While most of us are sound asleep, Peter Rork is getting ready to fly hundreds of dogs from shelters to their new lives at 5:00 a.m.
Rork has devoted his life to helping others — both humans and animals. After spending 40 years as an orthopedic surgeon, he founded Dog Is My CoPilot, a nonprofit organization that transports at risk shelter animals to rescue centers where they can be adopted.
Since its inception in 2012, Dog Is My CoPilot has saved nearly 17,000 dogs and cats to date.
It has given Rork a chance to combine his two lifelong passions: aviation and dogs.
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Rork got his pilot’s license at 17 years old and was set on flying for a living. When he discovered his love for the sciences in college, he decided to pursue becoming a doctor instead and worked his way through medical school as a pilot.
While practicing medicine, Rork had a patient who ran an animal rescue organization in Idaho. When she learned that he had his pilot’s license, she asked if he would consider flying dogs from Idaho to Colorado, which would shave the 12-13 hour transportation drive down to a 2-3 hour flight.
“I told her, ‘Oh, that would be a great idea,’” Rork tells This Dog’s Life. “I was looking for an opportunity to fly my airplane, and I love dogs. What a great combination.”
Rork transported dogs numerous times for her rescue and found it to be “a real feel-good situation.”
“I always thought that after I left medicine, I would do something more involved with animal transport,” Rork says.
But it wasn’t until meeting Meg, “the most wonderful woman in the world” that his life changed forever. The couple flew about once a month to rescue dogs from kill shelters.
Sadly, after two months of marriage, Meg suddenly passed away.
“I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t do anything. I left my practice. I went home. I sat in the dark for four months,” Rork says. “I had a friend contact me and remind me that Meg would want me to be happy. She didn’t want me sitting in the dark at home for months at a time. So, I thought I would go back to my animal rescue model.”
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After the death of his beloved wife, Rork started Dog Is My CoPilot as a 501(c)(3) with his friend, Judy Zimet, in August 2012.
Rork began flying one dog at a time for the Animal Adoption Center in Jackson, Wyo. Eventually, he found his way in Merced, Calif. to meet Sharon Lohman on Sept. 4, 2012 — a date Rork says he’ll never forget.
Lohman was running a rescue organization called New Beginnings and was saving dogs at a facility where the euthasia rate was at 90 percent. Once Rork learned of the high-kill rate, his entire understanding of rescue changed.
Upon hearing about the long trips Lohman was making once a week by van, Rork offered to make those trips for her 2-3 days a week by aircraft, flying as frequently as weather allowed.
When Rork began his rescue journey, he made an emotional commitment to Dog Is My CoPilot: he would spend 10 years saving dogs or stop once he had saved 10,000 dogs, whichever came first. And he didn’t know nor care what it cost.
Rork has flown from overcrowded shelters located in Arizona, California, Texas, and New Mexico to animal rescue organizations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
Last year, Rork was able to upgrade from a small Cessna 206H to a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan — a complete game changer. He went from flying 20 dogs at a time to 200 dogs a time, tripling the amount of dogs saved each year from 1,000 to 3,000.
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“Suddenly, I’ve blown right through my 10,000 dogs, and I’ve got a couple years left before I hit the 10-year mark,” Rork says. “I thought, ‘You know, I really enjoy flying this new airplane. Maybe I’ll just keep going.’ So I did.”
With as many dogs as Rork picks up, he stresses how he wouldn’t be able to do it without his team. Executive director and “wingman,” Kara Pollard, has streamlined the transporting process to make it as efficient as possible. And with the help of the Petco Foundation, Dog Is My CoPilot was able to bring on three volunteer pilots — Brent Blue, Craig Colton and Jeff Carter — beginning in 2019.
When Rork initially started Dog Is My CoPilot, shelters were euthanizing millions of animals a year. Now, it’s 1.5 million a year by some estimates.
Rork is dedicated to drawing attention to this harsh reality and to the need of what he and the team are doing.
“It [Dog Is My CoPilot] has a lot of moving parts. It used to be just me, but [we’re] making much more headway addressing the problem,” he says.
Dog Is My CoPilot’s success has taken off within the past few months. The nonprofit has made such an impact that it is now looking to buy a second aircraft, which will hopefully be based in Atlanta to fly dogs out of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi to the northern states.
“I’m really excited about the prospects of that — about finally really making a mark and being a bigger part of the solution and having people see what they can do,” Rork says.
He encourages people to make a difference any way they can, whether that’s by adopting, fostering, volunteering, or donating.
“I can’t wait for the day when Kara calls me and says, ‘Peter, we don’t have any more flights scheduled.’ I’ll say, ‘I’m going to the golf course.’ And I don’t even play,” Rork laughs.
Until that day comes, Rork is looking forward to the future and saving more lives. The pilot’s watch his mother gifted him for his 13th birthday over 60 years ago can still be found on his wrist whenever he flies.
“My rescue dogs saved me from the darkest period of my life after my wife passed, and I have now transported more than 16,000 that have gone from kill to non-kill; they’ve been placed in homes and have brought that same kind of happiness and joy,” Rork says. “That’s the most fulfilling thing to me. I get to save a dog. I get to improve people’s lives. That makes me feel good about me.”
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