A Texas district attorney is launching an investigation into the death of a French bulldog on a recent United Airlines flight after the family was told by a flight attendant to store the pet in an overhead bin.
Division Chief Carvana Cloud confirmed in a statement provided to PEOPLE that the Animal Cruelty Division of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office was partnering with the Animal Cruelty Taskforce to review the incident.
“After law enforcement concludes their investigation, we will review their findings and make an appropriate decision based on the applicable law and facts,” Cloud said in the statement. “At this time, no charges have been filed and our office will not make any charging decisions until the investigation is complete.”
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ON @KPRC2 @5 RE: UNITED DOG DEATH:
“We have a task force, an animal cruelty task force led by precinct 5 and they are conducting the investigation.” -Carvana Cloud, Chief of @HarrisCountyDAO Animal Cruelty Division telling me they are going to review what law enforcement finds. pic.twitter.com/IYukUfzBYL
— Mario Diaz (@KPRC2Mario) March 14, 2018
Catalina Robledo was traveling on Monday with her children — 11-year-old daughter Sophia Ceballos and her 2-month-old son — to New York from Houston, where her husband was working. They brought the 10-month-old dog, Kokito, along.
“We were gonna put him under the seat and then the flight attendants came, she said, ‘You have to put him up there because it’s going to block the path.’ And we’re like, ‘It’s a dog, it’s a dog.’ And she’s like, ‘It doesn’t matter you still have to put it up there,’ ” Ceballos recalled in an interview with Good Morning America, which aired Wednesday. “She helped her put it up, and she just closed it like it was a bag.”
— Good Morning America (@GMA) March 14, 2018
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Despite hearing the dog bark during the first part of the flight, no one checked on the pet until the plane landed three hours later, GMA reported.
Fellow passenger Maggie Gremminger told PEOPLE that the dog’s owner was “absolutely shocked and heartbroken” upon discovering that the animal had died during the flight.
“A stranger offered to hold her newborn while she sat on the floor, there in the airplane aisle. She was holding her dog and rocking back and forth. Her daughter was also crying,” Gremminger explained of the scene. “People who could not see what was happening were confused as to what was going on. I tried to encourage people to let them off first but it was confusing and so we waited for the rows to filter out. It was absolutely horrible.”
“He was a member of our family,” Ceballos tearfully said on GMA. “He was like my brother to me.”
Although Gremminger said she was “stunned” to see the puppy being stowed in an overhead bin, she understood why the family followed the flight attendant’s instruction.
“My only thought is that if it had been me, it would have been a hard scenario. The flight attendant is the authority figure, who should be trusted. I was thinking ‘maybe there is an improved ventilation system’ or something of the sorts,” she said. “Also, the owner had an infant and other daughter. Causing a scene before flight could risk being kicked off the flight. I can only imagine she felt stuck in her decision to comply.”
United spokesperson Maggie Schmerin told PEOPLE in a statement, “We have spoken to the family, our crew and a number of passengers who were seated nearby. We have learned that the customer did tell the flight attendant that there was a dog in the carrier. However, our flight attendant did not hear or understand her, and did not knowingly place the dog in the overhead bin. As we stated, we take full responsibility and are deeply sorry for this tragic accident. We remain in contact with the family to express our condolences and offer support.”
— John Kennedy (@SenJohnKennedy) March 14, 2018
Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana announced on Twitter, Wednesday, that he had written a letter to the president of United Airlines calling for an “immediate explanation” for the number of animals who have died recently in the airlines’ care.
In his letter to J. Scott Kirby, the Republican senator cited U.S. Department of Transportation data stating that “18 of the 24 animals who died in major U.S. airlines’ care last year were in the care of United.”
“This pattern of animal deaths and injuries is simply inexcusable,” he wrote. “For many people, pets are members of the family. They should not be treated like insignificant cargo. Frankly, they shouldn’t be placed in the cargo hold much less an overhead bin.”
Schmerin said the United plans to change its pet travel policy to ensure something like what happened to Kokito never occurs again.
“To prevent this from happening again, by April we will issue bright colored bag tags to customers traveling with in-cabin pets. This visual tag will further help our flight attendants identify pets in-cabin,” Schmerin added in her statement to PEOPLE.
United received further backlash on Tuesday after a family that moved from Oregon to Kansas discovered their dog, a German shepherd named Irgo, who had to fly in the cargo hold of a different flight, was accidentally flown to Japan instead of to the family’s new hometown.