A dedicated orthopaedic surgeon, Peter E. Rork, MD, is also passionate about aviation and dogs. He started flying as a teenager and worked his way through medical school as a sightseeing and charter tour pilot and flight instructor.
“I always planned to incorporate flying into my practice,” said Dr. Rork, the longest-practicing orthopaedic surgeon in Jackson Hole, Wyo. For more than 20 years he flew his single-engine Cessna T206H to the area’s outlying regions to visit clinics and treat patients.
Now he flies his aircraft primarily for a different purpose. Dr. Rork is the founder of Dog is My CoPilot, Inc. (DIMC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving animals’ lives by flying them to areas for adoption. Thanks to DIMC, hundreds of abandoned dogs that used to reside in kill shelters throughout the western United States have new homes with caring owners.
“I’ve been a dog lover and around dogs my whole life. To me, a house just isn’t a home without that ‘wet dog’ smell,” he said.
A new calling
Dr. Rork’s involvement with animal transport began about 5 years ago when he heard about an organization that relies on volunteer pilots to airlift animals to safe havens. His first missions involved flying larger dogs (eg, Labradors and Golden Retrievers) from Idaho Falls, Idaho, to the Denver area for adoption. He managed to squeeze the once-a-month transports into his busy practice. “My wife would come along and we’d turn it into a day of flying and adventure,” he said.
When his wife passed away suddenly, Dr. Rork took stock of his life. “I was devastated—her death absolutely crushed me. I took a leave of absence from my practice to wrap my head around it,” he said.
When he resumed flying rescue missions several months later, Dr. Rork was filled with a new sense of purpose. “To me, being able to tell a patient that everything was going to be OK and to see them relax was one of the greatest joys of practicing orthopaedic surgery. But to be able to do that for 25 to 30 dogs at one time—to get them out of a kill shelter and fly them to an animal rescue organization (ARO) that will foster them until they are adopted—that’s lifesaving for them. It was a direction I knew I needed to go,” he said.
Like being Santa Claus
Last summer, with the help of long-time friend and attorney Judy Zimet, Dr. Rork established DIMC. He is the organization’s lone pilot and the copilot is his own rescue dog, Doyle, a black Labrador that accompanies him on nearly every mission.
“I wanted to create a nonprofit organization to airlift dogs between AROs where ground transport just doesn’t make sense. We limit our flights to west of the Mississippi River so that we can maximize our resources—one aircraft and one pilot,” he said.
DIMC works with several AROs to organize the transports. “People from the AROs collect the dogs and make sure they are checked out by a vet, get their shots, and are spayed or neutered. Then they meet me at the airport or local airstrip and off we go,” he said. “I feel like Santa Claus and my airplane is my sleigh.”
Dr. Rork transports dogs three to four times a week, often moving them between shelters based on their size. For example, shelters near the Rockies have a lot of large dogs that have been abandoned or surrendered, but very few small dogs. Conversely, the San Francisco Bay area is inundated with small dogs that local shelters can’t adopt out.
“I’ll fly half a dozen or so larger dogs from Idaho Falls to San Francisco and then pop over to Merced, Calif., load 30 small dogs in my plane, and fly them to AROs in Jackson Hole; Boise, Idaho; or Missoula, Mont., where adoption rates approach 100 percent,” he said.
One of his most memorable transports involved the transfer of 31 Chihuahuas. “That was a record-breaking day for me. What would have been an 18-hour drive was instead a 4-hour flight.”
According to Dr. Rork, the animals are very well-behaved considering they are in the air for about 5 hours on some of the longer flights.
“People ask me, ‘Doesn’t it get awfully noisy in the plane?’ The dogs do make a little bit of noise for about 15 minutes, but then they settle down—it’s really more of an olfactory experience,” he said.
Dr. Rork finds his rescue flights very rewarding; they also give him time to reflect on practicing medicine. “This respite has given me the opportunity to revisit my dedication to orthopaedics. I will probably resume practicing someday, either on a part-time basis or doing locum tenens work. For now, DIMC is my full-time occupation, but it’s hardly a job—it’s very fulfilling.”
Maureen Leahy is assistant managing editor of AAOS Now. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org