It’s a nightmare scenario for anyone with a pet: taking them on a trip with you, and losing them.
Paula Rodriguez is currently living that nightmare.
She was taking her dog, Maia, on an international trip from the Dominican Republic to the US when airport staff lost her beloved pet.
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Rodriguez was flying from her home in the Dominican Republic for a two-week vacation in California with her six-year-old dog on August 18.
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Flying Delta Air Lines with Maia in the cabin accompanying her, Rodriguez’s journey included a layover at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International — the busiest airport in the world — before continuing to San Francisco.
But on arrival at Atlanta at 6.55pm on Friday, Rodriguez says that border force staff informed her that she “didn’t meet the requirements” of her tourist visa.
Her visa was cancelled, and she was told she’d have to return home on the next flight.
Paula Rodriguez’s dog Maia is missing at Atlanta airport after staff opened her carrier bag on the tarmac. Credit: Facebook/CNN
When staff realised that flight wasn’t until the next day, they said Rodriguez would have to spend the night in a detention centre — but that Maia couldn’t come with her.
“They called a Delta agent, who took Maia from me,” Rodriguez said.
“I started asking questions about where she’d be spending the night, and told him she’d been in a lot of distress on the flight.
“When we’d got there (to Atlanta) she’d puked with distress and had diarrhoea.
“He told me not to worry, that she’d be taken to a facility with staff trained for that.
“That they’d give her food and water and take care of her.
“It wasn’t my wish, but I understood.
“There was nothing I could do, and I trusted him.”
Maia, Paula Rodriguez’s six-year-old dog, is missing at Atlanta airport. Credit: Facebook/CNN
Rodriguez’s flight back to the Dominican Republic was scheduled for 10.20am the next day, and border staff told her that they’d pick her up from the detention centre an hour and 45 minutes before her flight.
They said they would take her to the gate, where Maia would be waiting.
“I asked everyone — I told them I needed time to locate her, that she was sick,” Rodriguez said.
“They said, ‘Let’s go to the gate, she should be there’.”
Passengers were already boarding as they arrived. But Maia wasn’t there.
The staff at the gate then started making calls, Rodriguez said.
“A manager came and said they were looking for her, that she should be in the facility, but they didn’t have time to look and I should get on a plane,” she said
“I started panicking and said: ‘I’m sorry, I can’t get on when you’re telling me you don’t know where my dog is’.”
Staff shifted Rodriguez to a flight an hour later, leaving for Punta Cana, a two-and-a-half-hour drive away from Santo Domingo.
Rodriguez was happy to switch destinations, and assumed that it was a simple mix-up and Maia would make the next flight.
Forced to leave without Maia
But Maia didn’t show, and border agents told Rodriguez that she couldn’t be in the US for more than 24 hours without a visa.
She had to leave on that flight to Punta Cana — without Maia.
Rodriguez says she had a panic attack on the three-hour flight to Punta Cana.
She and Maia had barely spent minutes apart from each other since Rodriguez, who used to rescue street dogs and rehome them, found her as a month-old puppy and couldn’t bear to part with her.
“Everyone who knows me knows what she means to me,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t go anywhere without her.”
“She’s so well-behaved that I take her to restaurants, literally everywhere.
“She’s my partner in everything.”
Rodriguez filed a report as soon as she landed in Punta Cana.
Her mother went to Santo Domingo in case Maia had ended up there without anyone realising.
“I called Delta, Atlanta airport, even San Francisco,” Rodriguez said. “I filed every claim possible.”
“I called all the shelters and veterinary surgeries I could in Atlanta.
“I was in agony for two days with no answer.”
The truth comes out
On the Monday, two days after Maia went missing, Rodriguez was called by a Delta representative in Santo Domingo.
“He said that she was being transported (to the plane) on the runway, and staff had opened her kennel, and she had got out of the car and escaped into the middle of the runway,” she said.
“Planes were taking off and coming in.
“He said they chased her but she ran faster and faster and she escaped.
“That’s all I know.”
The following day, Rodriguez was called by another Delta representative, informing her that he’d be handling her case.
“I’ve called him several times a day but he has no updates,” she said.
Rodriguez isn’t allowed to fly back into the US to search for Maia because her visa was cancelled.
Instead, on August 24, six days after she last saw Maia, Rodriguez’s mother was flown out to Atlanta to represent her.
“They’re giving her a tour, and showing her the tapes, but she says there’s nothing — no leads,” Rodriguez said.
“The thing is, that airport has more than 4,000 acres (1620 hectares).
“My mum told me it’s scary dimensions — it’s definitely a possibility that she’s hiding in the airport, but she could be in a lot of places.”
Hartsfield-Jackson was ranked the world’s busiest airport earlier in August by aviation analytics firm OAG.
‘Living a nightmare’
Maia is microchipped, and Rodriguez said she and Delta have notified every animal shelter and veterinary surgeon in the county, and sent them photos of her — which is why she thinks Maia might still be in the airport.
“If anyone had found her, they’d have taken her to a shelter and she’d have been scanned,” she said.
“My information is right there.
“The highest possibility is that she’s still there, hiding.”
Delta said they have been working to locate Maia and reunite her with Rodriguez, saying they remain in touch with Rodriguez.
“Delta people feel deeply concerned for the customer and the dog and we’re committed to ongoing search efforts, working closely with the City of Atlanta Department of Aviation and other stakeholders,” a Delta spokesperson said.
Staff at Atlanta airport inspect the runway and airfield throughout the day, an airport spokesperson said.
“At this time they have not encountered the dog, but will continue to remain vigilant should she appear,” the spokesperson said.
“If she is seen, ATL’s staff will attempt to capture her and return her to the airline and her owner.”
They did not respond when asked how the dog was allowed to escape in the first place.
In 2019, a dog escaped its cage while being transferred at Atlanta.
Gale, an American Staffordshire Terrier, was found after a four-day search.
Pilots noticed her on the runway, and a trap was laid with food to lure her in.
For Rodriguez, the wait for news is painful.
“I’m in agony,” she said.
“I’ve been living a nightmare since Friday, knowing my baby is out there somewhere scared, or might be injured.
“All kinds of thoughts come into my head and I can’t do anything.
“Every minute feels like a day.”
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