Operation Baghdad Pups: Worldwide Rescue Flight Behind the Scenes – New York to Home

By Meredith Ayan, Executive Director

After months of planning it was such a relief to see our plane full of rescued dogs and cats touch down at JFK last week. Each animal had been rescued by a service member months earlier, before life was so drastically altered by COVID-19.

The animals had made the long journey from Iraq, with 6 hours of load-in time, and 13 hours of flight time. The plane arrived in NYC at just about 2 am. Our team members, partners and volunteers were there to greet the dogs as they bounded down the steps of the plane, and took their first steps on US soil. The cats remained safely in their carriers and each animal was given a health check-up and monitored during their short stay before continuing onto their forever homes across the country.

The next morning our call time was 4 am and I was was fortunate to get a short night’s sleep before joining Pilot Julian from Pet Rescue Pilots for a trip along the Eastern United States to deliver seven dogs and three cats to their homes. I had expected a noisy plane with anxious animals, but the pilots assured me the animals would simply sleep once we were at cruising altitude. Amazingly, they all travelled peacefully and slept, exactly as the pilots said they would.

Without Pet Rescue Pilots’ help, it would have taken us weeks to coordinate these reunions through ground transport and commercial airlines. They made over a dozen stops over the next few days, delivering more cats and dogs to their families that anxiously awaited them. Typically, this amazing organization transports animals from high-euthanasia areas to shelters that have more space in different parts of the country. So, while they are absolute experts at transporting pets, they had never made a trip quite like this before.

Our journey down the East Coast was a truly incredible experience. After about an hour of load in, we taxied out at 7 a.m. and by 11 p.m. we were back in New York after delivering nine animals to six different locations where service men and women along with their families excitedly reunited with their pets. There were so many smiles and tears of joy. It was a truly incredible day.

Fitting 10 animals, 2 pilots and one passenger on a Cessna aircraft is a big like playing a high stakes game of Tetris. Our biggest dog, Feral Bueller, was in such a large crate that we couldn’t get it on the Pet Rescue Flight plane. The experienced pilots took this in stride and allowed Feral Bueller to sit by my side, right behind them. He behaved amazingly well in the air, disembarked at each stop with us, and charmed each and every member of the ground crews at every airport.

You might remember Feral Bueller. We told you about this sweet boy who was found with a gunshot injury to his leg in early 2020. By March, he was recovered and ready to travel to the U.S., but the air space in Iraq closed just days before he was scheduled to leave. His journey home to his adopter was drawn out and complicated, but he was finally reunited with his Dad at our very last stop of the day in Alabama.

I had been involved with Feral Bueller’s rescue since we first heard about him being shot, so getting him home filled my heart with joy and closed a chapter on the incredible work of many people who helped him get there.

You may have also noticed that I mentioned starting the day with ten animals, but only delivering nine. We returned back to New York with Shakira the cat, whose owner was unable to meet us before we had to fly on to our next stop. On our return trip, we let Shakira roam the plane because she needed time out of her crate, and just as the rest of the animals had travelled so well, Shakira peacefully gazed out the window. Shakira was reunited with her owner a few days later and she’s happily settled into her new life.

Once again, this successful day of happy reunions was made possible through our partnership with Pet Rescue Pilots and the many people who donated for these pets’ care while they were stuck overseas and their trips home.

Our team here at SPCA International will be keeping in touch with the soldiers and we are looking forward to sharing updates about these rescue pets with you soon.