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By The Way
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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A puppy was abandoned at an airport. Then a United pilot adopted him.

After the dog’s owner left him at San Francisco International Airport, the airline cared for him from quarantine til adoption party

Polaris was abandoned by his owner at San Francisco International Airport. (United Airlines)
5 min

At San Francisco International Airport, United’s customer service department handles the usual passenger woes, such as missed flights, lost luggage and personal items left in the seat-back pocket. But in late August, the team had to tackle an issue of even greater magnitude: An international passenger had arrived from China at SFO without the proper paperwork and his travel companion had abandoned him at customs, traveling onward to New York.

Last week, United finally resolved the case, closing the file on Polaris the puppy. The 6-month-old German shepherd mix left the airport for the final time with a new owner: a United pilot.

“I only hope that we can do half as good a job of taking care of him as the United staff did,” said William Dale, the United pilot who adopted the dog with his family. “More than one employee said to me, ‘You better take good care of him … or else.’ There was even a wag of a finger.”

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The puppy’s ordeal started at international arrivals, when a passenger on a United flight from China did not present the correct documentation for importing an animal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which administers the rules for animals coming from high-risk countries for rabies (China is on the list), would not allow the dog to enter the United States.

“The CDC had some concern about the validity of the paperwork,” said Vincent Passafiume, the airline’s director of customer service. “It was part of our responsibility, too.”

Instead of straightening out the problem, the owner surrendered the dog and flew to the East Coast, leaving United holding the leash. The CDC suggested two courses of action that United could take: Return the puppy to China or leave him at SFO. But neither choice would end humanely.

“The initial options were very grim,” Passafiume said, his voice laced with emotion. “He would be euthanized upon getting back to China or locally put down.”

Passafiume and his SFO team refused to accept a tragic fate for Polaris, whom they had named after the airline’s business class. They decided to find a third way and contacted the company’s governmental affairs teams in Washington and San Francisco for help. The staff lobbied for the CDC to reverse the ruling. The agency granted Polaris a reprieve but ordered a four-month quarantine.

America’s airport glow-up

During the deliberations, Polaris had to live on the airport premises — shades of “The Terminal,” if Tom Hanks had four legs and a swishy tail. The staff built him a makeshift home in an airport office. The canine cave featured such top-flight amenities as a dog bed, toys, treats and “24/7 babysitting,” according to Passafiume. A dedicated crew of dogparents walked, fed and entertained him. “Over 50 employees have visited him,” he said. “He has become a celebrity at SFO, for sure.”

True to his star status, United transported him to the Los Angeles quarantine station in high style. “We flew first class so that he would be taken care of,” said Passafiume, who escorted the pup. “He was so good for the entire ride down. He didn’t bark at all.”

While Polaris was completing his quarantine, the United staffers focused on the next and final leg of his journey: finding him a permanent home. The airline asked the San Francisco SPCA, which places 4,000 animals in homes each year, for assistance in the adoption process.

“I have been working in animal welfare for 25 years,” said Lisa Feder, chief of rescue and animal welfare at the San Francisco SPCA. “We encounter a lot of situations that are unique and interesting. This was a first for us.” Doug Yakel, an SFO spokesman, also recognized the unprecedented nature of the case. “First I’ve heard of,” he answered, when asked if the airport had previous experiences with orphaned animals.

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Though the SPCA would choose the best family for Polaris, United established one ground rule: Only airline personnel could apply. “We really wanted him to go to someone in our United family, because of how much our team rallied around him,” Passafiume said.

The rescue center received 35 applications, which the staff winnowed down to the top five. They then picked the winner’s name out of the proverbial (dog) bowl. “We were a little nervous about how many people might apply,” Feder said.

Dale, a seven-year United employee who had recently moved to San Francisco with his wife and young son and daughter, finally had a house and backyard that could accommodate the family’s first dog. “I thought his story was incredible,” Dale said, “but I honestly didn’t think we were going to get lucky.”

Much to his surprise (but not his wife’s), the congratulatory call came. United threw Polaris an adoption party on Dec. 15 at one of its gates in Terminal 3. The celebrants, which included Brixton, a golden retriever with the airport’s roving band of comfort dogs, ate cupcakes and bone-shaped dog treats.

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“Without question, the United team went above and beyond for this animal,” Feder said. “There’s a saying in the animal welfare world: ‘One dog won’t change the world, but the world will change for one dog.’”

“I am going to miss the heck out of him,” Passafiume admitted.

As for Polaris, he has been discovering the virtues of local travel, starting with the sights and smells in his new San Francisco neighborhood.