April truly is the cruelest month, at least when it comes to public relations disasters for United Airlines.
In the airline’s latest high-profile calamity, a giant 10-month-old rabbit — which could have grown to a record-setting size — was found dead after traveling on a United Airlines flight from the United Kingdom to Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
Simon, a male Continental Giant rabbit, was an offspring of Darius, who holds the Guinness World Record for longest rabbit.
Annette Edwards, a former model who lives and breeds Continental Giant rabbits in Worcestershire, England, said Simon was on his way to a new home in the United States and had been declared “in good physical condition” and fit to travel by a veterinarian the day he left.
On April 19, Simon first traveled from Edwards’s countryside home to London Heathrow International Airport.
“He had that exam three hours before he left me to go to Heathrow,” Edwards told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “He then got to Heathrow, apparently, and he was fine. In Chicago he had to board to go to another flight — and that’s when I believe they found him dead.”
United Airlines confirmed in an email to The Washington Post that Simon had died, writing: “The rabbit has passed away, but the details surrounding that are being reviewed.”
In a statement, United added: “We were saddened to hear this news. The safety and well-being of all the animals that travel with us is of the utmost importance to United Airlines and our PetSafe team.”
The airline later told the Associated Press that Simon was alive upon landing but died at a pet holding facility at the airport.
“We won’t know the cause of death because we offered to perform a necropsy free of charge — that’s standard procedure — but the customer didn’t want us to perform a necropsy, and we understand,” airline spokesman Charles Hobart told the AP, adding that they had offered to compensate the breeder.
Edwards told The Post that she has shipped about a dozen rabbits internationally in the past without any problems, on carriers including United.
“Any other bunnies I’ve sent to the U.S. have been fine,” she said Wednesday. “I’ve been doing it for quite a few years. I don’t sell unless it’s to the right person, because these animals are not like normal rabbits. They’re more like dogs, so you have to have the right facilities for them. They can’t go into a rabbit hutch.”
Edwards said she was at first hesitant to sell Simon at all, intending to keep the black-haired, blue-eyed rabbit as a pet. Simon’s father, Darius, is 4 feet, 4 inches long from the tip of his nose to the back of the toes on his hind legs; the gray rabbit took over the Guinness record from his mother.
Edwards said she isn’t sure why her rabbits grow so large but credits the “very, very laid-back atmosphere” in the English countryside.
At only 10 months old, Simon already measured 3 feet, 5 inches long, and Edwards believed he may have been on track to break his father’s record.
“Now that’s very big for a bunny of 10 months, and they grow ’til they’re 18 months old,” Edwards said. “So he could have took over his dad, who knows?”
Darius’s offspring sell for close to $400 each, Edwards said.
An American man had contacted Edwards through her website, where she maintains photos of Darius, who has become something of a celebrity.
The man had inquired about buying Simon, Edwards said, and finally convinced her after promising the rabbit would be going to a loving home.
“I did say I was keeping Simon,” Edwards said. “But we found a lovely man. He was going to be a pet. He was going to be much-loved.”
Edwards declined to identify the buyer, but said it was through him, not United Airlines, that she first found out that Simon had died.
“He rang me because he had a phone call and was on his way to pick (Simon) up,” she said. “He said, ‘I don’t know if you’ve heard the news,’ but he obviously was very upset, just like we all are.”
The Des Moines Register identified the buyer as Steve Bruere, president of a Iowa farm and land management company, who reportedly paid $2,300 to buy and ship Simon, with plans to enter him in a “biggest rabbit” contest at this year’s Iowa State Fair.
Bruere had tasked one of his employees, 29-year-old Bryan Bergdale, with preparing for the rabbit’s arrival at a farm in Iowa, and Bergdale said they had already built a pen and bought “everything you need to care for a rabbit” to welcome Simon there, according to the newspaper.
“I was getting excited for the little guy, I mean the big guy, to get here,” Bergdale told the Register. “He would have had air conditioning.”
Last year, United Airlines transported 109,149 animals and reported 2.11 “incidents” — including death, injury or loss — for every 10,000 animals transported, according to the Transportation Department’s Air Travel Consumer Report. The average rate of death, injury or loss among all airlines last year was 0.92 incidents per 10,000 animals transported. In total, 27 animals died while being transported on United flights between January 2015 and February 2017, according to the department.
Simon’s death comes not long after viral videos captured a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight. The incident this month triggered a public-relations crisis for United, which initially defended itself by stating that the passenger, David Dao, had “refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily.”
United chief executive Oscar Munoz, who in March received the 2017 Communicator of the Year award from PRWeek magazine, was blasted for a subsequent, tone-deaf statement, in which he apologized “for having to reaccommodate these customers.” Though Munoz would eventually issue a deeper apology two days later, by then the damage to the airline’s brand was palpable. United stock prices had fallen and the incident had made the airline the butt of numerous memes online.
Chicago Department of Aviation officers used “minimal but necessary force” when they dragged Dao off United Express Flight 3411 on April 9, according to an incident report released this week.
Dao, a doctor from Kentucky, suffered a concussion, a broken nose and other injuries. He also lost two of his teeth, according to his attorney, Thomas Demetrio.
Demetrio has said his client will “probably” sue the airline.
This post has been updated.