The CATalyst: Traveling by Air With Cats and Consequences

Steve Dale, CAT FANCY writer and syndicated newspaper pet columnist, provides a weekly cat news roundup.

By Steve Dale, CABC | Posted: November 16, 2011, 7 p.m. EST

Steve Dale
Author Steve Dale

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Few private businesses in America can get away with what the airlines are somehow allowed to do on a daily basis. Anyone who flies with any frequency would agree. When animals are lost or something happens to a dog or cat during travel as a result of negligence, the airlines get away with it.

That has to stop.

Recently, this happened to a cat named Jack. Karen Pascoe was flying from New York to San Francisco with Jack and a second cat to relocate for a job. Jack escaped his kennel at JFK's inbound baggage claim on Aug. 25.

A Department of Transportation Pet Incident Report explains how it happened: A clerk placed one kennel on top of another on a baggage cart and the kennel on top fell. The impact "caused the kennel to separate," allowing the cat to escape.

Quickly, Jack became a topic of blogs; Jack’s Facebook page swelled with fans. The lost Norwegian Forest Cat featured on network news and in national newspapers.

Don’t ever count a cat out. Miraculously, on Oct. 26, Jack was found. But unfortunately he was worse for wear. After eating virtually nothing for about seven weeks, he was starving, suffering from fatty liver disease (hepatic lipidosis) and suffered wounds.

In the end, Jack needed to be euthanized. Pascoe wrote on Facebook: “Jack had extensive wounds on the back of his body, and the wounds were unable to heal because his skin had deteriorated due to the malnutrition that occurred while he was lost. Despite antibiotics, the infections were worsening, and his skin was continuing to deteriorate. He needed surgery to treat the wounds, but there was not enough available skin to close the wounds after the surgery. The vet compared his skin condition to having severe burns over 50-60% of his body. The vet was very clear that she had conferred with every possible doctor regarding options for Jack, but none of them left him with a substantial chance of survival and all of them involved him suffering. Jack had been through so much, and the last thing anyone wanted was for him to suffer more. Jack was bathed in love and crossed over.”

If you’re tearing up as you read this, you are not alone.

According to printed reports, American Airlines said they’d pay for Jack’s veterinary fees. I assume they have. But I also believe that’s solely because Jack’s story had become so public; even the evening news reported his passing.

Lori Learmont and Andre Wysotski traveled with cats via an Air Canada flight when they moved from Oshowa, Ontario, Canada, to Fairfield, Calif. Their five cats had to travel in plastic crates in the plane’s cargo hold – the same problem as Pascoe had – only one pet per person in the cabin.

When the couple arrived at San Francisco International Airport, they went to the baggage claim at about 1 a.m. to retrieve their pets. They noticed that all five of the animals' crates were severely banged up. One carrier was broken, and 14-year-old cat Fu was gone.

Wysotski said airline employees, after some discussion, told the couple that when baggage handlers took the cats off the plane, Fu's crate rolled down a ramp on its wheels, then crashed open. Wysotski was reportedly allowed to search for the missing animal for all of seven minutes, and airline employees would not let him go onto the tarmac to search. Learmont and Wysotski say they complained to the airline for months, but were treated poorly.

Unlike Jack’s story, this one has received little press. So, the airlines apparently ignored them. Finally the couple filed a lawsuit for $5 million in damages.I can’t imagine that Learmont or Wysotski really expect to gain millions, although I hope they do receive a significant settlement.

These cat deaths should not be in vain.

Congress has at least put into place some accountability for airlines. For example, the JetBlue airlines flight which left over 100 passengers stranded on the tarmac for over seven hours on Oct. 28, 2011, may be fined $27,500 per passenger.

The airline is proud – as they should be – that no human lives have been lost on a U.S. commercial plane in five years. That’s wonderful. But the lives of our companion animals do matter. And the airlines should be held responsible when they are at fault. It’s abundantly clear in the both instances described here, American Airlines and Air Canada, were culpable. For crissakes, when luggage is lost, there’s even reimbursement.

Airlines tell us they care, but their actions are generally in absolute contradiction. It would be nice for an airline to truly demonstrate caring about their customers. Far more important than reimbursement for a lost pet or harmed pet, is prevention of a problem from happening in the first place.

I realize that often airlines don’t treat passengers with two legs with much regard – but I believe it would be a terrific marketing ploy, and totally the right thing to do — to have employees trained to handle animals with care and sensitivity, instead tossing about their carriers as if they were luggage. In fact, perhaps airlines should be mandated by law to have employees who handle animals also handle a day of education.

I also believe that a formal complaint process should exist, also directed by law, and if an airline is found guilty for harming a cat, dog or other pet, there would be a financial consequence. Perhaps, an independent review board, could review such complaints.
While I advise against flying pets in cargo holds, sometimes I realize people have no choice. I don’t believe since consumers pay for safe travel, it’s an unrealistic expectation. Happily, the airlines do continue to take our money.
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Reader Comments

Frndwhocares    Los angeles, CA

12/10/2011 4:03:39 PM

I guess when you lose your animanl you should yell BOMB and then that will get the airline to take action. Kind of like if you are being attacked for a rape you are told by so called experts to yell FIRE. WTF?

Donna    Austin, TX

12/5/2011 6:47:38 AM

With you completely!

Samantha    Mission, BC

11/25/2011 11:26:15 PM

Very sad. It's too bad that airlines seem to think that animals are simply cargo. It makes me wonder if any of these airline employees have pets too. If they do, would they want their pet treated this way?

Pat    Omaha, NE

11/25/2011 4:46:08 AM

So sad!

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