Flying with Fido

LAKE PLACID – A dog is a man’s best friend, as the saying goes. A local pilot is doing his best to return the favor.

When he’s not working on his patients’ teeth at High Peaks Dental in Lake Placid, 48-year-old D.J. O’Neill takes to the skies in his single-propeller airplane – a red and white Cessna 185 Skywagon I, to be exact – to rescue dogs from animal shelters in other parts of the U.S.

“I’m a sucker for a dog,” O’Neill told the Enterprise recently. “I just want to help them out because they need people to speak for them. So it was like, ‘Yeah, I can step up and do this.'”

O’Neill, who grew up in White River Junction, Vt., fell in love with flying at age 10. His father was also a pilot and owned a 1948 Stinson airplane. O’Neill would often tag along with his father on flights, but there was one problem.

“I would puke,” he said. “Basically, I couldn’t hold it down, and I would decorate the plane every time Dad would take me up. I think out of self-preservation he started me to fly, and by flying I got distracted. And I got distracted, so I wouldn’t think about other things, and I’d fly the plane and I was OK.”

O’Neill earned his pilot’s license when he turned 18, and he’s been flying ever since.

O’Neill has made his living as a dentist for 23 years: first at an office on the Akwesasne Indian reservation and then at High Peaks Dental in Lake Placid. All the while, he has kept his plane, which is currently parked in a hangar at the Lake Placid Airport, and he continues to fly as an amateur pilot.

So how did O’Neill end up rescuing dogs? O’Neill said it all started with a news report on CBS’ “60 Minutes” about Pilots N Paws, a South Carolina-based nonprofit organization founded in 2008 by Debi Boies and Jon Wehrenberg. Boies, a self-proclaimed animal lover, and Wehrenberg, a pilot, teamed up to rescue a Doberman pinscher from a shelter in Florida. After successfully bringing the dog back to South Carolina, the duo founded Pilots N Paws to link pilots with animal rescue groups.

Kathleen Quinn is executive director of Pilots N Paws. She said there’s no shortage of dogs that need to be adopted, and there are plenty of people willing to take them in – the problem is getting the dog from point A to point B. That’s where the pilots come into play, Quinn said.

“There’s kind of a saying – the $100 hamburger,” she said. “Pilots are always looking for an excuse to fly. It usually costs about $100 an hour to fly, so they’ll fly an hour somewhere just to go have a fast-food hamburger, and then fly back. So if you give them a reason that has a lot of meaning, I think that’s one thing that really draws our pilots to our organization – not only can they do their passion, which is flying, but then they’re saving a life.”

That was the case for O’Neill, who said he’s always looking for a good reason to fly. After learning about Pilots N Paws, he contacted Boies and signed up.O’Neill has since flown five rescue missions, all in the Northeast.

The process is straightforward. O’Neill said it generally starts with an email from Donna Kraan of Bridges to Safety, an animal rescue group based in New Jersey. Kraan, who operates out of Ontario, Canada, will tell O’Neill where the dog needs to be picked up and where it needs to go. Sometimes, O’Neill picks up more than one dog, although his plane is fairly small and space is limited.

Before he leaves, O’Neill borrows dog crates from the Tri-Lakes Humane Society in Saranac Lake. Then he flies to his destination, picks up the dog and brings it back to meet with animal rescue workers in the Northeast, who in turn bring the dogs to no-kill shelters or adoptive families.

Kraan explained that many U.S. animal shelters are “grossly over-populated” and that many of them end up euthanizing cats and dogs that can’t be placed in homes.

“What our rescue (group) does is, if we see a dog that we feel we can place, we will pull it, hopefully find a foster home for it or an immediate adopter – that’s rare. Usually we have them sent to a foster home,” she said.

Rescue groups like Pilots N Paws and Bridges to Safety are extremely active. Kraan said in any given month, her group will help rescue up to 20 dogs. Quinn said Pilots N Paws, which has enlisted more than 3,000 pilots since it was founded five years ago, coordinates about 12,000 rescue flights per year, and that number keeps growing.

“We don’t only fly dogs,” Quinn added. “We fly cats, we’ve flown baby chickens, baby ducks – we had a pilot in South Carolina who flew two small donkeys, actually. And in Florida, we have pilots who do a lot of wildlife-type rescue work where they’ll fly wildlife from the Everglades to different sanctuaries. We’ve flown military dogs for our servicemen.”

Pilots N Paws also made headlines last year when it worked with Navy SEALs in Afghanistan to fly an injured steppe eagle to a bird sanctuary in western New York.

For O’Neill, working with animal rescue groups has been a rewarding experience. He said the hardest part of the process is parting ways with the dogs. On his last mission, he rescued a shepherd mix that he brought to the shelter in Saranac Lake.

“Handsome dog,” O’Neill said. “I would’ve taken him myself if I didn’t have my two already. I think it’s one of the occupational hazards of flying dogs. You’re like, ‘Hmm, I’ll take him.'”

For more information about Pilots N Paws, visit

Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or