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They fly animals on the brink of euthanasia to new homes and second chances

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Is there any good news out there? Well, maybe. Last week, we read a story in the LA Times about Amelia Air, a nonprofit organization that's flying animals in overcrowded shelters to less crowded shelters and rescue centers. The flights are commanded by private pilots who need to log regular flight hours to maintain their licenses. And we're joined now by Petra Janney of Silver Lake, Calif., right outside Los Angeles, one of the founders of Amelia Air. Thanks so much for being with us.

PETRA JANNEY: It's great to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: How did this idea come about?

JANNEY: So it's a wonderful story. I was working on an engineering firm at the time, tackling some very different challenges to animal rescue, when I met Dean Heistad and his wife Katie. And Dean's a pilot, and he told me how they had rescued their family dog in a general aviation plane. Now, she's a Great Dane, so very large dog, and she had unfortunately been neglected. And they were a bit worried about how they were going to get her into the plane to get her to safety. Well, it turns out that she must have known she was onto the sweet life because she climbed right up on the wing, made a beeline for the cockpit. And it turns out that she loves to fly.

SIMON: (Laughter).

JANNEY: Yep. They named her after another boundless aviator, of course, Amelia Earhart. And so Amelia is really the inspiration for our nonprofit. So when Dean and Katie told me this story and they said they wanted to leverage the aviation community to help more pets in need, like Amelia, I said, absolutely, we have to build this. So while they were flying our first rescue flights, I was kind of behind the scenes helping to build the nonprofit structure and website and getting us off the ground.

SIMON: Wow. Tell us how this works. I mean, you so you - there are shelters all over this country that have too many animals - and I don't want to get unpleasant about it - than they can care for, in which case they sometimes have to do critical things.

JANNEY: That's right. So we make every effort to help whenever we can. So it's a very intense logistical operation, trying to figure out how to maximize the number of pets that we can save with the resources we have available, with the pilots we have available and with the partners that we have.

So typically, we will get a call from one of our rescue partners, and they will let us know that they are at capacity and can we help. So, for example, Ginger's Place Rescue in Porterville, Calif., will reach out with some dogs and cats that they are looking to place in rescue to avoid euthanasia. And then our team will start looking for partners that have capacity. And it's basically a big mission to play Tetris and connect the dots to find a place for these pets to go. In the process, we are looking through our roster of volunteer pilots, seeing who's available, who has an aircraft that can fit the roster of animals who need to be rescued.

SIMON: Oh.

JANNEY: Yeah. It's a big undertaking to plan the mission and ensure that everything goes off without a hitch. So we're very proud of our process, and we plan every single flight to ensure that we're helping the maximum number of pets per mission.

SIMON: My gosh. Any idea how many animals you've been able to help?

JANNEY: We've helped around 1,500 animals. So we launched about four years ago, and we've operated almost entirely during the pandemic. And we've seen a real change in the trends of animal rescue since the pandemic has kind of wound down. So we were seeing lower euthanasia rates. It was around 7% nationally in 2021. Unfortunately, that's now up to around 10% nationally, and it's due to pet overpopulation and people not getting their dogs fixed, not getting their cats fixed. And unfortunately, we really need people to choose to adopt instead of shopping because there're so many beautiful and deserving animals that need homes.

SIMON: I'm trying to imagine what it's like to fly somewhere, oh, and get animals who, you know, might be near the end of their lives because of euthanasia. And then to see them come on board a plane with a whole new life, that must be a very happy flight home.

JANNEY: I can tell you there's no better feeling in the world than going to pick up animals who would otherwise likely perish and getting them safe and getting them to a place where they're going to be a beloved part of a family. There's just no better feeling in the world. And though it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, it's through action that you actually discover how powerful you can be. And in my experience, being brave enough to take that first step, it really inspires others to join you.

SIMON: Petra Janney is co-founder of Amelia Air. Thank you so much for being with us.

JANNEY: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLY BRAGG SONG, "JANE ALLEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.