U.S. Army veteran Paul Steklenski spent a decade serving his country at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Now he has a new mission: flying dogs that are in danger to safe, happy homes.
Steklenski’s nonprofit, Flying Fur Animal Rescue, operates along the East Coast, transporting dogs from high-kill shelters in the south to rescue organizations in the north. Some of the animals have adopters waiting for them when they land, while others go into foster care.
Steklenski’s journey began in 2013, when he found work near his home in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. “I started driving to my new job, and I would pass this small airfield,” he told CNN in 2018. “I just decided one day to go in and sign up for flying lessons.”
Later that year, Steklenski’s family took in a dog named Tessa. The veteran learned that she had been rescued from a kill shelter all the way in Tennessee. His new pooch gave him an idea: once he had his pilot license, he could fly animals in need like Tessa away from environments where they’re likely to be euthanized.
In 2015 the Army vet turned his dream of helping pets in need into a reality. He bought a $70,000 plane and officially set up Flying Fur Animal Rescue. On each rescue journey, Steklenski takes around 12 dogs as well as the occasional cat – although he once flew 23 animals in one go.
Steklenski’s twice-monthly trips cost him more than $10,000 a year from his own pocket, which is why he maintains a full-time job as a network engineer. But it’s all been worth it, as in the past four years he has flown over 1,000 animals to freedom.
Steklenski explained to CNN, “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 co-pilot, [the dog will] kind of shimmy over and get on my lap.” He added, “Usually, once the engine starts up, [and] they hear the noise and the vibration, everybody settles in. Some will look out the window, or they’ll fall asleep.”
“I learned that if [the dogs] don’t get out of certain areas of this country, they don’t live,” Steklenski continued. “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.”
Steklenski may save the lives of these dogs and cats, but each of them has left an impact on him, too. The Pennsylvania native said, “We’re only in the plane for a short period of time, but that time is so precious to me. There are moments we share in that plane that I will never forget.”
Flying Fur Animal Rescue currently has more than 195,000 supporters on Facebook. But while the veteran recognizes that he has made plenty of progress, he wants to take his charity to even greater heights.
A 2019 documentary called Flying Fur shines a light on Steklenski’s heroic airborne antics and his plans for the future. The film is being screened in various locations across the U.S. throughout September, and it’s also available to rent or buy.
Steklenski told CNN that he hopes to create a special adoption center with its own airstrip in his home state. “I also want to upgrade our aircraft to something bigger that can go further,” he added. “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.”
Steklenski also maintains that fate brought him this mission. “I truly believe in this [work]. It’s my passion,” he told Today in 2017. “I don’t think I found it; it found me.”
And while the veteran admits that rescuing at-risk animals task has its difficulties, he knows that he has found his true calling. He said on Facebook, “If there is one thing that never gets old for me, it is the sight of a pup on my lap gazing out of a window. In a world of things that can be bought, the feeling – the experience – I have on each flight with my ‘pawsengers’ is not one of them.” He added, “True wealth… can only be found in the service to others, for once you have found this secret you will become one of the wealthiest people on this Earth.”