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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - When Ron Evenhaim flew his private plane on a volunteer mission of mercy from California to Oregon, he did not expect to adopt one of his passengers.
The compelling factor: her eyes.
The wide, frightened eyes of Bambi the Chihuahua made her stand out among hundreds of homeless canines Evenhaim and other volunteer pilots flew out of California last month to states with high demand for dogs and shelters with policies against putting them to death.
The flights - one of the largest known airlifts of their kind - are part of a growing national effort to transport animals long distances as a way of saving them from so-called kill shelters, where abandoned pets or strays are euthanized to make room for incoming animals.
"There is much more of a trend toward transporting to get animals adopted," said Justin Scally, national director of emergency services for the American Humane Association.
The practice of euthanasia has declined in recent years, he said, as shelter managers have tried to find alternatives to killing the animals.
Bambi is the second rescue dog taken in by Evenhaim.
Helping with the transport flights, which can take 13 hours round-trip, has allowed the pilot to combine his passion for flying and love of animals.
"It's a great feeling at the end of the day knowing you saved these dogs," said Evenhaim, who has volunteered with Wings of Rescue since last year.
Last month, the nonprofit group run by volunteer pilots flew more than 500 abandoned small- to medium-size dogs from overcrowded California shelters to "no-kill" operations in the U.S. Northwest, where demand for smaller dogs is higher, said Wings of Rescue co-founder Cindy Smith.
The dozen December flights - to Oregon, Washington state, Idaho and Montana - were dubbed the "holiday airlift." It also appears to be the largest ever airlift of rescue dogs in the United States, said animal welfare experts.
"The California shelters have so many of these small-breed dogs that we just don't see a lot of in Idaho, but there is a large demand for them here," said Hannah Parpart, spokeswoman with the Idaho Humane Society, which has received dogs from Wings of Rescue.
To transport the animals, many of them pit-bull mixes and Chihuahuas from Los Angeles and Bakersfield shelters, volunteers donate fuel as well as the use of their airplanes. One of the planes is a King Air 90, which costs about $1,000 an hour in fuel to fly, Smith said.
"When we take off and our plane is full of dogs that have no other options ... it's worth every bit of effort," said Smith, who is piloting some of the flights.
Wings of Rescue is one of a handful of aerial animal transport organizations. Most other relocation groups use ground transportation such as trucks or vans.
For instance, Joshua, Texas-based Operation Roger relies on volunteer truck drivers to take rescue dogs, cats and other animals to adoptive homes around the United States.
Critics say transporting animals for rescue is ineffective in the long run, and can divert funding from spay and neuter advocacy efforts that would provide long-term solutions.
"Moving the problem around is not going to end the crisis of animal overpopulation," said Teresa Chagrin, animal care and control specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
PETA recently endured public criticism for euthanizing animals at its lone shelter in Norfolk, Virginia.
Shelters across the country receive about 8 million animals yearly, and nearly half are euthanized, according to the American Humane Association and other national animal welfare groups.
Aggressive spay and neuter campaigns, an increase in pet identification methods, such as microchip implants, and an uptick in community rescue organizations have led to a steady decline in euthanizing animals since the 1990s, when the number killed in shelters annually was between 11 million and 18.6 million, Scally said.
Because animal transport rescues are largely unregulated, there is no agency tracking the number of animals that are relocated or whether they are more likely to be adopted after being moved.
Still, animal welfare experts say relocation has since 2005 become an increasingly popular method of saving animals from euthanasia.
Inga Fricke, director of Shelter and Rescue Group Services for the Humane Society of the United States, said widespread animal transporting practices likely began after Hurricane Katrina, when large numbers of displaced pets were being moved out of Louisiana to other states.
"That's when this idea of moving animals from one area to another really took hold and transport efforts have been growing steadily ever since," Fricke said.
Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Gunna Dickson