HANOVER - Nora Parker could not hold back her excitement and tears Saturday morning as she watched a planeload of 154 shelter dogs arrive at Morristown Municipal Airport, on their way to new loving homes.
"Now we know these dogs, these at-risk dogs, are safe," said Parker, a 38-year staff member at St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center, explaining her emotional reaction to the arrival of a Wings of Rescue “independence flight” of pet dogs from animal shelters in Southern California, some of which were rescued from recent wild fires on the west coast.
"When you've worked in this field for so long, the idea that there is a safety net for these dogs if we all work together is so wonderful," said Parker, a Morris Township resident and one of a small army of staff and volunteers from St. Hubert's who arrived with five vans to transport the crated dogs to shelters and ultimately homes in New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. "It takes a village, and everybody came together, and now we know all these dogs are safe."
Fera Mostow, a volunteer coordinator for the nonprofit Wings of Rescue organization, said the dogs were collected form high-intake shelters "where, just because of lack of resources, lack of space, they simply can't take care of them, and so they have a very, very high risk of being euthanized. So we bring them to places like this where they are going to get adopted and get their forever homes. It's just a wonderful thing."
Wings of Rescue found willing partners on the East Coast at St. Hubert's, which includes shelters in Madison and Branchburg and a dog-training school in Madison.
With another 250 dogs being airlifted over the weekend to shelters in Seattle and Oregon, Wings of Rescue is celebrating 20,000 dogs flown to better lives since 2009.
"We've flown about 5,000 animals this year," said Mostow, who accompanied the dogs on the 12-hour flight, which she estimated at a cost of $18,000. "Like all organizations, we're in desperate need of money. So we do this through places like St. Hubert's and the ASPCA, who have been wonderful for subsidizing the flights, and through private donations."
Most of the dogs on the flight were small breeds weighing less than 30 pounds. Some of them shared the scores of travel crates that were transferred directly to the St. Hubert's vans, including its specially-equipped "flagship" Zephyr step-van.
Mostow said the dogs brought to under-stocked partner organizations around the country generally place all the dogs in new homes in five days or less. Stacy Greene, vice president of development and communications for St. Hubert's, said smaller dogs are more in-demand, so adopting them out should not be difficult.
"It's very hard for us on the East Coast to imagine, but it is true that in Southern California, the shelters are just overcrowded with small dogs," said St. Hubert's President and CEO Heather J. Cammisa. "Meanwhile, we have communities full of loving homes looking for small dogs to adopt, and are so happy we're making this connection so they can fulfill their desire to adopt, and to help these dogs. It's going to be a great day."
Dirk van der Sterre, owner-operator of the FTC FBO facility for private and corporate aircraft at Morristown Municipal, said he was a animal shelter supporter who was glad to do what he could to make the flight possible.
"As soon as we got the call from Wings of Rescue, we were excited to help out," he said.
Staff Writer William Westhoven: 973-917-9242; wwesthoven@GannettNJ.com.