Flying Rescue Dogs from Puerto Rico| BEST Volunteer Day
Fluffy bellies, wet noses, and wagging tails—aren’t dogs just the BEST!? Recently I had the pleasure of transporting two adorable rescue pups to their fur-ever homes. People have been asking me about the experience, the organization, how it worked and how they can become rescue flyers. I figured I may as well tackle it in a blog post, and viola! Here we are. Read on to hear about my experience flying rescue dogs from Puerto Rico, and how you can get involved too.
The way that I became involved in this project was so 2020. I saw a post on Instagram by an organization called Safe & Sound Satos, calling on people to adopt, foster, or transport rescue dogs from Puerto Rico. It was a bit serendipitous, actually. Not only had I been wanting to find a volunteer project to do some good, but my family adopted a rescue dog, Natalie, from PR when I was in high school. I figured it was meant to be, so I slid into their DMs and said “I’m in.”
One of the coordinators and I chatted a bit, back and forth, exchanging contact information and moving to text. I gave her several dates I had available to fly a pup, and we settled on a date that worked for both of us.
The process was *slightly* different for me than it would be for a normal person because I’m airline crew. Normally, a person decides to volunteer because they already have a plan to be flying from Puerto Rico to New York or Boston. They may be on vacation or visiting family or going for work. They contact the rescue organization to coordinate, contact the airline to add a pet to their flight reservation, and then the organization (Safe and Sound Satos, in this case) sends reimbursement for the pet fee. Because I’m crew and am not charged a pet fee, I figured the savings for the organization made my good deed extra good.
The SASS coordinator asked me for a confirmation number for the flight, which I did not have because I book tickets very last minute—like the day before I travel. But eventually, a week or so before the date, I was able to feel comfortable booking a flight. I let them know the airline, arrival time, and yes, confirmation number. I filled them in and crossed my fingers that there would still be seats available when I showed up to fly.
Volunteering is better with friends!
They threw it a bit of a wrench in my plan when they asked if I could transport two dogs instead of one. But this was the best wrench possible, because it meant inviting one of my besties on this cuteness-overdose adventure. After coordinating with SASS and my bestie Rachel, the plan was determined. Bright and early that Monday morning I would fly to San Juan out of Boston. Rachel would take a flight from Orlando, where her fiancée lives and meet me in San Juan around 12. At 3pm, we would meet a SASS representative outside of the airport at the departures level. We would pick up the rescue doggos, bring them through security and to the gate, where we would all fly to New York to meet their new adoptive parents. After this meetup, Rachel would go home to her apartment in Manhattan and I would hop a flight from JFK to Boston. It would be a long day, but totally worth it.
I’ll be honest, in the weeks leading up to the big day I did have moments of reservation. The organization had a website that looked pretty legit, but it felt weird giving my information (Full name, address, phone numbers) with nary a confirmation email in sight. No letterhead. Just texts. I wondered if I were falling into some kind of trap. But the more I spoke with Jenna, the SASS contact, the more at ease I felt. Happily, everything turned out just fine—no swindling or funny business to speak of.
The Big Day
I ended up taking the first flight of the day out of Boston, which made for a very early wakeup call and a solid chunk of time in between flights. But, as any standby traveler knows, the first flight is always the safest bet. This is because if the flight is full and you don’t make it, there are more flights throughout the day you can try for. (It is NEVER advisable to try to take the last flight of the day—unless you don’t mind turning around, sleeping on it, and trying again the next morning.) Rachel did the same from Orlando and made it to San Juan even earlier than I did.
Getting to spend the day catching up with my bestie was one of the best parts of the experience. In this pandemic landscape, despite working full-time, I still feel funny about making any social plans. Whenever an invitation comes up, I have a mini existential crisis trying to determine what the best course of action is. Rachel and I, along with two other close friends, have made plans three times this year and ended up canceling each plan due to one or more of us feeling uncomfortable. This day we were on a mission to do some good transporting fur babies and as a bonus, got to spend social time together. We were masked up and taking precautions, of course, but it was such a treat.
Rachel and I headed outside of the airport at the designated time to meet the person who would be dropping off the puppies to us. We had been communicating via text, so she let me know when she was almost there. We described our outfits and where we were in relation to the airport—“In front of the I <3 PR sign.” It was a bit like an old-school blind date.
She's the sweetest.
Getting the Pups
She got out of the car, said hello, handed us two fabric dog carriers and a plastic bag containing some kibble and the dogs’ paperwork. And with that, she was back in her car, driving away. Just like that. The whole thing was a whirlwind. A drive-by. And when she pulled away, Rachel and I looked at each other, these crated dogs we were now charged with, a bit stunned. Okay…what do we do now?
Having seen photos, we already knew which pup was which, so we introduced ourselves to little Winslow and sweet Olive.
We decided to hang outside for a bit to get to know the puppies and allow them the opportunity to pee before the long flight. Something to note is that they did not have leashes. So for safety’s sake, we arranged our bags in a semi-circle on the ground and sat down beside them to blockade the pups into a corner. This gave them some space to move about but kept them from running off. I took pictures of each puppy and sent it to their respective owners, who I had been put in contact with a few days prior. Both new families were excited, and I told them I’d be in touch when we landed. With time to spare, Rachel and I just hung out, played with the puppies, took some photos of our own for memory’s sake.
Neither of us has a dog, so we struggled with some pretty basic decisions—do we give them water now? Or will that make them have to pee on the plane? Do we give them the whole bag of food or save some for later? We decided on half the kibble, but held off on water until we could get a cup in the airport. Happily, no one peed on the plane.
This is Winslow
Winslow was the more rambunctious of the two and tried his hand at breaching our luggage wall a few times, while sweet Olive was more subdued. I do not know if they give them drugs to fly before they are left with us. And next time I do this, I will ask that question in advance. I just didn’t think of it, as it was my first time. The possibility did seem distinct, especially in little Olive and how calm and docile she was. Meek, even. The thing that made it difficult to discern though, was that these were street dogs who had been rescued. Olive, we were told, had quite a few health issues along the way already in her short life. So her more mild manners and meekness could have been related to that and not drugs.
This was also a big, exciting day for them. Air travel is exhausting and difficult for human adults—so for a little pup with some health issues in the backdrop, this day of travel is a serious undertaking.
At the Airport
We made our way through security with no snafus to speak of, and happily there were plenty of open seats on the plane to accommodate us and our furry friends.
But there was one thing we hadn’t considered.
On every flight there is a set limit for the number of pets that are allowed to fly. Rachel and I had been diligent in looking at the number of open seats on the flight, ensuring that we could in fact make it back to New York when we were expected to. The thing we failed to consider was how many other animals might be traveling on the flight that day.
This limit number varies from airline to airline. If you are a regular person, it will not matter for you. The booking system will not allow you to book a pet if the number has been exceeded. But for flight attendants and airline employees using a standby ticket, it is a different story. We are not recorded in the flight manifest until we receive a seat, usually at the end of boarding. Meaning we could have flown all the way to San Juan to get the pups and not been able to bring them on the plane. Yikes.
One more pitfall of standby travel.
Rachel and the babies
Winslow and I
This was a slightly stressful realization when we were AT the airport already. Luckily, it worked out for us, there were not too many dogs traveling. But since then, I have been trying to think of a way to mitigate this risk.
As flight attendants, we can load a seat map of the flight the day prior. But honestly, I don’t know how helpful that would be because it is based on people checked in. So, hypothetically there could be 5 pets already booked on the flight whose owners hadn’t checked in yet. Perhaps, as an employee, you could call reservations, tell them that you are listed standby, hoping to bring a pet, and ask them to check the number of pets already booked on the flight. I am planning to volunteer with this organization again in February, so I will try calling beforehand and update this post with my findings.
The Rescue Flight
We got our seats, with plenty of room to spread out, and the flight was relaxing. No barking, no puppy accidents, just smooth sailing. They both did great for their first airplane ride, only getting restless at landing and during deplaning. After the flight, we walked our little lovies to baggage claim, where their new parents awaited. It was another blind date situation, coordinating locations and outfits to set us apart. When we made our way through the glass exits, though, it was very easy for us to find one another. This moment was one of the best of the entire day.
During the flight Olive was chill,
and Winslow was...well...
The three of them—a couple picking up Winslow and a young woman there for little Olive held their breath in anticipation. You could almost see the excitement in the air around them, each particle suddenly electric, visible. It was obvious: They had been awaiting this moment. And now here we were.
Handing off these two rescue dogs to their adoptive parents was a truly special and rewarding moment. It was the part of this whole endeavor I had thought about the least. More concerned about getting a seat on the flight there, making sure I could get a seat back, how security would work with a dog, the pups’ bladders on the 4-hour flight, making sure I had everyone’s phone number…all these were the details that filled my mind before and on the big day. And with all of that swirling in my head, I had failed tor really consider the most special and beautiful part of this whole thing.
These families were expanding right before my eyes. Long before this day, these humans had committed to adopting their fur-baby. They had made arrangements in their lives to care for them. They had bought supplies, had probably researched the best foods for their new pups, maybe taken a few days off of work to ensure a smooth adjustment. They had seen their adorable little faces and fallen in love—virtually! And they had been waiting patiently ever since.
This moment was HUGE for them.
Their emotions became contagious. Their gratitude was fervent. To be on the receiving end of such gratitude, especially after having done such a pleasurable, fun act of service, made me feel truly #blessed. All of them showered us with thanks, and Olive’s mom even brought us a gift bag filled with a bottle of wine and a bag of chocolates. (The bounty was easy for us to split since I don’t drink!)
Walking away from these new fur-families, knowing how happy we had made them, feeling the warm, comfy weight of such a good day, Rachel and I were all smiles. We gave each other a hug goodbye and went our separate ways, she to her apartment, and me back into the terminal for my flight to Boston.
It was a long ass day, but one that was so worth it. I felt so content, happy, at peace, and I knew I would want to continue to do this type of volunteer work going forward. I’ve since contacted SASS to arrange my next rescue dog volunteer flight. And I can’t freaking wait.
Just a couple besties, transporting pups.
About SASS & How to Help
Safe and Sound Satos is an organization based in Puerto Rico that rescues street dogs, provides rehabilitation for them, and arranges for fosters and adoptions. If you have spent time in Puerto Rico, especially outside the capitol of San Juan, then you have likely seen some of the street dogs roaming around. “Satos” is a slang term used to describe these street and beach dogs.
Life is tough for a little dog on its own. They face food shortage, turf wars, and unforgiving conditions. Through SASS, these dogs are given a second chance. Proper medical care, a chance to live in a comfortable home, have plenty of food—and love. To struggle less and live that “dog’s life” we hear so much about.
SASS is not the only organization of its kind, and in fact several similar initiatives exist like The Sato Project, OBRA PR, and Second Chance Animal Rescue of Puerto Rico (SCAR for short). Safe and Sound is just the only organization I have worked with and can vouch for.
They are a donation-driven organization, receiving little to no government funding to do their work. To learn more about SASS or to donate to this life-saving work, check out their Website. There is a traditional donation button for monetary gifts as well as an Amazon wish list link for do-gooders who would like to give necessary supplies instead. To see frequent updates of adoptable fur babies (whether you’re in the market to adopt or not!) check out their Instagram account.
I can not say enough how wonderful this experience was volunteer-flying these rescue pups from Puerto Rico. I am planning my next volunteer animal rescue flight for February and am over the moon excited for it. If you will be traveling to Puerto Rico, consider reaching out to SASS or one of the other organizations and adding a pup-in-need to your flight reservation. Again, all fees are paid for, and your good deed helps to keep the foster and adoption cycle going. If you are airline and looking to get involved, it is even easier! I hope this post helped to explain the process of animal rescue flights and to encourage you to get involved.
Safe travels everyone, and have a doggone good day!