HOBBS, N.M. — Hobbs, a sturdy, older chocolate Lab, is like most dogs. He likes table scraps and head scratches, and he never goes long without wagging his tail.
However, Hobbs will never understand his defining feature, only its consequences, because to Peter Rork he represents an incredible milestone. The smiling, docile Lab is the 10,000th dog Rork has transported by airplane through his nonprofit, Dog Is My CoPilot. He is also the newest addition to Rork’s family, which includes two other dogs.
They met before sunrise on the tarmac of the airport in Hobbs, New Mexico, as cool-for-southern-New-Mexico air swept across the pavement. Hobbs was one of many dogs brought to the airport that morning by DC Paws and Amazing Grace Pet Rescue.
As the rest were loaded onto Rork’s Cessna Caravan in crates, the two met.
Hobbs, who Rork renamed to commemorate the place of their meeting, sat and posed for pictures, more than a little confused. But his tail wagged, and Rork smiled widely. Then Hobbs went back in his crate and was loaded onto the plane, the beginning of a long day that would end with Hobbs’ first glimpse of his new home, Rork’s residence on Flathead Lake in Montana, where the Lab will spend the rest of his days fetching sticks in the water and basking in the sun on the deck.
Rork is a retired doctor who worked for more than two decades in Jackson and still keeps a house here. But retirement has thus far consisted of working just as much as he used to and being away from home more.
“I’m living out of my suitcase four nights a week,” he said, “which is the opposite of what I did as an orthopedic surgeon, where I was home every night.”
Dog Is My CoPilot has a simple mission: It transports dogs from open-admission shelters (sometimes referred to as “kill shelters”) to limited-admission shelters (often known as “no-kill shelters”). He works with animal rescues across the West, including Jackson’s Animal Adoption Center, a limited-admission shelter that helps shelters across the region.
“If you have a partner like Peter, they eliminate transportation,” Executive Director Carrie Boynton said. “For him to be able to move 50-plus dogs in one flight — what an amazing partner.
“He is a key step in taking dogs to places where there is a demand for them.”
The nonprofit is not simply a passion project, though it is obvious Rork feels strongly about saving dogs’ lives. It began as a coping mechanism after his wife, Meg, died suddenly in May 2012 of a cardiac arrest.
“It just crushed me,” he said. “The grieving process isn’t something I’d wish on anybody.”
Rork has been a pilot since he was a kid, taking his first flight at 12, “sitting on a phone book,” he said. He took his pilot’s license test at 16, before he could get a driver’s license. He put himself through medical school as a flight instructor and by flying sightseeing trips. Feeling lost after his wife’s death, he channeled his anguish into flying.
A meeting with Lindsay Goldring, the director of the Animal Adoption Center at the time, led him to San Francisco, where he and Goldring tried to set up an animal transport arrangement with the San Francisco Humane Society. The director there told him he wasn’t needed, saying the problem lay farther south in California’s Central Valley.
Rork met the director of a shelter in Merced. The city’s canine overpopulation problem, exacerbated by a lack of spay-and-neuter programs, had reached a critical state. The shelter was killing 94 percent of the dogs that passed through its doors, functioning more as a funeral home than a shelter. Its employees were so desperate to save the dogs that they were loading vans full of crates and making overnight drives as far away as Missoula, Montana, a 16-1/2-hour drive, one way.
Rork offered his services, and in 2012 the nonprofit was born.
On Sunday the New Mexico volunteers beat Rork to the airport. Their trucks and vans parked in front of the fixed-base operator had about 30 dogs and cats ready to be loaded. It was too early for barking, so many of the crated canines whined to express their confusion at the situation.
Rork quickly untethered the plane for volunteers to load the crates. Even after the 30 or so crates were unloaded the plane was only about half-full. The spacious interior, which allowed a second pick-up that day in Roswell, is a step up from Rork’s original plane, a six-seat Cessna 206.
“It used to be I could load anywhere from eight to 15 animals and drop them off at one place,” he said. “And I could do 1,000 animals a year like that.”
That arrangement was OK for a while, until one day a couple of years ago he realized the mission had outgrown the aircraft.
“I went in to check the weather,” he said. “And the guy that was helping me pushed my seat up so he could cram three more crates behind my seat, then he stacked more on the seat next to me.
“My knees were up in the dashboard. And my flights are four or five hours long, so now I’m shoehorned into this aircraft for five hours, and I’m miserable.”
That experience, and some prodding from his daughter, Taylor, convinced him to upgrade. The Caravan is a 12-seater, though its seats have been removed to make room for dog crates. On a normal day they are packed floor to ceiling in a life-size “sort of Tetris game.” Now he can move 2,500 animals in a single summer flying season and has a record of 251 animals on one flight.
The 2,500 animals per year is significant for Rork’s partners, especially considering that American Humane, an organization that promotes the well-being of farm animals and pets, estimates 56 percent of all dogs that enter shelters in the U.S. are euthanized. A 1997 survey of 1,000 shelters, which is the latest available data, revealed that 2.7 million animals were euthanized that year in just those 1,000 shelters.
After the animals were loaded in Hobbs (the town, not the dog), the rescue volunteers’ gratitude was palpable. Brandy Ellison from Amazing Grace Pet Rescue and Gina Beard from DC Paws handed Rork orange juice, breakfast sandwiches and swag from their organization, while posing for pictures with him.
“Colorado is our savior,” Ellison said. “Gina drives down there once a month. Even with that we could fill the flight. We’d be a mess without Peter coming down.”
Riding in style
The stop in Roswell filled the plane.
Just before takeoff, a cacophony of whines and barks echoed throughout the cabin, but as the turbine engine whirred and the plane lifted off, most of the dogs fell quiet.
“When I’m flying between 14,000 and 15,000 feet they’re going to go to sleep,” Rork said. “They probably get a little hypoxic.”
The noise started back up as the plane touched down in Centennial, Colorado. As the plane taxied, the dogs yapped and a couple of crates shuddered as their inhabitants attempted to get a view of their surroundings.
An armada of cars, parked in two rows against the hangar, awaited Rork’s plane when he touched down. Dozens of volunteers and photographers swarmed him as he exited the Cessna. What seemed like a disorderly mob evolved into an efficient offloading.
The volunteers shouted at one another across the tarmac, the crates quickly disappearing into vans and trucks. Within 30 minutes the vehicles had left, Rork had given an interview to the local news channel, the crates had been rearranged, more breakfast sandwiches had been provided and the plane had been refueled.
Most importantly, Hobbs’ crate had been moved to the front, where he was given enough room to crawl out and lay down behind the pilot’s seat.
As the plane climbed to its cruising altitude over Colorado’s Front Range en route to Utah, Hobbs’ tapered brown face, complete with flecks of gray, poked over the center console of the aircraft. He was interested in Rork’s bacon and egg sandwich.
Rork finished his portion of the sandwich, then cut chunks off for his new best friend. Hobbs didn’t hesitate, chowing down on a piece of bread smothered in cheddar cheese and bacon bits.
“I’m not one of those dog owners who believes dogs shouldn’t eat human food,” Rork said.
Touching down at the West Jordan airport, the scene was similar to the one in Colorado. A raft of awaiting humans and vehicles took most of the crates off the plane, leaving only a few to fly all the way to Montana on the final leg of Rork’s trip.
The only difference was that the West Jordan airport had a small strip of grass outside the FBO, so volunteers opened the crates, leashing the dogs and giving them their first taste of freedom after the long flight. Some dogs peed then cased the group for attention. Some dogs cowered in their cages, confused, while others lounged in the arms of small children who had come along to help.
The Utah rescue that met Rork on Sunday, the Community Animal Welfare Society, gives the dogs it takes a welcome surprise. It is foster-based, meaning it has no boarding facility. Except in special cases, the animals go home with someone right off the plane.
“It takes a tremendous amount of coordination because we don’t have a facility,” said Marianne Dennison, a longtime CAWS volunteer. “But the advantage of a foster-based rescue is you get the dogs in the home setting where they’re going to be, and the foster family can help assess placement for that dog.”
So as the vans pulled away and the plane lifted off again, the dogs rode toward air-conditioned homes, bowls of food and plush dog beds.
Running into the future
Flying north toward Driggs, Idaho, the plane was quiet, most of the dogs having being unloaded. The Wasatch and Uinta ranges passed by to the east, while the Great Salt Lake, shrouded in smoke, passed by to the west.
“I always said I would fly for 10 years or until I reached 10,000 dogs,” Rork said. “Now that it’s only taken me six years to reach 10,000, I feel like I have four left in me. Or I’ll fly until the plane gives out.”
Though it took Hobbs a couple of hours in the air to truly feel comfortable, he spent the flight to Driggs curled into a ball behind Rork, sleeping peacefully. His only foray into the front was for a pair of banana chips.
Rork scratched his head as he nibbled the dried fruit, already bonding, laying the groundwork for the off-leash forest road hikes Rork likes to take with his dogs. This was a far cry from how Hobbs had been found, a stray, covered in ticks and suffering from a tick-borne fever that would have killed him had he not been found. When his owner was tracked down through a microchip database, he cast the dog aside.
“He said, ‘I don’t want him back. Keep him,’” Rork said. “Who does that?”
When Rork touched down in Driggs to unload his human passengers and pick up his caretaker to make the trip home, he brought Hobbs out to go to the bathroom. The dog saw an opportunity.
He escaped and galloped across the parking lot behind Teton Aviation, running in circles as Rork chased him, yelling his new name while Hobbs evaded capture. Finally, a Teton Aviation employee with a golf cart wrangled him until Rork could grab his collar and lead him back to the plane.
Hobbs smiled up at Rork, impressed with his own escape skills. Rork smiled, too, aware of the hiccups involved in bonding with a dog.
After the pup was corralled, Hobbs and Rork climbed into the plane to embark on a life together, with years left to figure out the kinks.
Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-5902 or email@example.com.