Friday, 11 July 2008

Pets on a plane

Pets on a plane

Well, I know that this blog has been turning into a right old Gripe site (it was always intended to be my personal sounding off board), but today since, apparently, I feel like defending the rights of everyone, I feel the need to rant - yes again - as I'm once more absolutely incensed upon reading the story of Gayle and Mick Curtis' dogs getting "lost" on a flight back from Tenerife. The story is that baggage handlers "forgot" to take them off the aircraft, so the dogs went back to Tenerife again and had to be sent back to the UK again ... Geez, I thought bringing my cats on one flight from Tenerife was The Longest Day (bad enough, thank you, at about 14 hours, door-to-door.) 

But, how will these dogs - one is quite old, it seems - react to such a dreadful 24 hour experience? My thoughts go out to Mr & Mrs Curtis, who must indeed, have been beside themselves with worry when this happened. Of course, I shudder to think ... this could have been me. I'm relieved, but I refuse to be "grateful" that my cats arrived, first try, because that's the least one should expect, not incompetence, for which no apology can ever be adequate.

As I have already documented that, even after a month, my cats are still not settling and are still behaving peculiarly after their trip. Now, I know there are a lot of contributing factors, but the major one has to be the flight and the way that current UK legislation makes it all more traumatic than it need be.

Our Tenereife vet, where they stayed prior to flying, is marvelous and the cats had stayed there, without me and without any problems before.

Likewise, I have 110% confidence in the shipping agent I used.

Yet, I don't really buy the "bungling baggage handlers" excuse, because baggage handlers are too convenient to point the blame at and, in any case, staff are only as good as what you pay them for or train them to do.

What I do have a MAJOR issue with are the draconian British rules on bringing pets to the UK, which only half-heartedly adopted the Pet Passport or Pet Travel Scheme scheme. The UK has retained so many unnecessary restrictions - that other countries don't impose - and those are the root of the problem.

As one comment here points out:
"... even though the United Kingdom is in the EU, they have different animal import laws than other Western European countries (much more strict and inflexible, to the point that I strongly, strongly, strongly urge you NOT to fly through the UK with your pets)."
Obviously, I had intended to NEVER have to come to this country ever again in my entire life, with or without animals, but I didn't get a choice in that. What I had contemplated doing and wish I had attempted now (and would urge anyone else to research carefully), is as this Wikipedia article outlines:
"The UK restricts incoming flights to only ship animals as cargo. A cheaper alternative around this aberration in the rules is to fly to some other European city, such as Paris or Amsterdam, and then travel to the UK by rail or ferry instead, which do not have this restriction."
This paranoid restriction helps to create the situation where Thomas Cook Airlines, is, as far as I can tell, the only carrier "approved" and, certainly the only choice offered to fly animal cargo from Tenerife to the UK.

No competition is always likely to encourage complacency, I feel.

Both the Curtis' dogs and I and my cats flew with Thomas Cook. Theirs came into Manchester and we came into Gatwick (these were the only two choices of airport too, again because of the excessive British restrictions.)

Also, as this issue is dealt with by Customs and, as those of you who have been to the Canary Islands on holiday will know, that the Canary Islands are NOT counted as part of the EU for Duty Free (customs) purposes - meaning you can only bring in the lower allowances of booze, fags, gifts, etc.
... well, so it is when "importing" your pets into the UK. From Spain, they'd be coming from inside the EU. From Tenerife, they are counted as coming from OUTSIDE the EU (despite, we know, Tenerife is in Spain). More paperwork, more restrictions (that seem to negate the viability of "Plan B" above.)

My friend and I had trouble finding the Animal Aircare people at Gatwick, but the bloke who handed the cats back to me was jovial and seemed pleasant enough. I think I'm a fair judge of characters, so I'm certain there was no problem there, but he commented that Kitty had been hissing at him.
She was probably upset then. So it appears she got upset somewhere after leaving the agent in Tenerife and before the Gatwick animal cargo handlers.

The flight itself is traumatic enough, but though it does not "prove" anything, when you put the two cases together, well ... two different sets of handlers, two different airports, one common airline though. And it makes you wonder exactly what does go on while the pet owner is not present.

If the UK did not insist on making animals go as cargo in the aircraft hold, then my cats would not have had to have travelled separately from me (and I might have been able to mitigate our problems, by being there as a familiar face, as reassurance). If Mr & Mrs Curtis had been able to travel with their dogs, what's the chance of them being forgotten? Yeah, NIL. Obviously.

As my wonderful vet in Tenerife had said, the UK has had to go from imposing 6 months' quarantine, to allowing animals straight into the country and they just can't let go: they have to do something to justify jobs for civil servants.

I'm sure the government was under a lot of pressure from quarantine kennel owners, for whom this new scheme must have meant a big drop in revenue too, which is "tough shit", because it is not necessary and is not in the animals' interest, which is all that counts at the end of the day.

The other folk these restrictions seem to benefit are the many companies who now specialize in the complicated mess of importing animals into the UK. What's the betting that these previously ran quarantine kennels?

Animal legislation purports "to raise the standards of welfare" in this country, but the UK does not seem to be interested in animal welfare any more:

Renowned animal behaviourist, Dr Roger Mugford, quoting Gandhi, has said, "Judge a nation by how it treats its animals". He was speaking about the government being responsible for the death of one dog a week under another draconian law: the Dangerous Dogs Act and went on to say, "Britain undermines its claim to being a civilised society, and certainly has lost its reputation as being a nation of animal lovers." Oh, how I agree.

Spain has a crap record with pets and I saw some horrible things there, but what I am seeing and hearing in Britain's attitude to pets since I've arrived back here - these laws seem to be encouraging others to treat dog owners with absolute zero tolerance; like outcasts; like the new smokers - indicates that today, Britain can no longer claim to be any better. 

Because of age, health, cost and, rather than put her through this, or any similar ordeal, I had to make the very difficult decision to have my dog put to sleep. She was the best friend I've ever had, she was my guardian, she was the cats' surrogate mother and spent more than a dozen years "superglued" to my side 24/7. You cannot know how hard this was - and still is - for me.

One of the supposed benefits of the Pets Passport scheme was going to be the reduction in costs, but it still cost £1,500 just to bring two cats to the UK (we got a discount for putting them in one box too), plus the cost of tests, rabies injections, chips, various treatments, a two night stay in the 5 star vet hotel, plus many inconveniences that should not have been necessary.

Other Europeans are able to just take their animals with them, and back, on holidays. A friend of mine from Finland flew back to Finland (way back in 1993) with her cat in a carrier basket as "hand luggage" inside the plane with her. I know this for a fact, because I took them to the airport to check in (and administered calming medication to the cat myself in the airport loo.)

What we experienced to the UK - in these supposedly enlightened times 15 years later - still does not even come close to the aims of the Pets Passport scheme to "allow animals to travel easily between member countries."

Furthermore, I think our two cases show that, for the welfare of animals and to continue protecting against the spread of rabies (because the more expensive, difficult and unpleasant it is, the more people will smuggle instead. One of the reasons why the Pet passport scheme was started was because the previous, strict quarantine rules were shown to encourage people to smuggle pets into the UK, which increased the risk of rabies entering the country), the time has come for the UK to drop these draconian rules.

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