Raining Cats and Dogs: Matt Saincome Investigates the Airline Industry's Woeful Record of Protecting Pets in Flight

It's 11:45 a.m. and a dog is falling from the sky.

Moments earlier Nala, a rescue animal, was taking care of her five puppies who were on their way by small aircraft from Lexington, Ky., to Canada to be trained as service animals. Now the helpless pooch is in total freefall, quickly spiraling toward the earth.

Nala was being transported with her five puppies in a private four-seat plane on Friday, May 1, when the cargo door burst open at about 200 feet, ejecting the canine from the aircraft. Within seconds, the fall — and Nala's life — is over.

When the pilot realizes he's lost the animal, he turns the aircraft around and flies back to Lexington's Blue Grass Airport. “I just felt this gush of air coming on my back. Immediately I look back there and knew the door popped up,” the teary eyed pilot later told a local news reporter. “I just really feel terrible because there were some people who trusted me with their puppies, you know? And I just don't know what happened.”

The tragic accident two weeks ago at Blue Grass Airport is not as uncommon as you might think. Dogs, cats, and pets of all kinds are lost, injured, and killed with frightening regularity while in the care of airlines. Since the Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration began requiring major airlines to report pet-related incidents 10 years ago, 275 animals have been killed, 149 injured, and 51 lost.

Because the DOT doesn't organize its animal incident reports by airport, it's difficult to see if any one airport is more dangerous for pets than another, but San Francisco International routinely appears in the reports. According a 2007 report, SFO set up harm-free traps around its airfield in an attempt to find a cat who jumped out of its kennel and escaped onto the tarmac during loading. The 5-year-old feline, named Tiger Lilly, was never found.

According to nationwide records, air-traveling pets sometimes suffer from asphyxia, overheat during extended layovers, are killed by other animals, have stress-induced heart attacks, or die in other equally brutal ways.

Blue Grass Airport is a small hub with only one terminal and four commercial airlines offering 15 nonstop destinations. On average, its two runways see about 40 departures and arrivals a day — 60 percent of them private planes. Nala's pilot — a volunteer with Pilots N Paws, a nonprofit organization that transports rescue animals — was flying a Piper Comanche, a small prop plane that doesn't have a pressurized cabin like large commercial jets. But the plane's cargo door wasn't properly latched. Nala's puppies, it turned out, were all safely tucked away under a seat, and they survived. Their mother's body was later collected by public safety personnel, according to airport spokesperson Amy Caudill.

“We always look out for the safety of our travelers, and many times those are not necessarily people — we do a lot of horse transport in particular,” Caudill said. “So we have many different types of travelers, both animal and human.”

Even well-traveled dogs flying major airlines and large airports get hurt, lost, killed. Take Vivi, the award-winning whippet who escaped from her top-of-the-line kennel at Kennedy International Airport in 2006 after competing in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Vivi, an animal who could run up to 35 miles an hour, darted from a plane slated for California and disappeared through a chain-link fence. An army of volunteers, police officers, and even a helicopter from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey searched for the prized showdog. “No matter how prestigious an animal, there's still some a risk,” said Jol A. Silversmith, a partner at a Washington, D.C., law firm that works in aviation issues.

Vivi's loss prompted a media circus. Pet detectives and psychics got involved. There were weekly searches, a hotline, and $5,000 reward. The 3-year-old white and brown dog was never located. Even if she had been, Silversmith said, she likely would have remained “lost” on the official record. “One of the challenges with lost animals is that we never see if they are eventually found,” Silversmith said.

That unknown status is almost appropriate for the whippet who turned into an urban legend. The New York Times penned numerous stories about people from all over the city who claimed to have spotted the famed runaway.


A Family Folk Tale

Like the urban legend New Yorkers built around Vivi's real-life story, most families also have their own folk tales — stories that get told and retold over holiday meals, creating an oral tradition that over time tends to distort the truth. My family's tale involves a toy poodle named Poppy, who purportedly survived a fall from an airplane at San Francisco International Airport to become a much-loved pet. Since hearing multiple accounts of Poppy's adventures four years ago, I've become obsessed with what actually happened to the dog. I began interviewing family members in 2012, keeping notes in files on my computer, and researching data involving pet injuries, deaths, and survivals at airports.

Poppy's story begins on an unusually sunny day in Pacifica, in 1969. My father, Edward, then 8, was wandering around town with his little brother Michael and neighbor Pete. The boys had spent the day in the back of a valley a few miles west of SFO, where their suburban tract homes were built, feeding horses at the local horse stable Saddleback. Overhead, planes taking off from SFO soared over the coastal mountains.

While walking back home, the boys happened upon a scruffy toy poodle. It was a little banged up — a cut on its lip, leaves in its hair — but wasn't walking with a limp or displaying any other signs of having any major injuries. The dog trailed the group back to my father's house. “I can picture the little dog following behind us right now,” he remembers.

When the kids showed their new companion to my grandmother Tony, she immediately fell in love with the dog. Tony cleaned it up, fed it chopped liver (it refused normal dog food), and as the weeks passed allowed it to sleep in her bed under the covers. The family named the new pet Poppy, after the flower that grows all over the mountains of Pacifica. “It was a sweet little dog so the family welcomed it with open arms,” my father says, as he flips through old family photos looking for a picture of the poodle.

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My great-grandmother Wilma, who worked in the animal-training business, pointed out some signs that Poppy belonged to someone else: She looked like a purebred, was well behaved, responded to her name, and had a tarnished collar around her neck. Wilma urged my grandmother to put an ad in the paper, and though Tony was hesitant at first (because she loved the dog and wanted to keep him), she eventually conceded.

A few weeks passed with no response to the ad, and the family was relieved, but Wilma insisted Poppy was someone else's pet. She examined the scratched-up collar dangling from the dog's neck. Less than half the letters were recognizable, but she was able to make out a county in Washington state that she recognized. She contacted authorities and found the dog was registered. That's when the family learned of its tale.

“I wouldn't have believed it until we got a phone call from the airline telling us that they had lost the dog,” my father told me. “They said that a dog had literally fallen, and they knew where the owner was, and that the dog had a mate who wasn't eating.”

The family believed, based on its phone call with the airline, that Poppy had fallen out of an airplane while it was in flight. It's impossible to know what the airline said in that phone call 46 years ago, but the message received was the dog had fallen from the sky.

“United Airlines contacted the family and said on a particular day they would come and pick up the dog — which was a sad day for the Saincomes,” said my great aunt Jacinta Martinez.

The dog belonged to an elderly woman in Washington state. Her husband had died a year before Poppy went missing, so the widow was grieving both the loss of her husband and her toy poodle. The airline dispatched a team to my family's home to retrieve the lost animal, ending its extended layover in Pacifica.

The airline officials who showed up on the porch with a crate in hand left an impression on my father. “I can picture them, because they were in uniforms and had wings,” my father says, pointing to his chest where airline pilots wear insignia. “They were big. I think it was two guys. They got the dog and offered us a reward for taking care of it for that time — $100 I think.”

According to my great aunt, my grandfather refused the reward, but United insisted on giving the family something, so the two parties settled on a coupon for a free family meal. Feeling its hand was forced, the family agreed to give the dog back.

“I mean, if it's theirs it's theirs, but that part was hard, because we liked the little dog,” my father recalled.


Investigation

Nice legend, but if I was to truly believe in Poppy's leap of faith, I would need some hard evidence. It's true that animals and humans do, on occasion, fall from great heights and survive: Last year a California dog survived a 15-story fall from a high-rise building after splash landing in a hot tub. Skydivers who survive extraordinary falls after their parachutes fail to open appear in the news with regularity, and according to Jim Hamilton, who created the Free Fall Research Page, free-fallers surrounded by a semi-protective cocoons of debris — like plane wreckage (or in Poppy's case a kennel) — have an even higher chance of survival, especially when landing in wooded areas with lots of flora or bodies of water (like Pacifica).

But despite my searching, I failed to find any documents proving Poppy's legendary fall; I couldn't even find a picture of Poppy. And although many of the people involved in the tale, and the dog itself, have passed away, I was struck by the drama and power of the story. Was it true that the house I now live in was once occupied by a dog who fell from the sky?

I've looked in microfilm archives, digital databases, and other incident records searching for Poppy's paper trail. I called every aviation organization that might have a record and enlisted its help in my search. I even called the Bay Area-based MythBusters, but like United Airlines, they never got back to me.

Doug Yakel, SFO's public information officer, couldn't find any documents or records of the Poppy dropping. Ian Gregor at the FAA couldn't find an accident or incident report resembling Poppy's. Terry Williams of the National Transportation Safety Board said, “We checked our database regarding incidents involving cargo doors opening during takeoff during 1968-1971 and there's nothing that references a dog being ejected or dropped from an airplane.”

John Hill, curator and assistant director of aviation at the SFO museum, dug even deeper, leading an investigation that checked every handwritten operations report from 1969 looking for evidence of Poppy. He turned up empty-handed.

“If a dog gets loose and then gets put back in the airplane or recovered later in 1969, does that get reported?” Hill said. “Maybe, maybe not.”

Since there was no federal mandate to report animal-related incidents on commercial airlines before 2005, it is plausible that such an event could occur without an official record. It's also plausible that a 46-year-old record could have been lost. Hill noted some of the pages from the handwritten 1969 operations reports had gone missing.

Based on more common animal incidents on airplanes it seems most likely Poppy only fell two or three feet after her kennel was mishandled on the tarmac, causing it to crack open. Perhaps that's what the airline meant when they said Poppy had “fallen.”

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“Usually most pets are 'lost' on the ground,” said Silversmith, the attorney who works on aviation issues. “But we don't have a good sense from the numbers of how many ever get recovered.”

Silversmith follows the Department of Transportation's monthly reports regarding animal incidents, compiling them into more meaningful data that breaks down the info by airline and year. But because Silversmith is working from the original numbers, he says, the information can't show larger patterns.

“There's no record of how many animals fly without incident, so it's difficult to put any of this into context,” Silversmith said. “There's also a fair number of cases where animals fall out of their crates but we never get an update or clear solution about what happened after that, even with people going to great efforts to find them.”

The reports also fail to include non-pet animals, such as an incident last month involving a 40-pound male wolverine that attempted an escape at Newark airport. Small carriers that don't carry at least 1 percent of the population weren't required to report any animal-related incidents until January 2015. Incidents on international flights still don't get reported.


For years, acoustic guitarists and violin players have had horrifying stories of Martins, Gibsons, and ancient violins getting crushed by careless baggage handlers. “I watched as United Airline workers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport threw my guitar around the tarmac. When I arrived at my destination my $3,500 Taylor guitar was broken and unplayable,” says Dave Carroll, who ended up writing a song about the customer service nightmare that went viral on YouTube. But in 2014, the DOT passed a law saying if space was available, airlines must allow musicians to carry-on small instruments free of charge in order to protect them. So your inanimate musical instrument can now travel safely. Not so with your heavy-set pet kitten.

Karen Pascoe was moving from New York City to the Bay Area in 2011 with her two large cats — both over the 15 pound weight limit for carryon pets. American Airlines told Pascoe she had to check both of the feline fliers as cargo or baggage as opposed to keeping them under her seat.

Down in the luggage area, American Airlines employees stacked the crates (against protocol) on top of each other. The top crate, containing Jack, toppled, bursting open upon impact with the ground, letting Jack free. The Norwegian forest cat was lost inside the American Airlines terminal of JFK airport for 61 days. He fell out of the ceiling in the customs and border patrol office on the 61st day. He hadn't had food or water.

“He suffered injuries when he fell,” said Mary Beth Melchior, founder of Where Is Jack Inc., an organization that advocates for safe air travel for animals in Jack's memory. “He had liver disease, so basically his organs had started to feed on themselves in his body, so he couldn't recover from his wounds. After 12 days in ICU he was humanely euthanized.”

Melchior walks people through the always-dangerous process of flying with pets, and gives them advice on alternative solutions to boarding a plane.

“Our goal is to make sure what happened to Jack, meaning the mishandling or mistreatment of animals by the airlines, never happens again,” Melchior said, adding a tip for animal lovers who travel by air. “If you wouldn't put your three-year-old in the conditions, don't put your animal in them either.”

Jack's story garnered much media attention, but commercially or internationally flown animals still die without any reports or attention.

“For some reason breeders like to get their French bulldogs from Romania,” Melchior said. “They have the pug noses and short faces, so they have a real hard time flying. We hear tons of incidents about French bulldogs dying en route from Romania, and they never get reported.”

According to Silversmith and several other aviation experts I spoke with, if Poppy did fall out of a plane, it was most likely a small, unpressurized private plane similar to the one Nala, the dog who fell to her death in Kentucky, fell out of. Because when large commercial jets drop cargo, it's a much more serious issue that sometimes results in the plane crashing — and almost always generates a formal report.

Perhaps Poppy escaped her kennel while being loaded onto the plane, like Jack The Cat, but instead of hiding in the terminal journeyed outward, navigating the three-or four-hour trek across (or under) two highways and a mountain, brushing up against foliage and earning the scars my grandmother in Pacifica later cleaned up. The airline could have then truthfully told my family that Poppy “fell from the plane,” and my grandmother just interpreted that as meaning the plane was in-flight when Poppy fell.

Desperate to find any trace evidence of Poppy's legendary fall, I dived into old microfilm classified ads in local newspapers. One, in a December 1969 issue of the San Francisco Examiner reads: “DOG—White, fluffy std. poodle, fem. Lost at S.F. airport. 12/20. Reward. 567-7132 or 567-4040.”

It wasn't a true match. The always-elusive Poppy was a toy poodle, not a standard poodle. But it was one more piece of evidence that dogs, cats, and pets of all kind have been getting lost, injured, or killed on airlines for a long, long time. And until changes to the rules governing how animals fly with us on airplanes are made, there will be more Nalas, more Jacks, (maybe) more Poppys.

 

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