Finding Purpose Amidst the Pandemic
Chicago restaurant owner Eduard Seitan has flown more than 40 rescue missions to help animals in need. The volunteer pilot spends his free time and resources helping the nonprofit Pilots N Paws, a network of volunteer pilots who fly animals to shelters, rescue organizations, and foster families across the United States. And while business at Seitan's James Beard award-winning restaurants has been slow during the COVID-19 pandemic, he says the extra free time has made it possible for him to help even more animals in need this year.
A Silver Lining Amidst Uncertainty
Seitan and his business partners own and operate One Off Hospitality, a Chicago restaurant group that's home to some of the tastiest spots in the city, including Big Star, avec, and The Publican. The pandemic has hit the hospitality industry especially hard, and their group is no exception: they've had to close two of their 11 restaurants and furlough or lay off a majority of their 1,000 employees. Seitan and his business partners also stopped taking salaries in March.
But with all the turmoil around him, Seitan has found a sense of purpose in the midst of a chaotic year. “Since the pandemic, I’ve been able to fly more because I have a little more time in my hands, but at the same time it’s a little harder to cover the fuel costs,” Seitan says. Despite the financial impact, Seitan says desire to give back and a sense of duty drives him to continue his work as a volunteer pilot for animals in need.
An Epicurean with a Taste for Adventure
After emigrating from Romania in the 1990s, Seitan mastered English while working as a server at several well-known Chicago eateries, building his resume and meeting his future business partners in the process. The entrepreneur got his pilot's license 12 years ago and is now the owner of an old 1966 Piper Cherokee airplane that he takes out in his free time, telling USA Today that “most cars on the road cost a lot more than my plane.”
“I’ve always flown mostly for pleasure,” Seitan says. “My happy place is in the plane.” Two years ago one of Seitan’s employees, knowing of his love for both flying and dogs, introduced him to Pilots N Paws, the nonprofit that connects volunteers to arrange animal rescue flights and adoptions. Seitan immediately signed up and became a volunteer pilot.
“It makes me so much happier to actually fly with a purpose,” Seitan says. Most of the animals he flies are from kill shelters, abusive situations, or are in need of emergency surgery.
He regularly volunteers for three- and four-hour legs of Pilots N Paws rescue flights, and his fiancée, Debbie Li, often accompanies him. When transporting up to 11 dogs at once (as Seitan has), having a copilot is extremely helpful. Seitan and Li have two rescue dogs of their own, Lola and Tigger.
Hope and Heartbreak
While most of the dogs Seitan flies go on to receive care from their waiting foster or adoption families, there is one pup who will stay in his heart forever. The dog, an 8-week-old German shepherd named Ranger, was his favorite animal who's ever flown with him. In Dec. 2019, the puppy was in a shelter in Texas suffering from a disorder known as megaesophagus—when the esophagus dilates and loses its ability to move food into the stomach. The pup needed transportation to Waukesha, Wis., for emergency surgery. Seitan flew Ranger during the last leg of his trip and says that even though Ranger hadn’t had water or food for a day before the trip, “he was still the sweetest, nicest dog I’ve ever met.”
When they arrived at their destination, the rescue organization was there to pick Ranger up, greeting Seitan and the pup with a heroes' welcome fit with homemade signs. But the two had bonded during their flight, and Seitan already loved Ranger so much that he committed to bringing the sweet pup home with him. “I will always want to bring some of these dogs home, but never like Ranger,” Seitan says.
Ranger underwent two surgeries in Waukesha, but sadly, the pup did not survive. Although Seitan still gets emotional every time he talks about Ranger, he says he is still motivated by the opportunity to help more animals in need.
A Passion to Help Others
One of Seitan’s main goals is to convince other pilots to use their time to give back. He says that most hobby pilots fly out of town just to get a $100 hamburger (an aviation joke that with fuel costs, a pilot’s $10 hamburger ends up being $100). “If I can convince one, or two, or three to volunteer for Pilots N Paws, mission accomplished,” Seitan says.
As if the flights and the fuel costs weren't enough, Seitan also started volunteering at Chicago Animal Care and Control (CACC). CACC is the only city-run animal shelter, and it is the only shelter in the city that can’t turn away animals. “It’s devastating what I see there, the kind of need they have,” he says.
Seitan’s time with the animals at CACC inspired him to start the #WeFoster program with One Off Hospitality. The program encourages employees to foster animals from the organization who may need a break from the stress of shelter life and volunteer their time helping animals. Already, Seitan says that employees have adopted several dogs from CACC—another silver lining we can all cheer about.