The Flying Rabbits: Air Cargo Class from Saudi Arabia to Texas
In 2002, after ten years of living and working in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, my husband and I decided that we were ready to return to the United States. Our family included Sidney, a 12-year-old dog who had a heart murmur; and our five rabbits: 6-year-old arthritic Daisy, who also suffered from a chronic upper respiratory infection; 5-year-old, easily stressed Smudge and her 5-year-old companion, China, both of whom had been dumped and then terrorized by wild dogs before coming to us; 2-year-old gentle giant Beauregard, once sickly and abandoned; and a recent addition, Mikey an intelligent and friendly boy about 10 month old.
My husband, David, and I agreed that we would not leave behind any of these treasured family members. I knew from information at the EtherBun and House Rabbit Society websites that airplane travel with rabbits was a gamble. Flying six animals home would not be simple. Nevertheless, I knew also that I had only two options for our rabbits-fly them home in the cargo hold, or have them all euthanized before we left. I was overwhelmed at the thought of the 24-hour (or more) flight for our bunnies, but decided that it was better than the alternative.
Airline scouting well in advance
Months ahead of our departure, I began calling major airlines to ask about flying the rabbits home. My heart sank as I went through the phone book and called each carrier who flew into the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. I received flat answers of “NO” from most carriers, and a vague response from KLM that it had a moratorium on carrying rabbits, with no lifting of the moratorium in sight. Feeling desperate, I dialed the number for Lufthansa, my last hope. Yes, they would accept our rabbits, as long as we had the required health certificates and I could guarantee that the animals would be admitted at our point of destination. It took me weeks of hunting through U.S. Customs and U.S. Department of Agriculture websites, and e-mailing personnel at the airport of our arrival, Dallas/Fort Worth, before I accumulated enough evidence for the airline. Satisfied with the documentation from the websites and by e-mails from me, Lufthansa accepted my reservations for six animals. If we wanted to take possession of our animals at the same time that we received our luggage, we needed to be sure to label the rabbits as unaccompanied baggage and not ship them as cargo.
As our time of departure drew near, we gathered together supplies needed for the journey. We would use four kennel crates for shipping the six animals, furnished with water bottles and plenty of old towels. I carried letters from our vet certifying that the rabbits were disease free and had never been inoculated with a pathogen nor used in a laboratory, as well as lengthy health summaries for our two female rabbits who had been treated for a variety of ailments. We had the required health certificates from our veterinarian, and all six animals had been micro-chipped as an extra precaution.
Then Sidney, the best rabbit dog in the world, who had found one of our rabbits as a sick baby on the street, developed severe congestive heart failure. We watched him deteriorate rapidly during a one-week period, and sobbing, were with him when a caring local vet came to our house to euthanize him. Broken-hearted, we buried him and prepared to leave him behind as we kept him with us in our hearts.
Smudge, always high maintenance and easily stressed, stopped eating and became inactive the night before our scheduled departure. An emergency visit to our vet confirmed that she was in gastro-intestinal stasis. We had treated her for this condition on many occasions, and each time I worried that she might not recover. We began the now familiar regimen of administering fluids and medications. I took her home, where I kept her warm and gave her abdominal massages. The next morning she was much improved, but her condition added to our anxiety about the upcoming journey.
On the night of our departure, I gave the rabbits generous servings of greens. I placed a plastic bag of greens inside each container for the Lufthansa personnel to offer during the stopover in Frankfurt. Each crate was furnished with layers of towels, a full water bottle, travel bowls filled with pellets, and what I hoped was enough hay to last the trip. I had taped pictures of each rabbit on the outside of their crates, and our new address in Fort Worth, Texas, along with my parents’ phone number on the inside and outside. Beauregard and Daisy were together, as were Smudge and China; Mikey traveled alone. When the SUV we had reserved pulled up to take us to the airport, I gave Smudge a painkiller and the prescribed medications for her stasis. I kissed all of them, told them that we would be there to claim them at the other end, put them in their crates, and began our journey.
At the airport, check-in went smoothly. I handed instructions to the airline agent, who assured me that the directions would be followed. I watched as each crate was loaded onto the conveyor belt and slowly moved out of my sight. Well, I thought, that’s it. I hope we’ve done the right thing. Upon boarding, I asked the flight attendant if I might speak to the captain, but she was doubtful that we would be able to do so. Eventually he did come speak to me. I told him that we had five much-loved animals in the cargo hold and that I hoped that the climate and pressure were monitored for them. He assured me that he knew that our animals and others were there and that they were safe in the cargo hold.
Traveling after 9/11 meant that there was little chance that I might see them in transit. Nevertheless, at our stopover in Frankfurt we begged the Lufthansa agents to let us see the rabbits, especially since Smudge had been ill. They refused but later told me that they had checked on the rabbits and that all were alive and well. Once again, I hoped that I had done the right thing for them.
Upon arrival at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, we anxiously waited for the baggage handlers to bring the rabbits to us. I wondered how any of them could have survived the journey. What were they thinking? Were they terrified? Finally the elevator door from the baggage area opened, and the crates with our rabbits were brought out. I quickly inspected each crate. ALIVE! In fact, they looked back at me with expressions of both doubt and annoyance. Even in my rush of relief, I noted with dismay that the plastic bags were completely full and all the water bottles had fallen, leaving some of the pellets and all the towels sopping wet. I reached inside their crates and began opening their bags of food and offering the still-fresh greens to them. My husband and I walked the three crates, five suitcases and carry-on baggage through Immigration and Customs. U.S. Customs asked only to see the health certificates and passed us through with no further questions.
Although I had made the arrangements and planned the trip, David’s support and cooperation boosted my resolve to continue. Together, we had brought our rabbits halfway around the world. Our journey was over! Sadly, a week after our arrival, we lost China. The stress of the journey must have been too much for her. I had obtained and then misplaced the name of a good rabbit vet in the area and lost much valuable time trying to find one. When I found one who seemed capable, we instituted measures to prevent stasis, but China never recovered. I am still saddened that she’s gone. Beauregard and Daisy, and Smudge and her new companion, Mikey, are well and happy with us. They have their own sunroom, and I’m proud of the fact that they flew 10,000 miles and are still going strong.
House Rabbit Journal Summer 2004: Volume IV, Number 10