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Michele Quimby
John Quimby, his son, Ethan, 13 and Marcie, one who they adopted after their very first flight.
TODAY contributor
updated 5/25/2011 11:14:47 AM ET 2011-05-25T15:14:47

Recreational pilot John Quimby and his son Ethan, 13 have never had snakes on their plane.

But they do regularly fly with dogs and cats.

The first canine passengers on their single-engine plane were two border collies rescued from euthanasia in a shelter at the eleventh hour. The father and son team picked them up at an airport in Kentucky and flew them to Tiffin, Ohio where animal rescuers were on hand to receive them and take them into foster care.

Quimby is one of 2000 pilots nationwide registered with an organization called Pilots N Paws. It’s an online message board that links animal rescuers around the country with pilots who pick up pets that have been removed from high kill shelters, puppy mills and other abusive situations and fly them to other parts of the country. Once there, they're picked up by adoptive families or rescue organizations who will foster them until they find forever homes. 

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Pilots donate their time, use their own planes and foot the bill for fuel, which averages around $250 per trip.

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“Recreational flying is the dumbest hobby ever,” says Quimby, who lives in West Chester, OH and works as a computer project executive for IBM Global Services. “Nowadays, there’s simply no justification for the expense. People refer to this pastime as the hundred-dollar hamburger syndrome — flying somewhere to have a hamburger and returning home. But these animal rescue flights have given me a purpose and a very good reason to fuel up my plane and go somewhere every weekend.”

Pilots N Paws is the brainchild of longtime animal rescuer and horse breeder Debi Boies of Landrum, SC and her friend Jon Wehrenberg, a former businessman and recreational pilot.

Slideshow: Are you my mommy? (on this page)

Back in 2007, when Boies was trying to adopt a Doberman that had been used as bait in a dog-fighting ring in Florida, Wehrenberg offered to fly his own plane from his home in Knoxville to pick her up in South Carolina so that they could collect the dog and fly back again.

“I was flabbergasted and in awe that anyone would make such a generous offer,” recalls Boies. “But I soon learned that recreational pilots are as passionate about flying as animal people are about rescuing pets. And, since pilots are always looking for reasons to fly, introducing them to animal rescuers seemed like a perfect match. So Jon and I pooled our contacts and launched Pilots N Paws. I was amazed at the response from the moment the message board was up and running.”

John Quimby
In addition to keeping the animals calm, Ethan, 13, helps his pilot dad by watching the GPS.

John Quimby learned about the organization from a newspaper article he’d read while flying home on a business trip.

“The first thing I did after putting down my bags was log on to the site and, the following weekend, I had my first rescue flight booked," he said.

Quimby's dad was a pilot and he flew with him as a kid. Today, his younger son Aidan, 11, has been getting into the game, and the two young brothers take turns accompanying their father on trips.

"We’re all animal lovers," said Quimby. "And as a family, are so blessed that I am happy to pay the fuel and plane costs out of my own pocket.”

Apart from the quality father-and-son-time, Quimby's sons work on board the flights, helping to calm and reassure the pets until they reach their destination.

The pilots registered with the site typically fly to destinations about 250 nautical miles from their home base.

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Rescues take place around the country, though Boies points out that certain rural areas in the southeast and northeast of the country are known to have a high kill rate in shelters. Puppy mills are rife in Missouri, and Los Angeles has a lot of overcrowded high-kill shelters.

Around 9,000 rescue groups are registered with Pilots N Paws. Boies has set herself a goal of having 10,000 pilots linked to the message board in the not too distant future. And since the organization is registered as a 501c3, flyers can recoup some expenses when they file taxes.

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Although the Quimbys prefer canine passengers, other pilots have been known to fly snakes such as pythons and boa constrictors — in addition to cats, pot-bellied pigs and even day-old chicks.

“It’s not unheard of for animal rescuers to set up pony express–style ground transportation runs involving up to 16 drivers to cover a distance of about 1600 miles, a trip that could take an entire weekend,” explained Quimby. “Whereas on a single flight, I can replace about three to four people and cover a couple of hundred miles in several hours.  I also team up with other pilots in order to transport pets greater distances. This frees up rescuers for other important work they do.”

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Ethan fondly remembers that first flight with his dad when they rescued the border collies.

“The dogs were so scared,” he recalled. “I helped walk them before they boarded, made sure they weren’t thirsty and sat and played them throughout the journey to calm them down. One of them was so special. I couldn’t bear the idea of her having to go into foster care and possibly wait months before being adopted, so I asked my Dad if we could adopt her.”

A week later, Ethan and his dad flew back to Tiffin to pick up Marcie, who has remained firmly attached to her young rescuer and his brother ever since. 

Ethan's job duties also include taking photographs to keep a record of the pets they have helped find better lives.

“I know I can't take them all home," he said. "Even though my brother and I are with them for just a short time in the air, we both get attached and feel sad when we drop them off.”

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Are you my mommy?

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  1. Wrinkly meets stripey

    "Are you my mommy?" Meet furry, four-legged moms who adopted, nursed and nurtured animals of completely different species.

    The first mom up is Cleopatra, a shar-pei who "adopted" two baby tigers in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, on June 4, 2012. The tigers, whose mother refused to feed them, found an unusual wet nurse in the wrinkly, sand-colored dog. The cubs were born in late May in a zoo at the October health resort in Sochi. (Igor Okunin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Squirrel learned to purr

    Emmy, a sweet-natured tortoiseshell mother cat, readily adopted Rocky, a baby squirrel who fell out of his nest, in September 2010. Rocky landed in the yard of Jim and Karen Watkins of Carthage, Miss., and they brought him to Emmy to see whether she would nurse him along with her new litter of three kittens. She accepted the squirrel right away, and Rocky did some quick adapting of his own: He learned how to purr just like a cat. (Caters News / ZUMApress.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grrrrrrrrr-ateful

    Isabella, a golden retriever in Kansas who adopted three white Bengal tiger cubs and nursed them as her own. The tiger cubs -- Nasira, Anjika and Sidani -- needed somewhere to turn because their mother stopped nursing them 15 hours after their birth. Zookeepers Tom and Allie Harvey brought the cubs home, and their dog Isabella stepped right up. (Tom Harvey and Keith Philpott) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. She saved baby pig's bacon

    Katjinga, a Rhodesian ridgeback dog who lives on a 20-acre farm in Germany, adopted an abandoned pot-bellied piglet in August 2009. The tiny black piglet, named Paulinchen, had been so small at birth that her mother likely overlooked it. Katjinga's owner, Roland Adam, found the piglet alone and cold and brought it to his 8-year-old dog. "She loved the piglet at first sight and cares about it in the way she did for her own puppies," Adam said. "Days later she started lactating again and giving milk for the piggy. She obviously regards it now as her own baby." (Fame Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Not as nutty as it looks

    When the tree these baby squirrels called home was felled by a chain saw, Pixie the poodle was there to help. Pixie still had milk after giving birth to her first litter of puppies a few months earlier, and she accepted the three squirrels with no qualms in March 2010. She nursed the homeless squirrels for five weeks at her North Carolina home, and then an animal rehabilitation specialist continued raising them until they were ready to be released. (Ashley Steven Ayscue / The Daily Dispatch via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A cat with no dog issues

    A Siamese cat named Amanda, owned by Debbie Girting of Beaver, Pa., is shown here nursing her two newborn kittens along with an orphaned litter of puppies in March 2010. Lucy, Girting's Maltese Pomeranian dog, gave birth to seven pups on March 7, and Amanda's kittens were born on the exact same day. Sadly, four days later, Lucy had a seizure and died. Amanda stepped right up and adopted the puppies as her own. (Lucy Schaly / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Instant love

    Laska the Alsatian immediately viewed it as her mission to nurture two tiny, abandoned wild boars who were close to death when they were found in Hamburg, Germany in March 2010. The baby boars -- dubbed Alice and Emma -- were brought to the home of the Heckers, Laska's owners. Because of their small size, baby boars can't stay warm enough alone at night to keep alive. Laska focused on snuggling up against them to keep them warm, cleaning them with her tongue and picking them up whenever they toppled over. To read more about Laska and the baby boars, visit PeoplePets.com. (Barcroft / Fame Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. I'm there for you

    Smaigel the cat nurses her kittens and four puppies at her owner Mohammad Al-Hamoury's house in Amman, Jordan in February 2009. Smaigel took it upon herself to care for the puppies after their mother died in a car accident. (Muhammad Hamed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Got elk?

    The young elk pictured here was rescued from a flooding river by a farmer in South Korea in July 2009. This female dog eagerly adopted the elk and began breastfeeding and guarding him. (Inje Municipal Government / Hand / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Mother instincts took over'

    Chia, a Pomeranian in Emporia, Kan., let four abandoned kittens nurse from her in August 2000. Chia, who had a 2-week-old puppy of her own at the time, adopted the motherless kittens after they were found by her owner's boyfriend. "Her mother instincts took over," owner Kelsey Wilson said. "She herded them and got them to nurse." (David Doemland / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A gorilla's 'motherly instinct'

    Koko the gorilla has loved cuddling and nurturing kittens since 1984. Gorilla Foundation volunteer Janis Turner arranged to have a litter of orphaned kittens visit Koko in September 2009, and Koko became especially enamored with a tiny orange kitten named Tigger, pictured here. "Something fascinated her about Tigger," Turner told PeoplePets.com. "Koko purrs. I get chills just thinking about it. She does this deep purr and she's so gentle and has this loving looking in her eye. ... Kittens are so calm around Koko because she has that motherly instinct." Read more about Koko at PeoplePets.com. (Ron Cohn / The Gorilla Foundation / koko.org) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. That'll do, pig

    The "Happy Families" exhibits at the Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Thailand certainly aren't run-of-the-mill. They feature animal families of mixed species, including families of baby pigs adopted by tiger mothers and families of tiger cubs adopted by mother pigs. One such surrogate sow is pictured here in this April 2009 photo with her baby tiger cubs. (Barbara Walton / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Playful 'siblings'

    Tita, a cat who belongs to Ruben Gaviria, breastfeeds a squirrel as her kitten plays with it at Gaviria's house near Medellin, Colombia. Gaviria rescued the squirrel after it was found injured in a park in February 2010. (ALBEIRO LOPERA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. She wanted to be a mom

    A lion tamarin monkey at the London Zoo is so known for her strong motherly instincts that zookeepers dubbed her "Maternal Juanita." And in the summer of 2010, Juanita found a way to make her dreams come true: She adopted a monkey of another species – a baby emperor tamarin. The surrogate mom began carrying her adopted baby around on her back. The publication LiveScience noted how "the emperor tamarin's grey body and white moustache stand out against its 'mother's' fiery orange mane." (The Zoological Society of London) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Another 'Happy Family'

    Three baby pigs rest next to their adoptive mother, Sai Mai, an 8-year-old tiger, at the Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Thailand in January 2010. Sai Mai nurses and cares for the piglets as if they were her own. (Sukree Sukplang / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dads, this one's for you

    Many male animals have strong parental impulses, too. Take, for instance, this wild long-tailed macaque monkey in Bali, Indonesia. He stunned animal lovers around the world when he adopted an abandoned kitten and cared for it as his own. The monkey was spotted in a forest protectively nuzzling and grooming the ginger kitten, making sure no harm came to it. The extraordinary sight was captured by amateur photographer Anne Young while on a holiday to the Monkey Forest Park in Bali's Ubud region. (Anne Young / solentnews.co.uk) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (16) Are you my mommy?
  2. Courtesy of The American Kennel Club
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