pilots n paws

Jeff Bennett has four rescue dogs of his own at home, so it's clear that he's passionate about protecting animals.

But he isn't your average armchair animal lover.

As a volunteer with Pilots N Paws, a South Carolina-based organization that rescues animals on the brink of euthanasia, the businessman and recreational pilot from Florida has taken his love for furry friends to the skies.

Last week, Bennett reached an incredible milestone when he flew his 1,000th rescue animal to safety.

“I never thought I’d be moving this many animals,” Bennett, 53, told TODAY.com. “I just really enjoy it, and I get to meet some of the best people out there.”

Bennett, who has been volunteering with Pilots N Paws since November 2008, said he first heard about the organization through an article in a magazine. He learned that the program, which is reliant on volunteers willing to offer their services at no cost, rescues animals by connecting shelters and rescue organizations with pilots and plane owners.

Bennett -- who owns a small plane of his own and has been flying since 1995 -- said the choice to sign up was a no-brainer.

"I've always loved flying and I love dogs so I put the two of them together. It was pretty much an easy thing to do," he told The Huffington Post.

Over the last three and a half years, Bennett, who lives in the Florida Keys, has transported a lot more than just dogs.

From pythons and pigs to rabbits and rats, Bennett has saved the lives of a wide variety of cute -- and creepy -- critters.

"A lot of this is about getting animals out of rural shelters where they don't have a chance to be adopted and getting animals out of kill shelters to rescue organizations," he explained.

All this good work has come at no small cost to Bennett himself. The grandfather of two said he spends about $16,000 of his own money every year transporting his precious cargo.

But he insists that every cent has been worth it.

"I get a lot of return," he said. "It's something I do for myself. That's how I make myself happy."

However, Bennett admits that the work can sometimes be upsetting.

"You know, one dog [or cat] is euthanized every 8 seconds in America. That's 76,000 a week or 4 million [pets] a year. So many people don't realize how bad the situation is," he said, adding that he hopes more people will realize how important it is to spay or neuter their pets to prevent overpopulation.

For his part, Bennett -- who has already transported his 1002nd rescue animal -- says he has no intention of slowing down his efforts.

Bennett is featured in Patrick Regan's new book “Dog Is My Copilot: Rescue Tales of Flying Dogs, Second Chances, and the Hero Who Might Live Next Door,” which was released on June 19.

Look at some of Bennett's most memorable rescues here:

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  • Rex

    This little dog shared Bennett's big milestone. "This was my 1000th critter saved," said the pilot. "He looks like he had a rough night." Rex was transported from Greenville, Ala., to a shelter in Tampa, Fla.

  • Puppies

    "These cute puppies were picked up in Enterprise, Ala., and delivered to rescue in Orlando, Fla.," said Bennett.

  • Ball Python

    Bennett admitted that though he's not afraid of them, snakes aren't his favorite pet to transport -- even if they do make excellent neck coolers. "To be honest, snakes to me are really boring. They don't do much," he said. "You wrap them around your neck. They act like a neck cooler because of their cold blood and they won't move the whole flight. It's win-win." This ball python from Key West, Fla., was taken to a herpatologist in Merritt Island, Fla.

  • Border Collie

    "This was one of my first rescues and it hit me very hard. This male Border Collie was in danger of being euthanized and was only alive because the freezer at the kill shelter was already full of bodies," Bennett said. "When you're new at this stuff, you don't realize how bad it is. [I flew him] to a rescue shelter in Fort Lauderdale, Fla."

  • Delaney

    Delaney was Bennett's very first transport in November of 2008. The dog's foster mom Jill Hayes brought her to the Marathon, Fla., airport and Bennett flew her to Leesburg, Fla., where her adopted home awaited.

  • Buddy

    "Buddy was found tied to a tree in a backyard. His collar had grown into his neck and had to be surgically removed. He still has a 1-inch scar around his neck," said Bennett. "We both spent the night in a Tampa hotel room due to bad weather that developed to the south and prevented completion of the transport until the next day. He was a very happy boy and a great overnight guest."

  • Monitor Lizard

    Bennett with a black-throated monitor lizard from Key West.

  • German Shepherd

    "A young German Shepherd that was dumped in the Everglades with his sister. His sister died but he was saved and taken to Heidi's Legacy Rescue in Lakeland, Fla.," Bennett said.

  • Barbeque

    "Barbeque was purchased by an American soldier in South Korea after having a few drinks. He was unaware that they eat dogs in Korea and his new puppy had been sold as a food item. The soldier took the time and expense to get the dog to America but due to his military obligations had to give him up. He was taken to Dalmation rescue in Fort Lauderdale," said Bennett.

  • Bennett with his wife, Heather, and their four rescue dogs

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