Skip to main content
By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A woman flew her dog to Nashville. Bluebell landed in Saudi Arabia instead.

A photo of Bluebell, a black Labrador mix who is about 5 years old now. (Photo courtesy of Madison Miller)
5 min

When Madison Miller walked into an office building near Nashville International Airport to pick up her dog from an international flight this month, she knew immediately that something was wrong.

The four people inside froze and looked at her, their faces uneasy.

“Are you here to pick up a dog?” one of them asked.

“I hope so,” Miller responded, worst-possible scenarios passing through her mind at warp speed.

“Well, your dog’s okay, but we think she’s been sent to Saudi Arabia,” the staff member said.

Miller felt like she couldn’t breathe. She and her husband, James, were moving from Britain to Nashville and had arranged for their dog, Bluebell, to be flown in the cargo hold of a British Airways flight. Because none of the Britain-based airlines they considered with flights to Nashville allowed animals in the cabin, it had been their only option. But, instead of putting Bluebell on the plane to Tennessee, crews accidentally shipped the black Labrador mix to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Miller told The Washington Post.

“I was in shock and truly just, like, holding on because I really thought I might never see my dog again,” Miller said.

IAG Cargo, an international airline group that works with British Airways, said in a statement that while Bluebell’s “route was longer than it should have been,” she was put on the first flight back to Nashville after the mistake.

“We are very sorry for the recent error that occurred during Bluebell’s trip to Nashville,” an IAG Cargo spokesperson wrote. “We take the responsibility of caring for people’s loved animals seriously and are investigating how the redirection happened.”

A cat named Mimi went missing in 2012. She just turned up at a shelter.

About six months ago, Madison and James Miller began training Bluebell with the kennel she would occupy in the cargo hold.

At first, the idea of Bluebell’s traveling in a cargo hold was stressful, Madison Miller said.

“Honestly, we even looked at how much a private jet would cost, I was that nervous about it,” she said. “And we went, ‘Okay, we definitely can’t afford that.’”

After realizing that the cargo hold was their only timely choice, the Millers, who planned the move from a town outside London to be closer to relatives, worked with a travel agency to get the dimensions of Bluebell’s kennel on the flight and used a crate to get her familiar with the travel experience, which was supposed to be eight hours long.

Come December, the couple had done all they could to prepare Bluebell, who is about 5 years old, for her journey. On Nov. 30, Miller flew to Nashville to ready the dog’s new home. Her husband checked their pet in to fly with him to the United States on Dec. 1 — or so the couple thought.

When Miller went to the IAG Cargo office to get Bluebell and realized she wasn’t there, she and her husband immediately started making calls. Another dog arrived at the office, but Miller said staffers told her they believed it was the dog that was supposed to be in Saudi Arabia.

Over the next couple of days, Bluebell was flown back to London’s Heathrow Airport, where she received a checkup and was taken out for a walk, and then sent to Nashville, Miller said.

In total, Bluebell’s journey lasted 63 hours.

A snake snuck onto a United flight from Tampa. It’s in New Jersey now.

On the evening of Dec. 3, the Millers drove back to the IAG Cargo office. Shaking as she walked through the doors, Madison finally laid eyes on her dog. But once again, she felt something wasn’t right.

Bluebell bolted out of her crate once it was opened, running toward the office door. She was acting “absolutely ballistic” and crying, with a wild look in her eyes, Miller said.

Outside in the parking lot, Madison and James Miller hugged Bluebell from either side, hoping their smell would help her calm down.

But Bluebell’s unusual behavior only continued after they took her home.

“She became our shadow, which she wasn’t before,” Miller said.

Bluebell followed the Millers everywhere they went into the house. The first time they tried to put her in a crate again, she tore through the canvas. And when they tried to leave her alone in the house for an hour, she ripped through the Millers’ laundry hamper and bedding and chewed through the bottom of their bedroom door.

Missy Matusicky, an assistant professor at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said responses like those are often seen in animals after they undergo stressful experiences like a trip in a cargo hold.

Even for dogs that have been kept in kennels before, she said, cargo-hold travel is “bizarre” for several reasons, including that the kennel is moving, the dogs are without their owners, and any waste they produce stays inside their crates with them.

“This is a heartbreaking experience for this dog to have to go through,” Matusicky said. “And just what I have seen in other animals, to think about how broken this dog is now for, quite likely, many, many months, if not the rest of its life. It’s a devastating ordeal.”

The Millers have gotten Bluebell a prescription for anxiety medication as they work to make their dog comfortable in her new home.

They’ve also asked IAG Cargo for about $10,000 of compensation for the costs they incurred during the process, including for the medication and destroyed household items.

“The compensation is just the icing on the cake,” Madison Miller said. “It’s the least they could do, which would be to throw us some sort of bone to help us with the cost that we’ve incurred, and the headache and the heartbreak that we’ve dealt with.”