Behind every rescue animal is an unsung hero, and Terrie Varnado leads the pack.
Tail wagging, Fabio peered through his carrying case listening to a crowd of ladies swooning over his curly locks.
A fluffy ball of fur, the 4-year-old white Maltese cuddled close inside the arms of each admirer. Considering the trauma Fabio experienced from his previous owner, losing the bottom portion of his two back legs, his power to forgive and trust humans again was nothing but miraculous.
Terrie Varnado, an animal rescue transporter, orchestrated Fabio’s incredible journey from Miami to New Orleans, and has been waiting weeks to meet this fearless pooch. Standing on the tarmac of the New Orleans Lakefront Airport, under blue skies and brisk winds, Joani Ellis, Fabio’s foster mom, hands the pup to Terrie. She rests his sweet face against her neck and tears of joy began streaming down Terrie’s face.
Wiping her eyes, Varnado soon gets back to work. Surrounded by volunteer rescue pilots and drivers, she helps unload crates greeting each pup with hugs and kisses, then loads the crates in another plane sending them off to their new home.
From the New Orleans lakefront, she leads a caravan headed off to the Westbank for a meeting with specialists who would fit Fabio for prosthetics and a wheelchair.
“He trades legs while standing, to switch the weight off,” explained Joani, a member of the Florida Rescue group. “The pain slows him down, otherwise he wants to play, wrestle, and run after toys and balls. I can’t wait to see him run like the wind with his new ‘feets.’”
Varnado and her husband live on the Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain with a revolving door of pups, some of her own, others foster, and some just passing through. She loves labs and started with the Labs4Rescue group, which moves labradors from high-kill shelters in the South to the Northeast where they are adopted.
“We have such an overpopulation of labs in the south,” she said, emphasizing owners need to spay and neuter their pets as thousands are euthanized each year. “For every animal that dies in a shelter, a human, somewhere, is responsible for its death.”
Varnado began as a transport driver moving dogs in her personal vehicle, and soon moved up to a transport coordinator scheduling entire trips from start to finish, sometimes across multiple states until the animals meet their destination. Deanna Fuller, co-founder of OTRA (On The Road Again), trained Varnado in how to build and manage a network of volunteers. OTRA works with pilots, truck drivers, and personal vehicle transporters moving rescue animals to their forever/foster homes. Today, Varnado still works with OTRA, moving animals from kill shelters to no-kill or low-kill shelters with high adoption rates.
To grow her network of transport recruits, she reached out to the St. Tammany Humane Society (STHS), which became a vital link in boarding and vetting the rescues along with offering an important quarantine period. They also assist in finding temporary foster homes where the pup is prepared for adoption.
“Without their assistance, I could not save nearly as many dogs,” she explains. “I can’t thank them enough for working with me these past few years. They have been a God send to me and the shelter dogs.”
Many consider Varnado a super hero. Besides working endless hours she battles a debilitating disease—Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE). She undergoes intermittent chemo treatments, and suffers from nausea and severe body aches. But saving the animals keeps her sane and focused.
Jessica Harris, former STHS community relations manager, is amazed at Varnado’s determination, rescuing hundreds of animals every year while fighting her own demons. “She will be walking down the hallway, a dog in each arm, and run into the bathroom sick from the chemo. Minutes later, she’s back down the hallway with the dogs like nothing happened,” said Harris. “In all my years I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Another major player in Varnado’s transport network is Pilots N Paws (PNP), founded in 2008 by animal-lover Debi Boies and pilot Jon Wehrenberg. The group has 3,168 pilots and 10,551 volunteers dedicated to transporting and finding homes for rescue animals.
Varnado recalls working with PNP in 2010 after the British Petroleum oil spill. Due to the loss of jobs, there was a major increase in owner-surrendered dogs. She, Debi Boise and Jeff Bennett, a PNP pilot, worked for nine weeks scheduling a fly out to approved rescues, low kill SPCAs and Humane Societies all over the country. Varnado supplied seventy-five dogs—with a total of 171 Louisiana dogs flown out of New Orleans.
“It is a day that I will never forget and will hold close to my heart for the rest of my life,” she said, adding it was a massive effort with ground volunteers andPNP pilots. “Everyone came together for the common good of the animals. Each person had a smile on their face and in their heart.”
Scott Messinger is another PNP pilot and prominent player in Varnado’s transport team. He has rescued more than two thousand animals and first met her in 2009 when she asked for transport help from Louisiana to the Northeast.
“Flying these doomed dogs is a matter of conscience,” he confessed. “Before I met Terrie I knew animals were being euthanized, but it was Terrie who really made me understand the sheer numbers and how something as simple as free transportation can stand between a dog dying in a forgotten shelter or getting a new life.”
Scott emphasized her organizational skills, patience and unselfish dedication.
“She’s unflappable when things don’t go as planned, puts it above everything, even her health, working the phones in between the chemo sick days,” he said.
“Her knowledge of rescue is vast and she has contacts everywhere. If dog rescue is an Underground Railroad she’s Harriet Tubman to thousands—and I mean literally thousands of shelter dogs.”
Another partner in Varnado’s rescue entourage is Kim Dudek, owner/creator of Dag’s House in New Orleans. Dag’s House is a rehabilitation center for dogs, and since 2007 has rescued, rehabilitated and found new homes for nearly 150 dogs.
Kim has personally witnessed the “Terrie” teamwork in a young Mastiff rescue from the Houston ASPCA. The dog had been shot, used as a bait dog and was going to be euthanized. She called Varnado explaining they only had eight hours, and in a matter of minutes Varnado called back and had the transport scheduled. “Baloo was brought to us that day by her network,” Kim said. “He had been through such a tragic situation and needed not only medical care but a lot of TLC. Because of Terrie, Baloo was saved.”
Even Varnado is amazed at the sheer number of dogs rescued.
“If you would have told me ten years ago that I would be moving between 150-400 dogs per year into rescue I would have had a good laugh,” she said. “I have people ask me all of the time how much money I make doing what I do. I explain that dogs can’t pay much, but I get many, many sweet puppy kisses, and who could ask for anything more?”
Details. Details. Details.
On The Road Again (OTRA) rescue group: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/
OnTheRoadAgain/ Pilot Scott Messinger’s photo gallery of rescue pets: eyelandoptical.com/community.html
Pilot N Paws rescue group: http://pilotsnpaws.org/
Dag’s House: facebook.com/dagshouse
More on Fabio’s story at floridapoodlerescue.org