The minute the plane began to move, Gremlin squirmed out of the soft inflight carrier I had purchased for her from a pet shop in Dubai. From then on, nothing would keep her below the seat. She climbed into my lap, wrapped her paws around my chest and buried her head. We both remained in the same position for the entire flight from Abu Dhabi to Beirut. But as long as she was not complaining, I was not going to either. After a hectic two months of organising a move with two cats from the UAE to Syria, fretting about the prospect of putting my spoiled and sheltered pets inside the cargo hold of a roaring aircraft, I could not believe my fortune. Gremlin sat in my lap and Pumpkin next to my feet in his carrier during the entire flight.
I now know first-hand the plight of expatriates with pets when they decide to return home. There is paperwork and "export permits", a rabies shot that must be given to pets within 30 days of travel, and a final health check up within 10 days of travel. It is expensive, and bureaucratic, and that's just before making the flight arrangements. It is no wonder then that so many pets in the UAE end up abandoned on the streets or appear one day unaccompanied in a pet carrier at the doorsteps of their vet. It does not help that most airliners charge three times the weight of the animal plus the cost of their carrier.
According to some quotes I received by phone, I could have paid over Dh7,000 to fly my two cats from the UAE to Syria, and they would not have even been allowed with me in the cabin. They would have flown inside the dark and noisy hold of the plane. There are numerous stories from all over the world about pets being mishandled by airliners, and beloved cats and dogs being found dead upon arrival. When I asked many regional airlines for their safety record in handling pets, none could provide me with any facts.
This lack of transparency and accountability made me feel uneasy, especially in such a diverse country as the UAE, where attitudes towards animals are as diverse as the people. While some cultures might be accused of "treating animals better than they treat people", other cultures do not cultivate a culture of pets or a love for animals. Some even harbour disdain for our non-human friends. In the US, where an estimated two out of three American households have a pet, Pet Airlines launched last year to fly "pets only, no humans please" in the cabin to destinations all over the country.
Some airlines have a hierarchy of animals upon which to bestow favour. When flying Etihad, a falcon receives a free seat in business class next to its human handler, and flight attendants are instructed to serve the bird chilled Evian water throughout the flight. And while falcons can fly in business or first class on Etihad, other airlines relegate all non-humans to economy class. I ended up picking Middle East Airlines even though it involved an overnight stay in Beirut and driving to Damascus, because of their pet friendly policies.
Some people thought I was "nuts" for going to the trouble to investigate if my cats could fly with me in the cabin. "Oh no, you've turned into one of those crazy cat ladies," a friend said. "C'mon, animals fly all the time in the hold of a plane. It's fine," said another. But on the road from Beirut to Damascus, my two cats reminded me why it was all worthwhile. They did all sorts of acrobatics inside our hired car. Pumpkin climbed onto the sill of the rear window and sat there a while, watching the heavy traffic and amusing passengers in other cars. Gremlin stood on my lap and watched the world from my window.
They made everyone smile, from the Lebanese and Syrian border patrol to the young soldiers at checkpoints. Passengers in random cars around us would turn their head and point, smile, wave, and hold up their small children to the window so they could wave at the cats. Surely, I thought, with all the joy and innocence they spread to everyone, Pumpkin and Gremlin had easily earned the comfortable travel arrangement I planned for them. Don't other pets deserve the same? Rasha Elass was formerly a reporter for The National. She now lives in Damascus.