Tuesday, September 30, 2014

There and Back Again -- with a Hitchhiker! (part 2 of 2)

Jordan and Milo's Health Books from Cameroon

Part Two: And Back Again

So now you have the “There”… time for the “Back Again — with a Hitchhiker”.

“You want to take the cat back?” my husband inquired with undisguised hope that I’d answer to the negative.

Ignoring his unspoken plea, I answered, “Yes, I would like to Milo (our cat) back. We don’t know if there will be a replacement living in this house when we leave; someone might not come to replace me for months, it wouldn’t be very nice for Milo (our cat) to abandon her when it’s not that difficult to bring her with us. We brought the other volunteer’s cat back last summer and it wasn’t too bad, remember?”

Bill rubbed his temples and massaged his neck muscles at the memory. “Yes, I remember.” Grudgingly he admitted, “she was pretty easy to transport. However, I don’t mind if someone else wants to keep her here in Cameroon.” His voice lifted for a moment at the end, still hopeful the cat might find a friend to take her in Cameroon.

“Well, I think we should move forward with trying to bring her back in case no one else wants her,” I answered.

“I’ll call the vet and set up an appointment for her rabies vaccination then,” Bill caved to my wishes with a patient sigh. The rabies vaccine for international travel must be up to date within one year but also administered more than 30 days prior to the departure date. Both Jordan and Milo were appropriately vaccinated and boosted with rabies vaccine.

Rabies Vaccination Signed and Stamped in their Health Book

“How’d it go in Douala at the Brussel’s office?” I asked Bill after his trip to the international airport.

“Fine, fine. I have the tickets for the pets and us.” Bill slouched down into his chair and tried to forget the harrowing driving conditions that a trip to Douala entails these days. He showed me the pile of boarding pass sized airline tickets. The pet tickets specified one carry-on pet (that would be Milo, the cat) and one extra luggage of a pet as great or greater than 15 kilograms (that would be Jordan, the dog). The pet tickets were tied to our own passenger tickets, specifically, Bill actually. I found it a little ironic that in spite of my husband’s reluctance, he still ended up tying his airline ticket with the dog and the cat.


“I read the email from your husband,” the local veterinarian hopped off his motorbike and sat down next to me. Bill was still away in the U.S. while I remained to finish my last few months of mission service in Cameroon. “Bill seems to be quite anxious about the pets.”

I nodded. “Yes, he wants to make sure that the animals get their health certificates without any problems. He wanted me to ask about any blood tests that the dog might need too. He mentioned something about a test for screw worms…” my voice trailed off. I really didn’t know what to make of this last requirement Bill and I had read about on the custom’s website.

The veterinarian nodded. “The health certificates have to be obtained one or two days before the departure date. It’s still too early. We can have everything together though and be ready to take the documents for signature and stamps on Thursday.”

“And what about any blood tests?” I prompted again.

“To be honest, your dog hasn’t had any non-healing wounds, right?”

“Never,” I affirmed.

“Well, then, we don’t need to worry about screw worms. She doesn’t have any signs or symptoms suggestive for the worms.”

“So we don’t need any blood tests?” I wanted to be clear on this last point. I didn’t want to find myself in the situation of getting down to the day of departure and suddenly being informed that my dog couldn’t travel because she hadn’t had the required blood test for worms or whatever.

The veterinarian shook his head. “We’ll get the certificates for the dog and cat on Thursday. The signature and stamp will be from the government veterinarian so the paperwork will be what the airline officials in Douala are used to.”


“Sometimes people have their private veterinarians sign the certificates but then you might get questioned at the airport. It’s better if I get the government signatories that they’re more used to in Douala,” the vet tried to reassure me.

“OK then,” I smiled, “but since our departure date is Thursday, how about we try to get the certificates on Wednesday?” I suggested. “I mean, what if the official is not on-seat on Thursday? Maybe it’s better to try the day before since the date can be two days before departure?”

The vet smiled. “Oh, ok. I get you. That’s ok then. I understand you. No problem.” He hesitated like he wanted to say some more but held back at the last minute.

“You have the health booklets with the pet’s rabies vaccination certificate inside, right?” I checked to make sure he hadn’t forgotten.

“Yes,” he answered, producing the booklets to show me.

“I have the photos for their books now too.” I produced a four by six inch photograph proudly. With the help of one of our volunteers, I had taken a photo of the dog and the cat and had them printed in such a manner as to come out the appropriate size for pasting in the health booklets — 2 inches by 3 inches. They were even in color!

Milo's Passport Photo
(2 inches x 3 inches to fit her health book)
Jordan's Passport Photo
Our veterinarian was duly impressed and proceeded to paste them into their respective booklets with great care. I’ve never seen anyone take so long to glue two photos down. At last he departed with the promise to get back with me next Wednesday. “I have to travel next week,” he informed me, “but, I’ll have someone get the documents next Wednesday.” He drove off in a puff of exhaust.

The next Wednesday our motorcycling, traveling veterinarian was still far away in Kumba. Thankfully, he kept his promise and sent his brother who collected the signed and stamped official health documents and delivered them to our doorstep. The check list was complete:

1. One dog; one cat - check
2. small health booklet with photo pasted inside and stamped, official rabies vaccination record — check and check
3. printed tickets from agent at Brussel’s airlines for cat and dog, including receipt of payment - check
4. dog crate - check (same as the one we used bringing her) - check
5. cat carrier - check (brought by Bill and borrowed from our friend who used it to transport her own cat the year before) - check
6. health certificates - check and check
7. Small bag of dry cat food and dog food - check (not that the animals actually ate on their trip)
8. attachable bowl for water/food for dog; small bowls for water and/or food for cat (again superfluous but psychologically comforting for owners)
9. extra towels and pad for cat carrier and dog crate (should have brought more disposable towels for cat carrier…)

The All-Important Vet Certificate of Good Health
(Must be dated within 2 days of departure date)
Thursday dawned. So many goodbyes were said. We fed the animals early. We gave them last chances to relieve themselves. The cat was a bit miffed that I locked her in the kitchen for the afternoon. The dog was happy to go for an extra walk. She could sense that we were traveling and she wanted to be as close as possible. She sat determinedly under Bill’s legs with an ‘I’m-not-letting-you-out-of-my-sight attitude. She at least was able to maintain her nearness to “her Bill” during the taxi ride to the airport since the vehicle was jammed pack with 4 suitcases, 2 backpacks, 1 large and disassembled dog carrier, 1 husband, 1 driver, 1 friend, 1 cat in her cat carrier, and me  — does the list remind you of a song?! …’two missionaries — and a kitty in a cat cage.’

We arrived at the airport and our driver parked the vehicle in the parking lot area, allowing us to assemble the dog crate, bolting top and bottom together. Bill walked around with Jordan, giving her last chances to relieve her bladder. We joked nervously and munched on chin-chin snacks, feeding Jordan who happily snapped up the treats tossed her direction. The goal was to check in without feeling rushed but still not check-in so early that Jordan would be left on the tarmac for too long before boarding and plane departure.

“Let’s go in at 9 pm?” I suggested. “That way we’ll still have three hours before scheduled departure but if we’re hassled, we’ll still have some leeway to figure things out.” Bill agreed with me. Jordan wagged her tail. I rubbed my jeans and sniffed a damp corner of my shirt. “Uh! I think the cat peed already. The carrier is not pee-proof.”

“Sorry, dear,” Bill replied absently as he comforted his dog.

Our friend helped me change the absorbent pad in the cat carrier and replace it with a clean towel. I should have brought more old rags that would have served as disposable pads. I tossed the soiled pad in a sealed plastic and splashed on some instant hand sanitizer. “Perfume would have been nice,” I mused to myself. At least no one else seemed too bothered by my urine tinged travel clothes. *sigh*

We bid our good byes to our driver and friend and several luggage attendants came eagerly forward with their carts and hauled bags and dog carrier into the airport. With a few francs tip, it’s amazing how many willing hands and able backs are available to assist!

(Bill picks up the story here)  Health officials stopped us just before the Brussel’s check-in counter and inspected our pets’ documents (health certificates and vaccination records).  We paid 5,000 XAF (about $10 USD) per pet and received another two official-looking documents stating the animals had been inspected and were healthy. Tucking them safely into my bundle of travel documents, we continued to the check-in counter.

Health Certificates from Airport Inspector - One of the "chat" and one for the "chien"
The check-in agent weighed our luggage, inspected our documents, placed luggage tags on the four bags and dog crate DLA / IAD, indicating that we should not expect to see the dog or any of the luggage until Washington DC.  I took Jordan out of her crate and the check-in agent sent our bags and the crate down the belt.  Trixy was free to pass through the process of departure. I went with Jordan and a DLA (Douala Airport) security agent down to the baggage handling area where they inspected the crate and had me place Jordan back inside (note: I handed off my passport to another security agent in this process and retrieved it on my way back to the normal departure process line).  I said my good-byes to Jordan and wished her well, praying silently for her safety and special blessings for all who would handle her in process. Once back in the normal departure area, I handed in my white immigration card and processed through immigration to the departure gate.

Milo remained with us (Trixy’s possession mainly) as we traveled.  She was pretty quiet, like her daughter, Friday. I had traveled with Friday, Milo’s daughter cat, only the year prior, bringing her back to America for a friend and former volunteer in Cameroon.  Sad meows echoed pitifully from the interior of her carrier only during walking off the airplane in Brussels and again coming off the flight in Washington D.C. It appeared that the gravitational changes and alterations in environment gave the cat a false hope of escape from her cat prison at these times.

Brussels has two routes they fly to/from Douala, depending on the day of travel.  It might be BRU>>DLA>>NSI>>BRU or it might be BRU>>NSI>>DLA>>BRU.  We specifically booked the second for the shortest flying time to BRU.  We followed the advice of the airlines to book the full flight with them (they send checked dogs as excess baggage, United Airlines considers them as cargo. Apparently there can be problems when switching between the two. We didn’t care to find out).

In Brussels we mentioned we had a dog in the hold and enquired as to what should we do as we were transferring to a Washington DC bound flight.  The agent at the counter said the dog would transfer and we need do nothing special.  To verify we found the transfer desk and enquired about the process.  Same answer.  We settled into some very comfortable sofas in the airport waiting area for the next eight hours praying that our dog was also somehow comfortable wherever her crate was situated.  Since Trixy had the cat, we did not exit the airport and tour Brussels. Europe tends to have stricter import rules regarding animals than the U.S. We decided not to bother with attempting customs for just a few hours in the city.

We boarded our last airplane for the trip from Brussels to Washington DC. It was the last and longest leg of the journey. Milo settled down to a quiet sullen silence, curling up on another fresh towel, having refused food and water in spite of Trixy’s offers. We could only pray that we’d see Jordan when we reached America.

“So, we have to declare some things on the custom’s declaration form, right?” Trixy looked over for confirmation, pen poised.

“Yes, we have to go through the line at the custom’s counter for people with items to declare. Put down both the dog and the cat.”

In the end, it made little difference that we had pets to “declare”. The first official, the Immigration officer, welcomed us back without comment on the pets.  But a few questions on the “food” we were bringing.  Satisfied there was no risk or issues for America he passed us on to Baggage claim with a “Welcome home”.

“Over here,” I called to my surprised wife. “The luggage was tagged ‘priority’ so it’s already here.” I pointed to an exclusive pile of luggage at the head of the luggage turnstile.

“Where should we look for our dog?” Bill tried to flag down one of the attendants hovering over the luggage claim area. Suddenly, I spotted Trixy waving from across the room.

“Over here,” she waved and pointed. A smiling airport employee rolled a familiar dog crate out into the luggage claim area. “She made it. Jordan made it.” My wife smiled.

“Jordan!” the furry canine inside wagged her tail furiously and whined in impatience — ready to break out of her 30-hour confinement.

On the way home from airport with furry friends

General notes:
While no one past Douala checked our documents, you are advised to keep with you at all times: health certificates, vaccine documents, tickets (i.e. everything related to your pet’s health and travel).

There are some good resources if you are traveling with pets and coming to the United States.  I am sure Europe has their own as well.  The CDC has these links:
A very good overview:  http://www.cdc.gov/features/travelwithpets/
Lots of details:  http://www.cdc.gov/animalimportation/travelingpets.html

We have two preferred airlines from Douala to Washington DC:  Brussels Airlines and Turkish.  Air France is also very good (we flew them to Cameroon).  But they tend to be more expensive.  We should also note that five years ago we were required to collect Jordan at the baggage claim in Paris and check her and my luggage back in before the next flight.  I don’t know if that is still how they work today.

We have heard stories that Turkish Airlines doesn’t always have a pressurized cargo area for pets.  I don’t know if this is true or not.  Our main reason for not choosing them was their longer flight pattern.  I flew Brussels Airlines with Milo’s youngest one year before we returned.  The Brussels personnel were helpful and never showed any sign of unpleasantness at me for having a cat on board.  In this first case I flew Brussels from DLA to BRU and then switched to United Airlines from BRU to IAD.  I would advise against this as you may have to pay twice, once for each airline. While not difficult, switching airlines, even partner airlines, adds a level of complexity. Both airlines counseled that it is best to fly one airline when possible.

We complicated our travel somewhat by booking our tickets and then changing our dates.  This caused some confusion within the airline.  I rebooked in the USA and should have just kept the rebooking with the agent in Douala.  That would have been the best thing.  In any case the agent in Douala made sure everything was set correctly and our rebooking secure including the pets.  The pet tickets are valid for one year from the date of purchase.  We paid for them in May and when we rebooked the confusion was what to do with the tickets, one person said we would have to pay a second time and we would be refunded the first amount, one person said there would be no refund, but the agent in Douala and the tickets themselves indicated no specific travel date and so were flexible to their human’s tickets, provided the pressurized cabin was not already fully booked.

Limits of our information:
Seriously, this is a review of our experience.  We normally travel DLA / IAD, we know the airports and the airlines we have used. Your experience may be very different.  We don’t know what it is like to have onward travel beyond the port of entry.

Here are the summary bullet points:
Choose your airline carefully (if you have options)
Fly the same one from your foreign home to the USA, if possible
Your foreign-based vet should be knowledgeable in securing Health Certificates a couple of days before your intended travel
Pets should be up to date on Rabies vaccine and proof in your pet’s health book/passport
Appropriate pet carriers should be secured well in advance
Food/Water for travel

Summary of Costs:  These will vary to your own circumstances, but be prepared.
Health Certificates
Airline tickets
Exit fees

I would also suggest you keep a photo record of your pet’s documents.  Be able to produce them on your smart phone, tablet, or laptop if anything should happen to the physical documents.
Airline tickets
Health Certificate(s)
Health book