When he uncovered the dark truth about how many healthy pets were being put down at high-kill shelters, Paul Steklenski knew that he had to do something about it. So he came up with an incredible way to help animals in need. But the mission was an extremely daunting task.
Steklenski is from Schwenksville in Pennsylvania. He is a U.S. Army veteran who spent the 1990s serving his country and led officer training at Kentucky’s Fort Knox. These days, he works as a network engineer and focuses on Cisco technologies.
He also likes to cook and has an interest in classic cars. In spring 2013 Steklenski began working for a company near his home. “I started driving to my new job, and I would pass this small airfield,” he told CNN. “I don’t know why, but I just decided one day to go in and sign up for flying lessons.”
It was something that he had considered in the past but he had never gotten around to it. “My uncle was a pilot. I still have his logbook from the ’30s and ’40s,” he told Today. So Steklenski soon began learning how to fly planes.
And that wasn’t the only significant thing that happened at that time in the army vet’s life. His family made the decision to adopt a dog named Tessa from a Pennsylvania shelter after he had completed about six flying lessons. The lab and retriever mix had been transported there from Tennessee.
The experience introduced Steklenski to something that he hadn’t known much about – animal rescue. In particular, it made him realize how many healthy pets were being put down simply because the shelters were overcrowded. He also became mindful of how many people worked to help them.
“You learn about this huge underground railroad of people who volunteer their time, money and energy to get these animals out of kill shelters,” Steklenski said to CNN. “I became so aware and more compassionate to all animals.” So when he got his pilot’s license, Steklenski came up with a creative way to do his part.
He wanted to use his new skills not just for pleasure but also to give back. However, he didn’t have the required qualifications to allow him to work for Angel Flight, which flies patients requiring medical services for free. Then, he realized that he could start a venture of his own and pilot animals in need instead.
In 2015 Steklenski started the nonprofit Flying Fur Animal Rescue. He transports pets from high-kill shelters across state lines to rescue organizations in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, who then work to find them loving homes. Some of the dogs have adopters waiting for them when they land and others go into foster care.
“I learned that if they don’t get out of certain areas of this country, they don’t live,” Steklenski said. “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 bought a $70,000 plane to complete his rescue missions. He additionally spends more than $1,000 a month out of his own pocket on his trips, which is why he maintains a full-time job. And he insists that it’s worth every penny.
Once Steklenski had realized how many creatures he could help in this way, there was no looking back. “Knowing that I could take a day off from work and quite literally help save the lives of a dozen or more animals just by doing this, that was it,” he explained. “I didn’t need to know any more.”
Steklenski does his trips twice a month. And in the past three years he has completed nearly 100 of them – flying more than 1,000 dogs to freedom and saving their lives in the process. On each journey, he will take approximately 15 dogs with him as well as the occasional cat, and he says that they react in different ways.
“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,” Steklenski told CNN. “A lot of times depending on the size of my copilot, he’ll kind of shimmy over, and get on my lap and fall asleep.” He continued, “Usually once the engine starts up, they hear the noise and the vibration – everybody settles in.”
Steklenski added, “Some will look out the window or they’ll fall asleep. It’s usually a non-event. It’s preferable to flying with people in a lot of ways! But it’s bittersweet in the sense that you’ve got to spend maybe two hours with them, and they start to bond with you a little bit, and now they’re moving on. It’s just what you have to do; they have to move on to their next step.”
Steklenski plays a small yet crucial part in the lives of these dogs and cats and reveals that each of them leaves an impact on him. “I’m part of them. I see it, I experience it,” he explained to Today. “I can remember each flight like it just happened.”
Steklenski added to CNN, “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.” His company started gaining interest in 2016, and he has now seen several articles written about Flying Fur Animal Rescue.
The Pennsylvania native was made a CNN Hero in 2018 and his organization currently has more than 173,000 supporters on Facebook. Steklenski recognizes that he has made a lot of progress in the past few years, but he wants to take the charity to new heights. In the future, he is hoping to create an adoption center in his home state that he can travel into with the dogs directly.
And that’s not all. “I also want to upgrade our aircraft to something bigger that can go further,” Steklenski said. “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 thinks that fate brought him this mission. “I truly believe in this. It’s my passion,” he told Today. “I don’t think I found it, it found me.” And although he readily admits that his work has its difficulties, he added on Facebook, “There is one thing that I never, ever, tire of – and that is quietly watching one of my ‘pawsengers’ gaze into the outside world, and wondering what they are thinking.”