TAMPA, Fla. -- Lady Di is a lovely purebred collie with a pleasant disposition, just like lots of other dogs dumped at shelters in areas that lack anywhere near enough would-be owners. Unlike all but a lucky few of those animals, she got a plane ride away from death row.
Along with one of her sick, emaciated pups, Lady Di recently was brought to a shelter in the central Alabama interstate town of Clanton by a man who first tried to give her away in a Walmart parking lot.
The small shelter north of Montgomery was already heaving; healthy dogs and cats are euthanized by the hundreds every week because there's just no more room.
Shelter workers knew the collies stood a better chance somewhere else.
That's when Lady Di met private pilot Jeff Bennett, a volunteer with Pilots N Paws, a group that moves pets from overwhelmed shelters to communities, often ones with higher median income, where they'll stand a better chance of adoption. The pilots donate their time, planes and fuel.
This week, Pilots N Paws is seeking to transport 5,000 animals to safety in a flurry of flights designed to raise awareness of the charity and draw attention to the importance of spaying and neutering.
Bennett, 50, is a retired Florida Keys businessman with a soft spot for homeless dogs. He's got a Cirrus SR22, a zippy little four-seat plane, and is always looking for an excuse to get above the clouds.
So he flew to Montgomery recently to bring the collies and a dozen other dogs and puppies back to Florida, where rescue groups stood ready to take them in until homes could be found.
The "mission," as Bennett calls his rescue flights, brought the number of animals he's transported for Pilots N Paws to 124 - including snakes, lizards, a chicken and a potbellied pig - since signing on with the charity about a year ago.
"It's a great feeling to know that you're saving some animals and hopefully finding some good homes for them," says Bennett, noting the millions of dogs and cats euthanized in U.S. shelters each year. "What I'm doing is pretty small, but you can only do what you can."
Pilots N Paws got its start in February 2008. A Knoxville, Tenn., pilot named Jon Wehrenberg had offered to fly his friend, Debi Boies, from her home near Greenville, S.C., down to Florida to pick up a Doberman pinscher she wanted to adopt from a rescue group. Wehrenberg asked Boies if there would be a regular need for such a thing.
"I said, 'Oh Jon, you have no idea,'" Boies recalls. Rescue groups have long moved animals from high-kill shelters around the country, she told him, but it usually involves long, exhausting car trips.
The Web site for Pilots N Paws now serves as a forum where shelters and rescue groups can hook up with pilots. Boies says more than 680 pilots have already transported thousands of animals all over the country. Many were plucked from death row at overpopulated, high-kill shelters in Southern states, where people are less likely to sterilize their animals.
"A rescue animal that's had a living hell for a life and now has a warm and loving home, they look at you differently," Boies says. "It's just hard to explain."
On Bennett's recent two-hour flight from Montgomery to Tampa, he carried Lady Di and her pup, plus nine squirmy Lab-mix puppies, a red mix-breed called BBQ, a terrier-mix named Roscoe and a female mutt so pregnant she looked as if she might explode any minute. Fourteen dogs in six crates stacked into a cargo area no bigger than the back of a Honda Civic.
The droning of the plane's engine seemed to subdue the dogs, but the puppies made sure the air in the cockpit was pungent. Blasts from a can of air freshener provided temporary relief.
"They're a little anxious to start, but once you fire up the engine and start taxiing, a lot of times they settle down," he says. "Most of them go to sleep during the flight, and when you start descending it's almost like they know what's going on and they start waking up and making a little bit of noise."
In Tampa, volunteers with four different rescue groups were waiting.
The nine pups went to Mid-Florida Retriever Rescue. Last weekend, they met potential new owners at an adoption event at an Orlando pet store. BBQ and Roscoe went to The Humane Society of Sarasota County, where BBQ was adopted Thursday by a family whose dog had died recently.
The pregnant female, who was named Summer, was taken by a Saving Animals From Euthanasia chapter north of Tampa.
Lady Di and her pup got a ride to a foster home north of Orlando, where the younger dog is being treated for malnutrition and kennel cough. Lady Di, though, is energetic, housebroken and is being taught some basic commands. Gisele Veilleux, who is caring for the collies, says people have already applied to adopt her.
"She was sweet but didn't have much personality," Veilleux says of the dog, which she guesses is about a year old and was bred for profit in her first heat. "I don't think she's had that much human contact. She had no joy in her eyes. She's getting that joy now."