When he's not working on his patients' teeth at High Peaks Dental in Lake Placid, 48-year-old D.J. O'Neill takes to the skies in his single-propeller airplane - a red and white Cessna 185 Skywagon I, to be exact - to rescue dogs from animal shelters in other parts of the U.S.
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"I'm a sucker for a dog," DJ. O'Neill said. "I just want to help them out because they need people to speak for them. So it was like, 'Yeah, I can step up and do this.'"
It's a cold winter day in Lake Placid, but D.J. and I are tucked warmly inside Café Rustica, his favorite place for a quick lunch. The first thing I notice about D.J. is the permanent smile on his face.
D.J. grew up in White River Junction, Vermont. He fell in love with flying at age 10. His father was a pilot and O'Neill would tag along with him on flights, but there was one problem.
"I would puke," he said. "Basically, I couldn't hold it down, and I would decorate the plane every time Dad would take me up. I think out of self-preservation he started me to fly, and by flying I got distracted. And I got distracted, so I wouldn't think about other things, and I'd fly the plane and I was OK."
D.J. earned his pilot's license when he turned 18, and he's been flying ever since.
So how did he end up rescuing dogs? D.J. says it all started with a news report about Pilots N Paws, a South Carolina-based nonprofit organization founded in 2008 by Debi Boies and Jon Wehrenberg.
Kathleen Quinn is executive director of Pilots N Paws. She says there's no shortage of dogs that need to be adopted, and there are plenty of people willing to take them in. The problem is getting the dog from point A to point B. That's where the pilots come into play.
"There's kind of a saying - the $100 hamburger," she said. "Pilots are always looking for an excuse to fly. It usually costs about $100 an hour to fly, so they'll fly an hour somewhere just to go have a fast-food hamburger, and then fly back. So if you give them a reason that has a lot of meaning, I think that's one thing that really draws our pilots to our organization - not only can they do their passion, which is flying, but then they're saving a life."
For D.J., the process is simple. It starts with an email from Donna Kraan of Bridges to Safety, an animal rescue group based in New Jersey. She tells D.J. where the dog is and where it needs to go.
Then he flies to his destination, picks up the dog and brings it back to animal rescue workers in the Northeast – places like upstate New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Kraan says all of the dogs come from over-crowded shelters and most are due to be euthanized.
"What our rescue [group] does is, if we see a dog that we feel we can place, we will pull it, hopefully find a foster home for it or an immediate adopter - that's rare. Usually we have them sent to a foster home," she said.
Rescue groups like Pilots N Paws and Bridges to Safety are extremely active. Quinn says Pilots N Paws coordinates about 12,000 rescue flights per year, and that number keeps growing.
"We don't only fly dogs," Quinn added. "We fly cats, we've flown baby chickens, baby ducks - we had a pilot in South Carolina who flew two small donkeys, actually. And in Florida, we have pilots who do a lot of wildlife-type rescue work where they'll fly wildlife from the Everglades to different sanctuaries. We've flown military dogs for our servicemen."
D.J. says working with animal rescue groups has been rewarding. So far, he's flown five rescue missions.
The hardest part, he says, is parting ways with the dogs – five of which have been delivered to local shelters like the Tri-Lakes Humane Society in Saranac Lake.
"We've brought back five," O'Neill said. "One rescue was four dogs. The last one, Charlie, was the fifth one. They're over at the Tri-Lakes Humane Society. Gorgeous dogs. Especially Charlie – he's an Akita-Shepherd mix. Handsome dog. I would've taken him myself if I didn't have my two already. I think it's one of the occupational hazards of flying dogs. You're like, 'Hmm, I'll take him.'"