Perils of Air Travel…or, How I got to be put on one of those Do Not Fly lists

As I write this I am (somehow) on the plane flying home.  The Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America was great as always, with many amazing presentations and the spread of arthropophilia (if that’s not a word it should be so Bam!…it is) to young and old.  But that’s not what this little post will be about.  This little post is about my current frustration and experience at a display of arthrophobia and how its pervasiveness almost led to me being kicked off this flight.

At the meeting, as happens every year the company BioQuip was there selling their normal wares including beautifully pined, and live specimens.  On opening night I found myself crowding around with the other fascinated folk, ogling the tarantulas, scorpions and millipedes.  Like many of the attendees, I’m arachnophobic.  Believe it or not, that extra pair of legs can make all the difference in the world.  To be honest, it’s probably more honest to say I am an aranaeaphobe as I don’t mind scorpions, whip scorpions, and such, just the spiders.  So while I was there and feeling the fervor of it all I decided to buy a tarantula.  Not just any tarantula, I purchased a little pink toe.  I also decided to snag a vinegaroon (whip scorpion) whom I promptly named Balsamic.  After chatting with the salesman about transportation considerations I felt confident that getting them home would be no problem and thus began my exciting (but short) tenure as a spider owner.

This is what my very young specimen would have grown to be. Full grown it would be about palm-of-your-hand size

Vinegaroon. Again, mine was small, about a 1.5 inch long body.

I was told that I could technically carry it on or check it but it would probably be better to check it.  The banging around shouldn’t be a problem for them as they were mailed to the conference to begin with and that had to be a heck of a bouncy ride, right?  Still, I was nervous about that and when I returned to my hotel sent an email to TSA asking about traveling through with the tarantula and vinegaroon**.  Their form-letter reply told me that it wouldn’t be a problem, I just had to declare it to the TSA when I got there and comply with requests by the TSO’s (Transportation Security Officers, just fyi) about carrying them and such.  Great!  Right!?!  Well, I wouldn’t be writing this if it had all been that simple.  As it turns out, the Airline gets to trump the TSA on some counts and Southwest refused to let me fly with them…carry-on or checked.

Because I tried to be a good little scientist I asked the Southwest check-in-lady what she recommended, checking or carrying.  After conferring with her boss she said that (or at least my interpretation of what she said) was that they couldn’t check it and TSA wouldn’t let it through.  Well, I had an email from TSA saying the contrary so I figured I would just go on through.  Silly me…..

Once I made it through with no problem I was called over to a Southwest counter and told that “since you went through after being told not to” that I was not going to be flying at all today.  I also had to find some other way to handle the specimens as they were not going to be going on the plane.  I could be booked for the following day but, no spider and no vinegaroon.  A colleague flying on American offered to carry them for me if they would allow it.  American would not.  What about FedEx?  They had a location somewhere in the Austin airport, perhaps I could mail them overnight.  While on the phone with them to set up an account (an insane series of steps that requires you to essentially have your credit report memorized) they told me they would not transport live [sic]  “insects”.  Really?  “We’ve shipped live maggots for forensic analysis through FedEx.  It’s the official service we use per protocol.  You’re not going to ship these?”  – “No.  We cannot ship live animals like that.”  (Post-flight lesson: FedEx will do it for research/institutions only.  UPS ships them no prob).

By this point I think the Southwest boss-type people were feeling bad for me or just frustrated and wanted to get rid of me (leaning more towards the latter on that one) and had relented, saying I could travel today if I figured out what to do with them.  However, at the same time the only things I could think to do with them, whether I traveled today or tomorrow, was to throw them away and to be honest, the thought of that started me tearing up a bit.  What can I say, I can get a bit emotional when it comes to the image of an animal – creepy-crawly or not – being squished by a trash compactor.

So how did I come to be sitting here on a bouncy airplane?  The manager of the Southwest boss-lady said he would take them…and now he has a pet Pink Toe tarantula with no name (Spider-that-shall-not-be-named?) and a Balsamic Vinegaroon.  And I’m spiderless and balsamicless.  A number of lessons have potential to be learned this day, let’s run through those, shall we class:

The responsible thing would have been to contact airline directly when I did the TSA and gotten their point of view.  If I had done this, I wouldn’t have been in this predicament at all and could have found another method of travel for them.

Or

I could have done what the rest of the people probably did; Not say a damn thing and just check them. (this idea was confirmed when a fellow ESA traveler told me and the Southwest-Boss people that a number of his students did the same thing and that he was expecting a FedEx shipment of caterpillars that next day when he got back to his office.)

I’m sure there are other lessons but that’s all I got right now.  Basically I’m out seventy bucks, am spiderless and balsamicless and I’m probably on some Do-Not-Fly list now.  Great.

And here is why I write this…it’s not just to bitch, which I am gladly doing even though I know full well this whole thing could have been averted by taking a simple ten extra steps.  No, why I write this post is the following: There was absolutely NO reason that a fully contained tarantula could not go on a plane.  Southwest will only accept cats and dogs on the planes.  I imagine American is similar.  The tarantula and vinegaroon were securely stored in sealed containers inside my sealed bag.  The odds of them escaping from those containers, crawling through the mass of clothing and out through the hard case are quite small.  I might win the lotto first.  However, the dog behind me in a flimsy cage on my flight down to Austin easily could have if not properly trained/handled.  A dog or cat that is in a heightened state of anxiety (and let’s face it, we’re all in a heightened state of anxiety when we fly, aren’t we?) is far more dangerous than that spider ever could have been.  Don’t get me wrong…I LOVE dogs and cats.  Seriously…I am irrationally in love with cats.  I am THAT person.

The irrational perception of arthropods (be it a spider, whip scorpion, butterfly, or crab) that our society has makes it difficult to have logical conversation and interactions with many people about topics ranging from pest control to gardening and agriculture, to keeping a bloody pet.  I used to be one of those terrified of anything-and-everything spider kind of people, but with experience and education I have learned so much about these creatures that my fear has diminished. – Diminished…not gone –

One of the Southwest boss-ladies asked what I did/planned to do with them: “Besides being “pets” I use them for educational programs, teaching adults and kids about these creatures, helping them understand science and our world.”  I probably didn’t state it that eloquently, but I did my best to get that point across.  The irrational fear of these creatures leads to poor understanding about many aspects of our natural world.   Arthropods are EVERYWHERE!  They are involved in every aspect of our lives, we just don’t think about it.  Be it the mites that keep us clean, the wasps that control cockroaches or garden pests, to the wasps in your Fig Newtons (best part of the Newton if you ask me).  They are everywhere.

I have always liked Southwest and have racked up a decent number of miles with them.  I understand that when it comes down to it I was clearly in the wrong today.  They were just doing their jobs and I do appreciate them letting me on the plane.  What I’m pretty sure I won’t appreciate will be the frequent pat downs that I am undoubtedly going to be receiving every time I travel in the future.

And, for the record, the TSO’s were great and did their jobs well.  Don’t harp on them.  For the other record, I call them Boss-ladies because I have absolutely no idea what their official title was.  I’m sure she told me but I was too frustrated and anxious that I didn’t retain that information.

I hope that guy takes good care of my critters.

**These specimens are cleared as pets and therefore are not subject to in-country regulation the way we control for unknown and known pests.  There is a big difference between bringing a tarantula (which can be purchased at most pet stores) and bringing an unknown caterpillar.

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One thought on “Perils of Air Travel…or, How I got to be put on one of those Do Not Fly lists

  1. That’s really disappointing, but I’m not surprised. I was at the meetings as well and brought home a tarantula in my checked baggage through American Airlines. However, I intentionally did not say anything because of an earlier experience. I had traveled to Louisiana on business, and while I was there I found some larval burrows of the tiger beetle, Tetracha carolina. I wanted to rear some of them to adulthood, so I fished a few larvae from their burrows and placed them in a styrofoam cup of native soil with starter burrows. I figured I could just carry them with me, so I showed the cup of soil to the TSA agent. She was clearly befuddled as to what to do, so she asked another agent who became equally befuddled and the two decided to take the cup over to Southwest Airlines to see what they said. The SW agent also was befuddled, and she and a few others huddled together, then emerged to say “No, pets are not allowed on the plane unless they are assistants for the blind.” I didn’t have $75 invested, but I was still flabbergasted that the airline would take such a ridiculously unreasonable stance. However, my efforts to talk reason into them were clearly not working and and I relented. The agent at least asked me where to let them go because she didn’t want to throw them in the trash, and I told her if she found some barren ground and let them go there, they would dig back in.

    Depressingly, mind-numbingly sad that this is the prevailing attitude about arthropods!

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