Flying while furry
A cross-country move with a pet: a cat's-eye view vs. the owner's.
BOSTON TO OAKLAND, CALIF. — Getting through airport security won't be easy. After all, I'm flying while furry.
My human is moving to California, so here I am, stuffed in a cat carrier, at Boston's airport. Through the mesh I see that I'm being pushed toward a dark tunnel along with a bunch of smelly shoes.
SLAM!!!!! Some goon drops a pile of plastic bins right next to me. "Hey, buddy, does TSA stand for Terrifying Small Animals?"
Just feet from the cave, my human yanks me out of the carrier and we walk through a door frame as he juggles me, his ticket, and photo ID. I hold on for my ninth life. He deserved more claw, but he clipped me last night.
That's my cat Scratch's view of our recent move from the East Coast to the West Coast.
What the view from the carrier obscures is that airplanes actually are the modern Noah's Ark. I discovered this as the date of my transfer loomed ominously, and I started asking questions.
Airlines carry hundreds of thousands of animals a year – American Airlines alone transports roughly 100,000. And while the experience can be harrowing for animal and owner alike, long-distance pet travel usually has a happy ending – despite some high-profile mishaps.
"It's very safe to move your pet by air. And it's really less stressful for them because the time is so short compared [with] driving them four days across the country," says Gale Young, of Starwood Animal Transportation Services.
She's been a pet travel agent for two decades, moving 500 to 600 animals a year – including birds to Singapore and snakes to Switzerland – without a single animal dying en route.
Her firm is part of a consortium of 225 pet travel agencies around the world that help clients navigate the sometimes-complicated array of vaccinations, fees, quarantines, and crate options involved in moving Fido and Fluffy.
No pet travel agent, however, has faced a pet transportation problem quite like Dennis Jett's.
He was the charge d'affaires of the US Embassy in Liberia in 1990 when that country was tailspinning into civil war. In the rushed evacuation of Americans, nine dogs and one cat were left behind with Mr. Jett and his skeleton staff.
His wife, Lynda Schuster – whose book "The Final Days of Dr. Doe" documents the period – had to evacuate. "I didn't know if I'd ever see my friends again. I didn't know if I'd ever see my husband again. And I didn't know if I'd ever see my [three] dogs again," she says.
"Dog was high cuisine in Liberia even in the best of times," she adds, noting that when the couple would go running with their healthy-sized Labs, "we would always get offers to sell the dogs to put into a stew pot."
As the killing came to the capital, US military ships parked offshore, resupplying the embassy and standing by to evacuate the remaining Americans. Jett says he asked if the military would consider evacuating American pets, too, but that was a negative.
Finally someone in the embassy hit on the perfect subterfuge: diplomatic pouches. The sacs are used to pass sensitive materials across borders, no questions asked. Jett and the staff put the animals in their crates and stuffed them in the pouches, which they slit to ensure the pets got air.
The roar of the CH53 Sea Stallions kept the crew from hearing any barking or meowing. The pets were dropped off in Sierra Leone, flown commercial to London, then on to Washington, where the State Department called Ms. Schuster with a message: Come take possession of 210 pounds of Labrador at Dulles Airport. Butch, Blanche, and Lucille were safe and sound.
I'm stuffed tighter than a can of Fancy Feast – safely tucked beneath the seat – in a 9-inch by 17-inch space.
My human is pretending to ignore my yowls, and the jet engine and screaming baby are drowning me out: "Hey! I KNOW you are NOT putting on those headphones to watch a Seinfeld rerun while I suffer!"
It's been an hour– I'm meowed out. Five more hours to go, and not a chance of a cat nap. If only I hadn't thrown up that sedative pill in the car.
While I knew from the beginning that flying with pets can be tricky, in preparing Scratch for the move, I found no expert who categorically ruled out flying with a pet. But some breeders say they'd only do it if the animal could accompany them on the plane.
There is debate on the merits of sedating a pet beforehand. And there is general agreement that the pet carrier coming open is one of the chief risks in transporting animals.
On Dec. 28, a cat got out of its checked kennel on a United Airlines flight from Munich to Washington. "The cat was discovered on the same aircraft, on January 16, 2007, in Denver – treated for dehydration and released and delivered to the owner," reads the mandated incident report on the US Department of Transportation's website. The reports are more easily found here: thirdamendment.com/animals.html. Only a few dozen deaths, injuries, and losses are reported each year. There is no fine for failing to report, and some breeders suspect airlines are not reporting all incidents.
The fate of Vivi, a whippet who broke free from her cage last year on the tarmac of John F. Kennedy International Airport, is unknown, but the search continues. She was in New York to perform at the Westminster Club's dog show. Hundreds of volunteers formed "Team Vivi," setting up a hot line to handle sightings of Vivi – hundreds of which have been coming during the past year.
Some Team Vivi members worry that Transportation Security Administration workers are removing zip ties used to secure kennel doors in order to conduct searches once the animal is handed over. The TSA says its procedures call for inspections to be done with the owner present, and ties can be added afterward.
As for the airlines, several pet travel agents single out Continental as the best.
"They are the crème de la crème for pets," says Barbara DeBry, of Puppy Travel in Salt Lake City. The airline moves pets to and from the plane in climate-controlled vehicles. They also forbid animals to be checked like luggage: All pets must either be carried in the cabin or go as manifested cargo, meaning they are tracked at all times.
"I always tell my clients that the proof is in the planning," says Ms. DeBry, who charges $175 and up for domestic booking, and $395 and up for international transports. Good advice can also be found for free at www.hsus.org. When things do go wrong, she says, it's often not the airline's fault. "Usually somebody cuts corners on a crate, that's usually the No. 1 thing," she says of cheap or inadequate crates.
Nine hours later and the zipper finally opens. There's a litter box, and that's fortunate because my cat dignity isn't going to hold much longer.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be hiding under the bed for the next couple days before I even begin to consider forgiveness.