'Animal Sense': The Dangers of Shipping Your Dog in an Airplane

Model Maggie Rizer’s Golden Retriever died on a cross-country flight in early September.

Model Maggie Rizer and her deceased golden retriever, Bea. (Photo: Courtesy of Bea Makes Three)
wrote the bestseller Soldier Dogs and was staff writer at USA Today and the San Francisco Chronicle.

TakePart is happier than ever to present “Animal Sense," a weekly column penned by bestselling author Maria Goodavage. She'll be sniffing out all manner of cool, quirky, outrageous, and sometimes outraging animal stories. Check out the column each week on TakePart's home page.


Earlier this month, somewhere in the friendly skies on a cross-country flight, a very good dog died in agony. She’s not the first, and she won’t be the last. But her owner, model Maggie Rizer, is doing everything she can to save other dogs from the same fate.

Whatever it was that happened to Bea in the bowels of that plane that horrible day leaves me even more determined to never fly my dog anywhere.

“Our little Beatrice died in pain, scared and alone,” Rizer wrote last week in a blog post she hoped would prevent others from entrusting their dogs to airlines.

The post, entitled, “United Airlines Killed Our Golden Retriever, Bea,” is painful to read. You can imagine what it must have been like to write it.

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Rizer and husband, Alex Mehran, knew the dangers of flying their pet. Last year, 36 pet deaths and eight injuries were reported on six U.S.-based airlines. (Delta alone accounted for 20 of them!) The couple had done everything possible to keep two-year-old Bea and their other golden retriever, seven-year-old Albert, safe during their flight from New York to San Francisco. Actually, they went above and beyond, with extras like filling special water containers with ice in case the dogs needed more cooling, and driving six hours so there would be no need for connecting flights (a known risk factor for flying with pets).

The way they found out about Bea’s death makes the stomach turn. “We drove to the dark cargo terminal and on arrival in the hangar were told simply, ‘one of them is dead’ by the emotionless worker who seemed more interested in his text messages,” she wrote.

What?!

United tells me employees working in its PetSafe program receive extensive training. This automaton clearly slept through that.

Rizer refused to let United take her “sweet-Bea” away for a company necropsy. Instead, she had her trusted veterinarian cut open the dog who used to kiss her baby tenderly on his face, the dog she describes as “full of light and happiness.” The result: Bea died of heatstroke. It’s a horrible way to go.

No one knows exactly what happened to Bea. She wasn’t a short-snouted dog. They’re more vulnerable to respiratory distress on flights, and some airlines won’t even take them. United points to the fact that Albert and other pets arrived alive as a way of showing there were no problems on the flight.

I contacted United, and was given the official statement: “After careful review, we found there were no mechanical or operational issues with Bea’s flight and also determined she was in a temperature-controlled environment for her entire journey.”

I asked about the possibility of lack of airflow because of baggage or other cargo, but the United representative stated, “I can tell you that both of her dogs were traveling in a cargo compartment by themselves—separated from all luggage—therefore we determined there was no air flow obstruction.” She said it’s standard protocol for pets to ride in these temperature- and pressure-controlled compartments, and not with baggage. As for the two times Rizer said the plane’s engines were turned off on the runway before takeoff, United says that would not affect the temperature control in the cargo hold.

Whatever it was that happened to Bea in the bowels of that plane that horrible day leaves me even more determined to never fly my dog anywhere. I greatly admire Rizer reaching out to the public as she did. At least she can take some comfort in knowing that Bea’s death may save other dogs’ lives.

I realize there are people who have no choice than to fly with their dog in cargo, and that there are measures they can take to keep their dogs as safe as possible. But in the end, as Bea’s death illustrates, there are no guarantees.

Would you ever fly your dog across the country in the bowels of an airplane? Discuss below in the comments.

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