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Air Animal Pet Movers gets dogs, goats — even exotic chickens — where they need to be


The client was a farmer in Calabasas, Calif., with 19 animals from five different species, and he wanted to move each and every one. By plane. To St. Lazare, Quebec.

Not an easy task. Different airlines and documentation would have to be involved. Timing and changeovers were key.

But it was nothing Walter Woolf hadn't done before. For years, the Tampa veterinarian and owner of Air Animal Pet Movers had been arranging the transport of everything from Yorkies to potbellied pigs to earthworms, sometimes to exotic foreign locales.

Those farm animals from California?

"We got the five horses on a FedEx flight, and we flew the two pygmy goats, four dogs and three cats on Continental, all to Newark," Woolf said. Five exotic chickens were shipped to Hartford, Conn.

At the same time, Woolf and his wife, Linda, were flying from Tampa to Montreal. The animals were trucked up to the border where the Woolfs got them through customs and off to their owners' new home.

Begun as Woolf Animal Hospital in 1961 to offer routine pet care, the Cypress Street business evolved into a pet travel agency, arranging safe and humane shipping just about anywhere in the world, primarily for corporate transferees.

Over 35 years, now with a staff of 10, Woolf moved thousands of tropical fish, until the aquaculture industry boomed and breeders began handling their own cargo. He has shipped cute little Australian marsupials called sugar gliders, and unknowingly, dispatched earthworms for a British con artist. He only found that out when the FBI visited him one day.

Plus plenty of cats and dogs, especially for military families coming and going from MacDill Air Force Base.

Last year, a booking for an oil executive client unfolded like a Mideast spy thriller.

"We flew his Yorkie to Tripoli where his owner was transferred," said Woolf, 76.

A few months later, during the Arab Spring confrontations, the client was evacuated. Without the dog.

Someone, somehow got Chivu across the Tunisian border. Woolf doesn't know who or at what cost. From there, the dog was flown to London and then back to Florida.

By then the family had moved to Cancun. So, after a thorough examination and confirmation by microchip that it was indeed Chivu, Woolf delivered the dog in person.

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On occasion, Woolf must deliver bad news.

"I had to tell a bride her two Yorkies were not going to be bridesmaids," he said. The wedding was in Ireland and they were scheduled to fly over with her.

Unfortunately, the dogs not only required blood tests, microchips and rabies vaccinations, he informed her, but there was a six-month waiting period before they could leave the country. Says Woolf: "I've never seen so much mascara run in all my life.''

In late May, a corporate client called for an estimate to fly seven show horses from Southeast Asia to Tennessee.

The firm had previously been quoted $100,000, which "gave them sticker shock." Woolf declined to counter it, advising that considering the "responsibility and liability, the figure was quite reasonable."

One job he took but would have gladly skipped: A contract to clean out the 747 airplane that brought 38 horses from Europe to the Volvo World Cup in Tampa at the state fairgrounds.

"We did not estimate that job properly," Woolf said, vividly recalling the odoriferous and tedious task. "We won't do that again."

It was Woolf's proximity to Tampa International Airport that initially had airline carriers' calling. They frequently needed to board pets arriving before their owners showed up, usually personnel transferring to MacDill.

Next, several GTE Data Services employees needed help. Hired by the shah of Iran to write software, they asked Woolf to get their pets to Teheran.

The pet moving business took off as Woolf became an expert on complicated airline and government immigration regulations. He closed the veterinary practice in 2004. In all that time, only three furry global travelers died.

"A 21-year-old dog never should have come to Florida for vacation,'' Woolf says sadly. A cat escaped from an improperly secured shipping container and was never found. The third loss, not transit-related, was a boarded dog who got loose during a thunderstorm and ran onto the interstate.

Last month, Air Animal produced documents for service dog Zoe to accompany his owner, Harbour Island resident Charlotte Vanover, 64, on back-to-back cruises.

"It was bureaucratically fascinating,'' Woolf said, of the 29-day voyage visiting 10 Caribbean islands and five European countries.

Informed of the entry requirements at each stop, Vanover was prepared to remain on board with the 5-pound Yorkie in Barbados and England. Also St. Lucia, because Woolf couldn't find a vet to go to the dock on a Sunday to approve the paperwork.

Still, Vanover was more than pleased. "Dr. Woolf and his wife came all the way to Fort Lauderdale to be sure I had the right immigration papers,'' she said, noting the fee of about $500, included an examination, tests and getting Zoe's health certificate to Lisbon where the ship was to dock 10 days later.

Unfortunately, Zoe wasn't cleared in Portugal, Vanover said, because port personnel told her they didn't have a computer to verify the pet's microchip. She had to cancel that shore tour.

But all was well when they docked in Paris, she said, "and Zoe got to pee behind the Eiffel Tower."