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From A to Z: How animals get to aquariums and zoos, and everywhere in between

If you are ever on an airplane and see a dog crate in a seat near you, how do you know what is inside? Is it a dog? A cat? How about a sloth? That innocent-looking dog crate may contain something a passenger may not be prepared for, but it may generate a great story about that time they sat next to a sloth on an airplane. It sounds like the opening line of a bad party joke, but the possibility is quite real.

“We had an import of two sloths from Panama and they did not want them to be stressed because these were hand-raised animals used to being carried around by people,” explained Rachel Watkins Rogers, registrar and records coordinator for Zoo Miami. “We had special permission from the airline and had six seats – we had to buy two seats [for personnel] and four seats for the sloths.”

The sloths declined the free peanuts.

Watkins Rogers is responsible for securing the permits necessary for domestic or international shipping of animals for the zoo. She is also the course administrator for the AZA Animal Transport for Animal Care Professionals (ATACP). She tells FreightWaves that the safe transport of live animals requires constant planning that can take up to a year or more and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“It can take as much as a year [to transport an animal], depending on whether you need a permit,” she said, and the detailed process involves dozens of people, including veterinarians, shipping coordinators, trainers, supervisors and more. “Everybody has some part to play in that process, and until everything is done in the correct order, you can’t move forward.”

Zoo Miami transports hundreds of animals annually and participates in international release projects such as the Puerto Rican Crested Toads project in Puerto Rico and various bird species release projects. Watkins Rogers, who has been involved in transporting animals since 2001 and has worked at zoos since the 1970s, said Zoo Miami ships mostly birds, but has been involved in sending frogs to France and bringing an elephant to Miami from Australia.

It’s better to fly

“The preferred method is air because that is the quickest and most humane way to ship animals because they spent less time in the crate,” she said. “However, some animals are difficult to transport by air.” These would include venomous animals or rhinos, which require specialized shipping services.

Animals require specialized containers, few larger than that required to transport a giraffe. (Photo: APL Shipping)

“Increasingly, [we are moving] more shipments ourselves because a lot of people in the zoo industry are concerned because some of the policies are making it more difficult to ship animals,” Watkins Rogers said.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the Animal Transport Association (ATA) have recently joined forces to encourage industry adoption of The Center of Excellence for Independent Validators for Live Animals Logistics (CEIV Live Animals). This certification, which Air Canada (OTC: ACDVF) is the first to have achieved, dictates safe and humane standards for transporting animals.

“Information, education and training of people involved in animal shipping is an absolute requirement,” Filip Vande Cappelle, president of ATA, said in the June 2019 announcement. “To secure the highest possible welfare of animals in transport, one needs high standards all along the logistics chain. Thanks to IATA, these standards are available and, rather than reinventing the wheel, ATA has chosen to collaborate with IATA to get these standards implemented as widely as possible amongst our members through encouraging adoption of CEIV Live Animals.”

Watkins Rogers said that many animals require custom crates, and trainers may travel with the animals if necessary. In most cases, trainers will work with the animals before shipping to ensure they are comfortable being inside their crates.

“If the animal starts getting stressed out, its core body temperature can increase [and put it in danger],” she explained.

One of the biggest challenges is not moving the animal, it is securing the necessary permits and other steps required to ensure a smooth process.

Ongard, an Asian Elephant, Arrives from Australia!!

After over 24 hours of transport and flying half way around the world on a chartered jet, “Ongard,” a 7-year-old, 6,300 pound male Asian elephant, accompanied by staff members from Zoos Victoria in Australia, the San Diego Zoo and Zoo Miami, has safely arrived! Complete with a police escort, the custom truck and crate pulled into Zoo Miami shortly after midnight yesterday morning with a team from several institutions working together to coordinate the unloading, which went very smoothly.Ongard, whose birthdate is September 10, 2010, is the first male elephant born in the history of the Melbourne Zoo and was a cherished member of that institution. He is also the first elephant to ever leave Australia. Through a breeding loan agreement, he is owned by the San Diego Zoo Global and together with Zoo Miami, the three institutions have been working for months to carefully plan this historic transport. The reason for his move to the United States is that he comes from a genetic line that is unrepresented anywhere in North America and is therefore incredibly valuable to the captive breeding program for this endangered species. By way of a new breeding loan with San Diego Zoo Global, Zoo Miami was chosen to be his new home because of Zoo Miami’s commitment to the care of elephants, the favorable South Florida climate, and the amount of land it is able to dedicate to providing a home for elephants. Zoo Miami has spent nearly half a million dollars in new renovations to its Asian elephant exhibit in preparation for Ongard’s arrival.Though Zoo Miami does not presently have any female Asian elephants of breeding age, the hope is that it will eventually be able to receive some for Ongard to breed with. In the meantime, his genetic material can be introduced into the North American population through artificial insemination. After passing his initial exams and inspections, Ongard was introduced to his new holding yard where he settled in well and will be quarantined there for several weeks prior to be introduced to the main exhibit yard. His keepers, who travelled with him from Australia, will remain in Miami until May 22nd to slowly introduce Ongard to the Zoo Miami team and help insure a smooth transition.There are less than 50,000 Asian elephants left in the world and with an ever-growing threat of habitat loss, human conflict and poaching, there is a serious concern that we may lose this iconic species in the wild within the next generation. Zoo Miami is committed to working with the The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the Asian elephant Species Survival Plan (SSP) to help insure the survival of these majestic animals for generations to come.Stay tuned for more info about Ongard!

Posted by Zoo Miami on Wednesday, May 9, 2018

“The elephant that came from Australia was actually the first time any zoo in Australia had ever exported an elephant,” Watkins Rogers said. “And there are a lot of groups that monitor what you do.”

Prior to the Melbourne Zoo even approving the transfer of Ongard, the elephant, Zoo Miami had to renovate enclosures. Delays in permitting resulted in a rescheduling of the cargo plane and a loss of over $500,000. There was also the design of a protocol in case the elephant escaped. That cost was on the extreme end, but moving animals is not cheap.  

“If we ship an animal it doesn’t matter how big or small, it could be $2,000, so if you ship a lot of animals, it can get awful expensive,” Watkins Rogers said. “There are commercial land transporters that work just with zoos. Not as many [that work] with the airlines, but there are some shippers that have a pilot’s license that do some air shipments.”

A trusted transport partner

Having trusted partners is important, and both Zoo Miami and Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut spoke glowingly of the important role FedEx (NYSE: FDX) plays in the transport of live animals.

“FedEx is really great to work with; we’ve been working with them for a long time,” Dale Wolbrink, senior director of media relations for Mystic Aquarium, which moves mostly aquatic animals. “The animals are the first to go on to the plane and … are first off the plane and loaded onto trucks right away.”

Bao Bao, a giant panda, is loaded onto a FedEx cargo jet for transport to China. (Photo: FedEx)

“FedEx has a long history of providing safe travel for some of the world’s most delicate cargo, and we’ve worked closely with zoos and aquariums in the past to safely and securely deliver animals to their destinations,” FedEx spokesperson Rae Lyn Rushing told FreightWaves. “We have experienced teams of FedEx employees around the globe working collaboratively on these special shipments. Animal care experts are also granted special flight privileges to ensure the animals are well cared for.”

In some cases, FedEx donates the shipment costs as part of its FedEx Cares Delivering for Good Initiative. It did just that with Kali, an 800-pound female polar bear, who was orphaned in Alaska after her mother was killed by a hunter. Kali ended up at the Buffalo Zoo, but needed transport to the St. Louis Zoo in 2015, which FedEx provided at no cost.

The company also provided special chartered service for 19 penguins and two sea otters from their temporary home in California, where they settled following their displacement from the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. FedEx brought them home.

FedEx has also transported from Texas to California a 2 ½-year-old dolphin that was unable to swim due to injuries, a sea lion from Hawaii to Houston, and a pair of grizzly bears and two brown bear cubs from Anchorage, Alaska, to Oakland, California.

To transport Bao Bao, a giant panda from the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, to China, FedEx did a special wrap of a FedEx Express 777F airplane. (Video: FedEx)

Perhaps the most famous FedEx animal transport came in 2017. Aboard a special FedEx Express 777F plane, Bao Bao, a 3 ½-year-old giant panda, made the 16-hour, 8,600-mile trip from Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., to Chengdu, China. Bao Bao was born at the Smithsonian National Zoo, and she was accompanied on her journey to China by Marty Dearie, one of the keepers who had cared for Bao Bao since her birth, and Katharine Hope, a veterinarian at the Zoo.

Bao Bao traveled in a specially made 800-pound steel crate and her human companions brought with them 50 pounds of bamboo, two pounds of apples, two bags of leaf-eater biscuits, cooked sweet potatoes and water for the trip to ensure Bao Bao’s comfort.

The panda is now a permanent resident of China’s Conservation and Research Center’s Nature Reserve.

Seals take to the skies

The majority of Mystic’s shipments are pinnipeds like walruses and seals, and pilots are often able to lower the cargo hold’s temperature to help maintain a safe environment for the animals.

“We follow all of the IATA regulations and within the guidelines they have what is an appropriate carrier to move a specific animal,” Wolbrink said. “We have pre-made carriers for all our animals, so they are watertight. Pinnipeds need to remain cool. They have a layer of blubber that helps keep them cool in the water and we are able to keep them safe within these containers. They have airflow, but they also have to be watertight. But most importantly, we keep them cool by including water. We put ice on the top of the containers that drips down on them.”

Like Zoo Miami, Mystic’s trainers work with the animals prior to transport to get them comfortable with containers. In most cases, both an animal expert and veterinarian travel with the animal and tend to it during transport, monitoring vital signs and general condition and well-being.

“They know the species very well, so they can [ensure it is safe],” Wolbrink said.

“[Transporting animals is] a big deal for us; it’s a huge undertaking. A team goes out prior to transport to see the animal and learn about the animal. An arrival team is waiting, and we conduct a 24-hour transport call before transport of the animal. We make sure every ‘I’ is dotted and every ‘T’ is dotted to make sure every safety aspect is accounted for.”

Dale Wolbrink, senior director of media relations for Mystic Aquarium

Laurie Macha, curator of marine mammals & birds for Mystic, noted that the aquarium does not sedate animals during transport. Instead, cabin pressures are set at appropriate levels so the animals are not affected by higher altitudes. Most animals are transported in the forward holds of cargo bays that are heated and cooled and maintain pressures similar to the flight deck.

“[Transporting animals is] a big deal for us; it’s a huge undertaking,” Wolbrink said. “A team goes out prior to transport to see the animal and learn about the animal. An arrival team is waiting, and we conduct a 24-hour transport call before transport of the animal. We make sure every ‘I’ is dotted and every ‘T’ is dotted to make sure every safety aspect is accounted for.”

Due to high costs and the impact on the animals, zoos and aquariums will try to work together on transport when possible, but “we will only transport marine mammals that are part of our accreditation,” Macha said. “There is no mixing of animals. You won’t find a transport that has marine mammals and horses.”

Like zoos, each animal species requires specialized transport. Fish may require only a rigid container that can hold water, but other animals require different types of containers. “Pretty much everything is custom-made,” Macha said.

The containers used to transport animals must be able to fly, but also be loaded onto various types of equipment, including straight box vans, flatbeds and specialized equipment at airports for transport from the hanger to the airplanes. (Photo: AirBridgeCargo Airlines)

While most of Mystic’s transports are conducted by air, airplanes don’t land at the aquarium, meaning truck service is required for the final leg of the trip.

“When the animals get off the plane, it’s all done by scissor lifts,” Wolbrink said. “The animal is lowered down to the ground area and there is a truck backed up to a loading bay and loaded with a forklift and the cage is strapped down. There is a camera in back to watch the animal and thermometers to measure the temperature inside the truck.”

Some animals are transported in a box truck while others move on a flatbed, depending on the size of the cage. Mystic also has a specialized refrigerated pickup to handle rescues in the Northeast as part of its First Responder system.

One trick to keeping animals safe, though, is timing. “Generally, our transports are done outside of the summer months,” Wolbrink said. “We try to do them prior to the summer or over the fall when you are not dealing with the heat.”

Ready to run

Sometimes, the transported animal must perform upon its arrival at its new destination. This is true of racehorses which, like any finely tuned athlete are more attuned to stress that affects performance. Because of that, extra care is needed when transporting this type of cargo. AirBridgeCargo Airlines specializes in the transportation of live animals. It recently transported nine racehorses from Moscow, Russia, to Amsterdam, Netherlands, onboard a Boeing 747-8F cargo plane.

“Equine transportation stands apart from other animal transportation as we are dealing with precious animals whose well-being and comfort influence sports success,” explained Fedor Novikov, deputy general director, special products and services for AirBridgeCargo Airlines. “We are honored to be entrusted with the delivery of these horses. Our dedicated ‘ABC care’ team with well-set operational processes in place guaranteed safe journey of animals which partially facilitated their sports results.”

Racehorses, like this one that traveled from Moscow to the Netherlands for a race, are susceptible to stresses from travel which can impact their performance, so care and attention to detail are critical to safeguarding the animals in their travels. (Photo: AirBridgeCargo Airlines)

The company explained that technology advancement is allowing it and others to customize aircraft to support live animal transport through customized temperature ranges and specialized containers.

The jockeys responsible for ensuring top performance from the horses appreciate AirBridgeCargo’s care.

“It is a great experience to be flying to another country with your horse being your fellow passenger with the possibility to check on the horse during the flight, feed and water it if needed,” said 14-year-old jockey Tatyana Kosterina, who finished second in the competition with her horse, 11-year-old Diavolessa VA. “Air transportation is the most preferable way of journey, as we cover the distance within several hours and my horse does not experience car sickness, as is the case with vehicle transportation.”

Growing regulatory concerns

One area of concern for animal transporters, though, is the increasing number of regulations for both airlines and land transport. Zoo Miami’s Watkins Rogers specifically mentioned the hours-of-service (HOS) and electronic logging device regulations for U.S. truck drivers.

“For the land transport part, there isn’t really a good definition for the zoo community of what is an animal,” she said. “Their definition of an animal doesn’t include our animals. Our land transporters have to check in at [weigh stations] … so they have to do the same things [as other truckers] but we are not exempt.”

Watkins Rogers noted the 1988 livestock act is typically used to define an animal for transport, and while the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is working to craft a new regulation that more clearly defines what an agricultural product is – which includes some farm animals – for exemptions from regulations, Watkins Rogers said this does not include animals typically transported by zoos and aquariums.

“For the land transport part, there isn’t really a good definition for the zoo community of what is an animal. Their definition of an animal doesn’t include our animals. Our land transporters have to check in at [weigh stations] … so they have to do the same things [as other truckers] but we are not exempt [from regulations].”

Rachel Watkins Rogers, registrar and records coordinator for Zoo Miami

The HOS exemption enacted by Sec. 345(a)(1) of the NHS Designation Act for agricultural products did not define what “agricultural commodities” are. Therefore, FMCSA enacted a definition in Sec. 4130 of SAFETEA-LU that became codified in 49 CFR 395.2. In that definition, “Agricultural commodity” refers to any agricultural commodity, non-processed food, feed, fiber, or livestock (including livestock as defined in sec. 602 of the Emergency Livestock Feed Assistance Act of 1988 [7 U.S.C. 1471] and insects). FMCSA added to § 395.2 the definition of “livestock” as set forth in the Emergency Livestock Feed Assistance Act of 1988, defining “Livestock” as cattle, elk, reindeer, bison, horses, deer, sheep, goats, swine, poultry (including egg-producing poultry), fish used for food, and other animals designated by the Secretary of Agriculture that are part of a foundation herd (including dairy-producing cattle) or offspring; or are purchased as part of a normal operation and not to obtain additional benefits under the Emergency Livestock Feed Assistance Act of 1988, as amended.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also does not define animals to include zoo or aquarium animals. Its definition states:

“Animal means any live or dead dog, cat, non-human primate, guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or any other warm-blooded animal, which is being used, or is intended for use for research, teaching, testing, experimentation, or exhibition purposes, or as a pet. This term excludes birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research; horses not used for research purposes; and other farm animals, such as, but not limited to, livestock or poultry used or intended for use as food or fiber, or livestock or poultry used or intended for use for improving animal nutrition, breeding, management, or production efficiency, or for improving the quality of food or fiber. With 32 PART 1 Definitions respect to a dog, the term means all dogs, including those used for hunting, security, or breeding purposes.”

USDA excludes fish, birds, reptiles and other ecotherms, but does include sea lions, walruses or seals under its definition of mammals (warm-blooded animals).

While air travel is preferable, it is not always possible. Live animal logistics is part of the hidden processes zoos and aquariums must undertake on a daily basis to ensure millions of Americans are able to enjoy the natural beauty of earth’s creatures. 

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight covers general transportation news and leads the editorial team as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and fleetowner.com. Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler.

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