In 2017, a little more than a week before Christmas, Ted DuPuis, founder and pilot of Cloud Nine Rescue Flights, made his 5th and final trip from St. Croix in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
The mission was to transport orphaned cats and dogs from the ASPCA’s emergency shelter in the U.S. Virgin Islands to mainland rescue groups, where the animals would be made available for adoption.
Of the 24 precious cargo on that last flight, a pair of kittens had already been adopted by co-pilot Steven Thomas. They occupied a crate near the front of the twin-engine turboprop plane.
“When we were in cruise mode, we took them out and played with them,” recalls DuPuis, who has flown more than 2,500 animals to their rescue over the past 10 years via the all-volunteer, nonprofit organization.
Cloud Nine Rescue Flights
DuPuis — who, a few years earlier, had transported 52 cats to Seattle after the Joplin, Missouri, tornado — flew 2 back-to-back trips in November 2017 and 3 in December 2017 from St. Croix to the U.S. mainland, relocating a total of 112 animals.
At a temporary shelter on St. Croix, DuPuis had watched as his co-pilot went about selecting a kitten to take home to his family.
Thomas intended to adopt just 1, and his strategy was simple: “I’d put my hand in the pen with the kittens, and the friendliest and most affectionate one would be the one I’d choose.”
“But,” Thomas explains, “these 2 immediately came over and wouldn’t stop playing with my hand while wrestling each other at the same time. It was perfect, since my 2 boys at home are also playful and inseparable.”
Adventures in the Sky
Thomas, a commercial-rated hobby pilot who works for LXDX, and DuPuis, who works in the aviation industry, have known each other since they first learned to fly.
“I knew when I started flying that I wanted to give back to the community with my aviation skills,” says DuPuis, who volunteered at his local animal shelter and adopted his first dog when he started flying.
“The more I did it, the more I liked it,” he says.
Unless called in to help during a disaster, DuPuis typically flies 2 transports a month. He is present for every Cloud Nine flight.
DuPuis and his family have several rescued animals, including a retired racing Greyhound, cats, fish and a bunny.
But he resists the urge to adopt animals from his transports.
“I know how it feels to want to take them all home,” he explains. “But through transport I can save a lot more.”
“There’s a never-ending need to get animals out of overpopulated areas to places where they can find homes. And there are few things in life where you can have that level of certainty about the impact you’re having. It’s extremely rewarding.”
His co-pilot adds: “When Ted said they needed help getting animals out and supplies in, I immediately jumped at the chance. This was one of those times where I felt I could personally make a difference.”
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Home Sweet Home
On December 17, 2017, the Cloud Nine Rescue Flights plane was loaded with animals for the last time that year.
As it headed into the skies, the meows and barks on board subsided, and the cabin grew quiet.
“The animals always settle down,” DuPuis says. “I think rescued animals handle transport better than existing pets. They’ve gone through so much already and are used to uncertainty.”
The next day, at the Thomas home, Christmas came early.
“There were lots of joyful tears,” Thomas recalls. “We love animals, but there had been a hole in my wife’s heart since her previous cat, Guinevere, passed away.”
The new feline additions to the family were quickly named by Thomas’s young sons, who chose Wheatley and Fus Ro Dah (Fus for short), both based on video games.
The family’s other pets include 8 hens and a rooster — also named after video game characters — who free-range in the yard, as well as rescue dogs Yuna and Cloud.
“What Wheatley and Fus love most is wrestling with our dogs,” says Thomas. “We attribute it to them being raised with all the puppies at the temporary shelter in St. Croix.”
For both DuPuis and Thomas, a feeling of euphoria greets them every time a Cloud Nine Rescue Flight’s wheels touch down.
“Arriving at the receiving destinations is a great feeling,” DuPuis says. “These are animals that would have died for whatever reason, and we’ve brought them to a place where they have an almost 100% chance of adoption.”
“It’s our way of using what we’re most passionate about to help others,” adds Thomas.
“All these dogs and cats want is to be loved — and there’s nothing greater we could share with the world.”
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Anita Kelso Edson has been on the Media & Communications team at the ASPCA for more than 12 years. In her previous role, she spent 6 years as director of publicity for the SPCA of Texas in Dallas.