Travelling the world with cats and a dog

It’s 26 years since I set off to try my luck as a journalist in Moscow. I had a rucksack, a Russian phrasebook, and the expectation of adventure. What I hadn’t anticipated was… pets.

Within a year there was an insistent scratching sound on my apartment door. I opened it to find a scrawny stray ginger cat.

Grace strolled in from a dark, pungent stairwell and declared (in that blank, unimpressed way that Russians often have with strangers) that this would do just fine.

Oh, and she was pregnant.

After that, Grace left our flat just once – slipping on an icy windowsill and falling three storeys.

On the phone, the vet loftily declared that she’d be fine: “Only falls of between five and 10 storeys are fatal here. Anything higher or lower is perfectly safe.”

Besides, it was winter. Plenty of snow.

Nearly 10 years later – still serenely unimpressed by life – Grace, and one of her sons, flew with us from Moscow to Nairobi.

Kenya meant good weather, the unfamiliar pleasure of friendly strangers, birds big enough to grab an inexperienced cat, and a house with a garden.

Suddenly a dog seemed possible. Maybe even necessary.

Like most of our neighbours in Nairobi, we had a night guard who wandered around the garden holding a big stick until we were asleep and then settled down on two chairs to snore his way through the rest of the night. Perhaps a dog would help.

We found Lily in languid, rural Karen, on the edge of the Rift Valley. She’d recently been born to Tamu and General Gordon – a Labrador retriever couple.

Others in the same litter ended up with Nairobi diplomats and soon grew uncomfortably plump on the crust-less sandwiches they sourced at garden parties.

Lily quickly made it clear that guarding was not in her skill set. She enjoyed eating unfamiliar objects and playing with our young children – but she was understandably terrified of Grace the cat, and equally scared of the dark. And of strangers. And of wildlife.

Not that it seemed to matter. In much of Africa dogs are not generally perceived according to their breed or temperament. They are simply dogs. Things to be wary of. Things that police and guards tend to set on people.

So it’s possible, I suppose that blonde, enthusiastic Lily may inadvertently have given a few Nairobi burglars second thoughts.

Either way, four years later, we moved to Singapore. Small, safe, steamy.

The immaculate kennels where Lily served her three months of quarantine even offered air conditioning.

We had a garden, once again – now frequented by large snakes, and by larger monitor lizards with their wide, grotesque mouths.

Lily stayed indoors. Grace too. And over time I became properly acquainted with the complex, haphazard, expensive world of international pet transportation.


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Moving around the former Soviet Union had been rather easy. Vets, for instance, were often happy to backdate or forge whatever certificates seemed appropriate. Bribery wasn’t just an option, it was an integral part of the process.

In Singapore, then Thailand, then briefly in France, and now in South Africa, it’s a more unpredictable affair.

Nine years ago, I sat with Grace on my lap, in a Bangkok vet’s office, quietly pleading with him to put her down. She was 18 years old, had days to live, and was in obvious pain. The vet nodded, smiled sympathetically, and then explained that that wasn’t part of Thai culture.

I took Grace home. She died. And a week later she was given a proper send-off at a local Buddhist temple – one catering specially for pets. I like to think she would have been unimpressed.

Then, of course, there’s the paperwork, and what I’ve discovered to be the fundamental, immutable law of pet migration.

The stricter and more extensive the requirements ahead of travel – for passports, jabs, microchips, special crates, transit fees and all the rest of it – the bigger the smiles of the customs officials at the destination airport, as they wave away your dossier full of hard-won paperwork without a glance, and crouch down to stroke the new arrival.

Last week I took Lily to the vet here in Johannesburg. She’s 16 now – Lily, that is – and getting a little unsteady.

She’s also quite happily deaf, which means the summer thunderstorms here no longer send her frantic with fear.

Unlike their Thai counterparts, South Africans vets always seem to be offering to put pets down. It’s as if they have a quota to fill. But all Lily needed was her nails clipping.

She’s sitting with me here as I write this at home. Her large ears lifting inquisitively. An elderly, cosmopolitan Kenyan.

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