Lizards on a Plane! Relax, They're in Cargo

Aug. 28, 2006
As coldblooded animals readily adapt to temperature shifts, they make great passengers.

No, venomous snakes are not allowed on airplanes.

Everything else -- from lemurs to lizards to lion cubs -- may be traveling in the belly of your next flight.

What, you thought they drove?

While the Burmese python with all that screen time in the new film "Snakes on a Plane" would get turned back at the gate, non-venomous snakes can and do travel by air. In fact, as coldblooded animals that readily adapt to temperature shifts, they make great passengers.

Critters in cargo have become more commonplace as airlines, in response to new government rules, have made animal travel safer and more predictable. Joining the traditional shippers -- zoos, breeders and researchers -- are regular folks who simply want to take their pets along.

"It's an evolution of our society, with pets becoming part of the family. People hate to leave them behind," said Lisa Schoppa, manager of express package service product development for Continental Airlines, one of the busiest shippers of animals.

Pets can even earn frequent-flier miles, as some airlines go out of their way to cater to their owners.

Calling him "my four-legged baby," Maria Torres greeted Simba, the family pug, after he arrived at the Newark, N.J., airport from Tampa, Fla., earlier this month. The Torres family, from Brooklyn, N.Y., had spent six months in Florida and couldn't bear to be separated from Simba. He flew in the cargo hold of a Continental plane.

A seeing-eye miniature horse once flew first class with its owner on their way to an appearance on "Oprah," said American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner. Just recently, a penguin flew from the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas to the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas. "The penguin actually marched on board," he said.

On a recent day, Continental's animal operation in Newark handled a Rhodesian ridgeback show dog and a tiny Labradoodle arriving from Buffalo, N.Y., along with five wooden crates from which the odd thumping noise was occasionally heard. The lading order listed them as Cape Griffon vultures on their journey from South Africa to an alligator farm in Florida.

Continental staffers have seen ostriches, lizards, snakes, mice, monkeys, small kangaroos, white tiger cubs, turtles and alligators, said Peter Adragna, service manager.

Animals can fly three ways: in the cabin as "carry on," as checked baggage accompanying a passenger, or as unaccompanied freight cargo.

Only small dogs, cats, rabbits and birds -- as well as service animals -- can travel in the cabin of most airlines, tucked under the passenger seat. Anything else goes in the pressurized cargo hold.

Which animals can travel where depends on complicated rules that factor in size, weight, destination, breed, temperature and age. Newborns can't travel. Some airlines ban pit bulls. Hawaii and the United Kingdom have quarantine regulations. Snub-nosed dogs and cats, whose short breathing passages make them more vulnerable to respiratory distress, have their own restrictions.

Pet travel used to be far more haphazard, with fewer regulations and less paperwork.

Back in those free-wheeling days, you really could fly a poisonous snake, recalls Parker Space, owner of Space Farms, a zoo in Sussex, N.J. They used to order diamondbacks and sidewinders from Texas. "They had to be stamped all over the box: 'Venomous Snakes -- Do Not Touch,' " he said.

Back then, animal travel was cheaper and easier -- but much more dangerous to the animals. The wide fluctuations in temperature -- from the cold of the jet stream to the heat of a plane delayed on the tarmac -- were especially risky. There were sad tales of peacocks that died because of insufficient air holes in their wooden crates, puppy-mill animals shipped far too young, or animals who suffered in excessive cold or heat.

Now airlines are held more accountable for the animals they fly. Any death or injury is logged in a monthly report filed by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. (Go to , then search for "pets.")

Animals must have an overnight layover if their flight is too long, and cannot fly when it is too cold or too hot.

That added safety, combined with the growth in popularity of "pocket pets," has increased the animal population of the average flight. However, most airlines limit the number of pets aboard, in part so there will be enough room to move any passenger with pet allergies.

Pet travel isn't cheap. Bringing them along in the cabin costs $80 to $95 each way on most airlines, while the fee for shipping them cargo is based on weight and distance.

Villanova University professor James Murphy spent about $1,000 to ship a Labrador puppy acquired on a study-abroad visit to Galway, Ireland. While it may have been cheaper to buy a dog at home, other considerations overrode the cost.

"We wanted a country dog; we wanted an Irish puppy. It's as simple as that," he said.




-- Book a nonstop flight if possible.

-- Consider an early-morning or late-day flight to avoid the heat of the day.

-- Carry a current photo of your pet.

-- Avoid giving your pet tranquilizers and sedatives; they diminish the animal's balance and ability to respond to stress.

-- Give your pet at least a month to acclimate to its carrier.

-- Some animals find flying too stressful. Reconsider your plans if yours is one of them.

Sources: The Humane Society of the United States; American Veterinary Medical Association

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