Where is Jack?

Making Air Travel Safe for Pets


What I Learned from Jack, Part I: Collateral Damage

In the weeks since Jack went missing, I’ve spent a lot of time with the words “collateral damage” running through my brain.  Collateral damage is “damage to people or property that is unintended or incidental to the intended outcome.”  It’s a phrase that is often used about combat situations – the civilians that are hurt in war are the “collateral damage.”

I do believe that whatever happened to Jack was not intended… however he got out of his crate, I believe it was an accident (though we will probably never know for sure).  And because of the way things proceeded from that moment on, there is no doubt in my mind that Jack was absolutely “collateral damage” from AA’s perspective – Jack’s being lost, and even his death, was “unintended or incidental” to their mission to fly passengers and their baggage from Destination A to Destination B.

And that is where the problem lies – to Karen, to me, to the 26,000+ people who have “liked” Jack’s Facebook page.  What happened was not “incidental.”  It may have been unintended, but it was definitely not “incidental.”  It was absolutely horrifying, agonizing, and devastating.  A conscious being was left to fend for himself, scared and alone.  And no one who had the power to look for him seemed to be actually looking.

But from AA’s perspective, Jack being lost was nothing more than an unfortunate error.  They could continue to operate their airline just fine even though Jack had gone missing.  They could continue to book the reservations, fly the planes, and even get (most of) the baggage to the right place while Jack was hiding in the ceiling at JFK.  This was, by definition, “unintended and incidental” to their intended outcome – to profitably run an airline.

And that’s why both the corporate people and many of the people on the ground at JFK responded they way they did: it’s not that they’re bad people or they didn’t care about Jack, but they all have jobs to do, and finding a lost cat was not in anyone’s job description.  (Indeed, based on the comments on the AA fb page, it seems that finding lost luggage that wasn’t able to move wasn’t even a major part of anyone’s job!)  So even though the importance of finding a lost and scared kitty was apparent to Karen, to me, and later to all the people who followed this journey, it just wasn’t within the scope of American Airlines’ “intended outcome.”

And, in a way, that’s understandable.  After all, every person walking on the planet creates “collateral damage” as we go through our daily lives: we step on bugs, we shrink the polar ice cap by relying on fossil fuels, we inadvertently hurt peoples’ feelings.  And we can’t always address all that damage and make things right.

But as pet parents, each of us needs to be aware that when we travel with our pets by air, the airlines ARE NOT EQUIPPED to address, in a way most of us would feel is adequate, the problems that can arise when they handle our pets.  If traveling with pets in cargo is determined to be the best, if not the only option, to keep a family together, pet parents must go the extra mile to insure their pet is safe throughout the journey.  “Trust” is not an option here.  The airlines are not “experts” in pet travel.  Even if they have transported many pets, they have also had many accidents.

And as animal lovers, we have another responsibility: to think about WHY it is that the airlines would want to take the risk of transporting pets?  And the answer is actually quite simple.  It is not pets that are family members that are most often shipped via airline cargo.  It is the animals (most of them dogs) that come from commercial breeders that are most often shipped this way.  Commercial breeders (often called “puppy mills”) are large-scale breeding facilities that ship dogs to puppy stores, pet shops and individuals around the country.  Animals that are shipped this way are considered commercial cargo, and US Department of Transportation Pet Incident Reports do not have to be filed if one of these animals dies in transit.  We do not know how many of these (mostly) dogs die under the airlines’ watch every year.  What we do know, however, is that the airlines make a great deal of money shipping these animals from puppy mills to the stores.

So when those of us who are concerned about this issue ask,”why don’t the airlines just stop flying pets in cargo if they’re not willing to deal with the potential consequences,” the answer is that shipping pets does help them create their intended consequence: a better bottom linen their financial statements.   And as long as commercial breeding is allowed, commercial shipping will happen… and there is a strong lobbying force out there to insure this.

The airlines are willing to allow the “collateral damage” of lost, injured, and dead animals to continue because, to them, it is “incidental.”  For those of us who care about animals – whether they are our own or the millions that are bought and sold every year (not to mention the millions more that are euthanized) – there is no life that is “incidental.”  Maybe we can’t save them all today, but at least we can bring awareness to the fact that even more are being lost, injured, and killed than most people know about.