The anger directed at Asia’s largest airline after it agrees to pay compensation “per kilogram” is latest signal of China’s budding animal welfare movement.
On the morning of October 10, a high-profile lawsuit against China Southern, one of China’s “big three” airlines, opened at Chaoyang People’s Court in Beijing. The plaintiffs? Zhao Nan and Chen Lei, a couple from Tianjin, north China, who blame the airline for the death of their golden retriever, Mars. The airline has refused to apologise.
One night in early August, Zhao took the late-night China Southern flight CZ6993 from Xining city in the far west of China to Beijing. Mars travelled in the hold, in a special dog crate. But at 6.30 the next morning, on arrival in Beijing, Zhao was told that the crate had broken open and Mars was missing.
Thirty-six hours later, the company told Zhao that the dog’s body had been found. Mars was dead, and there were traces of blood around its mouth.
Not only did the airline fail to apologise for the incident, but it also refused to disclose the full facts surrounding the dog’s death.
After days of failing to get more information from the company, Zhao decided she had been left with no choice but to sue. Soon afterwards, almost 100 animal-welfare groups signed an open letter to China Southern and the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), calling for the industry to end barbaric transportation practices and respect the lives and property of their passengers.
Mars the dog goes missing
“Take care, stay safe”
Before boarding her flight on August 5, Zhao posted those words on her microblog, attaching a picture of Mars in the dog crate. Zhao was already nervous. “I’m not doing this again,” she told a friend. “It’s too upsetting.”
“Our family spent three happy years together, until this nightmare…” Zhao later wrote on her microblog. She said Mars had been an obedient, clean and pampered dog, and always well-behaved.
The previous week, Zhao took Mars to Qinghai province in western China. “When she saw the wide golden fields and the blue colours of Qinghai Lake she and July [another dog] ran madly about the grasslands,” Zhao recalled.
But on August 5, it was time to go home. After the plane landed at Beijing Capital Airport’s second terminal, July’s crate soon appeared at the oversized luggage counter. But one of the straps was missing and the door was open. Fortunately, July was still inside. But there was no sign of Mars’ crate.
Worried, Zhao went to ask at the China Southern desk, where she was told that the crate had been damaged just before it arrived at the oversized luggage counter, the dog had run off into the airport and hadn’t been found yet.
“I begged them to let me go in and look, but they refused,” said Zhao. “I asked them to go and look for me, but they refused that too and got impatient with me.” With no better option, Zhao had to walk along the edge of the airport security barriers, calling for Mars. She said she understood that a dog loose in the airport potentially posed a danger to the many flights landing and taking off and that the airport staff should shoot Mars if they had to, but begged them to try to keep her alive.
At 9am, Zhao was taken inside the airport perimeter to call for Mars, but two hours later there was still no sign. That was the last time Zhao was allowed in. That evening Zhao and friends made flyers offering a reward and handed them out to China Southern staff, baggage handlers and airport cleaners.
On the evening of August 6, Zhao posted a missing dog notice on her microblog. Dog lovers quickly passed the message on – it was reposted 1,300 times.
The following morning, Zhao was informed that Mars had been seen at 3am near an airport gate. But she had fled before anyone could catch her. Shortly after midnight, China Southern staff told Zhao a dog had been found, but that they couldn’t be sure it was Mars. Shortly afterwards, airport staff drove Zhao’s husband to the Terminal 3 offices. There in the sunlight, Mars was lying dead on the back of a truck, with traces of blood around her mouth.
According to a member of China Southern staff, the dog had been alive when they netted her. But then she collapsed, went into spasms, coughed up blood and died within two minutes. She had been found at 9.20am.
“I just want to know two things,” said Zhao. “One, how did the crate break open? If that hadn’t happened, Mars wouldn’t have run off and she would still be alive. Two, why didn’t the airport tell me immediately they had found her, and how did they actually find her?”
Thirty-six strange hours
Mars went missing at dawn on August 6, and her owners were told to collect the body at midnight the next day. So what actually happened in those 36 hours?
According to the family’s lawyer, Cai Chunhong, China Southern has said there is no way to identify the cause of the problems because there is “no camera coverage of the baggage department” and there was no trace of the dog found on airport cameras. The company also said it could pay compensation, but not apologise or explain the truth of how the dog died.
On August 11, a microblogger with the name “China Southern Staff” wrote: “I’m a dog lover, but I work for China Southern and so I can’t say who I am as I need to provide for my family. But here I can say, for the sake of my conscience, that the dog was beaten to death by China Southern employees.”
This reporter found a microblog of that name on Sina’s Weibo, but on trying to open it was told there was a problem with the account.
Another microblogger wrote: “A China Southern employee has said that the two crates were taken by baggage truck to the oversized luggage desk. July’s crate was underneath Mars. Just before they arrived, the crate Mars was in fell about a metre and burst open. Mars ran off.”
On the evening of August 9, Zhao again went to see China Southern. “They asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted to see all their footage from the moment of landing to when Mars died. But they said there wasn’t any. Mars was within Beijing Airport’s security for over 30 hours, and went missing at T2 and was found at T3 – yet there’s not one bit of footage?”
“If they can’t monitor passengers’ luggage or unusual situations, people will worry about the safety of passengers and their property,” said Cai Chunhong.
Zhao has said that any compensation will be donated to animal welfare groups, or used as a legal fighting fund for animal rights, so that other pets and their owners won’t suffer in the same way.
Compensation “per kilogram” of dog
In court, China Southern agreed to pay statutory compensation: 100 yuan (US$16) per kilogram for the golden retriever and crate. That was the first official statement on the case from the airline.
Cai, the plaintiff’s lawyer, said that China Southern had failed to fulfil its obligations in the transportation of the dog, resulting in its death. During the 36 hours in which the dog was missing, China Southern and the airport failed to minimise losses, and this neglect and lack of concern for life led directly to the dog’s death, Cai said.
Zhao is asking for 100,000 yuan (US$15,900) in compensation for the loss of her dog, and around 20,600 yuan (US$3,300) in lost earnings, transportation, food, accommodation and communication costs, 10,000 yuan (US$1,600) in emotional damages, and an acceptable apology for the company’s mistakes. She also wants an explanation, supported by evidence, of how the dog died. The court has not yet handed down its judgement.
In its pleadings, China Southern’s defence team said: “After the fact, the defendant learned that golden retrievers are susceptible to heat. After running around outside, the dog may have been exhausted or even suffered heatstroke. It may have gone into cardiac arrest when it saw people trying to catch it.”
The plaintiff submitted an autopsy report to the court, carried out by Beijing Andong Animal Hospital. The report concluded that Mars “was suffering from breathing difficulties at the time of death, and heart failure may have resulted from terror or other stimuli.” It concluded: “It is likely heart failure was the cause of death.”
This reporter noted that at no point in its defence did China Southern apologise for its behaviour or mistakes.
From the afternoon the court case opened, China Southern worked frantically to prevent coverage of the case. An editor from China Business News reported receiving “a telephone call asking that the article be deleted.” An article on Beijing Evening Times was quickly removed after it was reposted on major online portals.
“Why would China Southern, an important state-owned company, ignore and play down a passenger’s fair requests, while trying to shut down public opinion so quickly and forcefully? It’s the low standards of the company,” said one internet user posting under the handle “Animal Protection Dream – Boycott China Southern until they Apologise.”
Animal welfare groups lead protest
The death of Mars attracted widespread attention. For days, demands for China Southern to apologise were posted online, along with accusations of negligence. As of the morning of the 11 October, messages from the microblog “Lovely Daughter Mars”, run by the dog’s owners, had been reposted 110,000 times.
One user with the handle “Watching Flowers in the Mist” wrote: “Would you risk taking an airline that doesn’t know to apologise for its mistakes? Would you risk taking an airline that doesn’t tell the truth? Would you risk taking an airline that doesn’t value life?”
Many users indicated they would boycott China Southern until a sincere apology was made. “Golden Retriever” wrote that “until China Southern apologises for the golden retriever incident, I and my company’s dozens of employees will not be taking China Southern, and those of us with loyalty cards will cancel them. My colleagues and I are encouraging our families and friends to avoid the airline too.”
On September 5, the Capital Animal Welfare Association, the China Animal Welfare Reporters’ Salon, and the China Youth Animal Protection Alliance joined almost 100 other animal welfare groups in writing an open letter to China Southern and the CAAC, saying the incident “showed the urgent need for better standards in airline transportation of live animals, and demonstrated many failings in the industry.”
The letter also pointed out that 12 of China’s airlines, including China Southern and Hainan Airlines, are members of the International Air Transport Association, which has specific rules for live animal transportation – the Live Animal Regulations.
The letter called for China Southern to apologise, reveal the truth, identify the responsible parties, pay compensation, seek understanding from the other parties, learn the lessons of the Mars incident and provide humane and professional services for passengers travelling with animals.