LESLIE BARBARO / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Darlene Towne, a Rhode Island shelter worker, and Bob Trembley of Pet ResQ with dogs that were to be destroyed at a Southern shelter.
The animals arrived at the Essex County Airport in loads of one to four, greeting volunteers with wagging tails, sniffing noses and the occasional wide-eyed gaze.
“All these dogs are so lovable,” said Michele McGuire, one of about 50 pilots who volunteered to transport the dogs on private planes from South Carolina. “And they would have all been put down.”
The flights, which delivered their canine cargo throughout the day, were organized by Tenafly-based Pet ResQ Inc. to move the animals from overcrowded shelters with euthanasia policies to regional groups committed to finding them new homes.
They brought a cowering beagle, about a dozen impish Labradors, and a litter of shivering fur-balls that volunteers identified as collie-golden retriever mixes.
A German shepherd arrived with a bag containing a blue stuffed gorilla toy and a note from a veterinarian that his lame front paw would likely require amputation.
A 3-year-old boxer mix named Sally saw volunteer Bob Trembley, of Dumont, sitting on the ground and eagerly folded herself into his lap, where she stayed, casting him adoring glances, for more than an hour.
“Look at those faces,” said the organizer, Robyn Urman of Pet ResQ. “They were all going to be dead.”
Urman estimated it would take anywhere from a day to three months to find new homes for most of the dogs, versus the likely hopeless situation they had escaped.
Dogs in many Southern states are rarely spayed or neutered, creating a constant stream of unwanted puppies in shelters that don’t have the resources to handle them, she and other volunteers said. Northeast shelters, on the other hand, have consistent inquiries from families looking to adopt small, well-mannered pets. Several of the dogs had been placed with families who saw their pictures on-line before they were loaded on the planes, volunteers said.
“There’s a little underground railroad of dogs going from South to North, South to North,” McGuire said.
Urman, of Pet ResQ, said she organized this particular day of flights with the goal of transporting a record number of dogs from the South Carolina region, where an animal cruelty case made national news last spring. The shelter in Chesterfield, S.C., was overhauled after animal control officers were accused of shooting to death 22 dogs that were found in a neighboring landfill, according to published reports.
Although bad weather in South Carolina grounded several of the flights, some 130 dogs arrived safely in New Jersey. Additional flights were scheduled for Tuesday to transport the remaining six dogs, Urman said.
Pilots described a festive atmosphere at the airports in South Carolina and Virginia, where many of the smaller planes stopped to refuel or hand off the dogs for the second leg of the trip.
Firefighters grilled hamburgers and crowds gathered to see the animals off, said James Anastas, a pilot from Hoboken.
Volunteers helped unload the animals at the airport in Fairfield, where the dogs were given water and fed cooked chicken breast while the rescue groups waited for all the assigned dogs to arrive. The animals were then taken by car to Tenafly, Rockaway, Aberdeen and even Rhode Island, where they will stay with volunteers until they make what organizers hope will be their last journey — the one that will finally take them home.