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.

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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

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About Tara Livesay

Tara and her family have lived in Haiti since 2006. She resides in Port au Prince, where she serves as a CPM (Midwife) with Heartline Ministries - Maternity Center working in the area orphan prevention, Maternal and Newborn Health. Tara is a the wife of Troy, the mother of seven children ranging in age from 27 to 9 years old and has recently become a grandmother to 3 grandsons. Tara enjoys friends, laughing, sarcasm and spending time with her family.

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