Airlines See Profits in Shipping Animals

FedEx made a splash when they started flying pandas around the world. ken H [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

Flying with carry-on luggage is hard enough these days, but what if you need to pack a panda or a thoroughbred horse?

No worries. More and more airlines are seeing profits in shipping animals in their cargo holds. Airlines say this is a small but lucrative portion of their cargo business, despite the risks.

Deutsche Lufthansa's Animal Lounge in Frankfurt is one of the top players in their field, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The airline shipped 110 million creatures — including 80 million tropical fish and hundreds of tons of worms — in 2011. The airline also shipped 14,000 cats and dogs, 8,000 pigs and 150 zoo animals last year. When Businessweek visited the facility last month, animals awaiting shipment included a white rhinoceros, a Madagascar chameleon and an Andean alpaca.

Animal Lounge Director Axel Heitmann told the magazine the facility has 24 veterinarians on staff to mitigate the risks of shipping non-humans: "If a bag of fish leaks, it needs replacing with the right kind of water and the right oxygen. And if something goes wrong, you can't just hand a customer $1,000 and tell him to buy another pet."

While animal shipping represents just 1 percent of airlines' cargo business, it is more lucrative than shipping just about anything else. A typical Lufthansa cargo shipment from Frankfurt to New York would cost $880. Shipping a horse nets the airline nearly six times that amount.

Sometimes the publicity value of the shipments is more valuable than the expense. FedEx made headlines last year when it delivered two giant pandas from China to Scotland. FedEx repainted one of its planes for the flight and dubbed it the Panda Express. FedEx used the occasion to hype its animal cargo businesses, saying "exotic cargo transported by FedEx Express has included polar bears, white tigers, elephants, penguins, mountain lions, gorillas, eagles and even a 13-foot tiger shark used in filming the movie 'Jaws.'"

Flying animals isn't always profitable. Pet Airways, an airline founded just for pets, experienced financial difficulties earlier this year, resulting in canceled flights, stranded animals and angry customers.

Of course, there is a dark side to shipping animals. The South African parliamentary Monitoring Group found that 30 live rhinos were flown from South Africa to China between 2007 and 2011. While some ended up in zoos, the final destination of some of the animals is unknown. According to reports from the organization Saving Rhinos LLC, it appears that many of the rhinos being shipped to China are destined for breeding farms where they are being used to feed the insatiable demand for rhino horns that is driving the animals into extinction in the wild. Powdered rhino horn is illegally used in traditional Asian medicine, despite a lack of studies that prove its medicinal value.