News & Politics

Second Chances

Many shelters don’t have room for all the dogs and cats they get. Pilots such as Richard Fenati are helping to save some of them.

Photograph by Chris Leaman.

When Richard Fenati touches down at a small airport in Salisbury, North Carolina, a van full of puppies is waiting. The 16 dogs, which include beagles, boxers, and other breeds, have traveled more than three hours from South Carolina to get to the airport, and their escape has just begun.

The dogs came from an overcrowded shelter and were set to be euthanized until Fenati—a 35-year-old construction consultant and flight instructor from Kensington—and 18 other pilots volunteered to fly them to a no-kill shelter in the foothills of New York’s Catskill Mountains. The shelter, Pets Alive, has a high adoption rate.

Volunteers from Animal Rescue Flights, a network of pilots dedicated to finding safe homes for animals, organize transports like this almost weekly. Since the group’s first flight last year, more than 200 pilots have flown 44,000 miles to save nearly 200 dogs and cats.

While they’re waiting to board, the dogs romp around on the airport tarmac, sniffing one another as the pilots check to see which dog tags match their plane numbers. Each pilot will travel with one or two dogs, depending on the size of the plane. Fenati and his fellow pilot, lawyer Amy McMaster of Arlington, are picking up Nina, a basset hound, and Victor, a German shepherd.

“Somebody probably used to dance with him,” McMaster says as Victor jumps up on her. “I can’t believe no one claimed him.”

Fenati puts Victor in a crate in the back of his six-seat Baron. He tries to squeeze Nina into a crate, too, but she squirms away.

“She’s the one that was rolling her carrier around in the back of the van,” says Rhonda Sims, who runs a ground rescue operation from South Carolina. Fenati finally relents, and Nina gets a spot on McMaster’s lap.

Fenati learned about Animal Rescue Flights through the social-networking site He usually flies with his own dog, Eddie. The boxer mix wears a bandana that reads co-pilot as well as “mutt muffs,” earmuffs for dogs.

Eddie was abandoned on the side of a road in North Carolina when he was two weeks old. A woman working for a local shelter found him and took him in. Fenati found Eddie while searching for a rescue boxer on and flew there to adopt him.

“I thought I could do that for other dogs as well,” he says. “You get to fly and do some good.”

In January, Fenati helped fly a stray bulldog with glaucoma from a shelter in Knoxville to Philadelphia, where American Bulldog Rescue found the dog a good home and medical care.

Nearly all transports move south to north, Sims says, because most Southern states don’t have as many spay-and-neuter ordinances as other parts of the country.

“The shelter that I pulled these dogs from has to euthanize 200 to 300 a week,” she says.

Sims has seen the overpopulation problem in shelters worsen as people give up pets because of home foreclosures and other economic problems.

On this Saturday morning, pilots will fly from North Carolina to Frederick, where they’ll pass the dogs to a second group of pilots en route to New York. Pilots usually transport the dogs in relays—the pilots cover the costs—so some trips have as many as nine legs.

As the plane begins to move, Nina’s ears perk up and her tongue hangs out. Victor is quiet in the back seat. Fenati says the hum and vibrations of the engine will put the dogs right to sleep.

“Two eight five papa tango,” says air-traffic control as Fenati prepares to take off. “Find those puppies a good home.”

For more photos, click here.

This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.   

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.