A puppy was abandoned at the airport. Then United pilots adopted him.


At San Francisco International Airport, United’s customer service department handles the usual passenger issues, such as missed flights, lost baggage and personal items left in the seatback pocket. But in late August, the team had to tackle an even larger case: An international passenger from China had arrived at San Francisco International Airport without the required paperwork, had been abandoned by a traveling companion in customs, and had flown to New York.

Last week, United finally settled the issue, closing the Polaris puppy file. The 6-month-old German Shepherd mix left the airport for the last time with a new owner: United Pilot.

“I just hope we can do half the job of looking after him as well as the United staff have done,” said William Dale, United’s captain who adopted the dog with his family. “More than one employee said to me, ‘You better take good care of him…otherwise.’ There was even a tremor of a finger.”

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The pup’s ordeal began at international arrivals, when a passenger on a United flight from China failed to provide the correct documentation to import an animal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which administers the rules for animals coming from countries at high risk of rabies (China is on the list), will not allow a dog to enter the United States.

“The CDC has had some concerns about the validity of the paperwork,” said Vincent Passavium, the airline’s director of customer service. “It was also part of our responsibility.”

Instead of correcting the problem, the owner gave in to the dog and flew to the East Coast, leaving United on the leash. The CDC suggested two courses of action United could take: returning the puppy to China or leaving it at San Francisco International Airport. But neither option will end humanely.

“The initial choices were very bleak,” Basafium said. “He will be euthanized on return to China or put out locally.”

Passafiume and his SFO team refused to accept a tragic fate for Polaris, which they dubbed the airline’s business class. They decided to find a third way and contacted the company’s government affairs teams in Washington and San Francisco for help. 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

During the deliberations, Polaris was to live in the airport terminal — the shadows of “the building,” if Tom Hanks had four legs and a swishing tail. The staff built him a temporary home at the airport office. The dog cave featured top-of-the-line amenities like a dog bed, toys, treats, and “24/7 baby care,” according to Passafiume. A dedicated crew of parents walked, fed, and entertained him. “More than 50 employees visited him,” he said. “He’s definitely become an SFO celebrity.”

In keeping with his star status, United transferred him to the quarantine station in Los Angeles in high fashion. “We flew first class so he could be taken care of,” said Basafium, who accompanied the puppy. “He was very good the entire trip. He didn’t bark at all.”

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

“I have been in animal welfare for 25 years,” said Lisa Feder, president of the San Francisco SPCA Rescue and Animal Care. “We face a lot of unique and interesting situations. This was a first time for us.” Doug Yackle, a spokesman for the Office of Organized Crime, also acknowledged the unprecedented nature of the case. “I heard about that first,” he replied when asked if the airport had previous experiences with orphaned animals.

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Although the SPCA will choose the best family for Polaris, United has established one cardinal rule: Only airline employees can apply. “We really wanted it to go to someone in our united family, because of how much our team rallied around it,” said Basafium.

The rescue center received 35 applications, which the staff nominated to the top five. Then they chose the name of the winner from the proverbial (dog) bowl. “We were a little concerned about how many people might apply,” Vedder said.

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

To his (but not his wife’s) surprise, the congratulatory call came. United threw a Polaris adoption party Dec. 15 at one of its gates in Terminal 3. The revelers, including Brixton, a golden retriever with a traveling squad of airport comfort dogs, celebrated with cake and bone-shaped dog treats.

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“Without a doubt, United went above and beyond for this animal,” said Vedder. There is an old saying in the animal welfare world: “One dog will not change the world, but the world will change for one dog.” “

“I will miss his wounds,” Basafium admitted.

As for Polaris, he’s been discovering the virtues of local travel, initiating the sights and smells of his new San Francisco neighborhood.

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