Tampa International Airport became a delivery room last week when a service dog went into labor, giving birth to eight puppies in the terminal as onlookers cheered her on. Ellie, a yellow lab, who was traveling with her owners, Karen Van Atter and her daughter, as well as Ellie’s partner, Nugget, also a service dog, unexpectedly started having contractions as they were waiting to board a flight to Philadelphia.
According to a spokesperson at Tampa International, the owners were aware that Ellie was pregnant, but did not know when the puppies would arrive. The first seven puppies delivered were males, who arrived without complications. The eighth was a female, who had a bit more difficulty. Luckily, the Tampa Fire Rescue medical team was on hand to help Ellie with the delivery, while Nugget, the proud father looked on. Unfortunately, the foursome missed their flight and had to postpone their trip since the puppies were too young to fly.
Some have criticized the incident. Suzy Wilburn, director of admissions for Southeastern Guide Dogs, called the delivery at the airport "horrendous," and cruel to Ellie, "since dogs naturally seek privacy and solitude while giving birth." Wilburn also criticized that Ellie and Nugget were referred to as service dogs.
"There’s no way a service dog could be pregnant," added Wilburn, who is visually impaired and uses a guide dog. "You need your dog 365 days a year, that dog can’t take a vacation. You can’t give your dog maternity leave. ... It’s also very rare that someone would have two service dogs.
"If it had been someone’s pet, it would have been an adorable story, aside from the fact this pregnant dog shouldn’t have been flying. But people who are trying to trump the process and get their pets on an airline, it makes people look at me funny with my dog and question if it’s really a service dog."
Though service dogs are expected to be spayed, Van Atter dismisses Wilburn’s assessment, saying that Nugget was trained, and Ellie is being trained, by a private trainer to act as service dogs and help with health issues, such as sudden drops in blood pressure or blood sugar.
"These are absolutely service dogs. I stand by that," Van Atter said. "There’s no reason a service dog can’t be pregnant. That’s absolutely wrong."
Back at home in Philadelphia, Van Atter said the puppies remained healthy. One will be given to a local service dog association, and one will gifted to her breeder, while the other six are still awaiting prospective homes.
"My dogs are treated like children. They’re my whole life," she said. "I was just trying to get them home safely. I didn’t want to be flying so close to when she was due, but I have personal family issues that prevented me from leaving Florida sooner. What was I supposed to do?"