"We often see people bring their pets in kennels that are too small for the animal," said Steven Purvis, customer service manager for Alaska Airlines. "You can see the fur sticking out the sides, and the pet can't even stand up." Often, he added, a kennel is purchased for the animal when it is young and is not changed even after the pet has outgrown it.
"We tell people we have larger kennels available," he said, "but sometimes they think we're trying to make them purchase one. We try to explain that it's in the pet's best interest."
Some airlines, such as American, have printed brochures available for people shipping pets. Most airlines provide kennels at a nominal fee ($35 is the average price for a mid-size kennel that will hold a 25-pound dog); airline-approved kennels can also be purchased at pet stores.
While the USDA does make surprise inspections, it cannot be everywhere. At Burbank, John Wayne and Long Beach airports, the Los Angeles branch office has cut back its inspections from once a month to once a year. So it falls on agencies such as the ASPCA Animalport at Kennedy Airport to help catch violations.
The Animalport, nicknamed the "Hilton for animals," is a way station for animals between flights at J.F.K. Since 1958 the facility has temporarily housed pets for people who are moving, or for animals being shipped overseas that have layovers.
At the Animalport, animals are brought in by airline personnel and are fed and watered, and the cages are cleaned by ASPCA workers. "And we give them a lot of TLC," added assistant director Kathleen Travers. The airline is billed for the service ($16 a day for dogs, $11 for cats, $8 for birds), and the charge is then passed on to the customer.
"I've seen a lot more animals traveling by air," Travers said. "And some people are paranoid about shipping their pet. Anything you do like that there is a risk involved. Since I've been here, we've been teaching (airline personnel) how to care for the animals, so they're doing a little better job now. And we are cracking down. Our concern is that the animal is traveling comfortably. I feel there has been definite progress made, but more education is still needed."
Carol Bardwick heard too many horror stories of dog breeders shipping their pets with bad results. That's one reason she opened the Canine Cryobank at the West Los Angeles Veterinary Medical Group seven years ago. The Cryobank is a sperm bank for dogs.
"There has always been a problem with breeders subjecting their dogs to the risks of shipping," she said. "Not only is the physical risk great, but if a dog is in heat, the stress alone can alter the heat cycle. She could be out of heat by the time she gets to her destination."
Charline Averill is a client of the Cryobank, but she's also been shipping dogs domestically and internationally--about 1,000--since she's been breeding them, about 49 years. And, she says emphatically, almost every experience has been good.
"There were three or four dogs delayed," she said from her home in El Monte. "I know that people have had their dogs arrive dead, and I know of some breeders who would never ship a dog. But I think the airlines have been pretty good as a rule. I heard about that dog that got lost on TWA, and I can understand . . . my luggage can get sidetracked, and an animal should be ahead of luggage."
Averill said her good experiences were a combination of following the airline's regulations, plus having responsible people shipping the dogs. "When I send a pet, I try to hang around and see the crate loaded onto the plane. But once it's out of my hands, there's not a thing I can do."