Dogster Hero: Wings of Rescue Saves Dogs One Flight at a Time

Thanks to volunteer pilots and their planes, Wings of Rescue has flown more than 8,300 dogs from kill shelters to new homes.


Editor’s Note: It’s National Aviation Day, Dogsters! And what better way to celebrate than with a Dogster Hero like California’s Wings of Rescue?

In animal rescue, time can be the most critical factor. Dogs who end up in kill shelters have just days or even hours to be rescued before being euthanized. Because of severe overcrowding in animal shelters, pregnant dogs and newborn puppies are rarely given preferential treatment and are routinely put down. Dogs with any medical issues or physical handicap often face the same fate.

But through the sadness that surrounds California’s kill shelters, there comes a ray of hope for the dogs in a special group called Wings of Rescue.

Wings of Rescue is a volunteer network of pilots and rescue organizations who work together to fly animals on death row in high-kill shelters in California to new homes and rescue groups up and down the West Coast. Since it was founded in 2011 by pilot and animal lover Yehuda Netanel, Wings of Rescue has flown 8,300 animals — some within hours of death — to safety and into new loving homes.

Netanel, along with co-founder Cindy Smith, work full-time jobs in addition to running Wings of Rescue, a 501(c)(3) charity that relies solely on donations to fund the chartered flights. The dedicated duo spends more than 40 hours a week coordinating flights and trying to get as many animals as possible out of the kill shelters and onto the planes.

Smith explains that the majority of flights depart from the Los Angeles area and will transport animals selected by the sending animal organizations, who partner with Wings of Rescue. These groups communicate with receiving animal rescue organizations in the Pacific Northwest that have room for the dogs, and oftentimes, many of the dogs will have families waiting to adopt them as soon as they get off the plane. Volunteer pilots with Wings of Rescue fly all breeds of dogs, but Smith says they tend to see a lot of Chihuahuas, Chihuahua mixes, Terriers, and “bully” breeds.

Initially, Netanel would fly his own plane more than 300 hours per year on rescue missions for Wings of Rescue. But due to the overwhelming numbers of dogs in Californian kill shelters, Wings of Rescue now needs to charter larger planes in order to keep up with demand for transporting these animals, both dogs and cats, quickly and efficiently. Thanks to the response from pilots who are willing to volunteer their time and private aircraft, Wings of Rescue can accomplish lifesaving missions for more and more animals in all types of weather.

“On average, these chartered flights will cost between $12,000 to $16,000 and can transport between 80 and 150 animals at once,” Smith says. “These flights are all paid for by donations.”

In order to find experienced, kindhearted pilots to add to their volunteer flight network, Netanel and Smith regularly attend airplane owner conventions, talk to airplane owners on the ramp, and spread the word about Wings of Rescue’s mission via social media, such as its Facebook page and Twitter.

As an intermediary in the effort to save shelter dogs’ lives, Wings of Rescue depends on its network of volunteers on the ground to send and receive the precious cargo.

“At the moment, we are partnering heavily with ShelterMe and BARK Avenue Foundation to help fly dogs out of the Southern California area to rescues and Humane Societies in the Pacific Northwest,” says Smith.

Volunteers will meet the dogs on the tarmac when they arrive to help unload the planes and provide comfort to the dogs as they are transported to rescue facilities, foster homes, and into forever homes.

“One of our favorite receiving organizations is Kootenai Humane Society in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. They work very hard to maintain a no-kill status,” says Smith.

Wings of Rescue will often fly animals for whom ground transportation would not be the best option. Dogs who are heavily pregnant or with newborn puppies, those who’ve had recent surgery or are in need of a major operation benefit greatly from being flown to rescue facilities in a private plane as opposed to much longer ground transport, which would have them in crates for upward of 24 hours. “Most of our flights are completed within three to four hours,” says Smith.

Smith goes on to explain that most dogs are flown in crates, with larger nursing mothers kept in separate cages from their puppies in order to prevent the babies from being squished. Smith, who often rides along for larger transports (75 or more dogs), will place a few puppies at a time in with their mother to nurse halfway through the flight. The group’s priority is to transport the animals as quickly as they can while ensuring their safety and comfort.

One of the lucky dogs saved by Wings of Rescue was a sweet Pit Bull named Piglet. Sadly, the big girl had been used as a bait dog and had severe facial injuries. When Smith was contacted about Piglet, she reached out to rescue partner Panda Paws Rescue, a group that specializes in taking in and providing treatment for animals in need of major medical care.

Wings of Rescue flew Piglet from the Livermore airport in California to Hillsboro, Oregon, where Amanda Giese, the founder of Panda Paws Rescue, immediately took the injured dog to a veterinarian. Piglet had had a very hard life, but with the excellent care provided by Panda Paws Rescue, she recovered and was later adopted by Giese’s best friend.

Thanks to Wings of Rescue, animals from overcrowded shelters in California have the chance at new lives in other states. Smith says that before the end of 2014, Wings of Rescue will have rescued 10,000 animals through lifesaving flights, and that the group’s goal for 2015 is to fly 5,000 rescued pets to safety and to expand its rescue transports to the East Coast.

To see some of the beautiful dogs that have been saved, and to learn more about Wings of Rescue, please check out this video:

Wings of Rescue relies on donations to cover the costs of transporting these deserving animals to new homes. No donation is too small. If you’d like to help, please check the site for ways to donate; you can send your contribution via Paypal to

All photos via Wings of Rescue’s Facebook page unless otherwise noted.

Read more about rescue on Dogster:

Do you know of a rescue hero — dog, human, or group — we should profile on Dogster? Write us at
About Crystal Gibson: A child-sized Canadian expat in France who is fluent in French and sarcasm. Owned by a neurotic Doxie mix, a Garfield look-alike, and two needy Sphynx cats. An aspiring writer and pet photographer with a love of coffee and distaste for French administration, she can be found as @PinchMom over on Twitter.

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