Dog Is My CoPilot saves dogs in West, helps widowed surgeon cope.
By Brielle Schaeffer, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
September 12, 2012
Merlin, Grant and Gracie were on death row at a shelter in Scottsdale, Ariz., when Peter Rork swooped in and saved them.
Rork, a pilot since his youth and a retired orthopedic surgeon, picked up the three terrier mixes in his single-engine Cessna and flew them back to the Animal Adoption Center in Jackson.
“They’re all a little bit scared because they’ve been through a lot, but they’re all very sweet,” Animal Adoption Center Executive Director Lindsay Goldring said.
Safe from being put down, the little dogs are waiting to find homes in the area or with visitors to town.
Dogs and aviation have always been parts of Rork’s life. He first flew solo on his 16th birthday and has since become an airline transport pilot, which is the “Ph.D. of flying,” he said. As for his career in medicine, Rork was the longest practicing orthopedic surgeon in Jackson, working 22 consecutive years until he retired this summer.
For the past few years, he flew rescue missions about once a month with his wife, Meg, to save pups from kill shelters.
Meg died of a heart attack in May.
“It just broke me,” Rork, 59, said. “She and I practiced together, and I just didn’t have the heart to go back to work.
“When Meg passed, I thought this would be a good time to do what was our passion on a full-time basis.”
And Rork didn’t waste any time. With the help of an old friend, Judy Zimet, he set up a nonprofit organization called Dog Is My CoPilot.
“She constructed the website for me, and I’ve been doing this essentially full-time since May,” he said. “I’ve literally been flying the wings off of my airplane into little nubs. Once you market that the services are available, the need becomes apparent.”
Rork also has a dog as a co-pilot. Literally. Rork’s black Lab, 9-year-old Doyle, himself a rescue, flies with his master 99 percent of the time, he said.
“He’s a good traveler,” Rork said.
For the past few months, Rork has been flying a couple of missions each week with Doyle to save canines and felines all over the West.
“If I can get them out of the kill shelters into a non-kill shelter, I’ll transport them,” he said. “If I can get them out of a shelter into a foster home, I’m their taxi. If I can get them from their foster home to their forever home, I’m their guy.”
Forever, he noted, is spelled “furever.”
“There are very few things that are more rewarding than taxiing up in my airplane with somebody’s new dog in the back and seeing this family with their little kids waiting with a new water bowl and lead and little doggie treats,” Rork said. “I feel like Santa Claus and this is my sleigh.”
A sleigh with a 37-foot wingspan. His Cessna 206 is the largest single-engine piston aircraft. It can seat six people — or about 11 dogs.
On Aug. 23, he transported two herding dogs, a mutt and her eight puppies from Blackfoot, Idaho, to Hamilton, Mont.
Instead of a six-hour drive for the dogs, it was an hour and 10-minute flight, he said.
“It works really well for everybody, but especially the dog,” Rork said. “The dogs sometimes get a little yappy and sometimes a little gassy. The advantage of having an unpressurized aircraft is you just have to open the window and everything is great.”
Rork is hoping to expand Dog Is My CoPilot, to enlist more pilots and get more flights in the air, he said. Through fundraising efforts, the organization hopes to find money to reimburse pilots their fuel cost for transporting the animals.
“It will decrease the cost of flying and have them involved in terrific service,” Rork said.
Aug. 23 saw Dog Is MyCoPilot’s first flight by volunteer pilots. Kelly Cornell Mecartney and her husband, David Mecartney, of Jackson, flew to Burley, Idaho, to pick up Petey, a boxer mix, at a kill shelter. Hours later he was in their private jet relaxing against leather seats near a bottle of champagne.
“It was such a great contrast between the two,” Rork said.
The nonprofit hopes to buy a larger all-weather plane better suited to fly in the winter so no rescue opportunities will be missed, he said.
“Sometimes, if you don’t get these animals out of the shelter, they’re not going to get out,” he said.
Dog Is My CoPilot and the Animal Adoption Center also works with two shelters — one in Arizona and one in California — that want to trade dogs, moving them to where particular breeds are more in demand, he said.
“We’re looking at creating a more permanent relationship with shelters with needs,” Rork said.
There are about 8 million dogs in shelters every year, and half of those dogs end up being euthanized, Rork said.
“The math would say that’s more than 10,000 a day,” he said, “which is really sad.”
By saving dogs, Rork can give the gift of canine companionship he’s enjoyed all his life.
“To me, a house doesn’t smell like a home without the smell of a wet dog,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.”
The organization is also helping him heal after his wife’s passing by promoting a cause they both deeply cared about.
“I appreciate the outpouring of support after my wife passed,” Rork said.
For information on the organization, visit DogCoPilot.org.
A photographer's notebook
By Jaclyn Borowski
When I met Peter Rork at Jackson Hole Aviation the morning of Aug. 28, the only sign of the sun was a yellow glow behind the (still) Sleeping Indian. I snapped a few frames while he prepped the Cessna 206. We headed off before the control tower had a chance to open.
We watched the sun rise from the air as he shared stories of his wife, Meg, who flew with him on many such trips. Through the worst summer of his life, her death has driven him forward on his quest to save as many animals as he can. He uses his plane to pick up animals from kill shelters and transports them to animal rescues or adoptive families. Judy Zimet serves as his “hair traffic controller,” monitoring the incoming requests and organizing the trips.
We land in Erda, Utah, at Tooele Airport by 8 a.m. After fueling the plane, Peter meets with Tawny Dewsnup from the Tooele City Animal Shelter and Tara Moreland with Save a Healer. They bring him three Labrador retrievers that were about to be put down and now have a second chance at life in Burbank, Calif. The quietest of the three, a small black Lab named Sara, stays in her crate for the duration of the trip, hardly making a sound. But Ricky and Lucy, both larger yellow Labs, sit in the back of the plane, with only a leash on a D-ring. The shelter doesn’t know if they’re siblings or “lovers,” but Ricky and Lucy are attached at the hip and Dewsnup hopes they’ll be adopted together.
With Labs loaded up and the paperwork complete, Peter heads back into the sky. Lucy whines briefly, pawing toward the front of the plane as we take off. She soon grows quiet, looking out the window until the endless nothing below fails to hold her attention and she lies down.
Peter’s smiles as he recalls Meg’s initial hesitation at his animal rescue flights: She assumed it was just a way for him to meet women.
“I do meet a lot of females,” he says with a grin, gesturing toward the rear of the plane where the three dogs sit, “but none I’d want to date.”
The flight from Erda to Burbank takes three hours, and with less than 10 minutes to go before we land, we hit our first bit of turbulence. For the first time since leaving Jackson six hours earlier, as we bounce up and down on invisible pockets of air, I’m reminded just how small our plane really is.
After landing, we meet Carolee Reiling of the Burbank animal rescue, Labs and Friends, on the tarmac where we trade the three labs for two turkey sandwiches. While smaller dogs are easier to place in Jackson, the demand for retrievers is always high in southern California.
After stopping to check the weather, cautious of the afternoon thunderstorms that often crop up, we’re off again, headed for home.
The final leg of our journey takes 4 hours and 37 minutes, but it passes quickly as we talk about love, family, tattoos and everything in between.
Before Meg died, Peter and Meg had been training for the Santa Barbara International Marathon. Despite all he’s been through, he still intends to run it in November. He’ll be wearing Meg’s bib number when he crosses the finish line, and his daughter, Taylor, 32, will be running with him.
We make it back to Jackson just after 6 p.m., a little less than 12 hours after we left.
Each time we land, Peter looks at me with a grin and utters the same three words. My phone pings with a text as I’m driving away from the airport Tuesday evening, and there they are once more.
“Cheated death again!”