Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tales of the TigerCat Mother

I’ve always had cats and, since I’ve become an adult, my cats go where I go. For much of my life, that has meant easy moves, one apartment or house to another. We did take my cat Smudge with us to Brussels, which I thought of as a big deal at the time. She glared at me from her carrier underneath the seat in front of me for five hours and promptly went into hiding in a temporary apartment on Avenue Louise in Brussels. On the day that we were to transition into our townhouse, Smudge really disappeared. The kids were terrified that she had jumped off the third-floor balcony or taken the elevator down and out of the apartment building. Finally, she appeared, down from a ledge where she had been hiding up inside the fireplace, covered in soot. Smudge, indeed.

Ten years later, a much-older Smudge is facing a new challenge: coming with us to Beijing. Most folks fall into one of two camps: those who think we are out of our minds to go to the trouble and expense of bringing a fearful, overweight, elderly cat halfway around the world, and those who get it because they’d do the same for their pets.

In any event, the process of getting Smudge to China has had to be one of the most challenging, expensive, and complicated tasks of my life.

About four days before we were supposed to fly to Beijing, on Sept. 3, Smudge had an appointment with the vet, who awarded her an international health certificate costing $350. Then I had to FedEx the certificate to an office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Annapolis, with a check for $36 and a FedEx envelope so they would send it back. Then I had to reserve a spot for Smudge in the cabin of the United flight to Beijing, knowing that she would then head into 30 days of quarantine on arrival.

Smudge might have been stamped and certified, but we weren’t. The Chinese didn’t produce our visas, saying they were really busy but were “working on it.” So we went into hotel living, where Smudge again spent 95 percent of her time under the bed, not eating, not drinking, not using the litter box.

Two months after we moved out of our home, we received our visas. Since Smudge’s first certificate had expired ten days from the time of her appointment, we had to go through the process all over again: $350 for the vet exam, then the stamp from USDA. This time, though, the vet discovered that my 12-pound cat had dropped down to 9 pounds from the stress of hearing people walking down the halls and the maid changing towels and other terrifying events. And this time, instead of FedExing the certificate to Annapolis, I drove it there myself, had it stamped, and drove back.

The vet told me that rapid weight loss could kill her with a problem called fatty liver disease. And quarantine – if she was the kind of cat that stopped eating in extreme stress – could really be the end of her.

This is where the story gets really complicated. We could avoid quarantine if we flew into another Chinese city, the high-priced pet relocation experts told us (yes, there are companies that specialize in getting your pet from one country to the next). All we needed to do in our case was fly into Tianjin, a city an hour and a half from Beijing, and then drive to Beijing.

Of course, there are no direct U.S.-Tianjin flights, so we needed to fly to Seoul, South Korea, and then to Tianjin and Beijing. The only problem with that is that the connections didn’t work in one day. Any flight from the U.S. arriving in Seoul came in too late to make a connection to Tianjin.

We thought we were back to the first option, Beijing and quarantine, taking our chances on her surviving 30 days of stress. But Bob took one look at my puffy eyes and splotchy face the day after we made that decision, and he got on the phone.

Here was another option, even more complicated than earlier plans. Fly United to San Francisco then Seoul with the cat in her sturdy carrier in the cabin. Stay overnight at a pet-friendly hotel in Seoul, which doesn’t have quarantine issues. The next day, fly a different airline to Tianjin.

One wrinkle is that KAL and Asiana airlines both require that animals in the carrier weigh less than 5 kilograms, or 11 pounds, including the weight of the carrier. The pre-move Smudge would not have made weight. But with her recent weight loss, we had a window. There are silver linings to costing your cat one of her nine lives, I guess. The only problem was that her regular carrier was heavy enough to put her over the limit.

I found a lightweight carrier online, something called the Twist-N-Go, which weighed less than a pound. So her total weight on the Asian leg of the flight would be about ten pounds, give or take a few cans of tuna. We ordered the Twist-N-Go from Amazon, with overnight delivery.

The new lightweight carrier was certainly light enough. When we looked at it, we suddenly realized why it had been advertised on hamster pet websites. Smudge could possibly fit, although she might look like one of those cartoon cats that get squished into a box so that they’re as square as the box.

We decided we’d better have a backup plan so I went out and bought a hard-sided carrier in case Smudge had to travel in the cargo for the Seoul-Tianjin portion of her trip. Now we had three carriers – a sturdy mesh Sherpa carrier (free from my sister), a lightweight nylon thing that resembled those collapsible laundry hambers ($20 plus shipping), and a large plastic bin that snapped together like a kid’s playhouse ($40).

The costs were rising, especially counting the hotel in Seoul ($150 a night, moldy bathtub included), the fee we paid the pet relocation folks ($985 to handle the arrival in Tianjin), and the extra fees airlines charge for cats in the cabin ($150 on United, $225 on Asiana). Oh, and the extra flight from Seoul to Tianjin ($125 for two people plus cat).

This is where we are. Tomorrow morning at 4 I’ll need to get the cat in the Sherpa carrier for the longest part of the journey. I rationalize that she may be stuck in the carrier for more than 24 hours, but she often spends days under the couch at home. It’s not like she’s missing a good run in the park.

So we’ll see. Stand by for the next part.

Tigercat Mother, part two

At 3:15 this morning, Smudge was sleeping happily on a blanket on the couch of our room in the Marriott; at 3:20, she was inside the cat carrier, having been a victim of the element of surprise when I walked over to her in the dark and scooped her up.

Then we gathered up our multiple and heavy suitcases and the hard-sided cat carrier and went out in the gloomy rain to Dulles airport.

We got through security, even the part where I had to take her out of the carrier and walk through the detector, where she clung to me and then was happy to be tucked back in the safety of the carrier.

Now she sits by my feet on the plane to San Francisco, curled up against one end of the carrier and peering curiously at me whenever I unzip the door to check on her. I've even gotten her to purr a little, a purr I couldn't hear but could feel when I put my hand on her throat. So far, so good.

Later, San Francisco to Seoul

Time to destination: 9 hours, 22 minutes. Now the cat pries her head out of the zippered opening when I peak in to check on her. She's more curious about what's out here. In the airport in San Francisco, I poured some water into her bowl and tried to get her to drink. No go, so I drank the water from the bowl myself.

Much, much later

We have 4 hours and 14 minutes left. I can't look my cat in the eyes.


We make it to Seoul, get her out of the airport with only a tiny bit of hassle, and check into the airport hotel. We install Smudge in the bathroom, where she promptly decides the bathtub is the safest place for her. She spends the night huddling in the tub.

We get to the airport in Seoul, and the staff of Asiana airlines suddenly balks at the idea that they might allow Smudge to get into China. “Where are her quarantine papers?” they keep asking us as we stand surrounded by all our suitcases at the check-in counter. “We don’t need them for Tianjin; it’s all been taken care of,” we tell them. They don’t seem convinced. In fact, they seem more concerned about the issue of quarantine than the Chinese do. I start to wonder if our grand scheme is going to end in an airport in South Korea. I feel sick to my stomach.

I make a “hail Mary” call to Kiki Chen, the Beijing-based pet relocation expert, and Kiki tells the Seoul folks that all is well. It turns out to be what amounts to a $1,000 phone call since it was the most useful thing the relocation folks did for us. Seoul defers to Beijing, Smudge makes weight, and we get on the plane. I can feel her trembling through the thin nylon of her lightweight carrier.

We arrive in China, where we stand nervously on the line for immigration. We pick the slowest line, of course, so by the time we are up to the agent, there is no one else in the room. I hold the cat in the carrier down by my side, and my arm aches from the weight. The agent stamps my passport, and I walk into China.

We retrieve our luggage from the baggage claim area, and walk through customs. Nope, we don’t have anything to declare. I hold Smudge from the handle of the luggage cart so that she hangs by my mid-section like any other bag. The customs agents barely glance in our direction, and we leave security.

Waiting for us are two people: Kiki’s agent, who shakes my hand, congratulates me on passing through, and disappears, and Mr. Dou, the WSJ driver, who grabs our suitcases and loads us and them into his car.

We get to Beijing, get our things into the apartment, and I settle Smudge in the bathroom so she can get to know the apartment one room at a time.

As I sit on the floor of the bathroom, Joanna arrives to greet us, and I run out of the bathroom, shutting the door hard behind me. It’s only when I want to show Smudge to Joanna that I realize I’ve locked the door.

She’s made it 7,000 miles in silence and dignity only to be stuck in a bathroom. We call a handyman who thinks it’s terribly funny to drill the lock out of the door only to be face to face with a terrified gray cat high on a windowsill over the bathtub.

Today, Smudge sits contentedly by me on the couch as I type these final words of her journey. It’s chilly outside and the Chinese don’t believe in turning on the heat in apartments until mid-November, but we’ve come so far. What’s a little chill after the adventures of the last few days?


  1. I'm beginning to think you love animals more than I do. Seriously, I know Smudge is just as happy to be with you as you are to have her.

  2. I felt myself smile as I read this. I burst into laughter when I got to the part about the carriers - three! Smudge is a lucky kitty. Look forward to reading more! (are we still on for jaleo?)

  3. Congratulations Debbie! Not only can you kasher a toaster oven you can transport an aging cat all the way to China...I hope you are all settling in and that the heat is on.

  4. This is so sweet! I'm glad Smudge got to come to China. But you're right, of all the cats who wouldn't mind being shut in a box for 24 hours with no human interaction, Smudge would be at the top of the list. I'm not sure that in the 14 years I've known Smudge her limited appearances from under the couch have even totaled 24 hours.