On November 13, 2019, on his daily call with journalists, Russia's President Vladimir Putin was asked about the situation concerning Viktor the cat. Mr. Putin responded that the Kremlin doesn't discuss cats. He may want to rethink that position.
On the same day that the city of Venice is underwater from historic flooding, and the U.S. House of Representatives has begun televised impeachment hearings for President Trump, Viktor's story looms large.
Who is Viktor?
Viktor is an unknown breed of cat, but it must be a large breed because Viktor weighs almost 22 pounds (10 kilograms). When his owner (or is it the other way around?), Mikhail Galin, was transferred to a new job in Vladivostok, he brought Viktor along with him to the airport.
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There, Galin was told that Viktor was too heavy to fly in the passenger cabin, and would have to tough it out in the cargo hold. Russian airline Aeroflot limits pets in the passenger cabin to 17 pounds (eight kilograms).
Galin immediately changed his flight to the next day, and devised a plan. Using his air miles, he upgraded his seat to business class, and he hit up friends for Fibi, a 15-pound (7-kilogram ) female cat.
The next day at check-in, Galin presented Fibi, and he and Fibi were cleared for takeoff. Then, sometime before boarding, Galin swapped Viktor for Fibi, and the two made their way onto the flight.
Once airborne, Galin and Victor seemed to enjoy life, as evidenced by these photos Galin posted on Facebook.
A fatal mistake
Unfortunately, after his brilliant stratagem, Mr. Galin couldn't resist crowing. He posted photographs of himself and Viktor to Facebook and Instagram, and that's when Aeroflot got wind of what had happened.
Combing through surveillance footage, Aeroflot found evidence of the cat swap. Galin's punishment: Aeroflot kicked him out of their frequent flyer program, and annulled all his miles, said to be as many as 400,000.
Galin's concerns about Viktor flying in the cargo hold are apparently justified. Within the last two years, two pets — a French bulldog named Kokito and a giant rabbit named Simon — have died while flying United Airlines.
Kokito died after being placed in an overhead compartment. In response, two U.S. Senators, John Kennedy, R Louisiana, and Catherine Cortez Masto, D Nevada, introduced a bill prohibiting airlines from placing animals in overhead compartments. The bill is called Welfare of Our Furry Friends Act, or WOOFF.
In 2017, one-meter-long Continental Giant rabbit Simon was bound for Chicago's O'Hare Airport from London's Heathrow when he was placed in the cargo hold. Only 10 months old, Simon had been expected to grow into the world's largest rabbit given that his father was record-holder Darius, who was 1.34 meters in length.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation counted 506,994 animals that were transported, with 24 dying, 15 having been injured, and one that was lost. According to the Department of Transportation's Air Travel Consumer Reports, 18 of those deaths happened on United Airlines flights, and United has had the highest number of deaths in each of the last five years.
United had nine out of 26 deaths in 2016, 14 out of 35 deaths in 2015, and five out of 17 deaths in 2014.
The Humane Society of the U.S.has said, "While most animals flown in the cargo area of airplanes are fine, you should be aware that some animals are killed, injured or lost on commercial flights each year. Excessively hot or cold temperatures, poor ventilation and rough handling are often to blame."
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has said that animals should never be transported as cargo. "PETA urges United to join JetBlue and Southwest in prohibiting companion animals from being flown as checked baggage in the confusion, noise, extreme temperatures and improper pressurization of a cargo hold."
If you pet must fly in the cargo hold, the following tips from the Humane Society can help guarantee a safe outcome:
- Use direct flights whenever possible, transfers invite problems
- Travel on the same flight as your pet and ask if you can watch your pet being loaded and unloaded
- Once on board, notify a flight attendant that a pet is traveling in the cargo hold and ask them to alert the captain
- Don't allow bulldogs, Pekingese dogs, or Persian cats to fly in the cargo hold, they are what's known as brachycephalic, meaning their facial structure can impede their breathing
- Choose early morning or late afternoon flights during the Summer, and select afternoon flights during the winter
- Make sure your pet's collar can't get caught in the pet carrier doors, and make sure that an ID with your name, address and phone number is attached to the collar
- Add a label to the pet carrier that contains your name, address and phone number, your final destination, and a contact person in case of emergency
- Trim your pet's nails before flying so they don't get caught in the carrier's door, or other crevices
- Familiarize your pet with the carrier before flying
- Don't give your pet tranquilizers unless prescribed by your veterinarian
- Do not feed your pet for four to six hours before flying, but do give them small amounts of water
- Try to avoid busy travel periods such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the summer travel season, harried airport workers are more likely to be rough
- Bring along a photo of your pet, if it is lost, a photograph will help airline personnel to search for it
- As soon as you arrive at your destination, open your pet's carrier and examine your pet; if anything seems wrong, take it immediately to a veterinarian.
The airlines only allow a certain number of pets per flight, and you will have to schedule your pet's travel 14 days in advance of your flight.
For pets flying in the cargo hold there is no restriction on weight, but you will need a health certificate from your veterinarian within 10 days of your flight. None of the airlines will fly brachycephalic animals.
American Airlines and Alaska Airlines allow you to bring your pet to the check-in counter, where it will be taken away just like a suitcase. United Airlines and Delta require you to drop your pet off at a separate cargo drop-off located outside of the airport. Delta charges $338 per trip, so $676 round trip.
American allows pets only on certain non-Airbus planes, and it will cost you $200 each way. For pets to fly on American in the cargo hold, the temperature can't be below 45 degrees F or above 85 degrees F. Delta restricts temperatures to between 20 degrees F and 80 degrees F.
Southwest and JetBlue don't allow animals in the cargo hold at all. They must fly in the cabin with you, and be placed under the seat in front of you. This severely restrict's a pet's size, and some airlines limit a pet's weight to under 20 pounds.
While service animals, like those for the blind, are always welcome on board, recently airlines have begun cracking down on emotional support animals (ESAs) in the cabin. The final straw for United was when a passenger tried to fly with her emotional support peacock.
If Mr. Galin wanted to "stick it" to Aeroflot, he couldn't have come up with a better way: he posted a picture of Viktor as a kitten on Instagram. Awwwww.
Vladimir Putin may portray himself as a strongman, but he has yet to face the wrath of the world's cat lovers. According to the World Atlas, there are 7.25 million cats in Japan, 7.5 million in Ukraine, 7.75 million in Germany, 7.75 million in the UK, 9.5 million in Italy, 9.5 million in France, 12.5 million in Brazil, 12.75 million in Russia, 53 million in China, and a whopping 76.5 million in the U.S.
That's 204 million cats worldwide, and they're all rooting for Viktor.