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Pet Tales: Pilots N Paws volunteers fly animals to home – and safety

For Mahesh Sankaran, it’s simple: “I love to fly, and I absolutely love dogs.”

So about a dozen times this year, Sankaran has packed the cabin of his Piper Arrow III with crates and taken to the air, flying to pick up dogs from high-kill shelters and bring them to new lives in Western New York and beyond.

Sankaran, who lives in Amherst, is one of more than 3,100 pilots who volunteer for Pilots N Paws, a North Carolina organization whose message boards are used by pilots and rescuers to arrange flights for homeless animals. The group was founded in 2008 by one dog rescuer, Debi Boies, and one pilot, Jon Wehrenberg, who worked together to transport a Doberman to an adoptive home.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Sankaran landed his plane at Prior Aviation in Cheektowaga with five canine passengers from the Monroe County Dog Pound in eastern Ohio.

Besides Ike, a majestic but thin adult German shepherd found as a stray and never claimed, Sankaran collected three scrawny 11-week-old black lab-shepherd mixes with mange and a shepherd-boxer mix. Named Harley by workers, the pup was apparently dropped over a 6-foot fence one night into an outdoor run at the shelter.

At the airport, Sankaran was met by volunteers for Open Arms Rescue of Western New York, an Akron-based group. Ike, renamed Nico on the runway, had climbed right into the plane in Ohio, Sankaran reported, then “wanted to sit in the front seat and watch.” Steered into crates, all the dogs quieted right down, he said.

Although many animals are transported by road from high-kill shelters in the West and South to rescue groups in the North and East, road relay trips can be lengthy. Flying is much easier on animals, especially puppies and dogs with medical issues. And occasionally, despite every effort, a dog being transferred from one car to another in a relay breaks free and flees. “It’s heartbreaking to have a dog get loose. … Thankfully, we have not had that happen to us, but it happens,” said Open Arms Rescue volunteer Deb Bodenschatz.

Messages on the Pilots N Paws “Rides wanted” board have such headings as “Cruelty case dog has a new home waiting” and “Need to get senior beagle to Omaha.” Each post lists the location of the animal and its destination, along with its size, any health issues and other details.

Sankaran said the message boards are easy to use. “You sign up as a pilot who is willing to fly dogs. You put in how far you are willing to go. You do it when you can – there is no pressure.”

“What pilots donate is their time and the cost of flying the plane,” Sankaran said. Pilots N Paws is a 501(c)3 organization and offers tax forms so pilots can list their expenses as charitable donations.

“I donate to charities in different ways, and this is one of the ways,” said Sankaran.

Sankaran is one of at least two local volunteers for Pilots N Paws. Daniel Drennan of Youngstown has flown about 50 dogs in the last two years for the group. In late September, he flew a black lab mix and her nine puppies from North Carolina to Towanda, Pa., where many of the dogs had homes waiting.

“It gives you an unbelievably warm feeling when you do this,” Drennan said.

Sankaran, who is director of finance for M&T Bank, earned his pilots’ license in 2008. After that, he said, “I decided my flying needed to have a purpose, too. I love dogs, so this was a good fit.”

He and wife, Prabha, have two rescue dogs, Watson, 6, and Hastings, 8.

He made his first Pilots N Paws flight in July 2010 while he and his family, which includes sons Kirun and Rishun, lived in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to dozens of dogs, he has transported a few cats.

One of Sankaran’s favorite passengers was an Australian cattle dog mix named Trooper, whose front leg was amputated after he was shot in Indiana. He was flown in a two-plane relay to his new home in Brockport. Every time Sankaran flies into that area, Trooper’s family brings the dog to the airport to see Sankaran.

Ten days after he flew the Nico, Harley and the lab mix pups to safety, Sankaran met up with them at the hangar where he keeps his plane. Both Nico and Harley have been adopted, and the puppies are well enough to be put up for adoption.

As a group of people stood talking, Sankaran walked away. Nico followed right behind the pilot who had brought him to safety, eyes bright and tail wagging.

“The animals definitely know that they have been saved,” said Peggy Kelley-Albers, director of Open Arms Rescue. “They remember.”