Lawmakers Pass Bill Forcing Airlines
To Transport Chicks at Bargain Fares


November 7, 2001
By DEVON SPURGEON and STEPHEN POWER
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


Congress took a few moments away from fighting anthrax, terrorists and recession last week to focus on another urgent matter: cheap seats for chicks.

Trying to resolve a first-class mess in the world of menagerie mail, Congress voted to give the U.S. Postal Service the power to force airlines to carry "day-old poultry" and other "live animals" at bargain fares.

Under postal regulations written three generations ago, poultry farmers long have airmailed newborn chicks to anyone who orders them. For just $5.65, the Postal Service would arrange transport -- usually in the cargo hold of a commercial airliner -- for a four-pound box of chicks and then complete delivery, though hatcheries suggest customers pick them up from the Postal Service.

The post office's only condition: The chicks had to arrive within 72 hours, which is as long as the day-old chickens can survive without food or water.

"It was a miracle," says Doris Smith, of San Angelo, Texas, who took advantage of a "buy 25, get-one-free" offer this summer. "They got here completely alive and healthy, peeping up a storm."

Chicks as Cargo

But in early September, Northwest Airlines kicked the chicks out from under its wings, arguing that too many of them failed to survive the voyage and that the fees were too low to cover the special care chicks require. Technically, Northwest said it no longer would accept baby chickens as mail, only as cargo, for which it charges three times as much.

Northwest's decision was "a kick in the teeth," says Sen. Charles Grassley. "I still remember every spring, just like clockwork, folks would order a box or two of these baby chickens, and they would come in a box with little holes in them so the chicks could breathe," the 68-year-old Iowa Republican says.

Mail-order chicks are popular not only as Easter-time gifts and for school science projects, but also among people who raise poultry for sale and breeders who vie for prizes at county fairs. The chicks start at about $1 apiece, though prices range widely according to quality.

According to post-office rules established in 1924, day-old chickens, ducks, geese, partridges, pheasants, guinea fowl, quail and turkeys can be mailed if they aren't more than 24 hours old. They must be shipped in a box that is properly ventilated and must be sent early enough in the week to avoid getting stuck in a mailroom during a Sunday or a national holiday.

Northwest, which was the only major airline serving the Midwestern farm belt that was carrying chicks as mail, almost got out of the business in 1995 when a couple of other airlines did. But hatcheries and their customers complained so fiercely that the airline backed off.

Then came an ill-fated flight on June 11. Roughly 300 chicks died en route to Ohio after being exposed to rain; they were discovered during a layover in Minneapolis, where Northwest has its headquarters. Airline employees made "valiant efforts" to save the birds, using blankets and lamps, says Kurt Ebenhoch, a Northwest spokesman. "It's very upsetting," he says, adding that many Northwest employees are pet owners. The carrier said soon afterward it would stop shipping chicks as mail in mid-August.

Excessive Heat

The airline says that although most chicks survive their trips, between 60% and 80% on some flights died en route, often because of excessive heat or poor packaging by hatcheries. "It was more than we could handle," Mr. Ebenhoch says.

Nonsense, says Murray McMurray of Webster City, Iowa, who formed a lobbying group called the Birdshippers of America to lead the charge against the airline. The owner of the largest rare-breed hatchery in the world, Mr. McMurray ships 100,000 chicks a week. The hatchery employs about 75 people during its busiest season.

"Anyone who is in the live-poultry business knows that without the welfare of that baby, you will not be in business," he says.

Mr. McMurray, whose hatchery has been in business since 1917, says that unless Northwest's policy is reversed, his business will be forced to close next spring. The big problem is the cost, he says. Airlines charge 93 cents a pound to carry animals as cargo -- triple the rate that is charged if they are classified as mail. He used to ship chicks from the Minneapolis airport, about 200 miles from Webster City (pop. 8,000). Now he is relying on a Texas hatchery to send chicks to his customers under the McMurray label.

Within days after Northwest announced its plans, Mr. McMurray organized small-town hatcheries across Iowa to protest. By early August, the fledgling birdshippers group had sent more than 9,000 letters to Capitol Hill.

"I was getting calls from other offices saying, 'What the heck is this? We just got 100 letters on day-old chickens,' " recalls John Moreland, an aide in the Des Moines office of Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Under pressure from Mr. Grassley and other senators -- including Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat whose wife lobbies for Northwest -- the airline agreed in mid-August to delay implementing its new policy until Sept. 1

.

But the post office objected when the airline said it wanted $3.72 per box -- up from $1.24 per box -- to handle the baby birds. The airline also wanted the right to refuse any animal shipment "that in the sole opinion of the carrier cannot be transported in a safe and humane manner," according to a Northwest memorandum.

Then, an animal-rights group joined the fray -- on the airline's side. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals lobbied the carriers' main trade group to adopt an industrywide policy condemning as inhumane the practice of shipping baby chickens by air.

On Sept. 1, Northwest, as it had vowed, stopped accepting air-mailed chicks. The hatcheries and their congressional allies persisted, though. The lobbying campaign was nearing a climax on Sept. 11; then, for obvious reasons, the issue was pushed aside. But it didn't get lost.

On Thursday night, the Senate passed an appropriations bill -- already approved by the House of Representatives -- with a provision saying the Postal Service can require any airline -- except those that "commonly and regularly refuse to accept any live animals as cargo" -- to carry "day-old poultry and such other live animals as postal regulations allow" at mail rates. The bill, now headed to President Bush, adds that the Postal Service can levy a surcharge to help airlines cover the costs of shipping live animals.

The understanding, says Mr. Moreland, Sen. Harkin's aide, is that the Postal Service will raise rates for chicken-shipping, at least temporarily, but keep them below the level airlines charge for animal cargo.

A Northwest spokesman says the carrier plans to comply with any law that Congress passes on the matter.

But with all the concern about anthrax, he adds, this isn't likely to be very high on the pecking order at the Postal Service.

Write to Devon Spurgeon at devon.spurgeon@wsj.com and Stephen Power at stephen.power@wsj.com

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