McALLEN — Nearly 100 dogs from the Palm Valley Animal Society here earned their wings Monday morning after being flown out of state to get the help they need.
As winter storm Uri froze over the state last month, hundreds of animals poured into PVAS shelters. Over the last two weeks, the organization received 390 dogs and 205 cats, running out of space, kennels and supplies.
To help make more room at PVAS, Wings of Rescue — a California-based organization that rescues animals by taking them from disaster areas or overpopulated centers to shelters with space — sent a plane to McAllen’s McCreery Aviation to pick up the pups.
The airliner was loaded with 95 dogs and took off at 10:25 a.m. to Delaware, where animal shelter Brandywine Valley SPCA was prepared to receive and care for them.
Petco Foundation sponsored the initiative, and because of slight wind, the flight was predicted to take almost four hours.
Monday’s flight was the first time Wings of Rescue’s Embraer 120 Brasilia touched ground in the Rio Grande Valley, and PVAS Board President Keely Lewis said it was as if superheroes “flew in to save the day.”
“We had always heard myths about these wonderful pilots who could take our animals out of the Valley and we had always hoped that someday we would be in their pathway, and this is the beginning,” she said. “For us to be a no-kill shelter, we have to get hundreds and hundreds of animals out of here. There is no way we can adopt our way out of how many come in.”
“This is so key,” she added, looking at the white- and blue-striped plane, smiling through her mask at the PVAS volunteers and staff working to unload the dozens of dogs. Taking a four-hour flight, instead of a three-day road trip is much less stressful for the dogs.
Dogs taking flight were of all ages, colors and breeds. One was pregnant and another was wearing a cone due to a recent surgery. Puppies shared a kennel with their siblings, playing around with each other’s ears, unaware they would soon be thousands of feet into the sky.
The plane was filled nearly to capacity, with the kennels strategically fit into its cabin — like Tetris.
As staff worked to get them on board, they expressed excitement for the dogs they have been caring for — some for days, others for months.
Monday morning was a long time coming, because a new shelter means new opportunities to get adopted. The air was full of sweet goodbyes and wishes as volunteers passed kennels up to others on the plane.
First to board was Peaches, who has been PVAS CEO Donna Casamento’s “office dog” for the past week. While coordinating the care for hundreds of animals during unprecedented weather and power outages, Casamento said having Peaches in her office kept her peaceful.
She’s going to miss Peaches’ sweet and curious spirit, and could not be happier knowing she’s on her way to another pair of loving arms.
“Goodbye, Peaches. I love you, sweetie,” Casamento said as she helped carry her onto the plane. “You be a good girl.”
Ric Browde, the president of Wings of Rescue and one of the pilots on board, said the plane once carried people and cargo. Now, it has been a vessel the organization has used to help transport around 53,000 animals across the country.
He’s been on countless rescue trips and said takeoff and landing are always the noisiest.
“We get a lot of barking on our way up, but then when we get to 10,000 feet, they all fall asleep — except for the huskies and beagles,” Browde of Beverly Hills said. “When we get up there, they all calm down. Then when we start landing, it’s like having a plane full of 95 3-year-olds going, ‘Are we there yet?’”
Takeoff is always an emotional moment for him.
“You initially feel great because you’re saving all these dogs, but as you shut the door you get this sense of dread because you know you did not get everybody,” Browde said. “You are going, ‘Oh (expletive), there are another 200 back there.’”
After Monday’s flight, 454 dogs and 60 cats are left in PVAS’ two shelters, their Trenton and Andrews facilities.
Knowing that the dogs on board are getting another chance to find loving homes keeps him motivated to continue working, one dog at a time.
Trenton is PVAS’ biggest center, but most kennels are outdoors. During the arctic blast, indoor space was filled to capacity and nearly 300 dogs had to brave the cold outside. Tarps were laid over kennels to block frigid wind, but Casamento said a bigger shelter is severely needed.
“Whether it’s cold and whether it’s heat, an outdoor facility in these environments is never the ideal place for an animal,” said Casamento, who took on the position as PVAS CEO in April 2020.
Power outages and freezing weather caused more than $20,000 of damages between both centers, Casamento said. In the midst of the storm, two of their four heaters broke, and they had to make emergency purchases of more.
Additionally, multiple pipes froze, limiting the center’s ability to clean kennels. Then as they tried to get the pipes fixed, the city was asked to boil their water before using it. Volunteers took donated jugs of water home to refill and give to the animals.
Though many problems arose during the winter storm, Casamento added it also revealed a lot of generous hearts in the region and across the country.
“Our community is so wonderful,” she said. “Locals who were struggling themselves to stay warm, to take care of their own families and had no power came by with water and blankets and towels… Our lobby was full of things people donated, and we are so grateful.”
Other centers in addition to the Denver shelter opened their doors to PVAS dogs. About a week ago, 50 dogs were sent off to Foothills Animal Shelter in Colorado, while another 50 were sent to San Antonio. Additionally, more than 100 cats were sent to shelters in Austin.
“The outpouring of support from the community was so heartwarming, literally,” Casamento said.