On a 100-degree day in El Paso, a Texas terrier named Tumble is enjoying a bit of fresh air while trying to beat the heat. However, most of Tumble's time is spent inside a cage at El Paso Animal Services. She was brought to the shelter after she was found on the street, her head trapped in a fence.
"Usually in any given year, we have 25,000-30,000 animals come through the door," said Kyla White, whose job is to help get those animals out the door. But there are far more dogs in El Paso than there are willing adopters. It's a common story at shelters in several cities, but it's not the story in every city.
"My jaw just dropped; I didn't know," said Peter Rork, a retired orthopedic surgeon based in Jackson, Wyoming. "I'm living in a cocoon in Jackson where, you know, life is good and everybody has a dog and all the dogs are well taken care of, and the shelter is empty."
Rork has loved dogs ever since he was a boy. "I like dogs better than most people I know," he laughed. "They're just pure of heart and pure of soul."
Rork also happens to be a part-time pilot. When he retired from medicine, he realized that he might be able to help connect some of the towns that have full shelters to towns full of willing adopters. He took the seats out of his plane and took to the skies, co-founding the non-profit Dog Is My CoPilot.
"The mission is stated to fly or transport the dogs from the areas that have a high euthanasia rate to areas that will never put down a healthy animal," he said.
A typical day might involve loading up a plane full of animals in Merced, Calif., and then dropping them off to receiving partners in Portland, Seattle, and Missoula, Mont.
Correspondent Conor Knighton asked, "What's the maximum number of animals you'd have on a flight?"
"Two hundred and fifty-one," Rork replied.
"Wow. What did that smell like?"
"You have no idea. It's an amazing olfactory experience!"
Rork began his rescue flights in 2012, just a few months after the sudden death of his wife, Meg. He was distraught, desperately searching for a new direction: "My wife passed away. I was in the darkest place that you can imagine. A mutual friend of ours called me and said, 'You know, Peter, you need to knock this off. Meg would want you to be happy. So, get out there.'"
And out there he went. To date, Dog Is My CoPilot has flown more than 15,000 animals – mostly dogs, with a few cats thrown in.
Rork said, "That's way more of an impact than I ever made as an orthopedic surgeon. You know, and it's so much more rewarding."
On a recent Sunday, 72 animals were waiting for Rork at the El Paso airport at 4 a.m., including a tired Tumble.
Once everyone was safely loaded onto the plane, Rork took off.
After stops in Salt Lake City and Sun Valley, the bulk of the animals descended into Troutdale, Oregon, just outside Portland.
There, an army of volunteers was waiting to help unload the dogs and get them to their new homes.
"I think I'm going to cry," said one new pet parent.
Juli Zagrans, executive director of the Portland rescue organization One Tail at a Time, said she's noticed a huge increase in interest since everyone has been stuck at home during the pandemic: "Yeah, we've been inundated lately. The last few months have been really busy with both foster homes and adoption interest."
Zagrans found Tumble a home with Portlanders Andrea Fielder and Matt Schmidt. It turns out their backyard kiddie pool is Tumble's favorite hang-out spot. Some Texas habits die hard.
Back at the airport, an empty plane means a successful trip for Peter Rork. He'll be back in two weeks to do it all over again, hitting a half-dozen other towns in the meantime.
Knighton asked, "Did this help you find a purpose?"
"Yeah, it's interesting, I know people say, 'Well, you're out saving dogs.' And I'm thinking, 'I really think they saved me!'" Rork laughed. "They got me back out in the world again."
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