“I’d Rather Be a Flying Dog”

Middleton’s David Tan has brought more than 360 rescue dogs to safety since retiring from a 40-year career as a military, professional and private pilot. He also helped rescue 23 suspicious cats, three frostbitten goats, a scruffy pot-bellied pig, and even a bat headed to an Ohio nature reserve. “Naturally, we named him Bruce,” Tan said, poker face — referring to Batman’s real identity, Bruce Wayne.

Then there’s Buddy, and Frankie, Ziva, Chaos, Lester and Oreo — all dogs. If you connect with Tan on social media, you’ll get almost weekly selfies with cute animals. Tan looks serious in the cockpit of his Aermacchi SF-260 – a two-person Italian military plane like the one he trained at the start of his 15-year career as a rescue helicopter pilot with the Republic of Singapore Air Force — whether they knew it or not, there was at least one rescue dog sitting in the little seat behind him, living their lives.

“There are some scary stories out there [about] How cruel people are to animals, especially in the South; abandonment is horrible,” Tan said. “A family would leave them behind, throwing them away like old furniture or something. So that kind of gets me. I feel good, at least…I can contribute to where they go. ”

Volunteer pilot David Tan flew Genevieve on three different flights in May 2019 as she moved between foster homes before finally finding a forever home. (Courtesy of David Chen)

Tan first learned about flying rescue animals after reading an aviation trade magazine article on Pilots N Paws, a 501(c)(3) organization that acts as a virtual hub connecting rescue organizations and volunteer pilots. Animal Rescue registers on the website (currently more than 12,800 registered users) and calls when they have animals to transport. Tan, who made his first rescue flight in 2012, is one of the organization’s 6,000 volunteer pilots who fly more than 15,500 rescue animals across the country each year at his own expense, often breaking the journey into flights of about 250 miles and creating One of the best animal relays.

More often, Tan works independently with a handful of rescuers—people he’s known over the years who perform simplified rescue missions and text him directly. Thankfully, several other volunteer pilots in the Madison area also fly dogs, although they rarely get a chance to cross the trail. Several local pilots work with many local rescue organizations such as Fetch Wisconsin, Albert’s Dog Lounge and Underdog Pet Rescue and Veterinary Services. The Dane County Humane Society has also occasionally partnered with the Bissell Pet Foundation to facilitate a large flight of more than 100 animals, most recently in March 2022.

“Most of our transportation does come via vans, but we do have pregnant dog or cat moms in situations where time is of the essence and we don’t want to add to the stress,” said Lauren Brinkman, executive director of Underdog Pet Rescue. “It’s amazing, the boys and girls who do this. …I’ve seen them at the Dane County airport before and they’ve been around 10 different animals in a couple of hours. As far as we’re concerned, they’re just magically Arrived. These people are really kind.”

Brinkman said her organization makes about 10 flight requests a year, and an Underdog board member is married to a volunteer pilot. Another loser volunteer is a pilot who also has some rescue dogs. Pilots are in great demand. Tan manages about one rescue flight a week, but the demand exceeds his capacity.

“Never enough,” he said. “It’s just that there are a lot of dogs that need to be moved.”

flying dog 2

Courtesy of David Tan

Most rescues come from southern states, where there are more abandonments and homeless people, fewer neuterings and neuterings, and less access to veterinary care in rural areas — so the need is greater. For example, in March, Tan found a rescue animal named April whose owners were frustrated by the puppy’s accident at home – so they took her to the vet and asked to be euthanized. Instead, the veterinarian contacted a rescue team, which took the dog to northern Indiana. From there, Tan picked her up and sent her to another rescue in Iowa.

“You’d say, ‘Hope you have a great time for the rest of your life,’ you know?” he said. “‘Hope these people love you forever.’ ”

Tan and his wife travel too much to be responsible dog owners on their own – they currently own four rescue cats, three of which are already on Tan’s plane – but he certainly would love to add a tail wagging to the family. Some dogs lure Tan by crawling into the cockpit, and on one particularly memorable flight he took a mom and her eight puppies with him. He then formed a close bond with Frankie, a female German shepherd dog found tied to a tree in Alabama. Tan was able to take her to Wisconsin for rescue and then pick her up again later to take her to Michigan.

“Frankie, what a great dog. I think she went to a man with a very sad story. He lost his family,” Tan said – which was helpful because he knew that two beings in need were The second chance found each other.

Most of the time, Tan’s role is limited to quiet flights between airports, with the dog napping in the back seat or hat. But on his favorite days, he would see the dogs happily meet their new family. Sometimes they gave him thank-you notes with cash in them — “but I never left a penny,” Tan said. He spends all his money on rescues, as rescue groups usually pay for all medical and food costs for the animals they rescue. “They’ve always been short, especially in veterinary medicine. It’s just that the cost is so high these days.”

Dog sits on David's lap in the cockpit

Some puppies, like the June 2021 Oreo, like to crawl into David Tan’s lap in the cockpit or gaze over his shoulder at the world below. (Courtesy of David Chen)

Tan was quick to shake off any compliments. “The people who really make the difference are the rescuers,” he said. Other than that, it’s a tax benefit. Last year alone, Tan wrote off $23,000 worth of flight expenses. As any experienced pilot will tell you, flying requires constant practice and a fixed amount of time in the sky. Tan will be there no matter what, so saving the animals is an excellent use of flight time, he said.

“If you can fly, it’s a perishable skill and you have to keep up with trends,” he said. “So instead of flying to some what we call a $200 hamburger, I’d rather be a flying dog.”

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