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CAA: Airport News, "One dog's tale changes the way pets will fly"


 
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Wednesday, April 5, 2000

One dog's tale changes the way pets will fly
New rules aim to protect animals that travel by plane
By Wendy Koch, USA TODAY


When Barbara Listenik's flight landed at La Guardia Airport on Christmas Eve
of 1996, she went to baggage claim and found the cage for her dog Boris
bloody, crushed and empty -- except for a few of his teeth.

Boris, a boxer-pit bull mix, was gone. While she waited in the claim area,
he was running on the tarmac, chased by cargo crew. He dashed into the
terminal, trailed by Port Authority police. Then he bolted out the door,
pursued by the NYPD. Delta Air Lines told her to file a lost baggage claim.

Listenik posted hundreds of "wanted" flyers in English and Spanish, offering
a $3,500 reward. Six weeks later, someone who saw the poster called to tell
her that Boris was in an abandoned building in Corona, Queens, 2 miles from
the airport. He was emaciated and dirty, and he needed dental surgery.

"I was devastated," Listenik says, recalling her ordeal. She did more than
file a claim. She energized a grass-roots effort, with Boris as poster dog,
to protect animals aboard commercial aircraft. After a three-year crusade,
her group of pet lovers didn't win everything it wanted from the airlines,
but it got something: the first new rules about animals in aviation since
1976.

President Clinton plans to sign an aviation bill today that will require
airlines, for the first time, to report monthly on passenger pets that die,
are lost or are injured. The government will publish the data. The bill also
will require airlines to improve training for workers who handle animals.

"This should put an end to the horror stories of animals being treated like
baggage," says Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., author of the pet rules.

Airlines say they already treat pets with care. "Animals are handled
sensitively as pets. They're not considered baggage," says Delta spokesman
John Kennedy, who declined to comment on Boris' case. He says Delta's
baggage handlers "tend to be guys who like dogs."

'No one took us seriously'

On Capitol Hill, many bills are greased by savvy lobbyists with campaign
contributions. But some legislation is still the against-all-odds work of
regular people who are simply fed up. Listenik teamed with other people
grieving for pets that suffocated, froze or died of heart attacks. They were
guided by animal-rights groups, especially the American Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society.

"In the beginning, no one took us seriously. They just laughed. They said,
'You'll never do it,'" says Carol Brandwein of Woodbridge, N.J., who became
active in the campaign after her smoke-colored show Persian, Hot Toddy, died
on an American Airlines flight. She says an airline official called to tell
her that the cat's kennel had been covered with luggage, but the official
provided no other details. American declined to comment on the case.

The irate pet owners generated thousands of letters to Washington, went on
TV talk shows and shared experiences with others via the Internet. On
Capitol Hill, they got sympathetic receptions from Lautenberg and Rep.
Robert Menendez, D-N.J. Both lawmakers proposed legislative remedies.

What the activists lacked was proof of how many pets are harmed. They
claimed that as many as 5,000 pet passengers are lost, injured or die each
year, based on an industry official who said that more than 99% of the
500,000 pets brought to airports each year arrive safely at their
destinations.

But the industry argues that the activists' number is wildly inflated and
includes some animals that never get off the ground because they don't have
the right health certificates or cages. "There are very few fatalities,
losses or injuries," says Diana Cronan, spokeswoman for the Air Transport
Association of America (ATA), the airlines' trade group. She says the
industry fought the "Boris Bill" because it was based on inaccurate
information.

Disputing the numbers

The truth is, no one knows how often pets are mishandled. Customers filed 30
complaints about lost or harmed pets with U.S. airlines from October 1998
through September 1999, according to an ATA fact sheet. That's only one
complaint for every 17,000 pets flown. The pet owners say they don't have
solid numbers but hope the legislation will produce some.

"Air travel is relatively safe for pets, but that doesn't mean problems
can't occur," says W. Ron DeHaven, a veterinarian and deputy administrator
of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service. His office monitors airlines and other carriers for compliance with
the Animal Welfare Act, a 1966 law that requires that all warm-blooded
animals:

Be kept in cages that are sturdy and big enough for them to stand, turn
around and lie down.

Receive proper ventilation and, as needed, food and water.

Not be exposed to extreme heat or cold.

DeHaven, who has flown his pet rabbits in cargo, says airlines have improved
their training in part because of financial penalties his office levied in
the early 1990s. The largest was a $140,000 fine on Delta in 1994 for a
flight that carried two cats and 106 dogs, which were being sent by dealers
to pet stores. The cargo hold wasn't opened during a delay, and 32 of the
dogs suffocated.

Most major airlines have been slapped with violations in recent years. They
often choose to settle the cases without admitting guilt. In 1998, Delta
settled for $6,500 a case in which USDA charged that it failed to provide
"adequate ventilation" for six dogs on a 1996 flight, three of which
suffocated. Also that year, US Airways and American, in lieu of fines, each
paid $25,000 to fund a USDA-approved study on improving animal handling.

The USDA is investigating almost every major airline for possible violations
of animal handling rules, agency spokesman Jim Rogers says. The agency has
64 inspectors, down from 88 in 1992, to monitor animal handling on planes,
trucks, ships, trains and buses.

According to a 1998 audit, USDA inspectors found handling violations on 37%
of 43 flights with animals aboard that were checked from January 1995
through April 1997. The audit didn't specify what the violations were. "If
we had better information, we could better target our resources," says
DeHaven, who says he welcomes the new reporting requirement.

The pet-rights activists wanted the airlines to do more than report monthly
on lost or harmed pets. They wanted a change in attitude. They argued that
airlines treat animals like baggage, reimbursing owners the same amount for
a lost or hurt pet as for a damaged suitcase. The maximum reimbursement --
for both baggage and pets -- is now $1,250 but will double to $2,500 under
the new law.

Some airlines don't carry pets. Southwest doesn't transport animals, except
for seeing-eye dogs, because some passengers are allergic. America West
takes only small pets in its passenger cabin. American does not carry
animals in its cargo holds from May 1 through Aug. 15 because of heat
concerns. Delta may not take them if outdoor temperatures exceed 85 degrees.

Most wide-body jets, such as Boeing 747s, already have forced-air
ventilation in their cargo holds, similar to that in passenger cabins. But
narrower jets such as 737s and 727s typically do not. All cargo holds are
pressurized, but those without forced air can heat up much more quickly than
passenger cabins if the flight is delayed .

Once in the air, however, temperatures in these cargo holds are similar to
those in the passenger cabin and fall "well within limits that are easily
tolerated by animals," according to a study last year by the USDA and the
Federal Aviation Administration.

The initial version of Lautenberg's amendment would have required all planes
to have forced-air ventilation in their cargo holds. The industry threatened
to stop transporting animals if forced to retrofit its planes. The
industry's threat to stop carrying animals divided those who work in the
animal world. Dog breeders, the American Kennel Club and the American Zoo
and Aquarium Association, worried that their livelihoods could be threatened
if the airlines no longer took animals, came out against the forced-air
provisions.

Lautenberg attached his provisions to a Senate aviation bill without a
hearing or a recorded vote. But when lawmakers negotiated the final version
with the House of Representatives, they stripped all but the reporting and
training requirements.

'My miracle day'

The bill, though welcome, comes too late for some pet owners. Roberta
Eldridge still cringes when she talks about her purebred Siamese cat, Gabi,
who died at age 7 of a heart attack that a veterinarian attributes to
freezing temperatures.

"They left her on the tarmac too long, and it was below zero," says Eldridge
of the January 1997 tragedy in Tulsa, Okla. When a baggage handler for Delta
brought her Gabi, the cage was coated with a quarter-inch of ice. "She
looked at me, gave her last meow and died."

Delta won't discuss Gabi's demise. "We would not comment on a situation so
old," Kennedy says.

Listenik says she spent her first weeks in New York, where she was moving to
start a career as an artist, in a gut-wrenching bid to find Boris. She says
she lost 15 pounds during the search but was heartened by other pet owners
who chipped in to help her pay the reward.

When Boris, now 7, was located in Queens, she hardly recognized him. He had
also lost 15 pounds, and his eyes were lifeless. "When he looked at me, he
rolled over. It was like he said, 'Mom.' I started crying. It was my miracle
day."

Listenik says the airline, which she's suing, paid $1,000 for his loss and
refunded her airfare. She says it never explained what happened to Boris or
how he escaped, but she doesn't want anyone else to go through the "hell"
she went through. As for the FAA bill, her triumph, she says: "It's exciting
to know a bark can be heard."

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