"Despite hundreds of incidents in which animals have been lost, injured or killed while being transported by airplane, the airlines have shown little regard for the safety of the animals who are entrusted to them," said Valerie Stanley, ALDF senior staff attorney. "We feel compelled to let consumers know that they are risking their pets' lives when they transport them by air."
Stanley said the summer travel season is the most dangerous time of the year for pets to be loaded aboard an airplane. If planes are delayed on the ground, the extreme temperature in an airplane's cargo hold can cause animals to suffer brain damage or die due to hypothermia. Some pets are left to swelter on tarmacs. Others are mistakenly freed on the way to or from the plane, where they are lost or killed.
The results can be tragic: Five hours after 81 healthy puppies were put aboard a TWA passenger jet en route from Kansas City to St. Louis, baggage handlers discovered 50 of the puppies were dead due to heat exposure of suffocation. When a Continental jet bound for Denver was delayed for three hours in Philadelphia, three of the five Samoyed dogs being transported in the plane's cargo hold were found dead on arrival. Too many animals needlessly suffer injury or die each year -- and an airline's only liability for the often gruesome death of a beloved pet is limited to the value of a piece of luggage.
"The airlines consider payments or USDA fines for an injured or dead animal as merely a `cost of doing business,'" Stanley said.
Just last December, Stanley noted, United Airlines declined to pay the $4,000 medical bill and related expenses incurred by the owner of a dog who suffered ruptured eardrums and other trauma on a flight from Los Angeles to Miami. United contended that "there was no value declared for this shipment" and hence the airline's liability was limited to 50 cents per pound for the 116-pound "shipment," or $410.50. United's letter never once acknowledged that the "shipment" was a dog.
ALDF, the nation's only public interest law firm specializing in protecting the well-being of domestic animals and wildlife, is preparing a petition demanding that the USDA adopt stricter regulations and improve conditions for animals transported by air. Accompanying this demand will be thousands of petitions from individuals who want safer conditions for animals traveling in airplanes. In addition, ALDF is asking corporations to put pressure on airlines by pledging to favor only those carriers that sign ALDF's cruelty-free pledge to take better care of animals entrusted to them. The Houston Rockets, Frederick's of Hollywood and John Paul Mitchell Systems have already signed the pledge.
"The skies are not friendly to pets. Most airplane cargo holds are unsafe for animals. Until conditions improve, pet owners should never put their treasured companions aboard a plane. Doing so could seal their doom," said Stanley.
In the very worst cases, they freeze to death on icy tarmacs, or overheat and suffocate in stifling cargo holds.
They're dogs and cats. Thousands of them are killed, injured or lost annually after their owners entrust airlines to carry and deliver them safely.
Heat alone - typically from the cargo holds of planes delayed on hot tarmacs - kills or "severely" injures more than 500 animals a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which keeps only a partial accounting.
For the pet, these holds turn the skies into a hell.
A November study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in San Francisco found that animal crates are almost always shipped along with routine baggage in cargo holds with no air- conditioning or air circulation.
Temperatures routinely exceed 115 degrees.
"These are animals that are struggling to breathe, their hearts are racing, and they're in a panic, suffering extreme stress and anxiety," said Dr. Lila Miller, a veterinary adviser for the New York-based ASPCA.
Their paws are often bloodied, and their teeth chipped and broken, in their frantic attempts to break out of their shipping crates to escape the infernal heat.
"That's torture," police-dog trainer Mike Cain told the Charlotte Observer last year after his five Belgian Malinois arrived dead from heat stroke and suffocation in Atlanta on a Delta Airlines flight from the Netherlands.
More common - and virtually unpoliced and uncounted - are the dogs and cats whose shipping crates are dropped, crushed, sent to the wrong location, or damaged enough to allow the animals to escape.
There's the Staffordshire terrier from Boise, Idaho, whose crate was dropped and smashed from a height of four feet last year by a Delta baggage handler as his owner watched in horror.
The Air Transport Association boasts of the industry's "excellent record" shipping pets, and says less than 1 percent of the 500,000 pets that fly each year experience health problems.
"We carry hundreds of pets throughout our system each day, normally with complete satisfaction to their owners," said a spokeswoman for Delta, an airline that turned up again and again as this story was researched.
*The USDA has only 70 inspectors to police nearly 11,000 sites - not only airports, but puppy mills, zoos, circuses and research labs.
*Airlines are not required to report pet mishaps. No one knows how many of the nearly 170,000 passenger baggage complaints logged each month by the U.S.Department of Transportation involve pet cargo.
*An airline's civil liability is limited by federal tariff law to only $2,000 per piece of luggage - and a pet in a crate is legally luggage.
Unless a pet is small enough to qualify as carry-on luggage, "You can be 99 percent certain you are putting your pet in a cargo hold that is not ventilated and has no temperature control," said Nancy Blaney, the ASPCA's national lobbyist, who is currently fighting for a bill that would address all of these problems.