Animal rights group: Airlines must do more to protect pets

Posted3/17/2018 5:30 AM
  • Animal rights advocates are calling on airlines to review how they handle pets and urging owners to weigh the risks of air travel for animals.

    Animal rights advocates are calling on airlines to review how they handle pets and urging owners to weigh the risks of air travel for animals. AP file photo

As federal agencies investigate the death of a French bulldog in an overhead compartment on a United Airlines flight, animal rights advocates are calling on carriers to review how they handle pets and urging owners to weigh the risks of air travel for animals.

United has faced a public outcry this week in the wake of the death of the 10-month-old dog, a mix-up involving a German shepherd mistakenly shipped to Japan, and another mix-up in which a flight from Newark to St. Louis was diverted after a dog was mistakenly loaded onto the plane.

A spokesman said the flight attendant who ordered the bulldog's owner to put her pet carrier in the overhead bin didn't know there was a dog inside, though the family has disputed that account.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced its investigators are probing the puppy's death aboard the flight from Houston to New York. A district attorney's office in Texas has launched a criminal investigation.

United, meanwhile, pledged that by April it will issue bright-colored bag tags to passengers to help flight attendants better identify their in-cabin pets.

But an anti-cruelty group wants the Chicago-based airline to re-examine all its procedures, noting that United reported 18 animal deaths last year -- roughly three-fourths of all animal deaths on all domestic carriers.

"Every animal that dies on a plane is a tragedy and should be prevented," said Kelsey Eberly, a staff attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Eberly said airlines should ensure every flight staff member is aware an animal is onboard and knows its exact location.

"They can only do better with communicating that to all staff and people involved in flights, because so many of these tragedies seem to happen because of breakdowns in communication," she said.

In May 2010, the California-based group filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Transportation to revise reporting requirements under the Safe Air Travel for Animals Act to mandate that carriers disclose cases involving any animal.

The department changed the regulation in July 2014 to require airlines to report deaths or injuries to any cats or dogs, whether they were transported as companion animals or in commercial shipments. Those new reporting requirements went into effect in January 2015.

But Eberly said there's no way to know how many other animals shipped commercially -- birds, lizards, rabbits -- died or were injured while being transported.

"We're hopeful that as part of their review, United and perhaps other airlines will recognize the need for transparency," she said. "If not report to the government, at least provide greater insights to their customers as to the incidents of injury and death that happen to all animals, not just dogs and cats."

Through its PetSafe shipping program, United carried roughly 140,000 animals last year, more than any other airline, according to the department of transportation. In 2017, there were 2.24 incidents per 10,000 animals flown on United.

"The overwhelming majority (of deaths), according to medical experts, were due to a pre-existing medical condition or because the animal wasn't properly acclimated to its crate," United spokesman Charles Hobart said.

• The Associated Press contributed to this report

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