SALT LAKE CITY — They had just spent an entire year in Lithuania together and were headed home. But due to unforeseen circumstances and trouble with airline regulations, Brenda Nelson was forced to bring her companion home in ashes.
"It was a horrendous ending to an amazing experience teaching abroad," she said Friday, adding that she has yet to recover from the trauma sustained from a delayed flight on Aug. 14.
Sofia, Nelson's 6-year-old pug, unexpectedly passed away while awaiting takeoff that day, as the air in the plane's cabin became more dense and difficult for the dog to breathe.
Airlines have been under pressure to provide better customer service since new regulations went into effect in mid-2010, forbidding extensive passenger waiting periods on the tarmac and in other situations en route.
With an increase in the number of complaints regarding animal travelers, the U.S. Department of Transportation is also looking at tougher regulations regarding airline treatment of animals and how they're handled on-board.
More than 2 million pets and live animals are transported each year, and the DOT's Air Travel Consumer Report lists 17 animal deaths through July of this year. It is similar to previous years in which 35 died in transit in 2011, 39 in 2010 and 23 in 2009. Dozens of other jet-setting pets were injured or lost during air travel as well.
Nelson, a Montessori school teacher, and Sofia, who had enlightened hundreds of Lithuanians during their year abroad, had already endured a long wait to board at JFK International Airport in New York City.
It was the last leg of their journey home, following long flights from Lithuania to Poland, and Poland to JFK, including an extensive layover there.
The JetBlue flight was slated to leave at 8:45 p.m. but incurred a 99-minute delay "due to a customer matter on-board," according to JetBlue spokeswoman Tamara Young.
Nelson had carefully selected JetBlue, due to their "JetPaws" pet-friendly policy, allowing dogs under 20 pounds to travel with their owners in the aircraft cabin. The airline does not transport animals above that weight, as the cargo area does not have oxygen or pressurized air, according to the JetBlue website.
"The airport plays a recorded message that all animals must be kept inside their carriers while waiting, and I followed that," Nelson said. "I had never traveled with an animal before, and I was doing my best to follow all the rules."
After more than 45 minutes on the plane, the dog began to struggle from a lack of fresh air. Nelson said it was warm in the plane's cabin and "other passengers were grieving."
Pugs can suffer from a variety of health conditions, including breathing and heart problems, due to physical limitations, said veterinary technician Sasha Reid, manager at University Veterinary Hospital and Diagnostic Center in Salt Lake City.
Reid said all dogs are susceptible to heat stroke, which is what is believed to have killed Sofia in August.
"It's definitely an emergency situation," she said. "Heat stroke kills more dogs than any other thing. You have to get to a veterinarian immediately."
Hyperthermia, for dogs, is very dangerous, Reid said, adding that sometimes dogs are given ice water enemas, or surrounded with ice packs to cool them down as quickly as possible.
A temperature increase of just 4 or 5 degrees can shut down a dog's internal organs, leading to death, she said. A lack of oxygen can have similar effects, and pugs have shorter snouts and can struggle to breathe, Reid said.
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."
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