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Animal Rescuers Take To The Sky

Local pilot volunteers time to transport animals out of harm’s way to safe havens

Victor Girgenti, local businessman and pilot, recently assisted in the rescue of nine dogs who were brought from a high-kill shelter in the south to an animal sanctuary in New Hampshire. This life-saving flight was done through the work of Animal Rescue Flights, of which Girgenti is a volunteer pilot.

Animal Rescue Flights (ARF) is a non-profit, charitable organization that was developed about five years ago by pilots and other volunteers who pooled together their skills and resources to save animals from precarious situations. According to ARF, they work to promote, plan and perform the transportation of animals from overcrowded shelters where they face certain death to other parts of the country where qualified families are waiting to adopt them. There are more than 800 volunteers within this organization throughout the country.

Girgenti has been a volunteer pilot for ARF for a few years. He explained that when he first started flying, he performed some “Angel Flights,” in which pilots provide free transportation for people who need to travel long distances for vital health care. However, it was difficult to arrange these flights, since they typically occur Monday through Friday and this timeframe conflicted with his work schedule. Girgenti learned of Animal Rescue Flights through the Internet and discovered that the flights mainly take place on the weekends, which would allow him to volunteer his skills as a pilot in his spare time.

Girgenti has been a pilot for many of these flights, and on his latest trip, which occurred on April 1, he flew eight puppies and one dog from Virginia to Springfield, Massachusetts. This was the second leg of the journey for the dogs, as another ARF volunteer pilot first flew them from South Carolina to Virginia. Girgenti explained that all of the ARF volunteers work together to coordinate trips that are a longer distance, since many of the rescues originate in the south. “That’s really where a lot of high-kill shelters are,” he said, and described how hunting dogs, such as beagles, are quite frequently dropped off at these shelters once hunting season is over just because they did not perform well.

Dr. Joe Farmiloe, veterinarian at Port Washington Animal Hospital, also went on this trip, since Girgenti brings various friends with him from time-to-time. Dr. Farmiloe said that it was a wonderful experience overall and hopes to go on another rescue flight with Girgenti soon.

Girgenti said it was a particularly good time to have Dr. Farmiloe on this rescue flight, since there were so many puppies that were from an overcrowded shelter and they were not sure of their condition. As things turned out, the puppies were in good health. “They were in great shape and I’m sure they got adopted in a heartbeat,” Dr. Farmiloe said.

“When we got there,” Girgenti recounted, “We let the dogs out at a fenced-in, grassy area at the airport. I would say within 15 minutes we had a crowd of 40 people playing with all of them.” Dr. Farmiloe joked, “We probably could have adopted out half of them at the airport!”

The puppies were very calm during the flight, they both said. “As soon as you take off – I don’t know if it lulls them – but they just go right to sleep,” Girgenti explained.

Once they arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts, the people who run the animal sanctuary in New Hampshire met them at the airport to pick up the dogs. Girgenti stated that he has been in contact with the sanctuary since the flight and has heard that all of the dogs are doing well.

Girgenti’s plane is a Piper Meridian. He said that it can fly about 300 miles an hour and at a height of 28,000 feet. “A lot of the other pilots have smaller, single-engine piston airplanes – I’m fortunate enough to have a turboprop engine,” he said, explaining that this type of jet engine allows him to fly much higher and faster, so he can also fly further distances.

In total, Girgenti flew about 750 miles for that rescue. First was the flight from Long Island to Virginia (270 miles), then the rescue flight from Virginia to Massachusetts (370 miles) and the return trip from Massachusetts to Long Island (100 miles). He said that he spent more than $1,000 that day on fuel alone. Costs associated with the rescue flights, including the fuel, are out-of-pocket.

These happened to be some of the smallest and youngest dogs that Girgenti has transported, but he said that he has helped rescue many types of dogs over the years. The biggest dog he had in his plane was a 175-pound mastiff/Great Dane-mix named Sam, who was so enormous that they could not even put him in a travel crate. “I didn’t really know the dog, and then when you’re flying you’re always concerned about what the dog’s reaction is going to be,” Girgenti said.

However, it turned out that Sam was very well-behaved, even though it was some of the worst weather Girgenti had ever encountered on one of his flights. “I turned around to look at him and he was looking a little nervous,” Girgenti remembered, “And when I turned around again, I saw that Sam had found his bag of dog food and he was chomping away!” The next thing he knew, Sam had moved from the back of the plane to sit next to Girgenti, acting as flying companion. “I started petting him, saying, ‘We’re okay, we’re okay,” he said.

In speaking about all of his rescue flights, Girgenti said it has been fun and rewarding. “I think the dogs know when they’re saved - they just know when they’re rescued,” he said.

Dr. Farmiloe was impressed to see how all of the ARF volunteers and pilots work together. He explained that these pilots fly for fun as a hobby, and have figured out a way to combine this love of flying with doing something good for others. “It really works out well for everybody – they get to fly and at the same time, dogs are rescued from high-kill shelters,” he said.

While Girgenti is certainly interested in flying, he explained that acquiring this skill as a hobby was not the catalyst for him earning his license in 2005. Actually, it all began with his two Labrador retrievers named Calvin and Hobbes.

When he and his wife, Lisa, bought a second house in Florida, they were concerned about how to get the dogs back and forth safely. The drive was too long and they did not want to put them on a commercial plane, since this can be unhealthy and sometimes traumatizing for dogs that ride in the cargo area. As a result, they chose to rent private jets so the dogs could ride with them during the flight. Girgenti would watch the pilots during the flight and decided to take flying lessons, which then led to buying his own plane and doing the flights himself.

“So it is because of the boys, Calvin and Hobbes – they got me into flying to help other dogs,” Girgenti said.