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Airline loophole: Many animals’ deaths not tallied

Written by editor

Maggie Mae, a West Highland white terrier puppy, was crushed to death on the tarmac at Atlanta’s airport this spring, horrifying her new owner.

Maggie Mae, a West Highland white terrier puppy, was crushed to death on the tarmac at Atlanta’s airport this spring, horrifying her new owner.

Federal law requires airlines to report animal deaths, injuries and losses to the U.S. Department of Transportation. But Delta Air Lines didn’t have to report what happened to Maggie Mae.

That’s because the puppy was shipped by a breeder. Her death —- like those of many other animals owned by businesses —- doesn’t count under regulations that contain a loophole sought by the animal and transportation industries.

It defines the word “animal” to mean one “that is being kept as a pet in a family household in the United States.” This allows incidents involving commercially owned animals, such as shipments by breeders, pet stores, laboratories and farms —- most of the animals traveling aboard aircraft —- to go unreported.

Airlines say they carry hundreds of thousands of animals each year and the vast majority are transported safely. Nationally in the past year, airlines have reported the deaths of 29 pets; an additional 13 were injured and seven were lost, according to an AJC review of animal incident reports filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Airline officials note that their own investigations usually find they were blameless because pets had pre-existing medical conditions or owners used flimsy crates.

Among their reported incidents:

> A 2-year-old white bulldog named Machine was found dead in his crate in July in Atlanta after being shuttled from gate to gate on the tarmac for two hours after he missed a connecting flight.

> An African Grey Parrot arrived dead “in a frozen state” in April aboard a Delta flight from Atlanta to Orange County, Calif. Because of miscommunication with the pilot, heat was never turned on in the cargo bin to keep the bird alive at subfreezing altitudes.

> A golden retriever mix named Sassy was lost in May by Continental Airlines when it escaped in San Francisco after a worker opened the dog’s crate to make sure it was OK and it ran out the door of the baggage claim area.

Airline industry officials say federal reports show accidents involving animals are rare.

But those reported incidents don’t include animals such as Maggie Mae that were shipped by commercial owners. Airlines refused to say how many deaths and other incidents they don’t report to federal officials.

“It’s extremely rare that we have an animal death,” Delta spokeswoman Susan Elliott said. “We do everything we can to prevent any kind of accident.”

About 15,000 pets and commercially owned animals traveled aboard Delta flights in August and September, Elliott said, adding: “We had zero reportable deaths.”

But she wouldn’t say how many accidents Delta didn’t have to report. “That’s something we don’t disclose,” she said.

As a result, the public has a skewed view of animal safety, said Jaime Guttler, senior manager for research and special projects of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

“All those little doggies going to a pet store, they don’t count,” Guttler said.

The loophole troubles the author of the original reporting law, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Last week, in response to the AJC’s investigation, Menendez sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters seeking answers.

“I believe current policies do not reflect Congressional intent,” he wrote. “I am surprised and disappointed that animals covered by this law have been defined in such a narrow fashion.”

Transportation Department spokesman Bill Adams said Friday that the agency believes its definition of an animal “properly carries out the mandates of the statute.”

Maggie Mae’s owner, Jackie Douglass, is outraged the puppy’s death doesn’t count under the regulations. Douglass had watched videos of the puppy, prepared for its arrival and named it after a favorite Rod Stewart song.

“I still have nightmares,” said Douglass, of Auburn, N.H., recalling a Delta official telling her how Maggie Mae’s crate was run over by a baggage conveyor machine in Atlanta on April 5. Workers forgot they had put the 12-week-old puppy under it to keep the animal out of the rain during loading, Douglass said she was told.

Exempting some animals from reporting makes no sense, she said.

“Just because they haven’t gotten to the home they’re going to be in the rest of their life doesn’t mean they are any less loved by the person who raised them or is going to get them,” Douglass said.

Delta paid Douglass $1,216 to reimburse her for the cost of the dead puppy and her shipping, according to a letter the airline sent her. Delta then flew her to Arkansas to pick up another puppy and bring it back in the passenger cabin as carry-on luggage, she said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for enforcing the federal Animal Welfare Act, would not comment on whether it is investigating Maggie Mae’s death. Records show enforcement actions against airlines are rare and often take several years.

The USDA fined Delta $187,500 in 2005 for a variety of accidents, including the deaths of six dogs and two cats that occurred from 2002 to 2004.

In September, the USDA fined Northwest Airlines, which is merging with Delta, $10,000 for losing a cat named Simbi in 2005 and a cat named Snowball in 2006.

Jol Silversmith, a Washington attorney who specializes in aviation regulation law, said the public can help fix the Maggie Mae loophole. “The best solution at this point is to put pressure on DOT directly or on Congress to revisit the issue,” he said.

In the meantime, animal owners should quiz airlines about their safety practices, experts said.

“The industry is working very hard to learn from incidents,” said Lisa Schoppa, president of the Animal Transportation Association and a Continental Airlines employee. “There are airlines that are taking this seriously.”


> Check the pet’s health. Heart conditions, breathing problems and other medical conditions are often cited as contributing to deaths.

> Think twice about flying snub-nosed breeds. Bulldogs, pugs, Persian cats and others like them are at high risk of breathing difficulties and overheating during air travel. At least 14 deaths reported in the past year involved such breeds.

> Use a strong crate. Make sure it’s made for airline shipping. Get the animal used to spending time in it. Help the pet to view its crate as a safe place so it doesn’t add to the stress of the trip.

> Don’t use tranquilizers. The American Veterinary Medical Association generally advises against sedating animals because drugs can cause breathing and heart problems at high altitudes.

> Fly nonstop. And try to avoid the chaos of holiday and weekend travel. And beware the risks of shipping animals in excessively hot and cold weather.

> Make your pet carry-on luggage. Some airlines will allow a limited number of small pets to fly under the seats in front of their owners. On some airlines, such as AirTran, this is the only way a pet is allowed to fly.

For more tips and specific shipping requirements, check your airline’s Web site.


> To report an incident and request an animal welfare investigation, contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service at: USDA-APHIS-AC, 4700 River Road, Unit 84, Riverdale, MD 20737-1234. By e-mail: [email protected] By phone: 301-734-7833.

> To voice your opinion to the congressional committees that oversee the U.S. Department of Transportation, contact:

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman, Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, 508 Dirksen Senate Office Bldg., Washington, DC 20510-6125; or call: 202-224-5115.

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman, Aviation Subcommittee, U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, 2251 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515; or call 202-225-9161.


> To read airlines’ animal incident reports, go to:

> To read the Federal Register document that details how regulators changed the definition of what is an “animal,” go to:


The U.S. Department of Agriculture fined Delta Air Lines $187,500 for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. In a November 2005 consent order, Delta admitted responsibility for:

> The deaths of five of six young German shepherds on a May 2002 flight from Atlanta to Dayton, Ohio. The animals were in a cargo compartment with no cooling or air circulation during a two-hour delay. The pilot turned the engines and air conditioning off to save fuel. “At least one of the passengers heard the dogs barking in a distressed manner,” the USDA found.

> The death and injury of three female English bulldogs from Asheville, N.C., to Atlanta in March 2000. One dog, named Bonnie, died of asphyxiation; two others suffered respiratory distress. The cargo space lacked sufficient space and ventilation, the USDA found.

> The death of a young coati-mundi, a raccoonlike animal, in February 2002. The airline failed to give it food or water for four days when its owner failed to pick it up in New York.

> The loss of a 10-week-old Neapolitan Mastiff puppy that was flown from San Francisco to Newark, N.J., in December 2001. After the flight arrived, the puppy disappeared from its crate. It was never found.

> The loss of an 8-week-old English bulldog in October 2004. The puppy was flying from Arkansas to Portland, Ore., via Dallas. The puppy arrived in Dallas, but its carrier was empty when the airline put it on a connecting flight. The puppy was never recovered.

> The death of a cat named Hereford during a November 2003 flight from Portland, Ore., to Greensboro, N.C., via Atlanta. Delta allowed the animal’s owners to fly with two other cats in the cabin. “Delta assured the cats’ owners that Hereford would be safe” in cargo, the USDA wrote. Delta’s staff in Portland noted that Hereford appeared distressed but shipped the animal anyway. The cat was dead on arrival in Greensboro.

> The October 2004 death of a 5-year-old cat named Smokey en route to Atlanta. The USDA found that Delta agreed to transport the 14-pound cat in a carrier that wasn’t large enough.