Jet-setting service dog dies on return flight to Salt Lake City

Published: Friday, Sept. 21 2012 8:00 p.m. MDT

When Nelson asked if she could hold the dog on her lap while they waited, a flight attendant instead said she had to tuck the pet carrier, with Sofia still inside, further under the seat in front of her. The dog, though obviously stressed, was not allowed to be removed from the cage, per JetBlue policy, Nelson said.

"It was too late. By the next time I checked on her, she was gone," she said, adding that she had let out a scream. Nelson, numb and listless, then walked off the plane "carrying my lifeless dog."

The duo, minus all the energy they had arrived with, was then stranded in New York for three days, following multiple delayed flights and confusion resulting from what to do with the dog's body.

Nelson, a single, 51-year-old woman, said JetBlue did little to console her, offering only a $200 voucher for future flights.

"I had nobody to turn to," she said. "I was alone in New York City to deal with this."

She said the experience caused her to become ill, requiring medical treatment at the airport, and leaving her "a shell of her normal being."

"When I finally got home, I arrived with Sofia's ashes in a bag," Nelson said.

The airline and airport would not help cover the costs to embalm and then cremate the dog prior to boarding any flight.

"The only other option they gave me was to rent a car and drive home, and I was in no shape to do that," she said.

"It was the most devastating experience I've had in a long time," Nelson said. "I've experienced loss before, but this was so inhumane to me, to lose my companion in this way."

Nelson, who can't afford to replace the pedigreed dog at the moment, plans to seek additional counseling over the loss of her friend and speak to an attorney about her rights. But she wants other travelers with pets to be more prepared for what they might encounter along the way.

"Animals are not baggage, and this was a senseless tragedy that could have been avoided," Nelson said.

As recently as two weeks ago, U.S. model Maggie Rizer lost one of her golden retrievers, Bea, to death during airplane transport to San Francisco. She blogged about the experience and told People magazine about the hole it has left in her family.

But she, too, hopes the experience helps prepare pet-toting travelers for the unexpected.

Companion service pets, such as Sofia, have been shown to provide relief after traumatic events, Reid said, adding that any animal can fill that niche, but specifically small dogs, that "can go anywhere the owner goes."

"I'm holding onto the fact that she was such an asset to that whole experience in Lithuania," Nelson said. "She changed people's lives. She literally made people smile and broke down so many barriers, it was magical at times."

It took Nelson six weeks to prepare official travel documents for the well-cared-for dog — a pet passport, vaccination reports, registration as a service animal — and get the appropriate shots prior to leaving the country in 2011.

The New York City veterinarian who prepared Sofia's body for transport also gave Nelson an impression of her dog's paw print in plaster, as a remembrance.

The small token has joined other items on the shelf at Nelson's home, including a pink harness and collar, the leash that was attached to Sofia every day as the two walked the winding streets of Lithuania, a small stuffed turtle Nelson said was Sofia's "favorite toy," and a tiny decorative tin that contains the pooch's ashes.

But the real memories, she said, "are forever very deep in my heart."

"She was a best friend to me. She accompanied me everywhere," Nelson said. "I have very little family, and she was my family. She was my family. She was my joy."

While she misses her pampered pup daily, even the breathy snoring at night, Nelson said she hopes her experience helps to educate others who travel with their pets, but also leads airlines to handle animals and their owners with more compassion.

"She filled a need for me," Nelson said. "And nothing can bring her back."

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards

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