Monday, August 6, 2012

Immigrating to America: Two Cats' Story

Welcome to America Callaghan and Griffin!  From Saudi street kittens to pampered diplocats...

It has been a blissful five days at home, and I just haven't had the inclination to write a blog post yet, but I want to document the success of the journey home before it becomes a repressed memory.

First of all - many thanks to those of you who offered advice, support, and assistance during the last several months as I navigated the process of getting the cats out of Saudi.  And many thanks to everyone who empathized as I bid goodbye to Hattie and shared my grief and pain.  Your support is immensely appreciated.

The cats and I began our journey at 10pm Tuesday night (3pm EST).  They were somewhat reluctant to go into their carriers (having had two annoying trips this week already, once to the vet and once to Ministry of Agriculture for exit paperwork) but didn't cry too much.  We were met at the airport by our regular expeditor and a shipping specialist, as I didn't want to take any chances.  The paperwork and check-in process took a good hour, so I was very glad I was there as early as I was.  I had put trilingual notes on each cat carrier, imploring airport/airline staff to "please help me get to Boston safely" in English, Arabic, and German.  In Jeddah I asked several airline staff to ensure the cats were well treated and kept in A/C until boarding.  I was assured they would be.  I told everyone how much I loved my cats and how important it was they made it safely.  They were sick of me by the end, but I figured overkill had better odds.

The total cost from Jeddah to Boston?  $200 each for a total of $400.  Well worth it, and much less than it would have been had I been forced to fly United or a codeshare.  Thank you Open Skies!

We went into a private screening area to run the carriers through the x-ray machine.  While there were no extra people around, it was a large warehouse-like space, and I worried that the cats might bolt while getting in or out of their carriers.  I took them out carefully, one at a time, and took the opportunity to formally introduce each cat to the airline staff.  They were freaked but well-behaved and tolerated the introductions.  I put them back in their carriers with a final seal of approval and even some joking by the customs official.  Good signs.  They were then put on the luggage belt and disappeared from sight.  Enter nervewracking travel mode now.

At no point during the check-in process did anyone ask to look at their health certificates or exit permits...  Just saying.

When I boarded the plane a couple of hours later I asked a flight attendant to make sure the captain knew there were pets on board and to ensure proper pressurization and temperature.  She smiled and assured me all would be fine. 

The flight was uneventful, and I woke up shortly before landing in Frankfurt.  I had a six-hour layover but first went to the service center to check on the kitties.  They had already been scanned in on arriving in Frankfurt, and the very nice CSR indulged my paranoia and assured me that they'd rest comfortably in the Animal Comfort Lounge (or something to that effect) and be fed, watered, and given an opportunity to use the litterbox. 

Thus comforted, I began my wandering around the terminal.  I took the Skytrain to the other terminal to take advantage of slightly more dining and shopping options and had a wonderfully fresh pretzel for breakfast.  I followed that up with an overpriced but much needed manicure and chair massage.  Then more wandering. 

I finally meandered to my own terminal and went through security there, which took forever.  Something in each my bags triggered a closer look, and they ended up taking EVERYTHING out to rescan.  And given that I had a cell phone, kindle, iPod, laptop, camera, GPS, and many, many cords in addition to a change of clothes and travel miscellany, this was a time-intensive process.  Finally I made it though and proceeded to do some additional wandering.  I bought my favorite Frankfurt indulgence - a soft pretzel with cheese and bacon - and a terrible-tasting banana.  I read at the gate for a while until - five minutes before boarding time - they announced a gate change.  A sprint through the airport energized me, and boarding went smoothly.  Sadly, this was a completely full flight, so I didn't get an extra seat like on the earlier one. 

The flight seemed super long; I was unable to sleep, being woken up every time I started to nod off.  The A/C wasn't working properly, and we were all overheating.  I asked a flight attendant upon boarding to confirm the cats were loaded, and, while she didn't understand why I needed this confirmation ("it will be fine if they made it to Frankfurt"), she gave me a thumbs up shortly after takeoff.  A little late for my comfort, but better late than never.

I was ready to bolt off the plane by the time we landed in Boston, but deplaning of course took forever with such a full flight.  Immigration was pretty quick, and I headed to the baggage claim area with my customs forms reading "cats" in red marker.  I grabbed two luggage carts and asked someone where the cats would come out.  She didn't know, and it wasn't entirely obvious.  Luggage was already on the belt, so I walked over to see if mine had come out.  They hadn't, so I tried to find oversize baggage.  It was tucked into a corner, and, lo and behold, there were my two cat carriers!  My heart was thumping as I walked over, the memory of the last time I had been reunited with a pet carrier fresh in my mind.  I abandoned my luggage carts for a moment and ran forward to grab the cats.  Callaghan was whining a bit and started meowing louder when he saw me.  Griffin was turned around in his carrier and gave me a scare before he finally turned around and nuzzled my finger.  Nobody checked my luggage tickets - kind of scary, really.  There was nobody there...  The Lufthansa flight crew was there, and my helpful flight attendant from before congratulated me on the happy reunion.  (Though, "see, I told you they'd be fine" is not as comforting to someone who has lost a pet in transit as she probably intended.) 

I loaded the cats onto the carts and headed back to the belt.  We found a quiet corner away from crowds, and I scanned the belt.  Still nothing.  I reassured the cats that their journey was almost over and let them nuzzle my fingers through the cages.  My bags arrived after about 15 minutes, and I took a few minutes to rearrange things on the carts.  I started for the exit and was met by a kind and helpful TSA agent, who even helped me maneuver the carts!  She brought me to the side, avoiding the line, and asked for their proof of rabies vaccination.  After a couple minutes we were ready to head out!  I walked out the doors to the terminal, searching for my father.  People started the predictable "look! it's a kitty! it's two kitties!" calls and finger pointing.  My dad found me after a minute and we had a wonderful reunion.  I introduced him to the cats, ran quickly to the restroom, and then we headed for the car. 

As soon as we got outside it started to downpour, so the kitties also learned about rain, unfortunately.  They were crying by the time we reached the car, and I got them strapped in and dry as quickly as possible.  It was only 3:45 pm, but the traffic had already started, and it took us a while to get out of the Boston metro area.  The cats were very well-behaved on the almost three hour drive home, only meowing and crying for a few minutes total. 

We arrived home and I got to greet Mom and introduce her to the kittens as well.  I took them straight to my room, where the litter box was already set up, and closed the door and opened the cages and showed them the box.  I got them food and water and a scratching post and left them alone for a while.  After about an hour I went in and played with them; they had both used the box and seemed in good shape.  They were remarkably friendly when Mom came in to say hello to them and both let her pet them (they usually have stranger danger tendencies when they first meet someone).  After a few hours they seemed to be doing so well that we opened the door.  They hesitantly emerged and stayed close to me in the living room, exploring gingerly and jumping at sudden movement.  But given their 27 hour ordeal, I think they did pretty well adjusting!  They adore stairs - a new addition to their environs - and seem to really miss having A/C.  They sleep with me but are getting braver every day about exploring the house.  They seem to like my parents but still jump at sudden movements.  Thunder seems to frighten them (another new thing!), and they were not big fans of my five year-old nephew.  He didn't really bother them one way or another, but he's loud and talkative, and this didn't endear him to them.

We've gradually given them the run of the house, but they still prefer my room when I'm not home.  They'll hang out with me elsewhere in the house and are definitely "my" cats.  They're finally eating and drinking normally, even asking for wet food and treats at the routine times.  They have been great about only using scratching pads but are starting to jump on counters on the table, behavior we discourage.  All in all, they've tolerated the move remarkably well, with no discernible personality changes.  This has gone a long way to make me feel more comfortable about international pet travel, but I still don't relish the idea of doing it again in a few months...