Updated: Jun 15
PetSafe Travel remains suspended; abandoned animals contribute to the stray population on Guam, CNMI
By Bea Cabrera
Several months ago, an obviously domesticated dog was found tied to a tree near Two Lovers’ Point, one of Guam’s famous attractions. Its owner presumably left the dog there, hoping it would be found and rescued.
“The poor dog had a terrible neck infection from his collar and leash rubbing,” said Lena Leishman, vice president of Guam’s Happily Ever After Rescue Team or HEART.
The Boonie Flight Project, another Guam-based nonprofit group, eventually found an adopter for the dog, which is now flying to Ohio. “But it has been a long process,” Leishman added.
Leishman said there are random spots in certain villages on Guam where abandoned pets are dumped by their owners. This has become a common scene not only on Guam but on Saipan as well.
When United Airlines suspended its PetSafe Travel service on March 25, 2020, it created a complex situation for Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands where travel options and pertinent pet care services are limited.
Families that move off-island are forced to abandon their pets, inducing multi-layered problems and leaving pet advocates desperately scrambling for solutions.
“The consequences of United PetSafe Travel’s suspension are devastating to the CNMI,” said Aria Keilbach, founder of Boonie Babies Rescue Saipan. “Not only does it destroy our efforts to minimize the overpopulation of stray dogs here and directly correlate to the premature deaths of animals that needed off-island medical attention, it also leaves pet owners with no choice but leave behind their beloved pets if they need to move off-island for any reason.”
United has stopped transporting pets due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Members of the U.S. military on permanent-change-of-station orders, and State Department Foreign Service personnel on current reassignment are permitted to transport their personal pets (dogs and cats only) as checked baggage on United flights between Guam and Honolulu only under specific conditions. Connections on United flights outside of Guam or Honolulu are not available.
“When United PetSafe Travel was suspended, we reached out to many other private charter companies and airlines,” Keilbach said.
But no luck. “The other airlines could not help and every plane charter company that responded said Saipan’s location was too remote for them to offer services,” she said.
The lack of transport also bars CNMI families’ access to care and treatment for their pets. Currently, there is no veterinarian in the CNMI. Without initiatives from the government to provide help and care for cats and dogs, private citizens rely solely on a visiting veterinarian.
Keilbach and her sister Grace founded Boonie Babies Rescue Saipan to address the growing number of abandoned, malnourished and sick dogs living in the streets or jungles of Saipan.
Last year, Boonie Babies was able to put up for adoption several cats and dogs under its care to different families in the mainland. “Since United suspended PetSafe Travel, we had to choose to go through a pet travel agent on Guam who was forced to charter private planes,” Keilbach said.
But when the charter flight was canceled at the last minute, the dogs were stranded on Guam, where the owners of a boarding facility threatened to put them down if they could not immediately be flown back to Saipan.
“It was extremely frustrating and stressful to have our dogs left in limbo off-island where there was nothing we could do about the situation,” Keilbach said.
“Overall, because of the flight issues and Saipan dogs not being a priority for Guam charters—it’s more time-consuming and difficult to ship dogs from Saipan due to the rabies restrictions—we had to fly our dogs back to Saipan and wait months for a new charter opportunity.”
The flights back and forth cost thousands of dollars in plane tickets and boarding expenses on Guam. “All the dogs made it safely to their homes on the mainland many months and thousands of dollars later setting us back tremendously on our flight budget and plans to send more dogs,” Keilbach added.
The rabies restriction is another bump on the road, according to Lena Leishman, vice president of Guam’s Happily Ever After Rescue Team or HEART.
“There is a huge issue with Saipan not being rabies-free and therefore being subject to expensive testing and quarantine trying to go through Hawaii,” she said.
Although Saipan does not have rabies cases, the CNMI does not have an official rabies-free designation from the World Health Organization. “It’s awful and stupid politics. Boonie Babies Rescue Saipan tried to work with the Boonie Flight Project but had issues mostly for that reason,” Leishman said.
She said Lauren Cabrera of the Boonie Flight Project assists HEART in asking the Guam legislature to obtain a rabies-free status for Saipan. “The CNMI has to step up and work toward that,” she added.
Guam has similar problems in terms of the growing population of abandoned pets. “We see dumped animals all the time that are from local or military families due to the difficulties in off-island transports,” Leishman said. “Right now, Guam residents rely mostly on outrageously expensive and infrequent charter flights. They often have to find pet sitters for months or face paying for boarding, if they can afford it.”
HEART tries to rescue more pets but its resources are limited, Leishman said. “We are quite maxed out with dumped animals,” she said. “We had a mama dog and seven puppies that we found last summer.”
Unlike Saipan, Guam has a number of veterinarians. “There are a few other smaller vet clinics. Guam Animals In Need or GAIN just hired one vet,” Leishman said.
The Department of Agriculture recently hired Dr. Mariana Turner as the new territorial veterinarian. GAIN and the Department of Agriculture recently reinstated the Spay and Neuter Island Pets program and opened a spay/neuter clinic as part of the government’s long-term solution to control the population growth of stray animals.
“HEART gets funding from donations and we are hoping to apply for more grants, but being a territory limits many grant opportunities,” Leishman said.
HEART facilitates programs to support those who can’t afford to foster or even adopt. “We want to target families who try to re-home because they can’t afford food or vaccines, to teach about the impact of spaying and neutering,” Leishman said. “We are also working on trying to do educational programs in schools to start changing the culture with younger generations on how to care for pets.”
On Saipan, Keilbach said the Boonie Babies team is drowning in dogs. “It has always been a struggle to keep up with the never-ending stray dog population increase but with the shutdown of Saipan Cares for Animals shelter, we are coming to a standstill,” she said. “We cannot support the community and the boonie population with our current resources and inability to get dogs off-island. We are at capacity but have a summer volunteer program that will allow us to support more dogs and cats.”
Keilbach said she attempted to communicate with United to seek an update on the PetSafe Travel service, but to no avail. “We were only able to contact one representative who simply replied that the service is still suspended due to the pandemic. We then asked if it would be possible to charter a plane from United directly and they never responded,” she added.
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Keilbach said a petition to United has reached over 13,000 signatures.
“Any help from the CNMI government would make a difference. Right now, it feels as though we are the only resource on island,” she said. “If the government makes an official statement to United asking them to open PetSafe Travel and work to resolve the rabies-free status issues of CNMI that makes it extremely difficult to fly dogs through Guam and Hawaii, it would greatly assist us and the community in getting dogs off-island. We would love to work with the government and they need to be involved to make a sustainable change.”
United's corporate communications said the airline is still unable to reinstate the PetSafe Travel service due to the elimination of certain necessary elements of the program, such as veterinarians on contract and designated animal relief areas.
"As a result, we’re not able to grant their request to transport their pets while the PetSafe program remains suspended. We understand this is not an answer they want to hear, but we believe it’s important to share the challenges we continue to face in offering this service," United said in a statement.
“We’re so sorry the subject organization is being affected by the suspension of our PetSafe service."