It’s dawn in Wilson, North Carolina, and I’m standing on the fringes of a private airfield, chatting with some of the kindest humans found anywhere in America.
They are wary at meeting a British journalist – the accent throws them, as does the fear of talking to someone who spills ink for a living – but soon warm up. Before long, John, a trucker, is railing about the rising cost of auto insurance, while Betty, quiet and homely and with searching, deep-set eyes, clutches my hand and strokes it, as though polishing an apple. Alice, blonde and sure-footed, strides around in a grey hoodie and tinted Ray-Bans, a handy shield against the harsh morning light.
Each comes from a different walk of life, but all have one thing in common: they love dogs. They love them so much in fact, they’ve driven here first thing on a Saturday morning accompanied by a dog they’ve been fostering for days and, in some cases, weeks.
Before long, the small parking lot is full, and the grass, still white and crunchy from an overnight frost, is a bundle of activity, as 14 dogs engage in the age-old business of saying hello to one another. Noses are licked, bums sniffed, ground is demanded and relinquished as status is established. They whimper and pant, snap and nip and lick, while we gaze at the unforced, oh-so-easy dogginess that confronts us. “They melt my heart,” says a voice, and a murmur of agreement ripples through the group.
It’s hard to believe, but each of these dogs has been saved from certain death, and is thus about to embark on a journey, not across the River Styx, but north and overland, to their new ‘forever homes’ in New Jersey. As we stand here chewing the fat, somewhere far to the north, families in America’s Garden State are cleaning houses, preparing doggy crèches, buying beds and plush toys, setting down new bowls and filing them with food water, and probably fretting a little. For them, and for the bundle of bouncing fur in front of us, life is about to change for the better.
There are lots of heroes here this morning in Wilson, of the two-legged and four-legged varieties, but none more so than Paul Steklenski. A little over five years ago on another bright morning in spring, the US Army veteran was casting around for a new challenge in life. By chance, his route home – he works as a software engineer for a large US pharmaceutical firm – took him past Heritage Field, a small private airport an hour northwest of Philadelphia.
“I thought, why not apply to take flying lessons,” he tells me over lunch at the Craft Ale House, a roadside diner abutting the airstrip. So he did. Before long, he passed his exams and, dipping into his savings, bought his own plane, a Beechcraft Bonanza, often described indelicately but accurately as the ‘forked-tail doctor killer’, due to its quirky design and the number of wealthy surgeons who die in them, usually due to bad weather, overconfidence, and poor planning. In 1959, a Bonanza came down in a winter storm in a cornfield in Iowa, killing the singer Buddy Holly.
So far, Paul has avoided mishaps, mostly by being a prudent judge of weather. He knows when to take his plane to the skies and when to leave it indoors. A straight-talking, humble guy with deep local roots, he is as American as they come, having risen from immigrant stock to be a successful businessman and philanthropist.
His airborne exploits did not end with the purchase of a private airplane, but proved to be the start of an adventure that continues to this day and which led him – and me, and the group of 22 people and 14 dogs – to the airstrip in North Carolina.
After watching a programme about America’s ‘kill shelters’, which act as mass abattoirs, processing and euthanizing unclaimed or unwanted dogs within 72 hours of their arrival, Paul decided to do something. He randomly phoned a non-profit, no-kill shelter in Wilson called ‘For the Love of Dogs’, run and financed by volunteers, which houses dogs until they find a new home. On their suggestion, he then contacted a second charity in New York, which had the opposite problem - lots of willing adopters, but not enough dogs to go around.
As any entrepreneur will tell you, when there is a mismatch in supply and demand, something or someone will come and fill that void. Capitalism abhors a vacuum and all that. There were too many unwanted dogs in the southern states and too few in the north. The challenge was how to get them there. He could load a few pups into his truck and do it himself. Of course, he had a plane too...
A plan started to form in Paul’s head. Months of manic work followed. Having bought his Bonanza for $69,000, a knock-down price due to it needing a completely new floor, Paul again dipped into his own pocket. He refurbished the interior to make it dog friendly, bought crates, and set up his own non-profit, calling it ‘Flying Fur Animal Rescue’ and his plane ‘Flying Fur I’. He contacted a freelancer in London who designed a logo, drawing inspiration from America’s early-era commercial jets.
Asked if he recalls his first trip as an avian Good Samaritan, Paul is quiet for a moment, then smiles. “Yes – it was May 2015,” he says – a month after Flying Fur was registered as a charity. “I flew down to Wilson, picked up a single dog, a pit-bull who’d been used for bait by a dog-fighting gang.” Paul flew the little fellow up to Poughkeepsie, a town north of New York City; the dog was later rehomed in Maine.
And so the next chapter in this story began. A dog lover since he could remember, Paul has always had hounds at home. (Bella and Tessa, his two Labs, spend their days being looked after by family when he is on the road or in the air). We don’t discuss faith, but when asked why he set up Flying Fur, he says he felt “a calling”.
Like many of us, while Paul wrings his hands over human caprice and contrariness – our capacity to wreak damage then scramble to repair it - he always sees the best in our four-legged friends. “People can be terrible, but dogs are always amazing,” he says to me. He then adds a caveat. “Some of the best people I meet work in animal charities – salt of the earth, really good people. Some crazies, sure, but still good people. When it comes to helping animals, your background doesn’t matter, only that you’re here to help animals.”
This conversation takes place a day after we meet. Most of Friday is spent on Interstate 95, a highway that runs the length of America’s east coast, from Maine to Florida. Plans to fly to Wilson – my preference – were alas shelved when Flying Fur I failed its annual inspection. After lunch at the Craft Ale House, we drove to see Ned, a straight-talking mechanic with an ‘I Heart Obama’ sticker on his metal toolbox. Inside his hangar, Paul’s plane is in pieces, the engine stripped down, and three of the six cylinders removed to figure out which ones are misfiring.
It will be grounded for two weeks, so with flying no longer an option, Paul initiates his back-up plan. Instead of a 90-minute flight, we will drive down the I-95, in an old metal coach called the ‘Pawty Bus’. It’s rattles mightily, grumbling like an old man with bad joints - it is fair to say that its better days had probably seen better days.
But it is roadworthy and it’s what we need. Paul sleeps and eats in it when he travels – the Pawty Bus is essentially just a very large, old Winnebago. If all goes to plan, we’ll pick up our doggy cargo in Wilson on Saturday morning and have them all tucked away, snug and warm, in their new forever homes before the day is out.
Most of Friday is spent crawling along the I-95 in a seemingly never-ending traffic jam. On the plus side, it gives us more time to chat. Over the sound of classic soft rock (Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin are favourites, but Elton John is “pompous”), we talk dogs – why he lives and loves them, and what makes them worth saving.
“Humans are so arrogant to believe we are the smartest species on the planet – it’s not true at all,” he says, as we crawl through Baltimore. “Spend time with a dog and you see the attributes we respect: selflessness, compassion, caring, intuition, learning. A dog doesn’t want anything from you other than to spend time with you and make you happy. He never tires of seeing you, never gets angry with you.”
Flying Fur Animal Rescue has become something of a labour of love for its founder. At first, Paul literally did it on a shoestring, covering all the running costs. He still shells out a thousand dollars a month to keep the project rolling along, but a growing presence on social media, where he has a big and loyal following on Instagram, is starting help defray the costs. His posts, showing dogs in distress but set to be saved, are canny but heartfelt, and help him to raise money from donors in America and around the world. (For our part, Dudley & Co donated $250 to Flying Fur before meeting Paul).
The money helps keep the plane airborne, the bus fuelled (a full tank of gasoline costs $300) and will pay for a dog shelter taking shape a short drive from Heritage Field airport. Secluded off a quiet highway, the ten-acre property includes a log cabin, which Paul will convert and live in, an office, a garage for the Pawty Bus, and a shelter capable of housing around 20 pups as they transition to their new homes. He plans to build a walking track around the property, which volunteers will use to give dogs their daily exercise.
The traffic on I-95 is so overwhelming that we stop for an hour to let it subside, and to grab dinner at Cracker Barrel, a restaurant chain that deep-fries its vegetables but delivers them to the table with a smile. After we pass Richmond, the state capital of Virginia, the road opens out and we gain speed. The night is cloudless and inky black: somewhere ahead of us in the darkness are lots of little beating hearts, unaware their lives are set to change for the better. My heart leaps at the thought.
After a poor night’s sleep on a hard motel bed, I wake groggy and bleary-eyed. That evaporates the moment I park at the Wilson Industrial Air Centre, and the strains and stresses of everyday life fall away. Paul the trucker has brought Kuka, a bouncing bucket of energy hiding behind eyes that express equal measures of hope and fear.
Alice has been fostering Widget, a tiny Chihuahua which, while barely a few months old, has sad, world-weary eyes caused in part by an infestation of fire ants in her belly. Some of their stories are hard to hear. Misty, with her Collie coat and Corgi ears, looks bright and alert, but her carers show me a picture of her a month earlier, when she showed up at a house, emaciated and furless and near to death.
To trust in strangers, when life had shown her no reason to believe in kindness, shows how desperate Misty was, but it also reminds us of the deep well of hope that lives in the heart of a dog. Later, when I ask Paul if he believes these dogs know their lives are getting better, he nods with certainty. “Absolutely they know they are being saved. No question about it – they pick up on your energy. If you’re a good person and you have their interests at heart, they get it. Dogs may not forget bad things but over time, the good outweighs the bad.”
And thank goodness for that, for if dogs were pessimists like us, the faithful-friend scenario would surely never hold. It is barely three centuries since the philosopher Thomas Hobbes described life as ‘nasty, brutish and short’, but the intervening years have made us hyper-sensitized to pain, unable to deal with the harder cards life deals out. Dogs don’t like suffering – who does? – but they are better equipped to deal with it, in part because their nature is to see the glass as half full.
That schism between species is reinforced when talk turns to a documentary released a few months earlier. It follows Paul as he jets down to Wilson on a rescue mission. One of the dogs he saves that day, Maximus, has two broken legs, one of which is in a very had way, and is later amputated. But he is adopted by a New York couple who already have a three-legged dog: the film, available on the streaming platform Vimeo, shows him hopping contentedly around his new home.
With his huge, goofy smile, Maximus has clearly forgotten his past life – or pushed it far into the back of his mind. He has a home, a bed, food, a loving family – barring a fourth working leg, Maximus has pretty much everything he needs. Paul, however, struggled to deal with his memories of this trip, and of Maximus in particular. “That one really affected me,” he says quietly. “I took a day off the following week and visited him at his home near Philadelphia.” He still visits when he has the time.
Paul’s work, the sacrifice of his precious time and resources, and the hard work done by so many shelters in Wilson and elsewhere, is amazing and invaluable. Since 2015, he reckons he’s rescued at least 1,500 dogs from oblivion. “You don’t just save a dog’s life, but also the lives of their owners,” he states. “There’s so much joy on both sides. A shelter dog knows what you have done for them, and perhaps even better, the owner knows that they have saved a life.”
To be sure, this number is a drop in the ocean: there is still a chasm between need and deed. The American Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals reckons 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year, with a quarter euthanized within days. Most people who take a dog to a shelter have little idea they are in effect signing its death warrant. “If a shelter is full, the dog is pretty much immediately put down,” says Betty in a quiet voice when we speak in Wilson, wiping her eyes with a tissue.
The good news is life is improving for America’s dogs. Fewer are euthanized each year – the number has fallen steadily since 2011. Shelters like Maddie’s Pet Adoption Centre in San Francisco and Rescue Dogs Rock in New York are cutting-edge outfits, lavish and well funded, providing medical and fostering services for maltreated or poorly nourished pooches. A large software firm, Peoplesoft, has donated $200 million to an ambitious project to make America a ‘no-kill’ country within a decade.
Much remains to be done – just 700 of the country’s 5,000 shelters are safe places that do not put dogs to death. But thanks to a national programme of spaying and neutering (which cuts the number of strays), rising adoption rates, and the embrace of rescue dogs (ASPCA chief executive Matt Bershadker says rescuing an animal has become a “badge of honour” in today’s society), things are looking up.
Money helps, but without people like Paul and the two charities booking this trip - For the Love of Dogs in Wilson and, up in New Jersey, the Burlington Animal Council Alliance – none of these young pups would have seen the weekend out.
As we load the dogs on the Pawty Bus, Paul chatters away, almost to himself. “Actions speak louder than world. Go out and make something change, make it happen. I’m not bitching about things – I’m out doing, leading by example.” Each dog gets a separate crate, with the exception of a trio of little munchkins from the same litter, named Wynken, Blynken and Nod after the children’s poem. They lie snuggled up like a three-headed sausage, barely twitching a muscle. We give each one a bowl of water, say our farewells to the foster families, and set off.
The journey whizzes by, the traffic better but the weather worse, with storm clouds piling up overhead. Yesterday was ideal for flying, with barely a cloud in the sky, but a return journey would be decidedly dicey. I lift Widget gently out of his crate – he’s so small, he’s almost falling through the metal bars – and he sits on my lap, occasionally waking from his slumbers to chew my thumb.
We while away the hours as the day rolls by, discussing music and dogs, the golden-russet colours of autumnal leaves, and the shelter Paul is building. Behind us, the dogs snooze, waking only as we hit a rough seam in the road, or snake around a sharp bend. Kuka utters the occasional squeak, but otherwise, the bus is as silent as a breathless night. “Never had a group so quiet,” observes Paul. It’s just after 7pm when we arrive at a nondescript mall in Moorestown, New Jersey. Volunteers from the Burlington charity are already there, along with the adoptees, all hopeful faces and eager eyes straining to catch a glimpse of their ‘forever dogs’.
Misty, the first to disembark, leaves with a young couple who cry and make a great fuss of her. Her tail wags furiously – she gets it. So does Kiwi, a hairy mutt with crooked ears and a gentle face, who leaves with two older ladies. The three related munchkins are ushered into separate cars, and head off to begin new lives.
Just three dogs – Widget, Kuka and a sweet little chap called Rufus with a silky Black Lab coat – are left in the hands of the local shelter. But even they find their forever home: within a week, I get an email from Ronnie, a Burlington volunteer. Attached is a photo of Rufus, being cuddled by his new family. They already have a young dog, so he already has a friend. And some truly big love.
We clamber aboard the Pawty Bus and start the short journey home. Paul warned me how silent the bus is without our four-legged cargo, but I’m unprepared for the void, the total absence of noise. There’s no Widget nibbling my thumb. No little squeaks from Kuka or Misty. Kiwi’s cheery face is gone, as has the three-headed sausage monster. The crates rattle behind us, advertising their vacancy.
Later, over a beer, I ask Paul if he’s already thinking about his next trip south. “Not yet – I’m way too tired at the moment,” he replies.
If you would like to make a donation to Flying Fur Rescue, click here.