Shipping Pets: The Fur Flies : Air Travel for Animals Can Be Hazardous When Safety Guidelines Aren’t Followed
Felix the cat spent 29 days in the cargo hold of a Pan Am jet and escaped with a few lives intact. The 2-year-old feline somehow got out of its cage in flight and traveled 180,000 miles before it was spotted by luggage handlers in London and returned--first-class to an LAX hero’s welcome--by a Pan Am employee who searched the plane until the cat was found.
Loekie the terrier-poodle wasn’t as lucky. On a TWA flight from Dallas to Los Angeles, the dog somehow escaped from his cage on the ground during a changeover of planes in St. Louis. The owner, a Dutch tourist named Leo Koewe, staged a hunger strike at the TWA terminal at LAX until the dog’s body was discovered in St. Louis alongside an airport roadway, apparently hit by a car.
The stories of Felix and Loekie, one happy and one tragic, unleashed a torrent of national and international publicity in recent weeks and focused attention on an issue long eclipsed by the more human concerns of near-collisions, maintenance schedules and on-time performances: the shipment of pets and other animals by plane.
But while pet passengers haven’t gotten a lot of ink over the years, according to airline and government officials, the traveling public’s concern over the way the airlines handle and treat pets has long been an issue of high emotional intensity, despite the dearth of formal complaints.
Air travel by pets has been going on for many years, long before the Animal Welfare Act was amended in 1976 to include assuring their safety. Besides common household pets such as dogs and cats, exotic animals from apes to llamas are shipped by zoos and researchers.
Last Tally in 1973
But the exact number is hard to find. The last available tally appears to have been done in 1973, when the Civil Aeronautics Board estimated that 3,700 animals traveled daily on domestic flights. No agency appears to have updated those numbers, but a spokesman for the Air Transportation Assn. of America said he didn’t think the number of animals being shipped today was any greater. By comparison, last year approximately 1.2 million people took domestic flights daily, according to the ATA.
Shipping a pet can be a nerve-wracking experience, since once the animal is out of the owner’s hands, it is up to airline personnel to ensure its safety.
Catherine Crenshaw of Van Nuys still feels pangs of guilt over an experience she had shipping her 2-year-old collie, Sara, last fall. Crenshaw took Sara with her, shipped as excess baggage, on a flight from Los Angeles to Detroit on Northwest Airlines.
However, the dog did not arrive when Crenshaw did. After she and her husband spent several days making frantic calls to the airline, the dog was finally discovered in Minneapolis and sent to Crenshaw in Detroit. Sara arrived, she said, disoriented, dehydrated and lying in its own waste.
Today, Sara is fine, but, Crenshaw said, “When we first got her back, she didn’t trust us. She could have died. Had I known then what I know today, I never would have shipped my dog. It’s almost like I was abused. It’s my ignorance that did it.”
Animals can be shipped three ways on commercial airlines: by air freight or air cargo, as excess baggage or as carry-on luggage. When shipped as air cargo, the pet does not travel with its owner. As excess baggage, pets travel with passengers’ luggage in a lit area that has the same pressurization and temperature as the passenger cabins. The kennels are kept separate from all other baggage and are usually stowed near the door for quick access.
Most airlines will allow pets as carry-on baggage, but they must be small enough to be stowed in a kennel that fits underneath a seat, and there is only one domestic animal allowed per cabin per flight.
Kennel Too Small
Problems that have occurred include leaving the animal exposed to extreme heat or cold for prolonged periods of time while waiting for a plane or a plane change, shipping in a kennel that is too small or poorly constructed (which could allow the animal to escape), not including shipping information and the owner’s name on the kennel, placing the animal on a steep conveyor belt that can cause it to tip over, or shipping a pet that is unhealthy. Although the USDA sets up and enforces these and other regulations, it is up to the airlines to comply. When the pet is ready to be shipped, it is the decision of airline personnel whether it is safe enough to travel. Airlines are also responsible for it en route.
During 1986 and 1987, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services of the USDA handled 24 cases of alleged Animal Welfare Act Violations at airports around the country. Last year, the Humane Society of the United States received 25 letters of complaint from passengers over treatment of their pets. Officials estimate that there may be more problems, but they say that pet owners often do not know what recourse to take.
The USDA is responsible for making sure the airlines comply with the Animal Welfare Act. According to Dr. Richard Rissler, assistant director of domestic programs for the USDA, regional technicians make periodic surprise inspections of air terminals “to view animals that are being transported and to see that standards are being met. We also get involved with individuals who have problems with the airlines. We see if our standards have been violated.”
Rissler added that between 1984 and 1986 approximately 3,000 inspections a year were made at domestic airports, with priority given to larger terminals.
Among the USDA’s 24 cases of alleged Animal Welfare Act Violations for 1986-87 were infractions ranging from animals arriving dead to careless handling of a cage.
Emery Air Freight was cited seven times. Violations included several animals that were dead on arrival (from exposure) to unsafe outdoor weather conditions and the airline accepting substandard primary enclosures (cages) for primates. The air company was fined $6,000 for all of the violations.
A spokeswoman for Emery said those cases occurred during 1984 and 1985, and that since 1985 Emery decided it would ship only laboratory mice and rats. She did not say if that was a result of the fines and added, “I do not know the history of these, but I do not see the reason to dwell on cases that are three and four years old.”
Other cases--involving Delta, Northwest, Eastern, Continental, U.S. Air, Emery Worldwide Air, and Trans World, United and Frontier Airlines--allegedly included cages being too small to kennels being improperly marked. Some cases were closed due to insufficient evidence to support the claim, or if the animal was unharmed even though violations occurred.
Pet Owners Complain
Complaints are also channeled through Phyllis Wright, who received those 25 letters last year from pet owners who experienced everything from finding their pets dead on arrival to having them locked in a baggage bin for days, animals getting loose on the plane or being shipped to the wrong destination.
Wright is the chief of companion animals for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C., and she takes a hard line on the shipment of pets on airlines. She acts as a clearinghouse for complaints and works with the USDA, the airlines, the Air Transportation Assn. of America and the pet industry to make sure regulations are met and cases are settled.
“I heard from a woman who was going from Colorado to Kentucky and called the airline in advance to find out the flight arrangements. She landed in Kentucky and found out her dog had been shipped back to Denver,” Wright said, repeating a common complaint.
“My assistant did a test here where she called up airlines and said she wanted to ship a dog to Florida and a cat to Texas. She got all different kinds of answers from the same airline. One person said she had to have a health certificate, another said she didn’t.
“Part of the problem is that there is no one person who is responsible (for the pet) for any length of time,” he continued. “One of my recommendations was to post notices (at the ticket desk) saying what the procedure is. I travel constantly on airlines, and once I saw a dog on a baggage carrier tilting all over. I said, ‘Who is the supervisor?’
Pushing the Buttons
“I can raise hell because I like to. But the average person doesn’t,” Wright added. “I have made a career out of this and I’m not going to quit. The Humane Society doesn’t have any legal standing, but we do act as an irritant. I know where to push the buttons.”
Wright works closely with Rissler of the USDA in processing complaints. The USDA’s follow-ups for violations can range from a letter of warning to filing civil suits in serious cases, such as the death of the animal. Punishment can include fines of up to $1,000 per offense or other actions. Three years ago, American Airlines settled charges of allegedly accepting dogs in kennels that were too small by participating in an employee training video on how to handle live animals.
“I would say generally there’s a commitment by the airlines to abide by the standards,” Rissler said from his Maryland office. “The problem is, you take any major airline, and they’re so diverse in people, from those who work in the terminal to the baggage handlers. You sometimes find situations where a cargo handler, for instance, does something he shouldn’t do. What we keep emphasizing is to keep people trained in what the Animal Welfare Act says.”
Rissler added, “The bottom line is, if the animal comes through in good shape, regardless of how it’s handled, then there’s no violation.”
From the airline point of view, there is another concern.
“We often see people bring their pets in kennels that are too small for the animal,” said Steven Purvis, customer service manager for Alaska Airlines. “You can see the fur sticking out the sides, and the pet can’t even stand up.” Often, he added, a kennel is purchased for the animal when it is young and is not changed even after the pet has outgrown it.
“We tell people we have larger kennels available,” he said, “but sometimes they think we’re trying to make them purchase one. We try to explain that it’s in the pet’s best interest.”
Some airlines, such as American, have printed brochures available for people shipping pets. Most airlines provide kennels at a nominal fee ($35 is the average price for a mid-size kennel that will hold a 25-pound dog); airline-approved kennels can also be purchased at pet stores.
While the USDA does make surprise inspections, it cannot be everywhere. At Burbank, John Wayne and Long Beach airports, the Los Angeles branch office has cut back its inspections from once a month to once a year. So it falls on agencies such as the ASPCA Animalport at Kennedy Airport to help catch violations.
The Animalport, nicknamed the “Hilton for animals,” is a way station for animals between flights at J.F.K. Since 1958 the facility has temporarily housed pets for people who are moving, or for animals being shipped overseas that have layovers.
At the Animalport, animals are brought in by airline personnel and are fed and watered, and the cages are cleaned by ASPCA workers. “And we give them a lot of TLC,” added assistant director Kathleen Travers. The airline is billed for the service ($16 a day for dogs, $11 for cats, $8 for birds), and the charge is then passed on to the customer.
“I’ve seen a lot more animals traveling by air,” Travers said. “And some people are paranoid about shipping their pet. Anything you do like that there is a risk involved. Since I’ve been here, we’ve been teaching (airline personnel) how to care for the animals, so they’re doing a little better job now. And we are cracking down. Our concern is that the animal is traveling comfortably. I feel there has been definite progress made, but more education is still needed.”
Carol Bardwick heard too many horror stories of dog breeders shipping their pets with bad results. That’s one reason she opened the Canine Cryobank at the West Los Angeles Veterinary Medical Group seven years ago. The Cryobank is a sperm bank for dogs.
“There has always been a problem with breeders subjecting their dogs to the risks of shipping,” she said. “Not only is the physical risk great, but if a dog is in heat, the stress alone can alter the heat cycle. She could be out of heat by the time she gets to her destination.”
Charline Averill is a client of the Cryobank, but she’s also been shipping dogs domestically and internationally--about 1,000--since she’s been breeding them, about 49 years. And, she says emphatically, almost every experience has been good.
“There were three or four dogs delayed,” she said from her home in El Monte. “I know that people have had their dogs arrive dead, and I know of some breeders who would never ship a dog. But I think the airlines have been pretty good as a rule. I heard about that dog that got lost on TWA, and I can understand . . . my luggage can get sidetracked, and an animal should be ahead of luggage.”
Averill said her good experiences were a combination of following the airline’s regulations, plus having responsible people shipping the dogs. “When I send a pet, I try to hang around and see the crate loaded onto the plane. But once it’s out of my hands, there’s not a thing I can do.”