It’s 4 a.m. in Los Angeles, and Peter Rork is loading dozens of animals onto an aircraft.

“By 5 a.m., it’s wheels up,” said Rork, who typically spends an hour attempting to securely fit 150 crates into his Cessna Caravan.

“It’s like a giant Tetris game,” he explained.

This is a typical morning for Rork — a 67-year-old former doctor who dedicates his life to rescuing dogs and cats that would otherwise be killed in shelters that don’t have room for them.

Through his nonprofit organization, Dog Is My CoPilot, Rork transports adoptable animals from areas with high euthanasia rates, delivering them to shelters and rescue organizations in the Rocky Mountains and Southwest and Pacific regions of the country.

Over the span of eight years, he has saved nearly 16,000 animals.

Becoming a pilot for pets was not the career path the retired orthopedic surgeon had in mind.

“I left medicine in 2012 after the sudden death of my wife,” said Rork, who lives in Jackson, Wyo. “After months of sitting in a dark room, a friend called me to say I needed to get back to my life.”

Rork knew his friend was right.

“I always wanted to do something that involved aviation,” Rork said, adding that he got his pilot’s license when he was 16 and still wears the pilot’s watch his mother got him for his 13th birthday.

But when Rork — who lives with three rescue dogs himself — learned that, on average, thousands of healthy animals are euthanized in U.S. shelters every day, he decided to combine his interest in planes, pets and protecting lives.

“I had no idea there were places that kill over 90 percent of stray animals,” Rork said.

Approximately 1.5 million shelter animals are euthanized in the United States annually, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). That number was even greater in 2011, when 2.6 million dogs and cats were euthanized in shelters.

“You can be part of the solution or part of the problem,” Rork said. “I’ve always wanted to be part of the solution.”

So, Rork partnered with Judy Zimet, a friend and attorney with experience starting nonprofit groups. They were approved as a nonprofit in August 2012.

Things started off small.

Rork’s father, who was also a pilot, gave him his old 4-seater plane, and Rork started flying a handful of at-risk dogs from shelters that euthanize to ones that don’t.

“I did that a couple of times, but I found myself flying four to five hours for one animal,” he said. “I thought that was an incredibly inefficient way to save lives.”

The organization grew a few months later, when Rork found Sharon Lohman, who had started a nonprofit rescue group called New Beginnings in 2004 in Merced, Calif.

“I met Peter and told him about how we desperately needed to get animals out as soon as possible,” Lohman said. “If we stop moving them out, they die. It is life or death.”

“About 6 out of 100 dogs would make it out alive in Merced,” said Rork, citing the enormous overpopulation of animals in the region. “It was like that all over the place. I offered to fly the animals for her.”

Rork flew animals exclusively for New Beginnings for about a year, until the various groups that received the animals started sharing his contact information with other organizations that also needed to transport displaced cats and dogs.

“That’s when it really took off,” Rork recalled. “We went from flying 20 to 30 dogs at a time to flying 150 to 250 dogs at a time.”

To accommodate the surge in demand, Rork upgraded his aircraft.

“Although the larger plane is about twice as expensive to operate, I’m carrying four times the number of animals, so the cost per transport was cut in half,” he explained, adding that the organization is funded through donations, a grant from the Petco Foundation and his own financial contributions.

Now, Rork and three other volunteer pilots fly six days a week, working with a network of 100 municipal animal shelters and nonprofit rescue organizations across 15 states. They transport mostly dogs and some cats from overcrowded shelters — primarily in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California — to rescue organizations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Each flight makes between three to five stops along the way, and volunteers from rescue organizations and shelters come to collect the animals they have agreed to take.

Clare Callison of American Pets Alive!, a national outreach program aimed at ending the killing of shelter animals, has helped various rescue operations and shelters in Texas prepare to send animals on flights with Rork.

“It’s very emotional,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve watched a flight take off without tears in my eyes and goose bumps.”

While Callison is one of Dog Is My CoPilot’s sourcing partners, Carrie Boynton, the executive director of the Animal Adoption Center in Jackson, is a receiving partner. Boynton and her organization rescue homeless animals and help them find “forever homes.”

This year, she said, “we’ve participated in 10 flights with them and have brought in 70 animals.”

Animal euthanasia rates across the country have dwindled over the past few years, and a recent paper evaluating the U.S. dog population found it is due in part to a shift toward fostering and adopting pets.

Particularly amid the pandemic, “we’ve seen a huge demand,” Boynton said. “We’ve received hundreds and hundreds of applications to adopt.”

Stephanie Shain, the executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Humane Rescue Alliance in Washington, D.C., said her organization has had a similar experience.

“What we’ve seen in the past few months is the interest and willingness of the community to step up. Across the country, communities are getting more involved with their local shelter,” Shain said. “And a shelter is only as strong as the community that is supporting it.”

At the start of the covid-19 pandemic, rumors swirled that dogs could be carriers of the deadly virus, which put Rork’s flights on pause for a few weeks. Despite initial concerns, though, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there is currently no evidence to suggest that animals play a role in spreading the virus.

Since mid-April, Dog Is My CoPilot has been running full force.

“We had a large backlog of animals after we had a lot of canceled flights,” Rork said. “We’re now busier than ever and have been flying every single day.”

And for Rork, busy is good.

“Now that I’m eight years into it, I’m already looking forward to the next eight,” he said. “As much as I rescue them, they rescue me.”

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