But yesterday, stung by public outrage and a barrage of criticism from animal rights groups, the airline made a public apology after admitting that on Monday it had used an industrial meat-processing machine to slaughter 440 Chinese squirrels imported illegally to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.
The squirrels, which arrived without proper documentationlast week, en route to a collector in Athens, were killed after the airline was unable to find them new homes.
The slaughter aroused strong passions in the Netherlands, where the population of nearly 16 million owns 2.5 million cats and 1.4 million dogs. It even triggered an emergency debate in parliament.
The country's Organisation for Pets claimed that airline officials used the same meat processor to kill 200 other squirrels, several dozen water turtles and numerous rare parakeets and birds, this month alone.
The airline maintained that the processor, used commercially to slaughter poultry, was "the most humane" method. It said it "made a grave mistake on ethical grounds" when it killed the squirrels, and deserved criticism from the public and animal rights activists. It "offers its most sincere apologies to animal lovers and all those offended by the events".
However, KLM also argued that it had simply abided by health regulations for live animal imports. A spokesman, Joessef Eddiei, admitted the method seemed cruel, but he insisted it was the most humane way to destroy animals.
The Netherlands' only squirrel shelter group, the De Meern Foundation for Squirrel Refuge, said yesterday: "It's simply absurd. Just the fact that they killed them makes us nauseous, let alone how they did it."Reuse content