The rescue dogs were signed for and adopted, but there was a problem: how do you move 15 dogs from La Paz, Mexico, to Washington state in the middle of a global pandemic?
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, commercial airlines have placed restrictions on flying dogs from Mexico to the U.S., which is the normal way Baja Dogs La Paz Inc. transports their pups. The rescue organization gets most adoptions internationally in the U.S. and Canada, dogs adopted by families north of California are picked up at the Sea-Tac International Airport after a flight from Cabo San Lucas.
Now in the middle of a crisis, the rescue organization had to find a creative solution to get the dogs that were already adopted up to the U.S. without an airline. After weeks of planning, it all came down to three flight days in May, with dozens of volunteer pilots using their private planes to bring the pups to Renton Municipal Airport.
On May 23, a family of three from South Seattle sat on the landing strip at Renton airport, waiting for their puppy to come in from the sky and arrive at the Boeing Employee Flying Association (BEFA) hangar. They found Baja through a web search after the lockdown began, and have been waiting about a month, but said many of the other adopters have been waiting for several months.
Six dogs came in that day on three aircraft, including the dog the family was adopting, Niaya, a yellow Labrador Retriever-Beagle mix. She was the on the first flight to arrive in Renton that day, finally back on the ground and home for the first time after a long journey.
Many of the dogs at Baja Dogs La Paz Inc. are found abandoned and starving before they are brought to the shelter in Mexico, where they are taken care of and trained by foster families or “rescatistas” until they are adopted. Meanwhile, local families have been anxiously awaiting their new companion from Baja Dogs to keep them company during the shutdown— part of an adoption phenomenon some have called “pandemic puppies.”
Belinda Morger, an adoption coordinator with Baja Dogs for six years, said they started endearingly calling this plan for alternative transportation for the dogs “Mission Impossible.”
Mission Impossible: Niaya’s journey
In total, Niaya travelled 2,100 miles to get to her new family. The journey began on May 20, when a van from La Paz with 10 crated dogs made the drive to the U.S.-Mexico border on a trip that was 900 miles, 21 hours and two days. With hotels closed due to the pandemic, the drivers slept in the van while the dogs were boarded at a veterinarian’s office midway. The volunteers brought their own gasoline — the only stops for most of the trip were gas stations, but they had to bring spare gasoline to be safe.
On May 22, they met with the U.S. volunteers at the border, where Niaya and the other dogs were transferred over to four different vehicles heading for Los Angeles. One of the dogs was picked up at the border by her new California family. The rest stayed with a foster host overnight until their flight the next morning at 6 a.m. when volunteer pilots met with them at Long Beach airport. They made two more stops where they switched pilots — in Northern California and Medford, Oregon — before finally arriving at Renton.
Doug Weller, a certified flight instructor with Boeing Employee Flying Association (BEFA), has been coordinating the flights with Baja Dogs La Paz Inc. and the pilot volunteers.
Weller helped connect Baja Dogs with AERObridge, a network of general aviation pilots that volunteer their time and planes for emergency response, and Pilots N Paws, a nonprofit of volunteer pilots that offer to assist in moving animals. Between volunteers from both groups, Baja Dogs had who they needed.
“There’s eight or nine pilots involved with each leg of the run. It’s an amazing undertaking when you look at all the moving pieces involved to make it happen,” Weller said.
About 48 pilots volunteered to help move the dogs. Some are even on standby during the travel days in case a pilot can’t make the flight.
For the final leg of the trip, Niaya was flown in by Andrew King and his and son Everett King. The two from Corvallis, Oregon, have been flying for a couple years. Andrew King said he’s an AERObridge member, so he got the notification that this volunteer opportunity was available. As the owner of a Border Collie, he jumped at the opportunity to do a few flights.
“Our dog is a shelter dog, and when we adopted him, he didn’t know what dog toys were or how to use stairs. He hadn’t played with people before, but he turned out to be a wonderful dog,” King said. “I’m a dog person so I can tell these dogs are going to settle in really nice.”
King said he spent about six hours flying on May 23 to deliver Niaya, from Medford, Oregon, to Renton and back. He also did a flight out of Southern California for Baja Dogs the week before.
Volunteers are itching at the opportunity to help during this crisis, Weller said. For the last month, about 20 BEFA pilots have also volunteered with the Washington State Hospital Association, helping deliver thousands of medical-grade masks to local hospitals all over the state, also from out of Renton airport.
“The thing about pilots is, their willing to fly pretty much at any given point,” Weller said. “This is just a great reason to put the skills they’ve honed over the years to practical use, being part of the solution.”
More information on Baja Dogs La Paz Inc. is available at bajalapaz.org.