Air Sic

In cargo holds or plane cabins, critters are taking more than flights of fancy

Tens of thousands of years ago, when people traveled from Asia to North America via the land bridge, their dogs traveled along with them. People still travel with animals -- every day (small) dogs and cats curl in under-seat carriers for domestic flights. A bureaucratic web of industry and government regulations controls the where, when and how-much-paperwork of animal transport, and for the moment, concerns about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and hoof-and-mouth have slowed traffic. Still, critters from elephants to otters manage to get where they need to go.

The United States Equestrian Team horses didn't swim to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney; they were shipped via a FedEx flight. Racehorses have been flying since the 1920s. Livestock and zoo animals, accompanied by reams of paperwork and housed in custom containers, are regular cargo on board planes flying in and out of Houston. These days the barnyard animals are often joined by larger dogs in the care of professional pet shippers. Some dog owners spend $500 or more simply to ship their dogs to show events.

Koalas fly free, at least when they're headed for the Houston Zoo. Marsupial movement is a special case. "They don't travel like an animal," says Houston Zoo registrar Andrea Martin. "They go like a person. Most of the time they travel in a comp seat with a keeper -- it's not like the Qantas commercial; they are in a carrier but fly in the cabin as a passenger would."

Animal shippers provide special kennels for traveling pets.
Deron Neblett
Animal shippers provide special kennels for traveling pets.

Pets too big for under-the-seat carriers once flew in larger carriers in the hold. By the late 1990s, half a million pets (dogs and cats) were flying annually, sometimes with fatal consequences.

A federal law took effect last October requiring airlines to provide the Department of Transportation with monthly reports on the loss, injury or death of animals on flights. The latest figures, for the first two months of this year, show that of 4,561 assorted consumer complaints fielded against U.S. carriers, only two involved animals. The companies were Alaska Airlines and Houston's own Continental Airlines.

Andrea Grover, founder of Aurora Picture Show here, almost became one of those statistics. During a New Orleans stopover on a Houston flight to New York, Grover looked out the window and saw her greyhound's carrier being hauled away from the plane. After a word with the flight attendants, pet Ethan was reloaded.

Bernard Morris, who has put in some time on the tarmac as an Air France employee, says that dogs can get out of their carriers on their own and have a merry time. Two well-fed Dobermans escaped in-flight and produced more excrement than excitement, Morris recalls. "They did it all over the bin. It wasn't pretty."

Last summer an Irish wolfhound taking United Airlines from Boston to San Francisco got out of its kennel and chewed up wiring for the landing gear, cockpit warning lights and wing flaps. The plane landed safely. As with most household chewing incidents, the dog was unfazed. It greeted the gate crew with tail-wagging enthusiasm when the hold was opened.

Last fall Maria Tirotta Andrews got her 300-pound pet pig aboard a USAir Philadelphia-to-Seattle flight under an exemption usually reserved for Seeing Eye dogs and others classified as service animals. Andrews said her Charlotte was a stress-relieving mate. It worked for her -- everyone else had an adrenaline spike when Charlotte ran squealing up and down the aisle during landing.

However, most passengers are oblivious to Button, a Lhasa-poodle mix who has been the air travel companion of Houstonian Robbin Parish for nearly a decade. Button travels in a stylish Sherpa bag, designed to look like a tasteful carry-on, which Parish stows under the seat. She tells others that there's a dog inside. "They look at me like I'm nuts, but by the end of the trip, they say they'd much rather sit next to a dog than a baby."

When Susan Martinez of Greater Houston Search Dogs attends an advanced cadaver conference in Phoenix, she and Jessie, a border collie, hop a plane. Most airlines allow certified search animals to fly free, unrestricted by containers. "I've had many stewardesses tell me that dogs are much easier to fly with than children," she says.

For nonprofessional animals, airlines may charge from $50 to $100 for cabin fare -- and these rates are subject to change. The lowest cargo rates will be a couple hundred dollars. Cabin-sized pets must have current vaccinations and a health certificate. Their owners, above all else, need to make sure that the booked flights will accommodate the pets.

Most airlines will transport animals only in cargo, and they advise owners to hook up with a professional animal shipper. Airlines can provide answers about their guidelines and industry regulations.

Vets can advise pet owners about sedating animals, although most are wary of it. Amy Garrou, a vet at Sunset Boulevard Animal Clinic, says sedatives can hamper animals' temperatures and navigational abilities. "If the animal is going in cargo," she says, "I'd much rather have them have their wits about them."

The zoo's Martin has rules that apply equally to all animals: "You don't ship on holidays; you don't ship on weekends. You should track the flights and make sure the animal made its connections and the flights are on time. Make sure those animals are where they should be when they should be."

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