Dog lover flies 'paw-sengers' to safety

Pottstown, Pennsylvania (CNN)Paul Steklenski has saved more than 1,000 dogs' lives in the last three years.

Twice a month, the Army veteran loads about 15 animals on to a small plane and flies them from high-kill shelters in the southern US to rescue groups up north.
CNN Hero Paul Steklenski
"These animals are perfectly fine and healthy and adoptable -- (they) just can't get out of kill shelters to that freedom," Steklenski said. "They are getting a private flight to save their lives."
His efforts -- and the need -- led him to start his nonprofit, Flying Fur Animal Rescue, in 2015. But this mission was never something he'd set out to do.
    In 2013, Steklenski began working at a company closer to his home, which led him to the idea of becoming a pilot.
    "I started driving to my new job, and I would pass this small airfield," said Steklenski, a network engineer. "I don't know why, but I just decided one day to go in and sign up for flying lessons."
    While training to get his pilot license, his family decided to adopt a dog. The process opened his eyes to a world he didn't know existed.
    "You learn about this huge underground railroad of people who volunteer their time, money, and energy to get these animals out of kill shelters," Steklenski said. "I became so aware and more compassionate to all animals."
    He got his license a few months later and realized he could do more than fly for recreation.
    "I thought, this is a way I can use an ability I have to help move a large amount of animals in a short amount of time," he said.
    Since starting the organization, Steklenski has completed nearly 100 flights to save animals, all paid for out of his own pocket. The organization now has its own plane and transports to rescue groups in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
    "We're only in the plane for a short period of time, but that time is so precious to me," he said. "There are moments we share in that plane that I will never forget."
    CNN's Meghan Dunn spoke with Steklenski about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
    CNN: What did you learn about the need in rescuing these animals?
    Paul Steklenski: There is a huge need to help get animals out of kill shelters. I learned that if they don't get out of certain areas of this country, they don't live. The further South you get, the worse it gets. And there are so many organizations up north that are no-kill that will take these animals.
    Once I became an airman, it was natural. Knowing that I could take a day off from work and quite literally help save the lives of a dozen or more animals just by doing this, that was it. I didn't need to know any more.
    CNN: What's it like to be on such a small plane with more than a dozen dogs?
    Steklenski: Every dog that steps foot on our plane is a 'paw-senger.' I'll look to who is the most scared or the most terrified and know that if I put them next to me, they'll be calmed. A lot of times depending on the size of my copilot, he'll kind of shimmy over, and get on my lap and fall asleep.
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    Usually once the engine starts up, they hear the noise and the vibration -- everybody settles in. Some will look out the window or they'll fall asleep. It's usually a non-event. It's preferable to flying with people in a lot of ways!
    But it's bittersweet in the sense that you've got to spend maybe two hours with them, and they start to bond with you a little bit, and now they're moving on. It's just what you have to do; they have to move on to their next step.
    CNN: You dedicate a lot of time to flying animals. How do you juggle it with your full-time job?
    Steklenski: My full-time job helps pay for this. I spend over $1,000 a month out of my pocket to do this. I need my job to fulfill these missions and help save these animals.
    When I look back in time, when I was renting airplanes all the time and had to drive an hour to the airport with crates in my truck -- I look back now, I'm like, "Wow, you were nuts." It's just not something you really focus on. You're focused on what the next mission is, what's the next group of dogs I need to help. When it's something you're very passionate about, I don't think you really measure the amount of energy or time or sacrifice you put into it. You just do it.
    CNN: What's the future of the organization look like?
    Steklenski: The future of Flying Fur is take us to the next level and get a dedicated farm in Pennsylvania with an airstrip that I can fly animals into directly, where we can have an intake and adoption and rehab center.
    I also want to upgrade our aircraft to something bigger that can go further. I don't know how I'm going to get there yet, and it's going to take a lot of money. But that's my challenge. I've made it this far in three years. It's on my shoulders now to figure out how to get us to where we need to be.
    Want to get involved? Check out the Flying Fur Animal Rescue website and see how to help.
    To donate to Flying Fur Animal Rescue, click the CrowdRise widget below.