Despite unstable economic conditions that brought Big Pine Key resident Jeff Bennett out of retirement, the volunteer pilot is still finding time in his schedule to help rescue furry, feathered and slithery animals across the country.
Shortly after Paws N Pilots was founded in 2008, Bennett read a feature about the organization in one of his aviation publications.
The Southern California native retired from his post at General Dynamics in upstate New York to relocate to the Keys in 1990. Five years later, the dive equipment and tackle distributor found enough time to nurture his passion for private aircraft and secured his pilot’s license.
His Cirrus SR22 has now served as a pet taxi for everything from baby chicks to pythons and pot-bellied pigs. The majority of his photo albums from four years of dedicated service, however, are filled with pooches from across the Southeastern United States.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met a rescue van, and they look at my plane and say, ‘There’s no way they’re all going to fit in there!’” Bennett said.
Shipping is clearly his specialty.
When rescue groups and foster families coordinate a Pilots N Paws transport, each animal’s size and weight is provided in advance of the flight. Though the ride may mean close quarters for a few hours, Bennett said a snug ride certainly beats the alternative.
This Southernmost volunteer often coordinates to transport animals purchased by ambitious street performers for Duval Street and Mallory Square to more appropriate facilities on the mainland.
“All the weird stuff comes out of Key West,” he laughed, pointing to photos in his album of a python perched on the dash of the cockpit. “It’s great to have them ride on your shoulders since they’re cold-blooded, they can really help keep you cool during a flight!”
He recounts of each photo not only the condition in which the dog was found but story of how each one was fostered and eventually adopted to a loving home.
One of his most memorable transports was the rescue of a border collie who was spared from death only because the facility where she was living in Williston, Florida, didn’t have enough space in the freezers to store her euthanized body.
Big Pine Key residents John and Valerie Kolessar received their 3-year old Golden Lab mix from Alabama and named her “Dega” after the racetrack where she was first rescued.
“He’s such an angel!” Valerie said of Bennett’s dedication.
From fuel to time to planes, Pilots N Paws is an all volunteer that runs solely on the goodness and passion of each of their volunteers. The majority of Bennett’s flights, typically the first leg of multiple flights and car rides, are into South Georgia and Alabama where domestic animals are often overpopulated and abandoned by irresponsible owners.
A 450-nautical mile round trip sets him back between $500-$600 each trip, so he’s limited his transports to about two a month. A few savvy real estate investments in Cape Coral where he’s been fortunate enough to find good tenants help foot the bill for fuel on each trip.
Only through trial and error did Bennett learn the added challenges of relocating puppies from foster families and rescue facilities. Parvovirus and distemper are highly contagious vaccines that can be carried on puppy feet and require quarantining for several days – an expensive prospect for volunteer rescue organizations.
He’s a vocal opponent of unregulated, irresponsible breeding practices that have resulted in regular reports of new dog mothers and puppies left abandoned in the Everglades National Park only to become python food.
Spay and neuter programs, contended the lifelong animal lover, are the best way to combat overpopulation and crowded animal shelters.