WALDOBORO, Maine - Some folks mark midlife by buying a sports car, others take a lover or embark on worldly travels. I got a pup. In Chicago.
Kari Bunde, Bernie's breeder, lives in Indiana. Since she doesn't ship puppies, I had to pick Bernie up in person. Taking several days out of my schedule to drive from Maine wasn't possible. Flying was the only option, and Bunde agreed to meet me at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport with 8-week-old Bernie.
Pet travel is a boom industry. According to BringYourPet.com, a source for pet-friendly lodging, 77 percent of pet owners polled in 2007 travel with their pets. While a car is the most popular method of travel, according to the US Department of Transportation, more than 2 million pets and other live animals are transported by air each year, despite the cost, restrictions, and hassles of flying with a pet. Not all airlines accept pets, and those that do have differing policies. Most limit the number allowed in the passenger section and have weight and size restrictions.
My coach ticket out of Manchester-Boston Regional Airport was free, thanks to frequent flier miles, but Bernie's wasn't. Most airlines charge for accompanying pets. I flew United, which quoted $80 when I booked. Between booking and actual ticketing that fee rose to $85. United doesn't take payment until you check in with the pet and the accompanying necessities. These include a current health certificate from a veterinarian and a travel case that fits beneath the seat.
Since Bernie, a Leonberger, is destined to be a very big dog (his dad weighed 170 pounds), and he was expected to be between 15 and 20 pounds when I flew, I opted for the largest case available. I was fortunate in that Bunde had one she was willing to lend me for the flight. Even better, she acclimated him to the carrier during the week before travel and lined it with faux lambskin to make it cozier.
On a Monday morning in mid-July, I flew to Chicago with only about a three-hour window between arrival and departure. In a carry-on, I had packed kibble, a small bowl, a rope bone, a few treats, a collar and leash, clean-up supplies, and personal items, in case anything went wrong and I had to spend the night.
Luck was with me; we arrived early. Just outside the secure zone, Bernie and Bunde were waiting by the ticketing counter, as we had arranged. Top priority was checking Bernie in for the return flight and getting him ticketed. He charmed the agent, who barely glanced at the health certificate, and he weighed in at 15 pounds. The agent charged my credit card $85 and affixed a ticket to the carrier that would allow Bernie to be transported through security.
Instead of heading to the gate, Bunde and I took Bernie outside to a grassy spot near the terminal to rest, relax, and cool off. We gave him water, but she had fed him earlier that day and advised me not to feed him again until we landed.
The biggest worry was keeping Bernie cool. Although ventilated, the carrying case was still warm. Bunde suggested keeping the top unzipped as long as possible and taking him out, if permitted, especially while waiting to board. We walked him and made sure he was on "empty" before packing him in and heading for security.
When Bunde departed, I was on my own. I could have used another set of arms to manage the carrying case and my other carry-on while navigating security. Bernie went though the detector gate in my arms, while his case went on the belt. Our gate was one of the closest to security, which saved me schlepping my awkward loads through the terminal.
Bernie held court at the gate. One visitor, an off-duty flight attendant, advised me to ask upon boarding for a cup of ice for him, which I did. That kept Bernie cool, as I rubbed it on his head and belly during the flight. He didn't make a peep.
I did take him out of the case at one point and put him on my lap, but was told by an attendant to put him back. I later learned that one of his littermates had flown home first class, and been allowed out of the carrier. Class has its privileges.
Hilary Nangle, a freelance writer in Waldoboro, Maine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.