WestJet's apparent new restrictions on dogs leaves rescue groups scrambling

Rescue organizations in Calgary are "heartbroken" after reading of apparent changes to WestJet's policies regarding the import of dogs, which was posted Thursday evening.

Some organizations say change will result in fewer animals being rescued

From left: Lynn Fletcher, Mattea Fletcher and Troy Fletcher are 'flight angels,' travellers who volunteer with rescue organizations to transport dogs in the cabin during a flight. This practice may be affected by WestJet's new policies. (Belinda Morrison/Canadian Press )

Rescue organizations based in Calgary are "heartbroken" after reading of apparent changes to WestJet's policies regarding the import of dogs posted Thursday evening.

In a blog post published on WestJet's website, the Calgary-based airline said it was changing its regulations in response to how the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) handles dogs coming into the country.

"This is not a WestJet initiative but one that we are subject to regulation on," read the post, which has since been deleted.

In a statement provided to CBC News on Friday, WestJet said it was committed to work with rescue organizations to help alleviate barriers they may face.

"We recently released communications to ensure guests are aware of existing Canada Border Services Agency requirements that animals travelling into Canada as commercial imports are required to travel through cargo," the statement reads. "We have reinforced our procedures to ensure upon booking that we ask guests, who are importing an animal, if it's a commercial or personal import, and proceed accordingly.

"It is the guest's responsibility to meet the import requirements, for both personal and commercial animals."

In response to a request for an interview, the CBSA deferred comment to WestJet, and said "nothing had changed" in regards to government policy.

According to a CBSA document, dogs brought into Canada as rescues destined for adoption are "considered commercial for import purposes."

"[We're hoping WestJet will] rescind this policy and they'll see the bigger picture when it comes to dogs' lives," said Belinda Morrison, founder of the CB Rescue Foundation in Calgary. "We love [WestJet], they've helped us lots, and we hope it was just an oversight."

Air Canada and Air Transat did not respond to requests for comment in regards to whether or not their pet import policies had changed.

Flight angels

Morrison said her organization previously was allowed to designate travellers as "flight angels" — volunteers who escorted rescue dogs from overcrowded shelters in other countries back to Canada, where they would be paired with new families.

Under the new restrictions outlined, all dogs classified as commercial — those dogs that are for sale, those available for rescue and adoption and others — must be shipped as cargo, and must be inspected upon arrival.

Morrison said those changes would be a big financial hit on rescues across the country. 

"It's going to be near impossible.… When I can do a flight angel, I can do 50 to 100 dogs in the cabin. Depending on where we're going, it can range from $150 to $220 a dog, depending on the length of the flight," she said. "But when you fly cargo, it'll be three to four times the money."

Merrilee Davies, a volunteer with the Calgary-based Pawsitive Match Rescue Foundation, said the restrictions would likely put an end to the organization's dog import program.

"Well, it's going to have a huge impact. It's unlikely we'd be able to afford the fees that are charged for flying dogs in cargo," she said. "We're a volunteer and donation-based rescue, as many are. It would be cost-prohibitive for us."

Dogs imported from other countries often have a history of being abused and neglected, Morrison said.

She said if shelters are unable to export dogs to Canada, it's likely those animals would be negatively impacted.

"Thousands of dogs will die because of this. The reason is [these rescues] phone me and say, 'Hey, Belinda, we have a dog that we can fly with a flight angel,' and then they can bring another dog into their rescue," she said. "But now they're full.

"They rely on Canadian great hearts to adopt these dogs. That's what's going on, and that's why I'm not mad, I'm heartbroken."