourselves out of business," he said.
DuPuis said he first learned that southern states have severe problems with animal overpopulation when he started flying. Flying provided a quick way to move dogs from the south to rescuers who could accommodate them in the north.
The culture's attitude toward spaying and neutering animals is the problem, he said.
"Each individual's failure to spay and neuter their animals results in a huge impact on the pet population."
He has partnered with local rescues to find animals and coordinate the flights. The animals have been sitting in rescue shelters for too long or face euthanasia at animal control centers.
York County euthanized 7,018 animals in 2009 and 5,853 in 2010 through Dec. 13, said Steve Stuber, animal control supervisor. But the good news is the numbers are dropping while adoptions are increasing.
"It's a great thing," Stuber said of organizations like Cloud Nine. "It's one more way to move those animals around and find homes for them."
"People do not realize how many animals are dying at the shelters in our area," said Jackie Kyles with Project Safe Pet in Rock Hill.
"We could have a flight out of here twice a week and still not save all of them," she said.
Kyles and local rescues have been lobbying leaders to change spay and neuter laws, which they see as the only way the pet population will ever come under control, Kyles said.
In the meantime, local rescues offer spay and neuter clinics at a fraction of what a vet would charge, she said.
And DuPuis will keep flying and enjoying the company:
"Dogs are usually better passengers than humans. Dogs are my favorite people."
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