Chihuahuas take flight

Published 9:36 pm Friday, October 12, 2012

Joan Mitchell of Chihuahua Rescue and Transport helps pilot Matthew Kiener load dogs into his plane at Suffolk Executive Airport on Thursday. The dogs were transported to New Jersey.

A Piper Saratoga airplane took off from Suffolk Executive Airport on Thursday afternoon with an unusual load of cargo.

Carriers full of live Chihuahuas — 24 dogs in all — were stacked Tetris-like into the plane’s tiny cargo hold and on top of unused passenger seats. Pilot Matthew Kiener and his friend Byron Hamby had flown to Suffolk earlier Thursday to pick up the dogs from Chihuahua Rescue and Transport Virginia/Carolinas coordinator Carla Johnson.

The dogs, originally 32 of them, had been rescued from a man in Gates, N.C. He and his wife had been raising Chihuahuas for many years, Johnson said. They were taken care of until she fell ill and died a couple years ago, she said. The man, too, began to get sick and learned after testing that he is highly allergic to the dogs.

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The woman’s sister, who lives in New Jersey, contacted Chihuahua Rescue and Transport for help. She drove to North Carolina a couple weeks ago and picked up a few dogs she had found homes for among family and friends. Associated Humane Societies of New Jersey agreed to accept the rest of the dogs and try to find loving homes for them.

The only problem that remained was how to get 24 dogs to New Jersey. Johnson reached out to Pilots N Paws, a volunteer group of pilots with their own planes that help with rescue missions for animals. It wasn’t long before pilot Kiener, an estate manager in New Jersey, responded.

Three of the 24 Chihuahuas that were transported from North Carolina to New Jersey through Suffolk Executive Airport on Thursday.

“I bought this plane to do this,” said Kiener, who used to fly an even smaller plane before upgrading to have the space to fly animal rescue missions. “I love dogs, and I love flying.”

He adopted his dog, Piper, from one of the first missions he flew — “a rescue gone bad,” he jokes. After a few calculations, he estimates Piper — who is named after the plane — has made him smile at least 88,000 times.

“This is an opportunity to help others get those 88,000 smiles,” he said.

This week’s mission shattered a record for Kiener — the highest number of dogs he had transported before was 14.

Johnson and Joan Mitchell from the rescue group transferred the dogs to small crates for the journey at the airport on Thursday. The dogs had all received health certificates in order to be able to travel, though some are seriously overweight, Johnson said.

The crates were strategically stacked in the plane and secured with bungee cords to prevent slippage. Once all were loaded, the doors were shut, and the pilots boarded the plane and taxied to the runway.

That was when Johnson realized she’d forgotten to send the dogs’ medical records. But after a quick cellphone call and a return visit by the plane, the pilots succeeded in taking off from the airport for the hour and a half flight to New Jersey.

Kiener sent a text message later to let the rescuers know he had touched down safely.

“It went fantastic,” Johnson said. “It couldn’t have gone better.”

“Hopefully people will want to adopt them,” she added. “I just wish there were more foster families out there. It’s not just Chihuahuas; it’s all kinds of dogs. There just aren’t enough.”