Its a zoo

dr. eytan kreiner, terminal4pets & animal airways' head veterinarian talks about the potential.

Its a zoo

While you're busy leafing through SkyMall at 36,000 feet, just below you a pack of llamas or someone's precious dog could be enjoying some in-flight kibble. A local animal transport guru talks about what it takes to get the beasts of the earth into the sky.

By Efrat Neuman

The next time you move your tray table into an upright position and fasten your seatbelt in preparation for takeoff - consider the barks, meows and moos that might be being bellowed in the belly of the plane. They may not have joined you on the Jetway, but your flight could be packed with more than 10 Canadian llamas destined for an alpaca farm in Mitzpeh Ramon, or a pair of crocodiles headed for Hamat Gader. It is likely that the passenger cabin also contains a cage or two, in which a fairly skinny puppy or kitten is hiding. If they weigh up to eight kilograms, they can spend the flight near their owners.

Many pet owners, it seems, will go the extra mile to make sure their Fido or Felix can take to the friendly skies as well. Take, for example, the Israeli who went on a three-day weekend to Romania and simply had to take his two beloved goldfish along, or the American family that was returning from Russia and discovered that the child's turtle would not be able to take off with them because of legal restrictions.

The possibility of leaving the turtle behind and buying a new one in the U.S. was never entertained. The family flew home and the turtle remained with a foster family in Russia until the paperwork for its flight could be arranged. Russia is not considered an advanced country when it comes to flying animals, so obtaining the permits took six months. The expenses totaled around NIS 120,000 - and all to fly a $10 turtle.

Dr. Eytan Kreiner, who owns a veterinary practice in Maccabim, is the CEO of its subsidiary, Terminal 4 Pets, which offers pet aviation and relocation services. He says there are four million pet flights a year, including domestic flights in the United States, and that the industry has seen an annual growth rate of 8 percent in recent years. In Israel his company handles 30,000 cases a year.

Among Kreiner's clients is a professor who goes to the United States for a month every summer, and pays $16,000 so his dog can be there with him. There is also a businessman who flew his dog to Russia on his private plane, while he himself flies business class. The reason: He doesn't even want to see the dog, but the family pressed him. There is also the story of the woman who bought up the entire first class cabin on a flight from New York to Israel, to allow her beloved dog to travel in comfort throughout the long flight. It cost her $70,000 and not a little bit of public ire.

But dogs and cats are not the only pets that could be sharing your in-flight meal. Kreiner tells of an Israeli who bought a cockroach known as Chopstick, because of its elongated shape, in a Thai market. In Thailand these roaches are sold by weight, a dollar per kilo, and their final destination is usually a wok. The Israeli flew two live cockroaches to Israel to breed them here, and it cost him $1,000.

"Animals are like family members," Kreiner says, "so just as you would not skimp on flights for your relatives, you pay what it takes to move Mitzi the cat or Yehoshua the dog from one place to another. In this context anything is reasonable. For someone who raises snakes, snakes are his life. People buy the best food for their pets, and pay more for a sack of cat food than they would for expensive steaks. People pay for grooming salons and kennels for pets, and spend a fortune on clothes."

Dogs and cats, but no birds

In some cases Terminal 4 Pets handles only relocation - matters such as arranging for inoculations, compliance with ethics laws and state agriculture and health regulations, and exploring various pet flight options. In other cases, a company representative accompanies the pet on the flight, like an adult chaperone for a child.

"The request for a chaperone can stem from a medical reason, for example when you are flying a racehorse worth $2 million. One lady from Luxembourg wanted me to fly with her three cats from Israel to Luxembourg and personally deliver them to her. 'It's worth my money,' she said. Such a service can cost between $1,500 and $6,000. Next week I have to fly a dog for a VIP in Mongolia via Hong Kong. The fee will be around $1,000 for a day's work."

The company also does volunteer work. For example, a few years ago it helped move pet dogs out of Iraq for American soldiers.

"We also have surreal stories about transporting dogs from Afghanistan through Jordan to Israel. In cases like these we use volunteers who want to help rescue animals from various places in the world, under the auspices of [Noah's Ark Veterinarians]." (See box )

Dogs (55 percent ) and cats (40 percent ) make up the overwhelming majority of the pet transport industry. On the day before this interview took place, Kreiner was busy transporting 13 llamas from Canada to an alpaca farm in Mitzpeh Ramon in the Negev ("There is a special area on the plane that is adapted for livestock. The passengers don't know that the llamas are flying with them" ).

In this case it is also necessary to accompany them on the flight, and the chaperone stays with the llamas ("It's permitted in the case of livestock" ).

About a month ago he supervised two six-meter-long crocodiles being transported from Switzerland to Hamat Gader in the north.

"Whenever you fly with wild animals, it's a major production in terms of what's required. How do you fly a giraffe on a plane? There are planes of an appropriate size, and in any case, anything of this sort is a production," Kreiner says.

Animals besides dogs and cats require exit and entry permits, and regulations are different in every country, says Kreiner. For example, you can take a rottweiler dog out of Israel, but it would not be allowed back in.

"Global regulation in the field of animal transportation is being steadily tightened," he says. "Some countries are considered less animal-friendly, such as Britain and Australia, which are islands. It's difficult to work with them. South Africa is also hard to work with."

The average cost - for those wanting to avail themselves of the company's services and not arrange pet flights themselves - is between $400 and $5,000, depending on the complexity of the case and the destination. In 2009 the average cost of a pet flight through Terminal 4 Pets for the purpose of job relocation was $650.

Is job relocation the most common reason for transporting pets?

"It depends on what region we're talking about - globally it accounts for 45 percent of the flights, and in Israel it's 85 percent of them. The phenomenon of taking pets on vacations is also gaining momentum. Americans, for example, fly with their pets as a matter of course on domestic flights. In Britain people take their dogs on vacation to Majorca. Nowadays no airport lacks a pet store or kennel. There are chains that are pet-friendly, and there are restaurants, hotels, guesthouses and trip routes that are geared toward animals. Nowadays you come to Europe and the airports are full of pets. It's a new fad that you bring the dog everywhere. It's part of the culture there."

Kreiner says Israelis are less likely to bring pets on vacation because of the red tape involved.

"It is less popular with Israelis, because the procedure is expensive and complicated," he says. "In order to fly a dog from Israel to Europe for a vacation you have to arrange matters several months in advance. In Europe, by contrast, all these arrangements are unnecessary if you are dealing with a domestic flight - all it takes is a doctor's examination to ensure that the animal is fit to travel. The Israeli public knows exactly what it wants and what it is entitled to. Last night I got a call from a foreign ambassador who is coming to live in Israel. He wants to fly his pet and does not care how much it will cost. You don't see that a lot with Israelis."

How far in advance do you have to prepare for a pet flight?

"That depends on the destination. This week we had someone who was flying to Hungary with his dog that same day. He said that he had heard there was no problem flying with the dog - but he did not take him for a rabies test and inoculations. As a result, the dog will stay here for two to three months for inoculations and to be tested for rabies antibodies. Afterward he will have to be flown with a chaperone or on a cargo flight."

Are there any animals you would refuse to fly?

"We try not to deal with birds. People don't always know this, but it is a long and dangerous process. A bird's heart rate can reach 400 beats per minute. All it takes is for one little thing to happen and the heart rate goes up to 600. What this means is that it bursts. In addition, we do not generally handle flights for lab animals."

Do flights ever go wrong?

"Out of four million animals flown around the world last year, there were four reports of deaths and two cases of pets that felt unwell or got sick during the flight. That is a negligible number compared to people. Fortunately for us, in Israel and the entire Middle East there was not a single catastrophe."

Precious cargo

Kreiner founded the House of Veterinary Doctors in Maccabim 22 years ago, after getting a bachelor's degree in biology and completing five years of veterinary medicine studies in Scotland and two in the U.S. For the past 12 years he has focused on pet flights.

The House of Veterinary Doctors, of which he is the sole owner, generates an annual profit of about $1 million. The company has about 20 employees in Israel - vets, technicians, flight managers, salespeople and others who manage website traffic and business development.

"Everyone asks me why I don't sell the company," Kreiner says. "At some point there will be an initial public offering, but at the moment there is no need for the money."

Kreiner decided to focus on pet transport after identifying a need for the service, at a time when there were no companies supplying it.

"We saw that no one in Israel or the Middle East was handling animal aviation transport. The need exists because over the course of a pet's life, families have to fly. Even at the global level the matter is not being addressed. More than 90 percent of the flights in the world involving house pets are arranged independently. People have trouble going through Google, a vet, a travel agency and airlines. They [need to] think about getting the right cage, the laws and the inoculations."

Kreiner started out assisting Israeli clients who travel overseas. Four years ago the company extended to flying pets to Israel. The appetite to expand came when Kreiner realized there was a lack of pet-flight services throughout the Middle East. So two years ago he joined forces with Animal Airways, a British company that operates everywhere in the world, and Terminal 4 Pets became its representative in the Middle East.

"Every animal that boards a plane in Yemen, Iran, Dubai, Syria, Lebanon, Africa and Egypt goes through Israel. It doesn't physically go through Israel, but everything is handled from our center. Blood tests are delivered to us by taxi from Jordan, and the client doesn't even know that we process his request. Last week we sent someone to take a cat from Ethiopia to South Africa, and this week we are bringing a dog from India to Israel, and from Israel it will go on to Europe. We had to invent everything from scratch."

Owners cannot always fly with their pets on the same plane. Kreiner explains that 10 percent of pets fly on cargo planes due to regulations.

"Flying with a dog from Israel to New York can cost around $1,000 on a regular flight, but if the flight is a cargo flight with Continental, which doesn't allow [pets on passenger planes], the ticket will cost $1,500. Customs release is five hours on each side. It is both more expensive and colder. That's why we try to provide services that include flying families with an animal - not as cargo. Right now we are sending someone to the island of Okinawa in Japan to take a cat from there and fly it to Angola. The owner can't fly with it, and he doesn't want the cat to fly cargo."

A direct flight is obviously preferable to a flight with stopovers when an animal is involved. "If I am traveling with Lufthansa to New York through Frankfurt and the connecting flight is delayed, animal laws state that the dog has to be removed from the plane after a certain amount of time, and the family lands in New York without it. Once the dog has entered Europe, it will be held up there for at least a month, because it doesn't have the inoculations required for Europe. So who pays for the stay? That's why British Airways decided it would fly animals as cargo only, because then there are no delays."

Terminal 4 Pets also offers a VIP - Very Important Pet - service that costs about the same as a cargo flight - $1,000-$2,000. The service is provided in cases where the pet does not fly in the passenger cabin and the owners want a chaperone on hand throughout.

"Our representative meets the dog at the airport, he makes sure the dog gets on the plane and does not get lost - just as a suitcase might get lost. The owner, who is wandering around the duty free shops in the meantime, receives a message that the dog has boarded, and at the final destination the chaperone takes the dog off the plane and hands it to the owner. The object is for it not to have to move around like a suitcase."

Are you planning to expand to additional destinations?

"One of our goals is to become a pet airline. After all, there are always crazy people who want private flights for their pets. We want to set up a 'taxi service' for animals. It would operate initially in Europe, and later expand to other places as well."

Vets without borders

Eytan Kreiner volunteers with the international relief organization Noah's Ark Veterinarians, known as NOAV, which was founded in the wake of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia to rescue animals endangered by natural disasters.

A team of veterinarians comes to the disaster zone to provide medical treatment, arranges for the animals to be transported to a safe haven until the danger passes, and initiates fundraising events to broaden the aid.

Kreiner was among the organization's founders, and as part of his activity he lectures and leads workshops and conferences on its behalf. His House of Veterinary Doctors runs the NOAV website, which includes a discussion forum and educational outreach.

NOAV is a non-profit organization, and its members are veterinarians from all corners of the globe who are willing to invest time and knowledge for the sake of animals.

The House of Veterinary Doctors also launched an educational project eight years ago under the auspices of a community volunteer program for teenagers. Teens from the Modi'in area volunteer at the animal hospital, participate in projects for adopting abandoned animals and take care of the pets that stay at the clinic. The goal of the project is to encourage teens to become involved in society, as well as to educate them to be tolerant toward animals.

Another project is "Modi'in Chai." For the past decade Kreiner's practice has served as an emergency center for injured wild animals. After receiving medical treatment, the animals are transferred for observation to nature reserves, the Zoological Center Tel Aviv (the Ramat Gan safari ), the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and elsewhere.