Kucing and Tikus (“Cat” and “Mouse” in Indonesian), my two cats, have at last joined us at our apartment in Shanghai. They are diplo-pets, about to start life in their fourth country of residence.
Getting them here to China has been a bit challenging, a story of logistics and miscommunication, incarceration in the quarantine facility and finally freedom.
It is never really easy to uproot yourself again and again and it is not any easier to do this with pets, but this trip really about did me in.
Indonesia to the U.S. was the cats’ first international trip. It was no cake walk, but once I found the pet shipper (the fantastically named Groovy Pets) and paid them a load of money, it did not turn out to be so bad. I had to fly over the Pacific using United Airlines, per the Fly America Act, but there was something tricky about them joining me, so I booked them on KLM cargo. They also flew out a few days before I did so as to arrive on a Thursday afternoon when quarantine facilities at Dulles Airport would be open. My aunt picked them up at the airport and they seemed in very good spirits, the KLM cargo person cooing at them affectionately. They also had a layover in Amsterdam, so I expect their flight was a sight better than mine.
It cost $400 for the two of them to fly cargo and another $800 in charges to Groovy Pets. When I asked for an itemization of this fee I initially received pushback. But after I pointed out a taxi to the airport and departure fees could hardly cost so much I was informed that some of this would amount to “gifts” to various officials. Oh, I said, you mean bribes. The woman pursed her lips and responded evenly, we prefer to call them gifts. I let it go.
To and from Mexico proved to be an even easier proposition. K and T only needed updated rabies vaccinations. I had all the documentation on the seat next to me in case Mexican immigration authorities stopped us, but no one did. Returning to the US we also encountered no problems.
China however has strict pet importation regulations and a “one pet per passport holder” policy. (Sounds reminiscent of the One Child Policy, right?). Pet import rules also vary by city, and unfortunately Shanghai’s is a littler stricter than some others, including a minimum one week quarantine at a Chinese facility at $320 per pet.
I did not like it, but I was prepared to do it.
Three weeks from departure I sent an email to the Consulate to check again on the requirements and that is when I learned – oops, sorry, it turns out it is one pet per ADULT passport holder. Basically I was being told that I would have to leave one of my cats behind. I could not believe it. I replied asking if there were anything that could be done. The reply was, no, our hands are tied.
I freaked out.
My sister could not take one of my cats as she is highly allergic. My parents could not for the same reasons. My aunt could not, although she loves cats to pieces, because she said she would have to choose between my cat and my uncle. (My uncle is quite the catch, so I understand her choice)
I put up a status on my Facebook and a Facebook group I belong to and I had some pretty great responses – from people (complete strangers) willing to watch my cat for a few months until I returned in May on vacation (with a plan to try to import the second at another time) to several friends offering to foster my cat for the entire two years if necessary. I was heartbroken and yet really, really touched.
The next day however I had another email from the Consulate informing me that one of the locally employed staff (a Chinese employee of the Consulate) had taken it upon themselves to call the section chief of the Pudong International Airport Quarantine Office, and according to him, the section chief, it would be no problem to bring in a one pet on a minor’s passport. However, the Consulate contact informed me, this was no guarantee. I emailed back: I am bringing both cats.
Not that the idea the information could be wrong did not worry me. It sure did. But I had a lot on my plate right then – from my Chinese test to packing out to my mom’s health – so I decided to take a leap of faith and hope it all worked out.
I booked both cats as in-cabin pets on United (the primary reason I chose to take United Airlines vice the contract carrier American is due to United’s more pet friendly policies). This was far less expensive than flying the cats as checked luggage or cargo.
Less than a week before departure I took both cats to the vet. It is a requirement for most places that rabies shots are no more than one year from importation and no less than 30 days (I had taken care of that the month before). Another requirement is that a vet must issue an international health certification no more than 10 days before importation. That certificate must then be endorsed by a USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) veterinarian. The closest USDA-APHIS Service Center to Washington, DC is in Richmond, Virginia.
Yeah, that is the closest. Because that makes sense, right?
(There are no offices in DC, MD, or DE)
Instead of chancing a round-trip FedEx, waiting and hoping it would arrive back before the flight, I decided to make the four hour round trip to have it signed. It literally took five minutes. I mean I put my car into 30 minute parking across the street, waiting impatiently in the security line to get into the building, hoofed it up to the 7th floor, had it signed, and returned to my car with minutes to spare. A crazy trip, but I had APHIS Form 7100 signed.
Then there was the flight – just myself, three year old C, my wheeled carry on, a large handbag, C’s backpack, an umbrella stroller, and two cat carriers. My cats are no lightweights either. Tikus is 10 pounds and Kucing a pudgy 14. (Diet commences for them now)
I am lucky my sister works for TSA since I had to travel without my mother unexpectedly. I did not know how I would carry two cats through security – since you need to take each cat out of their carrier, put the carrier through the x-ray machine and then carry the animal through. I called the Dulles Airport customer service line to see if any of the volunteers could help me – but while they could help me get to security, they could not help me through. My sister however, with her super TSA badge, could.
On the plane I tried not to concern myself with what may or may not happen upon landing. My immediate concerns were making sure they were comfortable and did not meow the entire flight and how in the world I would get them from the plane to quarantine after picking up our four suitcases at baggage claim.
The plane landed at a gate located approximately 10 miles from baggage claim. OK, that may not be true, but when you are jet lagged and herding a jet lagged toddler and all the crap I listed above, then it does not take much to feel far. I would like to thank all the people who offered us no assistance. Because that would be everybody. I get it, no one made me bring all that stuff, you have your own place to be, still… But despite jet lag C was a trooper and she walked the whole distance. And although it was not 10 miles, it could easily have been one or more. Thankfully about half way there were some small luggage carts, which did help things along, until we arrived at the elevators.
Carts could not be taken down the elevators to the immigration hall. At that floor there was a crush of people exiting from all planes to enter a single gate funneling us to multiple immigration lines. This was bordering on “every woman for herself” territory. There was not deliberate pushing or shoving but it was such a steady mass of people that for the first time I felt concerned I would lose C in the crowd. Again, no one helped. They stared, but did not help.
But we made it to the baggage carousel and it was deserted. We were (not surprisingly) the last from our flight to pick up our suitcases. I began to have visions of myself walking right out of the airport past quarantine without having to stop. I had heard others had managed to do this – simply walk out with their dog or cat without anyone being the wiser. The cats were quiet – they had apparently accepted their fate – and the pet carriers just looked like luggage…
But I saw the luggage carts. They were tiny. There was no way for me to get our four large suitcases, my carry on, and the two cats on one and how was I to push two carts and keep track of C?
This is when Quarantine Lady showed up. I knew she was quarantine lady because she wore a white lab coat. And she asked if I had some pets. Foiled!
But Quarantine Lady was super helpful, pushing my second luggage cart, not only to the quarantine office but also then out to the arrivals area where thankfully my sponsor was waiting. (Quarantine Lady also spotted my name first on my sponsor’s card.) She spoke English and she and her staff seemed very professional, which did put my mind at ease some. The only issue related to C being a minor is that the quarantine officials gently insisted she sign her own form, so I put her on my lap, the pen in her hand, and guided her to write her name. Done.
C took our leaving the cats much better than I expected (no tears, no questioning my assertion that they were going to see the cat doctor) and, I think, better than I did. Leaving the office without the cats made me anxious.
For the first few days I did not worry; I had enough else on my mind getting over jet lag, stocking the fridge, and hiring a nanny. But by the fourth evening I woke in the middle of the night from a nightmare involving the cats and quarantine.
A week after we handed Kucing and Tikus over to the quarantine officials at Pudong Airport (almost to the hour) I find myself standing outside the main building of the Shanghai Animal and Plant Quarantine Station. I was not allowed to see where the cats were kept, but instead was directed to the main building where I presented our passports and paperwork, then signed a paper. The woman then made a phone call.
We stood together on the road leading into the facility. The pollution levels are very high and the haze thick, limiting visibility. Out of the haze a man approaches, slowly riding a bicycle with a two wheeled metal trailer. I can just make out in the bed of the trailer the tops of the cat cages and hear some soft meowing. The man stops in front of me and the woman directs me, in English, to check these are my cats and they are ok. I feel a giddy nervousness overcome me and I look into each carrier.
$266 vet examination and rabies shots
$248 vet examination and International Health certificates
$76 USDA-APHIS form 7100 endorsement
$250 for United in-cabin pet fees ($125 per pet)
$640 for mandatory 1 week Shanghai quarantine ($320 or 2000 RMB per pet)
$28 taxi ride to and from the quarantine facility
My diplo-cats back with me = Priceless.