— If accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative were Olympic events, Jeff Bennett would be bound for London next month.
Bennett, 53, a business owner and pilot who lives in the Florida Keys, studiously avoids dark headlines and depressing news stories. He gravitates toward happy people who build up rather than tear down, and he’s always on the prowl for ways to help out and give back.
But of course, not all disturbing news can be avoided. Bennett really gets riled over stories of animal cruelty, neglect and abandonment — and, about three and a half years ago, he decided to do something about it. He started using his small plane to fly dogs, cats and a host of other critters in dire circumstances to safe places where they’d receive treatment and care. On Friday, Bennett is hitting a milestone by flying his 1,000th rescue animal to safety.
“I never thought I’d be moving this many animals,” Bennett told TODAY.com. “I just really enjoy it, and I get to meet some of the best people out there.”
As gratifying as he finds his volunteer work, Bennett confessed that it sometimes overwhelms him to think about how many animals suffer and die needlessly. Due to animal overpopulation, an estimated 4 million dogs and cats — about one every eight seconds — are put down in U.S. shelters each year.
“When you think about it, 1,000 animals is just a drop in the bucket,” Bennett said. “But you can only do what you can do, you know?”
Up in the air with snakes, rats, pigs
Bennett is affiliated with Pilots N Paws, a South Carolina-based organization that whisks “death-row” dogs, cats and other animals to safety by connecting shelters and animal rescue organizations with pilots and plane owners. Since Pilots N Paws was founded in 2008, more than 2,700 pilots have spent their own time and money transporting thousands of animals all over the United States.
Moving rescue stories are chronicled in “Dog Is My Copilot: Rescue Tales of Flying Dogs, Second Chances, and the Hero Who Might Live Next Door,” a new book by Patrick Regan that will be released on June 19. The book features Bennett in a chapter called “All Species Airways” for this reason: Bennett has become a bit famous in animal-rescue circles for being willing to transport anything.
Burmese pythons? No problem. A pot-bellied pig named Moo? Welcome aboard! He’s also flown rabbits, rats, guinea pigs, iguanas, chickens, monitor lizards, tortoises, falcons, hawks, cats of all ages and hundreds and hundreds of dogs.
To maximize the number of animals he can transport, Bennett removed the back seats from his four-seater Cirrus SR22 airplane and filled that area with crates. He typically flies 20 to 25 dogs at a time; the largest number he’s ever accommodated was 51.
It can get hot flying a plane around Florida and parts of Georgia, and Bennett has found an innovative way to stay cool when transporting large snakes: He drapes them around his neck.
“It’s like a neck cooler,” he explained. “They’re getting the warmth off your body and you’re getting the coolness from them. It’s great!”
He also learned something new when he took Moo the pot-bellied pig to Rooterville, an animal sanctuary in Gainesville, Fla.
“I found out that pigs don’t like their feet being off the ground,” he said. “As soon as her feet came off the ground, she squealed like a pig. It was a hoot! She was fine as soon as she made it into the crate.”
1,000th animal? A dog
Bennett is a busy guy; he owns three companies in the Keys that distribute dive equipment, scuba gear, snorkel equipment and fishing tackle. He’s like most of the pilots associated with Pilots N Paws: They work full time and fly small planes when they can because they’re crazy about it.
“I love being in the air, and this gave me something worthwhile to do in the meantime — something I could do to help,” Bennett said. “It used to be called the ‘$100 hamburger’ — you wanted flight time, so you’d fly to some city and have lunch. ... Now, you get to not only go to lunch, you get to do some good by moving some dogs as well.”
Bennett has meticulously kept track of all the animals he’s transported, not because he’s into scrap-booking, but because he has a healthy respect for the IRS. Pilots N Paws is a charitable organization, and pilots who volunteer their time with it can write off their fuel costs.
“I’m deducting $16,000 a year in fuel, so I make sure I take a photograph of every single animal I fly,” he said.
On Friday, Bennett needed to transport at least 20 critters to reach the 1,000-animal mark. He exceeded that milestone by letting 23 dogs and puppies hitch a ride in his plane.
Debi Boies, co-founder and executive director of Pilots N Paws, called Bennett’s passion for helping animals “unrelenting.”
“The sheer number [of animals he’s helped] is beyond belief,” Boies said. “If they need him, he flies.”