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2015-04-22 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

The name “Felix” means “lucky.” Some would say that “Felix” the cat lost at John F. Kennedy Airport on April 2 after a flight from Abu Dhabi, and then found 13 days later, is one lucky cat. It’s hard enough to find any lost cat; let alone a feline fugitive at one of the world’s busiest airports.

A lot more than luck was involved in this recovery. “Felix” is now safe and home because of collaboration between the airline, Port Authority, lost pet experts and his devastated owners. They all acted together in a timely fashion.

On April 1 Jennifer Stewart and her husband Joseph Naaman paid $1200 to book their two-year-old tabby on their 14-hour Etihad Airways flight when they returned home to the US after living in the United Arab Emirates for three years. Shortly after arriving in NYC, officials told them the horrifying news that their cat went missing. Felix got out of his crushed carrier sometime during the flight or when a cart transported his pallet to the cargo pick-up area.

Reunion of Felix and his owner at the Port Authority. Reunion of Felix and his owner at the Port Authority. Joe desperately began searching the internet for any help about lost pets at JFK and promptly discovered This website “Where Is Jack?” is a comprehensive resource with tips about flying your pet safely and with suggestions for recovering your pet if lost during air travel. Jack was a young, handsome longhaired cat adopted from the Manhattan shelter. When his owners were relocating to California in August 2011, someone at American Airlines dropped his crate before he was even loaded on the plane. More errors were made by the airline until 61 days passed and Jack fell through a ceiling tile in a customs office. He died from the effects of malnutrition 10 days later. Cats do not survive crash diets. They often succumb to a condition called fatty liver disease.

Felix’s smashed cat carrier at JFK. Felix’s smashed cat carrier at JFK. “Where Is Jack?” is the creation of the cat’s family, friends and veteran lost pet volunteers to honor Jack’s memory by educating the public about possible dangers, improving and standardizing air travel procedures, demanding quality from pet carrier manufacturers, expanding legislation that regulates pet air travel and assisting when pets are lost at airports. One of the co-founders is my friend Bonnie Folz of Queens who coordinated the search in 2006 when Vivi the Whippet was lost at JFK by Delta on her way home from the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Bonnie has been guiding searches for lost pets across the US ever since. The goal of “Where Is Jack?” is to prevent what happened to Jack the Cat from ever happening to another pet passenger. Now back to Felix.

Felix: What went wrong? Jennifer found Felix last October when she was walking back to her Abu Dhabi apartment tower. “I scooped him up when he circled my legs, and found out from the concierge that the staff had been feeding this sweet tabby for several days,” explained Jennifer. Imagine going to such lengths to bring your rescued cat to America, only to have him lost once he gets to the airport. The couple brought him to check-in inside a zip-tied, secure, metal door Vari-Kennel but the Etihad worker said the carrier was too small. He insisted they’d miss their flight if they didn’t purchase the flimsy, plastic carrier that the airline would deliver before the flight for an additional $250. (There was little difference in size.) This carrier got crushed on top and several other spots where Felix broke through. It seems likely the replacement carrier couldn’t withstand being tightly strapped onto the pallet pulled by the cargo cart.

Felix: What went right? So much went right. For one, Felix was microchipped. As Bonnie stated, “We were pleasantly surprised by the unprecedented cooperation between an airline and the Port Authority. A plan was in place from people who understand lost pet behavior. It was implemented with only a few minor setbacks in our proposed timeline.”

Bonnie was permitted to pick up Felix’s carrier as a source of scent for a tracking dog team. That’s how they realized it was so crushed. Two workers claimed that they saw Felix inside his intact carrier before it was strapped onto the transport. If true, this meant he wasn’t lost inside the plane but, instead, somewhere along the two-mile route between Terminal 4 and Etihad Cargo Building 75. Meanwhile Bonnie and the owners distributed Felix flyers to personnel all over the airport.

Tracking dogs came from Connecticut on April 4 but were denied access to secure areas because clearances weren’t complete. Etihad made calls to the Port Authority about “Operation Felix.” CNN published an article. When the dogs returned on April 8, the search team had an entourage of five vehicles and seven escorts. The dogs led from 7 a.m. to noon, sniffing along the route, around the terminals, up against the walls where cats would hide and near abandoned Building 260, a haven for ferals. “Fysher” an Irish Red & White Setter picked up an interesting scent there. The escorts helped look inside hundreds of rows of aluminum bins.

Midnight on April 12 a driver called Bonnie to say a cat that resembled “her” Felix just ran in front of his truck. He returned to search the area which happened to be in front of the barrier around Bldg. 260. Bonnie went there the next morning to scout spots for traps. She left a can of cat food. The Port Authority wildlife crew set several humane traps. At 9:45 p.m. on April 15 she got a call from the Port Authority that they trapped a cat that looked like Felix. She hurried over to the Port Authority (while Joe began driving from Princeton) with her scanner and was shocked to see a friendly tabby sitting in the lap of Arianne, an operations supervisor. He had been sitting with her all afternoon. Bonnie scanned him and left a phone message at the petkey™ chip company. They had a unique website where you could enter a number and get owner info. Yes, this cat was Felix!

The reunion: Joe arrived a short time later. He called Felix’s name and hugged him, but it wasn’t until Felix saw Joe’s face that the significance of the moment dawned on him. Then Felix became overjoyed too. He lost half his weight, had ear mites, a nail infection and a cut on his face. More important, because of people, airlines and agencies working together, Felix is getting better each day, and he is back with his loving family.

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