A Cautionary Tale: Expats & Expets (What not to do)

by Tara Livesay on February 10, 2014

This month I’m writing in the air while I fly away from my island home. My feet will touch the ground in five cities today before I arrive at my final destination. Leaving the kids and the work behind, of course my mind is filled with all sorts of ‘A Life Overseas’ things, but I cannot bring myself to write about anything serious. Instead I’ve chosen a completely inconsequential topic for your Monday.

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I think we are all familiar with the term “expat”.  By dictionary definition, an expat(riate) is “a person who lives outside of their native country.”

Today I’m discussing the lesser known term, ‘expets’.

An expet is a pet that lives under the care and protection of a family/couple/individual that carry a passport from one country, but live with, enjoy, and raise their pet in a different country. An expet can be acquired in the passport OR host country. (TCP – Third Culture Pet – and all the challenges apply here as well.)

I will stop here to say, the animal haters need not read any further.  This post isn’t for you.  I, too, was a hater until recently. I understand you, even if I can no longer support you or your shriveled up little heart.

Owning a pet simply for the sake of owning a pet is a thing in many parts of the world.  Owning a pet is NOT a thing in many parts of the world.  I submit to you that if you owned a pet, once you move to a new land where pets are not so common, you may really miss owning a pet.

Most expats with an expet have a dilemma when it comes time to travel to fundraise, rest, or take care of any other personal business.

It feels a little bit inconsiderate to ask a friend to take our pets for many weeks or a number of months.  These friends have their own pets and are staying behind to carry an extra workload, that you leave  them, as it is.  On the flip side, it feels weird to travel with our expets.  How exactly does one justify flying a dog through the air?

(Just wait, I will tell you.)

Left without any great options; we choose the lesser evil.

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Many years back, our youngest daughter was due to be born at the same time our first-born daughter was heading to the USA to begin university.  Because two such major life-events were happening in the same time period, we planned a four-month furlough.

The kids’ masterful and spectacularly executed campaign began early in the furlough planning.

“Mom, we cannot leave Peanut here. Haitian culture doesn’t ‘do’ pets. Nobody will feed her or take care of her. She might get sick or die while we are away.”

That sounded dramatic, but not impossible.

“You guys, she will be okay. We’ll ask a few people to watch her in case one of them forgets – there will be a back-up plan.”

It was easy to tell they’d done some role-playing; the college bound child was more than ready for our response. “Mom and Dad, this is the last time I will live with Peanut in Haiti, I am already leaving my Haiti home. Having Peanut with us would help me with the transition time.”

(Enter unhealthy and debilitating parental guilt.)

And so began the dumbest decision  – that created a domino effect of dumb decisions that we have yet to put to an end when it comes to our expets.

It was late August in Haiti. The average temperature is 100 degrees by noon.  In order to check a dog on a commercial flight the forecasted temperature on both ends and any stops during the itinerary must not be warmer than 85 degrees.

Paralyzed by the parental guilt mentioned above, we looked for plan B.

We arranged for our two oldest girls to fly on a private missionary mail service plane with the dog to Florida.  Once in Florida the temperatures didn’t allow a commercial flight to our destination.  That obstacle was also taken in stride; I would fly commercial to Florida and rent a mini-van.  So began the cross-country trek toward Minnesota.  A very pregnant mom, five kids, and a giant slobbering expet named Peanut. My better half remained in Haiti, where he probably felt quite smug watching this all unfold.

~          ~           ~

Soon after my husband joined us, we welcomed our last daughter to the world the same week we bought bedding for our first to take to her dorm room.  It was a wild time in our lives. Three months of utter chaos that included meningitis, MRSA, scabies, a C-Section, multiple stomach flus, losing our house-renter and therefore putting a house on the market, strained relationships, postpartum hormones, moving a kid to College and packing up a large tribe to return to Haiti with the frazzled nerves and sleep deprivation caused by all of the aforementioned items.

Good news though. Our Haitian born Mastiff, Peanut, was introduced to snow and ice that Christmas. That is super important, obviously.

The time came to head home to the Caribbean. Troy found out that flights out of MSP when it was too cold would not allow a dog to be checked. Minnesota temperatures, do you follow them?  It is utter insanity.  In our defense, it was hard to think ahead.  Mostly because we don’t do that.  Who knew in late August in Haiti that a flight in early January out of Minnesota would be cold?  Certainly not us.

We booked flights for Troy and five of the kids. I was to stay back with the newborn and get our oldest moved into her dorm before returning to Haiti a week later. We pleaded with the arctic weather systems, Mother Nature, God, and anyone that seemed slightly powerful  – to please make the day that Troy and the kids left Minneapolis be a warmish one. Peanut needed to go home to Haiti.

(See my shocked face.)  You guessed it, the dog could not return on the flight we booked. It just so happened to be the coldest day yet that winter.  I waved goodbye from the truck as I turned to look at my newborn and my 100-pound Mastiff.  The kids yelled, “Bye Mom, we can’t wait to see Peanut when she gets home… Oh, and you!”

A  NEW plan was hatched. My Dad would drive Peanut to Texas. I would fly with the oldest and the newborn to Texas to get settled in at University and sob my eyes out and all that.  If the dog cannot fly out of Minnesota, we will drive the dog to a different city that has more favorable temperatures for dog-flights.

The day my Dad pulled up to the hotel  (photo above, dog did some of the driving) just next door to the Baylor University campus, it finally hit me.

We brought that dog to the USA because we are idiots, not because we are such loving and considerate parents.

Sneaking a Mastiff into a hotel is not a thing.  That, my friends, is a fact.

After a couple of days I hugged my oldest goodbye in the middle of campus, strapped the car seat tightly in its rear facing position and asked the dog to poop before we headed toward DFW area.  I cried the entire 90-mile drive.  I’d like to say it was grief of leaving my daughter behind. Truth-be-told, it was mainly dread over returning a rental car, getting the dog and her enormous kennel, the baby with stroller and car seat, and lots of luggage in and out of a shuttle and  hotel and then out of the hotel and into the airport at an hour we all abhor.

4am arrived. The dog, the baby, the luggage – all painstakingly loaded into a hotel van while sharply dressed business women and men looked at their watches and gave me the side-eye.  What? You don’t travel like this?  Whatever man, you don’t know my life.

With nursing baby, frightened dog, and precisely weighed fifty-two pound bags ready to go, I waited in line for my turn to greet some of the world’s most helpful and kind customer service agents.

“All of that is yours?”  – was the greeting that morning. I answered apologetically and bounced up and down to keep the baby happy. The agent began our check-in and placing our bags on the scale.  “All your bags are two pounds over.”

I needed a friend so I pretended not to know that. “Oh dear, I’m SO sorry. Lots of stuff to get home”, Ha ha ha light frivolous laughter – we are so happy to be here together at this counter this morning ha ha ha. Good times.

The agent wasn’t amused.  She looked at the giant dog in the kennel behind me and asked to see the papers.  I proudly produced them.  Her brow furrowed as she looked down at them.  Lydia fussed in my arms, Peanut whined in her kennel. The entire American Airlines waiting area looked on with disdain as the agent pounded on her keyboard looking up the reasons I should perish.

“Your veterinarian letter is supposed to be within seven days and it is dated 9 days ago.”

I wish there had been a record button inside my head at that moment. The gymnastics happening and the panic that ensued was life altering.  I explained that I was car-less, home less, friend-less.  I explained that what I did have was a dog and a newborn baby and a bunch of kids in Haiti waiting on me.  She didn’t budge.

I called both my Father and Mother, who were many hours away. “Good Morning, sorry to wake you – PRAY FOR ME and find a vet that will call me right away.”  Without context and half asleep, you can understand how confusing that was.

I explained to the agent that Haiti would never even ask to see my dumb Veterinarian letter, it was a formality and if they arrested me in Haiti I would be okay with that.  I mean really, how long can they hold a lactating half-crazed American woman, anyway? I begged her not to make rule enforcement her job. I assured her that I would take the risk and never blame her if it backfired.

She dug in. I dug in.  It wasn’t hard to cry.  So I did that.  For ten or fifteen minutes we waited one another out.  I pointed out that I had no way to move all the stuff and the kid and the kenneled up dog so she’d have to look at my sorry face all the live long day if she didn’t let us go. I planned my sit-in.

A supervisor was called.  The negotiations began all over again. The baby started wailing due to feeling the tension.

In the end it was Lydia’s loud crying, my insistence that nobody in Haiti would care, and my Mom’s prayers that seemed to set us free with boarding passes in hand.  The dog was taken by someone to go to the special loading area for dogs that don’t understand the rules.

As expected, in Haiti, the letter for the dog was accepted – no questions asked – and for a few moments I was everyone’s hero.

This brings me to the end of my tale. You might think, what’s the point, Tara?

The point is: don’t be stupid.

Let your friends take care of your pets. They’ll live.

 What about you?  Do you travel across international borders with your pet?

 Or  leave your pet behind?  If you have children, has the pet thing been complicated?

I wish I could tell you the questionable decisions surrounding TCPs stopped with Peanut.  Nope. Two other expets have joined the family. Meet Hazelnut and Chestnut, one of them just recently traveled by plane with us with a properly dated vet letter that nobody ever saw. He left a little parting gift at DFW gate A27.

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Tara Livesay works and lives in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
blog: livesayhaiti.com | twitter (sharing with her better half): @troylivesay

About Tara Livesay

Tara and her family have lived in Haiti the last eight years. She resides in Port au Prince, where she serves with Heartlne Ministries working in the area of Maternal Health. She is a the mother of seven children and enjoys spending time with her family.
  • karen huber

    Tara, I love this! And needed it. We’ve been back in Ireland a year and just adopted a dog here after several years of putting off our kids and waiting until we were, somewhat, “settled.” (Ha!) I have no idea what will happen when we go on furlough in three or so years, but in the meantime, the joy my kiddos feel finally having a pet and partner-in-crime to call their own in a far away land… well, that’s priceless. And hopefully worth the sleepless nights. And the occasional chewed up power ranger. And whatever dog flights cost. (we go back to the US for my sister’s wedding in May for three long weeks… thankful a couple of friends have alread offered to keep her…! :)

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      Hurray for EXPET loving friends!

  • Wendy

    I read this while one expet (cat) sat staring over my shoulder at my cereal bowl, and another (puppy) sat whining at my feet, also jockeying for said cereal bowl (milk). Thank you for sharing! I needed the laugh and so appreciate the advice because you’re right, we all do ridiculous things for our kids while living abroad. We’re headed back for a short trip in two weeks and I thankfully just found someone to stay in our house and care for our 2 cats and 2 dogs. (What were we even thinking getting them? Oh that’s right… each of our kids needed her own… right ;-)

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      One pet per kids is ABOVE AND BEYOND the call of duty. None of us have *THAT* much guilt.

      • Wendy

        LOL… except when you bring teenagers to the mission field, kicking and screaming, and you’re basically willing to do whatever it takes to smooth things over and make it easier for them to adjust to their new location. I can happily say that after 2 cats, 2 dogs (including one puppy who we fondly refer to as pee-pee-puppy), and 18 months of prayer and patience we finally got a “Mom, I think I want to stay here until I graduate” response from our 9th grader. :)

  • Marilyn Gardner

    Love this story Tara! I’m so glad you brought up the whole pet thing….and the non-pet country vs. pet country condundrum. Grew up with pets in Pakistan and then did the pet thing in Egypt and have so many stories – but a 5 lb cat is nothing compared to a 100 lb mastiff. And I love your final point!

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      Thanks Marilyn – in an attempt to avoid feeling as I traveled yesterday, I thought about this story :) Loved your last post, so much to think about.

  • Anna Wegner

    Thanks for sharing! I’m glad you can have a humorous take on the whole thing. We’ve limited our pets to cats partly due to the difficulty of what to do with them when we travel. I don’t like to see animals suffer, and I can’t stand the thought of having a pet we can’t take care of. Even a 10-14 day trip has caused the disappearance of a cat on 2 occasions. Cats are pretty self reliant, and we have someone watching and feeding them, but sometimes it’s not enough. Life in the Congo is hard on cats. My kids would love to have a dog, but so far it’s just not possible. Our one surviving cat lived with us for 3 years and has now spent about a year without us. So far he’s made it. He just has to hang there for about another month.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      SIx years have passed, making it a lot easier to see the humor in that entire furlough. :) Cats are sometimes food in Haiti so they are harder to keep as expets.

  • Linda Watt

    That’s why I am buying a 10lb.dog!

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      yes. less is more sometimes.

  • Dalaina May

    Rolling on the floor. We recently transitioned out of a country and decided it would be sweet to take our 60lb dog with us… Our was a similar story to you that ended with a several mile run around Lima, Peru in search of an open notary, many tears in immigrations because I did(n’t) have the right paperwork to fly, and me flying with 4 kids under 6 and 14 bags on an 8 hour flight while my husband and the dog had to take a separate flight on business class. The irony is that we are now moving to a field where dogs are “unclean” so poor Samson has to find a new home anyway. :/

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      I feel like the common theme when dealing with expets is CHAOS. The paperwork being correct and dated and notarized and stamped pretty much guarantees NOBODY IS GOING TO ASK TO SEE IT.

  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    Awesome. That’s all I can say.

  • http://lisamckaywriting.wordpress.com/ Lisa McKay

    Oh my word. I can’t believe you stopped at crying and didn’t end up in a foetal position on the floor refusing to move until someone else just DEALT with it all. As a fellow new Mama and expet owner, you are One. Strong. Woman. Also… crazy. :)

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      I would have nursed topless all day at her counter had she not let me go. She made the right choice.

  • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com/ Laura Parker

    haha! that was awesome! on another note, we gave our cat, named Bieber– yes, after big J.– away when we left Thailand and it was a horrible decision. Like, ugh, bad parenting 101, majorly. everyone was fine with it till the guy came and then it was all wailing and tearing of clothes. awful.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      Maybe you get a cat that looks exactly the same and say “Dad brought him back for us!!!” What do you think? Isn’t that a good idea? (Bieber is an amazing cat name.)

      • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com/ Laura Parker

        hahaha– every time he goes back we have this discussion. Yes, yes, we have thought about that. But we have now replaced the old cat with a new one named Buddy officially, though Matt can’t not call him Bieber, too. Some things stick, I guess.

  • Oaxacamama

    The bottom line is that animals are still just animals, right? I love hearing how a pet helped some of your children adapt to the mission field. That’s great! I have my own nightmarish stories of traveling with dogs by car from southern Mexico to Ohio and back, of them tearing up the basement of a house during the LONG winter, and of me saying “nevermore!” Now, however, we are facing relocating to the U.S. after 27+ years in Latin American, and the expets are three almost deaf, partially blind, yappy old cocker spaniels. We’ve left them for summer visits, but never had to say goodbye for good. Who would want these old dogs? What to do? They are NOT coming with us.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      :) HA — Keep repeating it until you believe it. Not coming with us, not coming with us.

    • Eileen

      NOT going with you? You owe it to them to bring them with you. You took on the responsibilities. With the responsibility of having a pet, you don’t get to dump them at the end of their short, little lives simply because you don’t WANT to bring them with you. It’s selfish. If you can’t find a home that’s as good or BETTER than the one you’re providing, and you dump them, please don’t ever get another animal – don’t even get a fish. Do you have kids? What if your kids or your husband/wife up & left you because you were almost deaf, partially blind – and I’m sure you’ll be yappy – when you’re old? You don’t get to have pets for their fun, young years & then completely abandon them when they’re old. Shame on you.

      • Tara Porter-Livesay

        I did not assume that they wouldn’t end up in a new home. I have a rule of thumb, I’m gonna suggest it … removed “shame on you” from our vernacular. Shame on ME is allowed in rare instances but no “shame on you”.

        • Oaxacamama

          Thanks. I removed my controversial comment before it caused more trouble. Thank you for giving me the benefit of the doubt rather than shaming me. Being in this transitional phase is hard enough without harsh words about something that is causing enough heart-ache. I suspect some of your comments come from well-meaning people who haven’t walked in our moccasins.

      • Tammy in MN

        Eileen, I have to support Tara on this one. I’m a dog lover, but I would not subject my boys to the stress and chaos of international air travel. They are capable of receiving love from others in my absence, and I actually think it has been good for them.
        I would be interested in hearing how you manage international travel with your pets, and I don’t mean that to be snarkey. If you have some good tips I’d love to hear them.

  • PamelaMonahan

    I am chuckling. I admit I don’t know how it will all go down when we’re in that type of position. Right now we’ve not had to travel since we got our now 10 month old kittens. I also worry about what happens if we move from India… but for the foreseeable future we’re here and I’m not going to feeling guilty for having them for now. I do think we can find friends to feed them, but Indians are a) not that into pets mainly and b) only into dogs if they are. They are generally superstitious of cats and keep telling me stories about cats ripping people’s throats out and other stuff I’m like… yeah… no. I’ve had cats all my life… no. Haha. But probably we could find *someone* to keep them… we’ll see… but we don’t have a trip to the states currently planned so we’ll see what happens when we get there.

  • Jennifer

    Our dog has indeed travelled the world with us.. From Peru to the USA to Albania to Kosovo and now is living in Bulgaria with us. Thankfully in each place we have found a Boxer loving dogsitter to take him in or come live with him during our furlough and vacation times…. yet, with every move we have made around the world our big brute has followed. He is part of our family, and one that the kids would not leave behind even if we could convince ourselves to! Thankfully, pet ownership and vet bills are so cheap that we can (maybe?!) justify the flights and jabs and unnessesary paperwork “needed” to move him around. Typing that reminded me of landing in Albania and my husband coming out to the baggage hall to find our 70 pound dog in his box ON the luggage belt with all the passengers from the flight standing well back as their bags and our dog progressed along the belt! Then, as my husband halled his suitcases, guitar and the dog through customs with the paperwork the officials just waved him o!. When he said, “but I have something to declare” ie the dog, the guys offical asked “your guitar?! – no problem, please go”!!! Needless to say – Albanian are not too keen on pet ownership!

  • Britty

    But what about expets that turn into granddogs? That is part of the equation you failed to mention! ;)

    • Slow Learner

      You mean dogs born abroad that leave to go live in the home culture of a newlywed owner who is the daughter of a moron living in Haiti? Yes. The nonsensical decisions just don’t end. XOXXO – mom

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  • Betty Draper

    We never took our animals to the countries we served in or back to the states with us but know several who did. It was hard to come back to the states and leave our dog in the hands of another missionary. The sad thing was our dog got cancer and because of no vet the missionary had to put him away since he was in so much pain from a huge tumor growing on the outside. Had we been there I am sure we would have done the same thing. Getting animals into Bolivia was not so hard but getting them into Papua New Guinea where we served last was almost impossible. And the tribal people have such different view on animals , like eating them, which kind of made you not want a pet, too much problems. The dogs we had on our support center were guard dogs which was needed so we did not make pets of them. ( raised in the country) I love animals but living in third would countries has given me a whole different look at animals. some say animals have a soul, the tribal people will tell you evil spirits can be in them. I personally believe the do not have a soul for no where in the Word did God tell us to witness to animals. And no I would not leave my children behind but I have yet to see in the Word the same set of principals for animals. ONe thing I know for sure I have seen teams of missionaries fight over this very thing. I would not let an animal come between myself and a person, the animal would go. I am glad it has worked for you and hope you never have to make a decision that would cause you to leave your animals behind.

  • kim

    Thank you for this post. We are praying about a possible move to Haiti and I so appreciate this. The thought of giving up my dogs has been very difficult but I feel so encouraged that it is possible to take them with us! I know pets seem like a minor issue to so many people but to my 3 kids this is a biggie!

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  • http://thegrubhub.wordpress.com/ Kendra Grubinski

    I literally laughed out loud. Loved, loved, loved this!

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  • http://honduras-gumbo.com/ Laurie Matherne

    FANTASTIC. I am late to the party on reading this post. I have a 100 German Shepherd who can’t fly to Houston or New Orleans from Honduras because it’s going to be midsummer when I go. I am thinking of sending him with a man I don’t know who is driving from Honduras to Texas. You see, I am not coming back after 7 years of life here. I want my old faithful dog with me. I hope I can do something a little less crazy than you, but I TOTALLY get it.

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