ABU DHABI // A pet owner whose cat escaped at a New York airport after its travel cage was crushed is calling for better care for animals in transit.
Jennifer Stewart, a yoga teacher from the US, and her husband, Joe Naaman, had taken an Etihad Airways flight from Abu Dhabi to John F Kennedy International Airport on April 1, along with their cat, Felix.
They were returning to the US after living in the UAE for three-and-a-half years.
When they arrived in New York, Ms Stewart went to retrieve Felix only to be told by the cargo staff that her pet had escaped.
Felix’s plastic travel carrier had been cracked open, allowing him to break out while it was being unloaded in New York.
“A manager escorted us to his office and told us there was an issue,” Ms Stewart said. “To give us the peace of mind that Felix wasn’t dead or injured, he showed us a picture on his cell phone of Felix’s carrier.
“It was covered in mesh nylon ropes so it was hard to see exactly where it was cracked. It was also strapped to an old wooden pallet.”
The cage did not crack during the flight, but was damaged while it was being transported from the plane to JFK’s cargo area, according to Etihad Airways.
Ms Stewart offered to search for her cat, but the airport staff would not immediately allow that on grounds of security. An airport-sanctioned search was conducted on Saturday with the help of a sniffer dog and volunteers, but Felix was not found.
As of yesterday, the cat was still thought to be in the airport cargo area.
“It’s really sad and appalling how these animals are treated – worse than luggage,” Ms Stewart said.
She said she had paid US $1,200 (Dh4,404) to transport her cat.
“People assume you pay extra to have your pets taken care of, but they’re treated no differently than a free piece of checked luggage,” she said.
Ms Stewart said the crate had been sold to her at the airport in Abu Dhabi by a vet for Dh540 after the cat carrier she brought from home was rejected by Etihad Cargo as it did not meet International Air Transport Association specifications.
She has since sought help from Where Is Jack?, a non-profit organisation based in the US that advocates better pet-handling policies during air travel.
The organisation’s founder, Mary Beth Melchior, said: “We need to recognise that pets are more like children, and the airlines need to rethink how they’re doing this.
“I think pet parents need to be able to be in charge of their pets throughout the whole flight, just as we expect human parents to take care of their kids through their whole flight.”
Following the loss of Felix, Etihad Airways said it was reviewing its procedures.
A spokesman said the airline carries more than 200 animals each year and that “it is extremely rare for an incident like this to happen”.
Emirates SkyCargo said it carries “several thousand pets” every year. Within the past year, there have been two mortalities, a spokesman said.
With the exception of guide dogs and falcons, Etihad only transports pets “as manifested cargo” and does not allow them “within the aircraft cabin or checked baggage”, according to its website.
The spokesman also said it was helping in the search for Felix.
“We deeply regret this unfortunate incident and are keeping the owner apprised of the progress of the search. We will review our pet handling procedures in the wake of this incident, as the safety and care of pets travelling with Etihad Airways is a top priority.” In the US, airlines must report any incident involving a lost, injured or deceased pet to the department of transportation.
In the UAE, the General Civil Aviation Authority has no such system to monitor the local airlines’ track record in transporting animals.
“This has to stop and people need to ensure better safety standards for these animals,” Ms Stewart said. “It’s heartbreaking how little care is given. I had no idea before and am in shock now. I just want to get the word out and make a change.”