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Airport checks can be problem for pets

Denise Flaim
Newsday
Vail, CO Colorado

Whippet breeder Bo Bengtson of Ojai, Calif., has been through more than enough in the past year.

Last February, a dog he bred and loved, a whippet named Vivi who is now arguably the most famous show dog in the world, escaped from her crate en route to a Delta Airlines flight after competing at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Bengtson knew this year’s show (won by an English springer spaniel named James) would be deja vu all over again, as concerned friends and fanciers asked over and over about Vivi and whether she has been sighted again.



But the replay Bengtson was unprepared for occurred two weeks earlier, when he went to Los Angeles International Airport to send a 6-month-old whippet named Griffin ” who also happens to be Vivi’s nephew ” to Florida.

Among his precautions: several plastic “zip-ties” to secure the crate door and signs with Griffin’s name and the words “DO NOT OPEN!” The American Airlines staff was “helpful and considerate,” Bengtson recalls.

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The airline checked the crate, the paperwork was signed, the zip-ties were secured, and Griffin chomped contentedly on his chew toy as his crate was loaded on a cart and wheeled away.

Then, as a relieved Bengtson headed toward the door, he overheard the cart-pushing employee say: “Security wants to open the crate again.” The zip-ties were snipped, and Griffin was removed and placed in Bengtson’s arms as the crate was scrutinized.

“The inspection took place in an open building, with hundreds of passengers milling about, less than 6 feet from an open door with very heavy traffic outside,” Bengtson notes. “I still get weak at the knees thinking about what could have happened if we had not been present,” and if a decidedly whippet-unsavvy security staff had taken matters ” not to mention Griffin ” into their own hands.



An estimated half-million animals fly every year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Most of these animals travel in the cabin, and are processed at security checkpoints along with their humans. But if you fly an animal as “checked luggage” there is one acronym you need to know: TSA, for the Transportation Security Administration.

TSA spokeswoman Amy Kudwa says the agency checks “100 percent of checked luggage” ” animals included. Carriers are swabbed and checked for explosives, although Kudwa says Bengtson’s experience is not typical: “It is my understanding that TSA does not open the carriers” unless an owner is present, or unless security concerns prompted a more thorough search.

How and when TSA inspections take place “depend on what airport you’re in,” warns Susan Kerwin-Hagen, coordinator for Midwest Airlines’ Premier Pet program. In her Milwaukee airport, for example, “the TSA agent asks the owner to remain with the pet until the carrier is examined.”

The dog is then also examined, with the owner holding the dog’s head while the TSA agent “pats it down.” The key to avoiding a scenario such as Bengtson’s is to ask to stay with your animal until the TSA inspection is done.

Bengtson ” who wonders if Vivi was lost as part of a botched security check ” certainly will. And he’s determined to push for changes in how airports process animals, including requiring crate inspections only in secure areas.

As for Griffin, he “got to Florida safe and sound, not in the least upset by his experience,” concludes Bengtson, who, though he stayed on terra firma, can’t say the same for himself.

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.


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