WASHINGTON — When baggage handlers at a New York airport discovered the smashed, empty kennel of Barbara Listenik's mixed-breed dog, they had no idea what they'd unleashed.
Her wounded hound, Boris, escaped his crushed confines, fleeing the cargo area on Christmas Eve two years ago. Frostbitten and dehydrated, he was recovered a month and a half later roaming the streets of Queens.
But Boris's unhappy adventure became a rallying cry for the hundreds - if not thousands - of animal-transport mishaps, and the poster child for legislation currently being debated in Congress.
The Safe Air Travel for Animals Act imposes a list of preventative and punitive steps for air carriers. Its purpose is pushing the industry to more safely transport the half-million critters that fly each year.
"We aren't talking about providing more leg room for animals," says Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States. "We are talking about keeping these animals alive." Animal advocates say as many as 5,000 animals are lost, hurt, or killed each year by the airlines.
The airline industry says 99 percent of animals enjoy smooth sailing. The 1 percent in question, it adds, includes animals that never made it aboard an aircraft for a variety of reasons. They include missed flights, inadequate kennels, or improper veterinarian certification.
"It doesn't mean that all of them were hurt or died," says Diana Cronan of the Air Transport Association of America, which represents US commercial carriers.
Nevertheless, there's enough concern about animals' well being that the "pets on planes" amendment has been attached to the Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill still in committee.
It doubles to $5,000 the fine the US Department of Agriculture can assess when an airline hurts, loses, or kills an animal in transport. It also allows pet owners to sue for up to $2,500 per animal and recover veterinary expenses. "Right now, a golden retriever has the same value as a piece of ... luggage," Mr. Pacelle says of the $1,250 limit on damaged luggage.
It also requires that airlines file detailed incident reports. But the amendment's most controversial provision mandates retrofitting an airplane's cargo area to provide temperature and ventilation control.
Many problems are linked to temperature extremes - triple digits on sweltering tarmacs and single digits at high altitude - sometimes in the same trip. Pets also suffer from limited oxygen in the cargo hold.
No one can say definitely how much it would cost to retrofit a plane. Animal advocates say the work can be done at the same time as a fire-detection and prevention retrofit currently under way on many passenger jets in the US.
"If you are talking about up to a million dollars per plane to retrofit, airlines will be forced to not carry pets as a result," says Stephanie Ortel of the American Kennel Club, which opposes the legislation.
But proponents say the market would prevail. In a country with 69 million pet-inhabited homes, airlines would find a way to profit from people traveling with pets, says Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey, author of the amendment.
Americans spend more than $31 billion each year on their cats, dogs, and other critters, according to a survey last year by the American Veterinary Medical Association. If some airlines refused to carry pets, Senator Lautenberg says, others would seize the market opportunity. He also compares the economic argument with the antismoking law he helped write in the 1980s. "At first, the industry said no one would fly ... if [passengers] couldn't smoke."
Educating pet owners
Some industry watchers predict that the law would, at minimum, tighten the available flights on which pets could be transported. But pet-free airlines are not out of the question.
"Carrying an animal is an enormous pain for an airline," says Perry Flint of Air Transport World. "The trend already is not to carry animals. They don't do it well and they admit they don't do it well."
But when it comes to the safety of animal transport, experts say, equally important is educating baggage handlers and people who board their pets.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society