Animal rescue isn’t a topic often discussed in the expat community. But it should be. Perhaps it should be discussed more amongst expat communities than it is back in the US (my home country). While there are still horrific situations animals encounter in the States, there is more awareness of proper care of animals, supporting humane societies, and other concerns.
Humane treatment for animals has always been a passion of mine, but I’ve only become more of an advocate since I became an expat. In China, when I first arrived, culture shock deeply affected me, as is normal for many entering a culture radically different than one’s home culture.
Consider this passage from Bernard Adeneny’s Strange Virtues book to help frame how deeply culture shock can disorient a person:
“When you become a strange and enter another culture, the result is a radical ‘defamiliarization’ of all you know. You are forced to open your eyes and really look. The simplest things do not make sense. The unexpected happens every day. What is normal to others is shocking or marvelous in your eyes. If you can handle the stress, your strangerhood becomes a powerful stimulus to understanding yourself, your own culture, and the new world presented to your senses.”
China taught me how to open my eyes. I could, have, and will write about how some of these simple, normal affairs we take for granted are different elsewhere and can be difficult to process for an sojourner. For me, one of those issues I was encountered with almost right away was the treatment of animals. I was shocked to see dozens of cats wandering around outside by where I lived. Walking through the park on campus, a person could easily see anywhere from five to over ten cats just in our small park. More cats were scattered around campus. These two cats lived near the cement block by my first apartment building. At any time, I’d see at least two cats and, in the spring when kittens were around, I’d sometimes see seven cats. All told, it wasn’t
rare to see at least one cat if you were walking around somewhere on campus. Or elsewhere. My point is that cats are everywhere in China.
Some treat street animals, both dogs and cats decently by giving them scraps and generally not hurting them but it was more culturally acceptable to be cruel than I’m used to back in the States. I’ve heard some horrific stories and have seen some horrific things. I’ve seen people kicking animals, locking them in tiny cages, and abusing them in other ways. It’s commonly known there is a meat market for cats and dogs in China and other countries in Asia; all it takes is a google search to find some disturbing and heart wrenching news stories, photos and videos. I’ll spare you that on this blog by avoiding links though the information is easily gained for yourself.
In China I found one animal rescue group. It’s in Shanghai, which was not at all close to Dalian. There may be more, perhaps in Beijing, but no others had a web presence. Believe me, I searched for the information high and low in Dalian because I couldn’t believe that no one was rescuing cats to help find them homes. Again, I was being fairly “American” here. I would have even gotten behind and supported a catch and release program to help reduce the population of street cats. Street cats do not live very nice lives. Dalian also happens to get very, very cold in the winter, so consider the extra odds that an outside animal has when the snow, frozen air, and ice enter the picture.
Back in the States we rescued three cats: two litter mates from a farm and one young kitten from a humane society. We felt pretty good about saving their lives and being charitable with American pet rescue groups. But nothing stirs a passion for a problem like having it in front of you on a daily basis. In my first year in China, my heart was broken, daily, for all of these wonderful cats who struggled to survive. I fed many of them myself. Four of them wanted to be “mine.” Two of them even tried to get inside my apartment building with me. Trust me, not letting them in was one of the hardest things I’ve done, especially as one of them disappeared after a cold snap.
I thought I would only be in China for a year so I didn’t think I could lay down roots. I also didn’t think I could adopt a cat in China and take him or her back to the States upon my return since we already had three at home with my husband, who was at home during my first year in China. Of course the story changed for us and we ended up in China together after my first year. We couldn’t, according to airline regulations, take all three of our cats with us. So we found someone to take care of the boys, Pippin and Merry. Then, we went through the daunting task of exporting our girl, Galadriel. This is not an easy process but it was eventually all figured out since in September 2009 we boarded a plane with our kitty as a carry-on, went from Minneapolis to Chicago, Chicago to Seoul, and Seoul to Dalian. She was one tough little cat, doing fairly well during the entire ordeal. We were happy to be in China, all together, and with a cat who, thankfully, did not have to be put into quarantine. Fast forward a few months. Galadriel was quite lonely, missing her brothers. My relationship with street cats continued, as I fed and loved on them; my husband did this too. At one point we met a little white cat who was further away from the usual cat “colonies,” which meant she probably had a harder time getting food. We soon had a relationship with her. She was friendly and when she saw us, only wanted to be loved on, though she was grateful for the food.
After a lot of talk, we decided to adopt her. We swooped her off the streets one cold night following a few days of snow and ice, bringing her into the warmth of our apartment. Since it was so brutally cold, we had spent several nights looking for her. We had’t been able to find her, so we weren’t sure if she had survived. Thankfully, she had. With the help of a Chinese friend, we got her checked out at a vet. Amazingly, she was almost disease free, except she needed to be dewormed. This is pretty shocking, considering how most street cats have other issues, like ear mites and fleas. We kept her separate from Galadriel during the treatment. After she could have access to the entire apartment, we wondered where she was all our lives; she was that loving, sweet, and amazing.
Soon we knew what her name would be: Avigail. We call her Avi for short. She is still one of the kindest cats we’ve both ever encountered. After the adoption of Avi, we continued to love on the street cats, though it was hard to know that the cats we hadn’t adopted weren’t fairing as well as Avi was. Sometimes you have to distance yourself from the empathy enough to stop your heart from bleeding and breaking so much at the plight of the broken when you can’t possibly fix all of it that you encounter.
Fast forward another year. It became clear it was time for us to leave China, though we weren’t sure of the next step. As the direction became clear to us, we knew Chiang Mai, Thailand was the next stop. After figuring out how to get our cats to leave China and enter Thailand, we arrived with our two girls in July 2011 and were able to get them into the country quite easily. After a whirlwind in the States, Phil returned to Thailand. One day after he arrived, a cargo plane carrying our two boys arrived. After two years apart, Phil was reunited with the cats missing from our lives.
As we all settled into Thailand, we learned that street animals have a lot of issues here, too. Sure, a lot of them live at temples where they are dumped as people think the monks will care for them. The reality is that the monks don’t have enough food to pass along so dogs and cats often end up eating rice, which isn’t good for them. Further, the cats are often injured by dogs. There are rescue groups for both cats and dogs here and more of them that exist in China, so it’s a start. But there are still horror stories of abuse, like a poor little cat having hot oil thrown on her just because a food vendor didn’t want her begging.
Being in a house, we knew we could handle up to two more cats, so in June 2012, we ended up with two Thai cats that we adopted who were rescued from the streets. One of them is a little boy kitten, who was around 8 weeks when we got him. He was separated from his mother too young, but is one of the sweetest kittens I’ve ever been around. He and our son adore each other, too. Jack and Avi became fast friends, as well. At the same time we adopted Jack, we said we would adopt another cat the rescue group had, though where she was located, we weren’t able to get her for a few weeks. So a few weeks after Jack Lewis came into our lives, we brought home kitty #6, a beautiful female cat who was just under a year old. She was nervous at first but quickly found herself enjoying the other cats and us. We didn’t know what to name her at first, but settled on the name Ayla. Since she came into our lives, we’ve really enjoyed having her around. Both Jack and Ayla are cats we could not imagine life without.
So we have six rescued cats from three different countries. It’s pretty amazing to think about our cat situation sometimes. Knowing we saved these little lives pales in comparison to the joy they give us.
Coming back full circle, I’m quite bothered that many ex-pats go overseas, adopt a pet, and don’t bring that pet back with them. I understand some countries have strict quarantine regulations. But honestly, it’s probably a good idea to not adopt that pet in the first place as that animal will be bonded to the person who looking to re-home the pet. I realize this happens in the US; it frustrates me there though it makes me more upset here since how animals are treated is far worse. On a weekly basis I get a email “ads” list for the Chiang Mai expat community; a week has not passed without someone trying to re-home their pet because they are moving back. These run along side listings for available cats and dogs at the shelters who are looking for a first chance.
It’s an ideal to believe that a pet is a pet for life. I hold fast to it, considering how hard of a life these little ones have. I have had to give up one pet previously without having her for life, because she was attacking our other cats; this was years ago in the US. It’s hard to have tough choices, so I know that giving up a pet isn’t always easy. I hope more expats will consider this idea of having that pet for life before adopting overseas, unless they plan on bringing that pet back home when they return. While some countries have strict import/export rules about pets, the US and others have fairly easy ones. Airlines can be a hassle to deal with, so persistent in talking to the right person is key. Eventually the process makes sense.
Cats and dogs have a hard, hard life on the streets. Animal abuse prevails everywhere but more common in some countries. Realizing this can make an expat take adoption more seriously, I hope.
And, if we ever move back to the States, the answer is yes, no matter what it takes, all of our cats are coming with us.