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Image: Pilot Jeff Bennett with a rescued dog
Courtesy Jeff Bennett
Arrff, thanks, Jeff! Pilot Jeff Bennett is reaching a milestone on Friday by flying his 1,000th rescue animal to safety.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 6/15/2012 1:15:33 PM ET 2012-06-15T17:15:33

If accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative were Olympic events, Jeff Bennett would be bound for London next month.

Bennett, 53, a business owner and pilot who lives in the Florida Keys, studiously avoids dark headlines and depressing news stories. He gravitates toward happy people who build up rather than tear down, and he’s always on the prowl for ways to help out and give back.

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But of course, not all disturbing news can be avoided. Bennett really gets riled over stories of animal cruelty, neglect and abandonment — and, about three and a half years ago, he decided to do something about it. He started using his small plane to fly dogs, cats and a host of other critters in dire circumstances to safe places where they’d receive treatment and care. On Friday, Bennett is hitting a milestone by flying his 1,000th rescue animal to safety.

“I never thought I’d be moving this many animals,” Bennett told TODAY.com. “I just really enjoy it, and I get to meet some of the best people out there.”

Image: Pilot Jeff Bennett with puppies
Courtesy Jeff Bennett
“I love being in the air, and this gave me something worthwhile to do in the meantime — something I could do to help,” pilot Jeff Bennett said.

As gratifying as he finds his volunteer work, Bennett confessed that it sometimes overwhelms him to think about how many animals suffer and die needlessly. Due to animal overpopulation, an estimated 4 million dogs and cats — about one every eight seconds — are put down in U.S. shelters each year.

“When you think about it, 1,000 animals is just a drop in the bucket,” Bennett said. “But you can only do what you can do, you know?”

Story: To snag homes, shelter pets get glam makeovers

Up in the air with snakes, rats, pigs
Bennett is affiliated with Pilots N Paws, a South Carolina-based organization that whisks “death-row” dogs, cats and other animals to safety by connecting shelters and animal rescue organizations with pilots and plane owners. Since Pilots N Paws was founded in 2008, more than 2,700 pilots have spent their own time and money transporting thousands of animals all over the United States.

Image: Book cover for "Dog Is My Copilot"
Andrews McMeel Publishing
A book of Pilots N Paws' rescue stories will be released on June 19.

Moving rescue stories are chronicled in “Dog Is My Copilot: Rescue Tales of Flying Dogs, Second Chances, and the Hero Who Might Live Next Door,” a new book by Patrick Regan that will be released on June 19. The book features Bennett in a chapter called “All Species Airways” for this reason: Bennett has become a bit famous in animal-rescue circles for being willing to transport anything.

Burmese pythons? No problem. A pot-bellied pig named Moo? Welcome aboard! He’s also flown rabbits, rats, guinea pigs, iguanas, chickens, monitor lizards, tortoises, falcons, hawks, cats of all ages and hundreds and hundreds of dogs.

Story: Good buddies: Grizzled truckers transport rescued animals to safety

To maximize the number of animals he can transport, Bennett removed the back seats from his four-seater Cirrus SR22 airplane and filled that area with crates. He typically flies 20 to 25 dogs at a time; the largest number he’s ever accommodated was 51.

It can get hot flying a plane around Florida and parts of Georgia, and Bennett has found an innovative way to stay cool when transporting large snakes: He drapes them around his neck.

Image: Jeff Bennett flying with snake around his neck
Courtesy Jeff Bennett
Jeff Bennett doesn't understand why some pilots get a little squeamish about transporting snakes. He said they make great "neck coolers."

“It’s like a neck cooler,” he explained. “They’re getting the warmth off your body and you’re getting the coolness from them. It’s great!”

He also learned something new when he took Moo the pot-bellied pig to Rooterville, an animal sanctuary in Gainesville, Fla.

Video: World’s tiniest rescue pup is a living miracle (on this page)

“I found out that pigs don’t like their feet being off the ground,” he said. “As soon as her feet came off the ground, she squealed like a pig. It was a hoot! She was fine as soon as she made it into the crate.”

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1,000th animal? A dog
Bennett is a busy guy; he owns three companies in the Keys that distribute dive equipment, scuba gear, snorkel equipment and fishing tackle. He’s like most of the pilots associated with Pilots N Paws: They work full time and fly small planes when they can because they’re crazy about it.

“I love being in the air, and this gave me something worthwhile to do in the meantime — something I could do to help,” Bennett said. “It used to be called the ‘$100 hamburger’ — you wanted flight time, so you’d fly to some city and have lunch. ... Now, you get to not only go to lunch, you get to do some good by moving some dogs as well.”

Story: How one high-flying dad is making pet rescue a family affair

Bennett has meticulously kept track of all the animals he’s transported, not because he’s into scrap-booking, but because he has a healthy respect for the IRS. Pilots N Paws is a charitable organization, and pilots who volunteer their time with it can write off their fuel costs.

“I’m deducting $16,000 a year in fuel, so I make sure I take a photograph of every single animal I fly,” he said.

Image: Pilot Jeff Bennett with two dogs outside his plane
Courtesy Jeff Bennett
Pilot Jeff Bennett has a hard time resisting dogs in need. He personally owns four rescue dogs, and three of them entered his life because of his volunteer work with Pilots N Paws.

Saved by a whisker: Kitten rescued from engine of driving car

On Friday, Bennett needed to transport at least 20 critters to reach the 1,000-animal mark. He exceeded that milestone by letting 23 dogs and puppies hitch a ride in his plane.

Debi Boies, co-founder and executive director of Pilots N Paws, called Bennett’s passion for helping animals “unrelenting.”

“The sheer number [of animals he’s helped] is beyond belief,” Boies said. “If they need him, he flies.”

Pilots N Paws always needs pilots to transport animals to safe situations. General-aviation pilots who are interested in helping out should visit the organization’s website or email info@pilotsnpaws.org.

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

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Video: World’s tiniest rescue pup is a living miracle

Photos: How swimming, and lots of love, saved Harper the puppy’s life

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  1. A sad prognosis

    On Aug. 31, 2011, a puppy was rescued from a garbage bag in Central Florida. She was afflicted by a condition dubbed “swimmer puppy syndrome,” formally, pectus excavatum. It's rare in puppies, but when it happens it causes them to lie flat on their chests with their legs perpetually splayed out. It's usually a symptom of serious neurological problems that most puppies cannot survive. Veterinarians recommended putting her to sleep. (Dolly's Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Changed circumstances

    Erica Daniel, who provides foster care to dogs in serious need, decided to take the puppy home for one full day of love and affection before she was to be put to sleep the next morning. After a few hours of being massaged and cuddled, Harper began to lift her head and move. Encouraged, Daniel contacted Bev McCartt, a therapist with Hip Dog Canine Hydrotherapy & Fitness in Winter Park, Fla. McCartt, pictured here, offered to treat the puppy free of charge. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A fish in water

    At her first hydrotherapy session, the puppy – whom Erica Daniel named Harper – responded remarkably well. Hip Dog therapist Bev McCartt explained that swimming helped teach Harper what her natural gait should be. “Her brain kicked in and by the end of her first session, she was like, ‘Oh, I can do this,’ ” McCartt said. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Getting going

    “Hydrotherapy and massage actually build on that instinct for a dog to move,” Hip Dog therapist Bev McCartt said, adding that Harper is “a real testament to a dog’s determination to get up and just go.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Just the right help

    Erica Daniel, Harper’s foster mom and head of a dog-rescue organization called Dolly’s Foundation, said Harper has benefited from a mix of treatments: hydrotherapy, massage therapy and electric stimulation of her muscles. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. ‘Loosey-goosey’

    After one of her early massages, Harper got “all loosey-goosey, like we all are after a massage,” Bev McCartt said. “She just kind of melted into the pad.” Later that same day, she started to trot. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. ‘So much determination’

    “She has so much determination and grit,” Bev McCartt said. “She’s a miracle puppy. That’s how I see her. She’s a walking miracle.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Relaxed and happy

    Harper has thrived after receiving personalized attention and care. Her foster mom, Erica Daniel, plans to give her up for adoption in late October – if she can stand parting with her. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Unstoppable

    Harper took her first actual steps on grass, then on carpet, then on concrete. “She still can’t walk on tile or hardwood floors,” Erica Daniel said on Sept. 20. “But she’s getting there.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A whole new life

    Harper has been holding her own and playing happily with the seven other dogs at Erica Daniel’s home. “My dogs really egg her on,” Daniel said. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. ‘Dogs need love’

    “Pit bulls are just dogs,” said Erica Daniel, noting the negative image of Harper’s breed. “Dogs need love, and they need homes.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Help from new friends

    Harper has benefited from an outpouring of support from a variety of Central Florida residents. Flyin Fur Pet Photography donated photography services when capturing these "day in the life" images of Harper. All money raised from sales of Harper's photos will be directed toward Harper's medical bills and the work of Dolly’s Foundation, Erica Daniel’s dog-rescue organization. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. No worries

    “The whole world was against her, but she’s such a fighter,” said Erica Daniel, Harper’s foster mom. “She’s a blessing. She’s awesome.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Dolly's Foundation
    Above: Slideshow (13) How swimming, and lots of love, saved Harper the puppy’s life
  2. Image: TOPSHOTS 

Otter "Ferret" votes for Germa
    Hendrik Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (17) Animal Tracks: June 6 - 12

Explainer: True ‘tails’ of animal survival

  • It's tough out there for a...

    NBC News
    A cat who went missing for nine years. A beagle who went missing for five. An enormous, affable hog who survived a serious truck accident on the way to the sausage plant — thereby avoiding the fate of being turned into sausage.


    These and other amazing tails — er, tales — of survival are contained right here in this slideshow. Some feature reunions with long-lost family members thanks to the miracle of microchips. Others spotlight the acts of kind-hearted humans. All of them will make you smile.

  • A dog's four-year, 1,100-mile journey

    NBC News
    A missing Missouri dog is found four years later and four states away.
    Who knows exactly where Mickey the Boston terrier went, what he ate, how he traveled and who he met during his four long years away from home? Well, Mickey does — but he's keeping his secrets to himself.

    The pup disappeared from his backyard in Kansas City, Mo. — and about four years later in 2007, his owners were stunned to receive a phone call from an animal shelter 1,100 miles away in Billings, Mont., saying that Mickey had been found and identified with the help of a microchip. Mickey's family said their dog no longer knew his name when he came home, and his teeth bore signs of wear and tear — but other than that, he was fine, and they were thrilled to have him back in their lives.

  • Oh Fudge!

    Image: Ashlea Boon with Fudge the kitten
    SWNS
    Ashlea Boon with Fudge the kitten.
    Attention, pet owners: Here’s a cautionary tale about leaving washing machine and dryer doors open. Ashlea Boon of Somerset, England left her dryer open in August 2010 — and Fudge, her tiny new kitten, hopped inside the machine and curled up on a soft duvet cover for a cat nap. Boon had no idea Fudge was in there when she switched the dryer on to give the bedding a refresher spin.

    Fudge spun with the blanket for a five-minute cycle. When Boon removed it from the dryer, she was horrified to see her tiny kitten collapse lifeless on the floor.

    “She was limp and wasn’t moving,” Boon said, according to the British newspaper the Daily Mail. “She was just dead when she came out. She was very limp and just lying on the floor. I was very shocked. It was horrible.”

    Boon, a nurse, rubbed Fudge’s belly in an effort to revive her, and she started breathing again. She then rushed Fudge to the vet, who feared the kitten had brain and vision damage. But after being treated for 24 hours and given steroids, Fudge bounced back. She’s doing just fine today.

    “It was really emotional and horrible,” Boon said. “I would warn anyone else with pets to be aware when leaving the tumble dryer door open.”

  • Gone with the wind, saved by a psychic

    Chihuahuas are tiny little dogs, and at 6 pounds, Tinker Bell the Chihuahua was especially small. So perhaps it won't come as a huge surprise to learn that a 70-mph gust of wind was able to sweep the little girl off her feet. That's precisely what happened to her in April while she was minding her own business at a Michigan flea market.


    What may come as more of a surprise is that Tinker Bell flew completely out of the sight of her owners, Dorothy and Lavern Utley, who turned to a pet psychic for help. They said the psychic directed them to a wooded spot almost a mile away from the flea market — and, what do you know? There was Tinker Bell! After two days on her own, she was hungry and dirty but otherwise fine. Dorothy Utley said the little dog "just went wild" when she saw Utley.

  • Should I call myself a cab, too?

    AP
    Talk about planning ahead. The owners of an African grey parrot in Japan spent two years teaching the bird to recite his full name and address in case he ever got lost.

    And that's just what the parrot did in May 2008 when he escaped from his cage and had to be rescued from a neighbor's roof in the city of Nagareyama, near Tokyo. He spent a night at a police station, where he stayed quiet as a church mouse — but after he got transferred over to a veterinary hospital, he started chatting it up. "I'm Mr. Yosuke Nakamura," the bird announced to the vet, and he also spelled out his address and sang songs to the delight of the hospital staff. Because the address the bird provided was flawless, he was easily reunited with his family.

  • Kitty rescued from PVC pipe

    NBC News
    Myra Amado of Wareham, Mass., heard crying sounds in her backyard for several days in June 2009, but she just couldn't identify the source of the cries. She finally checked an out-of-the-way area near her shed, and — gasp! What was that peeking at her out of a section of T-shaped PVC pipe? The head of a tiny orange tabby kitten!


    The 6-week-old feline was wedged inside the pipe so tightly that Amado had to call firefighters for assistance. Two hours and a dollop of vegetable oil later, the kitty was free from the pipe and on her way to a nearby animal shelter, where she was treated for dehydration and a broken paw. The name given to her by her rescuers? Piper.

    Video: Trapped kitten rescued from pipe
  • No swine before its time

    Stephen B. Thornton / Arkansas D
    Picture this: An enormous, 800-pound hog is riding in a truck in Arkansas along with about 90 other pigs, unaware that he's bound for the slaughterhouse — (but maybe slightly suspicious). There's an accident on the journey, and the truck flips. About 60 of the pigs survive. This one escapes.

    Not only does he escape, but he survives on his own for an entire week before deciding to take a dip in LeAnn Baldy's swimming pool. Baldy was stunned when she happened to notice that her pool was overflowing in June 2009. She was even more surprised when she saw the immersed hog cooling off in the water and enjoying a drink.

    This "ham on the lam" was spared a second journey to the sausage plant because slaughterhouse officials had no idea what he had been eating during his week on his own.

  • Reunited after Hurricane Katrina

    AP
    This is one of those stories that can make your heart hurt, even though it involves a happy reunion between a man and his dog. The drama began when Jessie Pullins had to evacuate New Orleans with his family in August 2005 as Hurricane Katrina approached. He figured he'd be gone a day — maybe two at most — so he left his Labrador-shepherd mix J.J. with a generous helping of food and water.

    Of course, Pullins was not able to return right away. J.J. ultimately got rescued and adopted by two sisters in California who cared for him deeply and wanted to keep him. After legal wrangling, the sisters returned J.J. to Pullins in 2009. The saga is detailed in "Mine," a PBS documentary about pet-ownership disputes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

  • 'Dead' pet cat returns... nine years later

    Fame Pictures
    Gilly Delaney of Birmingham, England never quite believed it when she was told in 1999 that her pet cat Dixie had been killed by an oncoming car. She always had a feeling the cat might return home — so much so that she nixed a move to Malta that she and her husband had been considering.

    And sure enough, in 2008, animal shelter workers showed up at the Delaneys' home — with Dixie! They had found the cat wandering less than half a mile away from the Delaneys' home, and they identified her because she had a microchip. The Delaneys were ecstatic. "Dixie's personality, behavior and little mannerisms have not changed at all," Gilly Delaney told the Daily Mail newspaper. "She is still a happy, contented cat who just wants to sit next to you on the sofa and have a fuss. She hasn't stopped purring since she came back through the door."

  • A 'flush' with death for tiny puppy

    TODAY
    Kids do the darndest things. Especially 4-year-olds who are playing with itty-bitty puppies. Daniel Blair, 4, of Middlesex, England, decided to give his 1-week-old cocker spaniel puppy a bath in the toilet in June 2009 because the puppy was muddy. And then — oops! — Daniel flushed the toilet!

    Daniel's mother, Alison, told Britain's Daily Mirror that she was convinced the puppy had drowned. Not so, however. A drainage company used a special camera and found the wet, startled and very alive puppy about 20 yards from the house. Four hours later, the puppy was out and safe. "I'm so, so sorry, " Daniel told the Daily Mirror. "I won't do it again."

    Video: Puppy survives trip down the toilet
  • 'Please Rocco, come home'

    TODAY
    After the Villacis' beagle Rocco strayed from their yard in Queens, N.Y., in 2003, the whole family was devastated — but no one took it harder than little Natalie. The 5-year-old cried for extended periods, and she never parted with the dog's favorite toy, a stuffed cat.

    And then in 2008, more than five years after he had disappeared, he turned up 850 miles away at an animal-control office in Georgia. He was reunited with his family because of his microchip. "When my mom told me they found Rocco, I cried hysterically — just like I did when they told me he was lost," Natalie told the New York Post. "Every time I would see a dog on the street, I would say to my mom, 'Maybe Rocco will come back.' She would say that he probably isn't going to come back. I would say, 'I know, but maybe he will.'...At night, I would wish, 'Please Rocco, come home.' And now that wish came true."

  • Somebody help this poor doggie

    This is the story of an impossibly small Chihuahua and an impossibly large barbecue fork, and it is not for the faint of heart.

    It happened at a barbecue in London, Ky. Somehow a huge barbecue fork broke in two and went soaring through the air — and its 3-inch prongs lodged deep inside Smokey the dog's head. The 12-week-old puppy barked in pain, ran off and disappeared into a wooded area for two full days before his frantic owner, Hughie Wagers, managed to find him.


    A trip to the vet, Dr. Keaton Smith, revealed that the fork had impaled the dog's brain. Smokey was operated on immediately. During a TODAY interview, Wagers told Matt Lauer that his pooch "did wake up weird" from the surgery, but Smith expects Smokey's brain to recover completely since he's still a pup.

    Video: Chihuahua impaled by BBQ fork
  • Tossed turtle makes 670-mile journey

    TODAY
    Ten-year-old Carley Helm thought it was OK to bring her new friend Neytiri, a coin-sized turtle, back with her on a flight from Atlanta to her home in Milwaukee. And so did AirTran Airways personnel — at first, that is.

    But, after Carley and her reptile friend were on board, flight attendants ordered the turtle off the plane. 

    The Helm kids set Neytiri in an airport trash bin, after calling their father William to come retrieve the animal. When he arrived, he wasn't able to find Neytiri. Turns out, another AirTran employee had already fished the turtle out of the trash, handed it off to a co-worker, who then took it home as a pet for their son.

    Jennifer Forbes, a cruelty caseworker for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, learned of the case and ran interference for the family. Eventually, Neytiri was retrieved and made the 670-mile journey to be reunited with the Helms.

    Video: Girl reunited with turtle tossed in airline flap
  • David, Brooke and Jake – together again

    PeoplePets.com
    Whether you're rich or poor, famous or unknown, the heartbreak of losing a pet can be devastating — and the thrill of being reunited with that pet can be the best feeling in the world.

    Just ask celebrity couple David Charvet of ABC's "The Superstars" and Brooke Burke, the Season 7 champion on "Dancing with the Stars." They were distraught when their chocolate Labrador retriever Jake went missing for nine long months – until they got a shocker of a phone call informing them that Jake was fine and ready to be picked up.

    "Someone found Jake in our town, had no idea who his owner was (Jake had no collar) and gave him to a neighbor who took him in and cared for him," Burke wrote in her blog on ModernMom.com. "The man took Jake to a vet for a random check-up and for blood work. After telling the vet the story of how Jake came into his life, the vet decided to scan Jake. David had an identity chip put in Jake as a puppy. ...

    "Thank God for honest people who are selfless enough to do the right thing. I hope something wonderful happens to [Jake’s rescuer] ... for caring for Jake and letting him go."

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