What the Media Failed to Report on the Jann Arden VIA Rail Incident
On March 11th, 2012 an article in the paper caught my eye. Singer Jann Arden had been “tossed” to the curb – or in this case dropped off at a small train station – by VIA Rail for having her 4-pound dog “ Midi ” with her. This occurred between Toronto and Ottawa while the Canadian singer was on her way to the National Capital Region for a concert at the National Art Center. At first I read the article with some amusement.
My amusement quickly faded.
Her series of tweets on the situation showed that she was upset. Like any person that is frustrated, some things were tweeted that perhaps could have been worded differently. That is the down side of today’s instant messaging technology. From what we can gather, Ms. Arden had been allowed to board the train without anyone stopping her. No one had told her when she (or one of her people) had booked her ticket about the no-pet policy. With nearly four more hours or so to go before reaching Ottawa she found herself confronted with an employee wanting to enforce the rules and was presented with two choices:
1) Put her pet in a makeshift cargo
2) Get off the train
Jann Arden chose not to put her canine companion in the suggested makeshift cargo and the famous Canadian singer was made to debark and ended up in the small train station of Oshawa.
I will not deny that Ms. Arden was greatly at fault. She obviously does not follow this blog or she would have known to never assume that a pet is welcome. I am not excusing Jann’s mistakes. She should have checked before taking her pooch on board. To me that’s just common sense, but we are experienced “with pet” travelers – and perhaps that is the point – so is Jann Arden.
If in fact Ms. Arden tried hiding her pet and as a result of getting caught found herself in her predicament then indeed Ms. Arden had a Diva moment (She did not). It is true that people, who think they are above the rules and break them, and then expect no consequences for their actions, give those of us trying to respect the rules and trying to work within or change a system a bad name. These situations are always a setback for animal advocates only helping to foster the “who do you think you are” thought process in those that would see the current policies remain in place.
The anger that welled inside of me however, was directed at the Ottawa Citizen journalist rather than Ms. Arden’s situation. The article was based purely on opinion with only one side being presented and I was bitterly disappointed in the poor quality of the reporting. There were so many larger issues that were there for the taking. Yet it was treated as some passing, celebrity oddity instead. The kind of reporting that is the equivalent of a journalistic tweet rather than a real story.
This kind of sloppy reporting fosters a negative attitude towards pet owners. The reporter would have you believe that Canadian pet owners are asking VIA Rail for something out of the ordinary. This is simply not the case and a little time and research would have proven that.
The true stories bumped under the surface just sitting there – glaring at me – with no voice.
Story #1 – VIA Rail and Service Animals
I have always been a little shocked at the level of language being used by my (Canadian, European, American and Asian) readers to describe VIA Rails’ (I quote the most recent) “hatred for pets and total dismissal of animal lovers”. Animal lovers are often an emotional lot and I had always chalked the language up to passionate sentimentality. That was until I heard several months before the Jann Arden “incident” of a woman that was refused entry on a VIA Rail train with her service dog because it was a “Hearing Assistance Animal” rather than a Seeing Eye Dog.
Some digging unearthed a sad find. This disabled individual was far from the only one to have had to endure this treatment from VIA Rail. This discovery had proven without doubt that it wasn’t just that VIA Rail did not classify itself as pet friendly – it was against animals of any kind including those working hard to better the quality of human life.
Other than the poorly named “”Blind’s Person Act” identifying Seeing Eye Dogs as service animals that must be allowed access to public places and thus public transportation there is sadly no legislation for service animals in this country. Canada does not have a “Canadians with Disabilities with Service Animals Act”. This is a shame for our country and one I find difficult to harmonize with my vision of Canadians as caring and compassionate individuals. Yet, Air Canada and many other service providers are not waiting for the laws to be corrected in order to do the right thing and have gone ahead and created there own policies understanding that depriving people of their service animal’s screams of discrimination lawsuits; something that VIA Rail would do well to consider.
Examples of Service Animals include (these not always dogs):
- Hearing Assistance Animals
- Seizure Alert Animals
- Psychiatric Service Animals
- Mobility Assistance Animals
- Diabetes Assistance Animals
Story #2 – VIA Rail a lack of safety and choice
Jann Ardens tweet that resonated the most with me was the one where she asked, “… what if I was an 86 year old and it was the dead of winter?” It is true she is not an old lady, and certainly has the means to find other solutions. But the tweet got me thinking. Does via Rail do that? Because if they do you cannot argue that unexpectedly depositing a woman (or man) off at the next station is irresponsible and dangerous. What would happen should the person then be attacked or worse?
So we did a little research and sure enough, stories we dug up showed that VIA Rail had actually dropped people off, at closed train stations in the dead of winter… one such situation sadly resulted in the death of a woman’s pet.
I just can not seem to get my head wrapped around the fact that in all the comments on all the online papers and blogs on the subject we read that day (and the next few days); not one person seemed to be concerned that VIA Rail had this dangerous policy. No one spoke up to suggest that perhaps kicking a person off was a tad excessive. How does this punishment fit the crime? Wouldn’t a fine be more appropriate?
Papers later printed that Jann had been offered a makeshift cargo ride for Midi as an option. The word makeshift is important here. VIA Rail does not in fact actually offer cargo on all of their trips. I know first hand that there is no cargo option between Ottawa and Montreal; at least there never has been when we have called. In addition we do not actually know what the makeshift cargo area was going to be like for little Midi. No one reported those details.
One of my readers had this to say:
“I would certainly travel more with VIA Rail if my 15lbs dog could travel with me. My family lives on the East Coast. My dog is allowed in cargo from Montreal to Moncton but not from Ottawa to Montreal. I don’t drive (if I did, I wouldn’t need the train) so how do I get my canine companion and me to Montreal without relying on friends/family generosity and a drive?”
So for those who would like to say “just put the dog in cargo already” well, that simply is not always an option. For a form of Public transport, VIA Rail is not very inclusive.
Story #3 – VIA Rail and the “Allergy” card
“I was on a plane about a month ago and a girl was allergic to peanuts told the flight attendant that no one was allowed to eat nuts during the plane ride. The pilot came to talk to her and explained to her that he has no right to demand that. The pilot continued by saying that he is allergic to cats and yet he has to fly planes with cats on them sometimes…its life and people have to learn to deal with their problems. I can understand that people do have serious nut allergies but learning to live with it is probably a better idea than demanding everyone else around you constantly change their lives. If she was that paranoid then how does she go anywhere in public?”
A reader left this comment on my facebook page when I posted about my irritation on the commenter that said, “Jann could have killed someone with allergies with her dog”. I will, in the name of full disclosure, tell you that to us the allergy card is really getting old. I tire of this excuse that is bandied about. Why do I tire of this? Because people in other countries the world over, allow dogs on board their trains, buses, subways and planes without issue. Are we then in Canada so very different?
The North American phenomenon of the majority having to bend to the minority is the only explanation. Don’t get me wrong – allergies suck – we know this first hand. But to impose rules on what is supposed to be public transport (PUBLIC is the key word) that does not in fact represent the majority is not logical. Mom has severe allergies to perfumes and dad is – yes wait for it – allergic to dogs. As a result we try to be sensitive to other people’s allergies since we have them too but we do not expect others to manage our allergies for us. Where do you draw the line? Do you rip out all the sports fields because certain people are allergic to grass? Do we remove all the flowers and trees in a city park because of allergies? Do we start asking smokers to change clothing before getting on public transport so the residual cigarette smoke will not trigger an allergic reaction in someone? Shall we kill all the bees (and thus the planet) because some people are deathly allergic?
In addition, the statistics on pet allergies are actually really interesting. I think most people that use the “allergy card” either suffer from allergies or don’t really know the big picture. Here is a little data to muddle over:
- Only 10% of the North American population is allergic to pets – That means 90% of the public has no allergies to pets.
- As per the data from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 400 people a year die from drug allergies, 200 from food allergies, 100 from insect bite allergies and 10 from latex allergies… nowhere does it state pet allergies and if there are some, it would probably be less than 10 since they don’t even mention it.
- Pets are allowed on most major airlines as carry on as long as they are in an airline approved carrier, have all their shots and have paid for their passage. Passengers that declare an allergy are moved 4-6 rows away from the pet. At that distance the allergy is no longer an issue for 99.3% of people.
Another reader added: “What is more important here is that VIA Rail is missing the point completely. It’s not like the owners in other countries unclip the leash of their dogs as they enter the caboose allowing the dog to roam free. When people travel with their pet it’s a controlled environment. The dog (or cat) is either in a carrier or is crated and has been trained to be quiet. Chances are the dog has had obedience training so it responds to human command and the owner has control of the animal. Yes – we all know about the recent cat that got loose in the plane… there will always be exceptions to the rules. Just because two men decide to have a huge fight resulting in injuries to the passengers around them does not mean you will suddenly see a ban on “men” on trains or planes. Let us not overreact.”
Commenter’s of the article wondered why noisy dogs should inconvenience them. The weakness in the argument is that the majority of “with pet” travelers, wanting pet travel to continue its upward trend, generally do not take the opportunity for granted and ensure that their dog is well trained so as not to disrupt passengers and therefore give the new policy unwanted negative press. Unfortunately, as in every situation, there is a majority of responsible pet owners, and then there’s that pesky 2% that give a bad name to the rest.
Anyone that travels or uses public transportation has been there. Isn’t this exactly the situation with children? Most kids, when they start running around, screaming, or kicking the back of your seat, are told by a parent or guardian to stop, but again, there’s that 2% (it really does feel like more sometimes) who don’t, and who spoil public transport for everyone else. Saying that all pets are noisy is like saying all children are disruptive. No they generally are not, but yes, there will always be the odd one that is.
If VIA Rail is concerned about their passengers then they should create policy that satisfies all parties not just the minority. They should find a solution that allows owners to bring their pets on board, and yet allows those passengers not traveling with pets to travel undisturbed. Allow only one car to be pet friendly and charge a small fee. That way VIA Rail can avoid fielding complaints from non-pet owners. Designating a single car per trip as a pet friendly wagon would solve the problem. Those that have a pet in a carrier can use the pet friendly caboose those that do not like animals, have allergies or have religious reasons for not being near a dog can go into any other car. Win-Win.
Story #4 – VIA Rail and Pet Owners
The pet industry is booming in Canada, with total sales estimated at $1.2 billion, which includes food, accessories and veterinary costs. Canadians currently own a total of eight million dogs and cats. According to Statistics Canada, there are approximately 3.5 million dogs and 4.5 million cats’ in this country. That is a lot for a country with a relatively small population. About half of all households have at least one pet, and pet owners are spending an average of $396 per year on their pets.
The new generation of pet owners is often willing and able to pay for premium products and services. This is evident with the growing number of doggie day cares and dog walking services being offered throughout the country. In comparison, surveys suggest that 36 million U.S. homes have at least one dog and another 31 million have at least one cat. That is a lot of lost business. VIA Rail is alienating an entire clientele with their policies.
As a world traveler I find it somewhat perplexing that VIA Rail continues to have the unfriendliest pet policy I have ever come across for a railway company. It paints Canada in a very negative light with the animal loving community that I find difficult to continue to “brush off” as my readers turn to me (as a Canadian) for explanations. The reality is that VIA Rail is very behind the times on this issue. The world is becoming far more pet friendly with a large number of hotels (Fairmont’s, Best Westerns etc.) and airlines having already noticed and changed their policies. Readers want to know why there isn’t a VIA Rail pet friendly policy; most willing to pay a small fee for the privilege of bringing their small dog on board as carry on.
As one reader pointed out to me:
“I was able to fly with my 4 pound Maltese “Dixie” (as my carry on not cargo) from Montréal to Paris. From Paris I was able to take a train that took me to Copenhagen. After visiting family there – I took a train to St. Petersburg (an overnight train Dixie is indoor potty trained so not a problem) I happily paid my extra 30 Euros for my sleeper and off we went. From there I took several more trains during my trip where I ended up in Hong Kong, China – possibly the least dog friendly place I have been in the world… except perhaps for India. Yet … I am unable to take the train for 2 hours from Montreal to Ottawa to visit my Grandmother. Do you know why?”
I admit I am unable to respond and to date – much as I have tried to engage them – VIA Rail has not dignified to answer either.
In Italy, I was allowed for free, in a carrier for any train ride. In France I was allowed, on a lap but on leash on any train. In Germany dogs travel in their carriers from city to city. I have taken the train in the US. Yet I cannot take the train in my own country. Why? … and how is this not a story?
I read the comments readers left online with the article that angered me so much. The sheer number of people who don’t get it amazed me. Allowing small pets on board VIA Rail in a segregated car makes good sense. The comments from the allergy sufferers (even if valid) fail to see the big picture. By allowing pets in a designated car, the allergy sufferers can stay clear of any pets. Even more infuriating – the journalists/writer’s disdain and negative attitude toward pet owners who pamper their pets was uncalled for. They are hurting no one by pampering their dog or cat, so why should this be an issue? Such broad generalizations only isolate and alienate. This simply put, is poor reporting.
I do not have any illusions of grandeur and do not believe this article will change anything. Perhaps no one at the Ottawa Citizen wanted to take the time to do the research. Perhaps no one has presented the “other side” – the pet friendly side – in a logical, non-emotional way, to those at the top of VIA Rails’ decision-making body. But you really do have to wonder why VIA Rail is so stubborn, when they could make extra money on it. “Change is scary!” But we believe not being pet-friendly is a high-profile mistake on the part of VIA Rail. They have a need for an overhaul and revisit of many of their rules and procedures.
What the media failed to report on the Jann Arden VIA Rail incident… everything that mattered.