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North Hills Monthly

Animal Rescues Take to the Road (and Sky) to Save Shelter Pets

Nov 30, 2017 01:16PM ● By Vanessa Orr

Animal Lifeline

One of the more positive results of the emphasis on spay-and-neuter programs and responsible pet ownership in northeastern states is that the number of animals in many shelters has declined. Unfortunately, far too many shelters in southern states still suffer from major overcrowding, and despite the fact that they’re trying to find homes for all of their animals, there is just no space available.

To this end, a number of groups—including Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Transport (PAART), Animal Lifeline and Tracy’s Dogs—pull pets from these shelters and either drive or fly them to states where they are more likely to be adopted. These same groups also provide aid in times of emergency, helping to empty shelters in affected areas so that animals that are separated from their humans can have a place to stay until they are reunited.

“The situation is really desperate in certain areas of the south; animals are euthanized by the hundreds,” said Lynda Manko, executive director of Animal Lifeline. “Meanwhile, shelters in the East are empty and they’re begging us for animals. It just kills me to think that there’s space available somewhere when dogs are being put down.” 

Animal Lifeline, which was established in Bucks County, PA in 2006, is relatively new to the Pittsburgh area, having just opened its office this past September. “Already we’ve rescued 375 animals, which is pretty successful for just a few months,” said Manko. 

The organization was started by Denise Bash, who held garage sales to help raise money for local shelters’ spay-and-neuter programs, and then started a spay-and-neuter program of her own. This led to the creation of an animal sanctuary and a thrift store to support it, and then to the rescue transport program. According to Manko, Animal Lifeline has raised about $100,000 for community shelters in the Bucks County area.

“The organization decided to expand to Pittsburgh where we’re focusing on growing the transport part first, and then opening a foodbank for shelters to use this December,” said Manko, adding that Animal Lifeline is working with Greater Good to become a distribution point to provide food for local shelters. The group also hopes to open a thrift store next spring. 

“I get calls every day from shelters that have nowhere to put their animals, and I match them up with those that do have space,” said Manko. “I keep making calls until we get those animals out of harm’s way.”

Volunteers drive the organization’s Ford Transit to pick up animals in southern states, and the organization has also worked with Wings of Rescue to pick up animals in Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas and elsewhere. “It’s all about making connections—where can we take these animals so that they can be adopted and end up in good homes?” said Manko.

PAART started with pilots Jonathan Plesset and Brad Childs agreeing to fly a plane to pick up one dog, and has since grown to include a bevy of “landpilots” as well as a disaster relief and rescue group, known as Team DiRT. Together, these volunteers have saved more than 8,000 dogs, including a recent transport of 41 dogs and two animal rescue workers from the British Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria, and the transport of 67 animals from Texas after Hurricane Harvey.

“In the last eight weeks, we’ve rescued 408 animals, and placed about 100 of those in the Pittsburgh area,” said Executive Director Mary Kennedy Withrow. 

PAART travels to West Virginia, northern Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee on a regular basis, often arriving just in time to prevent animals from being euthanized. “We put a claim on them as soon as we hear about them, and then figure something out,” said Kennedy Withrow, adding that New York and New Jersey often step up to provide space for transported pets. “In some places down south, as soon as we get them out of the shelters, those cages fill right back up. 

“You never realize how great the need is in other places until you hear about all of these healthy animals being euthanized because the shelters are so overcrowded and underfunded,” she added. “It’s amazing to be able to bring these animals from danger to safety.”

Kennedy Withrow credits the organization’s many volunteers for making this possible. “They will drive anywhere,” she said of the roughly 200 landpilots. In addition to a plane, PAART has a van that fits 20 animals, and a trailer that can fit about 55, which is often deployed to help in natural disasters. 

“We really need a new van, because it’s got 170,000 miles on it, and we need something better to send on these longer trips,” said Kennedy Withrow, adding that a donor has offered to match donations through the end of the year toward this goal.

Tracy’s Dogs, based in San Antonio, TX, is actually on the frontline of the overpopulation problem, visiting border shelters to pull dogs that it often has to nurse back to health before transporting them across the nation, including to Pittsburgh. 

“It’s not easy for them to find homes down here because there are so many animals,” said founder Tracy Voss-Whyatt, who runs the rescue with her husband, Scott. “My jaw just dropped when I saw the intake numbers; it’s hard to comprehend the issue until you walk through these kennels.”

Tracy’s Dogs makes 12 trips a year, averaging 2,000 miles on each roundtrip. Since starting their rescue, they have transported 4,000 dogs; the number is closer to 7,000 if you count all of the adoptions that resulted as the result of videos that Voss-Whyatt made in local shelters to get the word out before starting her own organization.

“A friend of ours lived in Colorado and said that we should bring some dogs there,” said Voss-Whyatt of the group’s first nationwide transport. “We took eight dogs to the Denver PetSmart, and they were all adopted within four hours. People were lining up in the store aisles.”

People apply online to be dog parents, and Tracy matches them with the right animal. “Because we keep dogs in quarantine for three to four weeks to make sure that they’re healthy before they’re transported, we get to know them well,” she said. “Sometimes the dog someone applies for isn’t the one they end up with. We make sure it’s the right fit.”

Tracy’s Dogs will be coming to Monroeville on Dec. 16, and you can follow the transport—as well as the happy ending—on their Facebook page.

How can you help?

Local organizations always need volunteers, and not just drivers. Both PAART and Animal Lifeline can use office help, fundraising expertise, clean-up crews and more. And all of the organizations can always use donations. Visit PAART at  Animal Lifeline at and Tracy’s Dogs at

41 animals and two relief workers rescued in Tortola, BVI by Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team