You’ve likely seen or heard about the therapy animals that visit airports around the country to help de-stress travelers.
Most airports have dogs, but San Franciso International Airport’s team includes a pig, Denver International Airport’s team boasts a cat and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport regularly hosts minature horses.
How about alligators?
On Fridays at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport the Audubon Nature Institute brings live alligators to the baggage claim area and encourages passengers to pose for an “MSY Gator Selfie.”
Brave travelers can also touch the baby gators, which are one to three years old and up to three feet long, according to an airport spokeswoman.
MSY airport does have a dog therapy team – the MSY K-9 Krewe (a nod to the krewes, or groups, that organize parades and balls in New Orleans) – but alligator visits and gator selfies are another way the airport is working to enhance the passenger experience.
In the meantime – in case you missed it, here’s a slightly edited version of that column that was inspired by the report of a large alligator caught on tape sauntering across a taxiway between two ponds at Orlando International Airport.
That’s so Florida! Pilots of a Spirit flight departing MCO today had to pause on the taxiway and give right of way to a local resident out for a morning stroll. Passengers caught a rare glimpse of an alligator trudging from one pond to the next. 🐊 pic.twitter.com/xK12ydomLX
Whle the gator’s journey alarmed passengers and slightly delayed a Spirit Airlines flight on its way to the gate, at MCO airport wildlife visitors are not rare.
“For that reason,” said MCO’s Carolyn Fennell, “We have a biologist and wildlife unit on staff to help with planning new facilities, monitoring and relocating, when needed, various ‘critters’ on our property.”
All airports must manage resident and visiting wildlife because birds (mostly), as well as deer, alligators, coyote, moose and even an excess of worms on the runway after a rain (a feast for birds) can create safety hazards that lead to costly and, in some same cases, deadly collisions between aircraft and animals.
A report from the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that in 2015 alone wildlife strikes would ding the US civil aviation industry about $229 million in direct costs and require more than 69,000 hours of aircraft downtime. But despite lingering memories of the 2009 bird strike near New York’s LaGuardia Airport that led to the “Miracle on the Hudson,” Cody Baciuska of Loomacres Wildlife Management says “Passengers should not be concerned about experiencing a strike the next time they fly.”
His confidence comes from the fact that airports are aggressive about managing and monitoring wildlife and constantly network with each other about best practices for deploying a wide variety of tools that include everything from visual and auditory deterrents, fencing, netting and spikes to lasers and all manner of pyrotechnics
In 1999, Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) in Fort Myers was the first airport to add a Border collie to it wildlife management team to help shoo away birds that might otherwise nest and roost on airport property. (The current dog is named Echo; previous ones were Jet, Radar, Sky and Aero.)
Elsewhere, airports team up with airlines, environmental groups, community volunteers and others to humanely trap, relocate and resettle raptors such as hawks, ospreys and owls.
On the east coast United Airlines, Audubon International and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey work together to trap American kestrels (a climate-threatened small falcon) at Newark Liberty International Airport and send them to new homes on area golf courses with more welcoming habitats.
Each year Seattle-Tacoma International Airport carefully collects and relocates fuzzy baby chicks from the nests of resident red-tailed hawks.
“We actually climb the trees and take the chicks out of the nest and take them up north where we raise them to imprint on a different location,” said Mikki Viehoever, the wildlife biologist for the Port of Seattle.
Portland International Airport, located on the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers and along a Pacific migratory flight path for birds, has a very active raptor translocation program.
“Trapped raptors are taken to suitable release sites in Oregon & Washington by car or plane,” said Nick Atwell, wildlife manager for the Port of Portland. “We’ve partnered with Alaska Airlines for transport to northern Washington with the intent of increasing the distance from PDX.”
Atwell and his team tag and band each bird they relocate and keep an online database of sightings. “We want to track the success or failure of the program,” said Atwell. “And find out if a bird comes back to the airport and inform other airports what might be the best distance for translocating animals.”
In January 2017, a 15-foot dead whale washed up near the end of a runway at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. “We worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to remove it,” said Laura Francoeur, chief wildlife biologist for the Port authority of New York and New Jersey, “Because you don’t want to leave a dead whale there to attract scavengers.”
Each year during nesting season for Diamondback terrapins, Fancoeur and her team also monitor the turtles migrating between a nearby wildlife refuge and the shores of Jamaica Bay. In past years, hundreds of turtles marched – slowly – across a runway, causing planes to be delayed. Now plastic barriers keep most of the turtles out of harm’s way, while staff swoop in to gather up and relocate any terrapins that insist on taking the shortcut.
Photo_Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
In addition to capturing and relocating alligators – some more than 9 feet long – at some southern airports, wildlife biologists and wildlife technicians from the USDA’s Wildlife Services unit help keep a zoo’s worth of wildlife away from taxiways and runways. Their ‘highlight’ list includes Nile Monitor Lizards, pythons, porcupines (whose quills can damage airplane tires) and loons.
Courtesy USDA Wildlife Services
“What most people may not know about loons is that they are unable to walk on land,” said USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa. Loons may land on a wet runway believing they’re landing on water and are then unable to get back up. “Our employees have had to physically pick loons up in order to release them,” said Espinosa.
At some coastal airports oysters, clams and other shellfish have become an issue, requiring teams to go out with sweepers.
“During low tides, gulls and other birds go hunting for shellfish and then drop them on open areas, such as runways, to crack them open,” said Espinosa, “While this is a great example of bird ingenuity, it is very dangerous for airports as sharp shell parts can puncture tires, get sucked into engines, damage aircraft and cause accidents.”
In Alaska, USDA Wildlife Biologists and Wildlife Technicians also help wrangle musk ox and caribou.
Musk Ox sometimes form defensive circles on the runways, said Espinosa and “And it can be very time consuming to get them out of the way.” Several hundred to several thousand caribou sometimes cross runways during migration. “It can be a beautiful sight, but also dangerous for human safety and air travel,” said Espinosa.
Last year salmon were spotted swimming across a flood-prone runway at Alaska’s Seward Airport and, after several days of storms, crew clearing snow at the Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Utqiaġvik (the city formerly known as Barrow) came upon a 450-pound Bearded Seal lounging on the runway.
Courtesy Scott Babcock, Alaska Dept of Transportation Public-Facilities
The runway is about a quarter mile from the ocean, but airport staff believe the seal made a mile-long trek around the runway to get to its chosen spot.
“Animal control was called, and they loaded the seal onto a sled and pulled it off the runway with a snow machine,” said Meadow Bailey, spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, “We refer to this as the day we warned of ‘low sealings’ at the airport.”
Have you spotted wildlife at your airport? Please share the story in the comments section below.
Christopher lives in New Orleans and sent out a tweet that he was heading to the airport to pick up some visiting family members. I asked him to poke around for fun souvenirs.
Here are just a few of the snaps he sent.
As a thank-you, I’ll be sending Christopher a StuckatTheAirport.com travel souvenir.
Want one too?
Next time you’re at an airport, take some photos of souvenirs that are fun, inexpensive (about $10) and “of” the city or regiona you’re visiting. Send them along and, if they’re featured on Souvenir Sunday, I’ll send you a travel souvenir.
There’s way too much intriguing, puzzling and just plain bizarre stuff happening at airports this week. So as we head into the weekend, here are some items I’ve filed under “find out more….”
According to this article in the Los Angeles Times, the FAA may make the agency that manages Los Angeles International Airportand several other area airports give back millions of dollars – maybe $40 million – that it may have improperly given to the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau to help promote tourism in the area. Other airports have also undergone this scrutiny.
Airports ARE a city’s front door, so it makes sense that an airport would want to be included in the overall promotion for a city. The federal government gets that and, according to the article, allows airport funds to be used for “advertising, marketing and promotions designed to increase air travel at an airport…” But only “as long as the efforts specifically relate to an airport’s amenities, airlines and advantages for travelers.”
I’m going to find out more.
Meanwhile… where does an alligator wait for its flight?
In Naples, Florida – anywhere it wants to…
Earlier this week, the Naples Municipal Airportwas shut down for a while because an alligator wandered onto the runway, interfering with landings.
According to news reports, two Collier County Sheriff’s Office deputies, with no trapping experience, assisted in capturing the gator. One used the skid of a helicopter to pin the gator down by its tail. The other tied the gator to the helicopter with a rope until a professional trapper arrived.
And in Tucson, Arizona on Wednesday morning, security officers at Tucson International Airport discovered a human skull in a checked piece of luggage. The woman transporting the skull told the TSA that her boyfriend had given her the skull and that she was taking it to Philadelphia for Halloween.
On second thought, I’m not sure I need to find out more…