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From rescued to rescuer

Neglected Lab gets a lift from Angel Flight West

The pure-bred chocolate Labrador retriever was as irresistible as a puppy could be, and that might have been his downfall.


Photography by Sylvia Stoney Photography by David Tulis Photography by David Tulis Photography by Sylvia Stoney

He was bought by a first-time, stay-at-home dog owner in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic. As restrictions eased and nearly full employment returned, however, the owner went back into the office full time, and Copper, the now nearly year-old dog, was untrained, left at home, and getting little exercise or interaction.

Mostly confined to a crate, Copper became obese and destructive. The owner finally dropped Copper at a shelter saying he couldn’t care for the strong-willed pooch. Copper was taken in by a dog rescue organization in Maryland that assumed a handsome young retriever would be easy to place. But Copper’s behavior was a problem.

He chewed shoes, ate socks, tore curtains, leapt on furniture, and seemed incapable of being calm. Copper’s energy and relentless drive made him an ideal candidate for the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, however, which my mother, Wilma Melville, founded in 1996.

The privately funded California group trains search dogs and pairs them with firefighters to rescue trapped people after natural disasters. The dogs can sniff out humans buried under rubble or debris after earthquakes, hurricanes, or tornadoes, and the insatiable determination that makes some dogs exasperating pets allows them to excel as search dogs.

The Search Dog Foundation agreed to take Copper, but he was on the wrong side of the country, and getting him to its training site in Santa Paula, California, was complicated and costly. That’s when Angel Flight West stepped in.

Angel Flight West is network of volunteer pilots who transport medical patients for specialized care in the western states. During the pandemic, however, Angel Flight West expanded its mission to include moving dogs for the Search Dog Foundation, and the group has since completed about 80 missions. Angel Flight West helped arrange a series of flights that brought Copper on a somewhat circuitous two-day journey that included stops in Minnesota, Arkansas, Arizona, and California. Angel Flight West President Jeff Moorhouse flew Copper on the final leg of the trip in his Beechcraft Bonanza A36 to Santa Paula Airport (SZP).

“It’s an honor to help the Search Dog Foundation, and the dogs and their handlers are incredible,” he said. “The dogs go from rescued to becoming rescuers, and our volunteer pilots thoroughly enjoy taking them where they need to go.”

Moorhouse’s Bonanza was ideal for the job. There’s plenty of room for dog crates; cargo doors make them easy to load; and the Bonanza can take off and land at Santa Paula’s relatively short 2,665-foot-long runway.

Copper will spend the next nine months learning to be a rescuer—a life of action and purpose that suits his restless temperament. And now that he’s been accepted into the program, he’s set for life. Whether he succeeds at the demanding curriculum or not, Copper will always have a home, and he’ll never be neglected again.

“He doesn’t know it yet,” Moorhouse said, “but he just won the dog lottery.”

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Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.

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