Where is Jack?

Making Air Travel Safe for Pets

Why PET INCIDENTS Are Only the Tip of the Iceberg…


From the day we started the Facebook page, Karen and I were both clear that we only had 2 objectives:

  1. Find Jack.
  2. Make sure this never happens again.

As much as we didn’t like the final outcome on #1, it was accomplished.  Now, it’s time to begin the serious and difficult work that the second part of this demands…

The first question I wanted more information about was “How often, exactly, are pets killed, injured or lost when they are placed in cargo?”

Section 710 of the AIR-21 Act (P.L. 106-81) requires the following:

  • In General. — An air carrier that provides scheduled passenger air transportation shall submit monthly to the Secretary [of Transportation] a report on any incidents involving the loss, injury, or death of an animal (as defined by the Secretary of Transportation) during air transport provided by the air carrier.

In the official “Pet Incident Report” that is a part of the Department of Transportation’s monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, in the months of August and September 2011, 5 pets are listed as deaths, 2 as injured, and 1 as lost.

The “lost” one was, of course, JACK – but the DOT will not be revising their report to update his status.  That’s a problem in and of itself, but even if we leave that be, there’s so much more to think about.

On first reading, the DOT incident reports suggest that a fairly small number of pets traveling in cargo had a negative outcome in their journey.  But let’s look at this more carefully…

As most of you reading this already know, there have been incidents with pets in cargo since Jack’s loss.  For example, we are aware of a cat that was lost and then found dead at JFK during the time of the search for Jack, but the owner was traveling on Air France, and so there was no official report of this incident.  Air carriers that are not based in the U.S. do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation, so if an incident happens with an animal who will be traveling on an international carrier – even if that incident happens completely in the U.S. – no incident report needs to be filed.

And then there is the definition of “animal:  the law states that the term “animal” will be defined by the Secretary of Transportation.  In a letter to Senator Robert Menendez, one of the original sponsors of the AIR-21 law (see his original letter here), then-DOT General Counsel D.J. Gribbin states that “the air transport of an animal includes the entire period during which an animal is in the custody of an air carrier until the animal is returned to the owner or guardian.  We therefore concluded that Congress intended the word “animal to cover pets being transported by their owners” (italics in original).

This means that, for those of us who are concerned with knowing exactly how many animals are killed, injured, or lost while flying cargo every year, the DOT report only tells us about a limited number of cases.  Think about just two of the infinite number of circumstances that would render report by the air carrier unnecessary:

  • Animal flying from rescue group to new home because no other transportation option is available… animal is injured, lost or dies in cargo, but because animal is not being returned to its owner, the airline is not required to report.
  • Pet parent dies, and his or her animals are being flown to another family member who has agreed to take care of them… animal is injured, lost or dies in cargo, but because animal is not being returned to its owner, the airline is not required to report.

But the most important reason the DOT standard for reporting is not only flawed, but actively hides the enormous dangers faced by pets in cargo is stated in the same letter by then-General Counsel Gribbin: “We have no data on the loss, injury, or death of animals during commercial shipments.  However, we understand that air carriers carry large numbers of animals, including livestock, zoo animals, and pets … in such shipments.”  Even though LARGE NUMBERS of cognizant beings are transported as luggage on commercial airlines, it’s not their problem!!

What might be contained in a “commercial shipment of animals”?  Cows, pigs, bears, ferrets, and, of course, dogs… dogs that are being sent from their place of birth (e.g., a “commercial breeder” aka puppy mill) to puppy stores, for example.  The estimates on the number of just dogs (without even taking into consideration the other animals) shipped like this annually ranges from 3-8 million every year.  In short, this means a substantial amount of money changes hands to get animals from one location to another.  Animals that are not seen as living, conscious beings – but as mere commercial entities.  Like furniture.

But as General Counsel for the DOT,  Gribbin recognizes that that is NOT HIS PROBLEM, and he refers the rest of Senator Menendez’s questions to the USDA, specifically, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).  The acting administrator of APHIS at that time, Kevin Shea, flatly states that THEY DO NOT HAVE ANY ACCURATE DATA ON THE NUMBER OF COMMERCIAL SHIPMENTS OF ANIMALS, nor, of course, on the number of deaths, injuries or losses of these animals.

So the DOT tells us that they know air carriers are carrying “large numbers of animals” that aren’t under their regulatory purview… and the USDA tells us they have no idea what these “large numbers” of animals are, or what is happening to them.  Since nobody seems to give a damn and there is obviously no recourse beyond exchange of money for “liability”, we can only guess what is actually happening to those animals.  And my guess is, it isn’t something that we as humans should be proud of.

So when you read the “Pet Incident Report” that the DOT files every month, just remember, IT IS A VERY SMALL PART of the story of animals traveling by air.  As Jack taught us, even that part of the story is not pretty if anything goes wrong.  I shudder to imagine what else is happening beyond the “incident reports.”

30 thoughts on “Why PET INCIDENTS Are Only the Tip of the Iceberg…

  1. This was very interesting! I have no idea about the transportation regulations here in Sweden, but I doubt they are any better. I never heard of any reports about incidents concerning animal transportation here…but I will most certainly check it out now!

    I appreciated your post very much, I learnt a lot and I will stay tuned for more. Thank you Mary Beth! And Jack will always be in my thoughts…

  2. It’s my opinion that it is more important than ever before, that we work together and make a difference!. In memory of Jack the Cat, for the love of all pets and animals, it’s time for change!

    Thank you again Mary Beth for all your posts.

  3. The basic fact is this: our pets are family members. We love them and appreciate the joy they bring to our homes, and we mourn our loss when their lives end. Their legal status may be property, but the hold they have on our hearts is priceless. Airlines should treat our families – ALL of them – with respect and dignity. It is cruel to put a beloved animal in an unsafe place. It is cruel to have people who don’t know about animals be responsible for their care while in transit. It is cruel to mistreat creatures who are grateful to us for their safety and repay us with unconditional love. American Airlines – and ALL airlines – should understand that Jack wasn’t “just a cat”. He was a part of your family. By showing a complete and total disregard for his well-being, they showed the same disregard for you. They should be ashamed of themselves.

  4. Thank you Mary Beth for this information. I had no idea. It is most definitely time for change!

  5. Wow, I had no idea it was that bad. With the financial shape the airlines are at this time I doubt much will change without an act of congress.

  6. Mary Beth, I don’t know what your education or training is, or what you do for a living, but I firmly believe that you have now found your calling in life – and it will be a better world for nonhumans because of you!

    Which brings up a point: we should eschew the use of the word “animal” and replace it with “nonhumans” or “nonhuman animals.” This would be just to make people more aware that we, too, are animals, that the nonhumans who are sentient are not so very different from ourselves, that they feel pain, fear, sorrow, as well as happiness and relief, the same as we do.

    The nonhuman animals who suffered and/or died during Katrina because of medieval thinking have not suffered in vain; shelters are now being set up for evacuees. Jack should not have suffered in vain either. He will be the catalyst for change, I pray. Keep up the fight – that’s your purpose in life~!

    • Actually, my background is as a political science professor – I have a Ph.D. from University of Maryland in American Politics and Political Philosophy. (I thought) I left all that to become a yoga teacher (healing to both others AND myself), but I had kept a toe in poli sci and was writing a blog for a textbook when the Michael Vick news came out. Most of my blog posts that year connected the topics in the textbooks with the Vick case!! That got me to Best Friends (love it there!!) and got me even more fired up about the status of animals in the US. Jack has now taken it a step further. In retrospect, I only wish it had not taken two heinous situations to get me to my path… I now feel that the Vick dogs are my guardian angels (in heaven and on earth) and now Jack is meowing at me to go forward. I am so very blessed!!!

  7. Nothing changes if nothing changes. In loving memory of Jack…

  8. Wow. this makes me rethink before flying with a pet. My husband is active duty Army. He’s first duty station was in Germany. I was not leaving the love of my life here in the states without me. I was lucky enough that American Airlines let me carry her on-board with me. She sat under the seat in front of me with no complaint. We flew from Seattle to Frankfurt with her safely with me the entire time. I fed her and was able to hold her to comfort her. When i got off the plane, (with her in hand of course!) the flight attended was shocked, she said “i never knew you had a cat, she was so good!!”. When we got orders to leave Germany to Kansas, we had grew our kitty family to two more. This time, they wouldn’t let me have her on-board. (she was my life. She was 14 at the time and been with me through some really tough stuff, so she has a special soft spot in my heart reserved ONLY for her). We were able to have them in ONE kennel. It was a very large kennel, so it would be hard to get lost. I DEMANDED to know what was going on with them EVERY layover. My husband and I do not have children, so our kitties mean the world to us. All five of us arrived in kansas together and whole. And i am thankful for that. To me i see that pet owners just see their pets as pets. Where as someone like me, considers my pets family. They are my children. Unfortunatly, we just moved back to Washington state, we drove and after 4 months of being here my baby girl passed away. She was 16, she did it on her own terms with my husband holding her. *tears*

    I am very sorry for what happened to Jack. The passing of a kitty hurts very much. Specially the way he went. I agree that we need to come together and make some changes. Animals are LIVING BREATHING FEELING things, It makes me mad when people think that animals are less important than humans just because they can’t talk. They have feelings too.

    I support you and this cause. Keep going, its about time for a change!!!!!!!!!

  9. Mary Beth: I am gfad to see that you are now setting your sights on 1. obtaining information and establishing a better picture of just how prevalent Injuries, Deaths, Loss (I,D,L) occur on the nation’s commercial airlines. 2. that you are now researching current law and 3. beginning to find friends of animals in Congress to perhaps help us dig deeper into this, essentially “unregulated” business of transporting animals, be they pets, soon -to-be-pets, farm, zoo, or other categories of live animal transport. I think it is also important for those of you out there following Mary Beth’s posts, to take it upon yourselves to find out how your local and state Federal representatives in Washington feel about this problem. We need to find those in government who see the current status of “I.D.L.’s” as unacceptable. With that knowledge in hand, you can be better organized in lobbying Congress and hopefully gaining some support from within the walls of government.

    I also believe that the American Humane Society and their vast lists of supporters, ought to be utilized to further help in this undertaking. We need voices and not just a few. I wish you success and my wife, Judy and I are ready to help out in any way we can.

  10. I’m afraid the only ones we would hear about are the horses bound for the Olympic games. That’s news every four years. Or perhaps if a Triple Crown winner died in transit; that’s once in perhaps 30 or 40 years. With no information from uncaring people we can remain blissfully ignorant-until something like this happens, and we make the news. I guess we need to make more news-and more noise!

  11. It is time to make changes. How is it that no one is held accountable? There were so many points made here. First, I would love nothing more than to see all puppymills and breeders shut down but that will never happen as long as money rules over the well-being of a living soul. The second is accountability. Not only the airline but anyone commercially shipping animals should also be held accountable. The third is the government. What do we do about the government? I thought it was “we the people” and it seems to me that the majority wants change, so what’s the issue? The issue is money. If you don’t pay your taxes the goverment will audit you, take away your home, garnish your wages, freeze your bank accounts BUT they can’t put a law in affect that all airlines on American soil including international flights must file an incident report on any animal that dies, becomes injured or lost. That would at least be a start so we could really see what we are working against.

    Thank you MB for all of the hard work you have put into this. I’m ready to fight when the fight begins!

  12. Mary Beth, have you asked BF about their success rate with shipping animals. I know right now they have a free shipping special. (scares me) I don’t know who you would contact but maybe adoption center.

  13. As long as animals are treated as commodities instead of sentient beings, airline employees will continue to treat them in this fashion. I believe that there should be some way to monitor how employees interact with captive animals, and that they should be held responsible if any harm comes to the animal. The DOT should also be held responsible as well.

    What happened to poor little Jack is truly a tragedy. As the guardians of our animal friends we should not have to badger employees into caring for our animals, as I had to do on American Airlines. If I’d had any suitcases, I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have had to badger them about that. I don’t believe animals should be carried in the cargo hold. They should be with their owners, where they belong. Period.

  14. I am in awe reading this. Millions of animals are being shipped every year. That in itself should constitute better flying conditions for animals – all animals. I cannot believe they don’t take some of the millions of dollars they’re making and put a little bit of it in the planes for better flying conditions and care of the animals so this will stop happening. When did something living become dispendable? How would they feel if it was their beloved pet?

  15. Great info Mary Beth!

    We also need to look at what circumstances led to the loss, injury or death. In some of these cases, like Jack and George, the carriers failed. I think there needs to be contact with the manufacturers of these carriers, and a new industry standard created, single unit, non removable gate, with a secure locking system. Plastic ties could be added to this locking system for additional security. The reason carriers come in two pieces is to make them easier to transport when empty and for cleaning. These features seem less important when somebody must transport their pet via cargo. Carriers could be purchased by a pet owner and by airlines to be made available for rent with a deposit paid at the time of reservation. The main thing is that these new carriers would be the ONLY type acceptable for transport on ALL airlines, foreign (if they service in the US) and domestic. Let the current type be used in local and personal transports.

  16. MB, your post is thoroughly enlightening. I had no clue how legalese is used to defraud the public of the lack of responsibility. Only when an animal travels with their owner are they considered “animals.” Just great. Jack has made an impact on awareness that may not have happened any other way; he was an unwilling martyr for this cause. Now we heard a couple of days ago how AA has filed for bankruptcy protection–maybe there was just something blessed about that cat. Best wishes, Marilynne

  17. Just because animals can’t talk doesn’t mean they don’t feel, they don’t hurt, they don’t love. I am so sad that it took Jack’s life to bring these issues to public awareness. I prayed every single day that he would make it and that we would still all work together to bring changes. Well, I hope Jack had something to do with American Airlines’ current financial woes (tee hee hee). With the one month anniversary of Jack’s passing coming up soon, I know I will be a bucket of tears. Let’s make sure this never happens to anyone else’s beloved furry family member again. Just lead the way, Mary Beth.

  18. Linda W. Re-read the info on Jack, his carrier did not “fail”. It was the human that treated him like luggage that failed.

  19. Teri, I totally agree, the baggage handler was at fault, absolutely right about that. But with a single unit carrier that cannot come apart, a gate that cannot be removed, and a locking system which is secure, the likelihood of escape from a damaged carrier, due to human or other circumstances, is limited or unlikely. These carriers that we have now are not sturdy enough for cargo travel. Once you add in 8-20 lbs or more inside with a pet, they become even more vulnerable to damage. We had this same issue with our dogs cargo carrier when we moved overseas…..they lifted it and one side opened up. They re- secured it, luckily, we were just checking in and were present. We need a new industry standard carrier for cargo travel.

    Mary Beth, I think you have definitely found your calling. Life is strange…the paths we choose are not always where we end up. And we have to be open to the gentle nudge (or not so gentle) telling us to move in another direction….not often does one have an opportunity to change the lives of others for the better like this….for both pets and their owners….

  20. Linda W,
    You have hit the nail on the head. A single unit carrier that cannot come apart and one that would enable a larger size animal to still fit under the seat. I think there would be great commercial possibilities in this and that an animal carrier company would certainly be interested. Any designers among the FoJs?

  21. For pets traveling under the seat in cabin, the soft carriers work (although my Calico will claw her way out of anything, she panics in small spaces) but generally speaking, they are great. BUT, the key is to change how they are managed at security. If there were a small enclosed room off to the side where carriers could be opened, it would be great….complete with windows for security purposes. In the meantime, and because I do not hold out hope that that will happen anytime soon, I would suggest all pet owners, harness and leash their pets inside the carrier, leave the handle of the leash sticking out. Do this when you put them in their carrier. Keep an eye out for tangling. Make sure the zipper is still secure. When they open the carrier at security, have them strap the leash to their wrist or allow you to do so. Then grab the harness firmly to carry your pet through x-ray. Once through security, when your pet is placed back in their carrier, find a secure location to remove the leash to avoid any tangling while in the carrier in flight. My friend traveling with her two cats to Boston this summer. One cat would have escaped had she not harnessed and leashed it……

  22. I had no idea it was that bad, but I’m not surprised. Airlines and airports in general are a prime example of careless brutality and corruption. They consider animals merchandise rather than sentient beings.
    They would do the same to humans if they could get away with it. (One look at the way the TSA treats people, especially the more vulnerable categories like the elderly and children, and there’s no doubt how we would all be treated if they could get away with it…)

    My husband & I were living in Europe for some years, and when we moved back with our kitty, we took him with us in the plane, in a soft carrier under the seat. We didn’t know it was this dangerous back then, but we knew of luggage getting lost, and we also couldn’t stand the thought that he would be put with cargo, especially because he had a bad heart condition and we thought the noises and frightening situations might kill him. So we paid for a special ticket for him and the airline let us bring him with us.

    But even healthy cats should be taken with their owners instead of as cargo. Especially after hearing how dangerous it is.

    Hopefully the way airlines treat our fluffy babies can be changed, thanks to websites like this one. Hopefully then we will no longer have tragedies like Jack’s death.

  23. It would be nice if their reports had to include every mishap that involved any item they had been paid to transport. People, pets, animals and baggage. Surely taking money implies some sort of contract and a duty of care

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