When Kevin R. Ayres was growing up in East Aurora, one of his favorite pets was a dog his family adopted from a shelter in Ohio.
Fond memories of that time came back to the 41-year-old Columbus truck driver Wednesday as he flew a single-engine airplane carrying five abandoned canines from Ohio shelters, where they faced certain death, to Western New York, where they will get a fresh start in loving households.
Ayres flew the mission for Pilots N Paws, a nationwide volunteer network that transports rescued animals to places where they will be safe from euthanization.
Oddly enough, three of his canine passengers were destined for the Pet Connection shelter in his hometown. They were following much the same route to a new lease on life that his childhood best friend had taken all those years ago.
Right after touching down at Lancaster Airport on Walden Avenue, Ayres, like a veterinarian delivering puppies in a clinic, reached into a pet carrier in the cargo compartment of his rented Cessna and coaxed a frightened black-and-white terrier pup into his arms.
Then out came a brown and black adult terrier, a black Labrador puppy, a tiny brown adult terrier and a mature Bassett hound.
All looked to be in good health, but first impressions can deceive, said Julie Garvey, president of Pet Connection, a nonprofit "no kill" maternity and special care center at 12935 Williston Road, East Aurora. Animals arriving from shelters are often parasite-infested or diseased, she said.
Also, in the last-chance world of dog pounds, "puppies and their moms get put down first because they require more attention and they eat more," she said. "That's why we do maternity [care]."
Over 24 years since Garvey founded Pet Connection on 20 acres outside the village, the facility has taken in "thousands" of homeless dogs and cats, she said. At any given time, it can house between 50 and 300 canines and 50 to 100 felines.
Some of those animals are never adopted because of chronic medical or temperamental problems, but they are welcome to live out their lives there, she said. "We call them 'lifers.' "
Waiting to take the Lab puppy and the brown-black terrier was Deb Bodenschatz, president of Akron Canine, a year-old organization that has no shelter but places "rescued angels" directly in new homes.
The group has adopted out 300 to 400 so far, including 30 that arrived in a single shipment, Bodenschatz said.
Ayres started his day at Port Columbus in Central Ohio, flew to Lancaster in Southeastern Ohio to pick up his first passengers and then north to Mansfield to get the rest before battling headwinds on the way to Buffalo. It was a rewarding day's work.
"It's fun. When I was a kid, pets brought me a lot of pleasure," he said.
"Paws & Hearts," a benefit "dog walk" for Pet Connection, will take place from noon to 5 p.m. Oct. 3 at Knox Farm State Park in East Aurora. The entry fee is $25. Call 652-0192 or visit www.petconnectionprogramsinc.com to register.