A two-year-old dog was found dead in the cargo compartment of Air India flight AI 676 on arrival at the Mumbai airport.
The dog's owner, Pratyusa Banerjee, and her family were taking their pet named Gultu, a Chow Chow breed, on June 11 to Mumbai for urgent eye surgery. Banerjee was travelling with her pet for the first time on a flight and was assured by the airline of safe delivery at the arrival.
Banerjee claims that there was a chance to save the dog had Air India officials been quicker in informing him about his condition on arrival at Mumbai airport. The lack of a veterinarian and medical aid for animals at the airport further aggravated the situation, Banerjee said.
"We landed in Mumbai at the international terminal. From there, we were misguided for about 1.5 hours...we went to international cargo...from there we got to know that we will get him from domestic cargo. It was raining heavily and my only fear was that they don't get my baby wet in the rain," Banerjee said while narrating the ordeal.
"There was a woman in the cargo office, we showed her the papers which were needed to release the dog and all she answered us kaunsa white wala kutta na? Wo to mar gaya," Banerjee recalled.
"We rushed to his cage, we opened him, his body was still warm," Banerjee said.
Immediately, Banerjee and her family took the dog to a hospital, where they were heartbroken to learn that had they reached the hospital 30 minutes earlier, there was a chance for Gultu's revival.
"The doctor told us that he collapsed 30-60 minutes before and if we had we reached 30 minutes ago he could have saved him with oxygen and cardiac injection," Banerjee said.
However, the airline denied any delay.
"Live cargo, like pets, are always delivered ahead of other cargo goods from the hold and this time also there was no exception or delay," an Air India spokesperson said.
Pratyusa and her family were travelling to Mumbai on a one-day notice for an eye surgery called entropion as the dog developed an ulcer on his cornea.
"We didn't have treatment for that in Kolkata so we had to take him to Mumbai on a one-day notice otherwise we would had taken him by car or train," Banerjee told CNBC-TV18.
"When we were on board the Air India flight at Kolkata airport, we could hear him bark from the flight during the cargo loading process...if he died in Kolkata itself why didn't they inform us there and then," Banerjee said while recalling events of the unfortunate day.
"All we had to give was the doctor certificate that he was fit to fly, vaccination paper. Before taking him to cargo, they asked us if he was active and if he was running, playing, etc. and we could see that he was very active and completely fit," Banerjee added.
Banerjee and her family did not want to subject their pet to a post-mortem. However, the doctor at the hospital told them there is a high chance that the cause of death was cardiac arrest or suffocation. The airline Air India, however, maintains that there was no negligence on its part and the supply of oxygen was also normal.
"In this case, all documentation was done and necessary criteria met to the satisfaction of both the airline and the consignor. In fact, two pet dogs had travelled in the cargo of the same flight AI 676 from Kolkata to Mumbai that day. One of the two dogs, a golden retriever, had landed fit and fine. The other pet was unfortunately declared dead after arrival. Evidently, no issue related to Oxygen was involved in the incident," an Air India spokesperson told CNBC-TV18 in a response to a query.
However, Banerjee firmly believes that the dog was fit and active before the take-off and the problem with his eye was not life-threatening.
"When the flight landed, it had a very rough landing because my spine got hurt. I felt there was a shortage of oxygen even in the passenger panel as my father suffered a lot. While there were two dogs in the cargo compartment, there is no way of knowing how they were kept there," Banerjee said.
Acknowledging the loss of a pet, whom she treated as her brother, Banerjee said while she does not need any compensation, she hopes that the stakeholders can come together to provide basic medical care for animals at airports in India and be more compassionate towards them while handling them in flights.
"If they saw that the dog was not responding when they unloaded the cargo why didn't they call us and inform us about his condition."
"I request pet parents to not carry pets in airlines anymore but if there is a medical emergency then one has to take a flight but proper care and medication are needed," Banerjee cautioned.
The airline, however, maintains that Air India accords top priority to provide safety and comfort to the pets during flights.
"People for generations have been trusting us to travel with their pets for generations. Pets can travel by Air India only if the sender meets all the requirements detailed in our Carriage of Pet policy, including providing the cage with prescribed dimension," the spokesperson added.
The Banerjees conducted the last rites of Gultu in an electric crematorium the very same day in Mumbai and returned later in the evening on an IndiGo flight.
"He was 46 days old when he came into our lives. My family and I have always been fond of Chow Chow breed and Gultu was like a son to my mother and brother to me. In my near future, if I ever adopt a dog again I will like to adopt a Chow Chow again," Banerjee said while sobbing on phone.