WORCESTER - Nearly 200 dogs and cats, some shaking and others barking playfully, arrived at Worcester Regional Airport from Puerto Rico late Wednesday night.
The charter flight from Wings of Rescue left the storm-devastated island Wednesday morning, with a stop in Florida for refueling, and arrived in Worcester about 9 p.m. The pilots donated their time, and several area animal rescue organizations raised money to cover the $80,000 cost of the flight, which included a substantial amount for jet fuel, said Leigh Grady, the executive director of Sterling Animal Shelter.
"We had a few very generous donors who are anonymous," she said.
The pets that arrived had been in shelters or with foster families in Puerto Rico. Some were slated to be sent to the United States before Hurricane Irma tore through the Caribbean in September. When that storm was quickly followed by Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, it seemed as though the dogs would never get off the island.
But after a few weeks of phone calls, Ms. Grady was able to coordinate with the Sato Project, a dog rescue project in Puerto Rico, and arranged for the pets to be delivered to Worcester.
Two boxers on the flight were already spoken for, said Lisa Barker of The Boxer Rescue Inc. She and staff from other rescues, including the Animal Rescue League of Boston, Buddy Dog Humane Society in Sudbury and the New Hampshire Humane Society, anxiously waited on the tarmac for the jet to land. When it did, there were whoops of excitement.
From inside the jet, crates were handed down and the barking was nonstop as the crates were placed on the tarmac and volunteers began shining flashlights to reveal the pets inside. A few cats hissed and kittens stuck their tiny paws out, looking for attention.
For pilot Derek Harbaugh, the trip was special. He'd fallen in love with a dog on a previous flight from St. John. But Pinky, a pretty blue pit bull with crazy ears, had been delivered to New Hampshire. With some detective work, Mr. Harbaugh found out she was in a foster home near Boston.
Wednesday night, Last Hope K9 Rescue delivered Pinky to Mr. Harbaugh, and as other pets were unloaded from the plane, he prepared to load her on board to take her back home to Texas.
Ms. Grady said it's becoming more common for Massachusetts shelters to help pets from other areas, and that doesn't mean dogs in this area aren't being adopted.
"I don't think people realize that there really aren't adoptable dogs in New England shelters that are being euthanized," she said. "In New England we have an 'empty kennel syndrome.' ... Right now our shelter is empty."
While people want to adopt dogs, it's often slim pickings, so bringing in the dogs from Puerto Rico fills the need and helps out in an area where spaying and neutering hasn't taken a firm hold.
Some of the dogs and cats may be available for adoption as early as Saturday, Ms. Grady said. Anyone interested should watch the Sterling Animal Shelter's website to learn more.