Last summer, I traveled to Rockville, Maryland, to visit with my parents. The trip was special because I had brought along my ten-year-old dog Dakota, who had been part of my family since he was a puppy. My parents had not seen him since I moved to San Jose, California, two years ago, and they were excited about seeing him again.
On the way back, my brother dropped Dakota and me at the airport. After checking in, I stayed with Dakota until an airline baggage handler came to get him. Seeing him off, I headed to the gate. When the agent announced that boarding had started, I happened to look at Dakota’s ticket and noticed that it was marked for Salt Lake City instead of San Jose.
In a panic, I went to the agent and advised her of the mistake. I wanted to know if Dakota was on my flight or on a different flight bound for Salt Lake City. The agent didn’t have an answer and asked a supervisor to look into it. Ten minutes later, I looked out the window and saw that a baggage handler had pulled up to the aircraft with Dakota in his crate. After seeing Dakota being placed in the aircraft, I boarded the plane.
As I walked onto the plane, I spotted the same baggage handler at the entrance to the plane. Because I was still a little worried about Dakota being on the right plane, I asked him if he had loaded my dog on the aircraft. He said yes and assured me that I shouldn’t worry, that everything was okay. His words were a welcome relief.
I started to relax. Dakota had been loaded on the correct plane, and the flight crew knew I had a dog on board. Because the flight was half full, I switched to a seat in an empty row located at the back of the plane and pulled out my laptop to get some work done. One of the flight attendants noticed Dakota’s picture on my computer screen and struck up a conversation about dogs, as she also owned a dog.
About two hours into the flight, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was that same flight attendant. The pilot wanted to speak to me about my dog, so I followed her up to the front of the plane. I wondered what he wanted to talk to me about, and as I approached the cockpit, the captain came out to meet me.
He told me that he had received a call from the dispatcher who said that Dakota had been inadvertently loaded in the wrong cargo hold. He went on to explain that the aircraft was divided into two cargo holds―- forward and rear. The rear cargo hold was designated for animal cargo, as it was lighted, pressurized, and heated, while the forward cargo was not designed or used for animal cargo. He said Dakota had been misplaced in the forward cargo hold, and since it was not properly heated, he could not be sure that Dakota was okay, especially in the freezing temperatures at thirty thousand feet.
I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. I turned white as a ghost, and my eyes watered with tears. The captain then told me that he was going to divert the plane in order to make an unscheduled landing in Denver. Again he cautioned that he did not know if Dakota was still alive. Even though I was terribly upset, I was grateful that the captain was going to stop in Denver. He went on to explain that once we landed, I could go with him to check if Dakota was all right.
As I sat down in my seat, the captain made an announcement about Dakota’s situation and his plan to fly the plane to Denver in an attempt to save Dakota’s life. After the announcement, I looked around to see the passengers’ reactions, and to my amazement, there were no signs of disapproval.
Unfortunately for Dakota and me, we still had another hour to go before we could land in Denver. It was the longest hour of my life, and as I sat in my seat, I could no longer hold back the tears. I thought about Dakota in that cargo hold and what he might have been going through. I began to think of the worst: that he was already dead, that he must have frozen to death in that cold and dark cargo hold.
I stared out the window and reminisced about my better days with Dakota, from the time he was a puppy through all that we had gone through together over the last years. I recalled the times when I was sad when he was always there to cheer me up. I remembered the various places we had lived and the places we had visited together.
But then, the more I thought about Dakota, the more I started to wonder if, maybe, he was still alive. I thought about how stubborn and resourceful he was. If anyone could survive, it would be him. By the time we approached Denver, I began to believe that Dakota might still be alive and that he would make it.
When we landed in Denver, I looked out the window and saw the ground crew waiting for us at the gate. As soon as the plane stopped, I could hear the ground crew opening the cargo hold door. Immediately, I unbuckled my seat belt and ran to the front of the plane. My heart was pounding in anticipation. As the captain exited the cockpit, we made eye contact, and I could tell that he had good news. With a smile, he told me that he had received a thumbs-up sign from the ground crew: I had not lost my best friend.
We both exited the plane and hurried down the stairs. When I reached the ground, what I saw amazed me: Dakota’s crate had been unloaded from the plane and placed on the tarmac with the ground crew in a semi-circle around it. As I approached the crate, I could see Dakota sitting and looking out the wired door. Immediately I opened the door and took him out. He was very cold and shaking. While I was holding him, the ground crew was also excited that Dakota had survived, and they began to pet him. My Dakota was alive and back in my arms!
When it was time for me to put Dakota back into his crate, I couldn’t do it. It was too cruel. How could I put him back into the aircraft’s cargo hold after all he had been through?
I then asked the captain and the supervisor who had greeted us on the tarmac if I could bring Dakota on board. I reminded him that the plane was only half full and that I had three seats to myself. The supervisor said that it was against the rules and Dakota would have to go back into the cargo hold. The captain then interjected, indicating that since they make exceptions for Seeing Eye dogs, they could also make an exception in this case. The supervisor relented, and to my joy, I was able to bring Dakota on the plane with me.
I picked up Dakota and carried him up the stairs and into the plane. As I entered the plane with Dakota in my arms, the passengers cheered and clapped. While I walked down the aisle to my seat, some of the passengers reached out in an effort to touch Dakota. I realized that they also cared and were excited that Dakota had made it. When I got to my seat, I placed Dakota next to me, but he was still cold and shaking. The flight attendants provided several blankets, which I used to warm him up.
Soon, Dakota seemed more comfortable and was able to fall asleep. Throughout the flight, parents brought their children over to see Dakota, some even looking for him to keep their babies from crying.
And, for the passengers’ troubles, the airline offered free drinks, and a complimentary movie called My Dog Skip― a film about a boy and his dog.