By Katrin Bennhold
LONDON – Call it the curse of O’Hare.
Less than three weeks after a passenger was dragged off a United Airlines flight at the Chicago airport, the carrier found itself facing another public relations fiasco on Wednesday after a 3-foot-long rabbit died on a flight from Britain.
The continental giant rabbit, Simon, which was bound for O’Hare, had a veterinary checkup three hours before takeoff from Heathrow Airport near London and was “fit as a fiddle,” his breeder said. The animal was traveling to a buyer in the United States.
Continental giants are an ancient breed, descended, appropriately enough, from Flemish giants. They are known to be gentle, friendly and intelligent, as rabbits go. An enthusiasts’ website says the giant makes “a fantastic house rabbit” but that “cables, wires, shoes, papers and anything important” should be kept out of its way, as it will chew them to bits.
Simon’s death remained a mystery on Wednesday. “Something very strange has happened and I want to know what,” the breeder, Annette Edwards, told the British tabloid The Sun.
A United Airlines spokesman said the company had been “saddened” by the news and was investigating the matter.
“The safety and well-being of all the animals that travel with us is of the utmost importance to United Airlines and our PetSafe team,” a United spokesman, Kevin Johnston, said in an emailed response.
The airline is still recovering from a public uproar over a video showing a passenger being forcibly taken off a United Express flight to Louisville, Kentucky, from Chicago. David Dao, a 69-year-old doctor, had refused to give up his seat to crew members, and he had a bloodied face after aviation police officers summoned by United staff members dragged him off the plane.
Dao sustained a broken nose, a concussion, two knocked-out teeth and sinus problems that could require reconstructive surgery, his lawyer said a few days after.
Simon the rabbit died in the cargo section of a Boeing 767 some time after takeoff, Edwards said. Only 10 months old, he had been expected to grow into the world’s biggest rabbit, surpassing his father, Darius, who grew to be 4 feet 4 inches.
According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation, released in February, 35 animals died in transit across 17 airlines in the United States in 2015.
United Airlines accounted for 14 of those deaths. The carrier transported nearly 100,000 animals over that period, a further nine of which were reported as injured.
“I’ve sent rabbits all around the world, and nothing like this has happened before,” said Edwards, whose breeding operation is in Worcestershire, England.