Where is Jack?

Making Air Travel Safe for Pets

The Lessons of Xiaohwa – PART 2


Dear Readers… this is Part 2 of a what turned out to be an incredibly long post about what we are learning (and have learned) during the search for Xiaowha, a cat that was lost at JFK airport in October.  For Part I, click here.  Part 3 will be posted tomorrow…


When Jack went missing, I was shocked when Karen texted me.  We spoke seconds later.  She told me she was down in the baggage area where he had gone missing… and she had been looking for him for the previous 15 minutes but with no luck. “This is HUGE down here.  HUGE.  I can’t even describe it.”

And I understood.  But I didn’t REALLY understand.  I didn’t truly understand until the good folks at JFK took us into the baggage system to look for Xiaohwa.


Now I need to make a comparison here… Think about the Grand Canyon.  You see pictures of the Grand Canyon and you understand it’s huge, but what a picture conveys to you is about 1/1 millionth of the sheer size, beauty and majesty of actually being there.  Still, it’s better than not knowing anything about the Grand Canyon at all.

The baggage system at any major airport is kind of like the Grand Canyon – you know it’s big and complex, but you can’t even really begin to understand the hugeness and the complexity until you’re there.  And a picture is a start, but again – it conveys about 1/1 millionth of the reality.

Below you’ll find a picture of the baggage system at Denver Airport – one of the newest and supposedly most efficient baggage systems in the U.S.  The picture gives you some idea of the sheer enormity and the complexity of the system – but remember that the Denver Airport is about 20% of the size of JFK.  And the JFK system is much older – less efficient and with even more nooks and crannies.


Take a good look at this picture – there are about a million places for a kitty to hide.  And many of them – maybe most of them – are in motion, with belts and cogs and motors and all kinds of noise.  Kitties and moving parts are not usually a good combination.  Particularly for a scared kitty who’s trying to be in a small, safe, quiet place.

And then multiply this picture by a thousand – because this is what a space the size of a football field looks like.  And ground to ceiling is about 25 feet.  With machinery from floor to just below the ceiling.

AND what you don’t see here is that there are also hundreds of ways to get outside.  Because the baggage is not staying in the building, there are huge open doors (really, open WALLS) to let big trucks carry baggage to and from this mechanical hell out into the gate areas — which of course are open to the runways.  Which are then open to the whole world… the fences that surround airports don’t really mean much to a frightened cat. (And they aren’t even a good way to contain a frightened lost dog.)

And the baggage area is just one part of the airport.  Jack was in the ceiling the whole time – but when he fell out in the Customs & Border Patrol office, he was a loooooooong way from where his journey began.

Not to mention – if anyone does find it, what happens then? 1/100 people that see it will make the effort to catch it and submit it to the right authorities in the airport (and you know how hard it is to catch a kitty that doesn’t want to be caught without knowing all their pet food info first) – since most people tend to be in a rush in an airport. An animal that is lost at an airport might as well be lost in the Grand Canyon.  Especially if there is no one searching for them from the moment they are lost.

During the Jack search, so many well-intentioned people were telling us what to do and where to look (look up!  look under!).  And we did everything we could do – largely because so many kind and devoted people put in time and effort over the course of 61 days.  But the combination of the complexity of searching for a lost cat in a HUGE building with an untold number of nooks and crannies AND not even having access to search because of airport security guidelines made the situation nearly impossible.

And Xiaohwa has given us the opportunity to learn even more about how incredibly difficult it is to look for an animal lost at an airport.

I just hope this will be our last opportunity to learn these lessons… though history suggests that will not be the case.

4 thoughts on “The Lessons of Xiaohwa – PART 2

  1. Seeing Jack’s photo – I cried all over again for him and for the pain that Karen must have felt and is still feeling. God bless you, MaryBeth, for all that you are doing.

  2. Great job Mary Beth!!
    Waiting for the next chapter.

  3. Excellent post and the photos! They explain so much the expanse and cavernous areas where a pet can be lost.

    I have a story from over 10 years ago when someone sent a cat to me (before I used the DryFur products) in a carrier that should NEVER have been accepted by the airline–all plastic, plastic latches with no metal screws, plastic door that opened on either side with NO cable ties at all. When I got to the airport to pick her up and they said she was lost and took (hysterical) me down into that football sized baggage area, I thought she would never be found. When they pulled back the curtain on the ‘trolley’ that the luggage was on, it looked likw someone had just dumped everything in a mountain and there was her carrier, with the door laying in front of it. I will never know if she got out of the carrier and got back inside it, but she was burrowed under the bedding and safe! As we know, it comes down to improper training, employees that don’t care and no consequences to failure to follow protocol.

    I have also had employees who went above and beyond the ‘job description’, too and tell me how angry some ‘dog shippers’ got when they wouldn’t accept an 8 wk old puppy without the proper carrier etc. But, as you say, it is up to us as the consumer to get educated and be able to be advocates for our pets, because we are the ones who love them!

    My heart aches for those pets who have been lost and I know I will never travel with my cats again if I can’t have them in the cabin with me, which means driving by car if I have all 4 moving with me…

  4. Marybeth, was there ever a final part 3 for Xiaohwa? Did they ever locate her? On another note, best of wishes for 2013. May we lose fewer companion animals and make others more aware. All the best, Marilynne

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