No Companion Left Behind
Features | Jun 01, 2018
No Companion Left Behind

Annette O'Neil

Nick Barson doesn’t just say he loves animals. He proves it. In fact, more than 700 animals owe their lives to Barson and his nonprofit rescue operation charmingly named “Paws Landing.” Barson’s plan is to keep that number growing.

“I have tried to help animals most of my life,” the indomitable pilot said, “but if you’d told me last year that this would become such a large part of my life—and in this way—I would have said you were nuts.”

“Everyone has got their passions,” he continued. “One of mine is animal rescue and the other is flying. I was able to combine that passion with my skydiving addiction, and the next thing you know, here I am.”

Here he is indeed. But Barson’s history with animal rescue goes all the way back to his high school days. One day, he noticed something troubling: a sea turtle swimming around in the cove behind his parents’ house that “didn’t look right.” It looked injured. On closer inspection, it sure was. Hit by a boat, the turtle had taken serious damage. Barson made some phone calls, managed to get a couple of marine biologists to come out, brought them out to the turtle on his dinghy and helped them bring the turtle to Sea World for treatment. The experience really stuck with him.

Several years later, Barson learned to skydive at Skydive Sebastian in Florida. Immediately infatuated with the sport, he set about earning all his ratings. He eventually left his job to become a full-time instructor at Michigan’s Skydive Tecumseh. In his second full-time year, however, bad luck hit. Hard. In 2015, Barson shattered his right leg while instructing a tandem skydive. 

“Simple things can catalyze monumental things,” Barson mused. “When I was injured, I felt like my life had completely derailed. But the skydiving community really helped me out. People donated over $5,000 on GoFundMe to help me get through it. Franz [Gerschwiler, Skydive Tecumseh’s DZO] found work for me at the drop zone, hiring me as the general manager even though he didn’t have to. For the three years I worked with Franz, I watched him always be charitable, even when money was tight. Then in 2016, one of the AFF students at Skydive Tecumseh, Steve Landburg, paid for my aging German Shepherd to get stem cell therapy on her hips.”

Looking for Ways to Give Back

“When I got out of working in the industry full time and started making decent money,” Barson said, “I found myself immediately looking for ways to give all that back. I was looking for what I could do to help animals, because I was passionate about them, and people, because people had helped me so much. I truly believe that the experience of working in the skydiving industry in Michigan really catalyzed this whole thing.”

Fired up, Barson started following the Facebook page of Pilots and Paws, an organization that helps hook up rescues and pilots to transport animals. He was intrigued, but he didn’t feel like his plane was ready and he didn’t yet have money for fuel and necessities. (Pilots and Paws pilots are required to self-fund the rescue missions.) Plus, he wasn’t fully recovered from his injury; he had a surgery to remove the hardware from his leg looming in his future. Then he moved to Florida, took a high-earning job and started building his pilot hours. Barson started to feel like that long-awaited moment of readiness was on the way.

When Barson had the hardware removed on January 31, 2017, he felt like he’d cleared the final hurdle. He was raring to go. Twelve days after the surgery, still on crutches and wearing an orthopedic boot, he reached out to Pilots and Paws for an assignment. He got one and headed out on his first rescue flight from Hialeah, Florida, to Orlando to pick up a dog. 

“It was a Sunday, and Trump was at Mar-a-Lago that weekend,” Barson remembered. “The alternator belt broke on my plane while I was flying through the presidential TFR [temporary flight restriction], which was stressful. I managed to get down there, met the dog and called in a mechanic to put an alternator belt on the plane for me. It should have been a $75-dollar job, max, but he charged me over $400 because it was a Sunday. Anyway, I finally got to Orlando after sunset with the rescue dog and dropped her off to her adoptive family.”

He was hooked. Since then, Barson has flown more than a hundred animals in his little Cherokee, logging two or three rescue flights a week, being referred to higher profile rescues as the months ticked onward.

Then, in late August of 2017, Hurricane Irma hit. Barson was instantly mobilized, making a flurry of connections through Pilots and Paws: most notably, Jessica Nicodemo, vice president of Pet Haven Rescue in Palm Beach County, and Guardians of Rescue, a rescue operation with a TV show on Animal Planet. Barson ended up flying with Jessica and the Guardians, using his little single-engine plane, to take about 150 pounds of veterinary medical supplies down to the beleaguered Keys. They did another flight not long afterward.

With that very first trip, Barson knew he had found his footing. He knew what he wanted to do. It wasn’t long before he filed official paperwork for Paws Landing, a nonprofit dedicated to delivering much-needed support and supplies to animals in disaster zones and providing evacuation services where necessary.

“The Keys are pretty resilient,” Barson noted. “They bounce back pretty quickly from hurricanes. They take care of their own. After just a couple of flights in my Cherokee, we realized there wasn’t much for us to do down there. The roads were open. Supplies were getting in.”

Brainstorming Over Drinks

Then, in late September of 2017, the other hurricane hit—Hurricane Maria—which brutalized Puerto Rico. Barson and Nicodemo brainstormed over drinks. Could the little single-engine plane actually get to Puerto Rico? Barson was pretty sure it could, but it wouldn’t be able to carry much. It seemed like the enormous effort would yield a very small impact. That’s when skydiving came in.

In the Maria aftermath, the Federal Emergency Management Agency grabbed all the cargo planes it could find. At the time, it was virtually impossible to charter any kind of a cargo plane to try to move supplies down to Puerto Rico unless you were part of FEMA. Barson, however, had been skydiving for seven years. He’d worked in the industry full time for the previous three. He knew he could find a plane that would make a difference, and he knew just where to look.

“I was very familiar with the Skydive Chicago planes and all their pilots,” Barson said. “I have had numerous conversations about rescue with Rook [Nelson, Skydive Chicago’s DZO]. So I called him right away to tell him about what we were trying to do. I asked: Is one of your [Twin] Otters available for a good price? He immediately answered yes, but I think he honestly didn’t think it was going to happen at first.”

Suffice it to say: It happened. Barson and Nicodemo made nine flights back and forth to Puerto Rico in that Otter in the aftermath of the dual hurricanes. As the effort started getting credibility, the little team was given space on cargo jets.

Animal-Rescue Ninjas

The more time the Paws Landing crew have spent on the ground in Puerto Rico, the bigger the vision has become. To grow the effort’s capacity to meet that expanded vision, Barson helped to form a nonprofit coalition of animal rescues in South Florida. “Historically speaking, it is very, very hard to get various rescues to work together,” he explained. “They tend to be possessive and protective of their sponsors, their money, their publicity and everything else they can call their own. That said, we have spent $180,000 dollars on our efforts so far, and we’ve found that by working together, by setting egos aside, we are accomplishing things that none of us could have done alone.”

Called the Coalition for Animal Rescue, it includes six partnered rescues alongside Paws Landing in a round-table, majority-vote-based executive format. The odd number of coalitions is an intentional choice, guaranteeing agile decision-making without a stalemate. “We want to be ready to use our combined resources to be ready to assist with any huge disaster that occurs, anywhere,” Barson said. “Initially, in North America or the Caribbean. Potentially globally, if we get enough support and backing.”

So far, Paws Landing and the Coalition have done loads. They’ve sent almost 250,000 pounds of supplies to Puerto Rico. They have saved nearly 4,000 animals. They’ve made nine separate Twin Otter flights. They’ve assisted Kenny Chesney’s animal rescue foundation with four flights on four different chartered aircraft. And they’ve made five additional flights on cargo 767s from AmeriJet—one of which was sponsored by actor and stuntman Steve-O of “Jackass” fame. (Steve-O also flew to Puerto Rico and worked with Barson and his team at several shelters, gathering animals to bring back to Florida.) All that practice has made the Coalition animal-rescue ninjas.

“I know how to use up every cubic inch of space,” Barson said. “Basically, to rescue these animals, I’m playing real-life Tetris. We are putting an average of 100 to 110 animals on the Twin Otter every time we fly it. It helps that animals are more susceptible to hypoxia than people, so it’s actually safer to put them in the smallest crates we can for the rescue and make sure they have water for the trip.”

More Than Animal Rescue

“Even though we’re focused on animal rescue,” he smiled, “this has become so much more. Invariably, as you are helping the animals, you are also helping the people around the animals. You end up doing humanitarian things as a byproduct of the animal work. I find that really cool.

“We’ve partnered with a couple of people [in Puerto Rico] that operate soup kitchens serving people who are out of work and recovering. We’ve given them generators. We’re really trying to use those alliances to help spread awareness on spaying and neutering, the lack of which is a consistent problem in Puerto Rico, and educating people about the very real threat of zoonotic diseases [which are spread from animals to humans]. We’ve been working with the regulatory body for veterinarians in Puerto Rico to set up vouchers aimed at the people that go to the soup kitchens, to reward them for bringing in their animals to get spayed, neutered and vaccinated. The aim is to help get vets back in business and stop the spread of zoonotic diseases.”

Barson and Nicodemo made the first journey about a week and a half after the storm hit. Since then, they’ve been back and forth several times. At the time of our first interview, Paws Landing was operating entirely from private donations. A couple months later, the team received more than $250,000 in grant money (with more surely to come) and the program they founded spayed and neutered more than 1,100 animals on the island. They set up mobile spay and neuter vans and were in the process of acquiring land to build a permanent veterinary presence along with a holding area to screen and pretreat animals en route to the mainland U.S.

“I am one of those people who believes everything happens for a reason,” Barson said. “I always try to follow the path of least resistance, to go in the direction that the energies are flowing around me. That seems to be a good general rule to live by. Since I have been doing that, I’ve been a lot happier, and I have been able to do a lot of good.”

Barson insists that the opportunity to do this work would not have existed without his connection to skydiving. The planes simply wouldn’t have been available; he would never have thought to lease an Otter. 

“Everybody in the rescue community was absolutely floored I came up with a plane,” he said, grinning. “They all told me I couldn’t do it, and then I did. The cost per animal—moving 100 animals at a time, 1,200 miles—is under $200 dollars an animal, which is reasonable. I think because we are an amazing skydiving community, we have the ability to network within our own organizations and achieve great things. Plus, we have such a diverse network of people within our own community that we can mobilize and tackle what most would consider to be insurmountable tasks with relative ease.”

Barson said, “For the last several months, a video crew has been with us constantly, working on a documentary covering our efforts. It’ll be on Netflix most likely sometime in 2019. I think this is one of those stories that will be told 30 years from now and nobody will believe it. I mean, we just had some drinks and were talking about helping Puerto Rico. A week later, we were chartering a plane and solving huge problems. The right energy and the right people cross paths, and great things happen.”

Annette O’Neil |  D-33263


Annette O’Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram.

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