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A puppy was abandoned at SFO. A United pilot adopted him.

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At San Francisco International Airport, United’s customer service department deals with common passenger issues such as missed flights, lost luggage and personal items left in the seat’s back pocket. But at the end of August, the team had to solve a problem of even greater magnitude: an international passenger arrived from China in SFO without proper documentation and his traveling companion abandoned him at customs, heading to New York.

Last week, United finally settled the case, closing the lawsuit over the Polaris dog. The 6-month-old German Shepherd mix left the airport for the last time with a new owner: a United pilot.

“I just hope we can do as good a job looking after him as the United team did,” said William Dale, the United pilot who adopted the dog into his family. “More than one employee has said to me, ‘You’d better take good care of him… otherwise.’ There was even a wag of a finger.”

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The pup’s ordeal began during international arrivals, when a passenger on a United flight from China failed to present the correct documentation to import an animal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which administers the rules for animals coming from high-risk countries for rabies (China is on the list), would not allow the dog into the United States.

“The CDC was concerned about the validity of the paperwork,” said Vincent Passafiume, the airline’s director of customer service. “It was also part of our responsibility.”

Instead of fixing the problem, the owner turned the dog over and flew to the East Coast, leaving United holding the leash. The CDC suggested two courses of action that United could take: return the puppy to China or drop it off at SFO. But none of the choices would end humanely.

“The initial options were very bleak,” Passafiume said, his voice full of emotion. “It would be euthanized on its way back to China or euthanized locally.”

Passafiume and his SFO team refused to accept a tragic fate for Polaris, whom they named after the airline’s business class. They decided to find a third way and contacted the company’s government affairs teams in Washington and San Francisco for help. The team lobbied for the CDC to reverse the decision. The agency granted Polaris a reprieve but ordered a four-month quarantine.

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During deliberations, Polaris had to live in the airport premises – shadows of “The Terminal”, if Tom Hanks had four legs and a wagging tail. The team built him a makeshift home in an airport office. The dog cave featured top-of-the-line amenities like a dog bed, toys, treats, and “24/7 babysitting,” according to Passafiume. A dedicated team of dogparents accompanied, fed and entertained him. “More than 50 employees visited it,” he said. “He became a celebrity at SFO for sure.”

True to its star status, United transported it to the Los Angeles quarantine station in style. “We fly first class so he can be taken care of,” said Passafiume, who was accompanying the puppy. “He was so good the whole way down. He didn’t bark at all.”

As Polaris completed his quarantine, United officials focused on the next and final leg of his journey: finding him a permanent home. The airline has asked the San Francisco SPCA, which places 4,000 animals in homes each year, for assistance with the adoption process.

“I’ve been working in animal welfare for 25 years,” said Lisa Feder, head of animal rescue and welfare for the San Francisco SPCA. “We found many situations that are unique and interesting. This was a first for us.” Doug Yakel, a spokesman for the SFO, also acknowledged the unprecedented nature of the case. “The first I heard about it,” he replied, when asked if the airport had any previous experience with orphaned animals.

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Although the SPCA chose the best family for the Polaris, United established a ground rule: only airline personnel could apply. “We really wanted him to go to someone in our United family because of how much our team has supported him,” said Passafiume.

The rescue center received 35 requests, which the team narrowed down to the top five. They then chose the name of the proverbial bowl winner (dog). “We were a little nervous about how many people could apply,” said Feder.

Dale, a United employee of seven years who had recently moved to San Francisco with his wife, son and daughter, finally had a home and yard that could accommodate the family’s first dog. “I thought his story was amazing,” Dale said, “but honestly I didn’t think we were going to get lucky.”

To his surprise (but not his wife’s), the congratulations call came. United threw an adoption party for Polaris on Dec. 15 at one of its gates in Terminal 3. The celebrants, which included Brixton, a golden retriever with the traveling pack of airport comfort dogs, ate cupcakes and candy-shaped treats. bone.

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“Without a doubt, the United team went above and beyond for this animal,” said Feder. “There’s a saying in the animal welfare world: ‘A dog won’t change the world, but the world will change for a dog.’”

“I will miss him a lot,” admitted Passafiume.

As for Polaris, he has been discovering the virtues of local travel, starting with the sights and smells of his new San Francisco neighborhood.